Cosmology and Eugenics

There are two commonly held contemporary Western positions about eugenics that Hinduism and Buddhism see rather differently from most Western ethicists. One position is that since the world and everything in it, including human beings, are held to be created by God according to a divine plan, then altering the human genome is altering the very basis of God's creation, which is impermissible. Thus the Vatican's statement on reproductive technology holds that "no biologist or doctor can reasonably claim, by virtue of his scientific competence, to be able to decide on people's origin or destiny" (Vatican, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1992, p. 84). A similar but secular argument holds that we should not alter nature. Although altering nature may not be inherently wrong, pragmatically such alterations are much more likely to do harm than good. The only safe course is stringently to restrict novel technologies such as genetic engineering.

Neither Hinduism nor Buddhism conceives of a creator God whose divine plan might be altered by genetic manipulation. (Although Brahma is considered the creator in Hinduism, the metaphysics of creation are quite different. Creation occurs from moment to moment and not according to a perfect plan.) Far from seeing the world as divine or perfect, both religions regard the world as inevitably a place of suffering. The fundamental virtue in both Hinduism and Buddhism is practicing ahimsa, or harmlessness, which means to avoid making living beings suffer. For example, the environment should not be harmed because living creatures are dependent on it. Since the universe was not created by divine plan, altering it is not considered a repudiation of God. In this context genetic manipulation is perfectly acceptable.

As to the second argument, that humans cannot handle their power over the genome, neither Hinduism nor Buddhism can be held to have a clear position on this. Evil is the result, respectively, of delusion, moha, or ignorance, avidya. Ethical ignorance is simply an aspect of more general spiritual ignorance, which clouds perception of the true nature of existence. However, Buddhism and Hinduism conceive of ethical ignorance somewhat differently. In Hinduism, it is necessary to be aware of the complex laws, or dharma, regulating human behavior. In Buddhism, ignorance is lack of awareness of the law of cause and effect, for example, of knowing how one's actions will affect oneself and others (Taniguchi, 1994). Mindfulness shows that an action harmful to another will cause suffering just as it would if done to oneself. A unique moral insight of Buddhism is that ethical behavior requires factual knowledge (Redmond, 1989)—for example, what effects behavior will have on others—as well as knowledge of ethical precepts. The way to this knowledge is through self-cultivation such as meditation, study of religious texts, and, especially, the influence of a teacher. Ethical behavior results from personal moral development rather than detailed moral legislation.

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