Posted: September 1, 2003
he issues raised by biotechnology have for now been displaced by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the threat of radical Islam more generally. We needn't worry about distorting our humanity if we are ripped apart by religious frenzy before we even enter the laboratory. Resources, energy, and attention go to the immediate and better-defined crisis, and rightly so, today.
The significance of biotechnology, however, hasn't diminished. Its power unleashes the promise of remarkable satisfactions and the threat of uncanny dangers. Intelligent people need to continue to discuss its meaning and educate us about its implications.
Indeed, decisions are being made daily about stem cell research, biochemical manipulation, and cloning that will have profound effects. It's good, therefore, that the President's Council on Bioethics is still on the job and still headed by Leon Kass. The life he has devoted to these issues has found its practical moment—evidence that stubborn responsibility and the deep and long view sometimes find their day. Kass's career honors him and is a welcome sign that we are not as corrupt as we sometimes seem.
Kass's Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity is far-ranging. He poses the threat of biotechnology while recognizing its advantages, discusses bioethical issues with an eye toward concrete choice, and sketches elements of an intellectual view that challenges the premises and approaches of modern science generally.
The danger of biotechnology is that if we leave it alone it will reduce our dignity, that is, our humanity and virtue.
As Aldous Huxley made clear in his prophetic Brave New World, the road chosen and driven by compassionate humaneness paved by biotechnology, if traveled to the end, leads not to human fulfillment but to human debasement. Perfected bodies are achieved at the price of flattened souls. The joys and sorrows of human attachment and achievement are replaced by fictitious ecstasies that come from pills. Procreation is replaced by manufacture, family ties are absent, and people divide their time between meaningless jobs and meaningless amusements.
Why does biotechnology threaten this result? The reason is that "we lack a rich enough understanding of the human goods we wish to preserve and defend." In particular, we have forgotten the embodied particularity of so much that is good and therefore risk upsetting the bodily limits and related links to family and tradition on which human excellence depends. "Of the rich broth of our social-civil-cultural-spiritual life together, and of the ways in which it seasons us all without our knowing it, we theoreticians know almost nothing."
This insight into the concrete is itself general and belongs to a broad understanding of human flourishing that protects the insight from being accidental and relative. Kass's discussion of why immortally good health is questionable, for example, is conducted in terms of the general link between understanding and good things. Finitude benefits us by allowing "interest and engagement," "seriousness and aspiration," beauty and love" and "virtue and moral excellence." What incites "both speech and action" are "engaged concerns."
The connection between human flourishing and embodied concern belongs to a still wider framework, namely, the one Kass uncovers through his view of life and biology. "The true source of action is not abstract thought, nor even thought appliedto some separate motor or motive force, but rather a concretion, a grown-togetherness, of appetite and mind, so intertwined that one cannot say for sure whether the human principle of action is a species of desire become thoughtful, or an activity of intellection suffused with appetite." This view of grown-togetherness defines or specifies the philosophical biology of scholars and scientists such as Adolf Portmann, Hans Jonas, and Erwin Straus. Kass believes their approach to be superior to the homogenization, reductionism, materialism, mechanism, and objectification of contemporary biology and modern thought generally.
Such views of concretion are distinct from the willful, vitalistic immediacy sometimes ascribed to Nietzsche. One might wonder, nonetheless, whether concerned engagement seen as lived experience can allow, or require, sufficient reason and distance to reflect on itself. Kass does not put the problem as I do here, but he in effect places the contemporary biology he prefers in a still deeper context, namely that of Aristotle. Some combination of Aristotle and the insights of Portmann and Straus is his broadest context. Such informed biology can begin to see or, at least, does not forget, "that (and why) living beings are ordered and active wholes, particular ones of a particular kind, individually unique, time-bound, and experiencing a nuanced journey between birth and death; perishable and needy and, therefore, aspiring and energetically self-concerned."
Still, no biology (and no thought) can perfectly understand living things because all science dissolves the unity of the beings it studies, abstracts and homogenizes them and must confront the fact that "life and soul are irreducibly mysterious." In fact, nature, even when studied by Aristotelian-phenomenological natural biologists, provides less guidance for our present dilemmas than we hope because nature's ends for human beings are so varied. "In truth the loves of life, especially of human life, do not sing the same song." In particular, "the very desire for knowledge is, in principle, at odds with the demands of life." "The task of harmonizing competing goodsâ€¦will always remain the work of a largely autonomous ethical and political science."
Biology can help ethics and politics, however, by teaching us about matters that we cannot control. Kass's discussions of cloning, assisted suicide, and genetic technology exemplify the benefits of this perspective. It would be a disservice to bleach in the glare of summary the beautiful precision and telling detail of his analyses of these issues. They show Kass's deep sense for the particularities and complexities that surround and make up concrete choice: his is not merely a general appreciation of the particular. As we said, his chief practical concern is that true dignity and its conditions are being harmed by the remarkable advances of biology and our responses to them. Modern medicine's goal of immortality perversely undercuts the conditions that allow happiness: death with "dignity," assisted suicide, human cloning, and commodification of organs all are of this dangerous piece. The "technological approach to life" is "tragic" because such difficulties are inevitable concomitants of the benefits it brings. This, however, "does not yet mean our life must inevitably be tragic. To repeat, everything depends on whether the technological disposition is allowed to proceed to its self-augmenting limits, or whether it can be restricted and brought under intellectual, spiritual, moral, and political rule."
Bringing technology under control in the name of dignity is not, for Kass, idle talk. He believes that both reproductive and therapeutic cloning should be banned. Stem cell research should be limited to existing lines. A "digni- fied" death involves the manner in which we face death, not idle freedom. Not all these standards are as clear in practice as they sound, of course, nor could they be, given the complex practical issues at hand.
We are fortunate to have Jurgen Habermas writing about bioethics. His intelligence, moral seriousness, and intellectual sophistication make him an exemplary figure on the Left. Habermas's chief concern in The Future of Human Nature follows from his basic political-philosophical perspective, or from the insight at the root of that perspective. He worries that children whose traits are selected or designed will never understand themselves to be responsible for their own lives. They will therefore lack the crucial ethical or natural condition necessary to see themselves as moral beings. Because they will be unable to take their place in equal moral communication with others, they will also be unable to see these others morally. When we all become like this, moral relations among equal members of a Kantian kingdom of ends will have disappeared. This is especially problematic for Habermas because he believes we are in a post-ontological or "postmetaphysical" age, i.e., that in the last analysis no rational grounds exist to choose one individual or collective way of life over another. At the least, no grounds exist in our liberal democracies authoritatively to limit someone's responsibility because we know better than he what is good for him. If moral equality disappears or wavers, therefore, we become unable to live together rationally as responsible individuals, for no other basis exists for a rational common life.
Habermas's arguments about the harmful effects of genetic choice are repeated more than developed. Despite his attempts, he does not deal very successfully with the obvious objections. Why is knowing that someone else is responsible by design for (all) your traits so radically different from knowing that you are the product of a thoughtful marriage? Why is it so different from living today with characteristics one might not have chosen for oneself? Habermas points to the elimination of chance as one reason and also claims that we could not project in advance the consent of the designed to their being produced. The promising point about chance is not developed, however, and that concerning consent only reformulates his position.
Habermas's fear, though overstated morally and understated naturally, or philosophically, is genuine. Indeed, it points to a question still broader than the one he asks: What effect will full genetic selection have on our responsibility for ourselves generally? To make the best of ourselves we require pride, spirit, and freedom; to safeguard these we require that they and the inviolability they uncover be experienced, understood, and protected publicly and privately. Methods involved with bioengineering and pharmacology--harvesting of stem cells, and control of "aggression," for example--threaten to deaden this experience and protection. This issue concerns everything good that we seek and do, however, not merely Habermas's moral responsibility: it is an issue closer to the broad range of Kass's discussions.
Habermas's excessive emphasis on moral responsibility stems from elements in his thought that limit his arguments. This is not the occasion to develop these limits, but we should point them out: his overall binary split between instrumental and moral thinking, his sometimes hazy view of the difference between rational communication simply and specific languages and traditions, his connecting too rigidly liberal freedom and market choice. He needs to confront the amazing mistakes we could make technically, or the semi-intended producing of attitudes and frameworks that will make effort, patience, and prudence extremely difficult to exercise. Habermas doesn't confront these because he believes too easily that the practical or metaphysical standpoints in terms of which these concerns arise are impossible to grasp reasonably, no longer relevant, or even contrary to modern choice.
Yet he himself is forced to discuss the natural and ethical conditions necessary for moral responsibility that he believes genetic design will violate. This discussion is episodic; the result is the unconvincing argument that he makes. He offers here no comprehensive list of such conditions nor even a view of how to decide generally what such conditions might be. He does, however, enhance his basic argument by discussing in his opening and closing chapters Kierkegaard's notion of identity and the possibility in a secular state of learning from religion. Moreover, he is not afraid to follow his views to their political conclusion: he favors banning all non-therapeutic use of stem cells and pre-implantation genetic screening.
On the whole, Kass's work is as good a guide to the issues of bioethics as we are likely to have. There is little in Habermas that Kass does not consider as thoughtfully, and he covers the phenomena that Habermas omits. There are, of course, several further steps to be taken by those who begin from Kass's foundation. Some are daunting. We should examine ever more rigorously the place of reason in experiencing and grasping what is good, both in its own use and as it is implicated in the satisfactions of desire and spirit. It may well be that engaged concern, happiness, and bodily finitude are inseparable. We will still require direction and elevation when bodily conditions vary, however, when lives are longer, say, or as the links among the generations change. We must consider in greater detail the inherent limits and the incompleteness that are essential even in our most remarkable satisfactions or successes. Otherwise, as Kass suggests, we may destroy what we seek to enhance. Love can be denatured, but its nature cannot be changed. We ought to work through intellectually the elements of the non-objectifying, instrumental or technological reason to which Kass (and Habermas) point. Are the desire for knowledge and the needs of life always at odds? We should continue to explore the nature and worth of political virtue and political action, not least if we are to effect regulations that limit our freedom, for the sake of our freedom. And we must examine, continually, this liberal freedom itself that authorizes our choices, and the liberal education that guides them.