Designer Babies: Is Morality Even Relevant?

It is no more possible for designer babies to be objectively “good” or “evil” than it is for anything else to be objectively “good” or “evil.” These categories have no objective existence. They exist by virtue of subjective emotions that themselves exist by virtue of natural selection. Despite their higher intelligence, humans react blindly to these emotions like other animals. By this I mean that, in considering how they should act in response to their emotions, humans do not normally take into account the reason the emotions exist to begin with. So it is with the debate over the “morality” of designer babies. It is an attempt to decide the question of whether to allow them or not by consulting emotions that evolved eons ago, for reasons that had nothing whatever to do with designer babies.

This method of deciding how to behave may seem absurd, but, in fact, emotions are the root cause of all our behavior, in the sense that no decision about how to act can be based on pure reason alone. Reason cannot motivate anything. Follow a chain of reasons about how to behave back link by link, reason by reason, and, in the end, you will always arrive at the real motivator, and that motivator is always an emotion/passion/predisposition. These motivators exist because they evolved. By the very nature of the reason they exist, it is not possible for it to be “really good” if we respond to them in one way, or “really bad” if we respond to them in another. We can, however, consider whether a particular response is “in harmony” with the motivating emotions or not, in the sense of whether that response is likely to have a result similar to the result that accounts for the existence of the emotions or not. In other words, we can consider whether the response will enhance the odds that the genes responsible for the emotion will survive and reproduce or not.

This criterion certainly seems relevant to the question of designer babies. Let us focus on just one of the possible applications of the technologies that are now available or soon will be available, namely intelligence. There is no question that natural selection has heavily favored higher intelligence in the evolution of our ancestors over the last few million years. It seems reasonable to assume that it will continue to have a selective advantage in the future, at least in the long term. However, in the case of designer babies, there will be a radical change in the method of selection. It will occur on a much shorter time scale, and will be artificial rather than natural. Some articles by Brian Wang that recently appeared on the Nextbigfuture website provide insight into just how short that timescale will be. For example, according to an article entitled Future of Gene Sequencing, Genome Editing and Intelligence Enhancement, the heritability of human intelligence is likely from 50% – 80%. To date the increasingly powerful tool of Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS) has identified the source of 21% – 22% of this heritability, associated with a very large number of genes, each having a small effect. According to Wang, techniques such as embryo selection and gene editing combined with continued advances in our ability to pin down the genetic sources of heritability will make it possible to achieve average IQ gains of as much as 25 to 30 points within the next decade. In separate articles he notes that Human Gene Editing of Embryos Will Be Safe and Effective Within Two Years, and that shortcuts to higher intelligence may be achieved by adding genes to our DNA as opposed to modifying existing ones. He adds that “armies of students” at the Beijing Genomics Institute in Shenzhen are now developing these and related technologies.

Supposing Wang’s estimates of the speed of technological advances that will enable enhanced intelligence are anywhere near accurate, application of the criterion described above becomes relatively straightforward. Let us assume that no attempt is made to alter the emotions that motivate our behavior in a similarly radical fashion. In that case, we will continue to perceive others in terms of “us” and “them,” ingroup and outgroup. Intelligence will become an increasingly important criterion for distinguishing between the two. The intelligent ingroup may deem it useful to keep some of the less intelligent outgroup around as workers to perform the decreasing number of menial jobs that can’t be done more efficiently by robots, or as pets. Beyond that, it is difficult to imagine that they would perceive them as other than a useless burden and a threat to the environment and hence the sustainability of life on our planet if allowed to survive in large numbers. The chances that they would concern themselves with the “human flourishing” of the outgroup are vanishingly small. In the long term, it seems probable that the intelligent ingroup would survive, and the more “virtuous” outgroup, having rejected the relevant technologies as “immoral,” would perish.

If, then, we choose to apply the criterion of survival to deciding how to act in response to our emotions, so that our behavior is “in harmony” with the reasons the emotions exist to begin with, then we “should” embrace the rapid development and application of intelligence enhancing technologies. If we choose to ignore the survival criterion, we may reject these technologies. There is no objective reason for preferring survival to the alternative. We may, for example, prefer to be happy as long as we’re around to survival in the long term, or we may decide that our moral emotions point to the “true good” and the “true evil,” and that it is better to be “good” than to survive. Nature doesn’t care one way or the other, and there is no objective basis for making these decisions. In the end, it boils down to whether your personal emotional whims include assigning value to such things as survival, reproduction, the survival of biological life in general, etc. or not.

2 thoughts on “Designer Babies: Is Morality Even Relevant?”

  1. … by consulting emotions that evolved eons ago …

    How much of the emotional behavior of adult humans is determined by genes, vs. culture? I’ve been reading Michael Tomasello’s The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition and he makes a big point of how the most unique aspect of Homo sapiens is its ability to transmit culture well enough to accumulate learning and innovation from generation to generation. Could natural selection favor those better able to adapt to arbitrary culture? But this would be selecting for something kinda sorta like a “blank slate”—enough to make the blank slaters buy into a full bore tabula rasa.

    This method of deciding how to behave may seem absurd, but, in fact, emotions are the root cause of all our behavior, in the sense that no decision about how to act can be based on pure reason alone. Reason cannot motivate anything.

    This is self-defeating: if reason cannot motivate you to say anything, then nothing you say is said because it is reasonable. But then the claim “Reason cannot motivate anything.” is itself not said because it is reasonable. On your very logic, the two sentences above are emotional outbursts, not reasonable conclusions based on a careful analysis of the evidence.

    If reason has no causal power of its own, it does not even exist. If reason has no causal power of its own, it is a sock puppet. And yet, just like plenty of people professing subjective morality write and act as if objective morality obtains, you are writing as if reason and rationality obtain. In your model, they don’t.

  2. @Luke
    I don’t think there is some kind of a sharp boundary between genes and culture. I see genes as a foundation, with culture a superstructure built on top, dependent on the foundation for its existence. It follows that the short answer to your question about whether natural selection could favor those who can adapt to an arbitrary culture is “No”.
    I think it’s obvious that “reason and rationality obtain” in what you call my model. The fact that emotions are important doesn’t mean that reason is excluded, or that we therefore can’t reason. We reason all the time about what the emotions are trying to tell us, and we can also reason about where the emotions come from, why they exist, and the implications of what we conclude about those matters.

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