Genetic Supermarket

Paul Seabright

  • What sort of people should there be? by Jonathan Glover
    Penguin, 187 pp, £2.50, January 1984, ISBN 0 14 022224 3

Positive genetic engineering – aimed not just at the elimination of identifiable genetic defects but at the promotion of physical, mental and emotional characteristics in our descendants by direct genetic manipulation – is likely to be technologically possible in the fairly near future. How should we greet this development? The history of our century has given ample reason to fear the abuse of such technology in the hands of totalitarian governments. But the caution that should temper our response does not exhaust the issues raised, nor does it necessarily override all other considerations. Just as the morality of splitting the atom raises questions in fields far beyond the reach of Doctor Strangelove, so genetic engineering confronts us with questions that stand clear of the shadow of Auschwitz and Brave New World.

We can envisage many possible ways in which such technology might be applied, and in which the dangers of abuse loom no larger than the daily abuses we suffer from other (often more terrible) technologies for the sake of the benefits they bring. Consider, for example, the genetic supermarket. The vocabulary has overtones of a trivialising commercialism, but the conception itself is more Butskellite than Friedmanite: under such a system, parents would be free to choose, within certain limits and under guidance from licensed counsellors, a package of genetic characteristics for their children. These would be used to modify the genotype of the existing embryo. Centralised control, though undoubtedly necessary for the setting of the limits, could be very discreet, allowing considerable autonomy to parental choice and – if one is optimistic about the consequences of autonomy – considerable variety in the kinds of genetic makeup chosen. Considering such a system allows us to focus on the question that all our fears of abuse tend to bury from view: namely, how should we respond to the possibility of choosing what kinds of people there should be? Do we have any right to make such decisions? Or are the decisions forced on us, inaction being a kind of choice in itself?

Against the current of most published opinion on this matter, Glover argues boldly and forcefully that we must choose, that a refusal to countenance positive genetic engineering under any circumstances itself amounts to opting for a certain (conservative) conception of human nature on behalf of our posterity. ‘Preserving the human race as it is will seem an acceptable option,’ he writes, ‘to all those who can watch the news on television and feel satisfied with the world. It will appeal to those who can talk to their children about the history of the 20th century without wishing they could leave some things out.’ One of the great virtues of this book is the clarity with which it untangles the different arguments that crisscross the subject and shows, like someone explaining how to make lace, how our reactions to the complex whole are built up from reactions to the component threads. Some might object, for example, that our understanding of the genetic basis of personality will never be precise enough to enable us to choose such vague, controversial and essentially contestable characteristics as courage or intelligence with any accuracy. But a consideration of the imprecision with which we already attempt to mould personalities by environmental means shows that this is hardly an objection to genetic engineering per se: cold baths and the playing-fields of Eton have had notoriously unpredictable effects upon the flower of England’s youth. Mark Twain’s remark that ‘soap and education are not so sudden as a massacre, but they are more deadly in the long run’ by implication lends genetic engineering, as well as massacre, a certain comparative respectability. Glover very deftly plays off against each other two distinctions that are irrelevant to the issue in hand: that between genes and environment and that between negative and positive intervention. For what is there about the genes/environment distinction that makes positive intervention tolerable in the latter case but not in the former? And likewise, what is there about the positive/negative distinction that makes genetic manipulation welcome (as it clearly is) to get rid of deformities but not to promote strengths?

The book ranges considerably wider than genetic engineering alone, which occupies only the first of its three sections. The second considers the implications of a variety of techniques of behavioural and mental modification, ranging from the familiar use of tranquillisers and anti-depressants to a number of bizarrely Science Fictional possibilities. Among them are the full-scale monitoring of people’s thoughts and feelings by very much more sophisticated versions of the lie-detector; motivational therapy to enable people to choose what desires they have; and the substitution for active life of programmes of dreaming by brain stimulation. These programmes include ‘active dreams’, in which individuals can make choices and even coordinate their dreams with the active dreams of others but are freed from some of the frustrating limitations of real life – life in an Oxford college seems to be the closest present-day parallel. Such possibilities he admits to lie very far in the future, but argues that if we restrict our attention to immediate possibilities, then ‘by easy stages, we could move to a world which none of us would choose if we could see it as a whole from the start.’ Though these thought experiments ‘lack the historian’s perspective’, he writes, they ‘are experiments, and have the same kind of artificial exclusions as those that take place in science ... Thought experiments are designed to elicit people’s values.’

The third section of the book looks more explicitly, in the light of the earlier discussion, at what it is that gives value to our lives, and at how we may be able to use this knowledge to enhance and enrich them. In general, the book is written elegantly (more so than the accurate but mouth-filling title would suggest) and with humour. Glover’s views come across as committedly liberal and pluralist (again, more so than the singular word ‘sort’ in the title implies). In spite of a somewhat SDP concern to if every if and but every but, he lets his prejudices emerge. He manages to be gently rude about a number of occupations including accountancy, life insurance and the philosophy of language. Discussing a world full of autonomy, variety and contentment but which we might nevertheless think pointless, he asks us to imagine a community of people ‘building towers out of marzipan, writing articles about meaning, knitting huge maps of the moon’. In wondering whether academic discussion should always be accorded less priority in our lives than a concern for the needy, he remarks that it is not enough to care for the destitute ‘if all that remains for them afterwards is life working in an insurance company’ – when Glover meets Wallace Stevens in the hereafter, I should love to be a fly on the celestial wall. The book is not, and does not claim to be, a substantive contribution to the academic discussion of ethical principles, but it is a book that will offer a wide readership a very clear and bold application of ethical principles to an area of fundamental importance. When popular discussion of these matters is too often decided by decibels, Glover’s measured cadences are a considerable relief.

Nevertheless, as a way of thinking and doing philosophy, What sort of people should there be? represents a strong version of a Russellian rationalism which endows it with some serious and quite systematic blind-spots. These may, in part, be due to a lofty lack of concern with the details of the possibilities he considers – with working out what life would actually be like in the thought experiments. (He may criticise Robert Nozick’s impractical suggestions for regulating the genetic supermarket, as revealing ‘an unworldly innocence’, but a few chapters later he himself writes that ‘attitudes to privacy will vary according to whether there are governments’ – my italics. This is the most engaging example of the pot calling the kettle black that I have come across in a long time.) There are two more serious grounds for misgiving. First, the book is suffused with optimism (of the intellect rather than the more modest optimism of the will) about the capacity of a-priori theorising to solve our moral dilemmas. It is an optimism which – to my mind – leads the book to skate very lightly over the messy, tangled and conflicting nature of our moral intuitions. For example, Glover endorses a modified version of Mill’s test for providing some objective choice between pleasures of different quality (competent judges of the more desirable pleasure ‘would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of’). My quarrel is not so much with the test itself as with Glover’s belief in the help it might afford: I cannot think of a single really worthwhile thing in life whose value has not been flatly denied by considerable numbers of articulate and sensitive people.

The method of thought experiments itself faces more fundamental objections than the ones he discusses, particularly for those who believe, as Glover does – without acknowledging it to be somewhat controversial – that ‘people whose values conflict’ have ‘no external reality to appeal to for justification’. For without ethical objectivity it is not evident that there is any reason to expect our responses to real-world dilemmas to be at all consistent with our responses to artificial thought experiments; consistency would be merely one virtue up for grabs among others. Finally, Glover’s argument that thought experiments avoid the danger that ‘by easy stages, we could move to a world which none of us would choose if we could see it as a whole from the start,’ while an important one, conceals a snake-bite within. For, to pursue the lace-making analogy, if we try to build up our reactions to a complex human pattern solely by breaking it down into its component threads, is there not equally a danger that we may respond in a way that ‘none of us would choose if we could see it as a whole from the start’?

These are not so much objections as unanswered questions. They are perhaps best summed up by saying that Glover’s book rests very much on a view about moral reasoning according to which what constitutes the good life for man is whatever may turn out to satisfy some set of criteria of a broadly procedural and rationalistic kind. On this view, moral argument is about the criteria, and what in actual fact satisfies these criteria is an empirical matter – an issue merely in the sociology of morals. It may be that this is the right way to think about morality, but it is not the only way, and a certain inflexibility towards the alternatives leads Glover to be dismissive of what he labels ‘conservatism about human nature’.

This is my second main worry about the book: not that he rejects conservatism, but that he is inclined to use the label indiscriminately. His provocative and illuminating discussion of a world in which relationships are made ‘transparent’ by very effective thought-reading machines is an interesting case. He talks of the ‘stronger sense of community that might result from the barriers coming down’, and says that ‘it may be that our horror at the thought of entering the transparent world is nothing to the horror with which people in the transparent world will look back at our lives. They may think of us as hiding behind barriers of mutual pretence, like the inhabitants of a suburban street hiding behind fences and hedges.’ That one may grant, as interesting speculation at any rate. Yet Glover himself argues elsewhere against the value of satisfying our desire for relationships on an ‘experience machine’: the prospect, he writes, ‘is still appalling, because our desire is to have relationships, not to think we are having them’. One might turn this on its head, and say that our desire is to have relationships, in the sense in which we recognise them as relationships, not in the sense in which the inhabitants of the transparent world might do.

Our world is the hesitant, anxious world of Proust and Prufrock, and we can feel a justifiable resistance to abandoning that world (and, of necessity, the rich literature that celebrates it) even if we know that new Prousts of the transparent world will doubtless in time spring up.

The reason this is not mere conservatism is best illuminated by the analogy with love. My love for someone is not undermined by the knowledge that, if I had met with different circumstances, I might have loved others with equal strength. No one would suggest that loving particular people in particular circumstances is mere conservatism (love is consistent with wishing to change some of the characteristics of those we love). Similarly, to love many facets of this particular human nature we have, with all its solitude and deceit, need not be undermined by the reflections that we may make about other worlds and other natures. And just as someone who is asked which people bring colour to his life will not answer, ‘whichever people fulfil the conditions of having met me at the right time and circumstances’, but will proceed to enumerate particular individuals, so it may be that the question of what gives worth to our lives more broadly can only be answered by an affirmation of particular qualities and particular values. This is something to which moral philosophers are notoriously averse.

It would be wrong to make too much of the point, however. Glover’s book does affirm some particular values – among them, autonomy, closeness of personal relationships and the open-endedness of human history. And it uses them in a way that will be stimulating to a wide public, and will cut through many swathes of knee-jerk philosophising on an over-sensitive topic. Perhaps it is inevitable in such a small book on such a large subject, but the residual dissatisfaction concerns mainly what is not said rather than what is