TCS Daily

Zero-Sum Bioethics

By Arnold Kling - March 12, 2004 12:00 AM

"The problem [with biotechnology] is not the drift to mechanism but the drive to mastery. And what the drive to mastery misses and may even destroy is an appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements."
-- Michael J. Sandel, "The Case Against Perfection," The Atlantic Monthly, April 2004

The President's Council on Bioethics, of which Sandel is a member, has raised moral qualms about the potential results of biotechnology. Although Sandel's Atlantic article represents his own views, it strikes me as very similar in tone and substance to the official report that I first wrote about here in an article called "Biotech Ends and Means."

Reading Sandel's article, I noticed a concern that I have about the fundamental ethics that he espouses. I developed qualms about his qualms, so to speak.

Sports Metaphors

Like Leon Kass, the Chairman of the Bioethics Council, Sandel makes extensive use of sports metaphors. For instance, he writes, "as the role of enhancement increases, our admiration of the achievement fades -- or, rather, our admiration for the achievement shifts from the player to his pharmacist."

However, sports are a peculiar facet of human experience. They are inevitably zero-sum in character. For every winner, there is a loser. Each tournament has only one champion. When an athlete breaks a world record, the previous record-holder's title is eclipsed.

When Sandel argues that we should appreciate "the gifted character of human powers," this certainly strikes a sensitive chord when applied to sports. My guess is that many baseball fans still consider Babe Ruth the greatest homerun hitter of all time. Perhaps those of us who feel this way could demonstrate it by calculating "inflation-adjusted" home run totals: take the average number of home runs hit by each team's home run leader in a season as an index, and measure an individual player's home runs in that season relative to that index. My conjecture is that Ruth's "inflation-adjusted" power would exceed that of any subsequent baseball player.

But the only reason to contemplate an "inflation adjustment" to home run statistics is the zero-sum nature of records. If one player has the record, then other players do not. Otherwise, why does it matter?

Zero-Sum Thinking

In fact, many social phenomena -- particularly those that are studied by economists -- are not zero-sum games. In those cases, zero-sum thinking turns out to be quite counterproductive in attempting to trace out systemic implications.

For example, the mental model of international trade as a zero-sum game has long vexed economists. For two hundred years, we have been able to prove, mathematically, that the game of international trade has a positive sum. Both countries benefit from trade.

The zero-sum model of environmental economics also has been discredited. Because of substitution and technological change, we never run out of resources in the way that zero-sum thinking predicts.

Finally, zero-sum thinking is the wrong way to look at taxation. Zero-sum thinkers see taxes in terms of who pays them -- "the rich" vs. "the middle class," for example. In contrast, the economics of taxation looks at the activities that are stimulated or discouraged. For example, switching from an income tax to a consumption tax would encourage saving and investment, which would raise productivity and national income. But zero-sum thinking is that a consumption tax would not take as high a proportional share from "the rich." The 2004 Economic Report of the President, prepared by the Council of Economic Advisers, devotes an entire chapter to articulating the economics of tax incidence.

Positive-Sum Bioethics

From a positive-sum perspective, biotechnology is an enormous winner. In the area of pharmaceuticals, Frank Lichtenberg writes that, "On average, each new drug approved during the period 1970-91 saved 11,200 life-years in 1991 -- and presumably will do so in all future years." Comparing the value of life-years saved to the cost of drug approvals, Lichtenberg finds an average social return of 40 percent.

My guess is that the potential for quality-of-life gains is even higher. In fact, I would conjecture that the most effective way to reduce poverty in the United States is through biotechnology. The source of a lot of poverty is mental illness and lack of education. In theory, biotechnology could address those fundamental causes by providing treatment for schizophrenia, by thwarting alcohol and drug abuse, or by giving students greater powers of concentration and motivation to learn. The Bioethics Council wants to draw a line somewhere between therapy and enhancement, but where is that line? Which of these treatments would be unacceptable -- or, conversely, for which emotional handicaps is it unethical to provide a remedy?

Block that Metaphor

I do not claim to be an expert in biology or in ethics. I cannot say that it is necessarily wrong to be uneasy with where biotechnology might be taking us. My point, though, is that relying on sports as a metaphor for the human condition could be very misleading. The sports metaphor puts biotechnology into a zero-sum box. It probably does not belong there.


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