Science fiction is replete with tales of genetic augmentation, making people who are more human than human. A famous example is that of Khan, who is introduced in Star Trek’s “Space Seed” episode. In the Star Trek timeline, scientists used genetic engineering and selective breeding to create augmented humans in the hope of creating a better world. As is so often the case in fiction, this turned out badly and led to the eugenics wars that pitted normal humans against the augmented humans. While ordinary humanity won that war, there are other stories in which humanity is replaced by its creations. While these tales are fiction, genetic modification is a real science that raises moral concerns.
While some science-fiction tales include super-human beings arising from genetic engineering, it is well worth considering the limits of what can be done. After all, there are obviously limits to organic beings and genes. As such, one should be careful when considering possible scenarios to avoid contaminating the discussion with hyperbole and impossible scenarios. That said, genetic augmentation could grant individuals considerable advantages even if the specific improves are relatively small. For example, having immunity to certain diseases would be advantageous as would even modest improvements in mental and physical abilities. For the near future, an augmented human will most likely just be somewhat better than they would have been naturally rather than being at the human maximum across the board (or superhuman). These modest improvements still raise some moral concerns.
As would be expected, some have raised the usual “playing God” and “unnatural” arguments. However, these arguments have little weight considering that almost all our modern medicine is “playing God” and “unnatural.” A better approach is to consider what we should be doing, without the drama of cries of “playing God” or “unnatural.”
Since the initial augmentations will be modest, the closest moral concern is with these. The usual focus is on the ethics of fairness: the rich will be able to afford to augment their children, thus giving them even more advantages over the less well-off. While this does raise some new concerns because of the modification aspect, the core moral problems are old ones—determining how opportunities should be distributed in society and determining the moral rules for competition.
As it stands, American society allows the wealthy to enjoy a multitude of advantages over the lower classes—as exposed in the college admission’s scandal. However, the scandal shows that there are moral limits to what is tolerated: it is accepted that the wealthy will make donations and use legacy admissions to get their kids into college, but outright bribes are condemned. Genetic augmentation should be looked at as just one more factor in the competition between the economic classes and the same basic ethical concerns apply (with the addition of special concerns about the ethics of genetic modification).
From the standpoint of what we collectively currently accept, the question is whether augmentation is more like the accepted advantages of the rich (such as buying tutoring and better education) or more like the advantages that are condemned (outright bribery).
On the face of it, genetic augmentation would seem to be analogous to methods already used to improve the children of the upper classes. They get better medical care, better nutrition, better housing, better education, better tutoring, better counseling and so on. In a sense, they are already augmented relative to the lower classes. While these advantages are not earned by the children, they do improve their abilities and thus enable them to succeed because of their enhanced abilities in competitions. Genetic augmentation would seem to be the same: while they do not earn the augmentation, it would make them objectively better than they would otherwise be and give them a relevant edge over other people. The best people would, in most cases, get the best opportunities. As such, if the current system is morally acceptable, then it would seem that genetic augmentation would be acceptable as well.
As would be expected, those who see the current system as immoral because of the unfairness would also think that genetic augmentation is analogous to the existing advantages of the upper classes. The difference would be that they think these advantages would be unfair. One approach would be to forbid the use of augmentation on the grounds of unfairness. A moral concern with this approach is that it would deny humanity the chance to improve—it would be analogous to banning parents from hiring tutors for their kids. Another approach would be to require that all children have the opportunity for enhancement. This would be analogous to ensuring that public resources are distributed equitably for K-12 education, so that everyone is better off.
If one takes the professed American values of fair competition and equality of opportunity seriously, then such augments should be treated like public education and available to all citizens. If one merely mouths the words while seeking to perpetuate the advantages of the upper classes, then one would insist that such augmentations should be available to those who can pay—that is, the upper classes.
The above discussion does, I hasten to note, set aside the specific concerns special to augmentation itself—my focus has been on the moral question of fairness and distribution of opportunities. These are critical moral concerns that I have addressed in the past—and will no doubt address in the future.