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Few debates are as hard to keep up with as the biotech debate. The first problem is all that science. Sensible people, of course, major in English to avoid terms such as blastocyst. Then there are the competing jurisdictions of federal and private monies, law and commerce, science and religion. It's no wonder President Bush subcontracted the problem to a commission led by the moral philosopher Leon Kass. Fortunately, for those trying to understand what such an appointment promises, there is the Winter 2002 issue of the Public Interest.*
The journal offers three excellent essays on our "posthuman future." Think of them as a start-up kit for where this administration might be heading in terms of public policy. All three authors--Francis Fukuyama, Adam Wolfson, and Kass himself--are working for the President's Council on Bioethics, who met for the first time a few days ago. (Fukuyama is a member of the council and Wolfson is a part-time adviser. Another member of the Council, Gilbert Meilaender has an essay in the new issue of First Things.) And they are in rough agreement on what the government's general disposition should be.
All three authors reject the idea that scientists are fit to determine the proper ends of science. "Science itself is just a tool for achieving human ends; the political community must decide which ends to pursue," writes Fukuyama. As you would imagine, all three also reject the idea anything biotechnology can do, it inevitably will do.
Stangely enough, Fukuyama doesn't put much stock in national commissions. "The time when government could deal with biotech questions by appointing national commissions that brought scientists together with learned theologians, historians, and bioethicists is rapidly drawing to a close."
*Full disclosure requires that I tell you that I like and admire the Public Interest and its editors a great deal, so much so that I worked at the magazine for two years and continue to write for it to this day. More stringent disclosure standards may require you to know that Irving Kristol, editor of the Public Interest, is the father of William Kristol, editor of this magazine. Indeed, it's a small world.
Adam Wolfson quotes Tocqueville to describe the aim of his essay: to "trace some sort of great circle around the future," while acknowledging that "within that circle chance plays a part that can never be grasped." And the future that concerns Wolfson is that of our mores, or "the habits of the heart"--those moral feelings and inclinations of mind that will help determine how Americans react to the ongoing biotech debate. To describe our present mores, Wolfson focuses on three dominant moral or intellectual trends: non-judgmentalism, scientism, and equality.
"Will cloning and genetic enhancement be viewed as the private affairs of individuals?" Wolfson asks. As a lighthearted example, he cites a recent Arnold Schwarzenegger movie in which the action hero starts out with vague misgivings about cloning. But by the end--after he himself has been cloned and the clone had taken over his duties as husband and father--Schwarzenegger makes his peace with it. Fortunately for our mores, this wasn't one of Schwarzenegger's more successful movies.
Another change of heart, Wolfson points out, is occurring among liberal intellectuals, for example Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe. In the early '70s Tribe opposed human cloning, Wolfson writes, "on the traditional liberal grounds that it amounted to using humans as means not ends." Today, however, Tribe believes a ban on human cloning would prohibit "vital experimentation."
Wolfson describes scientism as scientific knowledge unburdened by its traditional mission of "the relief of man's estate" (Francis Bacon's phrase). Biotechnology, Wolfson argues, represents a new and utopian mission of human perfection. Such a shift is possible because science no longer labors under the tutelage of morality or religion. Such an ideology might be summed up as: Cloning and genetic enhancements should be allowed because they are possible.
Thus "what is" need no longer contend with "what should be"-- unless we are talking about equality, the last trend Wolfson examines. "In time," Wolfson writes, "the U.S. government would subsidize eugenic programs, not to create an overclass, but to preserve equality, to elevate everyone's natural endowments."
Toward the end of a long and interesting discussion of in vitro birth there is a key passage to understanding Kass's thought. Versions of this aspect of his thinking appeared in both his seminal essay on cloning in the New Republic and his famous essay on courtship in the Public Interest. The passage concerns the complementarity of male and female:
"To be male or female derives its deepest meaning only in relation to the other, and therewith in the gender-mated prospects for generation through union. Our separated embodiment prevents us as lovers from attaining that complete fusion of souls that we as lovers seek; but the complementarity of gender provides a bodily means for transcending separateness through the children born of sexual union."
If I understand him correctly, he is saying that it is in relation to others, particularly our spouses, children, and extended family, that the fullest meaning of our humanity is expressed. And such connections not only help clarify who we are individually, but what are our primary moral obligations.
Human cloning, then, represents a violation of this natural and moral order. Genetic enhancement too, should be understood to invert the human drive to love others as they are and not on the condition that they measure up to genetically determined standards of perfection. If President Bush's commission is able to carry such a message, it might do great things. Kass's vision of human nature is bracing and soulful--and it resonates with one's deepest feelings.