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Ethical Reflections on Genetic Enhancement with the Aim of Enlarging Altruism


When it comes to caring about and helping those in need, our imaginations tend to be weak and our motivation tends to be parochial. This is a major moral problem in view of how much unmet need there is in the world and how much material capacity there is to address that need. With this problem in mind, the present paper will focus on genetic means to the enhancement of a moral capacity—a disposition to altruism—and of a cognitive capacity that facilitates use of the moral capacity: the ability to grasp vividly the needs of individuals who are unknown and not present. I will address two questions, with more extensive attention to the first question. First, assuming we had excellent reason to believe that the enhancements were safe, effective, and available to all who desired them, would seeking these enhancements be inherently morally acceptable—that is, free of inherent wrongness? Second, would it be wise for a society to pursue these enhancements? I will defend an affirmative answer to the first question while leaving the second question open.

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  1. For high-quality samples, see [1, 3, 23, 27, 30, 31].

  2. Cf. [3], p. 23 although Buchanan makes no reference to selection for desired capacities.

  3. One might wonder whether any medical therapies do not aim to improve capacities. For example, doesn’t resetting a broken leg eventually improve one’s capacity to walk? Doesn’t treating the symptoms of a common cold improve one’s capacity to get out of bed and go about one’s business? Yes, where successful, these treatments are likely to have these results, and they may be motivated by the aims of achieving them. But my point is really about the main proximate aim of an intervention. The main proximate aim of resetting a broken leg is to repair a broken leg and the main proximate aim of cold medicine is to eliminate cold symptoms. By contrast, the main proximate aim of physical therapy following rotator cuff surgery is to improve one’s capacity to move one’s shoulder freely and effectively.

  4. If this extension of the concept of enhancement to include embryo selection seems inconsistent with the ordinary meaning of the term, my definition may be regarded as stipulative for the purposes of this paper.

  5. See [28] for some evidence that a gene involved in dopamine production is implicated in the disposition to altruism.

  6. The human tendency toward limited, highly selective altruism is reflected in the content of common morality, which places much greater emphasis on not harming others than on taking positive steps to assist or benefit others (for an insightful discussion, see [24], chap. 1). My remarks about limited altruism are not meant to diminish the works of those who contribute generously to charitable causes, a group that includes not only financial donors (who enjoy some discretionary wealth) but also those who contribute time and energy in the form of service. But my overwhelming impression is that even people who are regarded as relatively generous typically devote much more resources—whether money, time, or energy—on non-necessities for themselves and loved ones than on charitable causes. Analogously, nations that are in a position to contribute substantially to destitute countries tend to contribute very modestly. The United States, for example, devotes about one tenth of one percent of its GDP to foreign assistance, and much of this miniscule sum goes to countries that are not especially needy but have political interests aligned with the US’s [26].

  7. For a set of informative essays that support this sentiment, see [25]. See also [19, 21].

  8. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this challenge.

  9. In case the metaphor is unclear, “local” harm is contrasted with the “global” benefit or harm of a life that is, overall, worth living or not worth living, respectively.

  10. One might rebut this claim by invoking a precautionary principle to the effect that we should not deploy new technologies unless we can be reasonably sure that they will not prove significantly harmful. But, insofar as the status quo features harm to humanity resulting from great unmet need and low levels of altruism, I think appeals to the precautionary principle—the critic’s, concerning possible harm to the embryo-cum-person, and mine, concerning continuing harm to humanity—cancel out and therefore do not support the critic’s case.

  11. Jonathan Haidt, who—not irrelevantly—is the author of the The Righteous Mind [16], pressed me on the issue of pluralism at a 2011 workshop on moral enhancement sponsored by the Carnegie Council of New York.

  12. For an introduction to contemporary natural law thinking as it relates to ethics, see [14].

  13. They recognize that some interventions, such as neurofeedback, are intermediate between direct and indirect interventions as just characterized.

  14. Another possibility, not explored in this paper, is that biomedical enhancements other than genetic ones—for example, the use of certain pharmaceuticals or deep-brain stimulation—would represent a preferable option.


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A draft of this paper was presented in Prato, Italy at a workshop, “Translational Bodies: Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues,” sponsored by the Wellcome Trust and Monash University on 24 April 2014. I thank attendees for their helpful feedback. I also thank David Lawrence and three anonymous reviewers for further suggestions. This work was supported, in part, by intramural funds from the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center. The views expressed are the author’s own. They do not represent the position of the NIH, the US Public Health Service, or the Department of Health and Human Services.

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DeGrazia, D. Ethical Reflections on Genetic Enhancement with the Aim of Enlarging Altruism. Health Care Anal 24, 180–195 (2016).

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  • Altruism
  • Enhancement
  • Genetic enhancement
  • Moral enhancement
  • Embryo selection
  • Addressing human need