Portrayal of the Concept of Genetic Engineering in Sci-Fi Movie Gattaca

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Gattaca is a science fiction film released in 1997. The movie is about a man named Vincent Freeman, who lives in a society where your genetics determine your status in life. Vincent is known as an “invalid”, or in layman’s terms, someone who wasn’t genetically enhanced in the society, an outcast. By “purchasing” the genes of a man who was crippled in an accident, but has superior genetics, Vincent could join the Gattaca Space Program like he wished. However, though his borrowed genetics worked at first, when a death of the director occurs, Vincent must evade detection and avoid arousing suspicion. There are several ethical implications this movie presents but the one I would like to focus on is the idea present throughout Gattaca, genetic engineering and eugenics.

To start off, it would be crucial to define what genetic engineering is. According to Merriam-Webster, genetic engineering is “The group of applied techniques of genetics and biotechnology used to cut up and join together genetic material and especially DNA from one or more species of organism and to introduce the result into an organism in order to change one or more of its characteristics”. In the movie, genetic engineering/enhancement has made their society a “perfect” race if you will, made specifically for suiting society and best fitting roles. This can be described by the term “eugenics”, or the creating of a master race. We have seen attempts of this in the past in real-life, as well as in many novels and movies such as Gattaca. What could be so wrong with attempting to fix human errors and defects? Well, for starters, there are several ethical issues that surround genetic enhancement.

The reason why this is an ethically debatable issue is because genetic engineering and eugenics would create a “master race” that would completely cut out diversity, which is one of the reasons humans are such a special species. If genetic engineering were to go as far as creating a “valid” race, such as in Gattaca, this would eliminate almost all diversity and could run the risk of having a “Frankenstein” species. In this case, genetically modifying individuals could go horribly wrong. Not only is genetic manipulation affecting the human it is altering, but future generations as well. Additionally, what would happen if there was a genetic defect in this master race? What would be of them? Society today is seemingly hooked on an idea of perfection, but people’s definitions of perfection differ, so another topic to ponder is who would decide this superior race? This is morally wrong being as though humans should accept diversity and individuality, and eugenics and genetic engineering (used in the wrong way) could promote discrimination of differences.

A viewpoint to consider why this issue is unethical is from the standpoint of the natural rights theory. This theory states the importance of freedom and individual rights. “According to this view, all people have natural rights to life, liberty, and property, and everyone is morally permitted to do anything they wish provided that their actions do not violate the rights of other people” (Resnick, pp. 20). Furthermore, this approach holds the idea that all things have built in potential and live to fulfill that potential. The premise of Gattaca directly violates this viewpoint. In the movie, Vincent does not have individual rights, as he is not permitted to do what he wishes (space travel) being as though he is not “valid”. To put this into a real-life ethical dilemma, if a master race was created, individuals would not have natural rights to “anything they wish”, as if you were not genetically superior, you would not have the freedom to be a unique individual and make your own choices. Additionally, genetic engineering violates this theory because if genetics determine one’s social outcome, (ex: Vincent being unable to join the Gattaca program), this is violating his potential (whatever that may be). Natural law theory proposes that if an action goes against natural instincts, emotions, or social relations, then it is wrong. Therefore, genetic engineering is inherently wrong from this ethical viewpoint being as though eugenics is directly going against natural social relations, as society would be based around an ascribed status that you have no control over. While it could be argued that some ascribed statuses already exist in our society, and they do, for example: money; however, using Gattaca as an example, if you are an “invalid” like Vincent, you do not have rights like everyone else, which is another form of discrimination. Therefore, no matter what you did, you could never pursue the goal you are trying to achieve, as it has been predetermined what your status is (and the abilities that coincide with that).

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Another viewpoint to consider is environmental ethics. Environmental ethics involve human’s relationship with the natural environment. Using Gattaca as an example for this standpoint, the theme in Gattaca of eugenics and a society based around genetic enhancement/engineering specifically violates conservation ethics. Environmental ethics would propose that nothing about deliberate genetic engineering is natural, therefore violating conservation and the natural world. The natural world consists of humans that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years deliberately adapting to the world around them, fit for natural selection. Who is to say if we dabbled in eugenics that this wouldn’t have an adverse effect on the environment? Genetic engineering could be a serious threat to public health if done incorrectly. Also, if parents were able to have genetically perfect children who were deemed for success in the future, it could be argued that they would have multiple children, which would lead to overpopulation in an already overpopulated society.

The last viewpoint that I consider relevant to this topic is deep ecology. Deep ecology theory, as defined by Wikipedia is: “Deep ecology is an ecological and environmental philosophy promoting the inherent worth of living beings regardless of their instrumental utility to human needs, plus a restructuring of modern human societies in accordance with such ideas” (Wikipedia). Deep ecology’s core belief is the idea that living beings (in this case, humans) have the right to basic moral rights to live and flourish, and not be used for human use. In the movie, the deeply dystopian society has created this “valid” race as means to arguably have the “best of the best”, which would facilitate growth in all areas (business, technology, medicine). Questionably, what would be the purpose of creating a superior race like in Gattaca, besides using humans for gain? Humans have a right to live and flourish without being used as pawns in a game of gain.

Considering the various perspectives addressed, I consider my belief to hold most strongly with natural rights theory for this topic. I believe it addresses an important reason why a world like the one which Vincent, Irene, and Jerome live in would be extremely unethical, as it is pre-determining one’s value in life and what they can and cannot do. I believe this theory provides a legitimate ethical reasoning to base this dilemma off of, as it does offer some regulations to which genetic engineering could still be used, but not in a way such as eugenics. However, this would be difficult to apply, as it could be argued that genetic engineering as a whole does not necessarily determine your status in life, as it did in Gattaca. Also, genetic engineering can be used as enhancement to stop disease, facilitate growth in rare species, etc, therefore I could not easily foresee the scientific community taking this standpoint heavily into decision making. Though, I still do believe it offers the best resolution for this topic being as though it should be agreed that humans should have the right to do what they so please, so long as their actions aren’t violating others’ rights. Deep ecology could also offer a stance for policy making, as it can be said that humans have the natural right to grow, flourish, and not be exploited for a particular gain. The key point of this argument is that diversity is extremely important, that’s what makes people so unique! If everyone was the same, no individuality would exist and humans would seemingly become more robot than human, as it is interfering with nature as well. Therefore, that should be sufficient enough to implement a ban of genetic engineering in terms of using it for creating a superior race/eliminating diversity among species. This is a real concern, as scientific advancements could soon prove that to be a reality!

In conclusion, genetic engineering can be a wonderful scientific tool that will continue to grow and make many advancements, as science allows. However, it should be used extremely carefully, so we don’t end up with a society like Gattaca, where your fate of life is essentially predetermined based on your genetic makeup, and not who you are as a person. That being said, this brings me into my next point. In a rational natural rights society, judging an individual by determinism would be abolished. In Gattaca, Vincent shouldn’t have been viewed by his genetic makeup, but instead by how he uses his makeup to be the type of person he would like to be. Genetics only determine structural differences in individuals, it is how the individual uses the genes to their own discretion. I believe the same could be said for society, your genetic makeup determines your genome, but not your outcome! Furthermore, while Gattaca made for an interesting movie, I believe creating a perfect society would be a horrible idea, as if everyone has the same/similar superior genetic makeup, there is no truly unique individual, and that would make for a boring society in my opinion!

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