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What Keeps a Bioethicist Up at Night?

September 7, 2013, 9:00 AM

I think it’s very clear that your grandchildren, maybe your children, maybe even you, are going to reproduce differently than your grandparents did.  That is, the whole process of how we design and execute future generations – execute in the sense of create, is changing.  And we’re going to have the power to actually manipulate the genetics of our offspring in a couple of generations, maybe next generation, maybe sooner than anyone suspects. 

And I worry about what that’s going to mean as we begin to micromanage the genetics of our children.  

I have worries about reproductive genetics.  I think it’s a way down the line, but it’s going to happen.  I worry about the ways in which we are going to choose to enhance ourselves because here’s the truth about enhancement.  Every society will enhance itself or every individual in every society will enhance itself.  You will enhance yourself to fulfill what you think are the proper goals for your life in your community and society. 

So if we live in a country where the goal is to produce as rapidly as possible, to get ahead as quickly as possible, to achieve as much as possible, the enhancements you will choose in your life will be those that allow you to do that.  In a society where there’s more of a communal sense, in a society where achievement isn’t the be all and end all, you know, perhaps you’ll choose more social enhancements.  In a European society where you get three months of vacation and where the day ends at five and everyone closes their shops or whatever, perhaps the enhancement of choice there will be one that improves and increases social life, not productivity.  

And so the enhancements that we’re going to create will be in service of the goals that we have as members of a particular society and community.  And because there are some goals of American society that I find very problematic, because there are some priorities we have that I think are misguided, what I worry about in my children and in your children and in everyone else’s is, are they going to begin to try – there’s a reason why we’re all taking anti-depressants in the United States. 

And there’s a reason why all our kids are on Ritalin and Modafinil.  And you know, pretty soon, you know, Eric Kandel who won the Nobel Prize for his work on encoding memory, says, “We’re going to have a memory pill.”  And if little Johnny is taking Ritalin because – not because he has diagnosed ADD, but because he’s not doing that well, imagine what’s going to happen when the memory pill comes out.  Right?  

While in some other cultures where educational achievement at that age is not as pressured and powerful, maybe little Johnny there, little Jose, will not be taking Modafinil and a memory pill and other things so that he can get into the better third grade or the more exclusive school or whatever it is.  

And so what worries me about enhancement is not enhancement itself, is not the process of enhancement itself.  It is why we enhance ourselves and what we enhance ourselves towards.  And I worry about that because unless society sends the right kinds of moral messages, creates the right kinds of values and goals for its members, the way in which we’re going to try to enhance our lives may not be healthy.

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


What Keeps a Bioethicist Up...

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