The Case for Designer Babies

Georgetown philosophy professor Jason Brennan has an excellent post defending a prospect that many people find repugnant: the possibility that we might soon have “designer babies,” such that parents can use genetic engineering to increase their babies’ intelligence and other abilities. One major concern about designer babies is that it would lead to huge inequalities between the rich (who, it is assumed, will be the only people who can afford designer baby technology) and the rest of society.

Jason points out that if designer baby technology follows the same trajectory as most previous technological innovations, it will, over time, become available to the vast majority of society, even if initially only to the rich. More interestingly, he contends that designer baby technology would be a net benefit to the rest of us even if it does greatly increase cognitive inequality. That’s because increasing the proportion of people with unusually high intelligence or other abilities creates valuable potential trading partners for the rest of us. For example, if humans someday make contact with race whose intellectual and physical abilities are vastly superior to others, (such as Star Trek’s Vulcans), we could benefit enormously from the resulting relationship, in part precisely because of the Vulcans’ intellectual superiority (at least so long as they did not conquer or enslave us, which is not a likely prospect with high-IQ designer babies, even if it might be more of a concern with super-intelligent extraterrestrials).

Another way of putting Jason’s point is to ask whether we would support the mandatory application of a technology that would ensure that all babies in future generations have IQs no higher than 120 (but the rest of the IQ distribution would be the same). That would greatly reduce cognitive inequality in our society. But it would also make the vast majority of people worse off, including most of those whose IQs would have been lower than 120 in any case. Future generations would lose the benefits that would have been created by future Aristotles, Einsteins, and Newtons. People whose own abilities are average or worse derive great benefit from the presence of those with much greater ability. Increasing the proportion of the latter in the next generation is likely to increase those benefits. And what is true of intelligence is also likely to be true of most other abilities that could be enhanced through genetic engineering, such as athletic and artistic capabilities.

In this 2012 post, I addressed the related concern that genetic cognitive enhancement might undermine political equality. There, I pointed out that if cognitive enhancement follows the pattern of previous technological developments and gradually becomes available to everyone, it might actually reduce cognitive inequality over time rather than increase it. For example, if genetic engineering enables everyone to achieve an IQ of 180, people who would otherwise have average or below-average IQs will gain a lot more than the Einsteins and Newtons of the world.

It’s also worth noting that cognitive enhancement could potentially help alleviate the problem of political ignorance. Today, rational ignorance leads most people to devote only very limited time and effort to acquiring political information, and most of us can learn and analyze only a small amount of knowledge without spending more time than we are willing to devote to the task. But vastly improved cognitive abilities could potentially enable us to acquire and analyze much more information without devoting any more time and effort to the task than we do now. I briefly discuss this possibility in Chapter 7 of my book on political ignorance.

Obviously, it could turn out that designer babies with vastly increased abilities are technologically infeasible, or at least a long time away. But some scientists believe that they might become a real possibility in the short to medium term future. So the issue is at least worthy of serious consideration.

As Jason Brennan recognizes, there are other possible objections to designer babies that are unrelated to inequality. For example, it could turn out that the technology is too unreliable or too unsafe to use effectively. Many people also reject the whole concept because it seems icky or “unnatural.” But the inequality objection is one that is often put forward, and it is important to assess its strengths and weaknesses.