Controlling the Altruism Gene — Going Too Far?

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s a very intriguing concept.  An “altruism gene.”  A gene that determines how much money you will drop into the homeless man’s cup as you walk by.  Or at least how predisposed you will be to give to him.  I’m not sure if we have found an “altruism gene” or if any such gene really exists, but if we were to find it, we would be faced with one of the most difficult ethical dilemmas imaginable.  Should we genetically alter unborn children to ensure that they have this altruism gene so that they are as predisposed to altruism as possible?

On the one hand, it doesn’t seem to be a dilemma at all.  Altruism is an enormously beneficial quality that leads to better societies and better individuals and makes everyone happier.  It is one of the foundations of society itself and the more we encourage it the better.  Assuming that we have found a safe way to genetically alter a child’s DNA shortly after they are conceived, genetically predisposing them to altruism doesn’t seem to be hurting them in any way, and is only helping them as well as society as a whole.

However, upon further consideration, I think the issue is much more complicated than a cursory examination would reveal.  Curing diseases is one thing.  But genetically altering a child in order to give him a greater amount of a certain characteristic such as altruism is really a different thing altogether.  One of the problems with this kind of genetic modification is that it treats the lack of this natural altruism as a “disease.”  It is fairly easy to see why something like diabetes is a “disease,” because it causes the human body to act in a counterproductive and self-destructive way.  We have very good knowledge of the chemical and bodily imbalances that are present with diseases like diabetes and we know why they are making the body work contrary to how it is supposed to.

However, characteristics like altruism are much harder to understand, and it is a lot more difficult to explain why a lack of genetic predisposition to altruism is a “disease” that must be eradicated.  Perhaps those who grow up with less of a genetic predisposition to altruism learn to be altruistic of their own accord and for the right reasons.  Perhaps they learn to give to others not because that is what comes naturally to them but because they see that it is the right thing to do and choose to do it for that reason.  Real altruism is a difficult thing to understand, and we should not be quick to assume that we know exactly how our genes affect how altruistic we are or even to assume that altruism can be completely explained by genetics.  Automatically characterizing altruism as a “disease” is a dangerous thing to do, and has the potential to lead to many disastrous situations.

We are always quick to assume that we know exactly what our genes should be like to maximize our happiness and “perfection.”  We are quick to take control of the genes of our children, assuming that we can make them turn out better than they would naturally.  But in reality, the human person is still largely a mystery to us.  We should not seek to control and manipulate human beings, or pretend that we understand exactly what their genetic material “should” be, or we may find ourselves in one of the science fiction horror stories that we so often read.

PJ Jedlovec (pjjed) — Blog 4


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