human rights

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Genetics and Bioethics: Enhancement or Therapy?

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[Note: Revised and expanded 6/15/2015.]

Bioethics is an expanding field with direct implications for our lives. Here, we’ll reflect on the possibility and implications of gene therapy and enhancement. While I was at the Evangelical Philosophical/Theological Society Conference in 2012, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a talk about this very topic, and that will be the focus of this post. Unfortunately, the speaker had been switched around and was not listed in the booklet that I have. Furthermore, I never caught the speaker’s actual name (I tried to write it down when he was introduced, and got Gary Alkins, though I have tried searching online for that and haven’t come up with it), so if someone knows what it is, please let me know. I’ll reference the speaker as “speaker” throughout this post.

The central relevant moral question under discussion was: “Should genetic technology be used to not only heal but also to enhance the human condition?”

A Vital Distinction

An important aspect of this discussion is the distinction between gene enhancement and therapy. Gene therapy is the use of genetic research and information to cure illness. Speaking very hypothetically, suppose that we were able to discover the exact genetic code for illnesses like sickle cell anemia, isolate it, and replace it with a non-anemic code before a person was even born; that would be gene therapy. Genetic enhancement takes this a step further. It allows for modifying people genetically to enhance certain features such as physical strength, endurance, mental aptitude, and the like. It would, in a sense, create “super humans.”

Therapy

Using our knowledge of genetics for therapy, the speaker argued, is perfectly justified. We are called by Christ’s example to treat illnesses, and gene therapy can be seen as an extension of this. There was little time spent defending the moral permissiveness of gene therapy, as the primary question was whether genetic enhancement is morally permissible.

Enhancement

There are several arguments for genetic enhancement. These include:

1) The “natural lottery” argument: if we have the capacity to genetically enhance humans but do not, that means we are, effectively, just playing a genetic lottery to see if our children turn out well. Parents have a moral duty to act against the natural lottery.

2) We encourage environmental enhancement (i.e. seeking better education, putting children in brain-stimulating environments, encouraging sports for their physical well-being, etc.), why is genetic enhancement any different?

3) We already manipulate chemicals (caffeine, vitamins, etc.) for our well-being, why not genetics? In the end, what matters is human well being.

4) Genetic enhancement is simply the next logical step for humanity. If we agree that therapy is good because it stops genetic defects, should we not also hold that enhancement is good because it pushes people to fill their greatest potential.

Against these arguments, the speaker argued [updated section 6/15/15 with some counter-responses]:

A) Genetic enhancement could never match the ideal outlined in these arguments, wherein every human being is enhanced on a number of levels. Instead, it would very likely increase the split between the haves and have-nots by allowing those who have much to increase their dominance over society. The haves could afford to continue enhancing and remain a kind of super-human society while the have-nots would never be able to catch up.

However, a possible counter-argument to this reasoning would be to note that there will always be people who are advantaged and people who are disadvantaged. It’s unclear as to how this should serve to undermine the moral base for genetic enhancement.

B) There is a great good in letting humans accomplish things which stretch their skill set. Think about the steroids controversy in sports. We intuitively know that those who used performance enhancing drugs had an unfair advantage over those who did not. Similarly, those who would be genetically enhanced would have an unfair advantage over those who were not enhanced in almost any conceivable area of human achievement.

It is unclear, though, whether genetic enhancement would undermine the good of accomplishment and human achievement. Indeed, one could argue that genetic enhancement, in fact, bolsters human achievement by widening the scope of possibility for humans. From a pragmatic perspective, though, it sure would make it hard to keep on top of sports records and the like! We’d have to build bigger baseball parks to make home runs harder to hit! But seriously, the argument from human achievement does not seem sound to me.

C) What of bodily autonomy? Who’s to say that it is a good for parents to meddle with their children’s genes. What if a child does not want to be extremely strong, or what of their parents choose to give them giftedness in music, but they simply don’t like to do music? What if the children hate what their parents chose for them: hair color, eye color, etc.? Unlike the “natural lottery,” such attributes related to enhancement actually do have blame to assign to someone. Is there no bodily autonomy involved?

However, as Elijah argues, parents violate “autonomy” of their children all the time. This means there is some difficulty with determining how genetic enhancement would be a qualitative, rather than quantitative difference for this violation of autonomy. The opponent of genetic enhancement must establish that there is an objective difference between enhancement and other forms of violating autonomy, and must also show this difference is enough to ground a rejection of enhancement.

Enhancement and Theology

There are numerous theological issues involved in the debate over genetic enhancement. First, what might it mean for the image of God? Humans were created as “very good” and in the “image of God.” What does it mean to be in that “image of God” and does enhancement change that in any way?

For Christians, the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan comes in the New Creation. The notion that humanity needs a genetic upgrade reflects the worldview of naturalism. Christians do not hope in their own ingenuity but rather in God’s plan for creation. That does not mean we cannot get actively involved in healing, but it does mean that we do not need to violate persons’ humanity by enhancement. One might argue that the assumption involved in enhancement is that our bodies are not good enough and that we need to improve them. However, such an assumption is not the only possible basis for enhancement. One could argue, instead, that enhancement is based on the notion that we are to keep fighting against the impact of sin in the world and one way to do this is to become stronger, smarter, and the like through the tools God has given us through scientific research.

Although we are fallen creatures, that does not imply that we are creatures capable of getting out of our own fallenness. No enhancement we can do can bring us ultimate salvation.

Evaluation

It seems to me that the arguments against enhancement may seem initially sound, but each one has its own problems.

It seems that if parents select for certain attributes, then parents can be held morally culpable for the genes their children develop. Thus, if the child dislikes an attribute, they could feasibly hold their parents responsible for that selected attribute. Interestingly, this may work both ways too: a child could hold their parents responsible for not changing an attribute. Yet this latter argument seems to make a mockery of parenthood, holding parents responsible for nature. I’m not sure, though, that this culpability is enough of an argument against genetic enhancement.

In the theological sphere, one may wonder whether someone could just as easily argue that because we were created initially “very good,” a pursuit of bodily perfection could be viewed as a fight against the Fall and the curse. I tried to ask this as a question, but there wasn’t time at the end to get to all the questions. The speaker did an excellent job noting possible counter-arguments to their points, and I thought gave a very fair presentation overall. It seems that the best argument against genetic enhancement may be the bodily autonomy argument, but this one has its own significant problems.

I’d like to know what your thoughts are on this topic: Do you think enhancement is moral? Why or why not?

Links

I have written on a number of other talks I went to at the ETS/EPS Conference. I discuss every single session I attended in my post on the ETS/EPS Conference 2012. I also discuss a panel discussion on Caring for Creation, and a debate between a young earth and old earth proponent.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Crossing the Most Dangerous Line: How some bioethicists undermine humanity

Our point is only that there is nothing bad about death or killing other than disability and disabling. (Sinnott-Armstrong and Miller, cited below)

The authors also do not agree with the term euthanasia for this practice [after birth abortions] as the best interest of the person who would be killed is not necessarily the primary reason his or her life is being terminated. In other words, it may be in the parents’ best interest to terminate the life, not the newborn’s. (Klimas, emphasis mine, cited below)

These are not quotes from a dystopic sci-fi epic; these are quotes from a journal article about murder and a news story about bioethics. The disturbing reality is that there are a number of people working in the field of bioethics today whose positions undermine basic human rights.

Murder as Causing Disability

Why is murder wrong?

There are a number of answers generally given to this question which generally focus on the wrongness of ending life or terminating consciousness. However, a recent article by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Franklin Miller denigrates this position as “traditionalist” (note the subtle choice of the word to create an opposition: “traditionalists” are opposed to what? apparently they are opposed to “innovation” “reality” and the like; they are stuck in their mores and these bioethicists must free us from the stone age). They argue that it is causing disability which makes murder wrong; not the wrongness of killing itself.

Murder is wrong, on their view, because it causes “total disabling.” The authors draw out a thought experiment in which a woman, Betty, is incapable of controlling her thoughts, has no motor control, and the like. Essentially, she is completely disabled and cannot do anything, has no awareness of her actions, and the like. Then, the authors ask:

In this case, is Betty any better off totally disabled than dead? If so, then death must involve the loss of something valuable beyond the loss of all abilities forever. If not, then death does not involve the loss of anything valuable beyond what is lost in total disability. Death is still distinct from total disability, but it is no worse.

It is fascinating to see that the authors apparently take this to be a decisive blow to the “traditionalist” position. They write, “We see nothing to make Betty’s death worse than her total disability. This intuition seems to be widely shared, since many people dread death no more than and for the same reasons that they would dread total disability.”

Yet there is something fairly obvious that is just waiting to be pointed out: namely, that Betty’s death does “involve the loss of something valuable beyond the loss of all abilities forever”–what it involves losing is one’s life.

Yes, that’s right, some people make the apparently not-so-obvious claim that life itself is valuable. See, articles like this by Sinnott-Armstrong and Miller don’t interact with their opponents’ positions as much as they try to claim they have refuted them; rather, they simply assume their opponents are wrong. But these authors seem to have anticipated this point (despite their total rejection of the alternative in their thought experiment–they use the experiment as though it seals their case and then only later, once the reader has been led to believe they are absolutely correct, do they deal with this objection). They write:

 Of course, opponents will claim that life is sacred or that killing her violates God’s commandment, but why would God forbid us (or have any reason to forbid us) to do something that does not make Betty worse off? Similarly, secular theorists might claim that life has sanctity or intrinsic value (cf Dworkin), but why is life valuable in this extreme case when it includes no ability (or pleasure, as we are still assuming)?

But this is the end of their response! After these lines they turn to attempting to justify their consequentialist assumptions. Surely, however, this is an extremely insufficient response. Nothing in this response undermines the position that life is  valuable. Rather, they just ask a question: why is life valuable? But of course the authors are the ones making the claim here. They are claiming life itself is not valuable. If that’s the case, the burden of proof is upon them to show that their position is correct. And note that the way they try to justify this position is by simply assuming their position is correct. They ask why God would forbid something that doesn’t make Betty any worse off… but the point the “traditionalist” is making is that it does make Betty worse off because killing her deprives her of life! There is a subtle question begging occurring throughout the article because the authors simply can’t seem to fathom that life is valuable in itself. Instead, they assert that what is valuable is ability and then sift all moral statements through that assumption.

One who reflects upon this position should be not just appalled but also outraged and fearful. Why?  Well Sinnott-Armstrong and Miller, by suggesting that what makes killing wrong is the causation of disabilities, imply that disabilities significantly reduce the value or worth of persons. Consider this: the authors repeatedly point out that it is not the deprivation of life that harms Betty, but rather the causing total disability. The grounding of Betty’s value is therefore based upon her abilities. If that is the case, then as Betty suffers disabilities, her value is decreased. Suppose Betty goes from being totally “able” with nothing wrong to becoming paralyzed. Does that mean she is less valuable? “Traditionalists” like me would say no, she is no less valuable. However, the authors of this article have grounded human value on ability. Again, it is the deprivation of  capabilities which is wrong with murder, not the deprivation of life on their view. A consequences of this position is that the more “disabled” one becomes, the less valuable they become. Such a position is rightfully horrifying, but it is exactly what such a position entails. If humans’ value is grounded not simply in their being, then whatever standard one grounds this value will imply a sliding scale. Sinnott-Armstrong and Miller suggest that abilities  ground value; therefore a disabled child is less valuable than one who is not; a man with Down Syndrome is less valuable than one who does not have it. These are the horrifying implications of their view.

One wonders if it is worth embracing such a position when it entails such blatantly immoral consequences. When one notices that the argument produced therein is based simply upon begging the question and assuming that life itself is not valuable, one finds little reason to commend this position.

Killing Our Children

Bioethicists have not stopped at the line crossed above, however. Recently another pair of bioethicists, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, have argued for what they are terming “after-birth abortions.” In layman’s terms, they’re arguing for murdering one’s own children.

What could possibly ground this? Well, these bioethicists argue that, “Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’… Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.”

What exactly constitutes something which could justify killing a newborn? Again, “The circumstances… where after-birth abortion should be considered acceptable include instances where the newborn would be putting the well-being of the family at risk, even if it had the potential for an ‘acceptable’ life.” The authors go on to cite Down Syndrome as an example of these circumstances. Honestly, there is nothing to distinguish this form Eugenics. Let’s kill off those we deem unsuitable for life. It’s abhorrent.

I predicted this very consequence of the pro-choice position not too long ago. Pro-abortion arguments which aim to redefine what it means to be a “person” lead inevitably to infanticide. Fortunately, most pro-choice advocates do not realize this consequence of their position and still find infanticide and the like abhorrent. But those who have carefully reflected on the topic–bioethicists who research the issues involved–have come to realize that if an unborn human being is not worth being called a person, then it is hard to see why a newly born human being is a person either.

Bioethics: A brief reflection

The two case studies provided in this post provide examples for why it is so important to defend a proper view of the value of persons and worth. Once we start to define worth as things which can become a sliding scale (abilities vs. disabilities); once we allow that human beings are worthless if in one location (the womb) but valuable in another (outside the womb); once we seek to redefine terms in order to win a debate; that is when our world will collapse around us. These bioethicists are literally trying to say that it is permissible to kill people if they are totally disabled; they are literally telling us that a child with Down Syndrome might have a life worth living, but is such a strain on their family that the family should be allowed to kill their own child. I wish I were making these things up. These are our times: times in which we’ve allowed people to redefine rights and values in order to allow us to kill our children; times in which the people writing our ethics books argue that murder isn’t wrong because it takes a life but because it disables someone; times in which we can read discussions in medical journals about permitting the killing our own infants because they have certain defects.

God help us.

Sources

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Franklin Miller, “What Makes Killing Wrong?” Journal of Medical Ethics, January 2012. Accessible here: http://jme.bmj.com/content/early/2012/01/19/medethics-2011-100351.full

Liz Klimas, “Ethicists Argue for Acceptance of After-Birth Abortions” The Blaze, February 27, 2012, accessible here: http://www.theblaze.com/stories/ethicists-argue-in-favor-of-after-birth-abortions-as-newborns-are-not-persons/.

Picture credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pinedap.JPG

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

The Hunger Games Movie: A Christian Perspective

I saw The Hunger Games this weekend and wanted to share my thoughts.  There are spoilers here.

I’ve already written about the whole trilogy and my thoughts on talking points a Christian can take away from it, and the movie really brought to light a number of the things that I wrote about there. I’m not going to bother to summarize the movie here. Rather, I’m going to provide what I found to be some talking points that Christians can take away from the movie along with my general observations. At the end I include a brief note for parents who might be concerned with their children seeing the film. See also my look at “Catching Fire.”

Christian Talking Points

The movie portrays a world in which there is a stark contrast between those in power and those without it. District 12, whence Katniss Everdeen hails, is a bleak place. The imagery seen on screen evokes mental images of the Great Depression and the photography from that era. There are sad faces looking out the windows, people marching to the coal mines, and children playing with sticks in the mud because they have nothing else with which to play.

That contrasts starkly with the decadence of the Capitol. At the Capitol, the people spend their time on frivolity. They decorate themselves as much as they decorate the places around them. Their showers cover them with the scent of the day; they can bring up whatever pleasant imagery they would like on their screens; their food is the best; they do whatever they want.

The imagery throughout the movie portrays this stark contrast. The children themselves are called upon to battle to the death, yet everyone is congratulating them as though this is some great honor and opportunity. They are required to dress their best for the “reaping” in which the Capitol personnel select contestants who will fight in the arena. The people of the Capitol pack the stands to watch the introductions and interviews of the contestants; they cheer wildly for their favorites and root for those they choose. Yet the whole time the movie makes it clear there is something deeply wrong happening. How can these people be so excited, so utterly out-of-touch with reality, when children’s lives are at stake? 

The world of the Hunger Games is a commentary on our own. The world in which we live is one in which our greatest goal is comfort, yet their are children dying in our streets from starvation. This is not just far away, it is right in our own country. This is just one talking point for Christians and the Hunger Games: what is it that we should be doing to curb our own “capitol”-like tendencies?

Yet it seems like that alone doesn’t take it far enough. The film also portrays clearly the level to which people deceive themselves about right and wrong. There is a struggle in the movie (and the books) that goes beyond the strangeness of the contrast between the districts and the Capitol. The struggle is a fight over what is right and wrong. The society of the Capitol has relativized morality. They have decided that might makes right and that their comfort is the greatest good. Yet the entire movie gives imagery to that view and one can’t help but notice the feeling that something is just wrong throughout the film. How is it these people who are living lives of such great comfort are so oblivious? The meaning is subtle, but it is throughout the whole movie: there simply is something wrong, and it is the dismissive attitude with which people treat right and wrong when it comes to their own comfort and desires.

It is telling that President Snow comments on the reason the Hunger Games have a winner is in order to give hope, but “too much hope” is a bad thing. As the leader of the Capitol, Snow realizes the power of hope and how it can work even better than fear to control the masses. As long as he provides the districts with hope, he has them in control. But if they get too much hope, they will break, and the cracks start to show near the end of the movie.

The Hunger Games, I think, provide a stunning critique of our society. We live in the Capitol; we exist in a society which relativizes morality for its own convenience. And when we are presented with it in our face, when the imagery of a film like The Hunger Games shows us the very kind of decadence and futility which we so often celebrate, we are repulsed. The wrongness of the situation comes to the forefront and we must act.

Christians, I think, have much to take away from the movie (and books). We know that there is wrong in the world, and we know the dangers of comfort and futility–we are warned of these things in our Scriptures. The Christian path is one which fights against this futility and points to the one true Hope: that of our savior.

A Word to Parents

This is not a film for children. It is rated PG-13 and I think could very easily have been R. Children are killing each other. The film is, however, I think appropriate for teenagers, and parents who keep in mind some of the talking points listed above could utilize the film as a way to discuss some of the very real world issues it hints at.

Links

Check out the Christianity Today review of the movie.

For those concerned with whether Christians can/should use movies like this to interact with the culture, check out my post on “Engaging Culture” with movies.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: “Why It Doesn’t Matter What You Believe If It’s Not True” by Stephen McAndrew

Is there absolute truth? Such is the topic of Stephen McAndrew’s new book, Why It Doesn’t Matter What You Believe If It’s Not True (hereafter DMYB).

McAndrew begins the work by noting that his book is an examination of a position and an affirmation of absolute truth. This is done because it is important to “examine even the most comfortable beliefs and leave standing only those that survive the disciplined assault of reason” (9).

He begins this testing by exploring some philosophical background, from Plato to positivism to relativism. These summaries are succinct, but provide a great background for those who haven’t read much on the topic. He turns next to a discussion of the effects of an abandonment of absolute truth. Relativism divorces one from any capacity to judge right and wrong. McAndrew notes, “These actions [such as the holocaust, racism, etc.] may brutally offend our sense of right and wrong, but the moral relativist cannot apply his or her values to others” (27).

What is interesting, however, is that McAndrew doesn’t stop at discussing relativism alone, but rather a conjunction of two beliefs: relativism and universal human rights. Many people, McAndrew notes, hold to relativism but also want to affirm universal human rights. In DMYB, he uses the discussion of the Nuremberg Tribunals–at which Nazis were tried for war crimes–as a case study for these conflicting views. He notes that “The defendants at Nuremberg argued that international law could only punish states and not individuals…. The Nuremberg court held that individuals could be punished for crimes against humanity under international law” (34).

Relativists, however, cannot consistently agree with the Nuremberg court, because “If there are no absolute truths, there can be no universal human rights” (35). These rights, if relative, are “contingent upon our cultural and historical position…” (ibid).

But relativism has a worse problem–it is contradictory. If all truth is contingent, then the statement “All truth is relative” is also relative, and therefore cannot be true for all people in all places (43ff). McAndrew next turns to the source for the “human rights urge”–the notion that all humans have certain universal rights. This source, argues McAndrew, is God (62ff). He makes a final case study when he turns to art–if there is no absolute truth, then there is no enduring beauty or truth in art (77ff).

The strengths of McAndrew’s book are readily apparent. He does a great job explaining difficult philosophical topics with terms and examples that anyone can understand. Not only that, but his discussion of Wittgenstein and the book 1984 give concrete, workable topics for those interested in the topic to use as talking points. My only criticism is that I believe I found a minor error. On page 85 McAndrew refers to the law of the excluded middle as the law that “propostion A and its direct contradiction–proposition B–cannot both be true at the same time.” This is in fact the law of noncontradiction. The law of the excluded middle is “For any proposition, it is either the case that the proposition is true or its negation is true.” This is a minor quibble, and one can derive the law of noncontradiction from the law of the excluded middle, but I thought I should note it.

Overall, the book may not convince everyone that there is absolute truth, but it will certainly force them to think about the positions they hold and wonder whether they can consistently cling to a relative absolutism. Those who already own a few books on the topic may wonder whether it is worth adding to their collection. Simply put, yes it is, if only to have at hand some great specific examples and talking points to discuss with relativists. It’s also a quick read that can be handed out to friends to  open up the path for future discussion. I highly recommend DMYB.

Source

Stephen McAndrew, Why It Doesn’t Matter What You Believe If It’s Not True (Sisters, OR: Deep River, 2012).

Disclaimer: I was provided a review copy of this book by the author. My thanks to Stephen for the opportunity to review his book.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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