Savulescu Advocates Genetic Engineering to Improve Well-Being

Julian SavulescuOxford University Professor Julian Savulescu explored advances in genetic and biological engineering and their implications during the 2008 Crown Lecture in Ethics at the Sanford Institute on Sept. 25.

Savulescu holds the Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, and is also the director of the university’s Program on Ethics and the New Biosciences in the 21st Century.

His talk, “The Moral Imperative to Enhance Human Beings,” focused on the positive potential for these discoveries to liberate humanity from some constraints of our biology. The quest to improve ourselves is part of the human spirit, he said. Using new technologies to enhance our basic biology can make us “happy people, not just healthy people.”

Through out human history, people have developed technologies to improve their lives, from building shelter to using cosmetics. Savulescu pointed out that is generally accepted that it is good to treat disease. There is also a standard ethical principle that one should make choices that provide benefit and do no harm. He drew an analogy of medical treatment to illustrate the moral imperative for this type of use.

His example: If parents have a child with stunning intellect, who also has a condition that requires a particular vitamin treatment to be healthy and maintain that intellect, clearly withholding the vitamin would be wrong. There may be mitigating circumstances, but if the vitamin is available, it is morally responsible to provide it to the child. In ethics, the idea is that “can implies ought,” meaning that if one “can” provide a benefit or avoid harm without significant negative effects, then one “ought” to make that choice.

That principle should extend to new biotechnologies, Savulescu maintained, as new choices become available to achieve the goal of human well-being. He then went on to discuss new discoveries about the genetic components of behavior, such as a sense of fairness, risk-taking and pair bonding, and the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport. “We should be here for a good time, not just a long time,” he said.

While generally upbeat about the new choices promised by biotechnology, Savulescu did admit to one great worry: the possibility of lethal bioweapons. Scientists have developed a mouse pox with a 100 percent mortality rate. Bioweapons could be targeted to specific genetic markers, allowing for selective mass destruction.

During a question and answer period, members of the audience questioned whether these new technologies will increase inequity, perhaps even to the extent of creating two species of people, the genetically enhanced and the unenhanced. He replied that many of these choices would have the greatest benefit for people at the lowest end of the scale, using the example of cell phones as equalizers, where more people in developing countries have cell phones than land lines. He also pointed out the ethical problems inherent in withholding a benefit from one person – possibly causing harm to that individual -- for the sake of avoiding inequality.

The Crown Lecture in Ethics, named for benefactor Lester Crown, brings speakers to Duke University to discuss ethical concerns in the arts, sciences, medicine, business and other fields. Previous Crown lecturers include Pulitzer Prize-winning author and conservationist Jared Diamond, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Jody Williams.