Neocon logic strikes again

Monday, 6 October, 2008

The magazine The New Atlantis, the usual hangout of biotech-fearing Leon Kass and formerly edited by Eric “I’m not sure I’m convinced that enhancement is a great idea” Cohen, has a new piece out titled “Biotech enhancement and natural law“, authored by Christ Tollefsen, author of Embryo: A defence of human life, and Ryan T. Anderson, Catholic bioethicist.

It’s not actually illogical, it just starts with some really screwed-up premises. Three of which I shall discuss, and without those three the whole argument of the essay collapses faster than a capitalist economy.

Personhood theory is dualistic?

The authors begin by trying to show that personhood theory is dualistic. They say:

Consider the question of personal identity. Are you, the reader of this essay, a human being—that is, a bodily animal, albeit one who shapes and directs his own life by acts of reason and will? Or, are you something other than a human animal—a soul or a spirit, a center of consciousness, or merely a brain—that is somehow associated with a human body? Thinkers such as Plato, Descartes, and Locke, and, in our own day, philosophers and bioethicists like Peter Singer, Jeff McMahan, and Lynne Rudder Baker, have been so impressed by the personal qualities that human beings exhibit (self-awareness, reason and will) that they have sought to identify the subject of these personal attributes as something distinct from the subject of the biological attributes of the human animal. The result is that the entity that thinks and speaks, has desires and decides to take action to fulfill those desires, is described as a “person”—yet this “person” is something other than a bodily animal, something other than a human being.

Of course, they would be right to claim personhood theory to be false if it relied upon dualism, because dualism has so many problems that it may as well be declared as dead.

The answer, of course, is that personhood is not dualistic nor does it require any dualistic notions. Of the answers proposed, I think the closest would be ‘center of consciousness’. I am a human mind. But, in no way is this distinct from the ‘biological attributes of the human animal’ – indeed, it depends on the biology of the human animal.

Human minds are usually a product of human animals, specifically of the human brain, but these need not be so. A non-human animal may have a human mind if it has a human brain. A robot may have a human mind if it accurately simulates the human brain. A human mind uploaded to a computer would also be a human person, despite not having any biological attributes to speak of. So, for these guys to say that “human persons are fundamentally animal organisms”, is blatantly false, because it is entirely possible (though not currently feasible) for a human person to not be an animal.

So, this destroys their argument that, because it is a human animal, the human embryo is a human person (which would have been ineffectual anyway, for it relied on the species argument and the potentiality argument anyway). A human mind requires something to create it, and a human brain is the only current thing that can create a human mind. So, it makes no sense to say that organisms without human brains are human persons.

This, in turn, completely undermines their objection to the methods of biotechnology that do “not adequately respect human life”, like cloning and embryo-destructive research protocols.

That which is repugnant is morally wrong?

The authors, when considering enhancements that may give the recipient some pleasant effect, argue that such things would be morally wrong. That is, that enhancements should only give us the ability to do pleasant acts, not the ability to experience pleasure alone. They write this:

Nozick’s thought experiment centers on a machine that promises the experience of a fully meaningful life. Plug yourself into the machine, and you will be provided the experience of creating great art, pursuing valuable relationships, and thinking great thoughts. […] Nozick’s intuition, shared by most philosophers, is that plugging in would be supremely undesirable, regardless of what form of life we would therein experience.

Indeed, and I wouldn’t really like it either. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t plug in from time to time. But, more importantly, it doesn’t mean that nobody should be allowed to plug into such a machine. It’s a big stretch to go from saying that something would be undesirable for me to saying that something is morally wrong. They have obviously been reading to much of Leon Kass’s work, and need to be reminded of the things which were considered undesirable enough to be banned, like mixed-race marriage.

Give me marriage or give me death?

The authors, while not absolutely opposed to life extending enhancements, do make an unusual argument:

But if we were to contemplate the addition of decades to our average lifespans, then important questions about family, reproduction, and the relationship of the generations would become critical.

This, to me, seems like it is arguing that life without marriage, children or friendships would be undesirable. Indeed it may be, to many. But again, that doesn’t imply it is morally wrong to forgo marriage and choose a longer life. If a person fears for their life in a certain relationship, and they leave that relationship in order to preserve their life, do we think they have acted wrongly? Indeed, we may even think they have acted rightly.

So, I don’t see how they could say that life extension would be wrong if it prevented people from having children or having fulfilling marriages. Certainly, nobody could rightly argue that life extension should be prohibited if it prevents such things. Can we kill to save a marriage? I hope not.

And, on that note, the conclusion of the life extension section reads:

And if life extension began to approach the quasi-immortality of added centuries, then it appears to us that the considerations raised above about immortality in this world indicate that life so extended would more and more seem a curse.

One must remember that life can be ended at any time, if one starts to think it is a curse. So, it’s an optional curse, at worst.


Their conclusion doesn’t really conclude, as it ends with questions (no doubt leaving things open for a sequel essay). But, it does contain one part I found rather disturbing.

Of course human beings are right to better their condition, to seek more perfect forms of fulfillment, individually and in communities. And of course they are right to strive to minimize their failings, both moral and material. But the lives that they thereby seek to better are not mere material over which they are sovereign masters, material to be manipulated at will for good or ill.

I am master over my own life. My body is material to be manipulated at will for however I damn well please (provided I don’t infringe on anyone else’s rights by my actions). I don’t want any state telling me that I can’t change my body because it would be properly respectful of the ‘gifted’ nature of my life. Feel free to treat your body, your life or your mind as a sacred gift if you feel that way – it’s your life, you do what you want with it. But let me have the same privilege.


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