Socrates Exchange: Are there ethical limits to biotechnology?

Apr 22, 2010

Our next Socrates Exchange discussion begins! This time we ask we ask “are there ethical limits to biotechnology?” From aspirin to artificial limbs many of us enjoy the benefits of biotechnology, but is there a point where it crosses the ethical line... steroids in sports, cloning or choosing the genetic makeup of your child? Post your thoughts below and respond to other postings.


  • Nick Smith, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire, Advisor to the Socratic Society at UNH and Project Advisor to the Socrates Exchange

Background Reading

Are there ethical limits to biotechnology? We use the word ‘limits’ because most of us use and support some types of biotechnology. If you have had cochlear implants or corrective eye surgery, had an artificial knee, even if you’ve used Viagra or aspirin, you have used biotechnology. Most would say that these things have bettered us as humans, but is there a point where it goes too far? We are not born the same, and at this point, we don’t have a say over how we are born. It may not seem fair, but some are entered the world with certain gifts, whether they are ‘biological’ or ‘God given’ that are make us better than others in certain ways. Michael Phelps who won an unprecedented 8 gold medals in the 2008 Summer Olympics was born with a body custom-made for swimming. He’s tall, thin, has a triangular hydrodynamic shape, and is double jointed. Rembrandt was born with artistic gifts and Einstein with super-intelligence. It’s also understood, that we’re all born with some less exceptional characteristics. Einstein was not that attractive and Rembrandt probably could never beat Michael Phelps in the pool. It proves that as humans, we are not perfect. Yet do we really accept this fact when we want to change it?

We give our kids drugs like Ritalin to help them focus better, while adults undergo cosmetic surgery to look better. These actions reject our imperfections and recognize that technology can make us better than how we were born. Over the past 30 years the quality of running shoes has improved greatly. Sneakers are no longer light leather tops with a durable waffle burned bottom. Today they are more ergonomic and cushioned for every kind of foot and build. The same goes with swim suits and racing bicycles. But we frown when an athlete ‘crosses a line’ and uses steroids or other performance enhancing drugs. It’s been called ‘cheating’. But is it cheating when everyone does it? Is it cheating when every bicyclist has a custom made light as a feather bicycle in the tour de France? If performance can be improved through better bikes or healthy diets, then why not through drugs? Some would say that drugs take away from the very elements in sports that draw us in. We are amazed by humans performing in almost subhuman ways. Many thought that running a mile in under 4 minutes would kill a man until Roger Banister stunned us by doing it in 1954. All marveled when baseball’s Mark McGwire hit a record 70 home runs in a season. That is, until it was uncovered that he was using steroids. So when an athlete uses something to increase performance, we question: was it the person or the drug that made the achievement? When the steroid user beats a record, who should be lauded with the award, the athlete or the pharmacist? In the same light, when the cyclist wins the Tour de France, who should wear the Yellow Jersey, the athlete or the bicycle designer? 

Let’s take it a step further. Genetic engineers are breaking though new barriers every day... right now we can learn a lot about the health of our child even before they are born. Will they be mentally or physically handicapped or prone to certain inherited diseases? ‘Sperm sorting’ can now predict the sex of your child with a 99% accuracy. Soon we’ll be able to take it a step further. Genetics will allow us to learn, if our child is prone to obesity or addiction, how tall they’ll be and their IQ. And by learning that information scientists will, hand in hand, be able to alter that through genetic technology. Spend the right amount of money and you can have the ‘perfect child’... beautiful, highly intelligent and adept in sports, and able to mingle with the best of them at a cocktail party. But what kind of message does this send and how far is too far? In some ways genetic intelligence sounds inviting, even responsible. Parents with the gene for Huntington’s disease may want to end a pregnancy rather than have the child face the same pain and suffering the parents have gone through. But how about a parent who learns their child will have Down’s syndrome? Is it more ethical to raise the child or spare it possibly from a very difficult life? What if the parents found their child may be born like the 50 million in the world with an IQ under 90 or that he or she is missing their legs? Would they alter that? If so, what does that say to the millions of people who live happy lives with IQs slightly below average or to wheelchair bound woman who wins the Boston Marathon? Are we saying that now it would be actually better if they were not born at all? What then would be next? Will we soon live in a world where being less than 5 foot 5 inches, gay, shy or having dark eyes is no longer acceptable?

Other dilemmas come up with genetic profiling. Does it force us to raise expectations? Will we reach a time where ‘flaws’ are no longer accepted? Will parents be considered ‘unfit’ if they don’t do all they can for their child to be perfect? If we become self made, will perfection be a responsibility and those that fall short, would they be considered now ‘unfit’? But despite the problems that come up, technology is moving forward with this. If we don’t do it here in this country, it will be done elsewhere. So would it be irresponsible not to move forward with it ourselves? In fact is it dangerous not to move ahead? A population of ‘super humans’ in other countries would be no match for us. Would we meet our fate by stronger nations if we don’t move forward with biotechnology?

Science is propelling us forward at an almost blinding rate. The inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, has shown that advancements in technology change exponentially. So, if we made 100 years of progress in the 20th century, we’ll have made 20,000 years of progress in the 21st. At this pace Kurzweil says machine intelligence will pass human intelligence within a few decades.. Some predict by 2020, we’ll have the hardware and soft ware to create human levels of intelligence including emotional intelligence. He says the day is not too far away when we can develop an earring sized chip planted in the brain to serve our every need. Want to Google something? No need to type it in anymore, think it and it appears in your brain. What does this mean and what’s the big deal?

We have embraced technology so far. We have traded in our land lines for cell phones and then for smart phones. Our huge computers are now portable laptops. Why stop there? Why not embrace it? But some worry you cross a line at some point. When you mix the biological with non-biological too far, we may become, ‘less than human’...even a species of robots? Can we get to a point where we lose all that is inherently human? How about our emotions, our personalities, our unique personal interactions. Most likely these futuristic chips will be able to control and alter those things as well. Today, many of us couldn’t live without cell phones and computers. You could easily see how living in a quasi-robotic state could be the norm and we could no longer live just by being ‘human’. The American environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben in his 2003 book” Enough” takes it even further by saying “what if you had a second child five years after the first, and by that time the upgrades were undeniably improved: how would you feel about the first kid? The vision of one’s child as a nearly useless copy of Windows 95 should make parents fight like hell to make sure we never get started down this path”. But if we do limit our access to biotechnology, where is the line, who draws it and what is the reason it is drawn? Will it be for a moral, ethical, medical, political or theological reason? Who is the moral compass and says that Viagra is good but steroids are bad, that corrective eye surgery is good but genetic profiling is not? Many issues to think about, no real clear answers but lots of Socratic Discussion. Have fun digging deep into this debate and Get Socratic!

-Keith Shields, Project Director