Bold Private John Smith, VC, modified ‘t’ allele of TPH1 SNP rs2108977
By Charles Foster
There’s a significant association of PTSD symptoms with a particular allele, according to a recently published study from UCLA and Duke. Some of the ethical consequences are already being discussed. One consequence might be military. One might be able to detect and filter out PTSD-vulnerable recruits. Perhaps that’s a kindness. It would certainly seem militarily prudent. There might be legitimate qualms about creating a biologically callous warrior-class, but you’re not creating its components – you’re just collecting them together. You might not want to go to their parties, and you might wonder about the mutually brutalizing effect of corralling them in a barracks, but the exercise is really only a scientifically more informed version of the selection that goes on in any event. It’s not very interesting ethically.
But what if a gene for PTSD-resistance could be inserted or artificially switched on? It doesn’t seem fanciful. Should the military be permitted (or perhaps even required) to PTSD-proof their personnel?
This raises the sorts of questions raised by every enhancement issue. Here’s one: The military tries to avoid PTSD in its people for operational and humanitarian reasons. It uses training strategies to do this which may well work (for all we know), by switching on the very gene identified in the new study, or by inducing by some other means the biochemical changes induced by that gene. What’s the ethical difference between enhancing performance in an exact and effective way and enhancing it in an ineffective and haphazard way? The question is similar to that at stake when one is comparing genetic cognitive enhancement with old-fashioned education. Most regular readers of this blog will know how that sort of discussion tends to go.
But something else is going on in the military example. The genetically ‘enhanced’ soldier is not being enhanced primarily to save him distress, but in order to make him more operationally effective and more cost-effective. Changing him is a pure act of instrumentalization, which attracts all the classical anti-instrumentalizing arguments.
Of course a soldier is an instrument in any event. But that perhaps makes it all the more important to stop him becoming defined, by being subject to a personality-modifying procedure, even more completely by his military function. Private John Smith, who happens to do certain things for his country (and whose vulnerabilities are an inextricable part of who he is), is less of an instrument than Private X, who has undergone modification. Sandel’s ‘giftedness’ can get you to the same conclusion. His route is an efficient and scenic one. I’d recommend it. But as you please. Many are nervous of his company.
The instrumentalizing wrongness of the modification isn’t dependent on any metaphysically exciting personhood-ablating effect. But in fact such effects might often be present. Private John Smith, stripped technologically of his vulnerabilities, might cease to be himself. He might be transformed into Private X, who isn’t really Private at all, since he’s a creature of the State. Where such a transformation has happened, it wouldn’t really be possible for the military to contend that the intervention was a kindness to Private Smith: Smith no longer exists as a person to whom one can be kind.
There’s another (related) reason why the intervention is wrong.
Soldiers exist so that society can continue to exist in its present form, enshrining the values that it does. One of the core principles, rightly guarded with gun and bayonet, is that the State exists for the individual, not vice versa. If the State ever permits one of its individuals to become in any sense irredeemably less of an individual in order to protect the State, the State has failed. The postulated State-sanctioned genetic modification of soldiers is hopelessly self-defeating. Just as terrorists must not be tortured to locate a ticking bomb, since to do so would destroy far more than would the bomb, so the individuality of State servants must be preserved, since that preservation is the State’s primary function.