Originally posted on the IEET weblog

Ethics of Genetically Engineering the Human Mind

A short simple article utilizing Kant's Categorical Imperative and Mill's Utilitarianism to critique the future of human genetic engineering.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative states that one should act in such a way that their actions can become a universal moral law. If we assume people will one day have the ability to manipulate the human genome so that a fetus would be born without mental disorders (depression, developmental disabilities, ADD, etc) we have to consider if this corresponds to what we know about its moral and ethical outcomes. The leading ethical theories used today by most institutions are Kant’s Categorical Imperative and John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism states that one should act in such a way as to bring about the most happiness to the greatest amount of people.

For example if one followed the principles of utilitarianism in a situation where a person runs by yelling “there is a guy with a gun chasing me who wants to kill me” and then another person comes by with a gun and asks “where did that guy run to?” it would be okay to lie and point the killer in the wrong direction because you would be saving another person's life. If you were in the same situation as stated above and you follow Kant’s Categorical Imperative it would be right to tell the killer where the person went to because you would then be making truth telling a duty, or making lying wrong to be a universal law – a “law” which defines ones “duty”.

Given what we know of these two theories, genetically altering someone so that they are born without brain defects would probably be morally right. For this to work with the categorical imperative we must assume that a mentally healthy person would live a better life than that of a person with a mental defect. However, to arrive at that conclusion we must have some basic ground rules. We have to consider many different variables to come to a conclusion under categorical imperative in order to make it a universal duty. We know that genetically engineering an organism can lead to unexpected consequences. A paradigm example would be that of the cloning of Dolly the sheep. At first glance one would assume that when Dolly was born she was just as healthy as the sheep she was cloned by.

However some years down the line Dolly exhibited signs of premature aging. When her DNA was examined more closely it was realized that the telomeres in her DNA were shorter than the telomeres in a healthy lamb of the same age. Telomeres are Nucleotides (the basic building block of DNA) that are on the end of each chromosome that shorten every time they are replicated to produce a new cell. When the telomeres reach a certain shortness the DNA ceases to be replicated which in effect stops the production of new cells with that genome.

In Dolly's case, she experienced premature aging in her joints which most scientists attribute to her short life. She was later put to sleep because of lung disease, though it has not been proven yet that her genetics are to blame. Scientists and Bio-ethicists have pointed out that unexpected genetic problems can arise from genetically engineering an organism or from the cloning of an organism. They fear that if we begin to clone humans or change around our nucleotide sequence even when expecting positive results, we may end up with unexpected consequences similar to what Dolly experienced.

However some scientists, like James Watson--former president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York--claims that we must sacrifice the chance of a baby being born with a genetic abnormality to further our knowledge of genetic engineering so that one day it can be perfected. I would argue that this should not be the case. We cannot make it a universal law to allow scientists to dive into human genetic engineering before we know for sure what the results will be. This would give scientists the freedom to experiment with a number of sequences that they assume would help minimize brain disorders inquisitively, this seems wrong given the chances that the baby would not lead the expected healthy life, in which we thought Dolly would.

When applying utilitarianism to this dilemma it can get a bit fuzzy. Since utilitarianism states that one should act in such a way as to bring the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest amount of people, we will have to assume that in this stage of experimenting with the genome that devastating consequences would be too high to suppose more people would benefit. So what I propose is that there should be a moratorium on genetically engineering the DNA sequences responsible for the structure and function of the Homo sapiens brain, until we have overwhelming evidence that such a procedure would be close to 100% effective. Utilitarianism might disagree with me, and instead agree with Watson that a few mistakes would save millions of lives, and end the predisposition to brain disease.

There are some ways to do this without experimenting with human subjects. If one assumes that animals do not deserve the same moral treatment as humans, one can experiment on animals. I for one, believe that experimenting on animals is absolutely horrible – I own three rescued lab rats whom I adore. I have made simple social connections with them, and have observed how smart and emotional they truly are. I can't imagine what an ape must go through in the laboratory if rats are so obviously smart, gentle, and emotional.

This leads us inevitably to computer simulations. In order to ague that genetically altering one's genome to minimize or eliminate brain deformities is morally right while applying the categorical imperative, the evidence in a complete computer simulation would have to show that genetically modifying a certain part of the genome could indeed save lives. Then it could be accepted as a universal law to use computer simulations of cells, organs, bodies, and brains. In fact one could argue if the technology exists, one should use it because of the potential happiness for the greatest amount of people, with no one getting hurt, or deformed because the experiment was simulated on a computer.

One can comply with the categorical imperative by genetically engineering the DNA sequence of the human brain, after the experimental stage in computer simulations are complete. We should allow, given that the consequences by this stage are minimal, that it can be a universal law to allow the brain to be free of illness. We can also agree that a brain free of defects and illness will create the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people. The only principle that may be able to argue against using genetic engineering at all can be the slippery slope concept. However, one can use the slippery slope to argue that anything could get out of control. All we can do is try to control the negative and positive effects of knowledge gained by genetic technology.

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