If We Could Genetically Eradicate Facial Hair, Should We?
Jeffrey Israel has taught religion and political philosophy at Northwestern
University and Rutgers University. He currently teaches Jewish history at Eugene
Lang College of The New School in New York City. He has a Ph.D. in religious ethics from the University of Chicago.
Every morning I wake up with resentment about the fact that I have to shave my damn face. The ideas that grew gnarled and twisted in my mind by the end of the previous day have loosened over night. My mind is fresh and agile and I’m already working on new material silently in the shower. I’m ready to burst through the plastic shower curtain. I’ll do a couple of quick swipes with a towel to dry off, throw on a random pick of clothes, grab my coffee, which was prepared with a timer to be ready and waiting the night before, some cereal, and run over to my computer to pound out a few pages of my book proposal, or conference paper, or whatever.
But noooooooooo. Stop everything. I have to spend the next 8 to 10 minutes lathering up, artfully dodging moles, carving into under-nose crevices, turning the water on and off to rinse the razor. It’s torture. And I resent it.
What if we could spare future generations this grievous time suck? Surely facial hair is no longer necessary for human survival (if it ever was). No future person would be worse off for not being able to grow facial hair, right? Wouldn’t we be doing future people a favor? Wouldn’t we take a huge leap forward in human evolution if we genetically engineered all forthcoming infants to grow no facial hair and to produce descendents who would forevermore likewise be incapable of such growth?
Yes. Yes. Yes… is what I want to say intuitively, at first blush. But in what follows I’m going to take some time to think about it. I’m curious to see what emerges in the process. For instance, if it will turn out that I have reservations upon further reflection and if so, what kind of reservations. Let’s see what comes up.
I’ve revealed several concerns and aspirations already in the paragraphs above where I formulated the problem. For example, in thinking about the possibility of eradicating facial hair I seem immediately worried about interfering too much with nature: I am reluctant to tamper with a feature of human biology that has evolved for the benefit of human survival. I don’t want to get rid of facial hair only then to get rid of humanity as a whole inadvertently, to “throw the baby out with the bath water.”
This is tricky, though. The question of facial hair eradication is not very interesting to think about if I have to choose between the sum of all future aggravation generated by shaving and the biological viability of the human species. Obviously I would choose on behalf of the latter. So the question has to be: if we could genetically eradicate facial hair without having a negative impact on any other aspect of human biology or ecology, should we?
Unfortunately, that’s a big “if.” How could we ever know what might arise circuitously as a result of tampering with nature? Remember Will Smith in I Am Legend fending off terrifying post-human mutants who have been mutated by a virus originally designed to cure cancer? We don’t want anything like that to happen.
On the other hand, while I Am Legend is an interesting and provocative cautionary tale, should it really inhibit our zeal for innovative cancer research? Doesn’t every worthwhile act come with the possibility of inadvertent negative consequences?
Now, you might not want to eradicate facial hair because you have an absolute “no tampering” principle: never mess with human genetics. This raises all kinds of concerns, especially when genetic engineering can do more good than merely freeing up 8 to 10 minutes in the morning. What could justify such an absolute principle?
I assume that no one has an “always tamper” principle, according to which whenever you can make a genetic alteration in human beings you should. If you have a “some tampering” principle, then of course you will need to think more about what counts as a good enough reason to tamper.
Back to our specific case. I wrote: “No future person would be worse off for not being able to grow facial hair, right?” Clearly it seems wrong to me to advocate something that would make people in the future worse off. This concern can actually get rather, well, hairy. As philosophers who work on “intergenerational justice” and “the nonidentity problem” will readily tell you, thinking about our moral obligation to “future persons” is not at all straightforward. It would be worth your while to look into these topics if you want to keep thinking about the issues I’ve raised in this post.
The ways in which a person might be worse off for not being able to grow facial hair are quite interesting, as it turns out. It may seem like a “merely stylistic” matter. People wouldn’t be able to grow beards or mustaches – who cares? So much the worse for future hipsters. Maybe by eliminating the ability to grow a hipster beard or mustache we would eventually eliminate “the hipster” from the catalogue of “kinds of people” who inhabit our social world. So what? Fops, poindexters, and Milquetoasts are pretty much extinct kinds of people and this is not generally seen as tragic.
But what about future Hasidic Jews and Sikhs? I suspect some conservationist intuitions will bubble-up when we consider these cases. Isn’t the elimination of an essential part of what it means to be a particular kind of person, gulp, genocide? If the extinction of “hipster” as an available kind of person is ok, but the extinction of “Hasidic Jew” as an available kind of person is not ok, then we need to know precisely why.
What about the fate of a future person who might feel called to play Grant or Lee in a reenactment of the surrender at Appomattox?
Is there a part of the human body that we could tamper with that would have no negative impact on the essential qualities or practices of any current kind of person or group? What if we could eradicate fingernail growth? What if we could engineer all future people to have the same skin color? (I vote for mauve). What if we could prevent all future farting?
Even if no current kind of person or group requires the ability to grow fingernails or fart, maybe genetic tampering would preemptively foreclose the emergence of a future kind of person or group that does require one of these abilities. Would that be bad?
It looks like we have a lot of questions to answer before we can in good conscience eradicate facial hair. And I haven’t even mentioned the gender issues involved here, the impact on the facial grooming supply industry, the question of eyebrows,.….