Thursday, January 03, 2008

Virtue Ethics and Enhancement Paper (now online)

My paper "Virtue Ethics and Prenatal Genetic Enhancement" is now available in the first issue of the new journal Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology. The issue is dedicated to the topic of human enhancement. Here is a lengthy sample of my argument:

In this paper I argue that the virtue ethics tradition can enhance the moral discourse on genetic enhancements in distinctive and valuable ways. Virtue ethics prescribes we adopt a much more provisional stance on the issue of the moral permissibility of prenatal genetic enhancement. This means great care will be placed on differentiating between the different stakes involved with developing different phenotypes in our children and the different possible means (environmental vs genetic manipulation) available to parents for pursuing legitimate concerns of parental love and virtue.

Key components of the virtue ethics account of morality, such as the Aristotelian account of happiness, love and the doctrine of the mean, provide an adequate basis for rejecting the claim that it is morally impermissible for parents to pursue (safe and effective) prenatal enhancements. Furthermore, there is good reason to believe that a virtue ethics account of morality could actually support the stronger claim that utilising such interventions can (in certain contexts) be morally required.

....So our question is: would virtuous parents pursue prenatal enhancement of a child who is expected, assuming they are exposed to a particular bundle of environmental interventions (e.g. nutritious diet, safe home environment, education, etc.), to fall within “normal species functioning”? As I shall emphasise shortly, much of course hinges on the assumption concerning the available environmental interventions a parent will (likely) have at their avail.

....Virtuous parents will recognise that many formative environmental interventions are multifaceted. That is, they serve many laudable aims at once. So parents read to their children, not only as a way to develop the cognitive capabilities of their children, but also as a way of spending time with a child, forging the psychological connectedness and continuity necessary for true love and friendship. Reading stories together provides the child and parent with shared experiences (e.g. the adventures of Pooh Bear, etc.) from which they can have further discussions and reflections. These stories will relate, in different ways, to the ups and down of real life. Sharing such stories helps a parent and child address issues like friendship, morality, happiness, human history, etc.

Sharing these experiences with one’s child not only enriches a child’s cognitive capabilities and moral development, and the bond between the parent and child, but it also enhances the parent’s own practical deliberation. It permits the parent to re-visit, in intimate ways, the psychology of childhood again; its naivety, fears and optimism. And this enhances a parent’s practical deliberation and better positions them to relate in virtuous ways with their children as well as others.

Virtuous parents will not pursue genetic enhancements as a substitute for providing the formative environmental interventions necessary for human flourishing. Virtuous parents know that a child’s needs change over time, as the circumstances influencing their lives (e.g. their school, friends, diet, hobbies, etc.)change. No “one-off” prenatal genetic enhancement will replace the judicious judgement of fine-tuned environmental interventions that are shaped and developed to meet a child’s particular needs over the course of their physical, psychological and moral development...

As the father of three I really enjoyed writing this paper and thinking about these issues. And the argument developed in the paper actually expresses my own (not yet fully developed) perfectionist conception of the good life. And this account of ethics is something I have only recently come to endorse. I plan on doing a future post on how I switched from being a non-perfectionist liberal to a perfectionist liberal. But this paper captures some of the central ideas that have helped me re-shape my thoughts about what constitutes the good life. And forging caring, loving relationships is the cornerstone of this vision of ethics. And so I think the issue of enhancing one's offspring (whether through biological or environmental intervention) is a useful way of getting to the heart of some very important moral issues.

As I noted earlier, my argument is not quite "The Case in Favour of Perfection". A more accurate description would be "The Case for Not Prejudging How Parents Can Best Help Their Children Flourish!".