The Newsletter of the Philosophical Discussion Group
Of British Mensa

Number 102 : August 2000

May 2000 : Theo Todman


NOTE : This paper was delivered at the PDG Conference, Braziers Park, May 2000. Apologies for the repetition of much of this from Commensal 100 (March 2000). There are significant additions and expansions.

On the evening of Friday 21st January, I attended one of the Royal Institute of Philosophyís weekly London public lectures. The lecture was delivered by David Cooper, Professor of Philosophy at Durham University, with the Chair occupied by Anthony OíHear (Professor of Philosophy at Bradford University, Director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy & Editor of its Journal Philosophy). The lecture was concerned with the Philosophy of Technology and the Philosophy of the Environment, and why the two should be so inter-linked. During one discussion thread, Professor Cooper suggested that if we adjust the genes of a bull to make it quiescent (while keeping it sexually fertile) we are "violating its integrity", and asked whether there was something about this that would be deemed repellent to most people ?

I wrote up the subsequent discussion, in which I played a substantial part, for Commensal, including a critique of elements of my position by one of the subscribers to PDGList. I will re-open this debate this evening as a warm-up session for the week-endís conference, which focuses on ethics, as a way of getting us thinking about these topics - in particular the possible connection between ethics and aesthetics. It will also open up the question of the ethics and dangers of genetic engineering - one of the hottest topics of our times, and one on which a lot of irrational hot air is wasted.

My intention in this introductory talk is to outline the bones of the discussion, correcting some of my errors along the way, and then leave us with some questions to discuss further. If anyone has a burning issue that they fear will get lost, would they please restrain themselves until I get to the list of questions, when they can tack it on to the items for further discussion.

What does it mean to violate something ? A dictionary will tell us that it is to abuse, profane, defile or do violence to it. And "integrity" ? The wholeness of a thing. Maybe, what makes it what it is.

There is a difference between violating a thing in its own perception and in the perception of those who value it. The former violation is certainly an ethical question, but applies only to sentient beings currently conscious of their past history. The latter can also be an ethical question - particularly if the violation has been to a sentient being no longer sufficiently sentient as a result - but can also be an aesthetic one where sentience is not involved - though violating the sensibilities of the tender-hearted or artistic is presumably an ethical issue. There is also a distinction between the effects of a course of action on an individual and that on whole populations leaving no unviolated remainder.

Getting back to our original example, I had questioned whether the new animal was still a bull, or whether it had become something else, and suggested that thereís a distinction between quiescing a bull by lobotomising it and simply breeding one that is quiescent - whether by genetic engineering or by natural means. We will come back to the "is it a bull ?" question later.

I think the distinction between modifying the future state of an individual and creating it in that state is perfectly valid, even though the end result may be the same. In the former case, the bullís expectations (assuming it has any) and its present experience have been violated, whereas in the latter, the bull had no pre-existence and what we have done is to bring into existence something that is in some sense inferior to what it might otherwise have been. We will return to this theme later, when we come onto the dangerous ground of human procreation. We can draw a parallel with One Flew Over the Cuckooís Nest, where - in the film version - the Jack Nicholson character is lobotomised to eradicate his rebellious tendencies and the pseudo-dumb Indian character suffocates him. I presume this is to prevent his pious memory being violated by his present diminished existence, but it might be for other reasons we might debate. Maybe he does this because he believes that the Jack Nicholson character is imprisoned by his present diminished condition and that by euthanising him he is liberating him from his misery. Liberation is definitely a theme of the end of the film.

We might ask ourselves whether any objections we might have to genetically engineered quiescence are due to its "unnatural" nature rather than to any concern for the individual or the germ-line. Has humanity violated wolves by breeding lap-dogs from them ? Are lap-dogs violated wolves ? Do we object to the existence of many breeds of dog on this account ? We probably ought to as some of them are chronically debilitated by the strange somatic variations breeders have thrust upon them. Alternatively, is the issue one of gradualism versus instantaneous change ? Do we not notice if the change is gradual in an evolutionary manner, whether natural or humanly directed ?

Getting back to the "is it a bull ?" question, we must also ask ourselves whether "natural kinds" really exist - is the talk about "bulls" having integrity that can be violated really a Platonic notion that there is an ideal form of a bull in the heavens somewhere, to which real-life bulls approximate to greater or lesser degrees ? Is the notion of natural kinds undermined by evolution, in which organisms are always adapting to their environments (or not - and becoming extinct) - so there never is an immutable proper form for them to be ? If thereís not a proper form for a bull to be, how can we violate it by breeding or engineering it to be something different ?

My view would be a consequentialist one - at least as far as an individual is concerned. If the individual is brought into being in a situation wherein it can be happy - ie. the sum total of auto-evaluated good that will, on balance of probability, happen to it outweighs that of the ill - then there is no ethical objection.

Then again, thereís a distinction between what we do to one or some of a kind, and what we do to all of them. If we modify all bulls, so they are all quiescent, that is, we only breed from the quiescent strain, and allow the violent one to die out, the loss is greater than if only some are bred that way. In the latter case we have made bulls according to the old model extinct & created another line to replace them. If we allow the two lines to co-exist, we have left our options open.

Then there is the question whether, by breeding alone, we can create anything genetically novel, or permanently eradicate any genetic trait, or whether we are simply re-shuffling or selecting from the genetic material already present. By contrast, genetic engineering may introduce genes genuinely novel in their new context.

The genetic method of creating quiescence within bulls was of introducing similar genes to those that result in Downís syndrome in humans. If I say these modified bulls are not bulls, am I committed to saying Downic humans are not humans ? This is where things get technically and metaphysically complex. For a start, I donít believe thereís unanimity about what makes up a species. Ernst Mayr in Towards a New Philosophy of Biology (1988) notes four concepts of the species - the typological, the nominalist, the biological and the evolutionist. Iíve a feeling there are counter-examples - ie. hybrids - to the biological definition favoured by Mayr of "species (as) groups of interbreeding natural populations that are reproductively isolated from other such groups" (or of a species as a maximally mutually inter-fertile group capable of producing fertile offspring).

Getting back to the point, I donít think Iím really talking about species at all, in saying that a genetically modified, quiescent bull is not a bull. What Iím intending is that while it may still belong to the species bos bos (or whatever) the quiescent bull is not what it would otherwise have been, however well it might interbreed with others of the species, any more than a Manx cat with its tail genetically re-engineered back would still be a Manx cat. Bulls just are fierce creatures, and a quiescent "bull" just isnít one any more.

If we avoid speciesist categorisations, does any of this matter ? I may be misrepresenting him here, but I believe Peter Singer (whose appointment as Professor of Philosophy at Princeton has caused such a rumpus on account of his views on euthanasia) would treat all sentient individuals equally on non-specific lines in accord with their ability to suffer, or to experience or anticipate various other goods or ills - such as boredom or restriction. That is, he would treat individuals of different species equally if they can suffer (etc) equally. At least he would do so from a philosophical or ethical perspective, though clearly from a legal perspective, much hangs on these distinctions. Of course, knowing what it is like to be a member of another species is a profound philosophical problem. We can only know by observation of behaviour and by analogy with our own experience, but this may not take us far enough.

Another argument may be that bulls are by nature "noble savages" and that by breeding them to be quiescent we are demeaning them. Maybe like the Romans booing when elephants were slaughtered in the arena, as elephants are noble creatures which shouldnít be treated that way. But a genetically modified bull isnít, in this sense, noble, and never has been and doesnít know or care that humans think it ought to be. An elephant being slaughtered is another matter altogether - one imagines it doesnít enjoy the experience any more than a gladiator would, or did.

Another objectionable example introduced by Professor Cooper was that of genetically engineered capons with small brains, few feathers & high meat content - engineered for the convenience of the poultry industry. Are they violated chickens, and do (or should) most people find their existence abhorrent ? We might well ask whether chickens are violated birds because they are fat and flightless. It has been pointed out to me that flightlessness, eg. in penguins, is a natural phenomenon that arises where the advantage of flight to avoid predation are outweighed by other considerations. Animals in close association with man, whether as co-workers, pets or food sources do not go extinct because, at worst, predation is post-reproductive.

Does it just not depend on "what it is like to be" an X ? If we engineer Xís that are happy to be Xís (and donít know they could be happier as Yís) is this not better than violating un-engineered chickens by keeping them in the desperate conditions of factory farms to which they are unsuited ? Iím presuming here that the small brains of the engineered capons are contrived as necessary to their happiness which is valued by the farmer simply because unhappy capons go off their feed, or fret away calories, and so donít produce the requisite crop of meat. Is the issue one of naturalism versus artificiality ? If so, are the objections irrational ? If the objections are rational, they would appear not to be consequentialist, so I presume the judgements are aesthetic - ie. we just donít like the idea of these violated individuals existing whether or not they are happy or unhappy in themselves and whether or not they are of benefit to us humans.

In considering the aesthetic aspects of violation, we might consider various inanimate examples. Would we be wrong to change an historic painting - even if most or all people would like the change - and why not ? Would it be because this would violate its integrity ? Most of us would object to "improving" a historic work of art because thereby the original is destroyed, whatever the virtues of the improved version might be. Even restoration is sometimes treated as a violation rather than as preservation if too much liberty is taken in reconstruction. However, architects have routinely violated the integrity of buildings when they have added to them (as in the adding of Georgian fronts to mediaeval buildings, Renaissance additions to mediaeval cathedrals etc.), frequently with public approbation. Is this violation or development ? Does it depend solely on whether it is done well or badly - a value judgement - or are we merely more comfortable if we only see the effects and the previously destroyed elements were never known to us ? Does the Pompidou Centre violate the Louvre ? Salisbury Cathedral once only had a tower rather a spire - was it violated by having the spire erected, or would this only have been the case if it had been bodged as at Chesterfield? Would we violate the leaning tower of Pisa by straightening it ? Why are old things so easily violable while new ones arenít to the same degree ? Why is "history" venerable while current affairs are ephemera ?

Violation of corpses also came up for discussion - as a counter-argument suggesting that the sort of stand I was taking would suggest that nothing was violable. Did I object to the violation of corpses ? They are not sentient, nor are they aesthetically pleasing, but we donít do it, so why not ? Various superstitions aside, the answer can only be that we do not do so in order to protect the sensibilities of the living. So why not avoid certain genetic modifications for similar reasons - not to protect the sensibilities of the modified animals, but the sensibilities of observing humans ? I would have thought there is nothing new in this case - the sensibilities of humans are already protected by keeping the unpleasantness of animal husbandry out of sight. Getting back to corpses - certain uses are deemed violation by some to the frustration of others. For instance, sentimental objections to the use of body-parts for research or remedial surgery; or some religious sensibilities restricting the archaeological study of human remains (eg. of mummies, bones of native Americans, ossuary contents in old Jerusalem, etc.). Are these objections rational and should they be allowed to stand ?

The discussion of genetic engineering in this essay has tended to centre on the aesthetic idea of violation, rather than on the consequentialist approach of evaluating the potential adverse consequences - in particular relating to the potential backfiring of such "Frankenstein" tactics. Is there a valid moral objection - or are the alleged issues just ill-considered "yuk-factor" aesthetic objections disguised as moral issues ?


  1. Do we agree on the definitions of violation and integrity ?
  2. In the above context, how are our considerations divided between concerns for the individualís own self-perception & feeling (if any) and those of ourselves and our society ?
  3. How much are these concerns divided between those for the individual and those for an exclusive collection (eg. species, strain) ?
  4. Are we satisfied that thereís a moral distinction between changes made to an individual prior to its birth and changes made subsequently ?
  5. What are our responsibilities for bringing into being "below par" animals ?
  6. Does the above apply to humans ? Is eugenics wickedness or common sense ?
  7. Have domesticated animals been violated by the natural breeding techniques to which they have been subjected over the centuries / millennia ?
  8. How important are the conscious expectations of the future in an individual in determining our course of action towards it ?
  9. Whatís the ethical and philosophical import and message of One Flew Over the Cuckooís Nest ?
  10. Is there a valid moral or other distinction between naturally induced change and unnatural change ? If so, what is it ?
  11. Are our objections (if any) to genetic engineering consequentialist ("because of the risks of doomsday") or aesthetic ("yuk ! Frankensteinís Monster") or due to some other reason ("playing God") ? Are these objections valid ?
  12. Are there "natural kinds"; do we agree what a species is ? Whatís the impact of evolution on these characterisations ? Do we even believe evolution is the correct paradigm to explain the origins and diversity of biological life as we know it ?
  13. Is (or within which bounds is) an engineered "X" still an "X" ?
  14. Can we create genuine genetic novelty by breeding ? If not, is genetic engineering qualitatively different from selective breeding ?
  15. Do we agree with my definition of consequentialism, ie. that if expected good exceeds expected ill, the course of action leading to the expected state of affairs is ethical.
  16. Is consequentialism a valid ethical system ? Is it an ethical system at all or "rational self interest" ?
  17. Are we speciesists ? Do we have the right to treat sentient beings of other species more harshly than those of our own species with like cognitive capacities ?
  18. Can we know what itís like to be a member of another species ?
  19. Do animals have moral capabilities (eg. nobility, faithfulness, selfishness Ö) ?
  20. Whatís the problem with "correcting" historical artworks ? Do they have integrity that can be violated ? Are they still owned by their creators in some sense ?
  21. Is there any objectivity in aesthetics, or do we just follow our prejudices ?
  22. Is ethics more closely connected to aesthetics than to any objective system ?
  23. Can corpses be violated and would you do so or be happy it was being done ("in a good cause").
  24. Should the irrational superstitions of others be protected ?

Theo Todman

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