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|Bioethics and scientific process : cautions about debates involving ethics and science|
|1||Biotechnology and the pursuit of happiness||1|
|6||"Beyond therapy" : general reflections||309|
What is biotechnology for? Why is it developed, used, and esteemed? toward what ends is it taking us? To raise such questions will very likely strike the reader as strange, for the answers seem so obvious: to feed the hungry, to cure the sick, to relieve the suffering -- in a word, to improve the lot of humankind, or, in the memorable words of Francis Bacon, "to relieve man's estate." Stated in such general terms, the obvious answers are of course correct. But they do not tell the whole story, and, when carefully considered, they give rise to some challenging questions, questions that compel us to ask in earnest not only, "What is biotechnology for?" but also, "What should it be for?"
Before reaching these questions, we had better specify what we mean by "biotechnology," for it is a new word for our new age. Though others have given it both narrow and broad definitions,* our purpose-for reasons that will become clear -- recommends that we work with a very broad meaning: the processes and products (usually of industrial scale) offering the potential to alter and, to a degree, to control the phenomena of life-in plants, in (non-human) animals, and, increasingly, in human beings (the last, our exclusive focus here). Overarching the processes and products it brings forth, biotechnology is also a conceptual and ethical outlook, informed by progressive aspirations. In this sense, it appears as a most recent and vibrant expression of the technological spirit, a desire and disposition rationally to understand, order, predict, and (ultimately) control the events and workings of nature, all pursued for the sake of human benefit.
Thus understood, biotechnology is bigger than its processes and products; it is a form of human empowerment. By means of its techniques (for example, recombining genes), instruments (for example, DNA sequencers), and products (for example, new drugs or vaccines), biotechnology empowers us human beings to assume greater control over our lives, diminishing our subjection to disease and misfortune, chance and necessity. The techniques, instruments, and products of biotechnology -- like similar technological fruit produced in other technological areasaugment our capacities to act or perform effectively, for many different purposes. just as the automobile is an instrument that confers enhanced powers of "auto-mobility' (of moving oneself), which powers can then be used for innumerable purposes not defined by the machine itself, so DNA sequencing is a technique that confers powers for genetic screening that can be used for various purposes not determined by the technique; and synthetic growth hormone is a product that confers powers to try to increase height in the short or to augment muscle strength in the old. If we are to understand what biotechnology is for, we shall need to keep our eye more on the new abilities it provides than on the technical instruments and products that make the abilities available to us!
This terminological discussion exposes the first complication regarding the purposes of biotechnology: the fact that means and ends are readily detached from one another. As with all techniques and the powers they place in human hands, the techniques and powers of biotechnology enjoy considerable independence from ties to narrow or specific goals. Biotechnology, like any other technology, is not for anything in particular. Like any other technology, the goals it serves are supplied neither by the techniques themselves nor by the powers they make available, but by their human users. Like any other means, a given biotechnology once developed to serve one purpose is frequently available to serve multiple purposes, including some that were not imagined or even imaginable by those who brought the means into being.
Second, there are several questions regarding the overall goal of biotechnology: improving the lot of humankind. What exactly is it about the lot of humankind that needs or invites improvement? Should we think only of specific, as-yet-untreatable diseases that compromise our well-being, such ailments as juvenile diabetes, cancer, or Alzheimer disease? Should we not also include mental illnesses and infirmities, from retardation to major depression, from memory loss to melancholy, from sexual incontinence to self-contempt? And should we consider in addition those more deep-rooted limitations built into our nature, whether of body or mind, including the harsh facts of decline, decay, and death? What exactly is it about "man's estate" that most calls for relief? just sickness and suffering, or also such things as nastiness, folly, and despair? Must "improvement" be limited to eliminating these and other evils, or should it also encompass augmenting our share of positive goods-beauty, strength, memory, intelligence, longevity, or happiness itself?
Third, even assuming that we could agree on which aspects of the human condition call for improvement, we would still face difficulties deciding how to judge whether our attempts at improving them really made things better-both for the individuals and for the society. Some of the goals we seek might conflict with each other: longer life might come at the price of less energy; superior performance for some might diminish self-esteem for others. Efforts to moderate human aggression might wind up sapping ambition; interventions aimed at quieting discontent might flatten aspiration. And, unintended consequences aside, it is not easy to say just how much less aggression or discontent would be good for us. Once we go beyond the treatment of disease and the pursuit of health, there seem to be no ready-made or reliable standards of better and worse available to guide our choices.
As this report will demonstrate, these are not idle or merely academic concerns. Indeed, some are already upon us. We now have techniques to test early human embryos for the presence or absence of many genes: shall we use these techniques only to prevent disease or also to try to get us "better" children? We are acquiring techniques for boosting muscle strength and performance: shall we use them only to treat muscular dystrophy and the weak muscles of the elderly ...Beyond Therapy
Posted July 23, 2004
This work goes well beyond the framework of a President¿s Commission Report to be an informative and challenging inquiry into the current state of biotechnological research , and its philosophical implications. It considers in separate chapters the work that is being done to increase human performance- level in sport, to as it were `produce better children¿, to prolong and increase the quality of human life, and to bring us closer to ` human happiness¿. The tone of this work is measured and responsible, the information presented that which has been weighed and tested. Above all in considering each of these areas the debate is carried on with a broad- minded and deep consideration of the meaning of what it is to be human. Thus there is neither the ` gung-ho¿ utopianism of certain kinds of over- optimistic futurists, nor the paralyzing pessimism of various over- protectors of their own narrow conceptions of the human past. In each of the areas a balanced discussion provides the reader, not with definite and final answers to the problems and possibilities raised, but with suggestions for thought. We have long since learned that scientific and technological advances usually have their ` price¿ in one way or another. Here trade-offs in the various areas are made explicit. The new technology which enables us to decide upon the sex of the child has already let to tremendous imbalances in among other areas, the populations of China and India. The prolonging of life is in many cases the prolonging of what seems to be senseless suffering. The ability to enhance moods through chemical means raises the question of what happiness means when it is devoid of the context of human relationship. The possibility of prolonging life indefinitely raises the question of what this might mean for future generations , and the whole spirit of renewal that the birth of a new generation gives to the world. Leon Kass a moral thinker of the first order, and the director of this enterprise has often been unjustly accused of being a ' super- conservative¿ and even¿ fundamentalist¿. Such nonsense does not do justice either to Kass impressive scholarly enterprise, or to the great human feeling and consideration with which he approaches these subject. It seems to me that his position is much closer to that of what might be called a traditional meliorist, who is looking to see how the human condition can be improved without those improvements leading to its radical undermining. His understanding in this sense of the place of the family and of human relations in the good life, and in happiness starkly contrast him with those ivory- tower ` transhumanists¿ and ` cyber- champions¿ who would replace mankind with their own solipsistic minds. This is an important work not for its definite conclusions but for the serious contribution it makes to the ongoing quest of humanity to understand itself and define and realize the good life.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.