On (Being) “Better than Human” – Part 3D

With apologies in advance to my readers for the length of the recent posts in this series, I finish up here my critique of Allen Buchanan’s argument in Chapter 2 of his Better than Human. This chapter contains a great deal of theoretical machinery, which machinery will prove central to Buchanan’s argument in the rest of the book. For that reason, I have spent considerable time on those details in the last few posts, with a view toward proceeding more economically through the respective arguments of subsequent chapters. I beg the reader’s indulgence.


First, as we have seen, Buchanan prefers to think of evolution as being more like a “morally blind, fickle, tightly shackled tinkerer” than a “master engineer.” He makes much in particular of the fact that evolution is “morally blind,” using the cruelty of nature—both in the way it selects against certain traits and in the way it selects for other (“beneficial”) traits—as a point of departure for pontificating on the Problem of Evil (pp. 37-39), which he defines as follows: “Given how much human suffering there is in the world—much of it utterly undeserved—how could such a world be the creation of a being that is both all-powerful and supremely good?” (p. 37).

In this context, Buchanan contends that Darwin’s theory of natural selection not only deals a “blow” against the very notion of there being an intelligent designer, but also strikes another, “equally devastating blow against religion: It shows that the Problem of Evil is even worse than we thought” (p. 37). As Buchanan points out, “the whole survival of the fittest thing is astonishingly cruel,” leading him to ask the question: “If God is supremely good, why would he choose such a bloody mode of creation?” To the suggestion that our suffering is “compatible with God’s goodness because suffering enriches our lives, builds character, etc.,” Buchanan rightly points out that “many humans—especially children who die from violence or diseases and the millions of young men who die in war—experience suffering without much opportunity for gaining from it” (p. 38). But, Buchanan objects, “God’s making them suffer so that you and I can have a deeper appreciation of existence seems obscenely unfair” (p. 38). Moreover, “it appears there’s surplus suffering: God seems to have given us more than enough of it to make his point” (p. 38).

Even granting that human suffering might, perhaps, enrich our lives, Buchanan asks, how could it possibly have value for other, non-human creatures? As Buchanan puts it, “[t]he elk that’s devoured by wolves while still alive can’t console itself with the thought that elk life is enriched by character-building suffering. Thinking that the good that humans get from our suffering is so wonderful that we can simply turn a blind eye to the misery of all the other creatures seems a tad anthropocentric to me” (p. 39).

The “central point” of these reflections on the Problem of Evil, for Buchanan, is simply this: “IGM has the potential to achieve the good results of UGM, without the butcher’s bill” (p. 39). If we can, for example, introduce beneficial genetic changes more quickly and with fewer deleterious effects than the (unassisted) process of UGM would otherwise produce, this gives us good reason to consider pursuing IGM. Or, as Buchanan sums it up: “Evolution doesn’t count the cost of its improvements and it doesn’t care how the costs are distributed—it’s morally blind. If IGM can achieve the good that UGM achieves and do it not only more quickly, but without the moral costs, then that counts heavily in favor of it” (p. 40).

All of this is both de rigeur and “par for the course” when it comes to discussions of the Problem of Evil in the contemporary philosophical literature, and a thorough discussion of that problem is beyond the scope of this post. With respect to Buchanan’s attempted foray into the philosophy of religion in this context, suffice it to say that his comments here are less than persuasive. For one thing, we might ask the following question: might a perfectly good, all-powerful Creator have a good reason (or set of reasons) for permitting such suffering/evil to occur—i.e., some reason (or set of reasons) other than, or in addition to, “enriching” our lives? If this is possible, then it will hardly do to simply point out that there is such suffering/evil, intimate that we don’t understand what the good reason for it might happen to be, and then conclude from that fact that, therefore, there is no Creator.

More fundamentally, what if we, too, are not only epistemically but also “morally blind” as well? Given our own epistemic and moral limitations—especially our propensity toward moral evil—is there any good reason to think that we would do any better a job (through IGM) than UGM has done thus far?

One might argue, further, that talking about “suffering” (etc.) makes sense only in a theistic universe, i.e. one in which there is an intelligent designer of some sort. It certainly makes little, if any, sense in a strictly naturalistic universe, at least not in the sense in which Buchanan intends here—namely, that in which such “suffering” is morally significant.

Finally, Buchanan speaks of the ubiquity of “design flaws”—“suboptimal design,” he says, is “everywhere” (pp. 30-31). But speaking of “design flaws” in the products of evolution presupposes some sort of objective standard against which such deviations or “imperfections” are measured. Such a standard, in turn, may also imply the existence of a “species standard.” At the very least, it opens the door conceptually to one: if an objective standard is possible, then why couldn’t there be a full-fledged species design as well? And if a there is such a thing as a “species design” after all, then there may very well be good reason to be wary of the prospect of IGM.

In the end, if all you have just is a strictly naturalistic universe, then all you have just is life, death, development, coming into and going out of existence, etc., of various species. On such a scenario, “design flaws” are such only with reference to purely subjective criteria (individual goals, objectives, etc., of an organism), certainly not with respect to any objective standard of design. So it becomes difficult even to speak coherently of a design flaw.


In the next post in this series, we will move on to an analysis of Chapter 3 of Better than Human. In that chapter, entitled “Changing Human Nature? Or, Unnatural Acts, and Not Just with Sheep Like Dolly,” Buchanan addresses the “changing human nature” and “changing biology” objections to the enhancement enterprise, respectively.


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.

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Mark McQuain
Mark McQuain
8 years ago

As one of your faithful readers, I remain impressed with the extent Buchanan seems to go to undercut the very vantage points that he needs to make his point. The one that seems most pressing is his insistence that UGM be “morally blind”, which it must be if it is the result of an allegedly random process of chance plus time. But if the IGM of Man is the result of UGM, how does Man suddenly receive his “moral vision”. This is more than an epistemic question. There is no source of “moral vision” in a “morally blind” UGM universe.