Monday, March 15, 2010

Can Virtue be Genetically Engineered?

We are not born virtuous or vicious. But we are each born with innate temperaments and capacities that influence our acquisition of virtue by learning and judgment. As Aristotle said in the Nicomachean Ethics (1103a24-25): "virtues arise in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature; but by our nature we can receive them and perfect them by habituation."

So, for example, if the virtue of courage in war (as Aristotle says) is a mean between the rashness of being too fearless and the cowardice of being too fearful, then one's inborn temperament will influence how easily one learns true courage. Those who are too fearful and those who are too fearless will find it hard to habituate themselves to hit the virtuous mean of courage.

Most parents understand this, because they see that their children differ in their innate personality traits, and consequently parents must plan the moral education of their children so as to nurture them in ways that fit their distinctive personalities.

Some children are harder to train properly than others. And, unfortunately, a few children might be born with such unruly or callous temperaments that, even in the best environments, they might be inclined to become vicious rather than virtuous.

But what happens as we learn more about the genetic mechanisms that underlie the biological inheritance of psychic temperament and capacity? Does this open up the possibility of intervening through genetic engineering to strengthen those innate traits inclined to virtue and weaken those inclined to vice? From Plato to Francis Galton, this has been the dream of a eugenic utopia in which we could scientifically control the innate propensities of human beings at birth to enhance moral character.

At least in principle, it's hard to deny the possibility of genetically changing human nature so as to favor those innate traits most amenable to moral instruction. And yet, as I have argued in chapter 10 of Darwinian Conservatism, the power of biotechnology for changing human nature has been exaggerated. The most fervent advocates of biotechnology welcome the prospect of using it to transform our nature to make us superhuman. The most fervent critics of biotechnology warn us that its power for transforming our nature will seduce us into a Faustian bargain that will dehumanize us. Both sides agree that biotechnology is leading us to a "posthuman" or "transhuman" future. But that assumption is false. It ignores how Darwinian evolution has shaped the adaptive complexity of our human nature--our bodies, our brains, and our desires--in ways that resist technological manipulation. A Darwinian view of human nature reveals the limits of biotechnology so that we can reject both the redemptive hopes of its advocates and the apocalyptic fears of its critics.

If we keep in mind the adaptive complexity of human nature, we can foresee that biotechnology will be limited both in its technical means and in its moral ends. It will be limited in its technical means, because complex behavioral traits are rooted in the intricate interplay of many genes interacting among themselves, with developmental contingencies, and with unique life histories to form brains that respond flexibly to changing circumstances based on individual judgment. Consequently, precise technological manipulation of human nature to enhance desirable traits while avoiding undesirable side effects will be very difficult if not impossible. Biotechnology will also be limited in its moral ends, because the motivation for biotechnological manipulations will come from the same natural desires that have always characterized human nature.

A recent example of the tendency to exaggerate the power of biotechnology for fostering human virtue is Mark Walker's article in the September, 2009, issue of Politics and the Life Sciences, entitled "Enhancing Genetic Virtue: A Project for Twenty-First Century Humanity?" Walker is a philosophy professor at New Mexico State University. Unfortunately, his article is available online only for subscribers to the journal. But here's the abstract:

"The Genetic Virtue Project (GVP) is a proposed interdisciplinary effort between philosophers, psychologists, and geneticists to discover and enhance human ethics using biotechnology genetic correlates of virtuous behavior. The empirical plausibility that virtues have biological correlates is based on the claims that (a) virtues are a subset of personality, specifically, personality traits conceived of as 'enduring behaviors,' and (b) that there is ample evidence that personality traits have a genetic basis. The moral necessity to use the GVP for moral enhancement is based on the claims that we should eliminate evil (as understood generically, not religiously), as some evil is a function of human nature. The GVP is defended against several ethical and political criticisms."

Almost two-thirds of Walker's article is devoted to his responses to the ethical and political criticisms. Without necessarily agreeing with him on every point here, I believe he has taken up these issues in an informed and intelligent way.

My complaint is that Walker's argument never gets off the ground because he never shows the "empirical plausibility" that there are "genetic correlates of virtuous behavior" that are clear, strong, and open to biotechnological manipulation. He quotes behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin as saying that "nearly all personality traits show moderate heritability," and Walker goes on to claim that "since genes influence enduring behaviors, it might be possible to use biotechnology in a manner that would promote virtue, and thus serve as a means to improve ourselves, morally speaking" (29-30). His language is so vague and equivocal--"moderate heritability," "influence," "might be possible"--that his readers have to look for some clear examples of specific genetic linkages to virtue that could be altered by genetic engineering.

In Walker's entire article, I can see only two possible examples of this sort, but neither of these examples give Walker what his argument demands--clear, strong, and manipulable genetic correlates of virtue.

The first example concerns the genetic basis for "novelty seeking." Walker cites two articles claiming to show some connection between novelty seeking (as measured by a questionnaire) and the D4 dopamine receptor gene (32). Both articles were published in 1996 in Nature Genetics. Walker fails, however, to tell his readers that later research has concluded that although there seems to be some kind of connection between the D4 dopamine receptor gene and novelty seeking, the connection is "small" (see J.A. Schinka, E.A. Letsch, and F.C. Crawford, "DRD4 and Novelty Seeking: Results of Meta-Analyses," American Journal of Medical Genetics 114:643-648 [2002]).

The second possible example of a specific genetic link to a specific character trait is in Walker's reference to research on the heritability of "anti-social personality disorder" (ASP). He cites three articles published in 1987, 1990, and 1994. He does not tell his readers that although these articles claim to show some degree of heritability for ASP, they do not identify any specific genes or explain how exactly such genes could work to incline people to ASP. Nor does he cite any of the extensive research over the last 15 years showing that although there does seem to be "a genetic contribution to the emotional dysfunction facilitating antisocial behaviors," there is no direct genetic contribution to the behaviors themselves, and no one has identified any specific genetic linkages or how exactly they work (James Blair, Derek Mitchell, and Katrina Blair, The Psychopath: Emotion and the Brain [Oxford: Blackwell, 2005], 28-46).

Is it likely that we will someday be able to use genetic engineering to promote virtuous character by precisely altering psychic traits like novelty seeking and ASP? To support his affirmative answer, Walker cites Gregory Stock's Redesigning Humans (Houghton Mifflin, 2002).

Readers who go to Stock's book will see a rhetorical strategy of exaggeration followed by retraction. On the one hand, Stock declares that "the arrival of safe, reliable germline technology will signal the beginning of human self-design." On the other hand, he admits that "our biology might prove too complex to rework." He concedes that "no present genetic intervention is worth doing in a healthy individual, and no present technology is capable of effecting an intervention safely anyway." He acknowledges that many biologists believe that the genetic propensities underlying complex behavioral traits such as personality and intelligence are so intricate that we could never intervene to change these mechanisms without producing undesirable side effects. He also recognizes that these genetic propensities always interact in unpredictable ways with chance events and life history to produce unique individuals in ways that cannot be controlled by genetic technology. "Even for highly heritable traits," he observes, "it will be uncertain what a child's unique amalgam of potential and experience will bring. A vision of parents sitting before a catalog and picking out the personality of their future 'designer child' is false" (3-4, 64, 76-77, 111). It's not clear to me how this supports Walker's confidence in the prospects for the genetic engineering of virtue.

I am not denying the possibility that genetic research can uncover some specific genetic linkages to complex behavioral propensities that are clear, strong, and manipulable. But whether that would substantiate Walker's argument is unclear, because his argument is ambiguous. When he writes about using genetic engineering to "eliminate evil," he seems to imply a reduction of virtues and vices to genetic propensities, which is implausible. But when he agrees with Aristotle that innate propensities are necessary but not sufficient for virtue, because virtue requires a lifetime of learned habituation and individual judgment (38-39), Walker pulls back to a more modest and defensible claim.

Yet even this defensible version of Walker's Genetic Virtue Project invites another question: Has he provided plausible standards of virtue and vice? The success of his GVP assumes that it is guided by some clear standards for the virtues to be enhanced and the vices to be eliminated. What are those standards? And who will be responsible for setting and enforcing the standards?

One possibility is that government will set and enforce the standards. The obvious danger with this, however, is the threat of tyranny--either the tyranny of a few or the tyranny of the majority--that will create something like Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World." Another possibility is that individuals will be free to set and enforce their own standards. In particular, parents will be free to follow their own standards of virtue in genetically engineering their children.

Walker seems to take this route of allowing parents the freedom to decide for their children. He admits, however, that parents might change their minds. They might genetically enhance their children to favor the virtuous dispositions to be truthful, just, and caring; but then they might later be convinced by moral reformers that the true virtues should promote dispositions to be untruthful, unjust, and uncaring. In that case, the parents could send their children to "remedial camps" to make them untruthful, unjust, and uncaring. So Walker seems here to be a radical moral relativist or nihilist, because standards of virtue are arbitrary products of cultural history. This would suggest then that the Nazis could have been more successful than they were if they had had the help of Walker's GVP. Were the Nazis right about the importance of eugenics in shaping virtue, but they failed only because they didn't know enough about genetics and genetic engineering to carry out their project?

But I don't think Walker is a moral nihilist, because he often suggests that he believes there really are some enduring standards of virtue. For example, he identifies was as evil, and he praises Gandhi's pacifism. So would the GVP eliminate evil by eliminating all violence, including military violence? Would this suggest that Aristotle was wrong to believe that courage in war is virtuous? Walker reassures us that even the Gandhian pacifist can be courageous because he resolutely resists evil, even if non-violently. But if the GVP eliminated all evil, why would there be any need for non-violent resistance to evil?

Does Walker really believe that there is no virtue in the courage of soldiers risking their lives for their countries? Does he really believe that using genetic engineering to eliminate any disposition to military courage would make the world better? If he does believe this, how would he enforce this belief through his GVP? Would parents be free to disagree with him and thus choose to enhance military virtue in their children? Is there something about the nature of human life that makes conflict inevitable, and thus creates the need for the virtue of courage in war?

The plausibility of Walker's GVP depends on answering such questions.


Troy Camplin said...

There are all sorts of problems with genetically engineering virtue or any other mental trait. First, there is no one-to-one gene-to-behavior correlation. Patterns of genes are necessary. And different patterns can create the same behaviors, and slightly different patterns can create different behaviors. And considering something like 1/3 of our genes (about 10,000, in that case) are brain-exclusive, that's a lot of variation. Plus there is the fact that there is a set of brain genes that resemble immunoglobulin genes in being wildly recombinable. This latter fact makes genetic manipulation of mental capacities literally impossible. And then, while we're at it, we can observe that if you have alleles XX, XY, and YY, that you could easily have three different behaviors. What if Xx makes you cowardly, YY makes you rash, and you need XY to have courage? There does seem to be a gene allele that, when homozygous, makes people sociopathic, but when heterozygous, simply makes the person a risk-taker (and thus more likely to be adventurous, entrepreneurial, etc.). Do we want to get rid of sociopaths by getting rid of the risk-takers that make the world better for everyone when their risks pay off?

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't the last nation to not have become nonviolent have a serious temptation to not become nonviolent so as to always retain an advantage over everyone else who already had? Further if every nonviolent nation retained a non nonviolent group to make up their military wouldn't it lead to particularly negative social schism. I suppose what I am asking is, even if we could engineer a naturally peaceful human, would it be able to survive in a sometimes non peaceful world.

黃色 said...

人若賺得全世界,賠上自己的靈魂,有什麼益處? ..................................................

alice said...

We can't figure out or agree about what to do about our health care system.

What makes us think we are capable of deciding what the absolutely best way for people to be is?....even if we could actually achieve and engineer it....... which is most doubtful.

Luke Lea said...

Dear Prof. Arnhart:

This might not be genetic engineering exactly, but as a thought experiment imagine that the males of a group with some desirable trait (say, intelligence) were to mate in significant numbers with the females of another group lacking that trait.

Wouldn't this increase the frequency of the desirable trait among the descendants of the females in the second group?

Now suppose the two groups are geographically isolated from each other under normal circumstances, but that the males of the first group were motivated by a "missionary" impulse to temporarily emigrate to the home of the second group and impregnate as many females as possible?

Then, provided that the females in the second group were preferentially partial to such impregnation in the interests of their children, wouldn't this amount to a kind of genetic "engineering"?

My point is that such a strategy is not technologically infeasible. Nor is it entirely implausible giving what we know about male and female mating behavior (males tending to be far more indiscriminate than females).