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Man and Superman: The Lure of Biotechnology

Council Warns of a Happiness That's Less Than Humane

WASHINGTON, D.C., NOV. 2, 2003 (Zenit) - On Oct. 15 the President's Council on Bioethics handed in a lengthy report on happiness. At first glance it may seem a strange topic for this body established by President George W. Bush.

In his introductory letter, council president Leon Kass explains that biotechnology promises to make people "look younger, perform better, feel happier, or become more 'perfect.'" Kass then warns that the meaning of human life should not be reduced to medical terms. Rather, he argues, our enjoyment of the benefits of biotechnology must be seen also in psychic, moral and spiritual terms.

Biotechnology, says the report, offers a wide variety of processes and products that offer the potential to alter and, to a degree, to control the phenomena of life, both in nonhuman and human forms. However, as with other technologies, means and ends are readily detached from one another, the report warns. It argues for a careful consideration about what kind of "improvements" we wish for the human species.

New techniques promise to help us achieve healthier bodies, decrease suffering, eliminate illnesses and extend our life span, the report observes. But they also raise the specter of designer babies, eugenics, behavior control and bioterrorism. Biotechnology then moves beyond the field of therapy and opens up the possibility of a "post-human future" that ranges from dehumanization to super-humanization.

Thus, this new power at our disposal goes beyond the previous problems of using science to kill people more efficiently. Now, science gives us the "power to remake ourselves after images of our own devising." The result, notes the report, "gives unexpected practical urgency to ancient philosophical questions: What is a good life? What is a good community?"

The search for improvement

Even a healthy person has limitations, notes the report. "The soul has aspirations beyond what even a healthy body can realize, and it becomes weary from frustration." Throughout history humans have dreamed of overcoming their limitations. In the final analysis these dreams go far beyond the fields of medicine or therapy. "They are dreams, in principle and in the limit, of human perfection," the report says.

Satisfying these dreams could seem laudable. Yet, disquiet arises from a number of sources. What would happen at the social level, for instance, if many people decide to select the sex of their offspring? Or what would happen at the individual level if drugs were used to transform one's memories?

How we put biotechnology into practice will depend greatly on the opinions, mores and institutions of our society, notes the report. Moreover, it notes, in a free and pluralistic society, there will be a wide diversity of opinions on the possibilities opened up by new technologies.

The report explains that the bioethics council does not condemn either biotechnological power or the pursuit of happiness, excellence or self-perfection. But, it clarifies, "these desires can be excessive." Moreover, we can be badly educated regarding the nature of objects we seek, pursuing them in harmful ways and with improper means, "often at the price of deforming the very goals being sought."

Sources of concern

The bioethics council outlines a number of causes for concern regarding the use of biotechnology.

-- Safety and bodily harm. No biological agent used for purposes of self-perfection or self-satisfaction is likely to be entirely safe, they warn. The body being a highly complex yet integrated whole in which one intervenes partially only at one's peril.

-- Unfairness. Enhancing performance, whether it be by athletes for a game, or students for their exams, opens up the question of giving some an unfair advantage.

-- Equality of access. Related to the previous point is the matter of divisions regarding access to the new techniques of improvement. Without ignoring the benefits that new technologies can give to all, it is a fact of life that only the wealthy can afford the more expensive medical care. The danger exists that this gap may widen in the future, thus creating a biotechnologically improved "aristocracy."

-- Liberty. The bioethics council notes that a threat to freedom could come about with the use of biotechnical power exercised by some people upon others. Drug-mediated alteration of behavior; designer babies; peer pressure for athletes to use steroids, are just some of the dangers. Moreover, they warn that "many of the enhancement technologies of the future will very likely be used in slavish adherence to certain socially defined and merely fashionable notions of 'excellence' or improvement, very likely shallow and conformist."

-- Pride. A common objection, comments the report, is that biotechnology implies that humans take over God's role, but without his wisdom. The temptation of pride to remake humanity not only can lead to bad or unintended consequences, but also represents a false understanding of the naturally given world. The root of the difficulty, the council explains, is "the failure properly to appreciate and respect the 'giftedness' of the world. Recognizing that our talents and powers are not wholly our own doing also means recognizing that not everything in the world is open to any use we may desire or devise." Even though in part this is a religious sensibility, its resonance reaches beyond religion, argues the report.

-- Human dignity. Ordinary medicine makes extensive use of artificial means to treat disease. Yet using biotechnology to make people better, rather than through discipline and effort, raises doubts. The report considers that the matter of character is important. Healthy people whose disruptive behavior is remedied by pacifying drugs rather than by their own efforts are not learning self-control. "If anything, they may be learning to think it unnecessary," the report warns.

This is particularly the case when interventions act directly on the human body and mind of a passive subject. This goes beyond building a good character, "to the manifestation of an alert and self-experiencing agent making his deeds flow intentionally from his willing, knowing and embodied soul." Human flourishing, continues the report, is not just the accumulation of external achievements.

-- Ends. The council advises careful reflection on the ends we seek through biotechnology. Parents naturally desire their children to be healthy and to flourish. But the danger exists that we will achieve superior results by compromising our humanity. And seeking to cure illnesses and avoid aging are also natural desires, but if we do so through exploiting stem cells other ethical questions come up.

Open questions

After looking at these dangers, the bioethics council concludes that "our native human desires need to be educated against both excess and error." Individuals as well as society need to find boundaries to limit the uses of biotechnology. To that end the report poses a number of questions for consideration.

-- When does parental desire for better children constrict their freedom or undermine their long-term chances for self-command and genuine excellence?

-- When does the quest for self-improvement make the "self" smaller or meaner?

-- When does a preoccupation with youthful bodies or longer life jeopardize the prospects for living well?

-- When does the quest for contentment or self-esteem lead us away from the activities and attachments that prove to be essential to these goals when they are properly understood?

Answering these questions is not easy, notes the report, and setting boundaries to new technologies is a hard task. But without boundaries of some kind, biotechnology could end up threatening human identity itself.

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