Jan 25, 2016 | By

What does your conscience say about human gene editing?

I recently read a series of articles dealing with conscience and culture posted under the Questions for a Resilient Future project of the Center for Humans and Nature. At about the same time, I also read a briefing in The Week on the CRISPR technique that has vastly simplified gene editing – the headline is titled “Editing the human race.”  (See also the post in this forum: “Engineering Better Babies” November 20, 2015.)   CRISPR is one among many technologies that, by their very existence, test our collective conscience.


Conscience is defined as an inner feeling or voice that acts as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of one’s behavior. According to some researchers, conscience is determined by our innate or instinctive moral judgment, which is biologically and culturally derived. From a religious perspective, conscience corresponds to the promptings of our better nature – the one attuned to the universal moral truths of faith accessible from God by revelation and prayer. In either case, one might describe conscience as a set of moral principles written on the human heart and mind that enable us to distinguish between right and wrong.

“Moral relativists” argue that such principles are derived from culture and experience and have no objective foundation – they will differ radically from time to time and culture to culture. However, researchers have found certain universal concepts seem to provide a common foundation for conscience in all human societies – things like loyalty, respect, compassion and fairness. How these common attributes are balanced by different individual and across cultures vary widely, nevertheless they seem to provide a common denominator for what it means to be human. According to the “value pluralists”, however, these various attributes do not “add up” – they reflect different, incommensurable moral dimensions. As a result, they may (and often do) come into conflict, in which case it may be impossible to decide what is “good”. This, perhaps, explains much about the clashes of tribes, kingdoms, civilizations and religions that fill the history books.   Moreover, humans have a very strong tendency for “within-group” moral absolutism – the incommensurability of different moral dimensions can become manifest as “between-group” hatred, resentment, war, genocide, slavery and other depredations.

Yet people do change. We are shaped by different cultures and experiences, so diversity in how one perceives and expresses universal moral themes — how one experiences conscience — is understandable. But the moral intuitions and judgments of an individual are also influenced by that experience and by contact with others. After all, humans learn – and our primary learning comes from interactions with other humans. As inter-personal and inter-cultural experiences and interactions become richer through trade, communication, education and travel our human hearts and minds change. Perhaps, over time, value pluralism will yield to increasingly universal moral sentiments, rooted in “the human empathic values of trust, humility, mutual respect and shared commitment” (see: The Tip of the Spear).


So what does conscience have to do with CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat)?   CRISPR refers to a remarkable new technique that enables scientists to edit targeted genetic sequences in a wide variety of plants and animals, including human embryos. Hence the title of the article: “Editing the Human Race”.  Our news post on “Engineering Better Babies” focused on the pragmatic difficulties of achieving the kind of control envisaged by the promoters of the technology.  But gene editing advocates propose using CRISPR, or more advanced forms of such technologies as they are developed, to eliminate unwanted traits from human embryos and to add desirable traits – effectively choosing future evolutionary pathways for the human race.

If human history is a guide, once a technological door has been opened, we will walk through it. What is imaginable becomes real. Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931. The human hatcheries he described may seem quaintly naïve in the context of modern genetic technology, yet they represented selection and control over the reproduction process – objectives that are entirely consistent with the goals of gene editing proponents today. Advanced gene editing techniques may be able to cure hereditary diseases – is this any different than using antibiotics to cure infectious disease? And who can dispute a parent’s desire to maximize opportunity for their child – if putative life-enhancing genetic adaptations are available.  As one geneticist was quoted in the Economist: “There may come a time when, ethically, we can’t not do this”.

The ethical issues regarding engineered humans are diverse. As in many medical treatments, there will be questions about benefits and costs. But what are the consequences when mistakes are made or if unanticipated side effects occur? Human genetic expression is an incredibly complex process that takes a lifetime, or even many lifetimes in the case of changes to the germ line, to fully observe. Presumably, maladaptive fetuses would be destroyed (anathema to many), but the tragic implications for any surviving living humans and their progeny of mistakes, oversights or unintended consequences are chilling to consider. Another fear is that this technology, like others, would only be available to the very wealthy or those in power – potentially resulting (over time) in a biologically permanent human caste system dominated by those who have been genetically enhanced. In light of the moral progress in recent centuries in breaking down barriers of caste and race, this turn of events would be fundamentally regressive. Beyond these is the deep and profound sense, shared by many, that life, particularly human life, is sacred. We should play “by the rules” – whether you believe these are laid down by the Divine Creator or through billions of years of evolution.

What does your conscience tell you about the choices our society should make on this matter? The moral relativist would say it is acceptable for moral norms to change in light of the science – why deny anyone the benefit of new technology? The value pluralist might say we should go slowly, until we know more, or until we have a consensus – seeking to thread the fine line between possible public benefits and abuse. But we cannot be naïve – legitimate qualms can quickly be pushed to the side if economic or political interests are involved (which they will be). Of course, many moral absolutists, particularly within certain religious communities, will maintain that we should have nothing to do with this technology as it usurps the role of God.

Perhaps there are universal moral considerations that can provide societal guidance on this issue?

First, we should be able to agree that if there are potential existential risks from a new technology, involving the survival of our species or the world as we know it, then that technology should not be deployed. Notably, the world has moved close to this principle (after the fact) in the handling of nuclear weapons. At this point the science of gene editing is highly uncertain and its consequences largely unknown. We cannot say that application of gene editing at scale does not have existential implications. One could also argue that comprehensive editing of the human genome qualifies as an existential threat to the human race “as we know it.”

Second, we should be able to agree that freedom from coercion, oppression and tyranny is a basic human right. Normal biological reproduction is subject to a form of randomness (or invisible order) that is not under direct human control — but whole-scale gene editing will replace that randomness with human choices that are imposed on the recipient. Is this, or could this be, a form of oppression and tyranny, as it clearly was in Huxley’s novel?   How would one define informed consent for medical treatment in this circumstance?

Third, it should be universally accepted that humans do not have perfect foresight, but often display an excessive and unjustified confidence in their conclusions. This risk of hubris is particularly high for those who are deeply embedded, in terms of personal pride, societal and career prestige, and financial rewards, in a particular field of endeavor, scientific or otherwise. Critical public policy choices, such as this one, require humility, honesty and transparency of the highest order. We need to be very clear and very cautious   in judging what we think we know against the unknowns, and against the possibility that a scientific conclusion or theory, even with a strong evidentiary base, can turn out to be completely wrong (as has occurred many times).

These are some of the reasons that my conscience is deeply troubled by the idea of gene editing at scale, and of human gene editing, specifically. Humanity is not wise enough, or humble enough, to make such choices on behalf of others. Clearly, however, more research is needed – and this research should be open and transparent and subject to appropriate limitations and oversight. Commercial application of gene editing should, in my view, be prohibited for the time being. Three billion years of evolution has resulted in immensely complex and highly interdependent systems that govern biological reproduction and growth, ecological adaptation and resilience, and genetic expression, body and brain development and immune response. We need to know much, much more about these systems before we can be confident that we can predict the consequences of genetic engineering at scale.

I hope those doing the science, those funding the science, and those who directly influence or regulate those choices, will collaborate on international protocols that limits this technology to research in controlled and transparent settings — for the time being.

6 Responses to “What does your conscience say about human gene editing?”

  1. George Gantz says:

    I suppose it should not come as a surprise that CRISPR, a technology so deep with promise (and peril), should run into some legal and commercial issues. As reported inThe Economist 2-20-16 on page 71-71, There is a patent fight underway between Dr. Doudna (UC Berkeley) and her Team, who first published the solution to a key step in the process, the ability to cut DNA at specific locations, and the Broad Institute / MIT Team of D. Feng Zhang that demonstrated CRISPS on mammalian cells. Commercialization is underway, but a decision on who ultimately claims commercial rights will be decided by the US Patent and Trademark Office. This will involve slicing a moral issue of a different sort – what is fair and who gets the payout.

  2. George Gantz says:

    I’m not sure if the researchers were using CRISPR or a simpler gene editing technique, but treatment for terminal cancer is certainly one area of human medicine where these techniques are showing great promise – and where sound research should be continued aggressively. See this article from the BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-35586834

  3. Kevin Gorman says:

    In general I am fine with gene editing that is done to correct errors, or to remove a disease causing sequence; however, I consider using this technology in an attempt to produce designer humans a very dangerous notion at our current level of understanding.

    What scares me is that no matter what I may think, nor how strong and rational the argument against it may be, there will be those who will pursue that goal. Such endeavors should be discouraged as maximally as possible. Any one discovered to be engaged in them should be stripped of there ability to do so, and strict oversight imposed on all of their future work.

    Unfortunately the fact is the genie is out of the bottle, and no matter how great the folly it is going to happen.

    • George Gantz says:

      Thanks, Kevin. I thought it interesting that you have to read the article very carefully to realize that the experimenters only report successful editing of the patient-derived stem cells – they did not put those cells back in the patient (no one has yet done so in humans). There may still be a long way to go….

      I share your concern that “the genie is out of the bottle” – and that some will pursue the technology to the very extremes. But I am also hopeful that global institutions can continue to develop and will ultimately influence the track that this pursuit will take.

  4. George Gantz says:

    “the world has moved close to this principle in the handling of nuclear weapons” — I posted this statement comment before reading an update in The Economist dated January 23, 2016 titled “Cruise Control”. As noted in the article, the US has continued to maintain, and may significantly enhance, its nuclear warfare capabilities. While the premise is one of deterrence, it is hard to argue that the readiness to deploy nuclear weapons does not pose a potential existential risk.

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