1 March 2012
I guess I’ll get over it somehow, though, Luddite that I am.
I borrow my title—with its loaded terminology—from a review of a recent book on bioethics that appears in the current issue of Reason magazine. The review is by the science journalist, Ronald Bailey. The book under review is Jonathan D. Moreno’s The Body Politic (Bellevue Literary Press, 2011).
On the whole, The Body Politic seems to be a moderately worded piece of advocacy for mainstream secular-liberal bioethics, perhaps more nuanced and sensible than most.
There’s neither anything earth-shattering nor anything very offensive in it. So, I propose to focus mainly on Bailey’s take on the book, rather than on the book itself.
Bailey’s take on Moreno’s book is interesting because he is more of a biotech enthusiast—he styles himself a “transhumanist”—than Moreno. Therefore, his views make for a sharper contrast with the conservative, morality-based position on these matters.
One of Moreno’s main claims is that the standard categories of “left” and “right” break down when we come to bioethics. He points out that many on the political left are opposed to biotechnology out of a fear that it will increase social and economic inequality by giving only the relatively well-off access to biological enhancements.
Since that seems to put some on the political left in the same camp with many on the political right who oppose aspects of biotechnology on moral grounds, Moreno suggests we drop the “left/right” terminology in this context in favor of his labels “bioconservative” and “bioprogressive.”
A “bioconservative,” then, is anyone who wants to place moral and political restraints upon biotechnology, for whatever reason. Such a person is an enemy of science and progress.
A “bioprogressive,” on the other hand, is anyone who automatically favors all biotechnological “advances” without restriction, no matter the consequences. Such a person is a friend to science and progress.
A convenient taxonomy, that!
Nevertheless, I adopt it here for the sake of convenience and because it does point to a real and interesting phenomenon—the tradition that views scientific and technological “progress” as a sort of manifest destiny.
Bailey points out the logic of this way of categorizing opinions in bioethics, in language more vigorous than any Moreno permits himself:
These progressive bioconservatives fear that the rich and powerful will use technology, especially biotech, to outcompete and oppress the poor and weak. In their view, human dignity depends on human equality. It turns out that “the party of science” really is just the old-fashioned “party of equality,” science be damned (unless its findings conform to egalitarian ideology). Left-wing biocons seem to believe that protecting human dignity requires the rich and poor to remain equally diseased, disabled, and dead.
In this passage, we can hear the characteristic note struck by enthusiasts of scientific progress for its own sake, with their scorn for any and all moral thinking, on the left or the right:
“Science be damned”—Perish the thought!
Science, for people like Bailey, is sacrosanct. It is the one source of solace and certainty in an otherwise chaotic universe devoid of purpose, value, or meaning, and headed ineluctably towards heat death.
For such people, illness, physical imperfection, and mortality are the ultimate evils, not selfishness, cruelty, or wickedness. Only immortality coupled with eternal youthful vigor can reconcile these folks to their unenviable lot as castaways in an indifferent Darwinian universe.
Bailey’s beef is not with Moreno, and scarcely even—in this essay, at least—with conservative critics of biotechnology like Leon Kass, whom he dismisses in a few lines.
His real concern is with the bioconservatives on his left. He is especially exercised by Francis Fukuyama’s attack on biotechnology from a seemingly left perspective in his book, Our Posthuman Future (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2000):
Francis Fukuyama asserted, “The political equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence rests on the empirical fact of natural human equality.”
To this suggestion, Bailey replies as follows:
“Equality is a political, not a biological concept,” Moreno correctly responds. Fukuyama is wrong when he asserts that equality rests on biological facts. Instead, the ideal of political equality arose from the Enlightenment’s insistence that since no one has access to absolute truth, no one has a moral right to impose his values and beliefs on others. In any case, there is every prospect that biotechnological progress will enhance human dignity by ameliorating rather than exacerbating physical and intellectual inequalities. For example, researchers are currently making headway toward new biopharmaceutical interventions to enhance intelligence, boost physical stamina, and retard aging, tools that can be used by anyone. Later in this century, when safe genetic engineering becomes possible, parents will be able to give their children the beneficial genes for improved health and intelligence that other children receive naturally.
There are several important mistakes and confusions here.
First, Bailey and Moreno are both confusing the idea of political equality with the idea that all human beings have equal moral standing by virtue of their humanity. The former idea may have arisen late in European history, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but the latter idea is much older, having its roots in both Athens, especially in Aristotle and the Stoics, and in Jerusalem, in the concept of being created in the image of God.
In any case, Kant secularized the idea in his notion of the dignity of persons and in the second formula of the categorical imperative. So, it seems that, like the Bible, the Devil can quote the Enlightenment, too, to his own purposes.
So, Fukuyama’s concern about our biological “equality” (not the best word, really) is not reducible to the secular-liberal concern with political and economic equality. It goes much deeper, and lies at the heart of the conservative critique of the most extreme forms of biotechnology as violations of the moral order because they violate human nature.
The other egregious mistake in the passage quoted is the idea that Lockean and Jeffersonian tolerance in matters of religion implies an extreme moral relativism. This idea—which lies at the heart of so much secular-liberal discourse today—is a sheer non sequitur. As if John Locke must have approved of abortion or Thomas Jefferson must have endorsed same-sex marriage, because they did not believe Anglicans should impose their views on the eucharist on Catholics, and vice versa!
In concluding his review, Bailey pulls in his horns, in a bid to appear blandly reasonable:
Moreno observes that bioconservative fears, both right- and left-wing, can never be wholly resolved. He adds, “But a liberal democratic society has nothing to fear and everything to gain by fostering a scientific attitude.” If the idea of progress still means anything—and I think it does—it must mean moving in the direction that enables more and more individuals to flourish. In his highly readable and provocative book, Moreno makes clear that progress, including biotechnological progress, is still America’s most important product.
Who could find fault with that conception of progress?
The only trouble is that Mr. Bailey’s conception of human flourishing and the conception of human flourishing held by morally grounded bioconservatives are diametrically opposed.
Nothing like ending your essay with a bang by begging the main question at issue!