pp. 30-31 in Protection of the Human Genome and Scientific Responsibility

Editors: Michio Okamoto, M.D., Norio Fujiki, M.D. & Darryl R.J. Macer, Ph.D.

Copyright 1996, Eubios Ethics Institute All commercial rights reserved. This publication may be reproduced for limited educational or academic use, however please enquire with Eubios Ethics Institute.

Tokyo Session

The Genome, Artificial Evolution & Human Rights

Hyakudai Sakamoto(
Professor, Nihon University; President, East Asian Association of Bioethics

1. What are the Philosophical Questions?

The concept of the "preservation of human genome" foresees some philosophical enigmas. For what purpose should we preserve "human genome", or what is the value of preserving it? What sort of human genome, and for what reason should we preserve them? These questions lead us to doubt the justification of protecting and preserving human genome, and also about the justification of genetic research in general.

2. Heredity and Artificial Evolution

Human beings are subject to the two unavoidable bodily, biological restraints, i.e. "Heredity" and "Evolution". However, these two facts of our biological human nature essentially contradict each other. "Heredity" is a bodily disposition to preserve one's genetic characters, and "Evolution" is, on the contrary, a tendency to alter the hereditary genetic characters. We have survived due to the natural balance of these two mutually contradicting propensities of bodily nature. Presumably this balancing has been done by way of irregular mutation and natural selection so far. We have, however, in the end of 20th century, obtained the ability to control human evolution by means of "recombinant DNA", . i.e. to alter the genetic characters of a human body artificially. We have acquired the third " Feu de Prometeus", so to speak. Now, in which direction, and to what goal should we conduct humankind.

3. Environmental Ethics and Fundamental Human Rights

The easiest answer to this question is that we should apply gene manipulation technology in order to maximize human welfare and happiness and minimize human pain or unhappiness. But by now, we have cultivated another fundamental criterion to judge the future status of human being, that is, the environmental view point. Philosophically speaking, there are two types of ideas of protecting environment. One is to protect nature in order to preserve the best environment for human being and its future generations to live happily, and the other is to protect the nature for its own sake. The former is typically a human-centric way of thinking. The latter believes that we should not manipulate nature to pursue only our happiness. Here "nature" means natural environment, and at the same time, it means natural evolution. This antagonism between the two types of "protecting nature" leads us to serious doubt about the status of the concept of fundamental human rights, about whether it is our fundamental human right to change or destroy nature in order to increase our happiness. Now, most environmentalists would say " No!". This rejection shares a common logical basis to reject gene therapy by means of recombinant DNA. Every ELSI problem concerning gene manipulation fundamentally stems from this common basis.

4. Gene Manipulation and Human Rights

One of the first global socio-legal attacks on this problem was by the Council of Europe in 1982. The Council declared in its Recommendation 934 on Genetic Engineering "Human Rights imply the right to inherit a genetic pattern which has not been artificially changed". It also, in a following item, hastily added "the explicit recognition of this right must not impede development of therapeutic application of genetic engineering (gene therapy)". This is, it seems to me, nothing but a conceptual confusion. Can human rights be violated in the name of human happiness (by recombinant DNA)? What is the nature of human rights and human happiness in relation to the gene therapy? The added item above has some hue of "paternalism". It sounds like to say, in order to enjoy happiness of total human being, human rights can be violated to a certain extent. (Remember that in the Tiananmen square affair, the European type of fundamental human right was violated in the name of people's total welfare.)

5. Personal Identity vs. Hereditary Identity, and Universality of Human Rights

In the history of European ideas the concept of human rights has been discussed always in relation to the concept of " person" which is strictly distinguished from the concept of " human being", so that human rights belong to an individual as a person but not as a human being. Here, I will refer to two names, John Locke and Peter Singer as the advocates of this theory. The " person" has the self identity to which dignity of a individual attributed. This dignity has been often identified with " reason" which is universally given to all human persons (I. Kant). An analogue to this personal identity is bodily identity as a human being, which is properly represented as hereditary identity with the background of modern biology and genetics. Therefore, it seems to me, legal theorists easily assimilated it as a human right to preserve hereditary identity, i.e. genetic pattern.

However, this analogy is dubious. First of all, it seems that the belief in universality of reason in a person, and therefore, universality of human rights has been destroyed through the development of modern society, as well as the history of scientific knowledge. This has led many to believe that substantial contents of human rights may change from time to time, from society to society, from culture to culture. Even in the same society, dignity of an individual, as the new idea of " quality of life" shows, has been largely relativised. Secondly, environmental thinking and new findings of ecological sciences, together with new empirical and sometimes pessimistic philosophy, have thrown a big doubt to the special. exclusive status of human dignity superior to all other species on the earth. Why is only humankind given "human rights" ? Why are not animals or trees given their rights i.e. the " animal rights" or " tree rights"? Recently, people turn their eyes to Oriental or Asian mentality where the idea of human dignity is relatively weak, and, therefore, the concept of " fundamental human rights" does not work as in Euro-American societies. If we have to survive, its substantial justification might be looked for not in the fiction of human rights, but in the scientific fact that we are now living in nature.

6. Harmonious Holism and New Paternalism

Presumably, the human genome should be protected and preserved. But it is not because its preserving is within the scope of human rights, but it must be only because its preserving is a harmonious activity of holistic nature. In the notion of "harmonious activity". I include the progress of science and technology only if it is not stained by the excessive (non-harmonious) human-centralism. Thus, gene therapy, and recombinant DNA is ethically compatible with the notion of preserving the genome. I think it will become piecemeal work of ethics to clarify the connotation of the concept of "harmony" and to seek the strategy of realizing this "harmony" in Nature. This way of thinking might admit a new sort of paternalism. for instance. Confucian idea of putting higher estimation on harmony and benevolence superior to human rights. However, paternalism has been long rejected in modern course of establishing the concept of "human rights" . Nevertheless, this is, I believe, the only way to reconstruct bioethics towards the 2lst century of a multi-value world view through the renovation of the concept of " human rights".

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