Engineering Morality: My Genes Made Me Do It

Episode: 
108

What if we could prevent mass shootings by giving a pill to young men who had “bad genes”? Not the denim kind, but genes linked to sociopathic behavior and violent tendencies. Would it be our moral responsibility to find a way to turn those genes off? What about cheaters and liars? Perhaps we can prevent another Bernie Madoff situation by requiring people to take something like a truth serum.

Some bioethicists think it’s okay to change moral behavior with drugs or by tinkering with genes. Julian Savulescu claims that parents are morally obligated to engineer ethical behavior into their children.[1] Peter Singer and Agata Sagan wrote an op/ed piece on the benefits of making a morality pill.[2] Believe it or not, taking drugs to promote desirable behavior is already an acceptable practice.

The United States has a history of attempts to control or engineer moral behavior that triggers criminal acts.  In the 1930s and 1940s, we saw psychosurgery, including the infamous lobotomy which damaged or removed portions of the brain that allegedly controlled criminal or anti-social tendencies. In the 1950s and 1960s, body chemistry was blamed for immoral behavior. Opiates were prescribed to calm emotional outbursts and anxiety-driven behavior. Next, addiction was viewed as a disease, and treatment, rather than punishment, was the solution. That’s a good thing, In the 1980s and 90s, researchers looked for genetic explanations for some immoral behaviors. Today, researchers are attempting to locate the region of the brain where moral decisions are made.[3]       

Many of these attempts to discover and eliminate the cause of bad behavior are based on the assumption that it is due to faulty genes or some other biological cause. Yes, some immoral or criminal behavior may be influenced by neurochemical, genetic or physical factors, but people are not helpless products. We can make choices. The criminal justice system is based on one’s ability to choose one’s actions. However, the “my genes made me do it” argument seeks only material solutions, such as physically changing the brain, engineering our genes, or taking drugs.         

It is good to desire less immorality in the world, particularly when it hurts innocent people. And we should not be naïve about the subtle and often complex ways in which nature (and nurture, for that matter) shape our personalities and our behavior. Nature does play a role, but it is not the whole story. We cannot be reduced to our brains or our genes. We humans are made a little lower than the angels. We have a soul and qualities that can’t be reduced to our material (physical) bodies. Even though we are biological creatures, we also transcend biology. In the end, holding mentally competent people accountable for their actions respects their moral worth. It acknowledges their freedom and moral agency, including their ability to choose evil.

Your genes didn’t make you do it.



[1] Richard Alleyne, “Genetically Engineering ‘Ethical Babies’ Is a Moral Obligation, Says Oxford Professor,” The Telegraph, August 16, 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/9480372/Genetically-engineering-ethical-babies-is-a-moral-obligation-says-Oxford-professor.html.

[2] Peter Singer and Agata Sagan, “Are We Ready for a ‘Morality Pill’?”  The New York Times, January 28, 2012, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/28/are-we-ready-for-a-morality-pill/8/.

[3] Nicole Rafter, The Criminal Brain: Understanding Biological Theories of Crime (New York: New York University Press, 2008).

 

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