Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness

The President's Council on Bioethics, Washington, DC, October 2003.


Biotechnology offers exciting and promising prospects for healing the sick and relieving the suffering. But exactly because of their impressive powers to alter the workings of body and mind, the “dual uses” of the same technologies make them attractive also to people who are not sick but who would use them to look younger, perform better, feel happier, or become more “perfect.” These applications of biotechnology are already presenting us with some unfamiliar and very difficult challenges. In this report, we consider such possible “beyond therapy” uses, and explore both their scientific basis and the ethical and social issues they are likely to raise.

We have structured our inquiry around the desires and goals of human beings, rather than around the technologies they employ, the better to keep the important ethical questions before us. In a quartet of four central chapters, we consider how pursuing the goals of better children, superior performance, ageless bodies, or happy souls might be aided or hindered, elevated or degraded, by seeking them through a wide variety of technological means.

Among the biotechnical powers considered are techniques for screening genes and testing embryos, choosing sex of children, modifying the behavior of children, augmenting muscle size and strength, enhancing athletic performance, slowing senescence, blunting painful memories, brightening mood, and altering basic temperaments. In a concluding chapter, we consider together the several “beyond therapy” uses of these technologies, in order to ask what kinds of human beings and what sort of society we might be creating in the coming age of biotechnology.

1 Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness

I. The Golden Age: Enthusiasm and Concern
II. The Case for Public Attention
III. Defining the Topic
IV. Ends and Means
V. The Limitations of the “Therapy vs. Enhancement” Distinction
VI. Beyond Natural Limits: Dreams of Perfection and Happiness
VII. Structure of the Inquiry: The Primacy of Human Aspirations
VIII. Method and Spirit

2 Better Children

I. Improving Native Powers: Genetic Knowledge and Technology
II. Choosing Sex of Children
III. Improving Children’s Behavior: Psychotropic Drugs

3 Superior Performance

I. The Meaning of “Superior Performance”
II. Sport and the Superior Athlete
III. Muscle Enhancement through Biotechnology
IV. Ethical Analysis

4 Ageless Bodies

I. The Meaning of “Ageless Bodies”
II. Basic Terms and Concepts
III. Scientific Background
IV. Ethical Issues
V. Conclusion

5 Happy Souls

I. What Are “Happy Souls”?
II. Basic Terms and Concepts
III. Mood and Happiness
IV. Conclusion

6 “Beyond Therapy”: General Reflections

I. The Big Picture
II. Familiar Sources of Concern
III. Essential Sources of Concern
IV. Biotechnology and the American Society