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Benjamin G. Gregg

Benjamin G. Gregg

  • Associate Professor (Department of Government, College of Liberal Arts)

Faculty Profile: Benjamin G. Gregg

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Four books: The Human Rights State (2016); Human Rights as Social Construction (Cambridge, 2012); Thick Moralities, Thin Politics (Duke, 2003); Coping in Politics with Intedeterminate Norms (SUNY, 2002) PROJECT 1: Human Nature as Cultural Design: The Political Challenge of Human Genetic Engineering I am working on a book manuscript (for Cambridge University Press), in nine chapters, titled Human Nature as Cultural Design: The Political Challenge of Human Genetic Engineering. This project justified by urgent need for social norms to guide a rapidly developing technology with far-reaching implications for the future of humankind. I propose a set of normative guidelines to orient a politic community’s deliberations on human genetic engineering and its regulation. I begin with the argument that we humans should regard our own nature as socially constructed rather than as something given naturally or supernaturally. I then examine one aspect that is widely considered a core component of our species (perhaps its single most significant attribute): our intelligence. I examine prospects of genetically engineering human intelligence. And of the many questions that pose themselves, I focus on two. First, is it ethical? The answer to this question depends on the ethics one invokes in answering it. Any answer is likely to involve one or the other of the many conceptions of human nature. If “human nature” is something natural, such as an aspect of a wholly naturalistic understanding of the evolved species homo sapiens, then engineering any part of it, including human intelligence, is not unethical from the standpoint of natural science because natural science has no moral content, indeed no meaning whatsoever. But over the last ten thousand years, this worldly nature has been interpreted non-scientifically again and again, for example from the otherworldly perspectives of religion and metaphysics. By contrast, modern biology has no concept of what philosophers, theologians, and poets call “human nature.” Still, modern secular political communities, such as liberal democratic nation states, need to socially construct a range of human natures for purposes of social organization. Above all, one or the other notion of human nature can be useful in grounding the normative legitimation of a system of laws and to guide some forms of public policy. In short, whether it is ethical to engineer human intelligence depends on what ethical system one deploys to answer this question. There are many ethical systems in history, and in the world today; no doubt, new ones will be developed in the future. All of these are incompatible with each other to various degrees; agreement on any one is in principle possible, but exceedingly unlikely today. The basis of such agreement would be a political act embracing globally a particular cultural understanding, for example like the widespread conviction today that slavery is unacceptable on any grounds. I then examine a second question about the prospects of genetically engineering human intelligence; it concerns desirability. Again, any answer to this question depends on one’s particular point of view. That is, here there are no “objective” or “neutral” standpoints. Further, propositions about nature can be true or false (as a matter of objectivity) whereas propositions about how people should be treated can be just or unjust (as a matter of intersubjective social construction). So the question is: For whom might it be desirable or undesirable? For the individual? For his or her community? For humankind? For the planet? In each case, both yes and no are plausible answers. After all, human intelligence in any environment is double-edged: it has no inherent moral compass and can facilitate just behavior as well as unjust,

decency no less than barbarism. I consider the individual: greater intelligence means a heightened capacity to imagine and realize goals — but it could just as well damn the recipient to the continual frustration of a world that will not bend to his or her will. I consider the community: heightened intelligence promises a more productive, creative, and thoughtful populace — but could also result in more aggressive, selfish persons better able than unenhanced citizens to take advantage of fellow citizens. I consider humankind: might a species of greater intelligence better find its way to a peaceful world of just communities — or to an intellectual, social, and material “arms race” among competing groups? Finally, I consider the planet: would a species of higher intelligence be a better steward of the fragile planet it shares with other species — or one more rapacious, because its heightened intelligence unleashed heightened needs and the will to realize them even at the planet’s expense? Running through possible different responses to this question — “For whom might genetically engineered human intelligence be desirable or undesirable?” — merely shows the obvious about any technology, any tool: that, by analogy, the knife that can save a life can also take a life. Less obvious, because necessarily hypothetical, are unintended consequences. The very fact of their not being intended marks such consequences as risks. Some risks follow simply from the powerful, exceeding complex interdependencies of various variables. While some risks pay off, others don’t. Is heightened intelligence worth that risk? We cannot yet know. Further, engineering costs money and, at least initially, only wealthy persons would be able to afford the enhancement. In this way, engineered intelligence would exacerbate existing social and economic disparities if, as seems likely, greater intelligence confers advantages in the various spheres of life in which people compete for advantage — spheres in which some are perpetual losers. In short, whether it is ethical and desirable to engineer higher intelligence depends not on the heightened intelligence as such but on the complex weave of social, political, economic, cultural and ecological factors that compose human communities. These factors constitute the environment in which bearers of engineered higher intelligence behave. I consider two factors in particular: wealth and influence. Money is power and people struggle mightily against each other to gain more wealth and wield greater influence, both as individuals and as groups and as nation states. If, as seems likely, heightened intelligence confers advantages, at least to some recipients, at least some of the time, at least in some circumstances, one can imagine a socially destabilizing struggle to control access to it — a struggle with winners, losers, and “collateral damage.” But not necessarily. Any estimation of the problems and prospects of human intelligence, whether engineered or not, will depend on some conception of human nature. From the standpoint of human nature understood as a social construction, the two questions I consider above find quite a range of answers in a context of deep, intractable, and abiding disagreement within communities and across cultures. But I would show that the idea of humankind directing, politically, the course of its own evolution need not mean taking control of the species’ genome. Instead, it could mean taking control of the socially constructed cultural environment in which genetic enhancement takes places. The moral and political question — is there some kind of human nature and, if so, what is it? — is then the question of what constitutes human well-being, just social arrangements, as well as individual and collective virtue. In short, it is not the question, What is our nature? but rather: What do we want our nature to be? This projects offers — in pla

of the current normative impasse in scholarship and public policy on the social implications of possible human genetic engineering in coming decades — humanistic recommendations for legislators and legal professionals, ethical perspectives for the scientific community, legal guidelines for various political communities, and practical perspectives for ordinary citizens. RECENT PROFESSIONAL ACTIVITIES IN SUPPORT OF THIS PROJECT Grants and Visiting Scholar Positions Supporting this Project: (1) Fulbright U.S. Scholar Grant (Fulbright –Johannes Kepler University of Linz Visiting Professor), Austria, Spring 2016; (2); Visiting Scholar, Hastings Center [for Bioethics] (Garrison, NY), Summer 2016; (3) Visiting Scholar, Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, Yale University, Summer 2016; (4) three-year grant for the Humanities Research Award, College of Liberal Arts, UT-Austin, 2014-2016. Publications to Date on Topic: (1) Human Rights as Social Construction (Cambridge University Press, 2012), chapter on genetic engineering; (2) “Genetic Enhancement: A New Dialectic of Enlightenment?” in Perspektiven der Aufklärung: Zwischen Mythos und Realität, ed. D. Wetzel, Paderborn, Germany: Fink (2012):133-146. (3) More in preparation. Dissemination: Cambridge University Press has accepted this manuscript for review for publication at the point of its completion. I disseminate through the American Political Science Association, the American Sociological Association, the European Consortium for Political Research, the Annual Conference of the Association for Social and Political Philosophy, and the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Study of Biology. I am regularly invited to present aspects of this project, including: 2016: “Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Biotechnik: Zur normativen Einschätzung der Humangenmanipulation” [On the Use and Abuse of Biotechnology: The Normative Evaluation of Human Genetic Manipulation], Fifth Annual International Hartheim Conference on “Genetische Optimierung: Gentechnik und Fortpflanzungsmedizin,” Alkoven, Austria, 19 November 2016: “Genetically Informed Personalized Education: Promises and Perils for Social Justice,” The Hastings Center, Garrison, New York, August 3 2016: “A Human Rights Framework for Evaluating the Genetic Engineering of Intelligence,” The Hastings Center, Garrison, New York, July 28 2016: University of Duesto, Pedro Arrupe Institute of Human Rights, Bilbao, Spain, 27-28 June 2016: Abteilung Kulturwissenschaften an der Kunstuniversität Linz, “Die menschliche Natur als Technologieprodukt: Träume und Albträume der Genmanipulation,” Linz, Austria, 1 June 2016: University of Helsinki, Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights, Helsinki, Finland, 25 May 2016: University of Oslo, Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, Oslo, Norway, 14 June 2016: DeCODE Genetics, Reykjavík, Iceland, 27 April 2016: Lund University, Faculty of Law, Lund, Sweden, 6 April 2015: “Fetus Ex Machina: The Political Challenge of Genetic Engineering,” Annual Meeting of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin at Madison, October 24 2015: “Fundamental Questions for Political Community Posed by Genetic Manipulation,” University of the West of Scotland, Paisely, UK, May 22 Contribution to an Edited On-Line Forum on Bioethics, 2016: Alison Nastasi, ed. “Is it Ethical to Genetically Engineer Higher Intelligence?” published 22 September 2016: Interview with Norwegian Journal, 2016: Toward informing the general public about specialized issues of significant political import, interview by Tori Aarseth of the Norwegian journal Ny Tid