King for a Day? On What’s Wrong With Changing the World for the Better

Philosopher Russell Blackford argues that regulatory authorities should not allow “the tyranny of mere public opinion” to impede technological advances in genomics. I disagree strenuously. To explain why, let’s talk for a minute about … Mark Zuckerberg.

It was perhaps the last big Silicon Valley news story of 2015: Facebook’s CEO blew the headlines wide open when he and Dr. Priscilla Chan announced that they will dedicate 99% of their Facebook shares to their eponymous charitable LLC within their lifetimes. Widespread adulation was the order of the day.

You don’t have to be Gawker gadfly Sam Biddle to find some cause for concern, though. Two unelected, unaccountable magnates now wield a $45 billion policymaking LLC, unimpeded by the usual tax-law strictures for charitable organizations. They can and will remake swaths of the world as they see fit. What’s your recourse if you disagree with their definition of “better”? (Think you’ll never disagree? I’ve got some New Jersey charter schools to sell you.)

So, why rehearse the well-worn debate over philanthropy’s democratic legitimacy on a law and biosciences blog? Money isn’t the only way to change the world. Teams of scientists are closing in on the ability to alter the entire biosphere on the genomic level. With Blackford (and other august voices) calling on bioethics to “get out of the way” of advancing genetic technology, I want to discuss a reason to get in the way. It’s not so much about ethics (as we usually envision it) as about political philosophy. I’d exhort us to be quicker to ask: who died and made you king?

Playing God, or Playing King?

If the idea of world-scale biohacking strikes you as grandiose science fiction, that’s because a few years ago it was. Enter two new technologies: CRISPR and gene drive. In brief, CRISPR enables genetic scientists to edit a creature’s genome quickly, easily, and accurately. Gene drive allows the resultant creature to propagate variant alleles by mating with the wild-type, which opens the door to eventually rewriting genomes on the population level.

What might someone do with the combined power of CRISPR and gene drive? One much-discussed possibility: eventually render every last mosquito in the world sterile. An extinction event that even the conservationist in your life will love! Other ideas can be cribbed from the world of GMO agriculture — altering plants to improve their resilience, nutrition, or efficiency. Or consider uses in virology, perhaps in the form of an attempt to neutralize disease-causing viruses by scrambling their genomes. Other than the ever-receding bounds of scientific plausibility, the imagination is the only limit.

Over at The Conversation, Oxford’s Jonathan Pugh has helpfully summarized the ethical debate over mosquito modification. He raises and (rightly) rejects the concern that such an intervention would amount to “playing God,” a morally impermissible display of hubris.

This seems right. If an objection to gene tinkering grounds out in some metaphysically pious assertion about humans stepping out of their proper place in the cosmos, then a) why do we owe respect to this alleged cosmic ordering and b) have we not already upturned it a thousand times over?

Still, I believe that something morally relevant can be salvaged from the philosophical wreckage of the playing-God objection. Call it the “playing-king” objection. Roughly: it’s objectionable for an actor to alter nature or policy, even benevolently, if the actor has not somehow shared ownership of the decision with the people to be impacted by the alteration. To borrow the disability rights slogan, “nothing about us without us.”

Having a Stake, Having a Say

One of the things that law school gave me is a deep appreciation for process. An otherwise good action can be objectionable because it was not done by the book. That’s not a reason to engage in rigid rule-worship (a handy but ultimately facile accusation to levy at proceduralists). It does mean that we should exercise thoughtful caution in departing from procedure. Every time someone with power bends the rules in service of even the noblest ends — if you’ll pardon the melodrama — tyranny tightens its stranglehold on the rule of law.

The ancient Greeks helpfully pioneered a highly scalable procedure for making policy decisions of public significance, one that ensures thorough vetting and stakeholder input. That may seem an odd way to describe democracy, but the shoe nonetheless fits. Today, we constrain popular rule somewhat, balancing it with various forms of technocratic governance by elites and experts. But the general principle still holds: when we all have a stake in something, we all have at least an indirect say in it.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative treads on this principle, as corporate power does all too often (Facebook’s quotidian operations included). Ecosystem-level bioengineering threatens not just to tread on, but to trample it. That’s a problem, even if either undertaking appears sound on the utilitarian’s spreadsheet. A net-positive course of action still has winners and losers. (Show me a costless decision of political significance and I’ll show you an unduly narrow method of measuring cost.) Even if Facebook’s bosses prove to be enlightened philosopher-kings who never misdirect a single dollar, their rise to power still had unpalatable consequences: just ask East Palo Alto’s displaced denizens.

Sure, many trade-offs might be morally worthwhile on the whole. But demonstrating that is not enough. We also require a political theory answering why the worthwhile nature of the tradeoff ought to be determined unilaterally rather than democratically. Absent that, to deprive stakeholders of their say is to bend the rules for (what we’ll have to trust are) noble ends. That is, at best, a morally questionable procedure; more practically, once you iterate it more than a handful of times, it’s a great way to further immiserate the world’s least powerful citizens on the whole while the most powerful feel no consequence.

History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes with itself.
We’ve seen this movie before.

Opponents of robust ethical oversight in science often stress “the cost of doing nothing,” arguing that the potential benefits snuffed out by regulatory intermeddling are vastly underestimated.[1] Let’s grant the premise: delaying science for the sake of ethics and democracy costs X amount of preventable suffering and death. It is nonetheless also true that moving forward as quickly as possible carries risks. Often — generally — the risks are palatable in comparison to the costs, and we move forward.

But. But! Who decides when the benefits outweigh the risks? The faster and more unilaterally we apply new technology to global problems, the more we implicitly appoint ourselves as the moral betters of the people we’re affecting. Political equality suffers. This is a real and nontrivial moral cost. Simply hanging one’s hat on the harm of delaying technological progress skates blithely over it.

What Can Be Done?

Time for a flurry of qualifications. I reject, as impractical and counterproductive, the idea that we could abolish private charity as undemocratic, or subject every innovation with genomic implications to a worldwide consensus requirement. I may not like the idea of being partly governed by Bill Gates. But I like at least some of what he has done with his fortune, and I’m not ready to expropriate his foundation’s assets and toss them in the tax coffers. (Under this Congress??)

Nor do I characterize direct democracy as an overriding, boundless good. My feelings toward the contemporary administrative state are moderately favorable; I like that it largely insulates governance by experts from the ignorance of mob rule. Putting the EPA’s or FDA’s daily decisions back in the hands of Congress, or on national referenda, would be disastrous.

Finally, I’m not committing myself to some bizarre moral / political philosophy in which procedural rules strictly override benefit maximization. Rather, I’m advocating farsighted consequentialism that pays due attention to systems design. Empowering individual humans to implement their idiosyncratic utility-maximization schemes without quality control and feedback mechanisms is a fantastically reliable way to generate disutility in the long run. “Government of laws and not of men,” and so on and so forth.

My recommendation comes not in the form of a specific policy or institutional structure, but rather an ethos. Namely: cultivate a keen eye for creeping unilateralism. What the debates around Facebook and CRISPR / gene drive signal is that ours is an age of unprecedented opportunity for individuals and groups seeking to change the world by wielding vast sums of money or powerful technology. We can’t stop this from happening altogether: such thinking is fanciful (indeed, dangerous). But we should at least name what is happening as it happens, especially because it is so easy to paper over the political significance of world-changing decisions with the slick Silicon Valley post-political patois of “design” and “engineering.”

We oughtn’t acquiesce to a two-tiered society where a biotechnologist and I, or you and a billionaire, are not political equals. (We’ve already slipped far enough down that road for my taste.) On a practical level, that means regarding Zuckerberg and Chan’s peculiar philanthropic venture with healthy skepticism even as we praise their charitable spirit. And it means that when a plan to modify, e.g., the mosquito genome faces review by a body tasked with vindicating the public interest, we remind Blackford and others grumbling about red tape that nobody’s ownership interest in society is bigger than anybody else’s.

Look, at the end of the day I’d almost certainly vote to get rid of the pestilential, odious mosquito. But there is no idea so good that we can dispense with some attempt to hear everybody’s concerns about it. There are some benefits I might thank you for foisting on me ex post, but ex ante I’d prefer to have a system in which we keep the foisting to a minimum. Contrary to the lamentably popular maxim holding the reverse, it’s far better to ask for permission than for forgiveness.

[1] They sometimes emphasize this with a frankly unnerving vehemence; see e.g. the over-the-top comments on this article.