Praesidium

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Designer Baby Debate

It’s been a good while since I went to the Oxford Union, but having paid about £120 to join (5 years ago) I thought I might as well go to tonight’s interesting sounding debate on eugenics and medical technology. Sadly Prof Julian Savulescu – who teaches an applied ethics class I’m attending this term – wasn’t present, though his ideas were referenced.

As usual, I was slightly disappointed. Of course, one can’t expect rigorous philosophical argument from debaters, but few were particularly inclined to grapple the issue at hand, viz. the proposition ‘this house would design a baby’.

That motion is quite distinct from ‘this house would allow others to design babies’. It doesn’t assume the Union debating chamber has become parliament, and is in chance of legislation. It concerns a personal moral decision. If I asked my students ‘would you design a baby?’ and ‘would you legalise designer babies?’ I’d expect very different arguments. The latter wasn’t really the topic – though unsurprisingly it was what many debaters focused on – perhaps because it was more interesting, or simply a tendency to see many evaluative claims in terms of legislation. (A mistake Jeremy Waldron diagnoses in his article ‘What Plato Would Allow’, Nomos XXXVII Theory and Practice, I. Shapiro and J. W. DeCew eds.)

Moreover one opposition speaker focused his argument solely on technological limitations. Not the fact there are unknown risks with current science (which isn’t decisive either way – there are risks to not improving, like bird ‘flu), but rather the simpler claim that we shouldn’t design babies because we can’t.

On the surface, this is a valid application of ‘ought implies can’, which is widely (not universally) accepted. If you can’t do something, it doesn’t make sense to say you ought to. However the motion didn’t say we ought to design babies – only that the house would or (to permit the legislative interpretation) would permit it. There’s no reason not to permit something we can’t do – why should I ban you from flying under your own power? On the assumption a liberal government should allow as much as possible, it seems this is a reason not to implement a ban…

In any case, I took offence to this line, because it depends only on current technological limits. The really interesting question is the normative one, and I hope I don’t say that just because I work in political/moral philosophy. Scientists tell us what we can do, but it requires others – whether just ‘experts’ or the wider public – to tell them what we should do. One thing we could do, for example, is launch a nuclear missile – that we can says nothing about whether we ought to.

Admittedly the normative debate only becomes practical once the science is possible, but that’s no reason not to enter the debate now – for aside from anything else, our conclusion will affect the development of science. IF the only reason not to design babies is that we can’t currently, then presumably we should increase research until we can, and then go ahead with it…

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