Q: I recently read something about a current philosophy called “Transhumanism.” Are you familiar with it and can you shed some light on what’s problematic about it from the perspective of a Catholic worldview?
E. Christian Brugger replies:
The final reason to wake up to the problems posed by Transhumanism is that — in the immortal words of Benjamin Franklin — “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” If we don’t draw good lines in the ethical sand now, we may — we will — find ourselves later picking up the pieces of our ruined sandcastles. To rephrase Jesus’ words in the Gospels: if the householder had known when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake. Be ye ready, for the thief will come when you least expect it (cf. Lk. 12:39-40). Well, the thief is coming. He may already be in our homes.
None of us is immune from the devil’s temptation to raise himself to the place of God. Indeed, we might even say that as created in God’s image and likeness, and destined for a life of happiness beyond all imagining, we’re made for immortality and perfection. Our desire for these things is, in a sense, “natural.”
But as I said in my first installment, few of us are as pure in intention as the young Steve Rogers (Captain America). What will we do when the Promethean temptation comes to grasp at solutions to our human limitations that may require us to compromise our humanity? For example, to screen out embryonic children in order to prevent the transmission of debilitating inheritable diseases? Or to generate new children to be used as medical treatments for others whom we love? Will misguided parental pride tempt us to use biotechnology to produce better children? Will musical parents be tempted to select for the gene for perfect pitch in their offspring? Will loving parents concede to their children’s request for cognitive stimulants when “everybody’s doing it” and when doing it would only level the playing field? Will socially defined images of beauty tempt us to use Botox or cosmetic surgery, not for therapeutic purposes, but merely to meet current notions of fashion?
And what if the irascible amongst us could receive a brain implant to make him more affable? Should he do it? If some medication would help us forget painful memories, should we take it? Should men be allowed to receive implants that enable them to gestate or nurse babies? Should persons suffering from Body Identity Integrity Disorder — in which the sufferer feels he’d be happier with an amputated limb — be allowed to amputate, say, a healthy arm and replace it with ‘bionics’? Should the 76 million middle-aged adults in the U.S. who suffer no brain disease be given “a way to reverse the frustrating forgetfulness that comes with age,” “Viagra for the Brain,” as an article in Forbes Magazine called it? Do you really think that pharmaceutical executives, facing profits from a market that large, will put the breaks on such research because it might not be “morally healthy” for society? Should brain implants be given to people who don’t yet, but might later suffer from Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease? Not easy questions, but important ones.
The President’s Council on Bioethics raises some more philosophical questions, to which neither they nor I offer any simple answers: Does multiplying alternatives for choice necessarily equate with a growth in human freedom? Do more perfect bodies, powerful minds, brighter moods and longer lives translate into happier souls? Will widespread pursuit of non-therapeutic ends through biotechnical means cause us to grow in disdain for the “givenness” of human nature? Is nature a gift to be nurtured or an obstacle to be overcome? Will moral character be helped or harmed if we medicate our weaknesses rather than strive against them through painful struggle? Will feats of human excellence made possible through biotechnology (e.g., breaking a homerun record, winning a spelling bee, defeating a sophisticated opponent at chess, jumping higher, running faster) — will they really be “our” accomplishments? Would they deserve the same kind of praise as lesser accomplishments achieved without the assistance of biotech? Are personal achievements impersonally achieved truly the achievements of persons? Will the limited distribution of bio-perfecting techniques — since all costly medical techniques are limited — increase social tranquility or foment envy?
I don’t mean to set up easy answers to these. Even defining where the line exists between therapy and enhancement can be vexing. Would neural interface cards allowing users to access the internet via thought alone be ethically different from utilizing Bluetooth technology? Should neural chip implants that modestly expand short-term memory be considered assisting an ordinary capacity or creating a supercapacity? And so on.
Wherever we land on these questions, underlying them is the greater theological question of whether the enhancement imperative (“since we canmake ourselves better, stronger, smarter, therefore we should”) is in some fundamental way a human attempt to play God? It might be considered the realm of the antichrist. No, not a chap with 666 on his head, and certainly not science per se. But rather the temptations that science may put to us to make ourselves into something that God never wills us to be.
E. Christian Brugger is a Senior Fellow of Ethics and director of the Fellows Program at the Culture of Life Foundation; and the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.