September 19, 2006

Singer and the fear of genetic inequality

Renowned Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer has penned an OpEd for the Guardian in which he warns of the unintended consequences of genetic enhancement as they would emerge in free market societies. In the article, titled “The Costly Appliance of Science,” Singer expresses his concern that humanity is about to take a bite out of the genetic apple—fruit that has emerged as a result of our ever-developing sciences. Like nuclear physics, he argues, the genetic modification of humans may produce some dangerous risks.

I normally agree with Singer by default; no other bioethicist has impacted on my own sense of ethics and morality quite like Singer. But as far as his arguments in this article go, I think Singer has both overstated and over-generalized the perils of human genetic enhancement. I dare say that at times he sounds like someone who has not considered all the factors and issues involved.

Singer, who imparts a certain degree of alarm in the article, does concede that germinal choice may bring desired results and understands its appeal. Moreover, he acknowledges that germinal choice in liberal societies is qualitatively distinguished from eugenics —- the practice wherein the state (or an influential group) coercively enforces a predetermined set of acceptable genetic modifications, often for a desired social end. Instead, Singer claims that genetic enhancements “will be the outcome of parental choice and the workings of the free market.” Consequently, “if it leads to healthier, smarter people with better problem-solving abilities that will be a good thing,” he writes.

What worries Singer, however, is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Specifically, he worries about increasing socioeconomic stratification and potential “arms races,”-- the notion that parents will have to modify their children in such a way as to keep a step ahead of other modified children lest they fall behind and become less capable of competing and functioning within society.

Singer is correct to worry about the onset of genetic arms races -- it is a legitimate concern in bioethics. Parents and their fertility doctors will have to grapple with those types of modifications that blur the line between primary and positional goods.

Strangely, however, Singer poses a rather strange argument to make his point about arms races. Singer cites the observation that taller individuals tend to have higher salaries. Parents, therefore, will likely want to have tall children (this exact example is debatable, but let's give Singer the benefit of the doubt). The consequence, claims Singer, is that such a trend would have a detrimental environmental impact due to the increased costs in the “additional consumption required to fuel larger human beings.”

This is a surprisingly weak (and even silly) argument coming from an ethics giant like Peter Singer. Arms races may most certainly result in some unintended morphological and cognitive consequences, but the assertion that it will be a drain on the environment is rather uncompelling. It is generally acknowledged that food production is not a problem today – it’s the lack of will and compassion to distribute our overabundance that’s the issue.

Further, what Singer has failed to mention is the leveling-off effect and equalization impacts of genetic modifications. Again, I agree that access to genetic biotechnologies is the fundamental problem here, but assuming that a high degree of universal accessibility is attainable, it’s reasonable to assume that arms races will eventually temper off and in its wake be replaced by sets of individuals with greater genetic equality.

In regards to the socioeconomic problem of genetic augmentation, Singer argues that the most alarming implication of genetic selection is that only the rich will be able to afford it. “The gap between rich and poor, already a challenge to our ideas of social justice, will become a chasm that mere equality of opportunity will be powerless to bridge,” writes Singer, “That is not a future that any of us should approve.”

This is a common criticism levied at the prospect of genetic enhancement. What is absent from nearly all of these arguments, however, is the realization that we already live in a world of gross socioeconomic discrepancies, favouritism, undue privilege, prejudice and disempowerment. I challenge Singer and other ethicists to confront those individuals, institutions and practices that perpetuate these problems with the same vigor with which they choose to attack the prospect of enhancement biotechnologies – while at the same time fully acknowledging the devastating impact of stifling the development of beneficial health technologies.

I fully understand that Singer is in fact acknowledging today's gap between the rich and poor. What I take issue with is the assertion that germinal choice technologies will make this situation worse. I would like to see some real data (or some compelling arguments) that will demonstrate just how and why greater privilege will be afforded to those who already have undue amounts of privilege.

Furthermore, Singer's analysis, like so many others, fails to assess the long-term accessibility prospects of genomic technologies; eventually, the costs of all technologies bottoms out and as a result become widely accessible. The problem is in the short-term, not the long-term.

Ultimately, however, Singer believes that a future of increased social stratification will be difficult to avoid, “for it will require that selection for genetic enhancement is either available to no one or accessible to everyone.” Singer remains the staunch egalitarian. He writes:
But avoiding this outcome will not be easy, for it will require that selection for genetic enhancement is either available to no one or accessible to everyone. The first option would require coercion, and - since countries will not accept that others should gain a competitive edge - an international agreement to forego the benefits that genetic enhancement can bring. The second option, universal access, would require an unprecedented level of social assistance for the poor, and extraordinarily difficult decisions about what to subsidise.
The second option is far more palatable than the first, but it shouldn’t be cast into such an incredulous light. If I might read between the lines here, and at the same time give Singer credit where credit is due, this is his clarion call for improved access to healthcare. He is issuing a warning about the consequences of a genetic revolution monopolized by those who are financially better off.

And on this point I agree. It is important that we get universal healthcare systems ramped up to include augmentative technologies as soon as possible. I believe that genomic technologies will eventually fall into the hands of most people around the globe. The struggle will be to have this happen as quickly and fairly as possible.

At the same time, however, let's not get hysterical about the whole thing.


  1. Anonymous2:22 AM

    "It is generally acknowledged that food production is not a problem today"

    This statement is simply false. Generally acknowledged by whom? Certainly not anyone who knows anything about desertification and water usage trends.

  2. Anonymous9:46 AM

    A group which you are obviously not a member of.

  3. Okay, point taken re: long-term sustainability issues as they pertain to how food is produced today. What I was speaking to was the terrible food waste that goes on and the unwillingness/inability to better distribute foodstuffs to those in need.

    As for long-term prospects, I'm not worried. GMOs and other localized green programs should take the strain off the environment to a significant degree.

    And if we all become vegetarians, then we're laughing. [see Lappe, 1971, Diet for a Small Planet]


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