Genetic Crossroads

The intersection of biotechnology, reproduction and society

Ethics Schmethics Says Ethicist

Some people use the Olympics to push doping and genetic enhancement

The Olympics are almost upon us, and even serious journals get in on the act. In 2004 and 2008, there were stories about gene doping and other forms of human enhancement. Would 2012 be different? Sadly, no. Case in point: Nature, with a "special series of Olympics-themed articles" that includes:

Performance enhancement: Superhuman athletes
Enhancements such as doping are illegal in sport — but if all restrictions were lifted, science could push human performance to new extremes.

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And (behind the paywall):

Olympics: Genetically enhanced Olympics are coming
Future Olympic Games may allow handicaps and gene therapy for people born without genes linked to athleticism, predict Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans.

But the gold medal for predictable fatuity goes to Oxford's Julian Savulescu, interviewed in Spiegel Online under the headline:

'We Need an Open Market for Doping'

This approach is by now a cliché. Andy Miah has been pushing it for years, and in Nature actually called for "a World Pro-Doping Agency, the goal of which is to invest in safer forms of enhancement." Savulescu, however, is an even more distinguished ethicist, and takes his response to a whole other level, beginning:

My field is practical ethics. I am concerned with what is realistic.

(Hold that thought.) Asked whether the administration of drugs absent a medical condition is an ethical question, he muses:

It does raise an interesting ethical dilemma. Were there not enough doctors doing it, people would start to go on the black market. I think it is part of the doctors' professional obligation to more broadly protect athletes' health rather than saying "no, I won't do it, that's their own problem." They have an obligation to provide doping services, like they offer abortion services, even if they might personally object to abortion.

(Now, there's a novel argument.) But what about genetic enhancements? This is where Savulescu winds up for his final sprint for glory:

Genetic manipulations should be ruled out at this stage because they would fundamentally change the equation and could make sports uninteresting.

After all, if the greatest good for the greatest number means the greatest entertainment of the global TV audience, then clearly avoiding boredom rather than, say, ensuring the welfare of competitors, is the prime directive.

But wait, there's more. Remember that Savulescu is practical, indeed a realist. What does that imply? Well, he's not content with adding the rider "as long as it's realistic" to the classic utilitarian "greatest good." Savulescu explicitly denies any intent of promoting "what is good and right" — and then contradicts himself in the same paragraph. This is his complete answer (as printed, anyway) to a final question about whether, in light of public opposition, it is "realistic" to propose changing national and international law and custom to favor doping:

Look, there are two views of the use of ethics. There's what I call the evangelistic missionary model: We go out and try to convert the world according to what we think is good and right. I don't hold this model of ethics, I have a rationalistic view. I try to put reason into the public's mind, trying to promote public debate. People have a lot of deficiencies, politicians have a lot of deficiencies. We get a lot of deficient laws and policies. I don't expect people to change the laws in Germany or anywhere else, that's not my job. My job is to provide the arguments so people can consider them. And perhaps over time, things will change.

So he is willing to manipulate public debate but not to argue for his own opinions? He is against trying to "convert the world" but in favor of putting the arguments out there, so that "things will change." Yes, folks, this is the passive-aggressive approach to influencing public policy.

Simplistic utilitarianism has been the source of many dubious (and some evil) rationalizations. But this is taking it down to a cartoonish level. Jeremy Bentham's head must be spinning, and John Stuart Mill whirling in his grave.

Pete Shanks is the author of Human Genetic Engineering: A Guide for Activists, Skeptics, and the Very Perplexed.

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