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Questions for the future, now

Watch bioethicist John Harris describe some of the ethical questions new technologies are raising
If you ask me what I think are the really burning questions that we need to
find answers to, today, they are these: What is the scope and limits of our entitlement or obligation to change human beings and human nature through cloning, through genetic engineering, through further health interventions, through interventions that improve our way of, our ability to think, our ability to perform physically and mentally, to do sport, and so forth? Those form a nest of problems which are going to prove intractable. Everything that I do has really turned on trying to think about how we can change the world and ourselves, and which of the ways in which we can do that are legitimate, are to be encouraged, are going to be beneficial, and which may be disastrous and self-destructive.
We have a very powerful technique which has been developed very recently, called CRISPR/ Cas9, which is capable of making very precise interventions in human genes - either deleting genes, perhaps even substituting new genes for the old ones, or for the defective ones, or for ones that are causing problems of various sorts. It opens up wonderful possibilities of not only treating disease and removing genetic disorders, but also enhancing human functioning, making the genetic constitution with which we are born more adaptable, more functional, more fit for purpose - and enabling humans to develop powers and capacities, including longer life, resistance to disease and more intelligence than we humans have ever enjoyed before.
Some people object to moving from therapy to enhancement. They think it’s ok to treat disease, to cure pain and disability, but it is not ok to make radical, or even non-radical improvements to human functioning. Now one of the things we need to do when that sort of a claim is made, and it is very, very tenacious, is to remind ourselves that, well, I’m an old man and I have reading glasses here. I don’t need them because I’m not reading at the moment, but I do need them to read. This is an enhancement technology.
It is species-typical for men of my age to need reading glasses, and this wonderful human enhancement has been available for a very long time to enable people like me to treat that dysfunction of advancing age, and to restore their sight. There is no in principle difference. And if they say that this is just curing a defect in vision, I say well, alright, what’s the difference between me putting down the reading glasses and picking up binoculars to enhance my distance vision, so that I can see things which would not be discernible? And my answer to that is there is no principle difference.
They are both methods of human enhancement and we have to judge them not as to whether they constitute an improvement, or an enhancement, or a therapy, but we have to judge them in terms of whether they’re good for us, whether they are useful, and whether they make life better. And I think those are the tests that we need always to use when it is claimed that some invention or innovation should not be tried, or is dangerous.
We have to remember that this is a problem that has always been with us. There are vast, as it were, ‘god-given’, if you like, created differences in intelligence, in physical powers and capacities, and mostly we think it’s right that people have the freedom to develop their own to the best of their abilities. So we don’t refuse to educate all human beings until every human being can be educated, and actually we have been pretty good, particularly in democratic societies, in making sure that education is for the benefit of all.
We then have to face the question: Is it better that nobody gets a benefit until everybody can get that? And we have never practiced that so far and I think we were right not to do so. What we have to do is to try to distribute advantages as fairly as possible, and to compensate people when they don’t, for whatever reason, or can’t, achieve their own, what they might consider to be, fair share.
We tend to think that there is such a thing as human nature, but, of course, that is evolving and being modified all the time, both by our experiences, by our education, and indeed by the environment. I suppose our ape ancestors, about seven and a half million years ago, in Africa, had got together and said ‘Guys, simian nature, it’s a wonderful thing. We must not allow any further evolution, because we are just great as we are!’ Well, if they had done that, we - you and I - would not have been having this conversation that we are having today.

John Harris is a bioethicist and philosopher. He is the Director of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester. He is a Patron of Humanists UK.

Bioethics is a field of study that started out as medical ethics and explored the ethical issues that arise in medical practice around what doctors should have permission to do and the rights of patients (e.g. abortion, assisted dying). However, it has morphed to include a wider interest in ethical issues relating to biotechnology and human enhancement (e.g. cloning, life extension, genetic engineering).

Question: Humanism involves an approach to moral questions that asks us to consider the evidence and the consequences of our actions, and asks us to be sceptical of judgements made on grounds of faith or tradition. Is it therefore better placed than alternative worldviews to address the ethical questions we will face in the future?

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