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  • Writer's picturePre-Collegiate Global Health Review

Ethics of Germline Editing: Perspectives from Bostrom’s Transhumanism and Bentham’s Utilitarianism

Updated: Jun 24

By Thomas Liang, University of Toronto Schools, Toronto, Ontario, Canada 



Abstract

This article explores the ethics behind the revolutionary possibilities of germline editing and the concept of "designer babies," presenting arguments in favor of these controversial practices. Drawing from a transhumanist perspective and a utilitarian framework, I argue that these technologies are not only justified but should be encouraged. In particular, the potential of germline editing to exterminate genetic diseases, enhance human potential, and drive societal progress cannot be understated. This paper also acknowledges common objections, such as unintended consequences, social inequalities, human dignity, and eugenics. However, transhumanist and utilitarian philosophers claim that these concerns can be addressed through ethical regulations, equitable distribution, and transparent reporting. Considering the long-term benefits and consequences, it seems likely that germline engineering will be a morally acceptable step forward for the future of humanity.  


 

With the breakthrough of CRISPR/Cas9, human germline editing and the concept of “designer babies” have emerged as groundbreaking yet controversial possibilities (Schleidgen et al., 2020). Germline engineering provides an opportunity to revolutionize human health, eradicate genetic diseases, and empower parents to shape the future of their offspring. Using a transhumanist view of human enhancement and utilitarian framework, I will argue that the use of germline editing (GE) is not only justified, but ought to be encouraged. With stringent ethical regulations and international collaboration, GE may unlock a new era of personalized medicine, societal progress, and the ultimate fulfillment of human potential. 

 

As a revolutionary philosophical and intellectual movement, transhumanism advocates for the constant improvement of the human condition through the use of technology, even if there are no serious health problems to be addressed (Giubilini & Sanyal, 2016). Nick Bostrom, a prominent philosopher from the University of Oxford, explains that transhumanists are eager to explore the realm of “post-humanity” with the goal of becoming “beings with vastly greater capabilities than present human beings have” (Bostrom, 2003). Applying the transhumanist perspective, GE would enable us to not only alleviate a tremendous amount of suffering due to genetic diseases, but also to overcome the biological limits of the human body. Evidently, however, there would be larger societal gains beyond the individual level. For instance, as genetically-enhanced humans develop higher intellectual capabilities, they may begin to appreciate new values and traditions that are beyond our current level of comprehension, thus elevating the human experience (Bostrom, 2003). Bostrom (2003) posits that the cultural, social, economic, and institutional benefits of human enhancement are equally as applicable as the negative consequences, yet they are rarely discussed compared to the latter. To refute the transhumanist arguments, the opposition must demonstrate how the advantages of withdrawing GE treatment outweigh those of implementation. 

 

As with all critiques regarding genetic modification (Alazar, 2023), GE is nevertheless faced with several objections, notably: the potential for unintended medical consequences, exacerbation of inequalities, a threat to human dignity, and a slippery slope towards eugenics (Bostrom, 2008). GE creates a permanent and often irreversible change, meaning that any unforeseen mistakes in the modification process would detriment further generations. Given the novelty and complexity of GE, it is also highly possible that when these technologies are released to the public, they would only be available to the wealthy and privileged. This may not only cause a greater divide between the socioeconomic classes, but also hint towards a “genetic segregation” between enhanced and non-enhanced humans in the future. The opposition may also view GE as a violation of the natural order and that we ought to appreciate our newborn children along with their innate features (Sandel, 2009). Trying to “play God” and actively change the qualities of our offspring corrupts the human integrity and disrespects the valuable gift of life. Lastly, GE may remind us of the dark history of eugenics with some geneticists regarding genetic screening and editing as extensions of eugenics itself (Eugenics and Scientific Racism, 2022)

 

Transhumanists acknowledge that these societal, political, and moral complexities make it difficult to accept GE as a medical intervention. To this end, Bostrom has written a number of articles addressing each individual concern (Table 1), but the broad idea remains the same: He argues that we need not be discouraged by the “hypotheticals” and “slippery slope” arguments that are not supported by data. Instead of outlawing GE completely (which would require a high burden of proof to support), there are different approaches we can take to ensure a safe, ethical, and equitable distribution. Examples include government subsidies to provide lower socioeconomic classes with an opportunity to afford GE (Bostrom, 2003), upholding rigorous ethical standards of genome research, and transparent reporting of results. With multiple preventive measures designed in advance, transhumanists believe that GE can prosper into a reliable and impactful catalyst for human progress. 


Table 1: Bostrom's main articles of refutation against opposing views.


Finally, Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism holds that the morally correct action should maximize “the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.” To evaluate the morality of GE, a Benthamite might compare all the advantages and disadvantages associated with it. Although everyone may have a subjective interpretation of how much service (or disservice) GE would bring to humanity, it is important to remember that utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory. Therefore, utilitarians are mostly focused on the “big picture” outcome: If the ultimate “result” is “good,” then the actions taken to achieve it can be justified (West & Duignan, 2023). In our context, if GE is a solution to all hereditary diseases and transcend human knowledge into an entirely different realm (albeit at the cost of social inequality for a brief period of time), then this decision remains commendable on utilitarian grounds. Adopting a “long-term” mindset in line with utilitarian principles, it would seem unreasonable that we allow genetic disorders to persist and devastate future generations when we are given the opportunity to exterminate them using GE. Thus, for the longevity and vitality of humankind in the distant future, GE may be a highly suitable step forward for medicine and society. 


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