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4. Biotechnology, Ethics, and the Arc of Life

 

Steve Talbott

 

You could wish that every government-funded study were written in the lucid, informative style of the latest report from the President's Council on Bioethics. Neither bureaucratic nor academic in tone, the report (in its own words) "aspires to thoughtful reflection" with the goal of stimulating broad public discussion. I can hardly imagine any document that would fulfill these aims more worthily than the one at hand.

 

The report is entitled "Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness". Calling this "arguably the most neglected topic in public bioethics", the Council goes on to remark that "compared with more immediate topics in bioethics, the questions raised by efforts to 'improve on human nature' seem abstract, remote, and overly philosophical, unfit for public policy; indeed, many bioethicists and intellectuals believe either that there is no such thing as 'human nature' or that altering it is not ethically problematic".  But, in any case, there is no doubting the seriousness of the decisions being forced upon us:

 

What's at issue is not the crude old power to kill the creature made in God's image but the attractive, science-based power to remake ourselves after images of our own devising. As a result it gives unexpected practical urgency to ancient philosophical questions:  What is a good life?  What is a good community?

 

The Council, very wisely, chose to approach bioethics first of all through this consideration of human ends, rather than by trying to fix categorical labels to particular technologies. I say "wisely" because ultimately our bioethical choices must rest upon two foundations:  first, a knowledge of our own character and potentials as human beings; and second, a knowledge of the implications of each technology for the whole person, the whole community, the whole biosphere.

 

If there is one thing I would like to have seen emphasized more in the report, it is the degree to which our own understanding of the various biotechnologies falls short of this second requirement.  If we really knew the full import of, say, a genetic alteration for the entire organism it was applied to, the ethical questions would in many cases almost answer themselves.  But not only do we lack this understanding (and lack it even for some current treatments the Council seems to find unproblematic); we have largely denied ourselves the very prerequisites for any holistic grasp of effects upon organisms.  This grasp would have to be qualitative, since only qualities can suffuse and characterize a whole.  But our science has been less interested in understanding the qualities of things than in ignoring them.

 

On the other front, the Council's report is unsurpassed in its effort to clarify human ends and desires.  For example, if there is one thing nearly every biotech enthusiast seems to agree on, it is that pushing back the threshold of death would be a good thing, properly desired by all sane persons.  But, the report notes, this is not at all so obvious when you begin to think about it.  Here an extended quotation seems justified:

 

What if everybody lived life to the hilt, even as they approached an ever-receding age of death in a body that looked and functioned -- let's not be too greedy -- like that of a thirty-year-old?  Would it be good if each and all of us lived like light bulbs, burning as brightly from beginning to end, then popping off without warning, leaving those around us suddenly in the dark?  Or is it perhaps better that there be a shape to life, everything in its due season, the same also written, as it were, into the wrinkles of our bodies that live it -- provided, of course, that we do not suffer years of painful or degraded old age and that we do not lose our wits?  What would the relations between the generations be like if there never came a point at which a son surpassed his father in strength or vigor?  What incentive would there be for the old to make way for the young, if the old slowed down little and had no reason to think of retiring -- if Michael could play basketball until he were not forty but eighty?  Might not even a moderate prolongation of lifespan with vigor lead to a prolongation in the young of functional immaturity -- of the sort that has arguably already accompanied the great increases in average life expectancy experienced in the past century?

 

Going against both common intuition and native human desire, some commentators have argued that living with full awareness and  acceptance of our finitude may be the condition of many of the best things in human life: engagement, seriousness, a taste for beauty, the possibility of virtue, the ties born of procreation, the quest for meaning .... The pursuit of perfect bodies and further life-extension might deflect us from realizing more fully the aspirations to which our lives naturally point, from living well rather than merely staying alive. A concern with one's own improving agelessness might finally be incompatible with accepting the need for procreation and human renewal.

 

Personally, I find the hope for some kind of earthly immortality or radically extended life almost incomprehensible. I must have at least as many fears of death and illness as the next person, but those fears seem, at some profound place beneath their terror, to be my friends -- my guides  in moving toward a healthier self and a healthier future.

 

Carl Jung describes the trajectory of the individual human life as a broad, sun-like arc.  During the first half we are on the ascendant, surveying an ever-widening field of action, coming into the full strength of our powers, and finally reaching a peak of our life energies.  But at the noon zenith we begin a long descent in which many of our values and interests go through a kind of reversal -- need to do so -- in order to reckon with the decline in our physical vigor.  So, the two oppositely directed halves of a human life take on profoundly differing qualities.

 

But in one sense the descent applies only to our "external", biological life. As our bodies begin to slow down and show their frailty, our inner resourcefulness, our wisdom, our capacity for selflessness may continue along a rising trajectory -- may, in fact, be encouraged in this ascent precisely *because* of our failing outer capacities.

 

The nineteenth-century novelist, George MacDonald, said of flowers that they must die so that we may learn to love their beauty rather than gather and horde their bodies. A similar turning toward the inner and essential is necessary in relation to our own physical capacities. They are never “merely” physical, but always are expressing something inward, and that something is our life.  To become obsessed during the second half of life with the physical powers as such rather than the life behind them is to turn away from ourselves.

 

Bernard Lievegoed, a student of organizational development and individual psychology, offered a perspective on the broad course of human life that has been central to my own self-understanding, and I would like to sketch and excerpt it briefly for NetFuture [and Southern Cross Review] readers. The point in relation to the foregoing is that it is meaningless to talk about biotechnology and ethics except in the context of some such view of our lives. In many discussions of biotechnology, the view being advanced remains unspoken and implicit -- understandably so, since it would appear unbearably crass if it were brought out into the open.

 

In “The Developing Organization”, Lievegoed reminds us that the small child's inner life is heavily dependent on biology, so that, for example, the beginning of an illness shows up in behavior and mood.  But as the child grows older, its individuality progressively asserts itself, shaping the psyche more and more independently of the body.

 

Lievegoed describes the central periods on either side of the biological zenith as follows.  (He was writing in 1969 and from the standpoint of European organizational management.  His age markers, described in terms of male employees, should be taken as a rough schema, not some sort of fixed law.)

 

   Around the thirtieth year, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, a change

   takes place in a person's inner constellation. Many experience this as

   a definite farewell to youth. Emotional instability decreases.  One is

   no longer totally immersed in one's situation but can stand back and

   observe things objectively. The rational element gains the upper hand.

   One has some life-experience to look back on and some things in the

   future seem more concrete....

 

   The period of the thirties is a time of consolidation, in which one's

   own career is made visible, matter-of-fact judgments are formed, and

   actions are carried out in a considered way .... One feels at home in

   the logical organization of scientific management, but not in the

   static tasks it demands....

 

   At thirty-five a man has reached the middle of his life.  His vital

   forces still support him, his mind is fully developed, and his will is

   directed towards activities with concrete content.  Problems at the

   social level are solved in a rational and organizational way.  Talking

   to workers and also middle-management people of this age, one notices

   that they feel they have got life "nicely sorted out".  They know what

   they can get out of it, and also approximately their own level within

   the hierarchy of the organization.  It is interesting that this does

   not give rise to any problems.

 

   Not until the following years do they encounter, at first incidentally

   and then more often, a “crisis of values”.  "I have achieved what I

   have been seeking for years.  What now?  Another twenty-five years in

   this town, with this firm, till I retire?"  A feeling of uncertainty

   arises which did not exist a few years earlier.  What once seemed of

   value is now no longer attractive.  "There must be something more!"

 

   Many seek it in external change -- of house, work, or marriage; in the

   old days people used to emigrate, to make a new beginning far away, to

   be twenty once again, to go through the expansive period once again,

   but this time in a different and better way.

 

   The crisis at the beginning of the forties, drastic for some, creeping

for others, is a crisis into which man is thrust so that he can once   more take stock of his values. His "objective drives" have brought him

   to a certain point, but now they are suddenly found to be empty and no

   longer give real satisfaction. Where does one go from here?  Where can

   one find new values and new aims?

 

   For the whole of the phase of expansion (from the age of twenty to the

   age of forty) man is carried by experiencing his vital forces and

   placing himself at the center of his environment.  This does not mean

   that he is unsocial, but the emphasis is on the self: "I am

   successful", “I am managing the department very well", “I made a

   success of that transaction".

 

   The crisis now leads from I to we, from subjective ego-centeredness

   to objective social awareness.  At thirty-five a man will ask in a

   certain situation:  "How can I solve this problem?"  A man of fifty-

   five, if he has weathered the crisis in the right way, will ask in the

   same situation, "Who is the most suitable person to solve this

   problem?" or even "How can I delegate this task so that the person

   concerned can learn something from solving it?"

 

So, after the crisis and reversal of direction at the zenith, we may rise to new levels of creativity based on our experience and deepening insight. "A person like this, at the height of his individual capacity, is able to conceptualize, to guide policy, and .... to mature to real thoughtfulness and wisdom.  This level of creativity can last for a long time before it finally succumbs to the onslaught of old age or actual physical infirmity".

 

Of course, things may not turn out this way.  It may happen that one is unable to weather the crisis in the right way.  If, at mid-life, "he continues to drift with the stream of vitality which has carried him so far, if he bases his self-esteem on physical achievement or on his work routine", then his inner life will follow the same descending curve as his body.  "He will have to apply more and more effort just to remain at a constant level; he will find it more and more difficult to take in new things, for as biological rigidity increases he will also become

psychologically more and more set in his ways".

 

This is why the way we manage employees is so crucial. "The surest way of having difficulties with men after they are forty is to give them work when they are young which hardly takes any time to do, and to let them carry out this work year after year".  Eventually such a person becomes an obstinate dead weight in the organization, unable to adapt to change:

 

   Management faced with a problem of this kind must in the first place

   ask itself:  What mistakes have we made so that he has become like

   this?  When he was between forty and fifty did we not profit from the

   fact that his department ran on oiled wheels?  Did we leave him there

   because we could not be bothered to make a change? Did we overlook the

   symptom that no promising young men emerged from his department ready

   to move on to higher levels?

 

   Many people, particularly those who are very active and full of

   vitality, are in danger of taking this path, and yet they could be

   released from this kind of cramp with the help of a deep-reaching

   conversation, a transfer, or a special assignment.

 

Of course, many have written similarly of basic life cycles in more recent decades. My reason for going into all this here is not to quibble over the detailed accuracy of Lievegoed's picture, but merely to point out how vacuous so much discussion of a re-engineered humanity begins to appear as soon as you really look at the human being.  The discussion typically proceeds without first calling up any meaningful image of the person the engineers are determined to re-make.  The conversation takes place in a near-vacuum, with the central place occupied by the technology rather than the person being subjected to it.  Particular technological tricks are automatically translated as human "improvements" -- without any basis having been given for distinguishing between improvement and degradation.

 

It hardly needs adding that if a decisive turn in human development occurs at mid-life, with the body beginning its descent and the psyche (at least potentially) growing toward wisdom and selflessness as the essential fulfillment of life's meaning -- and if, given the psychosomatic unity of the human being, these complementary movements are inseparable – then a preoccupation with the prolongation of our physical powers could prove to be just about the most destructive thing imaginable.

 

But where, within the biotechnology industry and the journalistic media are the relevant questions even being asked?  We can be thankful that the President's Council on Bioethics has stepped into this void.  It is not a good sign, however, that they had difficulty finding a publisher for this report, which, being subtle and full of profound insight, was deemed to

have little sales potential.

 

The Council's report, Beyond Therapy, considers four broad domains in which biotechnological applications are currently employed or envisioned: the "improvement" of children, the pursuit of superior performance (especially in athletics), the engineering of ageless bodies, and the pursuit of "happy souls". In each of these cases the report discusses the current state of the technology, the scientific background, and the ethical issues. You will find the report (which, I understand, will be published in book form) at www.bioethics.gov.


© 2003 Steve Talbott

Steve Talbott, author of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst currently edits NetFuture, a freely distributed newsletter dealing with technology and human responsibility. NetFuture is published by The Nature Institute, 169 Route 21C, Ghent NY 12075 (tel: 518-672-0116. You can reach Steve at: stevet@oreilly.com

This article was originally distributed as part of NetFuture: http://www.netfuture.org. You may redistribute this article for noncommercial purposes, with this notice attached.