John Harris, the Sir David Alliance Professor of Bioethics at Manchester University, lays out a fascinating argument in his compelling book Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People.
Harris has a lot of liberal ideas, but one that he believes most strongly is that as parents, as citizens, as scientists, we are morally obliged to do what we can to make life better and longer for ourselves and our children. Society currently devotes so much energy and resources towards saving lives, which, in reality, is simply postponing death.
If it is right to save life, Harris says, then it should also be right to postpone death by stemming the flow of diseases that carry us to the grave. And we should make any such technology available as soon as we can, even if it means there will be some “haves” and “have-nots”.
“Certainly, sometimes we want competitive advantage – but for the enhancements I talk about, the competitive advantage is not the prime motive. I didn’t give my son (Jacob, to whom the book is dedicated) a good diet in the hope that others eat a bad diet and die prematurely. I’m happy if everyone has a good diet. The moral imperative should be that enhancements are generally available because they are good for everyone.” The only other route to equality, he says, is to level down so that everyone is as uneducated, unhealthy and unenhanced as the lowest in society – which is unethical. Even though we can’t offer a liver transplant to all who need them, he says, we still carry them out for the lucky few. Much better to try to raise the baseline, even if some are left behind.”
For Harris, having the ability to improve our species lot in life but refusing to do so, makes little sense. He has a difficult time understanding why some people are so insistent that we shouldn’t try to improve upon human evolution.
“Can you imagine our ape ancestors getting together and saying, ‘This is pretty good, guys. Let’s stop it right here!’. That’s the equivalent of what people say today.”
But Leon Kass, the highly influential American philosopher who persuaded President Bush to end public funding of research using human embryos, abhors Harris’s vision of a biotechnology-enhanced future. Kass believes it will lead to parents who “design” their children leading to a new generation “at risk of despotic rule” by the previous generation. But Kass can’t really articulate his main concern, which has been referred to as the “yuk factor” that many feel about scientific interference with the human body. Kass wrote a widely quoted essay entitled The Wisdom of Repugnance, in which he argued, “Repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason's power fully to articulate it”.
Personally, Harris doesn’t find Kass’ argument to be very compelling, since repugnance does not actually signify wisdom nor a lack of it. “The fact that people can’t articulate the reasons for their distaste or revulsion doesn’t make it invalid,” Harris says. “But the fact that they feel revulsion doesn’t make it valid, either.
“Human history is littered with examples of things that we recognize now were inappropriate objects of revulsion…[such as] homosexuality and working women, and other races. Nobody would say today that those feelings were appropriate, even though they were powerfully felt by very large numbers of people, sometimes whole societies. We ought to have a rational caution about following the 'yuk factor' because we know it has led us not only in the wrong direction but in a thoroughly corrupt direction.”
Harris doesn’t find the Mother Nature argument to be very compelling either. He points out that if we’re going to leave it to Mother Nature to decide, then why are we always resisting her?
“Medicine goes against nature – people naturally fall ill and naturally die prematurely. If we believed in letting nature take its course, we would not practice medicine. It’s not that I despise nature; there’s no particular virtue in it. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s crap. The virtue of medicine is that it prevents harm and does good. That, I believe, is the virtue of enhancement. Enhancement shares exactly the same moral purpose as medicine and it’s likely to be at least, if not more, effective.”
Posted by Rebecca Sato
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