The Relationship between Humans and Nature

Another way of arguing for the moral significance of human nature is to argue that a certain kind of relationship to it is morally significant. Michael Sandel and Jurgen Habermas exemplify this approach. Sandel argues that a certain relationship to human nature is both valued in itself and vital for various things that we value in human society, and Habermas claims that a certain relationship to human nature is vital for equal membership in the moral community.

Sandel’s argument for worrying about enhancement is broad ranging, and in places he seems to develop arguments that follow consequentialist lines. His primary argument, though, is that certain ways of using enhancement lead to an imbalance in two sorts of relationships to human nature—an accepting relationship, in which we see nature as a gift, and a perfectionist relationship, in which we strive to improve it. The ideal is to hold these in tension with each other, but enhancement pushes us away from the first and toward the second. Widespread use of enhancement would “represent the one-sided triumph of willfulness over giftedness, of dominion over reverence, of molding over beholding” (2007, p. 85).

Sandel goes on to say why losing “the ethic of giftedness” would be unfortunate, but these final observations work more to elaborate what is wrong about losing giftedness than to explain it. Losing the ethic of giftedness would undermine “three key features of our moral landscape—humility, responsibility, and solidarity.” This claim could be understood as a consequentialist point—if we lose these key constraints on our behavior, many people will end up worse off—or it might be understood as pointing out conceptual implications—if we lose these aspects of the “moral landscape,” we could not but feel that as a huge loss. Sandel plainly hopes, though, that many of his readers will feel the loss of giftedness itself already as a loss. It is partly to show the import of losing giftedness itself that he tries to show how it is bound up in sports and in parenthood, such that if we lose the ethic of giftedness, then sports and parenthood will be diminished— “the drive to banish contingency and to master the mystery of birth diminishes the designing parent and corrupts parenting as a social practice governed by norms of unconditional love” (pp. 82-83). Sandel’s argument is not limited to sports and parenthood, however; he intends these discussions to exemplify a larger point about giftedness.

For my purposes, the important point is that Sandel can speak of the human relationship to bodily nature without making any overarching claim about human nature itself, other than that the traits people have depend on the bodies they have and that traditionally people have acquired their bodies and therefore their traits through contingent processes rather than through design. The point of giftedness is that we do not know exactly what to expect in human nature, so we should foster an “openness to the unbidden” (a phrase he draws from William May, who served with Sandel on the President’s Council on Bioethics). But such claims fall well shy of a theory of human nature.

Contingency is also critical in Habermas’s case against enhancement. We are able to live together in communities and engage each other as equals because we all share some sort of “prior ethical self-understanding”—an understanding of who we are that makes it possible for us to see ourselves as “ethically free and morally equal beings” (2003, pp. 38-41). If I understand Habermas right, the critical element in this self-understanding is an awareness that we are embodied and that our bodies are our own, in the sense that we do not acquire them from other people; they are products of fate or nature rather than of other members of the community. In short, the contingent nature of a person’s traits is a condition of being one’s own person—of having autonomy, having unique worth, being a member of equal standing in the moral community. We must be able to assume that “we act and judge in propria persona—that it is our own voice speaking and no other” (p. 57).

Habermas worries that this assumption is at risk if a child knows that she has been genetically enhanced by her parents, for then the parents’ goals are present directly in her body. The processes of child-rearing and socialization may also impose the parents’ goals on the child, but the child can in principle reject these, and Habermas supposes that such goals will not be present in the child’s body in the same way. Of course, the child might accept her parents’ goals as her own, and if she does, she will not feel deprived of her own voice. But because we cannot be sure that children’s and parents’ goals will harmonize, genetically enhancing children “jeopardizes a precondition for the moral self-understanding of autonomous actors” (p. 63). Thus, parents should approach parenthood with an “expectation of the unexpected” (a phrase Habermas draws from Hannah Ar- endt; see p. 58).

Whether either Sandel’s or Habermas’s concerns are ultimately persuasive depends on pursuing moral and political questions that lie beyond the scope of this chapter. Much more would have to be said to support Habermas’s argument, in particular, because it aims at more than Sandel’s, or at least, it aims at more than Sandel’s need aim. Sandel’s argument can be understood simply as identifying and defending a personal moral ideal, one that many people share and that Sandel wants to recommend, but which he would not seek to enforce through public policy. Habermas, however, must be aiming at public policy. To wrongly prevent some people from joining the moral community is to commit a grave injustice that must be opposed by law. Thus, Habermas’s argument must meet a higher burden of proof than Sandel’s.

Both positions rest on claims about human nature that are modest and defensible. Neither is making any claims about human beings’ essential nature. Nor is either arguing that a normal human range of traits is what we value. Indeed, neither identifies any particular desirable human traits at all; it is the relationship to human nature that they are concerned about. For each, it is enough to say that individual human beings come into the world with their own natures; for us to assert (too much) control over others’ natures is troublesome.

If I have characterized Habermas’s argument correctly, the key point he wants to make about our understanding of human nature is only that we exist in bodies that do not incorporate the intentions of other members of the community. There is no expectation that we have thoroughly catalogued the traits that make up human nature, much less that we have come up with a definition of human nature that sets out a criterion for those traits. Further, Habermas’s emphasis on contingency does not imply that human nature is fixed. It might indeed change, but the change must itself be contingent. Natural evolution seems acceptable, for example. The constraint Habermas would impose is only on how the change occurs; some members of the community should not be able to deliberately intervene in the bodies of other members.

The complexity of the genes’ contribution to actual human life may qualify Habermas’s and Sandel’s concerns about modifying children. Parents’ success at using genetic technologies to make their children turn out one way rather than another is likely to vary greatly, depending on what traits they have in mind for their children, and it may well be that a majority of the traits parents would want to produce lie beyond genetic control. It does not take complete success at controlling a trait to raise concerns, however. Completely controlling a trait might be the limit case. Habermas would be troubled if an intervention falls short but leaves a lasting reminder for the child—on the child—of what the parents wanted the child to be (though more needs to be said about whether lasting bodily reminders of parents’ plans would affect the child’s sense of autonomy). Sandel’s worry that the child is not regarded to a sufficient degree as a gift depends on the parents’ attitudes, which (Sandel supposes) depend in part on parents’ capacity to carry out their own plans. But parents might fail to regard a child as a gift even though they have little or no ability to modify the child’s given traits. Plainly, then, both Habermas’s and Sandel’s concerns are matters of degree. (Sandel is explicit on this score because he is uneasy that the two competing attitudes might shift out of balance.) Worries about parental control of children would grow as parents are able to affect how their children turn out.

If concerns about genetic interventions are explained in terms of parents’ attitudes and children’s self-understanding, then plainly there is no sharp line demarcating genetic from environmental interventions. To the degree that an environmental change leaves a permanent reminder of the parents’ own intentions for the child (consider surgery to Westernize the eyes of an Asian child adopted by

Western parents), it ought to generate both Habermas’s and Sandel’s concerns every bit as much as it would if accomplished through genetic intervention. The genes are not special repositories of value. The point is rather that the relationship in which we stand to human nature(s), and to the natures of our children, is a matter of human value.

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