May 24, 2024

Is enhancement ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative”?

A British academic questions the progressiveness of genetic engineering

Human genetic modification (HGM) or human enhancement is normally portrayed as a liberal cause. Its advocates believe that they are progressives and inveigh against “bio-conservatives”. Christopher F. Goodey, of the University of Leicester, in the UK, tests this notion in a provocative article in the journal Laws, “Liberal or Conservative? Genetic Rhetoric, Disability, and Human Species Modification“. 

First of all, he points out that a broad spectrum of political philosophies favoured the forerunner of HGM, eugenics. “In relatively recent history Marxists (Trotsky), Fascists (Hitler), Liberals (Russell), Social Democrats (Keynes), and Conservatives (Churchill), all endorsed eugenics at some point.” So the “liberal” or “progressive” tags do not fit well, if they are meaningful at all.

Goodey then argues that “There is historical evidence to challenge the HGM movement’s claim to be part of liberalism”. He analyses the utilitarian argument in favour of HGM and discerns in it deeply Christian themes of redemption and eternal life. First, Bentham’s greatest happiness principle was a secularized interpretation of William Paley’s theology, in which “the fitness of things is their fitness to produce happiness” and avoid suffering. Second, the notion of future perfection reflects the Christian idea that we will have ideal bodies in Heaven, as Michelangelo testifies in the Sistine Chapel. Third, the transhumanist ideal of eternal bliss as software reflects a particular line of Christian thought which distrusts the body.

Then he questions the steely logic of bioethics. “A general climate has arisen in which people on policy-making bodies need to guard against the subliminal thought that turning ethics into an expert, professional, rule-governed discipline means it is capable of rules resembling the laws of gravity, the pressure and volume of gases, or evolution.”

One of these rules is that disability is bad. But is it? On what grounds can we say that Down syndrome children are “bad”? Goodey believes that this is essentially a phobia, a fear of contamination. “The moral absolutism behind HGM involves first having an unstated, consensual drive to get rid of something, then defining it as disease.” He concludes: “How does a fear of contamination, dogmatic and with tough historical roots, get to present itself to the public arena as liberal, progressive, and secular?”
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