Genetic engineering
The “Programmed Human Being”

The "Programmed Human Being"; © Thorsten Schmitt /
The "Programmed Human Being" | Photo (detail): © Thorsten Schmitt /

Genetic engineering, prenatal and pre-implantation diagnostics offer tremendous opportunities to prevent physical defects and the possibility of escaping to some extent the accidental character of nature. But this raises questions of enormous importance, to which there are no clear-cut answers.

As in all other areas of technological progress, it is also evident in genetic engineering that, while science provides breath-taking new possibilities, its expertise can in the end contribute nothing to answering the question which of these means man should use. Such questions point beyond the field of technical knowledge to the area of fundamental ethical issues.

Every intervention in the human genome poses ethical questions. In additional to the problem of the limited predictability of long-term consequences for mankind and society, there are above all two main issues: the very general question about the ethical limits of the technological conquest of nature and the question about the self-understanding of a genetically “programmed” human being. On the latter question Jürgen Habermas, among others, has taken a monitory position in his book The Future of Human Nature. As soon as a person makes a decision about the “natural” features of another person, argues Habermas, the former has over the latter the power to determine irrevocably his definite characteristics without his consent. It seems reasonable to allow this in the case of a purely preventive intervention in order to avert diseases (“negative eugenics”). It becomes questionable, however, when it is a case of fitting out a child with certain desirable characteristic (“positive eugenics”). Yet the differences here are fluid – this indeed is part of the problem.

Ethical problems: threat to human autonomy?

In particular, positive eugenics, according to Habermas, threatens the autonomy of the human subject. Those whose genetic code is manipulated must see themselves as a product of the deliberate intervention of others. This tampering in an area of non-availability that is worthy of protection violates the symmetry essential to equality. “For as soon as adults one day regard the desirable genetic make-up of offspring as a malleable product and create designs for them as they see fit, they are exercising over their genetically manipulated products a kind of discretion which intrudes into the somatic basis of spontaneous self-relation and the ethical freedom of other persons, and which, as it formerly seemed, was permissible only with respect to things, not to persons.” The individual then can no longer unrestrictedly be himself. He is a creature, but now no longer a creature of God, but of other human beings.

In dealing with social influences, an individual can fight for and gain autonomy; in confrontation with genetic programming by others this is no longer possible. Against this position many have urged that no kind of cloning can make a human being dependent on his progenitor in his will and action. Even clones must and can deal with what they have been given as initial equipment in freedom and self-determination. Autonomy properly refers to freedom from the determination of others in one’s own actions; it therefore refers to social relationships, not to “natural” ones. Whether this question can really be clearly decided in philosophical terms on the basis of the modern postulate of autonomy is moot. But appeal to a sphere of “non-availability” is interesting because it points to the far more extensive question about the boundaries of the potentially unbridled scope of secular modernity.

The programmed human being – the consummation of modernity?

To set limits to progress contradicts the spirit of modernity. In modernity the new is the better and is constantly replacing the old and traditional. Technological progress, driven by a science programmed to curiosity and a capitalist economy interested in innovation, is the engine of this development. All this has pushed to the side a question that many people today, precisely with a view to genetic innovations, are asking: Should man actually do everything that he can do?

The question is not by chance connected to genuine religious arguments. What or who should set man limits in his appropriation of the world? What is morally reprehensible about appropriating the world as long as others are not immediately harmed by it? Modern Enlightenment morality deliberately confines itself to inter-personal moral problems; it furnishes no fundamental arguments against technological transgressions. It lacks the vocabulary to describe the danger about which the ancient Greeks already warned: hubris, the wanton human conceit that defies the dictates of the gods. Prometheus was such a transgressor – and, at the same time, a hero of the human self-empowerment that has been consummated in modernity.

In the debate about genetic engineering, the churches have argued most convincingly why man should not transgress certain boundaries and set himself up as the Creator. Only religion, it is urged, can explain why man should practice humility and give his fate into the hands of God rather than entrust the creation of designer babies to the counsels of science. Failing this, such decisions threaten to become in the end questions of mere taste: Why shouldn’t we order a designer baby if we can? Even more, to adherents of the modern idea of progress the advocacy of renunciation appears to be simply irrational.

There are no simple solutions to the difficult decisions that genetic engineering forces upon us, whether religious or moral. It is not the office of the Pope or other ecclesiastical authorities to decide these questions, but rather of parliaments. Opinion here is very mixed; the disputes cut across the entire political spectrum. Democratic representatives are confronted by questions that must go beyond their abilities and competencies. Nor are ethics councils in possession of the ultimate truth. By having made himself and his nature into an object of (now inescapable) human decisions, man has entered not only scientifically but also ethically uncharted territory.