On (Being) “Better Than Human” — Part 1

Recent posts have called for reflection on the “ends” of medicine. Though not directly addressed to the specific questions raised in those posts, this series will touch on related themes and so will be relevant to that larger discussion. With that in mind, I invite my readers and fellow bloggers to add their comments and observations into the mix, with a view toward drawing connections between these reflections and the broader questions under discussion on this site.

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As I noted in my recent posts (2/11/13 and 03/04/13), Allen Buchanan’s Better than Human: The Promise and Perils of Enhancing Ourselves is an extended argument to the conclusion that “[t]here are powerful reasons in favor of a society like ours embarking on the enhancement enterprise, and there are no objections to enhancement that are sufficient to outweigh them, at least at the present time” (p. 181). In advancing his case for this conclusion, Buchanan explicitly eschews an appeal to what he terms “religious assumptions”—not, he emphasizes, because he is “antireligious,” but because he is “trying to discuss enhancement in ways that are accessible to most people, whether they are religious or not” (p. 145). Along the way, however, Buchanan ends up committing himself to some fairly robust assumptions that may or may not be “accessible” to “most people,” especially those who approach these issues from an explicitly religious or theological standpoint. In this post—the first of a multi-part series—I want to spend some time identifying and considering the ramifications of at least some of these assumptions. We will also consider two other recently published works—Jonathan Glover’s Choosing Children and Michael Sandel’s The Case Against Perfection, respectively—with a similar objective of examining (some of) their underlying assumptions, and with a view toward bringing these works into conversation with one another.

I begin, first, with a brief synopsis of Buchanan’s argument. This will, of course, omit or gloss over many details and nuances of his argument as presented throughout the book. Nevertheless, the following summary encapsulates key elements of his larger project, points that will serve as a launching pad for reflection in this and subsequent posts. Toward the end of this post, I will very briefly focus in on a specific methodological issue, one that recurs throughout the book and which, in my judgment, renders the larger argument problematic at best. A more detailed discussion of that issue, however, will be deferred until the next post.

 

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In the first chapter, entitled “Breathless Optimism, Hysterical Loathing,” Buchanan sets out his overall objective—namely, the task of steering between the two extremes (“breathless optimism” and “hysterical loathing,” respectively) to which analyses of biomedical enhancement are frequently prone. By contrast, he aims to advance a pro-enhancement argument that nevertheless acknowledges and grapples with the risks inherent in the enhancement enterprise. In service of this objective, the first chapter provides an overview of the argument to be developed throughout the rest of the book; subsequent chapters are devoted to developing each of the major lines of reasoning to which Buchanan appeals in support of his thesis.

Buchanan opens this first chapter with the provocative statement that “It’s too late to ‘just say no’ to biomedical enhancements: They’re already here and more are on the way” (p. 3). As Buchanan notes, people already employ a whole host of biomedical enhancements. For example, some college students (particularly at elite American universities) have been known to take Ritalin to boost their cognitive performance, even though they do not themselves have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), the condition for which Ritalin is normally prescribed. Using a fictitious scenario in which two students at an elite American university (“Michelle” and “Carlos”) debate the propriety of this sort of cognitive “enhancement”—to which scenario Buchanan will return, in various iterations, throughout the book—he identifies two key issues that are highlighted by the fictional case scenario.

First, there is the issue of what Buchanan refers to as back door versus front door enhancements. An example of an enhancement of the “front door” variety would be if a drug were developed, approved by the FDA, and marketed explicitly for purposes of improving “normal” memory capacities. By contrast, the use of Ritalin by persons who do not have ADD, for the purpose of improving cognitive performance, would be an example of a “back door” enhancement. “At present,” Buchanan observes, “biomedical enhancements don’t come through the front door. They come through the back door, as spin-offs of efforts to treat diseases or disorders” (p. 7). Examples include the use of SSRIs (such as Prozac) by individuals who are not clinically depressed, in order to feel better emotionally; and the use of Viagra by young men “so that they can perform like the Energizer Bunny, even when they’re drunk” (p. 7). (Such is the “brave new world” we’ve inherited!)

As Buchanan notes, enhancement can also come about as an unexpected or unanticipated side effect of treatment for some condition. Modern prosthetics can, for example, potentially enable a runner to achieve faster speeds than his or her “able-bodied” counterparts (consider the controversy over Oscar Pistorius’ status in Olympic athletic competition; I will resist the urge here to pontificate on the more recent controversy that he finds himself in, except to note the obvious: “enhancement” of one sort—physical, emotional, cognitive, etc.—certainly doesn’t entail “enhancement” in the moral domain, and vice versa). Similarly, while undergoing modern laser eye surgery to correct a variety of vision problems, one can also opt simultaneously to improve or “enhance” one’s vision to a better-than-20/20 level.

The upshot of all this is that “[b]iomedical enhancements will keep coming in through the back door as long as we continue to make progress in treating diseases and disorders. So, just saying no to biomedical enhancements isn’t really an option—unless we want to stop medical progress” (p. 8). But, Buchanan goes on to say, “…if biomedical enhancements continue to come in through the back door, we’ll have serious problems.” For example, those individuals who take Ritalin to improve cognitive function (rather than to treat ADD) are taking a drug for a purpose for which it was not intended, where the safety and efficacy of the drug for that purpose has not been evaluated through clinical trials or other objective measures. These and other such “back-door” enhancements could potentially pose serious health or other hazards to individuals and/or the public at large. But “[s]o long as biomedical enhancements come through the back door, we won’t be in a good position to evaluate their safety or even whether they really work for everybody who takes them” (p. 8).

The second issue to which the “Michelle-Carlos” scenario draws our attention is the question of the relative “novelty” of biomedical enhancements, and the ethical issues raised by them, in comparison with other types of enhancements (particularly of a cognitive variety). Consider, for example, the fact that millions of us use two commonly available “cognitive enhancement” drugs on a daily basis—namely, nicotine and caffeine. Or consider some of the other major “enhancements” that, historically, have had the effect (among other things) of improving human cognitive capacities, resulting in wealthier societies and higher standards of living—e.g., “nonbiomedical cognitive enhancements” such as literacy, numeracy, and modern science; and “institutional enhancements” such as the market.

The problem, Buchanan observes, is that “…in current discourse, the term ‘enhancement’ is usually attached only to interventions that involve biomedical technologies. This blinds us to how pervasive enhancements are in our lives and how central they have been to the origin and evolution of our species” (p. 10). The lesson to be learned here, according to Buchanan, is that we need to resist the temptation of what he terms biomedical enhancement exceptionalism—“the dogmatic assumption that because an enhancement involves biotechnologies (pills, computers, fiddling with embryos, etc.) it’s somehow off the moral scale, that our ordinary moral tool kit is useless for coping with it.” Buchanan’s point is not that biomedical enhancement poses no moral challenges; rather, it is simply to observe that “human history—or at least human progress—is in great part the story of enhancement” (p.10), of which distinctively biomedical enhancement is simply one further iteration.

Of course, these observations do not stop critics of biomedical enhancement from claiming that there is something unique, something distinctively problematic about that form of enhancement over against others. Why might someone think that biomedical enhancement is unique in this way? Here, Buchanan considers four candidate arguments to that conclusion—namely,

(1) biomedical enhancements are different because they change our biology; (2) biomedical enhancements are different because (some of them) change the human gene pool; (3) biomedical enhancements are different because they could change or destroy human nature; (4) biomedical enhancements are different because they amount to playing God (p. 12).

Each of the subsequent chapters of this book is devoted to investigating and responding in detail to one of these arguments. Here, I will simply set out the broad contours of Buchanan’s response to each of the arguments; in subsequent posts, I will go intro greater detail.

In response to the “playing God” objection (Ch. 4), Buchanan argues that this really amounts to a warning against hubris—being overly confident in our technological prowess and other capabilities. As an action-guiding principle, however, it is relatively uninformative and therefore unhelpful.

With respect to the “changing the human gene pool” objection (Chs. 2 & 5), Buchanan observes that the human gene pool is always changing, regardless of what we do. The real question, he says, is whether or not natural selection is “doing a good job of changing the gene pool.” We shouldn’t assume, from the outset, that changing the gene pool would always be a bad thing. Those who do assume this a priori, Buchanan suggests, are relying on an “unsupported dogma”—namely, a “pre-Darwinian understanding of nature as teleological” (p. 16), as a consequence of which they assume “that evolution is doing a good job and that our efforts are likely to make things worse” (p. 16).

Buchanan’s response to the “changing biology” objection (Chs. 2 & 3) runs along similar lines: since “our biology is a product of evolution” (p. 20), and is therefore always changing, the salient question is “whether we might have good reasons for deliberately changing our biology in some respects” (p. 20).

Finally, in responding to the “changing/destroying human nature” objection (Ch. 3), Buchanan notes, first, that on most accounts of human nature, including Christian and other theologically oriented accounts, human nature as we know it is, at best, “a pretty mixed bag,” one that includes both “awful as well as admirable features” (21). So, prima facie, it’s not immediately clear that “human nature” is necessarily something we should even want to preserve in its present form; perhaps, instead, we should try to improve human nature so as to get rid of, or at least to ameliorate, some of those “awful” features. Arguments to the contrary, Buchanan suggests, typically rely on what he terms the Extreme Connectedness Assumption (ECA), the notion that “…if we try to ameliorate the bad parts of human nature we will inadvertently destroy the good parts” (p. 22). But why, Buchanan asks, should we accept the ECA? In deciding whether or not to accept that assumption, he says, we should look at the “evidence” about what human nature is like. What sort of “evidence” would be relevant to this inquiry? For Buchanan, the answer to that question is obvious: we should look to “scientific evidence about what evolved organisms like us are like. In other words, we have to look to biology” (p. 22).

After having (in his view) dispensed with each of these objections, Buchanan then goes on to consider two additional types of arguments: (a) consequentialist arguments having to do with the potential for distributive injustice (Ch. 5, “Will the Rich Get Biologically Richer””); and (b) a virtue-oriented objection to the effect that the pursuit of enhancement is inherently morally corrupting (Ch. 6, “Is Enhancement Corrupting?”). Buchanan believes he has answers to these objections as well, and so arrives at the aforementioned conclusion that “[t]here are powerful reasons in favor of a society like ours embarking on the enhancement enterprise, and there are no objections to enhancement that are sufficient to outweigh them, at least at the present time” (p. 181).

 

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Detailed critical engagement with Buchanan’s argument will have to await the next and subsequent posts. By way of preview, I close this post with a crucial question regarding methodology. I noted above that, for Buchanan, the only source of relevant “evidence” is (evolutionary) biology. This trope—that the pronouncements of (evolutionary) biology are the only sources of data relevant to an inquiry concerning what human nature is like—recurs throughout Buchanan’s book. (It is, of course, a common theme found in much of the contemporary bioethics literature generally.) But, as a former professor of mine was fond of saying, “why think that?” Why think that evolutionary biology is the only relevant source for information concerning human nature? What about other possible sources, such as theology and philosophy? Surely these other domains of knowledge might have something to contribute to the discussion?

This question will be the subject of my next post.

 

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Works Cited in this Post

Buchanan, A. (2011). Better than Human: The Promise and Perils of Enhancing Ourselves (Philosophy in Action Series). New York: Oxford University Press.

Glover. J. (2008). Choosing Children: Genes, Disability, and Design (Uehiro Series in Practical Ethics). New York:

Sandel, M. (2007). The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Journeys of Transformation

In my last post, “A Preview of Coming Attractions” (02-11-13), I signaled the start of a multi-part series of review essays covering three recently published books addressing ethical issues surrounding enhancement technologies and practices. I had intended to launch that series with today’s post. Before starting that series, however, I want to go on a brief discursus, one that will, I believe, turn out to be relevant to the themes to be touched on in the forthcoming series.

Last week, I attended the annual “Christ and Culture” lecture at California Baptist University in Riverside, California. This year’s speaker was Ralph Winter, producer of the first three X-Men films and numerous other successful film projects. Using such recent films as Les Miserables, Toy Story, Avatar, and others as illustrative examples, Winter set out, in the broadest sense, to show “how the gospel is often displayed in… contemporary film.” The unifying theme in all these stories is what Winter referred to as a “journey of transformation.” In each of these stories, the main character/hero grows through experiencing some form of adversity, learns something important about him or herself, and is transformed positively in some way.

One of Winter’s central concerns in his lecture was to explore the general question of how Christians engage with the broader culture, and particularly with how they communicate their messages to that culture. Here, Winter contends that “Christian stories often fail because we’re afraid of the journey,” by which he means that “our stories often hide from pain”—they avoid addressing the painful, the difficult, the ugly, the uncomfortable aspects of life—and place an emphasis on propositional assent over against an embrace of the “transformational journey” that is the life of faith. That is to say, there is a tendency to focus on the destination (heaven) to the exclusion of the journey that we take along the way.

What does all of this have to do with bioethics? There are at least two central lessons to be learned here.

First, in the context of genetic enhancement technologies and practices, it is worth asking the question: to what extent is the “enhancement enterprise” (broadly speaking, the attempt to “improve” human capacities by way of genetic or other interventions and/or technologies, as well as the cultural push toward embracing that agenda) in fact driven by a deep-seated, underlying “fear of the journey”—that is, a fear of those aspects of the aging process that are ugly, uncomfortable, painful, and so forth? Put more simply, to what extent is the drive toward “enhancement” really a flight from the inevitable realities of our lives as embodied creatures? (I do not propose to answer this question here; I pose it, however, as an important background issue to be kept in mind when considering specific arguments regarding the enhancement enterprise.)

Second, and more generally, our bioethical reflections—whether on beginning of life issues, end of life issues, or whatever—must always be attentive to the lived reality of embodied human existence. In particular, we must be willing to face the sometimes harsh realities of pain, suffering, indignity, and so forth, that can accompany the experience of various medical and other conditions. This is especially pertinent at the end of life, where the dying process can (but does not necessarily) involve significant levels of pain, discomfort, and distress. In a word, our bioethical reflections must tell “stories” that are true to the lived realities of human existence. If we are not willing to face these sometimes difficult realities, our pronouncements on bioethical issues are likely to seem shallow, insensitive, or even irrelevant.

This is not to say, of course, that our arguments and other reflections on bioethical issues should be overly-negative or fatalistic. Indeed, a focus on truth mandates that we tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.” This means being attentive to the fact (for example) that while the aging and dying processes can be characterized by pain, discomfort, and suffering, they are not always so characterized (indeed, with the skillful use of pain management techniques, they rarely need to be—but that is a different post altogether). The aging and dying processes can also be characterized by peace, joy, personal growth and development, and a sense of fulfillment. In a phrase: these processes can themselves be “journeys of transformation.” From the perspective of Christian theology, of course, the entire human lifespan can be understood in this way as well. The key point for present purposes is simply this: our bioethical reflections and arguments must attend to the potentially transformational aspects of the experience of pain, suffering, and the like, in addition to other considerations having to do with rights, obligations, principles, and so on.

Human life, in other words, is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. And that fact can make all the difference when it comes to bioethics.

After the Super Bowl: Reflections on “Perfection” and Enhancement

By the time you are reading this, many of us—myself included—are (or soon will be) in full “withdrawal” mode from the “high” of yesterday’s Super Bowl. We were amazed by the awesome displays of athletic prowess on the field and caught up in the drama of watching this year’s AFC and NFC champions battle it out to the very end for the right to be called “Super Bowl champions”—the very best in the game of football, at least for a short while. Who could not have been impressed by the on-field exploits of Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Jacoby Jones, and Colin Kaepernick? Who could not have been touched by the soaring notes of Jennifer Hudson singing “God Bess America,” or the soulful tones of Alicia Keyes singing the national anthem?

In similar fashion, we find ourselves fascinated by the accomplishment of Olympic athletes, musicians, artists, intellectuals, and others at the “top of their game,” or their art, or their craft.

Truly, these are specimens of excellence—indeed, one might say, of a certain kind of “perfection.”

Or are they?

Perhaps these NFL players, “great” as they already are, could in fact be more than what they are now—faster, stronger, more agile, more powerful. Wouldn’t that be good for the game? Wouldn’t that make the game even more exciting, more engaging, more thrilling?

Suppose, by way of a taking a pill or getting an injection—Human Growth Hormone (HGH), for example—football players could develop stronger muscles and greater physical stamina.  Would we want them to do so? Would we consider their resulting on-field performances as genuine reflections of their actual athletic abilities, or more akin to “cheating the system”?[1]

Suppose, more generally, that we “mere mortals”—those of us who are not Super Bowl champions, famous musicians, acclaimed scholars, or Nobel prize-winning scientists—could take a pill that would improve our memory, make us more intelligent, or help us feel more confident? Would this be a good thing?

And, finally, suppose we could alter the human genetic code permanently, through genetic engineering, either to eliminate unwanted conditions (diseases, genetic disorders, and so forth) or to enhance certain desired, genetically-linked traits (intelligence or sociability, for example). Should we avail ourselves of such opportunities?

In the wake of the Human Genome Project and other scientific breakthroughs, each of these scenarios is increasingly moving from the realm of “science fiction” to “reality,” a fact that should prompt us to ask—and reflect upon—a number of important philosophical and theological questions, among them the following:

  • What does it mean to be an “excellent” specimen of something (a book, a table, a human being)?
  • What does it mean to “flourish” as a human being?
  • Should we seek to “enhance” ourselves? If so, are there limits to how far we should go in pursuing enhancement?
  • What, if anything, is the value in human limitation? Are there limits that we should never seek to surpass?

In subsequent posts, we will explore some of the issues surrounding enhancement (genetic and otherwise). For the moment, as we bask in the afterglow of this year’s Super Bowl, it is worth taking a few moments to reflect on just what it is about “great” athletic, musical, intellectual and other human achievements that we find so appealing, and whether “enhancement” would render those accomplishments more or less so.


[1] The NFL is reportedly looking seriously at introducing HGH testing prior to the start of the 2013 season. See http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap1000000133761/article/goodell-confident-hgh-testing-in-place-by-next-season

Technology and Human Flourishing, Baylor University

with Chris Ralston, PhD

I was honored to have Trinity colleague Chris Ralston come to Texas and join me for Technology and Human Flourishing, a conference of the Institute for Faith and Learning at my alma mater, Baylor University. We thought we’d give a quick run-down of some of the ideas presented.

On October 25-27, 2012, scholars, undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and other interested individuals from across the globe gathered at Baylor University in Waco, Texas to discuss issues surrounding the relationship between technology and human flourishing. The conference featured a variety of individual paper presentations and plenary speakers, ranging across a broad spectrum of topics, from “Building Emotions into Machines” to “Interstellar Exploration and Human Flourishing.”

Many of the presentations engaged with a number of common themes, including the relationship between science and faith; epistemological questions about the sources of knowledge, in particular the question of whether or not science exhausts the domain of “knowledge”; and questions about the impact, for better or for worse, of technology on human dignity and flourishing. Some of the specific questions raised include the following: How does technology encourage us to think about ourselves? About human nature? As our capacities to manipulate the physical “stuff” of our bodily existence (DNA, genes, etc.) expand, will this encourage us increasingly to think of ourselves strictly in physicalist terms? Should we think of ourselves in such terms? And what would be the implications or consequences of so thinking about ourselves?

In addressing these and other related questions, one recurrent thought that emerged is the notion that technology should be assessed not only in terms of what it can do (what can be done with it), but also in terms of how it affects us as human beings, both individually and collectively. That is, how does technology and its various applications shape us, whether as individuals or as society? In this regard, the conference highlighted the need for a deep, robust theology of technology—one that avoids the twin dangers of Luddite rejection of technology on the one hand, and a naïve acceptance of “all things new” on the other. The challenge is to remain open to the potential blessings of technological development, while at the same time resisting what has been termed the “technological imperative”: the assumption that if it can be done, it should be done.

Ian Hutchison, a nuclear engineer at MIT, provided some excellent comments on scientism, much of it coming from his new book Monopolizing Knowledge. Hutchinson is an ardent proponent of the natural sciences, for they have been quite literally his “bread and butter” for many years. However, he made the argument that we are greatly mistaken if we think that scientific tools give us all there is to know about the universe.

At dinner, we had the honor of sitting at the same table with Dr. Hutchinson and one of my former philosophy professors, Dr. Kay Toombs, whose research and commentary on the experience of illness over the years I highly recommend. Dr. Hutchinson had concluded his lecture with a word about the counter-cultural nature of being a Christian and how simply re-discovering virtues about the wrongness of covetousness would be of great help. I made the comment over our salads that is seems strange that speaking against covetousness is thought of as a new idea, for in fact it used to a part of Preaching 101. He agreed that his ideas weren’t all that revolutionary but that we need to have the faithfulness to pursue them even in the face of opposition.

It seems fitting to have more than one MIT professor at a technology conference, and Rosalind Picard of the MIT Media Lab followed well in the footsteps of Dr. Hutchison. In the first place, her research bringing affective (emotional) components to computing and robotics is just plain fascinating, but its application to helping autistic adolescents is heart-warming as well. One could sense from her talk that she is a kind, Christian woman and that she brings a warmth and a Christian ethic to a field that is oftentimes cold circuitry.

For all you Kierkegaard fans out there, the IFL while be recognizing the bicentennial of his birth next year with a conference that includes Richard Bauckham in the line-up, and the 2014 conference on faith and film also promises to be worth the trip as well.

 

Part 3: Can I Know What’s on Your Mind?

In this third installment concerning military technology, we are going to look at functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Magnetic resonance imaging is one of the most popular diagnostic tools because it is non-invasive and safe. MRI can be used to determine if a bone is broken or if a tumor is present because it detects differences in tissue density. Various forms of MRI, such as functional MRI or real-time MRI are used to investigate specific parts of the body or specific activities. Functional magnetic resonance imaging analyzes brain activity. The military is interested in using fMRI as a more accurate lie detector than the typical polygraph.

Polygraph tests usually measure changes in physiology that are thought to be associated with lying. For example, it is assumed that a person’s heart rate, breathing rate, and sweat production will likely increase if the person is lying. The lie detector will measure when these factors change compared to a baseline. However, polygraph tests are controversial because they can result in false-positives or can be faked so that the person’s physiology does not appreciably change when he is lying. Therefore a more accurate lie detector is needed. Since fMRI provides information on what part of the brain is active, the theory is that it would serve as a more accurate lie detector.

But does fMRI really show us what someone is thinking? When a particular area of the brain becomes active, it consumes more oxygen. The body responds by sending oxygenated blood to the part of the brain that is actively consuming oxygen. FMRI measures this blood flow. This is the observed phenomenon. The assumption is that this correlates to a particular thought pattern. Furthermore, many of these assumptions are based on the idea that there are regions of the brain where certain functions take place (such as the memory part of the brain, or the decision-making part of the brain), which is also a controversial. Scientists who use fMRI for lie detection assume that a lie is neurologically more complicated than the truth, so if someone is telling a lie, his fMRI scan will show a more complicated pattern.

Importantly, while fMRI may be advertised as being more precise or definitive, it is still a qualitative measurement, just like the polygraph. As National Academy of Science magazine, In Focus, suggests, “But brain scans encounter the same problem as polygraphs: no physiological indicator, or neural activity pattern, exists that has a one-to-one correspondence with mental state.” Furthermore, because of how fMRI acquires a signal, there is approximately a 6-second delay between the brain signal and the image display, meaning that the actual part of the brain that becomes active in response to a stimulus is still only an estimate.  Researchers have been working on improvements in the time lag. For example, they have looked at heart activity using “real-time MRI.” However, neurological activity is very fast, and blood flow is relatively slower, so there may be a fundamental issue with relating blood flow with certain neurological activity.

Tennison and Moreno discuss in their article on military technology the ethics of using brain scanning technology for lie detection. They focus on whether brain scans would violate the guarantee against self-incrimination, and whether they would constitute an inappropriate search and seizure. I would say that the bigger ethical question is amount of legal weight we should place on a technology that is qualitative and subjective. Should brain scans be considered definitive proof that a person is lying? Technology helps us in many ways. DNA data has exonerated and incarcerated many individuals who might have been given the wrong sentence. But we should be careful how much we can trust the technology. Yes, the fMRI can show us brain activity, but it does not show us a man’s thoughts.

The Virtue of Human Development

New York University bioethicist S. Matthew Liao has recently proposed giving people drugs to predispose them to make decisions in favor of programs working toward climate change:

Yes. It’s certainly ethically problematic to insert beliefs into people, and so we want to be clear that’s not something we’re proposing. What we have in mind has more to do with weakness of will. For example, I might know that I ought to send a check to Oxfam, but because of a weakness of will I might never write that check. But if we increase my empathetic capacities with drugs, then maybe I might overcome my weakness of will and write that check. (1)

What Liao is talking about is something still closely tied to beliefs: the will.  Jonathan Edwards spent a good bit of his time writing about the close relationship between these two aspects of human character.  If all that was needed was a little perk-me-up to help out a sleepy donor, then we would prescribe a cup of coffee.  However, beliefs and the will are both components of human character and therefore are changed and molded by the process of maturation.  And the maturing of a person takes place in relationship with other persons, in relationship to God and in relationship to other human beings.  This is the heart and soul (literally) of the human experience.  Theologians oftentimes use the term sanctification to describe this change within the person as a result of the action of God.  This process is ultimately directed toward Jesus, the Mediator who opens the door for making the human heart living and the One who is the New Adam—the One who is human in the truest sense.  Pharmacological manipulation of human behavior seeks to short-circuit the process of human development, thereby essentially taking away that which is truly human.  Just think: if the literature describing the story of human struggle and development were eliminated, our libraries would be largely empty.  A person no longer growing in relationship with God and with others would be less human.  The manipulative means would have done great harm in pursuit of the end behavior.

The renewed interest in virtue ethics in recent years may serve to steer us away from further attempts at manipulation in favor of choosing a path of maturity.

I have always marveled at how Meda Pharmeceuticals markets their version of the muscle relaxant carisoprodol as Soma because of the name’s negative connotations.   Maybe it has no negative connotations at all.

By this time the soma had begun to work. Eyes shone, cheeks were flushed, the inner light of universal benevolence broke out on every face in happy, friendly smiles. (2)

1.  Anderson, Ross.  “How Engineering the Human Body Could Combat Climate Change.” The Atlantic,  March 12, 2012.

2.  Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World.  HarperCollins, 1932 (2006).

Cyborgs and Design Constraints

A recent article in BBC News asks the question: Can we build a “Six-Million-Dollar man”? If that reference is lost on you, the Six-Million-Dollar Man was a made-for-TV movie and television show that aired in the 1970s based on a book, Cyborg. The main character was an astronaut who was in a debilitating accident. He was equipped with bionic legs, left arm, and left eye and with these bionic features was able to save the world using his super-human abilities.  The underlying point of the reference is to ask if we can go beyond prosthetics and enhance the human body beyond its normal capabilities.

Ironically, many cyborgs in film, television, and literature are people who suffered from some sort of trauma causing their bodies to become vulnerable, or to operate as sub-standard levels. Examples include Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker, who became a cyborg after almost dying in an epic battle; Luke Skywalker, who lost his hand in another epic battle between him and his cyborg father; Robocop, who was a cop that almost died at the hands of a gang; Ironman/Tony Stark, whose heart was irrevocably damaged when he was kidnapped; and the already mentioned Six-Million-Dollar Man. Rather than restoring their bodies to their previous level of mobility and functionality, these characters are enhanced to amazing levels. (Although Luke Skywalker’s enhanced abilities do not come from technology but from mastering the Force, an important point in Lucas’ films).

The article asks whether we are at a point where enhancement to super-human abilities is possible, and offers the example of humans being able to run at 60mph. While this may have every science fiction fan salivating, there’s this small problem of design constraints:

Bipedalism was not really designed for that kind of running. There’s considerably more efficient ways of moving at 60mph. I don’t know if there’s enough benefit to overcome the difficulties of 60mph running speed…It might be possible to attach a bionic arm with enough strength to lift a car. However, actually doing so could cripple the rest of the body. Falling over while running at 60mph could be equally damaging.

 

The human body is a work of engineering with all of its integrated parts interacting as a functioning whole. One does not need an anatomy and physiology class to understand this; just throw out your back or injure your hamstring and see how integrated your body really is. Or run in a pair of bad running shoes and see what happens to your feet, ankles, knees, hips, and back. Every movement employs a series of muscles, tendons and joints, not to mention the neural networking required to tell your body to make those movements. It is an interacting whole, and like any piece of engineering, there are design constraints.

Our culture has an obsession with enhancement. In this sense medicine is not about healing; it is about conquering. But what is it that we are conquering? The transhumanists would say that we are raising our fists at Nature by taking control of our own evolution. No longer are we going to be the products of chance and necessity; we will take it from here and will be the products of our own making.

I think if we are honest with ourselves, what we’re fighting against is our own frailty. We want to watch athletes conquer world records. We want superheroes that are stronger than all of the bad guys. We want to see man on the top of the tallest mountain or on the moon or surviving in the wilderness. We want to feel like we are not nearly as vulnerable as we really are.

Perhaps for some of us, we want solace that maybe someone has conquered the very thing that horrifies us the most about our frailty: Death. Death is confounding. Why do creatures like us die like an animal? We can create, have consciousness, are individually unique yet also relationally connected, have ideas, and contemplate our own mortality.  With every world record, every amazing feat of ingenuity, achievement, and technological advancement that pushes our design constraints, there is a background hope that we are one step closer to overcoming our ultimate enemy.

Of course, the BBC article is not talking about immortality. It is only speculating on running faster or lifting heavier objects. But the subject is so tantalizing because, “Eventually you reach the point where you can start doing things that normal people can’t do…” The point isn’t to be “normal” or to restore normal function. Normal people can get in a car wreck, can lose an arm, can go blind, and can hurt themselves doing mundane things. Normal people die.* The point is to be anything but normal. But design constraints place limits on just how far from “normal” we can go. We will never be able to out-run or “out-react” or out-smart every danger. Even if we somehow overcame one design constraint, another becomes more pronounced to the point that what may have started as an enhancement in one sense becomes a detriment in another sense.

The “Six-Million-Dollar-Man” idea is only feasible to a point. It will not save us and it will not give us the resurrected body that we ultimately desire.

 

 

*See Isaac Asimov’s Bicentennial Man for an interesting take on this concept in regards to robots with human qualities, the opposite of a cyborg, perhaps.

Gattaca Revisted

I teach ethics, bioethics and other philosophy-related courses at a Christian college. So I was not shocked, but nonetheless mildly surprised, when a student recently handed in a paper supporting human genetic enhancement. Actually, the paper was a critical response to an article by Michael J. Sandel, “The Case Against Perfection: What’s Wrong With Designer Children, Bionic Athletes, And Genetic Engineering?” Sandel maintains that genetically enhanced children would “never be fully free” because the improvements are imposed upon them without their consent. Moreover, genetically altered children will excel above normal children; this creates an unfair gap between the enhanced and the unenhanced.

To the argument that genetically enhanced children aren’t truly free, the student responded that no one is completely free, regardless of whether he has been enhanced or not. All humans are unavoidably saddled with the genes they have been given at birth. So why not improve the odds, so to speak, and do what can be done to overcome human limitations? In the student’s words, “It is not a sin to excel, and one should strive in lifting themselves above the norm; there is nothing admirable to be in the norm. We are not created to live in the mediocrity of the norm, but rather to reach above it, and to work on becoming the best possible person one can be.” And, “There is no blessing in being at the mercy of nature; blessing is being in control… Responsibility is what I strive for, not what I avoid at any price, because my goal in life is to become the best person that I can be…”

As I reflect on the argument for enhancement, several thoughts come to mind. First, I agree with the sentiment that we should not live in mediocrity but strive for excellence. I too want to become the best person I can be. But is genetic enhancement a better path to excellence?

Two situations come to mind. Currently, I am halfway through an 8-week program to lose some weight and improve my BMI (body mass index). I’m less than 10 lbs. “overweight,” but I am determined to get down to a healthier BMI. But suppose I could have been genetically engineered so that I would never become overweight no matter what I ate? Think of the benefits – fewer health-related problems due to excess fat in the body (not to mention my unrestrained enjoyment of food). Would this really be to my advantage? Indeed, perhaps I would be physically fit, but there is something to be said about the continuous discipline (those seemingly endless reps, crunches, pushups, etc.) it takes to maintain a healthy BMI. I feel better about myself as a person if I have worked diligently to stay in shape. Without the effort, I would not appreciate what it takes to achieve my goals.

The same could be said about academic achievements. Suppose it was possible to genetically enhance human intelligence? Again, I’m not convinced that this is a better option. I look back on the many hours of intense research it took to earn academic credentials. I come away from that experience with a deep sense of satisfaction, accomplishment and the virtue of perseverance. Moreover, I can echo David’s words – I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful…” (Ps. 139:14).

How private enhancement decisions led to a public health crisis

 

The proponents of using medical techniques not just for treating disease and dysfunction, but also for enhancing normal form or function, often appeal to privacy. Since most public and private insurance schemes do not pay for enhancement technologies, people who desire such “treatments” pay out of their own pockets; so, the argument goes, if they’re not hurting anybody, and they’re paying for it themselves, what’s the problem?

One of the more popular enhancement technologies worldwide is the cosmetic surgical procedure of breast augmentation. In the last few weeks a crisis of sorts has erupted around a particular brand of silicone breast implant, manufactured by the now-defunct French company Poly Implant Prothese (PIP) and exported all over Europe and South America. It turns out that the silicone used in PIP’s implants was not medical-grade, but industrial-grade, made to be used in mattresses; this may make the implants more prone to rupture. Rupture can lead to increases in inflammation and scar tissue formation.

About 300,000 of PIP breast implants are thought to have been used worldwide. This week, France and Venezuela took the step of offering to pay for the removal (but not the replacement) of all PIP implants. “We have to remove all these implants,” said Dr Laurent Lantieri, a French plastic surgeon “We’re facing a health crisis …” France will pay for ultrasounds every six months for those women who opt not to have the surgery.

Two things to note: first, removal of an implant is not like taking out a splinter. It is a major surgery, under general anesthesia, with all of the attendant risks — and expenses — of surgery. Second, other than those women who had implants inserted after breast cancer surgery, all of the women involved paid for their augmentation themselves. But now the state — that is, the citizens of France and Venezuela — will be paying for the corrective surgeries.

All techniques and technologies carry unintended and unforeseeable consequences. Even with the best planning and forecasting, all techniques will surprise us in some way. Medical techniques, because they work directly on the human body, have the potential and power to do very great unintended harm. The silicone breast implant crisis is an example of how choices made in private can have significant unforeseen consequences and costs for the public. The argument that using medicine for enhancement is merely an individual and private decision is simply not valid. How many more individuals will be hurt, and how much more will society pay, as enhancement techniques — and their unforeseen consequences — proliferate?

Why Bioethics Needs the Church (and vice versa)

Back in June I wrote a post to let people know about the newly published book Why the Church Needs Bioethics edited by John Kilner with contributions from many people connected to Trinity and the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity. At the time my appreciation for what the book represented was based on the people involved and what they had set out to do. I just finished reading the book and they have accomplished their goal well.
They titled the book Why the Church Needs Bioethics, but it could easily have been titled Why Bioethics Needs the Church, because what comes through is how bioethics and the church need each other. I found the insights of biblical scholars and theologians such as Richard Averbeck, Kevin Vanhoozer and D.A. Carson particularly helpful in dealing with the issues of infertility treatment, enhancement, and the end of life that are the focus of the book. But many others from areas as diverse as business ethics, counseling, law, intercultural ministry, medicine and nursing, pastoral care, preaching and Christian education brought insights from all parts of the church to enlighten how we see the bioethical issues that people deal with in real life and how the church can play a role in helping them through difficult times. John Kilner, William Cheshire and John Dunlop brought each section of the book together to help the reader see how it all fit.
The church needs an understanding of bioethics to be able to help people as they face bioethical issues in their lives. Bioethics needs the church to enrich its understanding of how biblical truth impacts bioethical issues and how the body of Christ can prepare people for and help people through the bioethical challenges they face in their lives. Those of us involved in both bioethics and the church are challenged to bring those two together for the good of all.