My friend Dan Klein, also a friend and colleague of Bryan Caplan at George Mason University, has sent me a guest post on designer babies. He disagrees profoundly with Bryan’s optimism about the prospects for genetic engineering even if government does not get involved.

I’ll paste in what he wrote. Afterwards, I’ll give a thought or two.

Here’s Dan:

Apprehensions over Designer Babies
By Daniel B. Klein

The idea that technology will enable designer babies fills me with apprehension. My apprehension over designer babies would be great even on two unrealistic assumptions: (1) That the government never got involved in it (specifically, never made use of it or influenced the use of it), and (2) That the technological development did not lead to reductions in liberty, reductions prompted by results of the development.

Designer babies would attenuate coherence with the past: One hundred years hence, people would say, “When you watch him on the old videos, he may not look like much, but back in the old times, Mike Tyson was considered a pretty menacing fighter.” People in the new times would not know our sense of standard. And they would have difficulty knowing it. Everything preceding the break, from Achilles to Rafael Nadal, would be foreign and unintelligible.

The great Willie Mays hit 660 home runs. His mark was recently surpassed by Alex Rodriguez, a known juicer. Is Rodriguez great? I don’t know. Put the cheating aspect aside. Suppose steroids were allowed and accepted. Steroids simply upset our notion of standard.

In The Study of Man, Michael Polanyi (1959, 96) said: “we need reverence to perceive greatness, even as we need a telescope to observe spiral nebulae.” What would designer babies do to our search for greatness? What would it do to our efforts to direct our reverence? With designer babies, the upset would be like steroids on steroids.

People would lose a sense of historical coherence, a very important dimension in human meaning. But even within their time, across arenas, people would lose a sense of standard. People would diversify in extremes, to the point of regarding those in other arenas of activity (the musicians, the athletes, the scholars, the thinkers) almost as separate species, literally a specialized breed, and be little able and little interested in trying to relate to them. “Am I supposed to applaud?” “Am I supposed to try to remember his name?”

Whatever sense of standard people did have, they would expect it to dissolve quickly. So the breakdown in historical coherence would be in relation to both the past and the future. Every generation would bring drastic changes in standards, changes that were unforeseen and yet unsurprising.

I’ve used examples from sports, but I think the troubles pretty well carry over to broader areas of life, including even wisdom and virtue. A main point of Polanyi’s book The Study of Man is that reverence, that necessary instrument for perceiving greatness, is especially applicable in the pursuit of wisdom and virtue. Those, too, might have some genetic basis. But whereas we would still know which ball players hit the most home runs, here we might have even greater difficulty recognizing the standouts. And inasmuch as we did recognize the standouts, or thought we did, we might regard them as we regard the new home run champions: more as a specialized breed than as exemplars. Would I ever have bothered to dwell in Michael Polanyi’s thought if I knew he were a designer baby?

Adam Smith held that all moral approval relates to a sympathy; the sympathy ratifies or underwrites the approval. Suppose, on Smith’s authority, that the principle is sound. It would be just as sound in a world of designer babies. But in such a world, the sympathies themselves would be terribly attenuated, and hence also the moral approvals underwritten. I think our moral confusion would grow more confused; I suspect that the result would be moral and spiritual life that is shallower, not deeper.

For the scenario on the two assumptions, I could say more, but the foregoing points are my most important reasons for apprehension.

Now, here are some reasons why the two assumptions are not realistic (and why my apprehensions are greater still): If political disposition in an individual has some genetic basis, then, just as governments got involved in schooling, governments would likely get involved in designing babies. More generally, there is a central, teleological precept of “our” taking action to define, care for, and validate “our” existence, nature, and well-being, and, seeing as for so many people the precept is to be operationalized as governmentalization of social affairs, it is likely that the government would get involved in the designing of babies. The party in power would have a whole new way of reproducing itself – the preemptive final solution. As for other repercussions on liberty, consider these: (1) Designer babies would devastate social coherence, connectedness, and personal meaning as generated by voluntary, non-governmental affairs, and consequently, in demanding them, people will look ever more to governmentalization; (2) If designing your baby is expensive, “the rich get richer” and “level the playing field” will be louder than ever.

Liberalism brought rapid cultural change (see the first of the two trends I present in this 17-min video.) I detect, especially in libertarians, a denial regarding the downside of rapid change – and I mean a downside even apart from resultant greater governmentalization.

But don’t get me wrong about libertarians; they are not unique in letting their ideological commitments distort their interpretations and judgments.

And don’t get me wrong about ideological commitments; I don’t mean to suggest that ideological commitments, per se, are to be avoided. We all must develop strategies to make ourselves cohere.

Now me. I won’t present what I regard as a total rebuttal because I don’t necessarily disagree with Dan’s concerns. In fact, it’s because he stated his concerns so well that I’m posting them here.

Instead, I’ll make two points.

First, in any analysis of a new technology, you need to look at the benefits as well as the costs. Dan has done a good job of laying out some of the costs. There could be others. But he has mentioned none of the benefits. Think of the diseases that genetic engineering might be able to reduce or even eliminate. I have a friend with a severely autistic 10-year-old child. Taking care of that child is stressing his marriage every single day. What if genetic engineering had been able to prevent autism? I don’t know if it can. But it might. Isn’t this a benefit?

Second, let’s say that we decided that the costs of genetic engineering drastically outweigh the benefits. I don’t know how we would do so. A government powerful enough to limit or prevent genetic engineering by the “private sector” might well be powerful enough to use it anyway and then we would get some of the costs that Dan fears with fewer of the benefits.