TCS Daily

Biotech Ends and Means

By Arnold Kling - December 18, 2003 12:00 AM

'He left me in to pitch to Richardson, who sent a pop fly that hung over Maxvill at second base. Groat yelled, "Don't let it hit you on the coconut, Maxie," and he didn't.'
-- Bob Gibson (with Lonnie Wheeler), Stranger to the Game

Diminutive reserve infielder Dal Maxvill's catch ended the dramatic 1964 baseball season, giving Bob Gibson and the Saint Louis Cardinals the world title. Leon Kass, the Chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, might have had Maxie in mind when he said at a recent symposium, "The baseball players of the 1960's would look like stick figures standing next to today's steroid-enhanced stars." Maxvill's listed weight of 155 pounds, if it was not exaggerated, appeared to consist mostly of bones.


Even the Redbirds' power hitter of the mid-1960's, Orlando Cepeda -- whose nickname was the Baby Bull -- was not nearly as bulked up as his counterparts today. Next to Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa, Cepeda would look like the Baby Chipmunk.


Medical body-enhancement for athletes was one of the ethical issues raised by Kass, as described in Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. Originally issued as a report by the Council on Bioethics, it has now been published in its own right.


In responding to Kass at the symposium, Gregg Easterbrook rather unconvincingly suggested that he thought that the private sector would find its way to the right outcome. He argued that baseball attendance suffers because of the steroid controversy. I completely disagree with Easterbrook's laissez-faire prescription for baseball -- I remain convinced that Socialism is the Solution.


Beyond Baseball


Kass and his colleagues articulated a set of reservations about biotechnology. However, rather than focus attention on the means (particular technologies such as cloning or gene therapy), they concentrate on the ends to which biotech might take us. Consider the following:


  • We may reach a point where whether a fetus is aborted or allowed to come to term will depend on whether its genetic profile appeals to the parents.


  • How well a student does on a test may depend primarily on the skill of the student's pharmacological adviser in preparing the appropriate prescription for enhancing concentration and memory.


  • People may use drugs in order to remain suspended indefinitely in an alternate internal universe of catatonic stupor or artificial ecstasy.


  • We may learn how to stop the aging process and eliminate natural death. The ability to retard their own aging may make people indifferent or even hostile to the concept of procreation.


There is a school of thought that looks at these scenarios as opportunities rather than threats. Zack Lynch, Reason's Ron Bailey, and Aubrey de Grey are among the cheerleaders for advances in biotechnology.


For most of us, the above scenarios have a dystopian feel. If nothing else, we fear the loss of continuity between our experiences and those of our children or grandchildren. Most baseball fans would gladly freeze the game the way it was when we were ten years old, especially if our favorite team won the World Series that year.


Decentralized or Centralized Decisions?


I would argue that the rapidity with which the biotechnology revolution arrives will depend on the extent to which decisions are decentralized. If researchers are permitted to choose their own projects, if companies are allowed to develop the most profitable therapies, and if consumers are permitted to decide when to adopt new methods, then innovation will occur rapidly.


The choices that we make sequentially as individuals may not be the choices that we would make collectively with planning. My daughters and I might agree now that when they have children they will never try to give those children performance-enhancing drugs to take the SAT's. However, when the time arrives and my hypothetical grandchildren's peers are taking such drugs, our current position may not hold up.


The only way that I can see to definitely rule out the dystopian scenarios is with a radical, worldwide draconian dictatorship. In the absence of totalitarian rule, biotechnology will be developed and all of us will be tempted or pressured into adopting it.


The problem with trying to regulate biotechnology is that the nature of the regulations would be completely unprecedented. We have regulated technology in the past, but never in the ways that would be required in order to impede the biotech revolution.


Traditionally, we have only blocked research that was conducted in an unethical manner, such as poor control over potential toxic substances or causing unacceptable risks to human subjects. Now, we would be talking about blocking research because of what might be learned or discovered. To do this, you not only have to know what is in the researchers' labs. You have to know what it is in their heads.


Traditionally, the Food and Drug Administration has been charged with keeping treatments off the market that are harmful, or forcing pharmaceutical companies to back claims of drug efficacy with rigorous tests. Now, instead of trying to protect the public from harmful drugs, the goal of a new regulatory agency would be attempting to keep treatments that are safe and effective off the market.


Today's War on Drugs, which many of us believe causes more harm than benefit, is conducted against only that portion of the population that seeks to achieve certain types of pleasure from drugs. In fact, only the poorest subset of the population is targeted -- I suspect that the drug war would be abolished tomorrow if the government started prosecuting all of the middle-class drug users. To regulate biotech, we would need a drug war against people trying to prolong their lives or enhance their mental and physical capacities, and presumably the middle class would not enjoy any exemption from punishment.


Bold Statement or Cop-Out?


The Bioethics Council's report has been widely praised, at the symposium and elsewhere, for raising the critical issues and moving the debate forward. I do not see it that way. By concentrating on ends and ignoring means, the Council has ducked what I see as the most fundamental ethical issue of all, which is whether concerns over biotechnology scenarios warrant a worldwide totalitarian dictatorship. If, as I would argue, such a dictatorship would be more dystopian than any of the scenarios that technology might create, then the report is really a cop-out.


Some of the toughest issues in bioethics involve means as well as ends. Will we curb freedom at the level of research, the level of development and marketing, at the level of consumption, or at all three?


Under decentralized decision-making, we are going to continue in the direction of conscious genetic selection, new techniques for physical and mental enhancement, artificial mood creation, and greater health and longevity. We have been doing these things for thousands of years by cruder means, and we are not going to stop now in the absence of a complete social redesign. Such a social redesign strikes me as more frightening than the dangers that it proposes to avoid.


My guess is that people who live through the middle of this century will feel sharp pangs of sadness from the discontinuity that will develop between life as it is lived today and life as it is lived in future decades. This troubles me. However, as concerned as I am about where biotech is taking us, I would rather take my chances on muddling through those issues than endure the heavy-handed centralized control that I believe would be needed to slow the biotech revolution.


If I am wrong, and there are ways to alter the shape of the biotech future without destroying the freedom in our society, then the ideas for those alternative mechanisms should be brought to the fore. Instead, discussing ends without means is almost meaningless.


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