Theologian: Biotechnology cannot transcend God's ultimate purpose

Theologian: Biotechnology cannot transcend God’s ultimate purpose

Theologian: Biotechnology cannot transcend God’s ultimate purpose

(Credit: Pixabay.)

Gerald McKenny Walter, Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, teaches and writes on Christian ethics and the ethics of biotechnology. He spoke to Crux.

[Editor’s Note: Gerald McKenny is the Walter Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, and teaches and writes on Christian ethics and the ethics of biotechnology. His recent book Biotechnology, Human Nature, and Christian Ethics examines these subjects in detail. He spoke to Charles Camosy.]

Camosy: In this video you suggest that one of your central questions as a theologian is how we should respond to our vulnerabilities and limitations. Why and/or how did this become a central question for you?

McKenny: When I began studying bioethics in the 1980s, advocates of patient autonomy were still trying to establish it as the fundamental bioethical principle while others, in response, were trying to reclaim a Hippocratic focus of medicine on the patient’s good. I agreed with both but thought that they ignored that when people turn to medicine it is because in one way or another they are face-to-face with their vulnerability. Medicine should respect autonomy and serve patients’ good, but it is first of all a ministry to humans in their vulnerability. Around the same time, the Human Genome Initiative and human gene therapy were getting underway. There was a lot of talk, in retrospect unrealistic, about how genetic knowledge and technology would push back at our creaturely limits, giving us new abilities and so on. So, I began to think about medicine, biomedical research, and so forth as a way we respond to our vulnerabilities and limitations. And that is of course a way of thinking about it that is, or should be, theological.

What do you say to Christians who argue that God made us with vulnerabilities and limitations and we ought not to defy God’s will in using biotechnology to address them?

Like all creatures, we are finite, and like all living creatures, we are dependent—on each other, on our environment. To be finite is to be limited, and to be dependent is to be vulnerable, so these are features of our nature as created by God and should be accepted as such. But acceptance of some aspect of our creaturely nature does not necessarily mean keeping it just as it is. For one thing, some of our present vulnerabilities and limitations are due to sin and are not part of our nature as God created it. To mitigate the effects of sin is not to defy God’s will.

Also, we know that our nature will be perfected in eternity, and some people think we can, in modest ways, anticipate aspects of that perfection now, through biotechnology. But more broadly, much of what people want to do with biotechnology — improve cognitive or perceptual functions, increase muscular strength or agility, live longer — aims at attaining certain states that we perceive as good, as fulfillments of our nature as God created it. If these states really are true human goods (of course, that’s a big “if”!) then it might well be God’s will that we pursue them, assuming we don’t harm people or violate their autonomy in doing so. They would make us a little less limited or a little less vulnerable than we were. But we will still be limited and vulnerable: Still creatures.

What do you say to those who believe technology can be used as a tool of transcendence to overcome our vulnerabilities and limitations?

This is where I think biotechnology can be misused.

Of course, we will always be vulnerable and limited, so in one sense we won’t be able to transcend our condition through biotechnology. But there is a problem, I think, when people form their aspirations, and even their way of living, around perceived goods that would be available only to beings who transcend vulnerability or limitation. For example, some people who want to radically extend their lives begin to value goods that would be appropriate to an immortal being: Endless opportunities to experience new things, endless achievements, and so on.

These people will always be mortal, even if they succeed someday in living vastly longer. But they denigrate the goods and virtues of a mortal life that is destined for eternal life by resurrection and not for indefinitely extended life by technology. They are denying their vulnerability and limitation, or at least failing to understand and appropriate its creaturely significance. At the same time, they are not totally wrong. Christians have good reason not to rest content with our nature as it is. It is affected by sin, and it is destined for eschatological perfection. So, we should not think that the meaning and value of our nature is found only in its present state. However, our nature in its present state is the nature Christ took to himself in becoming human, the limited and vulnerable nature that in him underwent death and resurrection and is now glorified.

The answer to the question of our vulnerability and limitation is not biotechnological transcendence, whatever that would mean, but participation in Christ’s death and resurrection.

Concepts like disability and normative human nature seem to be doing a lot of work for you, but they are notoriously difficult to define, right? Especially when seen in particular social contexts. Having red hair might seem like part of normative human nature, for instance, but in a culture which discriminates against people with red hair, it might be seen as a kind of disability–to be mitigated by, say, embryonic gene therapy. Is there a way to speak about and employ these concepts which avoid this difficulty?

Yes, human nature is notoriously difficult to define — and I managed to avoid defining it in my book! But we can say that it is not just one thing, for example, our rationality, that makes us human, but rather a whole lot of characteristics and functions, many of which we share with other creatures but which we have in a particular way or form and—the crucial point—which interact with each other in highly complex ways that are distinctive to us. Because it is not just one but rather a lot of characteristics and functions, lacking any one of them does not disqualify someone from being human, and having any one of them (as posthumans or intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe might have) does not make someone human.

Also, there is a lot of variation among these characteristics and functions. All of this helps us with biotechnological enhancement and disability. First, biotechnology can alter, and even add or eliminate functions and characteristics without necessarily making us something other than human. Second, we can see so-called disabilities as aspects of human variation. The problem occurs when we treat some variation, such as hair color or skin color or certain abilities, as the norm of human nature and everything that is different as a deviation from the norm.

I see variation as part of the goodness of human nature. To arrange variations in something like hair color in accordance with a purported norm for hair color is to reject the goodness of creaturely variation and to violate the dignity of those whose hair color deviates from the norm. The same is true, at least in many cases, with disabilities (although we can appropriately describe some disabilities as impairments).

Of course, there are legitimate reasons for people to change their hair color, just as some people with certain conditions we call disabilities may legitimately seek to change them. In all cases it depends on whether the conditions one pursues are genuine human goods and one does not commit a wrong or incur inordinate risks in pursuing them. But we should keep in mind that biotechnology is almost certain to perpetuate suspect societal norms and to be used to conform people to those norms. This circumstance does not in itself render biotechnological enhancement unjustifiable (any more than the same circumstance renders, say, education unjustifiable), but it does demand of us unflagging vigilance and defense of those who are most likely to be victimized by it.

The question of dramatic life-extension – one in which you are quite interested – seems to be a strange kind of third category. At least in my view, it is not obviously enhancement and not obviously addressing a disability. In the video, you provocatively ask if this is a “substitution” for immortality or an “anticipation” of immortality? Can you say more about this question?

This is a good point, and it is true of a lot of so-called enhancements. Is, for example, a different emotional range, which some people apparently would like to have, one that is, say, more upbeat or energetic—is that an enhancement? And we could also ask, would it be an anticipation of heavenly joy or a substitute for it?

These are good questions to ask of all so-called enhancements: Do they approximate or anticipate our eschatological perfection, or do they substitute for it?

Approximation would mean that our eschatological perfection lies along the line of biotechnological enhancement, which gradually approaches it, so that, for example, longer life is a stage on the way to eternal life.

Anticipation is different. It would mean that God gives us signs or intimations of an eschatological perfection that is different from anything we have now but can be glimpsed in something present. So, for example, while eternal life is qualitatively different from biotechnologically extended life (eternal life is not just really, really long life but a different kind of life), longer life gives us some intimation of eternal life. In my view, approximation is ruled out. Our perfection comes about by death and resurrection, not by technology.

Extended life is not a stage on the way to eternal life. But could we, by biotechnology, anticipate our perfection?

Consider the two qualities we know will be overcome in our perfection: Sexual reproduction and mortality. Biotechnology does not do well at anticipating either state. We rightly presume that without sexual reproduction we will be more, not less intimate with one another, yet our technological means of overcoming sexual reproduction (for example, artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization) involve less intimacy, not more. So, they are more a parody of our perfection than an anticipation of it.

As for mortality, an indefinitely extended life, with its endless accumulation of new experiences and achievements, is a grossly misleading intimation of eternal life — again, more a parody of it than a sign of it. So, I am inclined to say that biotechnology is more likely to be a substitute for the eschatological perfection of our nature than an anticipation of it. If biotechnological enhancement can be justified, it is because it fulfills our creaturely nature in some way, not because it approximates or anticipates our ultimate perfection.

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