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Human Dignity and the Limits of Liberty

Advocates of liberty as the highest political virtue are regularly confronted by what I will call the libertarian accusation. When facing a staunch defense of liberty, especially economic freedom, conservatives and collectivists alike often nervously reply, “but isn’t laissez faire just morally dangerous? Don’t we need government to restrain powerful business interests? Isn’t it the only way we can stop greed, pollution, and oppression?” In such cases liberty is simply identified as libertarianism, where unbridled freedom trumps all moral, legal, and civic limits.

The tendency to regard a passion for liberty as straightforward libertarianism is a serious confusion, a confusion not remedied by considering the state as the only possible restraint on bad behavior by the powerful. We are then left with the choice between letting everything go or massive state control. Ironically, in both cases the consequence is a form of social Darwinism where the powerful rule unchecked. In libertarian societies there are no constraints on the powerful; there is nothing to stop them from having their way. In collectivist, statist societies the powerful are the only ones who do the constraining and are themselves unconstrained. The fabric of constraint and rule of law is arbitrary. There are no public grounds given for the rule of law other than the will of those who rule. The result is the same as in libertarianism—the powerful have their way unfettered by social norm or legal rule.

Consider the subject area of the volume under review—biotechnology—as a case study of this phenomenon. Modern Enlightenment scientific libertarianism is offended by calls to consider any limits to biotechnological manipulation. If we can, we should. This is the mindset that cannot imagine opposition to human cloning as anything other than the rankest religious, anti-scientific superstition. If we can, we should. Besides, who knows what great medical or other scientific breakthroughs await the adventuresome scientist willing to push the limits of human experimentation? For example, in the debate over stem cell research, those who push for unrestricted scientific manipulation of aborted fetal tissue trumpet unproven and even as yet undreamt of medical breakthroughs in their aggressive media campaigns. Possibilities are unlimited if freedom is unrestricted. If we can, we should. Who knows what we might yet achieve.

Instinctive fear or intuitive repugnance about such biotechnological possibilities as cloning and genetic engineering must yield public reasons for restraining the scientific will to power. Merely assigning state power the right to set these limits not only results in arbitrary law but also implicitly grants the state control over the power of biotechnological manipulation. C. S. Lewis knew this well. The will to dominate nature, especially human nature, he argued in Abolition of Man, portended the frightful mastery of some over others and a loss of human freedom and dignity. The end result of scientific hubris, he observed, is not liberation but slavery. “Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.” Here humanity steps into a void. “Man’s final conquest has proven to be the abolition of Man.”

Leon Kass is a keen student of C. S. Lewis who has learned well his lessons from the master. Physician, biochemist, a distinguished medical ethicist, and Professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, Dr. Kass was appointed by President Bush in 2001 to head the new President’s Council on Bioethics. It is hard to imagine a better choice for that post or a more sure, wise guide in the current minefield of bioethical deliberation. Above all, Kass is helpful in setting moral boundaries and pointing to the limits of our scientific human self-manipulation and subsequent loss of human dignity.

For the debate, in Kass’s view, is all about human dignity. All instrumental and utilitarian reasoning must be secondary. What does it profit a man to gain an extra few months with an alternate heart if he loses his soul? Does the physical heart mean that much? Kass’s answer is no, a contrarian posture to a secular, Enlightenment, scientific libertarianism. If we can, why not?

For Kass the answer is dignity and respect for life, including all developing life. He suggests that we not use the problematic language of “rights” (as in “right-to-life” campaigns against abortions) but the language of “respect for life.” It is here, in this primal respect for life from conception on, a respect and awe generated by the mystery of life itself, where Kass suggests we need to look for limits to all utilitarian biotechnical manipulation. Our capacity for this sort of awe is, he fears, disappearing and with it the hope for maintaining a high view of human dignity in contemporary America.

Kass is concerned that we are no longer even thinking seriously about the implications of the biotechnical revolution for our very humanity. We thoughtlessly go on with the experiment. We have become co-conspirators in our own dehumanization. With respect to cloning, for example, “few seem to care about what it means for a society increasingly to regard a child not as a mysterious stranger given to be cherished as someone to take our place, but rather as a product of our will, to be perfected by design and to satisfy our wants” (11). While we may be “quick to notice dangers to life, threats to freedom, risks of discrimination or exploitation of the poor, and interference with anyone’s pursuit of pleasure, ... we are slow to recognize threats to human dignity, to the ways of doing and feeling and being in the world that make human life, rich, deep, and fulfilling” (12).

When we in desperation pursue physical health and perfection in ourselves and our offspring we give up something far more important. The problem is that our will-to-perfection inherently knows no limits. When our own happiness is the only end it becomes an ever-receding mirage. Similarly our anxiety about death—all physical decline to be avoided at whatever cost—has resulted in what Kass aptly refers to as “the biomedical equivalent of a spiraling arms race with ourselves, creating technologies that heal only to cripple or crush, requiring us to respond by seeking more technologies that heal or by electing a technological escape from life altogether” (48). We cannot end this mad race with mere will-to-power resistance, not even by the state. We need to change people’s hearts.

Kass is at his best in laying out the limits of science and technology in a liberal democracy and points to the inherent contradictions of much of the modern project. His extensive discussions of the liminal dimensions of human experience—birth and death–are profound and moving as well as morally convincing. He is also right, I believe, in calling for an alternate anthropology, one that does not make the Enlightenment mistake of reducing human beings to their basic physical and psychical wholeness (well-being and happiness). Instead, as he suggests in his conclusion, “The Permanent Limitations of Biology,” there are “activities of life, living things, or human living things that biology, in principle, cannot come to understand” (277).

Biology as a science generalizes, dissolves the unity of the human person (body and soul), cannot explain the mystery of life itself, and provides no guide as to how to live. It is in acknowledging his own limits, as a human being, as a scientist, as the writer of a book on a limited topic, that Kass displays the very humility and humanity so tragically lacking in much medical biotechnical experimentation. This is a wise and wonderful book.