Framing Our Conceptions
A Critical Response to The Man on the Moon
In his paper “The Man on the Moon,” George Annas discusses the potential implications of new scientific discoveries on humankind, as well as structures that he believes are necessary to preclude the worst outcomes possible. In this paper, I aim to critique Annas’s view that such progress is, in general, problematic. I will begin with a brief overview of Annas’s argument, followed by my response.
II. Annas’s Argument
The basis of Annas’s argument is that humans have a strong tendency to divide themselves into groups, declare all the other groups subhuman, and then proceed to commit terrible acts because they now saw them as justified. The idea that all humans deserve some set of rights, he argues, is relatively new. As such, there is little reason to believe that this conception of universal rights is likely to persist indefinitely.
This view—that humans are constantly declaring themselves superior and subjugating others—is later applied to the field of genetic engineering (and more particularly the idea of “enhanced” human beings). Annas posits that the use of genetic engineering on humans will lead to a splitting of our species, since everyone wants their children to be better off, but not everyone has the resources to afford it. As a result, “enhancements” to the children of the well-off would rid us of the fundamental principle of equality that humanity currently shares. Instead, there would be factional division between the new, better humans and the old, unenhanced humans. The better humans would have reason to believe that it was not truly bad to treat the worse ones like subhumans, because they would be sub-enhanced humans. In order to combat this, he concludes, we need an international organization that regulates such enhancements and prohibits such a division of our common humanity (Annas 2016).
III. A Critical Response
My criticism of Annas’s argument relates to his conception of human rights in the present, and how that will change in the future. As Annas describes it, the world currently finds itself in a pretty good spot. There is still some amount of inequality, he says, but we have a conception that everyone ought to be equal, and people in practice mostly have human rights; rich people can’t just kill off poor people and get away with it. (I disagree on this point, but let us presume he is correct for the sake of argument.) Genetic enhancement would create two classes of different people, and thus lead to the next era of the Holy Wars.
The problem with this argument is that Annas’s basis for division is different than the examples he cites to bolster his prediction. In the past, differences that led to people regarding other humans as “sub-human” were not evidence-based; it was the conception of the other people that drove division. Different races may have different skin colors and hair colors, but southern segregationists hardly saw difference between hair color and skin color as equal. It didn’t matter if you were blonde or brunette so long as you were white, despite the fact that both skin color and hair color are based on the exact same physiological characteristic (“Melanin in Biology - Clinuvel Pharmaceuticals” 2017). It is true that people tried to invent biological or scientific reasons for the racism they harbored, but these theories were not the origin of the attitudes displayed. Rather, it was a historically accepted, socially constructed “fact” that white people were different and better than non-white people (Garrod 2006).
If we follow the analogy through, there is no reason to believe that simple genetic differences between individuals is enough to motivate toxic attitudes and behavior. There must also be a socially constructed conception that the differences between enhanced and un-enhanced humans amount to something worth discriminating upon. This conception is not inherent to the differences that genetic engineering could introduce; after all, there are already gaps in human intelligence, strength, disability, eyesight, fertility, and the like. Likewise, these historical conceptions did not arise for all differences between groups of humans; those that did do not follow a regular pattern (Gannon 2016). Thus, the question of whether humans will change because of genetic modification is not entirely relevant. What is relevant is whether these changes will lead to a new social conception of a differentiated group of humans. As such, it is not dangerous to improve people’s eyesight or eliminate genetic disease or make smarter humans. What is dangerous is the promotion of the idea that these differences are of a fundamentally different nature than anything that exists in the current moment. Ironically, this type of promotion is found all throughout Annas’s argument.
Rather than demonize the potential improvements to the human condition that genetic modification could bring, we should normalize it and make it accessible. If we use it properly, this type of research could improve the lives of billions. On the other hand, a movement to restrict discoveries and halt research would drive this powerful technology into the hands of those most likely to abuse it (Bracmort and Lattanzio 2013).
IV . Conclusion
In this paper, I outlined Annas’s argument that genetic modification of humans is likely to lead to strife and division within the human species and thus we should heavily restrict research into human germline editing. I then responded to his argument by outlining the differences between Annas’s historical examples and the situation that exists today. Through this extended analogy, I posited that historical examples promote acceptance, rather than denial, of this new technology.
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