Category Archives: Bioethics

Michael Sandel’s, “The Case against Perfection”

I have vigorously defended transhumanism in this blog but I like to hear from some dissenters. Michael J. Sandel dissents in his article, “The Case against Perfection.” Here is a brief outline of the piece with some of my own parenthetical remarks.

Genetic engineering will improve the species, but some of it seems yucky. To understand why we need to consider “the moral status of nature, and …the proper stance of human beings toward the given world.” (Does nature have a moral status? Is there a proper stance toward it?)

Why is genetic engineering so bad? “The problem with eugenics and genetic engineering is that they represent the one-sided triumph of wilfulness over giftedness, of dominion over reverence, of molding over beholding.” (What does this mean? This is all very cryptic.)

With genetic engineering:

  • we won’t be humble (about our gifts): “If bioengineering made the myth of the “ self- made man” come true, it would be difficult to view our talents as gifts for which we are indebted rather than achievements for which we are responsible.” (Is this true? And if it is, is it bad that it’s true?)
  • we will be too responsible (for human fate): “As humility gives way, responsibility expands to daunting proportions. We attribute less to chance and more to choice… The more we become masters of our genetic endowments, the greater the burden we bear for the talents we have and the way we perform… A domain once governed by fate has now become an arena of choice.” (Is this true? And if it is, is it bad that it’s true?)
  • We will feel less solidarity (with others): “…genetic enhancement, if routinely practiced, would make it harder to foster the moral sentiments that social solidarity requires.” (I don’t see why this is true.)

Objections

1)”Some may complain that it is overly religious; others may object that it is unpersuasive in consequentialist terms.” Response – “These various understandings of the sacred all insist that we value nature and the living beings within it as more than mere instruments; to act otherwise displays a lack of reverence, a failure of respect.”

2) “But those who care more about gaining a competitive edge for their children or themselves may decide that the benefits to be gained from genetic enhancement outweigh its allegedly adverse effects on social institutions and moral sentiments.” Response – “My concern with enhancement is not as individual vice but as habit of mind and way of being.” Sandel concludes:

The bigger stakes are of two kinds. One involves the fate of human goods embodied in important social practice–norms of unconditional love and an openness to the unbidden, in the case of parenting; the celebration of natural talents and gifts in athletic and artistic endeavors; humility in the face of privilege, and a willingness to share the fruits of good fortune through institutions of social solidarity. The other involves our orientation to the world that we inhabit, and the kind of freedom to which we aspire. ..But changing our nature to fit the world, rather than the other way around, is actually the deepest form of disempowerment. It distracts us from reflecting critically on the world, and deadens the impulse to social and political improvement. Rather than employ our new genetic powers to straighten ‘the crooked timber of humanity,’ we should do what we can to create social and political arrangements more hospitable to the gifts and limitations of imperfect human beings…

(Nothing about genetic engineering excludes changing social institutions for the better, and if we had followed Sandel’s advice throughout history we would still die young.)

Summary of Michael Tooley’s, “Moral Status of Cloning Humans”

(reprinted in the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 18, 2015)

Michael Tooley’s article “Moral Status of Cloning Humans” defends human cloning. I am in complete agreement with it. Cloning, despite the visceral reaction it raises, is a tool in the arsenal of the transhumanist once it is understood. Here is a brief outline of the article with a bit of commentary identified by parenthesis.

SECTION 1 – Is it Intrinsically Wrong to Produce a Person by Cloning?

Cloning might be wrong intrinsically because: 1) the right of a person to a genetically unique nature; and 2) the right of a person to a future that is, in a certain sense, open.

Regarding 1 – is it important to be unique? If there was another you on a distant planet does that diminish your worthiness?

Two persons could be identical because of deterministic law (genes and environment), or by chance (identical twins). Most people aren’t bothered by the latter, but by the former. If bothered by the former, is that because such persons would not be unique, or is one bothered because they don’t like determinism? Tooley thinks its determinism they don’t like, not the lack of uniqueness. But they should have no worries since cloning—even less than identical twins reared together—doesn’t imply genetic determinism (and doesn’t produce identical people.)

Do persons then have a right to a unique genome? The case of twins suggests they do not, as no one worries that there are twins or thinks it wrong to have twins. But is there some right violated by being a clone? It seems not.  One’s individuality is not threatened because someone else shares your genome. (Again that implies that genetic determinism is true, but we aren’t genetically determined.)

Or consider that if the gods had to choose between 1) evolution; 2) an original pair who would mate, or 3) an original pair who would reproduce perfect clones of themselves forever. Might not the gods have rejected the former as too random, and chose the latter instead? Would this last world be worse than the others, or much better?  Tooley thinks it would have been better. This suggests there is nothing crucial about genetic uniqueness.

Regarding 2 – we might think certain futures aren’t open to us because someone who preceded us did or did not do certain things. Tooley suggests such knowledge would be helpful since we wouldn’t attempt to do impossible or extremely unlikely things based upon knowledge of our genome.  Or, if one thought themselves constrained by their genome, they would be wrong, as the case of identical twins shows. (Again, genetic potentials, dispositions, propensities, or proclivities do NOT imply genetic determinism.) Thus the arguments against cloning are unconvincing.

SECTION 2 – Considerations in Support of Cloning

In support of cloning Tooley offers the following:

1) We would gain scientific knowledge about nature vs. nurture debate. Such knowledge would be potentially beneficial to society and child rearing;
2) We could clone persons who have made significant contributions to society;
3) We can increase the chances that one will be happy and healthy;
4) It will improve and inform the relationship for both children and parents—since the parent will better recall what it was to be that child;
5) It would help infertile couples who could not otherwise have children;
6) It will allow homosexual couples to have their own children; and
7) It would save lives (primarily by the ability to clone perfectly compatible organs.)

SECTION 3 – Objections to the Cloning of Humans

Still, even if the arguments against cloning are weak—as the first section demonstrated—and there are multiple benefits to cloning—as the second section argued—cloning might still be wrong because of some bad consequences that might follow its adoption.

Arguments against cloning and responses to those arguments

1) Creating mindless organ banks is wrong because you are killing a person, or because you are not allowing a person to have a brain or soul, or because it is killing a potential person.

Response – Tooley rejects all of these objections. There are no convincing reasons to think that embryos, brainless organs, or potential people are people. Furthermore, while some may think organ banks are ghoulish, not using them allows innocent people to die who would otherwise not die. Thus to advocate against cloning is to recommend a course of action that will result in the death of many innocent people. (Remember also that in practice we’re talking about cells being directed to develop into a pancreas, liver, heart, etc. Not whole bodies hanging on hooks in chambers as in the movies.)

2) Cloning violates the rights of clones to a genetically unique or open future.

Response – This objection has already dealt with.

3) Brave New World scenarios such as human beings will be cloned to serve as slaves, soldiers in the dictator’s army, etc.

Response – Such scenarios are not plausible.  Would society suddenly change their mind about the immorality of slavery because of genetic engineering? Would a dictator who couldn’t conscript his own army undertake a cloning project so that in twenty years he had the army he wanted? Not likely. (Remember you must show not that something is possible but that it’s plausible.)

4) Cloning will cause psychological distress because clones will think their uniqueness compromised or future constrained.

Response – The beliefs that give rise to such distress are, as we have seen, false; and they are also irrational since, as we have seen, genetic determinism is false. But we should not be constrained by the irrational beliefs of others. Moreover, these irrational beliefs will cease when cloning becomes familiar.

5) We use children—treat them as means to an end—when we clone them to save another child.

Response – Tooley thinks it unlikely that parents would be less likely to care or love their offspring in such situations.

6) Cloning interferes with autonomy.

Response – If my child is cloned with a genetic capability or potential to be intellectuals, that doesn’t mean they have to be. The same if they are disposed to be intellectuals; they still don’t have to be. In addition, is it really wrong to want children who won’t suffer from genetic diseases?  Finally, If cloning to produce children with certain traits is wrong, then so are almost all child-rearing practices.

SECTION 4 – Conclusion

“My overall conclusion, in short, is that the cloning of human beings, both to produce mindless organ banks, and to produce persons, is both morally acceptable, in principle, and potentially very beneficial for society.”

“The Morality of Killing Human Embryos”

Here are bullet points which summarize “The Morality of Killing Human Embryos”  by the philosopher Bonnie Steinbock:

  • Are embryonic stem cells persons? Do they have moral status?
  • Some things don’t have moral status—rocks—some things have more status than others—people than fish.
  • People have moral status because they’re homo-sapiens.
  • But when do they become human organisms?
  • Some say at conception, but this is at odds with the facts of modern biology.
  • Biologically, a genuine and unique organism presents itself at implantation—at about 14 days.
  • And biological humanity does not imply moral status—as the examples of extraterrestrials and persons in vegetative states show. Some humans aren’t people, and some people aren’t humans.
  • One could object to #7 by asking why should we limit moral status to persons.
  • Might there be a middle ground between the biological and personhood views of moral status?
  • We may think of moral status as corresponding with having interests or a stake in something.
  • A being must have interests to have moral rights and status.
  • Non-conscious beings do not have interests, nothing matters to them.
  • And we do have a good idea of what it’s like to be conscious—conscious beings have interests.
  • Embryos do not have consciousness or interests and hence no moral status.
  • What about the argument that it was in one’s interest not to have been killed as a fetus?
  • Steinbock counter that one never was an unconscious fetus, one comes to be when one is conscious.
  • Steinbock also argues that it does not matter to you if you are aborted before you are conscious.
  • At any rate, embryos outside of bodies have no future.
  • Most of these embryos have no future even if implanted.
  • Cloned embryos have no chance of have a future, hence they are even less morally problematic.
  • It is morally acceptable to use embryos in research because they have no moral status.

Leon Kass, “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Human Improvement”

Of all the authors I’ve encountered during my 30-year university teaching career, none was more painful to read than Leon Kass. Kass, among his many roles, served as the chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics after being appointed by George W. Bush.

When I read an enemy of the future like Kass, a quintessential lover of suffering and death, I wonder: a) what is wrong with this person? b) how can he believe what he believes? and c) why does he want to force his views on others?

In some ways, these questions are easy to answer. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with loving death and dying; perhaps suffering and death are good things. And many people like to influence other people, I suppose all writers do, but I always found something particularly disturbing in Kass’ writings. It’s not so much that he believes stem cell research is immoral—although that position is nearly indefensible—is it his desire to control others that is so repugnant. Of course, a lot of old conservatives are like this. They see the world they lived in receding into the past, and they want to stop the tide.

In 2003, Kass published: “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Human Improvement.” He begins his article by granting that biomedical science and biotechnology have made contributions to society, but he worries that our children and grandchildren might succumb to technologies “seductive promises of a perfect, better-than-human future, in which we shall all be as gods, ageless and blissful.”

Hold it right there. Of all the things to worry about, he worries about the perfect, the better, the ageless, the blissful. I’m reminded of H. L. Mencken’s remark that a Puritan is someone who just can’t stand that somebody somewhere is having fun. But Kass isn’t through. He also worries that “the likely ends that these powers and techniques are destined to serve: ageless bodies, happy souls, better children, a more peaceful and cooperative society, etc.”

Wow! He opposes happiness, good children, peace, and cooperation, but he loves death. Surely something is wrong with this man; you wonder if he has ever smiled except when he knows that others are suffering. I mean, is all this perfection, agelessness, happiness, peace, cooperation and love really bad? Evidently according to Kass. I wonder how a traveler from another planet, who saw the pain and injustice of this world would respond to such a supporter of the status quo?

Kass does express some legitimate worries with pursuing these technologies: (1) issues of safety and bodily harm; (2) issues of unfairness and distributive justice; and (3) issues of freedom and coercion, overt and subtle. And “to put this disquiet into words,” and elucidate his “wisdom of repugnance,” Kass advances some further objections: 1) that the attitude of mastery displays an unwise hubris; 2) there is a morally relevant way in which biotech is an unnatural means; and 3) some of the goals of biotech are dubious. In the end, all this stuff makes Kass feel yucky.

But of course I don’t feel yucky when contemplating biotechnology or most other futuristic technologies, I feel hopeful. I want to be more happy and peaceful and cooperative. If Kass doesn’t want to, then he is welcomed to be as unhappy as he likes. And I don’t like suffering and death. If Kass likes them, he is welcome to die at any time. In fact, autonomy demands that we are allowed to die when we want. But I resent his trying to keep new technologies from those of us who want them. And that’s exactly what he was trying to do as chair of the Ethics committee; he wanted to make sure that stem cell research did not proceed. I resent such paternalism, as any autonomous being would.

But Kass and his ilk will ultimately fail. When safe biotechnology becomes available, it will be wildly popular, just like the in vitro fertilization that Kass once opposed. The march of the future is inexorable and will only be delayed, not stopped, by lovers of death and enemies of the future like Kass.

“Stem Cells, Biotechnology, and Human Rights: Implications for a Posthuman Future”

(reprinted in the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 13, 2015)

Any reader of this blog knows that I am a transhumanist; I believe in using technology to overcome all human limitations. What follows is a summary of an anti-transhumanist article by Paul Lauritzen, a professor of Theology and Religious Studies. I believe his arguments are as harmful as they are worthless, and contrary to everything I believe in, but I will summarize them nonetheless. As I proceed I will provide a few parenthetical comments, as well as some critical remarks at the end.

Stem Cells, Biotechnology, and Human Rights: Implications for a Posthuman Future

The author discusses two broad concerns posed by stem cell research and related biotechnological interventions. The first has to do with the prospect of transforming the contours of human life in fairly dramatic ways. The second has to do with our attitudes toward the natural world.

As we move to change the meaning of human embodiment in fundamental ways, including the possibility of eroding species boundaries, we need to ask whether we are prepared to reduce the entire natural world to the status of artifact. (Is that what we would be doing? If so, is that bad?) These concerns raise questions about the meaning of human rights in a post-human future. (Can’t we have enhanced human rights? Or robot rights?)

Despite the overwhelming questions of embryo status, ultimately the fundamental question raised by stem cell research is not about the embryo. Instead, it is about the future toward which biotechnology beckons us. Does contemporary biotechnology, including stem cell research, open the door to a post-human future? (It obviously does, but is this bad, and if so why?)

Others raise this question explicitly when they discuss the combination of genetic engineering and stem cell therapy. They suggest that xenotransplantation forces us to confront the prospect of transgressing species boundaries. When a graft involves genetically engineered stem cells from another species, questions are raised not just about the ontological status of the graft recipient, but about the illnesses to which the biomedical technology is responding.

(Do species differ in degree or kind? If they differ only in degree, as modern biology maintains, then the transgressing species boundary argument makes little sense. And even if we do change the species, why is this bad? Perhaps Lauritzen’s argument is just a sophisticated version of the ”yuch” argument—I oppose this stuff because it seems yucky!)

Questions about the implications of pursuing stem cell research have not been systematically asked or answered. Given the potential for alleviating human suffering embedded in the prospects of stem cell research, it is not surprising that there appears to be widespread and largely uncritical acceptance of stem cell research. Nevertheless, if the promise of stem cell research is as revolutionary as is often claimed, we are going to need a much more expansive discussion of stem cell research than we have had. (Is this just another “the sky is falling” argument? Or the slippery slope argument?)

If stem cell research leads to therapies that change the natural contours of human life, it will unsettle our ethical commitments, including the very notion of a human right, and encourage us to see the entire natural world, the human body along with it, as having the status only of material to be manipulated.

Reflections – There is a lot to say in reply to this argument, but first of all let me say this. Lauritzen doesn’t want to avail himself of these or any other technologies he doesn’t want to, but he shouldn’t keep others from using them if they want to.

Also we might ask: Don’t we treat nature as artifact now? Will new technology really make us more likely to do this? Has he given a good argument for this, or any of the other supposed negative consequences that might result from biotech?  What of the positive consequences? And was the past and is the present really so good that we wouldn’t want to change human nature? Is it possible that he has to defend the goodness of the status quo—grow old, get sick, die and don’t intervene—because he is a religious thinker? After all, to grant that we can make this world better than the gods originally made it would undermine his world view. And surely he doesn’t want to do that.

What I can say is this. When science and technology defeat death, religion as we know it will end. Theologians will be out of jobs when there are superintelligences. Religion is always fighting the future, but the future will arrive nonetheless. And when biotechnology eliminates disease and improves the human condition, no one will care what the theologians have to say.