Results tagged “human nature” from Reformation21 Blog

Discussions of the ethics of human enhancement often invoke a supposed distinction between therapies, which are aimed at fighting disease and overcoming impairments, and enhancements, which are aimed at increasing human capacities. As I observed in my previous post on this topic, nearly everyone acknowledges the difficulty of drawing this distinction in some cases. Some argue the distinction is clear enough, just sometimes difficult to apply; others argue the distinction is ambiguous, and should be abandoned.

It is certainly possible and morally useful to distinguish between therapeutic and non-therapeutic acts; it is also possible to distinguish enhancements from other kinds of acts. There is no reason to suppose, however, that those two distinctions coincide. Indeed, some therapies, like vaccines, fight disease by enhancing ordinary human capacities. There are, in other words, therapeutic enhancers.

If at least some enhancements are therapeutic and permissible, then the ethical question is not about human enhancement as such but which enhancements or what kinds of enhancements are permissible or impermissible and under what conditions.

Artificial (Human) Intelligence?

Among the many dazzling promises enhancement advocates offer is the prospect of a class of drugs (or genetic alterations--setting aside human-technology fusions for a later post) that would enable us to perform at significantly higher cognitive levels than we otherwise would--the ability, if you will, to generate artificial human intelligence by manipulating our human material in some way.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, safe and effective intellectual enhancers can be developed through morally permissible means, uncontroversial uses might include (1a) helping brain-damaged patients recover something approximating their original capacity or (1b) helping Down syndrome children perform at grade level. But what about (2a) a high IQ boy who nevertheless struggles with a learning disability or (2b) a girl-genius who struggles to focus after a traumatic life experience? Or, what about (3a) children with below average IQs, say around 80, who struggle to keep up but have no diagnosable condition? Or, what about (3b) a healthy and brilliant medical researcher working on a cure for cancer or (3c) a government hacker working on code to safely neutralize a rogue state's nuclear program before the desperate days of regime collapse? Then there is the predictable (4a) private school that encourages students to adopt a regiment of these drugs as part of their college prep program or (4b) public university that reacts to the wide availability of such drugs by raising admission standards to levels out of reach to unenhanced students.

Type 1 and 2 cases outlined above would presumably count as permissible therapeutic enhancements since they relate to fighting the effects of disease. Other cases, such as 3a, are more difficult to sort out, especially if we use a "normal" or "species typical" standard for assessing impairment (more on that another time). The rest of type 3 and type 4 cases, however, seem obviously non-therapeutic. Yet, it is not obvious that type 3 cases are morally impermissible. Type 4 cases should give us pause, but we can be sure that many parents will not pause long before subjecting their children to such a regiment of drugs, if such drugs are safe, effective, and legally available.

Life's a Sport?

Even if we are willing to give the medical researcher (3b) or government hacker (3c) a moral pass, as it were, we certainly seem unwilling to do the same for athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) today. Our objection to PED use in sports is interesting and a point worth considering.

Imagine that in 2050 "everyone," except the usual suspects, is subjecting their children to a regiment of safe and effective athletic-type PEDs administered along with their vaccines. Imagine also that, on average, those who complete this regiment have their strength and agility enhanced beyond contemporary levels of professional athletic prowess and that this regiment is so potent that it renders black market PEDs pointless--at least until a new generation of even more potent enhancers can be pioneered. By about 2070 all college athletes and soon after that all professional athletes will have benefitted from PEDs, and be that much quicker and faster and stronger than they would have been, in proportion to their developed natural talents.

While we may be disgusted with PED use in professional sports today, I doubt we would feel the same way in this imaginary future. How we feel about some act has nothing to do with the ethics of it, of course, and just because "everyone" is doing it doesn't make it right. But, just because we are uncomfortable or even disgusted with something in some particular instance does not mean it is impermissible, either. The question is this: Would we still have the same moral objection to PED use in competitive sports in our imaginary 2080 that we have in 2017?

When Enhancing is (not) Cheating

Our primary objection to enhancing today, whether performing on the athletic field for a gaudy clunker of a ring or in the academic arena for, perhaps, admission into an elite college, is that it is cheating. (I am assuming, remember, safe, effective, and morally developed PEDs.) If PED use did not count as cheating, would we still have a moral objection?

Readers inclined to give the researcher or hacker a moral pass probably do so for two reasons: first, because they recognize a worthy end (curing cancer or avoiding nuclear war); second, because they do not view these instances of PED use as cheating. Though the researcher or hacker may be enhancing their intellectual capacity in some way his or her colleagues (or foes) lack, the judgment of charity inclines us to view their PED use as an act of service to humanity far removed from cheating.

The end does not justify the means, of course, but if we already have reasons to believe at least some enhancers (vaccines) are permissible when used to achieve worthy ends (prevent disease), then it is at least plausible that (1) intellectual enhancers may also be permissible when used to pursue worthy ends and (2) that fighting disease in the patient is not the only worthy end enhancers might serve.

When Not to Fight Disease

That being said, there are conditions under which otherwise permissible means ought not to be employed to achieve apparently worthy ends. There are times, for example, when we do not administer chemo or subject a person to another round of radiation or perform the surgery. There are times when fighting disease may do more harm than good or when keeping up the fight represents little more than a desperate refusal to accept one's mortality or even our finitude.

The problem may not be the means (medical treatments) or the apparent end (saving life), but the ulterior motive (perhaps denying mortality) that is aimed at some other end (such as defeating death outside of Christ). Transhumanism is exactly this kind of impermissible quest, pursued via human enhancements. So, while human enhancements, including intellectual enhancements, are permissible under certain conditions, enhancements for the purpose of transcending our humanity or grasping equality with God or glory without Christ's cross, is not. That, at least, is the argument I aim to take up in my next post.

Geniuses by Enhancement


Medical procedures for healthy people are nothing new. Surgeries to augment or "enhance" this or that physical feature for "cosmetic" purposes are rather common. According to widely cited statistics supplied by The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, one out of every twenty American women and one out of every five South Korean women have had some form of invasive cosmetic surgery. (This excludes Botox and filler injections, which are considered non-invasive, and reconstructive surgeries, which are not considered cosmetic.)

As cosmetic surgery became a middle class commodity, the ethics of human enhancement flitted across the public mind. But in an era when sex-reassignment surgeries to treat gender dysphoria are covered by standard medical plans, ethical questions about cosmetic enhancements, though not trivial, seem quaint.

An Enhancement Revolution?

New developments in science, medicine, and technology, however, are poised to dramatically raise the ethical ante--and are attracting both popular and academic attention. In a National Science Foundation funded report published in Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology, Allhoff, Lin, Moor, and Weckert note that "since the beginning of history, we . . . have wanted to become more than human, to become Homo superior. . . . We have dreamt--and still dream--of transforming ourselves to overcome our all-too-human limitations." Indeed, the opportunity to grasp an illusion of equality with God, in terms of knowing good and evil, was the seductive suggestion of the tempter in Eden (Gen. 3:4-7).

The ability to fundamentally alter our humanity, however, has long been the domain of myth, fiction, and lies.

But today, something seems to be different. With ongoing work to unravel the mysteries of our minds and bodies, coupled with the art and science of emerging technologies, we are near the start of the Human Enhancement Revolution (Allhoff et al., "Ethics of Human Enhancement," 2010).

The quest to transform humanity by significantly enhancing (or otherwise transcending) our finite capacities--sometimes called transhumanism--is, for some, a quasi-religious obsession complete with its own eschatological moment called "the singularity." For these folks, and many others, the dawning human enhancement revolution is about realizing the dazzling (and vaguely utopian) potential to become something greater than the tragically flawed and finite shades of our future selves we presently are.

This Century's Industrial Warfare?

Revolutions always seem like good ideas to drifters drunk on exaggerated promises the night before. Many spoke giddily of the wonders to be ushered in with the industrial revolution of the late nineteenth century, never imagining the unearthly horrors of industrial warfare.

There will be no escaping human nature this time either--neither the wonder of being creatures in God's image nor the tragedy of our fallen condition. We may cure more diseases or find ways to make ourselves much smarter or we may irreparably damage all future generations and bring even greater misery into the world--and we may do all this at the same time and by the same means.

No matter, the revolution is apparently upon us. In some cases, "we are beginning to incorporate technology within our very bodies" to give us superhuman abilities. "These technologies promise great benefits for humanity--such as increased productivity and creativity, longer lives, more serenity, stronger bodies and minds, and more," (Allhoff, et al.). In other cases, we are seeking "to develop more effective 'smart pills' which target the molecular basis of specific brain functions" (William Cheshire, "Bioethics and a Better Life" in Why the Church Needs Bioethics, 2011. p. 166). And in yet other cases, we are pursuing genetic modifications of various kinds, including changes to human germ cells that would be carried forward in every future generation.

There is no good reason to think any of this will make us happier because it cannot make us morally better, much less spiritually alive.

Therapy vs. Enhancement?

A central question in the current ethical debate is whether a distinction between therapy and enhancement can be sustained, and if so of what use it may be. As ethicists on all sides admit, the boundary between morally permissible therapy and morally contested enhancement is far from clear.

Enhancement advocates often argue the distinction fails and that it makes no sense to continue using it. Distinction defenders acknowledge "this line may sometimes be difficult to draw in practice" but argue "that means only that it is difficult to draw, not that it does not exist or is unimportant." There is, Gilbert Meilaender contends, "an important difference between treating what everyone acknowledges to be a disease and seeking to enhance intellectual capacities" (Bioethics, p. 43).

To see the difficulty, consider vaccinations. Unlike most other kinds of therapies, vaccines do not obviously restore a patient's damaged or impaired capacities to a normal or "species-typical" level. They do, however, enhance the immune system's ability to fight off diseases healthy unvaccinated people ordinarily can't.

If it were impermissible to enhance the human immune system beyond species-typical capacity--however that is assessed--then vaccinating our children against small pox and polio would be immoral; but if vaccines are permissible in principle, as most everyone agrees (including fringy folks who decline vaccinations for safety or political reasons), then at least some human enhancements appear to be permissible.

The Ethical Question

Even if vaccines are permissible enhancers, this does not mean that every kind of enhancement is therefore permissible. Perhaps we can adapt Meilaender's criterion of opposing disease to distinguish between enhancements aimed at fighting "what everyone acknowledges to be disease"--therapeutic enhancers, if you will--and those aimed at other ends such as enlarging one's intellectual capacity. Since vaccines are aimed at fighting disease (via prevention) they are morally permissible enhancers, all other things being equal, while enhancers aimed at making us smarter, sexier, able to see like eagles, or hear like owls, remain morally suspect.

If so, the ethical question is no longer about human enhancements as such, but whether non-therapeutic human enhancers are permissible. That is the question I hope to take up in my next post.

Psalm 19 and human flourishing

Human flourishing

"Human flourishing" is a cultural catchphrase that can be overheard in the hallways of corporate America and in the institutions of public and private education. In recent days, human flourishing has served as a warrant for doctrinal and moral-theological revision in the church as well. Due to its widespread usage across our culture, its susceptibility to multiple meanings, and its role in theological revision, some Christians have begun to disparage the language of human flourishing. I think this is the wrong tactic to take. 

The church has a stake in human flourishing. The challenge for the church is to define and promote human flourishing (which we might otherwise describe as human well-being, human happiness) in accordance with biblical teaching, to present and commend its alternative approach to human flourishing in the face of competing cultural visions, and to embody human flourishing in the presence of God amid a culture of death and destruction. Christian theology has a role to play in assisting the church to meet this challenge.

Christian theology has a lot to say about human flourishing. Following the instruction of Holy Scripture, Christian theology instructs us about human flourishing by instructing us about human nature and about human nature's relationship to law and gospel.

We may appreciate the true character of human flourishing by looking at Psalm 19.

Nature's flourishing

According to Psalm 19, nature flourishes when it fulfills its God-glorifying aim by following its God-given course. Nature's aim is to glorify God. "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork" (19.1). Nature glorifies God by running the course given to it by God. The "circuit" of the sun's rising and setting is the "course" that it runs (19.5-6). 

Psalm 19 portrays nature's flourishing by personifying nature as something capable of happiness and joy. The sun runs its course "with joy," "like a bridegroom leaving its chamber" and "like a strong man" running his race. Note well: Nature's flourishing is internal to its course and its aim. Happiness is not something that comes in addition to nature's fulfillment of its divine calling. Happiness comes within nature's fulfillment of its divine calling.

Wendell Berry's poem, "The Law That Marries All Things," eloquently captures this reality:

The cloud is free only
to go with the wind.
The rain is free
only in falling.

The water is free only
in its gathering together,

in its downward courses,
in its rising into the air.

In law is rest
if you love the law,
if you enter, singing, into it
as water in its descent.

Or song is truest law,
and you must enter singing;
it has no other entrance.

It is the great chorus
of parts. The only outlawry
is in division.

Whatever is singing
is found, awaiting the return
of whatever is lost.

Meet us in the air
over the water,
sing the swallows.

Meet me, meet me,
the redbird sings,
here here here here.

The law and human flourishing

What is true of nature in general is true of human nature in particular. 

Because it reflects God's design for human nature, the law of God directs human nature to wholeness and happiness. 

The law promotes human wholeness (19.7-8):

The law revives the soul.

The law makes wise the mind.

The law rejoices the heart.

The law enlightens the eyes.

The law promotes human pleasure and happiness (19.10):

The law is more desirable than gold.

The law is sweeter than honey.

The law directs us to live according to our design, according to our nature. When we live according to our design, we are happy and whole. What is true of nature more broadly is true of human nature more specifically: Happiness and wholeness are internal to God's design for us.

C. S. Lewis illustrates the point well (HT Melissa Kruger):

God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on himself. He himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.

The law promotes human wholeness and human flourishing because it directs us to God, the "lovely source of true delight." The problem, of course, is that we are sinners, antinomians at heart. Sin thus thwarts the law's happiness-promoting ends. Sin is the sworn enemy of human flourishing. 

Furthermore, in humanity's sinful and distorted state, the law becomes our enemy as well. The law declares us guilty. The law consigns us to Satan's dominion. The law shuts our mouth and sentences us to death (Gen 3.8-24). In such a situation, the law cannot help us. The law cannot restore us to the path of happiness, the path that directs our lives to the glory of God.

The gospel and human flourishing

The psalmist harbors no Pollyannaish optimism about our fallen human nature before God's law. Instead he casts himself wholly upon the mercy of God. 

The law declares us guilty; the psalmist begs God: "Declare me innocent from hidden faults" (19.12). The law consigns us to Satan's dominion; the psalmist begs God: "Keep back your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me!" (19.13). The law shuts our mouth and sentences us to death; the psalmist desires to praise the Lord in the land of the living: "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer" (19.14). 

In the gospel, God answers the psalmist's pleas for mercy. Through the mission of God's incarnate Son and the outpouring of God's Spirit, God's grace restores and perfects human nature. 

God's grace doesn't accept us "just as we are." To do so would be to consign us to a life of perpetual misery. While we were without strength before God's law, Christ died for us (Rom 5.6). When we were ungodly, God justified us freely, apart from our good works (Rom 4.4-5). But the God who justifies fallen human beings through the gospel also restores and perfects human nature through the gospel. The Lord, our rock and redeemer, not only declares us innocent of our faults. He also keeps us back from presumptuous sins and doesn't let them rule over us; he also opens our lips that our mouths may proclaim his praise. He glorifies himself by making us "fully alive" (Irenaeus).

Grace heals our misery and ministers happiness by instructing us how and empowering us to be human again. The gospel teaches us how to walk in God's law and how to live for God's glory through union with Jesus Christ. In Christ the old and miserable man is crucified and the new man--the flourishing man--is reborn by the renewing power of the Spirit of life. "God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Rom 8.3-4).

As the law is fulfilled in us--through the Son by the Spirit--human nature is put back on the path ("who walk...") of human flourishing to the glory of God.