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Operation Rebirth: Captain America and the Ethics of Enhancement

Major Todd A. Burkhardt considers under what circumstances it would be morally right to bioengineer super-soldiers.

In 1940, as the United States prepares for war, Steve Rogers, a frail young man unable to enlist in the military due to physical limitations, volunteers for a secret experiment. Operation Rebirth transforms him into the ultimate physical specimen: the American super-soldier. This super-soldier, known as Captain America, fights against tyranny and for the capitulation of Hitler, the Nazis, and the Red Skull, a Nazi secret agent. This was the genesis of a comicbook superhero whose exploits were first published in late 1940, nearly a year before the USA entered the war. But what would be the moral ramifications of creating a real Captain America? Is the intentional creation of super-soldiers by cell engineering morally permissible? If (when) we have the capability, should we assent to it?

I believe that such an endeavor would be morally permissible and even praiseworthy if it met two criteria. First, if the enemy we oppose can be easily recognized as evil objectified in the world which negates our right to autonomy. And second, if the situation must be considered a supreme emergency. Only when both these conditions are met can we morally launch an Operation Rebirth and genetically enhance humans to become super-soldiers. I believe these two conditions were met in WWII, and that Steve Rogers’ commitment was indeed morally justified.

Cells and Alarm Bells

Significant genetic enhancement is a dangerous process that can have serious negative consequences, not only to the individual involved, but to mankind itself, because it affects our core, our human nature. Somatic cells are any body cell except a germ-line cell. (Germ-line cells are those whose modification would be passed on to future generations.) In its simplest form, somatic cell engineering is supplementing or replacing dysfunctional or faulty genes with ones that function correctly. But more than that, somatic cell engineering has the potential to significantly enhance our natural ability and inhibit our normal limitations. The combination of nanotechnology, biological engineering, information technology, and cognitive neuroscience (NBIC) together “offers immense opportunities for the improvement of human abilities,” and “also represents a major new frontier in research and development.” (from Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance.) Opponents of somatic research and development have reservations because gene therapy is so new and unpredictable. David King, editor of Genethics News website, states: “The advances being made by scientists are running ahead of our ability to deal with the ethical consequences.” There is indeed the possibility of horrific risks towards human health and safety. The technological advances that are used to genetically engineer somatic cells can have destructive effects, since the “autoimmune system of human beings will not so easily accommodate technological interventions... widespread failure of organic systems may be the result.” says Steve Mizrach in his essay ‘The Ethics of the Cyborg’. After all “millions of years of evolution [have] produced only so much capability within the human organism, and it may be fatal to technologically stretch beyond those built-in limits... [People who feel] that there is something within humanity which is not found in animals or machines and which makes us uniquely human, worry that the essence of our humanity will be lost to this technology.”

There is also significant tension from a theological standpoint. “Jeremy Rifkin, an economist who specializes on the impact that scientific and technological changes have on the economy, along with seventy-five religious leaders, strove unsuccessfully for a permanent ban on gene therapy by submitting a resolution to the U.S. Senate.” (in ‘The Ethics of Gene Therapy’ by Emilie R. Bergeson.) People have strong reservations about altering our God-given ability, that doing so is inherently very wrong and sinful, and that it is not right playing around with Mother Nature.

So what do we do once somatic cell enhancement can be successfully engineered? Society must accept responsibility for such a problematic endeavor. We must venture upon the engineering of human subjects with much trepidation. And we must be able to present arguments for the use of this technology which are logical, reason-based and expound upon the moral permissibility of the exercise. “National guidelines for the conduct of human gene therapy are essential,” as Ethics in Health Research states. This coupled with an “expert national body to consider and approve proposals for such therapy [eg creating super-soldiers], would ensure public confidence in the introduction of novel and sophisticated gene therapy practices.” So for instance, these national guidelines must articulate specific criteria that explain when it would be morally permissible to engineer genetically enhanced super-soldiers, whose principal purpose is to kill other humans.

It is quite evident that the enemy the United States faced in the 1940s was evil in the truest sense. The Nazi party was responsible for the deliberate violation and systematic destruction of multiple states’ sovereignty, and the rights of those countries’ peoples. It fought a war of conquest and had no regard for the international good or human life. The ‘Nazi Domination Tour’ killed millions and changed the twentieth century more than any other event. Do we have the right to kill men who are part of such evil regimes? I think it is very easy to say ‘yes’ upfront, but significantly harder to provide a reasoned argument why. I would like to start with a deontological(duty based) ethical approach, to highlight that even under such a strict morality we can still be called upon to kill other men.

Kant At War

Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher, developed a categorical (non-contingent) morality. Among other things this morality holds that a person has a moral obligation to never perform an act that would violate another person’s respect and worth. So it may initially seem from this most stringent of ethical theories that one does not have the right even to prevent an evil man from his actions. However, even from such a morally conservative perspective we still have the responsibility to stop people from preventing other people from being autonomous.

Kant’s thinking is that man governing himself through laws of freedom will create the Kingdom of Ends. This Kingdom of Ends is an ideal democratic republic, in which people elect their own laws and bind themselves to them. All people have profound moral worth by virtue of our ability to reason. So the underlying foundation of the laws our reason would derive, is that each person should treat others with dignity and respect, and cherish them unconditionally. If we do not treat persons with unconditional worth this degrades their chance for autonomy and deprives them of the respect they deserve. We can universalize laws that are in accord with these premises. Thus, we should not trick, coerce, deceive, enslave or otherwise use people as a means to some further self-serving end. Kant states: “Treat every person, whether in yourself or any other, as always an end and never merely as a means only.” (Groundwork For The Metaphysics of Morals.) If we treat people in a way opposite to this categorical imperative, we are using people as pawns or tools. So man needs to set legal limits upon himself and others,to facilitate and to protect the freedoms and liberties of all.

This concept from Kant does not only apply to the relationship between person to person, and person to society, but also from society to society. Kant elaborates on this in ‘Perpetual Peace’:

“Nations may be considered like individual men which hurt each other in the state of nature, when they are not subject to laws, by their very propinquity. Therefore each, for the sake of security, may demand and should demand of the other to enter with him into a constitution similar to the civil one where the right of each may be secured.”
In Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, edited by Ted Humphrey.

Kant believes that a pacific union of states (foedus pacificum) is fundamentally necessary to accomplish peace. This union is not “directed toward the securing of some additional power of the state, but merely toward maintaining and making secure the freedom of each state by and for itself and at the same time of the other states thus allied with each other… only such a union may under existing conditions stem the tide of the law-evading, bellicose propensities in man…” Soit seems at first glance that Kant would not support any type of warfare, either defensive or preemptively offensive, since this goes against the moral worth of man: no respect or dignity is shown as soldiers from one country fire against, kill and mutilate soldiers of another.

However, states are obligated to protect their people and secure the peace to facilitate the harmonious flourishing of their citizens, thereby enabling them to strive towards the Kingdom of Ends. People cannot reach this, or even a sense of autonomy, if they are never given a chance; and domination by a foreign invader strips them of this inherent right. A country that invades another for unjust reasons such as conquest or plunder violates the other’s political sovereignty and territorial integrity,and by doing so hinders the rights and worth of the people of that state. The concept of defending oneself from or perhaps even attacking another potentially dominating state is therefore seen as a hindrance to a hindrance. From the Kantian perspective we have the right, perhaps even the responsibility, to hinder the hindrances to our freedom. Therefore, a state, as a form of collective self-defense, has the inherent right to hinder any hindrance to the worth and dignity of its people.

Captain America vs Supreme Evil

Kant spoke of allowing and enabling man to become autonomous instead of being subjugated or treated as a means only. What of somebody who volunteers to undergo a bio-engineering experiment? Is he or she being used as a mere means by their country, since problems of personal safety are “heightened by the possibility of inadvertent and unpredictable consequences of gene therapy to the patient and the possible long-term consequences”? Are we acting in this volunteer's best interests? Could an individual actually give his rational informed consent?

I believe Steve Rogers could. First, Rogers knew about the Nazis and was horrified by the newsreels he saw of them. Aware of the risks associated with this experiment, such as mutation, serious side effects or even death, of his own volition Rogers decided to help the free world. His initiative seems altruistic and beyond the call of duty, but this does not mean that he was used as a mere means. It was his choice. Aware of the risks associated with the precarious nature of this experiment, Rogers still volunteered, in order to prevent the spread of evil.

He could not truly understand what he would become and what the actual side effects would be until he became Captain America. A man who was fundamentally recreated to kill enemy combatants efficiently and effectively would be changed forever, with no going back to who he was before. This situation seems somewhat analogous to a soldier who enlists to serve his or her country then finds him or herself in combat. Sure he can understand that he will not be the same after his combat experience, but he will not truly know what effects combat will have on him until he undergoes that experience: euphoria, elation, sorrow, regret or post traumatic stress disorder, etc. Rogers’ ability to understand that he would be significantly different and that there were risks associated with this transformation enabled him to make an autonomous decision of adequately informed consent. His identity is concealed by his Captain America alias, which protects not only his confidentiality but also his family and friends.

We can easily and uncontroversially conclude that the Nazis negated the ‘right to autonomy’ of millions of people, but what of the other condition I mentioned? Someone could say that “every war is an emergency, every battle a possible turning point” – but does the Nazi danger constitute a supreme emergency? There has to be much greater justification for calling something a supreme emergency than the ‘normal’ fear and anxiety a country and its people have when facing a war. The war must be a struggle over ultimate values, where the victory of one side would be a disaster for the other. And because of this, there is “a fear beyond the ordinary fearfulness (and the frantic opportunism) of war, and a danger to which that fears corresponds, and that this fear and danger may well require exactly those measures that the war convention bars.” (Mike Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars.) Conventional means of warfare are just not sufficient; something else needs to be done. To morally resort to that something else, two further criteria constituting supreme emergency must be met. Mike Walzer states: “The first has to do with the imminence of the danger and the second with its nature. Close but not serious, serious but not close – neither one makes for a supreme emergency.” A ‘supreme emergency’ must meet both.

We discussed that the Nazi war machine was a serious threat to humanity, in that the regime had total disregard for the rights of other countries and committed horrific, macabre, evil acts that shocked the moral conscience of mankind. In October of 1939 the Nazis began euthanasia on the sick and disabled in Germany, and would later embark upon the systematic annihilation of the Jewish population.

So the threat was indeed serious, but was it close to America? By the summer of 1940, it was. In March 1939 the Nazis took control of Czechoslovakia and signed the Pact of Steel with Italy. By October that year, they had invaded Poland and signed the German-Russian Pact of Non-Aggression. By the end of May 1940, they occupied Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. By June 1940, Italy entered the fray on the Axis side and declared war on Britain and France. France capitulated at the end of June. This was strategically important as France was one of only three non-Axis countries with any significant advanced military and the industrial capability for massive war production (England and the U.S. being the other two). Furthermore, that summer, German U-boats wreaked havoc on British merchant ships in the Atlantic: “The rate of German sinkings of merchant ships was more than three times the capacity of British shipyards to replace them, and more than twice the rate of combined British and American shipyard output at the time.” (‘Fighting the U-boats’ at By late summer the Soviets had invaded Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia; and the Germans had launched massive bombing raids against airfields, factories and the civilian population in Britain. These events led to the U.S. passing a military conscription bill; Germany, Italy, and Japan signing the Tripartite Pact; and Hungary and Romania joining the Axis powers by the fall of 1940.

France had capitulated; Britain had its back to the wall struggling to survive; Russia had signed a non-aggression treaty with Germany; the Nazi war machine had systematically consumed countries without any culmination in sight. It seems that without question this serious threat was close, in the sense that the United States was the only country that might be able to slow the Blitzkrieg down, and therefore had a duty, in Kantian terms, to try to do so.

In 1940 the odds seemed overwhelming to the United States. Men and materials needed to be resourced to create an effective fighting machine. This would take time. The longer it took, the stronger the Third Reich would become. Something had to be done quickly. This something was the engineering enhancement designed by Dr. Abraham Erskine (code-name Prof Reinstein), the creator of the super-soldier formula. Once administered, this transformed fragile young Steve Rogers into the finest warrior the world had ever seen: “Captain America had agility, strength, speed, endurance, and reaction time superior to any Olympic athlete who ever competed. This Super-Soldier formula enhanced all of his bodily functions to the peak of human efficiency.”

Every country wants their soldiers to be the strongest, fastest and most lethal. Somatic cell engineering has the potential to make an average soldier the ultimate fighting specimen. However, what is the cost associated with such an endeavor? Should we play God and modify mankind against the parameters set by Mother Nature? What about potential side-effects and unforeseen ramifications? I venture to say yes, we should assent to such experiments, if our right to autonomy is in grave jeopardy from a supreme emergency.

© Major Todd A. Burkhardt 2007

Todd Burkhardt teaches at the United States Military Academy at West Point.


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