Blog 4: The Unselfish Gene

September 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

As a parent, I’d be damned if I were given the option to genetically engineer my child to be predisposed towards altruistic behavior since – quite frankly – I wouldn’t know what to do in such a situation. An examination of the nature of altruism, the biological requisites for gene coding, as well as virtue-based ethics reveals that the very idea of an ‘altruistic gene’ is misguided indeed.

First, to what extent must the child be altruistic? Not too much, I hope. Since concerning for others’ welfare necessitates detracting from time spent guarding one’s own welfare, an excess of altruism results in a reduced chance of survival. To frame it in mathematical terms, altruism and personal welfare are inversely proportional, and there must be some fine line dividing reasonable selflessness from reckless self-sacrifice. Ironically, in order for altruism to fully blossom, personal survival must be of top priority since the caretaker needs to be alive and well before he/she can take care of others. Such a paradox abounds in careers with high risk factors; for example, as an emergency medical technician, I was trained to take care of patients only if there existed no serious threat to my own safety. Call me self-centered, but I firmly believe that the ideal altruistic attitude takes the form of equal parts selflessness and selfishness.

At this point, we’ve come to a rough understanding of the ideal extent of children’s altruism. The next problem we face stems from biology. When writing the genetic code for altruism, we must already have in mind a fine balance between genuine concern for others’ well-being and dumb self-sacrifice. Assuming we have already elucidated this balance, its very abstract nature makes it difficult to code into discrete sequences of nucleic acids. The issue at heart is analogous to that of emotions: if all emotion is based on electrochemical impulses in our brain, then what permutations of such impulses correspond to each emotional state? There are countless emotional states – as well as countless ethical dilemmas concerning altruism – to the point that it is nearly impossible to encode every possible response to such situations into a 4-letter alphabet. Even if our ideal altruistic state were not situation-based but rather rule-based, I bet it would still take researchers years to figure out how to genetically code for altruism.

Finally, what do ethics have to say about the prospect of genetically modifying children to become more altruistic? Let’s consider the vantage point of virtue-based ethics, in which we must act in strict accordance with a given ‘ideal’ regardless of the situation. In deciding whether to endow my child with the altruistic gene, I must consider two opposing ideals. On one hand, if the goal is to maximize individual liberty, then genetic manipulation would be simply out of the question as I essentially would force my child into becoming altruistic without consent. Granted, he/she can neither talk nor respond to human stimuli yet, but that’s a whole different story. On the other hand, if the goal is to maximize the amount of good deeds performed in this world (here I use the term ‘good’ in a very general sense), then genetic modification would be proper not only for my child but for everyone else’s child. Indeed, a brief analysis of virtue-based ethics stymies me: which ideal must be upheld?

Clearly I’ve opened a huge can of worms when I decided to bring biotechnology and ethics into the mix, but at this point I adamantly believe that the premise of ‘forced altruism’ via genetic modification is unfair. It’s biologically unfeasible. It’s ethically confusing. And I just don’t know what to do if I were faced with such a conundrum.

Sean Justin Lee


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