Science and technology are at the forefront of our society today. Much that we do deals with progress, research, and development in the ever-growing technological sectors. However, the basic principles of ethics and morality shouldn’t change as a result of new technologies and the heart of modern debates in ethics and social morality lies on this precise idea. Modern advances in biotechnology and biomedicine, especially in the field of genetics, have opened the door to a mecca of new possibilities: the question remains whether the door opened a treasure chest of knowledge or a Pandora’s box.
In the light of this controversy in social philosophy it is important to fully understand the basics of human interaction in order to make accurate judgements on human flourishing. Karl Marx, though often noted as a political philosopher, provides invaluable insight into elements of social philosophy relevant to our modern bioethical debate in his 1844 Manuscripts. In essence, Marx posits that in our daily lives we take decisions that have unintended consequences, which then combine to create large-scale social forces which may have an utterly unpredicted effect. He states that humans are naturally social beings, and therefore society is the essential “unity of man with nature.” The decisions we make as a society should take into account the nature of our social relations and the potential consequences. Marx’s greatest argument against the capitalist system is that it fundamentally builds constructions that are in conflict with our human, social essence. This is the argument that can be extended today to the realm of modern genetic science.
We can consider the four principle mechanisms of human alienation from the Marxian discussion and apply these mechanisms to the modern bioethical debate. The four principle mechanisms of human alienation discussed by Marx are:
Alienation from product
Alienation from the act of production
Alienation from the species-being
Alienation from other human beings
Marxian Alienation: A Modern Context
The First Mechanism of Alienation
Marx argued that to achieve true human flourishing, we as individuals must first overcome the different mechanisms of alienation in order to express our full humanity in relation both to nature and one another, and framed this argument within the subtext of alienated labour. Marx defines alienation as the estrangement of humans from aspects of human nature. This human nature consisted of the particular set of vital drives and tendencies than man expressed, and therefore alienation can be said to be a state in which these human drives and tendencies are stunted to some degree. As the worker produces more, he becomes more alien to the object of his labor, his product. This objectification of labor establishes what Marx calls “the loss of and subservience to the object, and the appropriation as alienation.” What does this mean in the greater scheme of things? Let us consider the example of a modern factory worker. The factory worker comes to work daily and begins his line of work, which is usually a specific task within the larger framework of the factory. Let us assume he works at an automobile factory. The product of his labor is the automobile, a product that this worker will most likely pass on through the system without considering it beyond the scope of his work. The factory worker does not associate with this product once it has passed, though the factory benefits from the production of this item. As a matter of fact, the factory will benefit more as the worker produces more product, while the worker thinks less and less of the actual product of his labor. The labor becomes a means of procuring some means of survival within the system and the worker is detached from the product of his work altogether. Despite the mechanistic character of this image, the factory worker motif is applicable to our modern consideration of genetic intervention. If considering this Marxian system of alienation described above, genetic intervention brings one more consumer product into this world, the human individual himself. Genetic intervention simply presents itself as potentially developing into another consumer choice, further establishing the mechanism of alienation from product, the product being the individual. In a world where human individuals could possibly be altered or modified in the hopes of establishing some sort of enhancement, the individual himself becomes the object or product of labour. In principle, man is alienated to this product and cannot use this product as a tool of self-expression. Therefore, the idea of genetically intervening in the “production” of human individuals not only objectifies the human person but also significantly distorts the individual as a mirror of himself.
This notion of being able to develop an enhanced human individual using genetics and biotechnology has been recently termed “Yuppie Eugenics.” Eugenics refers to the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics). Yuppie Eugenics is in a sense genetic intervention focused primarily on genetic enhancement in order to produce progeny most advantageously suited for this world. Yuppie Eugenics goes beyond the call for intervening in addressing human ailment and disease by obliging the use of genetic enhancements to bring about more perfect persons.
There is however a strong arm of critics who argue this idea of enhancing the genome through selective intervention is only dream that cannot be achieved. This opposing viewpoint can be seen in a 2002 article in Z Magazine titled “Yuppie Eugenics” by Harvard professor Ruth Hubbard and Stuart Newman from the New York Medical College. According to Hubbard and Newman, Yuppie Eugenics simply “builds on the mirage that applications of genetics and biotechnology will be able to make us more perfect.” The arguments held by yuppie eugenicists are similarly echoed by those who favor genetic intervention in the name of procreative beneficence. Julian Savulescu, the Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, is one of the premier proponents of the procreative beneficence argument for genetic intervention. Procreative beneficence argues that parents are morally obliged to do everything in their capacity to provide the best possible chance for their progeny, which includes intervening genetically if it would prove to most advantageous for the progeny. Savulescu argues that many “non-disease genes” can affect the likelihood of an individual leading the best possible life, therefore, it is morally justifiable to use genetic intervention to enhance these non-disease genes and provide the best possible life. This enhancement is in addition to genetic intervention targeted at deleterious genes that an individual may possess. Savulescu goes on to say that individuals in all good reason should use information that may be available in reproductive decision-making.
Let us reconsider the Marxian mechanism of alienation of the product. If we define a product as the finished object of our labour, and through genetic intervention (labour) we reproduce an enhanced individual, we can justifiably categorize that individual as the product of genetic engineering. Marx points out that we as human beings are in principle detached from our product. This principle, when extended to human genetic engineering would imply that engineered progeny stand alienated from the paternal generation of individuals. A strict Marxist determination would consider genetic intervention a threat to the flourishing of a human individual. A more modern interpretation of more traditional Marxian principle can be seen through the social philosophies of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. In his book The Future of Human Nature, Habermas first differentiates genetic intervention into therapeutically focused and enhancement focused. Therapeutic genetic intervention is justifiable under the premise of liberal morality, whereas genetic enhancements cannot be morally justifiable. According to Habermas, three major focus points indicate that genetic intervention, excluding that for therapeutic purposes, cannot be morally justifiable. First, the programmers, those exacting the intervention, essentially impose their own personal preferences upon the individual they are “enhancing.” The alteration of the genetic identity of an individual basically knocks down any notion of equality between members of a society. Some members are given the right to alter the identity of others, making them superior to those being altered. One of the basic tenets of the Marxian liberal society is the presupposition that all individuals are equal. Secondly, the “subjective self-perception” of the programmed will be affected by knowing of ones existence as one programmed by another. Finally, the society that accepts the practice of genetic intervention as commonplace indicates the society relinquishes its grasp of morality and the liberal ideal therefore fails. In essence, the individual becomes alienated from the person he “creates” through genetic intervention.
The Second Mechanism of Alienation
The second mechanism of Marxian alienation is that of the act of production, in this case, the act of reproduction. Why do we as human individuals reproduce? If we can create the perfect human baby through prenatal genetic modifications, what stops society from tailoring reproduction to satisfy the profit seeking goals of the system. The Marxian critique would be that genetic intervention allows the act of reproducing individuals becomes impersonal and benefit driven. Individuals would be tailored to produce the greatest amount and provide the greatest benefits to the society. Therefore the act of reproduction becomes a form of societal manufacturing. According to Marx, the markets direct our lives by dictating production as a function of profitability. Establishing genetic intervention as normalized practice would then allow the trends of society to determine what classification of individuals would be most profitable to that society. There are obvious problems with such a system, many of these echoing the first mechanism of alienation. The people who “manufacture” new individuals become desensitized to the object of their work, they see progeny as a product and reproduction itself becomes an impersonal means to that product. The society becomes debased from the structures of liberal morality and therefore falters from the liberal ideal.
The Third Mechanism of Alienation
The third mechanism of Marxian alienation is that between man and the species being. The species being was a term that was coined by Karl Marx when he discussed what he believed to be the closest thing to “human nature.” Marx did not believe in the traditional theory of a human nature as an entity that incarnated itself within a physical human body. Instead, Marx proposed a theory of “human nature” that was representative of the sum of social relations. Since social relations could change and adjust with time and certain circumstances, Marx believed the species being is always determined in a specific social and historical formation, with some biological subtext. Once could consider the species being as a sort of aggregation of human natures within a particular society. With this in mind it easy is to understand why Marx believed humans were capable of making or shaping their own nature. An important question is whether we sacrifice the integrity of the species-being if we consider only genetic intervention in terms of individual reproductive liberties? In order to better answer this question it seems appropriate to discuss what Habermas terms the “species ethic.” Ethical issues dealt with “identity-forming beliefs that have to do with out self descriptions that guide our own identification as human beings…our self understanding as members of the species,” (pp 38-9) as opposed to moral issues that dealt with things that have to do with the just way of life and the just arrangement within society. Ethical questions therefore focused on considerations of who we are as human beings and how we define our lives and ourselves. In a society where all members maintain an “abstract morality of reason,” every individual establishes an ethical self-understanding, which we call the species-ethic. Recalling what Marx himself discussed in terms of human nature: “the human essence of nature primarily exists only for social man.” Marx establishes that man is a social being, and the human essence that he possesses is only a function of his social character. He goes on to state that “society is the completed, essential unity of man with nature,” and that “my own existence is social activity; what I make from myself I make for society, conscious of my nature as social.” This idea that the human essence exists as a consequence of human social interaction is fundamental to applying Marxian social philosophy to out modern discussion. What science does today is by its very nature, a social activity. What they discover and what they conclude is subject to the social constructions that they inhabit. Now reconsider the question of whether we sacrifice the integrity of the species-being if we consider genetic intervention only in terms of individual reproductive liberties? If we appeal to man’s human essence or human nature, we must appeal to a broader, social level because human essence can only exist on a broader social level. Therefore we are not satisfying the true scope of the species-being if we narrow our consideration to the individual reproductive liberties of an individual over that of the society at large. Reconsider previous points made about the affects on those who intervene and the effects on those who are genetically altered; it seems that these consequences arise when considerations of the community of individuals are relegated behind the considerations of individual reproductive liberties. This holds especially true when considering the third consequence discussed earlier, the degradation of the liberal morality of the society as a result of normalizing something like genetic intervention practices.
The Fourth Mechanism of Alienation
The fourth mechanism of Marxian alienation is that from other human beings. The alienation that results from the labour and production of material items essentially subordinates human interaction to the relationship between things. Human interaction becomes impersonal to the individuals involved. Therefore, this alienation converts the social relationships of men into relationships between property owners. The true conscious existence of man is social activity and social satisfaction, since man himself is a social being. By refusing the social aspect of man and the social needs of man’s daily existence, an impersonal chasm develops between individuals within a society. Is then the geneticization of the human individual simply reinforcing the alienation of man from man? Is not the reduction of men to genes in essence substantiating the inequalities present within society, especially in genetic intervention presents a clear choice for individuals to make. Richard C. Lewontin, a prominent American scientist who pioneered in modern genetic analysis and fathered the field of molecular evolution, also established himself in the field of social biology and evolutionary psychology. Lewontin has repeatedly voiced his concerns about the modern trend towards the oversimplification of genetics. How can we so easily reduce the most complex of human traits and characteristics to the scope of gene sequences in our DNA. In his book Biology as Ideology, Lewontin counters mainstream arguments for genetic determinism by explaining that much of the variation observed in nature is neither genetic nor environmental bur rather attributable to random variable growth, something he calls developmental noise. Attributing variation to developmental noise is not, he argues, the same as saying the differences were coded in genes. Another determinist idea is that of individual capacities. Certain proponents of genetic determinism argue that every organism is the coupled result of both environmental and genetic factors; however, natural variation is a sign that organisms may have varying capacities of development. Lewontin not only counters that there is no substantial biology to back this theory but also explains the dangerous potential of such ignorantly based ideologies about an individual. Genetic variations exist everywhere in nature and as often is the case, no single variation can be said to be absolutely superior to another. Certainly particular genetic variations display greater success in specific environments, but that cannot posit a clearly superior or inferior trait. Therefore organismal capacity is insufficient in accounting for variation. In Not in Our Genes, Lewontin along with fellow colleagues question much of the claimed heritability of human behavioral traits such as intelligence as measured by IQ tests. Lewontin even disregarded some of the lofty claims of the Human Genome Project under the premise that much that the HGP claimed simply assumed too much in the promise of the gene code. Lewontin analyzes the HGP in his book It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome Project and Other Illusions, stating “There is no aspect of our lives, it seems, that is not within the territory claimed by the power of DNA… greatly promised advances have yet to be realized from the sequencing of the human genome” (176). Chapter 5 of this book begins with Lewontin defining fetish: an inanimate object worshipped by savages on account of its supposed inherent magical powers, or as being animated by a spirit. Lewontin provides this definition in the chapter aptly titled “The Dream of the Human Genome” with the apparent implication of making the comparison of the HGP with a sort of scientific fetish. Lewontin makes some very good points in this analysis. Certainly, there have been cases through the development of the genetic field where individuals have taken genes beyond the scope of their potential, in the attempts to substantiate certain social agendas with apparent scientific backing. When we reexamine the fourth mechanism of alienation that Marx details, it is possible to consider serious social ramification of allowing genetic intervention to become a commonplace practice. An inevitable consequence would be the geneticization of inequality within social systems. It is fundamentally evident that as people begin developing preferential selectivity for genetic character traits, there must also be some implicit selection against certain traits. In an equitable liberal system this imbalance in individual standards is impermissible in order to maintain stability. In this case, genetic intervention not only reinforces the alienation between men but also seems to scientifically substantiate the claim that genetic variability may indicate superior and inferior genes.
There is a strong modern trend towards providing individuals a choice when dealing with genetic intervention, or what some term procreative liberty. Proponents argue that the freedom to deal with cases of genetic intervention should be counted among the several other liberties that democratic constitutions entitle to individuals today. In his 2003 position paper in the American Journal of Law & Medicine titled “Procreative Liberty in the Era of Genomic,” philosopher John A. Robertson makes a lengthy case on the side of an individuals right to choose how to deal with genetic intervention on a case-by-case basis. Robertson claims that in fact genetic intervention presents prospective parents with better methods of ensuring that their offspring will “live satisfying lives and be able to produce and care for offspring themselves,” and goes on further to say “legal prohibitions on genetic screening of the health of prospective offspring would appear to be an unjustified violation of an individual’s procreative liberty” (460). Robertson tends to affirm much of the claims expressed by proponents of procreative beneficence while delineating a difference between traditional eugenic practice and what he calls “private eugenics” where genetic screening techniques to ensure a healthy child does not show the “abusive features” of earlier eugenic practices. Finally, in accordance with his claim of procreative beneficence, Robertson indicates that in cases of genetic intervention, the parents have a moral obligation to ensure the best chance for their offspring.
Marxian social philosophy is aged and storied yet it still presents solid principles that have strong modern applications. The theory of alienated labour can be used to describe the modern debates about the roles of genetic science in a very modern liberal society. The fundamental idea that is conveyed today through the Marxist tradition as it pertains to this genomic era is a call for caution and moderation. Modern interpretations of this traditional message can be observed in the texts of Jürgen Habermas and even Richard Lewontin and the arguments are very clear. The social consequences of not showing restraint as the field of modern molecular genetics develops are important to assess and be aware of. Although proponents of genetic intervention argue on behalf of procreative beneficence and procreative liberties, the Marxist intellectual would advise to err on the side of caution and restraint.
Habermas, Jurgen. The Future of Human Nature. Cambridge, UK: Polity P, 2004.
Lewontin, Richard C. Biology as Ideology. New York: Anansi P Limited, 1991. 16-37.
Lewontin, Richard C. It Ain’t Necessarily So: the Dream of the Human Genome Project. New York: New York Review of Books, 2000. 135-186.
Lewontin, Richard C., Steven Rose, and Leon J. Kamin. Not in Our Genes. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.
Marx, Karl, selections from “1844 Manuscripts” (Alienated Labor; Private Property and Communism) and from “The German Ideology,” in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, L. Simon (ed.), (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 1994).
Savalescu, Julian: 2001, “Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children,” Bioethics 15: 5.
Shannon, Thomas A., ed. “Genetics: Science, Ethics, & Public Policy.” Readings in Bioethics. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Inc., 2005.