Over at the Vancouver Sun, McGill University bioethicist Margaret Somerville portentously asks, "At What Price, Immortality?" The price is, as usual, losing our very souls, ah, humanity. She notes that the prospect of much longer healthier lives is very attractive to many people. But Somerville dismisses transhumanism as "techno-utopian secular religion." Evidently, the old-time religion of dying at three score and ten is good enough for her and should be good enough for the rest of us. As she writes:
Let me be clear. There is an enormous amount of good that can be achieved with our new technoscience, especially regenerative medicine. The issue is where we draw the line between ethical and unethical use of it. One approach I find helpful is to ask whether we are using it to repair nature when it fails or to do something that is impossible in nature. The former usually raises far fewer ethical concerns than the latter, although, of course, it's not the only relevant question in deciding on ethics. However, as I know from personal experience and criticism when I've used this approach, "transhumanists see the very concept of the specifically 'natural' as problematically nebulous at best, and an obstacle to progress at worst," and "the natural" as having no inherent moral value.
Evidently, Somervile doesn't believe in the naturalistic fallacy in which it is thought to be a mistake to try and define the concept 'good' in terms of some natural property. Somerville is suggesting that it is very likely immoral to improve upon what nature has given humanity.
Somerville then argues:
Another distinction that might help to distinguish ethical technoscience interventions from unethical ones is whether the intervention affects the intrinsic being or essence of a person—for instance, their sense of self or consciousness—or is external to that. The former, I propose, are always unethical, while the latter may not be….
…transhumanists do not accept that there is any "essential natural essence to being human" that must be respected, an essence that I believe we must hold on trust, untampered with, for future generations.
What is essential? In a column, How to Be Inhuman, I cited George Washington University philosopher David DeGrazia's work on allegedly inviolable human characteristics, including…
…internal psychological style, personality, general intelligence and memory, sleep, normal aging, gender, and being a member of the species Homo sapiens. He then systematically demolished various concerns that had been raised about each.
Regarding psychological style, there is no ethical reason to require that a particular person remain worried, suspicious, or downbeat if they want to change. As DeGrazia pointed out, psychotherapy already aims at such self-transformation. If a pill will make a person more confident and upbeat, then there is no reason for them not to use it if they wish. Personality is perhaps the external manifestation of one's internal psychological style, and here, too, it's hard to think of any ethical basis for requiring someone to remain cynical or excessively shy.
But what about boosting intelligence and memory? Of course, from childhood on, we are constantly exhorted to improve ourselves by taking more classes, participating in more job training, and reading good books. Opponents of biotech enhancements might counter that all of these methods of improvement manipulate our environments and do not reach to the genetic cores of our beings. DeGrazia points out that that the wiring of our brains is the result of the interaction between our genes and our environment. For example, our intellectual capacities depend on proper nutrition as well as on our genetic endowments. DeGrazia concludes that one's genome is not fundamentally more important than environmental factors. "They are equally important, so we should bear in mind that no one objects to deliberately introducing environmental factors [schools and diet] that promote intelligence," declares DeGrazia. It does not matter ethically whether one's intellectual capacities are boosted by schooling, a pill, or a set of genes.
All vertebrates sleep. Sleep, unlike cynicism, does seem biologically fundamental, but so what? Nature is not really a reliable source for ethical norms. If a person could safely reduce her need for sleep and enjoy more waking life, that wouldn't seem at all ethically problematic. I suspect that our ancestors without artificial light got a lot more sleep than we moderns do, yet history doesn't suggest that they were morally superior to us.
As everyone knows, the only inevitabilities are taxes and death. Death used to come far more frequently at younger ages, but globally average life expectancy has now risen from around 30 years in 1900 to about 66 years today. "Is normal aging an essential part of any recognizable human life?" asks DeGrazia. He falters here, admitting, "Frankly, I do not know how to determine whether aging is an inviolable characteristic." The question, then, is whether someone who does try to "violate" this characteristic by biotechnological means is acting unethically. It is hard to see why the answer would be yes. Such would-be immortals are not forcing other people to live or die, nor are they infringing on the rights and dignities of others. DeGrazia does recognize that biotech methods aimed at slowing or delaying aging significantly are not morally different from technologies that would boost intelligence or reduce the need for sleep. He concludes, "Even if aging is an inviolable core trait of human beings, living no more than a specified number of years is not."
In the age of transgendered people, it seems a bit outmoded to ask if one's biological sex is an inviolable core characteristic. Plenty of people have already eagerly violated it. Yet, the President's Council on Bioethics declared, "Every cell of the body marks us as either male or female, and it is hard to imagine any more fundamental or essential characteristic of a person." Clearly, thousands of people's fundamental sexual identities depend on more than the presence of an X or Y chromosome in their bodies' cells.
Finally, DeGrazia wonders if even being a member of the species Homo sapiens constitutes an inviolable core trait. He specifically thinks of a plausible future in which parents add an extra pair of artificial chromosomes carrying various beneficial genetic modifications to the genomes of the embryos that will become their children. Such people would have 48 chromosomes, which means that they could not reproduce with anyone who carries the normal 46 chromosomes. "It seems to me, however, that these individuals would still be 'human' in any sense that might be normatively important," concludes DeGrazia. I believe that DeGrazia is correct. After all, infertile people today are still fully human. Oddly, DeGrazia thinks that this "risk to reproductive capacities" might warrant restricting the installation of extra chromosomes to consenting adults only. But why should one think that a person with 48 chromosomes who falls in love with a person with only 46 chromosomes can't simply use advanced genetic engineering techniques to overcome that problem?
Somerville then drags out the hoary old designer baby argument propounded by the likes of C.S. Lewis and Jurgen Habermas:
…a person designed by another is not free to become her authentic self, which is the essence of freedom, and not equal to the designer…
Philosopher Allen Buchanan points out [PDF] that this style of argument does not make it clear why a person who develops from a genetically enhanced embryo should feel that they are not the "author" of her life or be regarded as being somehow less free by others. Habermas [and Somerville] …
…is assuming that how one's genome was selected is relevant to one's moral status as a person. This error is no less fundamental than thinking that a person's pedigree – for example, whether she is of noble blood or 'base-born'—determines her moral status.
Fortunately, our descendants will have at their disposal ever more powerful technologies and the benefit of our own experiences to guide them in their future reproductive and enhancement decisions. In no sense are they prisoners of our decisions now. Of course, there is one case in which future generations would be prisoners of our decisions now, and that's if we fearfully elect to deny them access to the benefits of biotechnology and safe genetic engineering. The future will not be populated by robots who may look human but who are unable to choose for themselves their own destinies—genetic or otherwise.