One of the great things about blogging is that you can make a very small and modest point about a very large and immodest matter. Maybe X has something to do with Y, possibly. Maybe a large truth could be found by combining P and Q. I don’t know what that something is, nor what that large truth might be. I’m just saying: maybe something, maybe some truth.
In that spirit, and provoked by this article about the rights and wrongs of genetic cloning, may I offer the thought here that the elaborate and highly developed tradition of thinking associated with the notion that the central planning of a national or even a global economy is not such a good idea as it once seemed to intelligent people, because of … all the usual reasons that readers and writers here are familiar with, might have something to say about the wisdom, and in particular the unwisdom, of genetic engineering.
Michael J. Sandel senses that there is something dodgy about going beyond the elimination of specific genetically inherited badnesses, that is to say illnesses, and into the territory of genetically programmed goodnesses, in the form of such things as greatly enhanced musical ability or much stronger muscles. I think he may well be right. Genetic goodness may turn out to be a lot more tricky – a lot more problematic, as modern parlance has it, to induce than many perhaps now assume.
I have always thought that genetic engineering will enable us to learn a lot. I now suspect however, that much of what we learn will of the sort that goes: “Well, that we should not have done!”
This distinction between genetically induced badness and angenetically induced goodness reminds me strongly of the distinction, familiar to most of us here, between the idea that government is okay when it sticks to removing or restraining obvious badnesses from society, such as crimes or foreign aggressions, but a lot less okay when it moves into the territory of encouraging goodnesses, in the form of such things as economic success, and (the big one now) health (by which I mean “public” health, a general disposition to be healthy in the whole population). Encouraging goodness in individual human bodies and minds by genetic means seems to me likely to be a process which will turn out to be illuminated by rather similar intellectual categories.
In short, our books about political philosophy may turn out to be great not just on the subject of political philosophy, but also to have a great and rather unexpected future in the area of “genetic philosophy”.
Please do not misunderstand this as the claim that individuals do not have the right to genetically engineer their own genes. It is not that sort of statement. What I am getting at is that certain sorts of genetic alteration may prove to be extremely unwise, in the same kind of way that ‘positive’ planning of the economy has proved unwise. Economies are too complicated to be planned. Individual human bodies (and minds), I surmise, might, for genetic engineering purposes, prove similarly complex and intractable.
(As far as individual rights are concerned, one of the reasons I favour the right to genetically engineer is precisely to enable the world to discover the dangers of genetic engineering on a small scale, rather than on the kind of scale that might result from centralised government control of the process. Positive government planning, of societal goodness, plus genetic engineering done in a similarly optimistic spirit, strikes me as a uniquely toxic combination of policies, and “toxic” might not even be a metaphor there. The usual argument nowadays is that genetic engineering is too dangerous to be left to individuals. I say it may be too dangerous not to be.)
In my head, this is not even a half-baked idea. Insofar as it has merit, I am sure that others have had the same sort of idea. Insofar as it does not, I say in my defence: it was just a thought.