Watching Eusain Bolt win the 100 and 200 metres by so much in the Beijing Olympics was amazing. But what if he had had the benefit of performance-enhancing genetic manipulation on top of his exceptional natural potential and training? Why restrict what athletes can do to enhance their performance, as long as it is safe? And what about other aspects of life? If we could increase our IQs by taking drugs, would it be wrong to do so?
Questions about the ethics of genetic enhancement get to the heart of what we take a human being to be. It would be nice to think that we all line up equal, but the truth is that both genetic and environmental factors (many of which are outside our control) massively affect whether or not our lives go well (as well as how fast we could ever run - which may in some cases amount to the same thing). Most of us see the idea of curing disease using intervention as unproblematic: if we can do it we should. But when it comes to enhancing our genetic endowment in any way, some people get edgy. Is this an irrational fear brought on by science fiction parables? Or are there genuine grounds for concern?
The Case for Enhancement
Julian Savulescu gives an admirably clear outline of the issues in a podcast of a lecture he gave in Sydney in 2007. He argues that where we can make people's lives go better, we should and that there may be great social benefits as well as individual ones from making use of the new biological and pharmaceutical possibilities that scientists have opened up for us. In discussion, he also argues that it might make sense to tolerate various drugs and processes in sport provided that they aren't dangerous, and then concentrate resources on dope testing for the dangerous ones.
The Case Against Enhancement
For a passionate defence of the idea that enhancement is not a good idea, listen to my podcast interview with Michael Sandel based on his book The Case Against Perfection (read my review of this book). Whilst he agrees that curing deficiencies and disease is good, he opposes enhancement. His argument turns on a notion of 'giftedness' and the consequences for humanity of boosting individual achievement by technical means. Ultimately this sounds like a religious argument, though Sandel hopes that his reasoning will appeal to the non-religious too.