Khantian Ethics


(I’m so punny.)

Anyway!  I’m taking a medical ethics class through TCC right now, and one of our discussions is over genetic engineering.  In my original post, I… sort of went crazy?  At any rate, I ended up writing exactly 941 words on Star Trek, genetic engineering/enhancement, and Kantian ethics.  People (by which I mean Lillian) have expressed a desire to read this super-mega-meta post, so I’m copying and pasting it below.  The prompt, in a nutshell, was to analyze the ethical theories present in three articles and then to analyze their arguments in terms of whatever ethical theory you chose.

Here, then, is my logorrhific post:




(Yeah, at the risk of plucking the low-hanging fruit, I’m going to talk about Star Trek in this post.)

Although Pinker devotes most of his ink to explaining in scientific terms why genetic enhancement is unlikely to be commonplace anytime in the near future, he does mention the possibility that some genes could have both beneficial and harmful effects (like the gene that could boost IQ by ten points or give someone torsion dystonia – page 817), and he questions whether the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks.  That smacks of utilitarianism – consequentialism, to be specific.  Sandel acknowledges natural law arguments, but he uses a more Kantian approach to caution against any sort of genetic enhancement.  He believes (and, side note, I agree completely) that genetic enhancement would lead to a whole new form of classism in which the non-enhanced (which could be the very poor, depending on how accessible enhancement is) are seen as unfit and subhuman.  Bedau really doesn’t concern himself with the ethical implications of research into synthetic cells, vaguely citing concerns about “safety and security” (page 841) and saying that of course they should be “adequately met.”  However, his article is very much an exercise in determinism, given that his ultimate claim is that “we, too, are complex chemical mechanisms.”  In this respect, he would be in accord with David Eagleman.  He proposes in his last paragraph that the important ethical questions that would arise from a more complete understanding of life as we know and don’t know it should be addressed scientifically – basically, the ethical code he uses here is one of determinism.

Alright, now I’m going to talk about Star Trek (yay), because it applies perfectly to this discussion.  Even if you’ve never watched an episode of Star Trek in your life, I would bet a considerable sum that you at least know who Khan Noonien Singh is (no thanks to JJ Abrams and co. and their awful whitewashing in Star Trek Into Darkness – but that’s a whole other animal).  If you don’t, here’s a intro, which I will endeavor to make as brief as possible:  Khan Noonien Singh was one of quite a few genetically-enhanced superhumans created on Earth in the late 20th century.  These superhumans were literally bred to rule the world.  But something went horribly wrong (as such things always do in sci-fi) in the form of the 1990s eugenics wars.  Khan and his fellow superhumans fought on one side in the eugenics wars, and when it became obvious that they wouldn’t win, they went into some sort of cryo-sleep on a ship called the S.S. Botany Bay and drifted in space for something like 200 years.  This was the context provided in the episode of the original Star Trek TV series titled “Space Seed,” when Captain James Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise discovered the Botany Bay and brought Khan out of stasis.  Khan fooled the crew into thinking he meant them no harm.  However, he still believed himself to be innately superior, and he had dreams of ruling humanity again, so he tried to hijack the Enterprise, along with several of his superhuman companions who he secretly brought out of stasis.  Fortunately, Kirk and his first officer/t’hy’la Spock managed to stop Khan and his cronies and exile them to a planet called Ceti Alpha V.  But that wasn’t the end of Khan’s story.  In the second Star Trek movie, titled Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan, a considerably aged Khan tried to get revenge on Kirk because – little did Kirk know – after the superhumans were exiled to Ceti Alpha V, the planet’s star system exploded and turned the planet barren, killing most of the inhabitants.  Khan still blamed Kirk, though, for wrecking his evil-dictator fantasies.

…wow, that wasn’t very brief, was it?  But my point with all this is that Khan’s storyline, together with Kantian ethics, perfectly sums up why genetic engineering (in the context of enhancement rather than correcting an existing medical problem, which is a really important distinction to make!) should be avoided.  I mentioned earlier that Sandel cited a specific type of social dynamic that would result from mainstream genetic enhancement – those who are enhanced are held in higher esteem in multiple respects than those who have received no enhancement.  In fact, it’d probably result in a multi-level social system – the more enhancements you have, the more respected and privileged you are.  The same thing has happened with money in today’s society, after all.  It’d be even more pronounced with genetic enhancements, though, especially if/when the technology progresses to the point where (as mentioned in the discussion description) people can enhance themselves.  The American dream, after all, glorifies the self-made.  Those who can’t make themselves (in the eyes of the privileged, anyway) are at best treated with scorn.  Those who can’t make themselves better in a genetic sense will be treated as subhuman.  Khan Noonien Singh exemplifies this perfectly.  He believes wholeheartedly that his genetic modifications make him superior to the crew of the Enterprise not just in muscle mass or in IQ, but in innate worth.  Regular ol’ humans, in Khan’s book, deserve to be ruled by superhumans like him, especially him.  His massive superiority complex brought about much suffering, both in the eugenics wars and in Kirk’s encounters with him.  This brings a special symbolism to Khan’s dual defeats, one that holds true to the Kantian principle that everyone counts equally.  In the world of Star Trek, absolutely everyone – regardless of race, skillset, species, sexual orientation, or any other potential difference – is equal.  No one is, to quote Orwell, “more equal than others.”


There you go.  Food for thought.


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