The Unnaturalness of Biotechnology

The emergence of new biotechnologies has brought with it a range of novel ethical issues. It has often been the case that the consequences of implementing a particular biotechnology have opposed moral intuitions widely held by the general public. Such opposition is often expressed in claims about the “unnaturalness” of the technology’s intended consequences. For example, a study done regarding Swedish public opposition to certain gene technologies shows that “...concerns about interfering with nature, the moral value of technology, and trust in science offered stronger explanatory force than affective and risk assessment factors”. A case example might be the birth of Dolly the sheep. In 1997 Dolly, the first mammal cloned from an adult cell, was born. Dolly’s birth was undoubtedly a huge scientific achievement, but this fact was poorly reflected in the public response to the event. A large part of the public responded in disgust or outrage. Claims that such practices are “unnatural” and that the scientists are “playing God” were thrown around. The response to this event suggests that

people are sometimes more concerned with whether an act is “natural” than whether its consequences are bad.

So, concerns about the risks associated with biotechnology often seem to take a backseat to the worry that the biotechnology itself is infringing on the natural order of things. However, claims about naturalness are often confusing. The term “natural” is ambiguous. Attempts at demarcating the “natural” from the “unnatural” often seem arbitrary. Secondly, even if one were able to make clear what makes something “natural”, why should this fact carry any moral weight? Descriptive claims about what is natural seem to be distinct from normative claims about what is morally desirable. Furthermore, there has been an unfortunate historical tendency to use claims about “naturalness” to justify claims we today find morally heinous (e.g. claims about homosexuality being “unnatural” and thus wrong, or subjugation of specific races reflecting a “natural” hierarchy between people).

The above considerations make it easy to dismiss claims which appeal to some notion of the “natural”. If someone were to claim the union of same-sex couples is wrong because homosexuality is “unnatural”, It’s fair to say that they have failed to reason properly.

However, I believe that sometimes the intuition which lies behind these appeals to the “natural” is not so easily dismissed. For illustrative purposes, let’s look at the subject of human enhancement. The prospect of “designer children” (children that have specific traits achieved through genetic engineering) has been the source of much controversy. The ability to select for specific traits might be beneficial in certain contexts. If one could (without any unintended consequences occurring) select for genetic traits that result in resistance to serious diseases, I don’t think many would argue that this is morally reprehensible or that it’s against nature. However, If one were to allow parents to select the eye color of their unborn child, I suspect we would begin to hear outcries condemning such practices as “unnatural”. One can push this line of thought even further. The notion of moral bioenhancement has gathered some philosophical interest lately. Moral bioenhancement being the idea that one day we should, if it’s technologically feasible, use genetic engineering to select for traits that are associated with morally acceptable behaviors. Naturally, this also extends to selecting away traits that are associated with morally problematic behaviors (The movie “A Clockwork Orange” might come to mind). Such an endeavor would, proponents say, create human beings that are more empathic and agreeable, and less aggressive.

I won’t comment on the permissibility of moral bioenhancement, but I suspect that many would intuitively feel that such instances of genetic engineering are deeply unnatural, and as a consequence deeply immoral. But why should this be the case? Surely it would be a good thing if more people were disposed to act morally righteous?

The philosopher Michael Sandel has suggested that the uneasiness people feel when confronted with new biotechnologies is due to“ [moving] faster than [our] moral understanding”. That is, science has a tendency to move us into uncharted territory.

A territory where our moral concepts, once familiar and useful, fails to be meaningful or applicable to the case at hand. This could explain why the knee jerk reaction is often to fall back on responses apparently rooted in emotion or pseudo-reasoning. Appealing to what’s “natural” being an example of such a response.

Science definitely has a tendency to move us into uncharted territory where we don’t have the vocabulary to express our moral concerns.

However, this does not mean that appealing to “naturalness” is entirely based in emotion, or due to a failure to reason properly. Rather, I take it that claims about what’s “natural” can be equated to claims about the proper limits of human activity. Whatever “nature” consists of in these statements, it is clear that it’s something which should remain untouched by human action (e. g. our moral faculties are a natural part of us, so it should not be altered).

So, why is it important that “nature” claims should be understood as claims about the proper limits of human activity? Because human activity always occurs against a fixed background. That is, the choices we have, and the actions we do, are constrained by the world as we meet it. Now, the possibility for our choices to be meaningful is also constrained by these features of the world. This might sound like gibberish, so I will illustrate by paraphrasing an example from philosopher Stephen Holland. Imagine that you are an avid runner. As such, there’s much you would do to improve your 5K running time. There’s a lot which makes sense for you to do. Things like: fixing your diet, increasing your running mileage, buying better sneakers, etc. However, it would not make sense to install a moving running track. This would undermine the whole point of attempting to improve one's running time. This is an example where one changes a background condition which needs to remain fixed, if improving one's running time is to remain a meaningful goal. The point is that meaningful actions always occur in, and are partly determined by, particular background conditions. When some of these background conditions are upset, our actions cease to have meaning.

I think this is what some of the arguments which appeal to “nature” are getting at. Claiming that moral bioenhancement is “unnatural” is not necessarily claiming that it will cause misery or have unforeseen consequences. Rather, it’s claiming bioenhancement will remove a background condition (maybe freedom of choice, or agency) which makes being moral a meaningful activity.

If this background condition is sufficiently important, we should consider bioenhancement as transgressing the proper limit of human activity.

So, what’s the lesson we should take away from this? Well, I don’t think we should be too dismissive when people claim that new biotechnology is upsetting the natural order of things. Such arguments aren’t always grounded in people not knowing the science sufficiently, or not having weighed the benefits and risks thoroughly. Sometimes people fear losing a background condition which makes aspects of their lives meaningful. And after all, what is life without meaning?

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