Julian Savulescu, professor of philosophy at Oxford University and editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics, provocatively argued in a popular 2012 Reader’s Digest article that “It’s Our Duty to Have Designer Babies.” Savulescu is a leading figure in the transhumanist movement, which seeks to transform humanity by seizing the reins of human evolution. Interestingly, however, Savulescu is not a strong proponent of cognitive genetic enhancement, which many transhumanists—and parents wanting a designer baby—favor.
Indeed, Savulescu thinks cognitive enhancement might make us humans even more dangerous to each other, given our technological prowess at building weapons of mass destruction and our propensity to pollute our environment. He regularly invokes the fear of humans destroying themselves; one talk he gave was entitled “Unfit for Life: Genetically Enhance Humanity or Face Extinction.” The solution that Savulescu proposes to keep us humans from killing each other off is what he calls moral enhancement, which comes in two forms: genetic engineering and hormone therapy, both designed to make us more cooperative and altruistic.
Savulescu’s goal in advocating designer babies is to transform human nature, to rid us of our selfish tendencies, and to help us to love one another. Who could argue with such a noble goal?
As a historian, I am acutely aware that noble goals sometimes accompany dehumanizing ideologies. In my new book, The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life, I discuss many secular ideologies that promise to promote human betterment and earthly utopias, while actually stripping humans of their value and dignity. I wrote an earlier book on Hitler’s Ethic, which demonstrates that Hitler hoped to elevate humanity by favoring the allegedly more moral Aryans and exterminating those deemed immoral. Other historical examples come to mind, such as Marxism, which also tried to make people less selfish and more cooperative.
As noble as it may initially sound, Savulescu’s project of moral enhancement faces a number of serious problems. The genetic determinism on which it is based is shaky, both scientifically and philosophically. Even in the abstract, the concept of “moral enhancement” is fundamentally in conflict with Savulescu’s view that morality is the product of mindless evolutionary processes. Savulescu has no objective grounds for choosing which specific behaviors to favor, and his vision of human nature makes it difficult to see how we could ever improve ourselves. If humans are so morally deficient that we need moral enhancement, how can we be trusted to make wise choices that will foster moral enhancement and not debasement?
Evolutionary Psychology and the Biology of Love
Savulescu is a devotee of evolutionary psychology, arguing forcefully that our behavior is shaped largely by our genetic constitution. In his view, “Differences in behavior, even differences in ability to stay in a long-term relationship, have a biological basis. They differ between different individuals, and we will be able at some point to influence that biology to achieve whatever goal we choose to achieve.”
These genetic tendencies were allegedly produced through eons of natural selection operating on the human species. One example of genetic determinism that Savulescu likes to point out is the different mating behavior of two species of voles. The monogamous voles have more receptors for oxytocin and vasopressin than the polygamous voles. Scientists have genetically engineered the polygamous species to become monogamous, thereby demonstrating that oxytocin and vasopressin are involved in bonding. Similarly, Savulescu suggests that we could and should genetically engineer humans to promote monogamy, since many sociological studies have shown that monogamy is beneficial to children. He also recommends developing “love drugs,” such as oxytocin, that could be given to married couples to keep spouses faithful to each other.
But if monogamy is both biologically driven and evolutionarily beneficial, why doesn’t our genetic makeup already compel us to be monogamous? Savulescu argues that our biological constitution is 150,000 years behind our cultural developments. He claims that millennia ago a human’s average lifespan was so short that spouses would usually not be married for more than fifteen years or so. Thus, according to Savulescu, “it seems unlikely that natural selection equipped us to keep relationships lasting much more than a decade.” Increased lifespans in the modern world have left us “unfit” for lifelong monogamy, thus resulting in widespread divorce.
There are a number of problems with Savulescu’s biological account. The comparison between voles and humans is weak. Monogamous voles are always monogamous, and polygamous ones are always polygamous. Humans, however, show much more plasticity in their mating behaviors. Some human societies are monogamous, some are polygamous, and in some—such as ours today—the institution of marriage is no longer as important as it once was. Even within societies that are predominantly monogamous, some individuals rebel against the prevailing sexual mores. Humans seem to have—dare I say it?—greater free will to alter their mating and marriage behavior.
Historical changes in divorce rates also cast doubt on Savulescu’s evolutionary account. Has Savulescu never heard about the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s? In the US and Europe in the 1950s, the divorce rate was considerably lower than it was two decades later. Marriages lasted much longer. How can we blame the current high divorce rate on our hardwired psyche when divorce was relatively rare so recently? It seems clear that the institution of marriage has changed radically over the course of one or two generations. Biological determinism can’t explain that. Why resort to genetic manipulation and love potions to biologically engineer us to become more monogamous when humans can choose to promote a culture that fosters monogamy, if we want to be?
What is the Goal of "Moral Enhancement"?
Savulescu’s project of moral enhancement never defines its goal. He often uses vague terminology implying moral progress, such as “better,” or “human welfare,” or “human well-being,” or “benefit.” However, he rarely indicates what any of these terms might mean, or what we might be progressing toward. In one article he observes that, “from our human perspective, happiness and flourishing are primary goals.” But what constitutes happiness and flourishing? In several venues, he has sidestepped this objection by arguing that moral enhancement is congruent with a variety of ethical philosophies, including utilitarianism, desire fulfillment theories, and deontological ethics.
I must admit that I am still left scratching my head. According to his account, morality is the product of biological evolution, and he seems to agree with most biologists and evolutionary psychologists that these are mindless, purposeless processes. If a non-teleological process produced human morality, then how can we find a measuring rod for morality outside of nature that allows us to prefer “moral” behaviors to “immoral” behaviors? Savulescu insists that we can “liberate ourselves from evolution,” but it is unclear where we can acquire the moral fulcrum to do that.
Savulescu has no objective grounds for choosing which specific behaviors to favor. Like many evolutionary psychologists, he discusses the evolutionary advantages of various altruistic behaviors, but he rarely mentions that selfish behavior, wars, racism, atrocities, rape, and many other kinds of immorality are also a natural part of human history. Indeed, there are evolutionary explanations for these kinds of behavior, too. If both selfishness and altruism have evolved simultaneously, and both have benefitted individuals in the struggle for existence, why should we think that one is superior to the other? Indeed, some biologists have insisted that selfishness is every bit as important as altruism in advancing the well-being of individuals or species.
What if these biologists are right? What if making our children more selfish would help them in the struggle for existence and human flourishing, providing them a healthier, happier life? In that case, according to Savulescu’s own teaching about designer babies, we would have strong moral reasons to genetically engineer our children to be more selfish. Savulescu thinks that increased cooperation is preferable to selfishness, but how does he conjure up a rationale for it, since he seems committed to a naturalistic understanding of the origin of morality?
If we examine other moral characteristics, we run into the same problem: what grounds do we have for preferring one over the other? For instance, in one article Savulescu notes that compared to men, women have a lower tendency to harm other people. Because of this, he suggests that “we could make men more moral by biomedical methods by making them more like women.” Even if this sexist version of evolutionary psychology proves to be accurate, why should we prefer female empathy to male aggression? Why assume that empathy will lead to greater human thriving and welfare than aggression?
How Can Morally Deficient Humans Make Wise Choices?
Indeed, how can we even be trusted? If humans are so morally deficient that they need moral enhancement, how can these morally deficient individuals make wise choices that will foster moral enhancement? Savulescu recognizes this problem, but does not take it seriously enough.
Based on their desire for their children to have the best possible life, some parents might want their children to be assertive and aggressive, so they will rise to become leaders, especially if the rest of the population is becoming cooperative and docile through moral enhancement. Considering the importance of sports in our society, undoubtedly some parents will value athletic prowess and thus prefer a competitive spirit to a more cooperative ethos. Other parents of designer babies will undoubtedly value beauty, musical ability, intellectual acuity, or other traits more than empathy and cooperativeness.
In some venues, Savulescu stresses that he does not want to use coercive measures to implement moral enhancement. If this is the case, I have no confidence that masses of parents would choose moral enhancement for their children. However, at other times Savulescu suggests that some forms of moral enhancement should be compulsory. In one article he writes,
If safe moral enhancements are ever developed, there are strong reasons to believe that their use should be obligatory, like education or fluoride in the water, since those who should take them are least likely to be inclined to use them. That is, safe, effective moral enhancement would be compulsory.
This stress on compulsion is all the more troubling because Savulescu is often critical of liberal democracies. He is clearly impressed with the ability of authoritarian regimes to rule in the “best interests” of the people, praising China for its one-child policy. Yet it seems that he understands that ruling elites in authoritarian regimes usually rule in ways that benefit themselves, not all the people. Thus, Savlescu reluctantly favors liberal democracy, but only if we can overcome its problems by introducing moral enhancement.
Implicitly, Savulescu seems to think that he and those agreeing with his viewpoints are morally superior to the rest of society. Thus, they want to manipulate (allegedly inferior) humans biologically and chemically to bring the rest of us up to their enlightened state. Apparently, they are paying no heed to C.S. Lewis in his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength or Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, who warned about the dehumanizing consequences of a society where technocrats exalted themselves to a position of “controllers” who dominate the rest of society.
Savulescu regularly bases his moral arguments on various commonsense moral views, for no other reason than that they are common. On the value of human life, for example, he writes: “We shall however proceed on the assumption that human life is normally better than non-existence, since we believe that this is the view that most of us would take.” This is not an isolated example. It is remarkable how often Savulescu appeals to our common moral intuitions to persuade us of his position. Of course, in cases where most people’s moral intuitions collide with his own, he calls on us to dispense with our allegedly irrational moral intuitions.
For the time being, Savulescu’s goal of creating designer babies with greater genetic propensities for altruism is still science fiction. Even if we could screen for genetic moral traits, the primary ways to produce designer babies are embryo selection and selective abortion. Savulescu argues that since we already allow embryo selection and selective abortions to eliminate embryos and fetuses having diseases, there should be nothing objectionable about using these methods to choose other genetic traits, such as intelligence or empathy. For those who embrace the pro-life view, Savulescu’s suggestion that we should make the world “more moral” by killing off those who are “less moral” is simply grotesque.
Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus. He is author of five books, including The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life, which explains and critiques the many secular ideologies that have undermined the Judeo-Christian sanctity-of-life ethic.