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Man and Superman: The Lure of Biotechnology

11/2/2003 - 10:00 AM PST

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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 ...

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