Many people feel that genetic engineering, particularly genetic enhancement, has disrupted the traditional understanding of the distinction between choice and chance and its ethical implications. Scholars in the West have strongly objected to scientists’ “playing God” on the grounds that genetic engineering devalues human beings and contravenes intrinsic ethical principles. What is the traditional Confucian view of genetic engineering? The author contends that certain aspects of Confucian thought support the idea of genetic engineering. For instance, Confucian scholars do not define human nature (renxing) as fixed, let alone biologically fixed. The Confucian understanding of human nature as processual offers an ethical foundation for arguments in favor of genetic enhancement: specifically, there is no reason to believe that we as humans cannot or should not exceed the limitations imposed by our biological nature.
Among the possible applications of genetic enhancement are the radical extension of the human health-span, the eradication of disease, the elimination of unnecessary suffering, and the augmentation of humans’ intellectual, physical, and emotional capacities. The author shows that although classical Confucianism does not directly address these modern scientific and technological issues, relevant arguments can be found within the Confucian tradition. For example, Xunzi’s account of humans’ “active relationship” (wei) with non-human nature suggests that conscious effort is required for human beings to build a moral relationship with the world. The author points out that the emphasis placed on “active participation” by Xunzi and other subsequent Confucians marks a departure from the Daoist commitment to passivity, as explicated by Zhuangzi. For Confucians, renxing is expressed through the human wei. It can thus be inferred that Confucianism does not reject the notion of genetic choice. However, the author also explains why Confucians may be cautious about or even critical of certain enhancement practices.