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Posted on March 6, 2015 at 12:15 AM

Saying nothing new, but trying to say it in a different way…

One response to ethical problems posed by bleeding-edge biotechnologies is to assert that there are some things that ought not be attempted, some boundaries that ought never be transgressed, regardless of the supposed good that may be envisioned.  (I continue to hold that human IVF was one such boundary, but that was definitively crossed with the birth of Louise Brown when I was in college.)  To support such an assertion it is at least intuitively attractive to appeal to “the natural” as something that is given, certainly not culturally constructed, and at some level not to be tinkered with.  This approach is of course most common for theists; “God is the Creator, and the created realm has a given natural order, that ought to be left alone/approached with reverence, humility, and awe, and in which certain kinds of beings—most notably humans—should be free from attempts at alteration.  Such alterations are the province of God alone.”  Or words to that effect.  An appeal like this will readily been seen as a common move made in discussions about heritable genetic alterations, human enhancement, etc.  It will also be readily recognized as a version of the common objection about man “playing God.”  I admit to pursuing such an appeal, I hope in a way that is not obscurantist, in my thinking about bioethics.

However, specifying exactly what is “natural” and therefore off limits, and what specific rules ought to demarcate the boundaries, can be a frustratingly elusive task.  This point, in an admirably concise summary of the conceptual issues at hand, was made by Andrew Lustig in his essay, “Appeals to Nature and the Natural in Debates about Synthetic Biology,” in the 2013 book, Synthethic Biology and Morality, an entry in the Basic Bioethics series. 

Lustig points out that appeals to “the natural” need not be limited to theists.  Possible construals of nature include (but are not limited to) “evolutionary,” “emergent,” and “sacred” perspectives.  It is conceivable that a naturalist, an environmentalist, or a pagan could say, as it were, “It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature.”  Whatever the perspective, it is often so deep and complex that it invokes many different notions that shape a worldview, meaning that what one means by “the natural” is often so inchoate as to be well-nigh useless in public policy discussions.  Indeed, the [Rawlsian] assumption of “liberal neutrality,” which Lustig seems clearly to embrace, excludes relying on these more “comprehensive but epistemologically privileged appeals” (his phrase).

Lustig rehearses some concerns whose familiarity does not diminish their importance.  For example, how can theists coherently appeal to “the natural” when they cannot agree among themselves exactly what they mean and what the implications are?  Further, he points out that there are secular versions of the more theologically-informed perspectives, for example in the writings of Michael Sandel, Francis Fukuyama, and Leon Kass.  He complains that these last authors “tend to pose the issues raised by biotechnology in a rather binary fashion: nature as given or nature as mastered; nature as a gift or nature as an object of manipulation; children a progeny or children as products; and so forth.”  Such dichotomies fail to recognize the complexity of concerns relevant to “assessing any particular development in biotechnology” (emphasis his).

He essentially concludes that the worries raised by those who appeal to “the natural” are overblown in any event, at least as regards synthetic biology, which is really only a different flavor of activities we already accept.

I object.  Some “nearfetched” (cf. the late comedian George Carlin) applications pose few problems.  It’s the more “farfetched” ones that are disconcerting.  The “dichotomies” Lustig rejects need not be rigid to be informative.  We can at least argue that they illuminate different stances, different points on a spectrum perhaps, or different deep commitments that will, and ought to, affect how me make the wisest individual-case judgments we can.  They are principles of interpretation, hermeneutics of metaphysics and epistemology if you will, that run deeper and are more powerful than the 3 (or 4) Belmont principles.  And so they ought to be more fully voiced, not summarily rejected as hopelessly intractable, in public policy debates.

Lustig also raises the classical “great chain of being” in passing, to point out that we don’t buy into that anymore.  But we still DO buy into there being lesser and greater organisms, of which (I hope) most of us still consider man the greatest.  (Sorry modern readers, I’m not giving you the gender-neutral there.  I’m not gunning for tenure.)  And if we buy that, then I think it clear enough indeed to be more “precautionary” as we move up the line of organisms’ complexity, culminating, when it comes to humans, in an ultimate “presumption to forbear” that is analogous to “first, do no harm.”  But that presumption should be maximal when it comes to things like heritable genetic changes, multi-parent embryos (regardless of how much DNA is exchanged), human/non-human hybrids, to name a few.

Also, I don’t think I accept anymore that theological perspectives are “epistemologically privileged.”  The related truth claims are intelligible, communicable, and defensible.  And so they are with any worldview. Refusal to accept is not the same as inability to understand and, in a way meaningful for policy, to know.   

Finally, Lustig’s complaint about dichotomous arguments looks au courant under a working assumption that everything is in a system, on a continuum, and that there are no “either-ors” that can be true.  And of course, if that’s the case, then that flies in the face of belief in a holy God in the most fundamental sense possible.  And it pushes any thinker, no matter how sophisticated, to the alternative to a Creator/creation distinction:  monist paganism.

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