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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.

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9 Comment on this post

  1. I’m not sure you really understand how PTSD works.

    When any of us are in a situation that causes fear of death or loss of integrity (life-threatening situations like war or accidents, or sexual abuse where we don’t control what happens to our bodies), we feel great anxiety. Our body’s stress response does its thing (breathing, heart rate, chemistry, etc.). For some people, the fear and stress subside after the event. But for some people, the memory of the event continues to trigger the body’s stress response.

    Similarly, many of us dislike spiders. But some people have an acute anxiety response (a phobia) that causes them much more distress when they see a spider. Are those people somehow better or kinder than those who experience less distress?

    Your implication that people who aren’t prone to PTSD must be heartless brutes makes no sense. Most PTSD is not caused by seeing harm to other people. It’s not a compassion response. It’s usually caused by fear for one’s own life or wellbeing. So there’s little reason to assume people with a tendency toward PTSD care more about others. It seems more likely that they’re just psychologically sturdier.

    As for “stripping people of their vulnerabilities” making them into different people, this concept doesn’t make sense to me. After a person gets PTSD, we often give them medication to lower their blood pressure, which can reduce the body’s stress response. Is that making them into different people? If anything the military does makes people into different people, I would say it’s sending them to war, not tinkering with their bodies.

    I work in a mental hospital with some people who have PTSD and some who don’t. Just about all of them have a trauma history (child abuse, sexual assault, life on the streets) but not all of them developed PTSD. The ones who did develop PTSD are not somehow better or more compassionate people. I would not rather go to a party with them than the ones who did not develop PTSD. PTSD debilitates them, and if I could have stopped it happening to them, I would.

    1. Anthony Drinkwater

      With respect, Julia, I think you have misunderstood Charles’ point. He doesn’t deny that PTSD exists, nor show any lack of sympathy to those suffering from it, nor give any indication that he is against treating it. Neither is he against training people (soldiers in this case) to help them avoid getting it.
      He is merely offering the view that we shouldn’t in advance give pills, drugs, or any other intervention to genetically modify them to make it less likely that soldiers will suffer from it.
      With which I agree, for the reasons he gives.

      1. Anthony,
        What I’m saying is that some of his reasons (it will make people brutal, it will make them not be individuals, it will make them “creatures of the State”) don’t make sense given what PTSD is and how it works. No more than giving someone blood pressure medicine makes them non-individuals, or brutal, or creatures of the State.
        We don’t know how this allele works. If it turns out that it really works by turning people into some kind of emotionless creatures, yes, I can see how that would be worrying. But more likely, given how PTSD works, it modifies how the stress response works. Which is already something the military tries to accomplish through training. If you think that servicepeople must be preserved as the individuals they were before service, a) war makes that completely impossible, and b)the military tries hard to train people into having different abilities and different personalities than they started with. So I don’t see how changing this allele is different from, or wronger than, the things we already make people do in the military.

  2. Anthony and Julia: thank you very much for your comments.
    Anthony, you summarise my view entirely accurately.
    Julia: you’re right, I assume in what I say (because it makes the discussion more philosophically interesting) that the allele works in a way that (a) is personality-changing and (b) personality-changing in a bad way. Perhaps that’s not right. But I have to say that I’d have thought that any significant and permanent modification of the ability to deal with stress must have some significant corollaries for one’s personality. I hope that I’ve dealt in the post with the issue of whether such a modification is different in a material respect from the modification that can be effected by training.

    1. If a soldier chooses to undergo the genetic alteration that changes his personality, is that instrumentalization? Furthermore:

      “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.”

      This may be rather pedantic, but the first sentence here claims that enhancement is not “primarily to save him distress”. But this implies it can be “secondarily to save him distress” and so isn’t a “pure” act of instrumentalization: there is a degree of concern for the individual as an end. As Kant argued, treating someone *merely* as a means is a problem; but treating someone as a means to something *and* an end in themselves is not necessarily so.

  3. Matt: many thanks.
    (a) Surely you can opt to be an instrument. Lots of enthusiastic young soldiers, unskilled in bioethics, might volunteer to be used by the State, knowing not what they do, or knowing not fully what they do.
    (b) As to your second point: nothing wrong with pedantry. We could do with more of it. But your comment isn’t an example. No, treating someone as a means to something AND as an end in themselves isn’t NECESSARILY offensive on grounds of instrumentalization. I just think it happens to be on the facts of this case, for the reasons given in (a) above.

  4. I’m not actually sure this is a relevant question, especially the way it is argued in the post. The problem as stated is the instrumentalization of a soldier, making the individual subservient to the state rather than the other way around. I think it’s a non issue for 2 reasons:

    1) Soldiers are already an instrument of the state. They exist as a special class of citizen to do the will of the state, which does the will of the people. If the state stops doing the will of the people, then the problem is the link between the civilian and the government, not the government and the military. Granted, having super-cyber-soldier Bob makes it easier for a state to disregard the will of the people, but I still think the fundamental problem is the link I described.

    2) Technologically, we are moving to an automated military. We have probably seen the last generation of manned aircraft, and everything from boats to infantry are getting their robotic equivalent. We want perfect soldiers – it’s easier to build them than train them. By the time that this rolls around as a viable treatment, there won’t be much of a manned military left.

    I could see us going back and forth on 1, but 2 really does seem to be a problem here. It might be fun to discuss, but I just see it being a moot point before it ever becomes a problem.

  5. Flynn,
    Mahy thanks.
    Re (1): I agree, that soldiers are instruments. Similarly we value our accountants for being able to get the balance sheet right, our doctors for being able to write the right prescriptions, and so on. Much of modern commerce instrumentalizes its ‘human resources’: those terrible words speak eloquently for themselves. Some of this is unavoidable in commuunities of any complexity. That it’s unavoidable doesn’t make it any less objectionable.
    The fact that we instrumentalize in one respect doesn’t mean that we should accept all degrees of instrumentalization. We’ve got to draw some lines, saying: ‘Don’t step over that’. You’ve seen where my lines are drawn.
    Re (2): No doubt the trend towards replacing soldiers made out of flesh and blood with ones made out of steel and silicon will continue. I can’t see all wars being conducted by robots, though. And so long as it’s not, my ethical worries will continue to be relevant.

  6. To me, the root of this issue is to address the base purpose of the armed forces of the United States. If it were the sole purpose of our military to aggressively conquer and subjugate those determined to be our enemies, then it would be entirely to our advantage to tinker with genetics and attempt to create the most machine like, effective ‘killers’ out of our soldiers. However, does not our military exist for a much broader purpose than the one I mentioned above? After all, do we not both defend the country and our allies with armed force, and also attempt to preserve and better the lives of those who have been oppressed by a greater evil? I may be speaking in broad terms, but when you do consider the scope of our military’s actions, you must consider the scope of human emotion and thought that accompanies it? I eagerly support any medical or psychological advances in treating those with PTSD, and attempting to identify those that may be more prone to developing it, but such a focus must include the preservation of all human emotion, and not seek to eliminate any aspect of our personal being for the sake of another.

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