When Sartre spoke about his existentialist philosophy of life, he considered a human being free and therefore responsible for their own actions. We as humans mold ourselves by making decisions at every step. There are, however, certain situations that require collective decision making — especially if the consequences of a decision affect more than a single individual.
As a Chinese international student at UC Berkeley, I am far removed from the social and political debates happening at home, yet I often feel the impact of decisions made on the other side of the world. I’m tempted to remain passive and inert. However, two recent events that happened close to home and sparked global debate encouraged me to rethink my personal role in the decision-making process.
He Jiankui, a Chinese researcher at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, claimed that he disabled a gene called CCR5 in embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments. One of the couples just gave birth to twin girls. His goal was to give them the ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, since CCR5 forms a protein doorway that allows HIV to enter a cell.
News of the world’s first edited babies has sparked worldwide ethical concerns and denunciations. In his statement, the NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins stated that “the project was largely carried out in secret, the medical necessity for inactivation of CCR5 in these infants is utterly unconvincing, the informed consent process appears highly questionable, and the possibility of damaging off-target effects has not been satisfactorily explored.”
The consequence of such an experiment is unfathomable. First, gene editing itself is associated with high risks including rising genetic problems that cause cancer. The embryos themselves were healthy — but their health may be compromised after the experiment. Moreover, as a joint statement issued by 122 Chinese scientists stated, the modified inheritable substance will inevitably blend into the human genome pool. No one can predict the kind of impact it will bring as soon as another human is born.
There are certain situations that require collective decision making — especially if the consequences of a decision affect more than a single individual.
Last but not least, this experiment breaks the fairly tight consensus of what is and what is not an acceptable application of gene editing. In providing individuals with “different” traits, it breaks the ethical bottom line of medical usage. Wang Liming, a Chinese scientist at Zhejiang University, wrote a statement that went viral on WeChat. He asked the question: if editing the CCR5 gene to resist infection with HIV is acceptable, what about editing a certain mutated gene that raises an individual’s risk of getting certain diseases by 1%? What about editing less threatening genes that raise the risk by 0.01%? What about 0.0001%? If that is deemed unethical, where is the boundary? And what happens when this technology steps dangerously into the territory of eugenics — if someone wants to ensure his or her babies are taller, more intelligent and more charismatic by having their genes edited?
The human species as a whole is susceptible to all these consequences. Such gene editing experiments carry the risks of destroying the diversity of the human gene pool, reinforcing the discriminating social constructs and establishing irreversible and heritable inequalities in society. One individual has opened Pandora’s box, unnoticed and unexpectedly — on behalf of the entire human race. This is not a scientific breakthrough, but a bottom line broken.
But how can one individual make such a devastating decision for the entire human race? The whole experiment was carried out undisclosed from the public, and even hidden from other scientists. In this case, scientific regulations failed to thwart the experiment.
In fact, at the recent Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, the scientist himself argued that he conducted two rounds of informed consent with the parents, indicating that it was the parents that gave him the right to fully carry out the experiment. But the parents did not come from a medical background, which means that they were most likely ignorant of the medical and ethical consequences of gene editing. All the scientists, doctors, ethicists and relevant authorities have the responsibility in this case to prevent the parents from making a potentially dangerous decision. Moreover, even if the parents were aware of the consequences, they are not granted the right or authority to decide the fate of anyone other than themselves.
In the process of questioning whether a few individuals have the right to make decisions on behalf of the entire human race, I also realized that, in some cases, decisions concerning the fate of a minority should not be made by the majority.
But how can one individual make such a devastating decision for the entire human race?
Voters in Taiwan recently rejected legalizing same-sex marriages in a series of referendums. Under the recently revised referendum law in Taiwan, any proposal that gets a minimum of 280,000 signatures must be put into law. Conservative groups asked whether the current definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman in Taiwan’s Civil Code should remain unchanged, while same-sex marriage advocates asked for the marriage regulations to guarantee the rights to marriage for same-sex couples. As a result, referendum questions initiated by conservative groups that opposed marriage equality passed, while those put forth by LGBT activists did not.
Taiwan has one of Asia’s largest gay communities, and the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan would generate pressure for other governments in Asia to follow. The result is a blow to the LGBT advocates who looked forward to witnessing Taiwan become the first place in Asia to allow same-sex unions — especially when many Asian countries are imposing laws and policies that further discriminate against the LGBT community. For example, earlier this year there was a proposal for a possible ban on same-sex relations in Indonesia.
According to an article by the Independent, a spokesperson from ILGA, the main European LGBT organization, commented that “the referendum once again showed how vulnerable the [LGBT] community is, in the absence of proper legal recognition of same-sex partnerships and families.” Referendums can put human rights of the minority at risk.
For the LGBT community, the idea that their marriage rights were to be voted upon by the conservative public seemed wrong, if not absurd. The decision of who they should marry is a personal one, not a choice to be voted on by the public. These referendums expose the dangers of majoritarian votes and collective choices. They are subject to fundamental imperfections and can be used to undermine a democratic society.
For example, the LGBT community in Taiwan claimed that, before the referendum, a flood of deliberate disinformation was spread by a leading conservative group — the Alliance for the Happiness of the Next Generation — to confuse the public. Its $3.24 million campaign has pushed advertisements on billboards and the front pages of newspapers.
Comparing these two recent events that happened in my homeland, I started asking the question of who should make these important decisions with lasting, extensive consequences. In the case of gene editing, it seems the decision should be left in the hands of the general public. The second case regarding same-sex marriage, however, proves that the majoritarian rule, without checks and balances, cannot represent the good of all. Even if a sufficiently small number of trusted leaders were selected to make decisions, history has taught us how sovereignty leads to corruption and power abuse. We inevitably face the ‘paradox of liberty.’
But maybe I’ve asked the wrong question. Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper criticized Plato’s idea that the object of political philosophy consisted in answering the questions about who should rule and how to educate those who would govern. Popper holds that one should instead ask the questions on how to control government, and how to set up checks and balances to divide power. Maybe, instead of asking who should be making the decisions, I should ask how to make sure that the process of decision-making is always checked and counterbalanced.
We inevitably face the ‘paradox of liberty.’
With social and political tensions escalating around the world, it’s critical that we continue to reflect on the process of decision-making in our society, as well as the amount of participation we should or deserve to devote to each decision. It’s time for us to break out of the college bubble, take on the responsibility of soon-to-be caretakers of society and participate in the real-world decision-making process.