The Relationship between Human Nature and the Human Good

One feature common to Fukuyama, Habermas, and Sandel is that they offer general claims about the undesirability of intervening in human nature. Kass, too, seems to have a general agenda, even though his method of argument seems otherwise. But one might instead tackle the issue of human enhancement in a much more limited way, arguing merely that there are some features of human nature that should not be changed or even that there are contexts in which certain features of human nature should not be changed.

This kind of approach is exemplified by Thomas Murray. Murray suggests that we think of human nature as providing “the contours of the given” and then consider the implications of changing those contours for different social practices. The social import or meaning of some practices depends on having certain complex relationships to the human given, and it can be undermined if it is altered through biotechnological shortcuts. In thinking about sports and parent- child relationships, for example, Murray reaches conclusions similar to Kass’s: enhancement in sports is at odds with the very meaning of sports because “what we look for in athletes is a combination of natural talents and the virtuous perfection of those talents” (2007, p. 513). Athletic competition can be conceived of along different lines, Murray observes, but then the meaning of the practice is different, sufficiently different that those competitions seem distinguishable from sports proper. Maximum performance, instead of natural talents honed through hard work, becomes the object. Similarly, parental enhancement is at odds with the values that shape the parent-child relationship. Parents should accept their children “as they are, with their appetites and enthusiasms, fears and aspirations, however that personal reality might diverge from our idealized image of the child we dreamt of having” (p. 508). But Murray concludes that enhancement need not always be opposed; in some cases, what is plainly enhancement would even be desirable. If surgeons could take pills that steadied their hands or allowed them to remain alert through long surgeries, they probably should do it (p. 503).

Murray, too, is not committed to an overall theory of human nature. His claim is not that human nature in general is valuable but that, in some contexts, we have reason to value human nature as we find it. If we are opposed to sports doping, for example, then we will be concerned about aspects of human nature relevant to that sport, as that sport is understood. Sports often incorporate or permit a certain amount of enhancement; bicycles and tennis rackets are sometimes said to be mechanical enhancements of a sort. That’s fine. The bicycling enthusiast need not have thought that all human enhancement is wrong, but only that given the way the sport of bicycling is constituted and instituted, this array of human enhancements are undesirable.

Another version of this limited approach to thinking about human enhancement would be to make general, non-context-dependent claims about specific aspects of human nature, again without being committed to a complete account of human nature. The philosophical movement known as “transhumanism” helps elaborate this point. As the name suggests, transhumanism tacitly rests on some understanding of human nature. Rather than valuing that nature, however, transhumanists see it as a condition that we should strive to transcend. We should rid ourselves of the animal portion of our nature. We should be much smarter than we are, much longer lived and ideally immortal, able to cognize without being grounded by emotions, and able to craft our lives without being limited by an instinct to affiliate with other people. If we were largely cut loose from our bodies, we might also have different views about sexuality and music. Transhumanists would retain (and refine) other aspects of human nature, especially the capacity to set goals and deliberate about how best to pursue them (Agar, 2007). But while they have some particular ideas about how we should get better, they need not have a complete account either of what we are or of the species we are to become. Exactly what we would turn out to value, once we reached our new state, might be entirely impossible for us to say in our present limited state.

Conversely, what we might think of as a “mere humanist” might value an assortment of things about being human—items from Arnhart’s and Nussbaum’s lists, for example—without having a definitive or exhaustive account of what a human being is. (If we set aside Kass’s grander aspirations to an understanding of human nature beyond what observation alone can provide, this limited approach might be his method. As it is, though, perhaps we should label Kass a “transcendental humanist.”) The mere humanist can allow that there is no account that ties together, conceptually, every item on a particular list of human nature, and she can acknowledge that the list itself is open-ended and contestable. The fifth item on Nussbaum’s list is “emotions”: “Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger” (2006, p. 79). Having emotions is a feature of our animality, and perhaps something we might, in some bizarre future world, be able to greatly diminish or move beyond. But it does seem to be a feature of human life that a humanist would value.

Statements about the value of humanity tend to blend at this point with statements about “human flourishing.” Nussbaum holds that the ten capacities she identifies are the minimal conditions for a life with human dignity. In a marvelous set of essays on the breadth of parents’ freedom to choose the kind of children they wish to have, Jonathan Glover seems at one point to set to one side concerns about the intrinsic value of human nature: “In the early days of the debate on genetic enhancement, some of the objections raised (such as that it would be ‘unnatural’) were based mainly on emotional revulsion (‘the yu[c]k factor’). Some people still have this kind of revulsion. But one result of twenty years’ discussion is that these responses have been questioned and largely put aside. Now the serious debate is in the spirit of the harm principle and reflects concern for people. The impact of genetic enhancement on human flourishing, on the kinds of lives people will lead, is central” (2006, p. 76).

In the closing section of the book, however, Glover contemplates whether parents’ choices may need some sort of restraint, and he considers several possible bases for these restraints—to prevent social inequalities, to keep parents from falling into self-defeating competitions, to protect the child’s right to an open future. “And, perhaps most fundamentally, the limits may be needed to protect parts of human nature needed either for the containment of our dark side or else in a more positive way for the good life, parts of our nature that it would be tragic to lose” (p. 103, emphasis added).

Glover has reason to say that losing valuable parts of our nature raises a concern about human flourishing rather than human nature. Perhaps concerns about human flourishing are less likely to be blanket judgments than are claims about human nature. Perhaps it encourages a more considered moral position because we recognize the necessity of weighing different ways of flourishing. (What’s objectionable about “the yuck factor” is its seeming thoughtlessness.) But if there is some feature of human existence that we not only value now but also would prefer future generations valued—the presence in human life of emotions, sociability, limits to parental control over children, sexuality, or something more specific such as humor or love of music—then we are saying something more than that we value human flourishing. We are saying that we value a rich conception of human flourishing that includes some of the traditional forms that seem to be part of human nature as it has existed until now. We are then making a de facto appeal to human nature.

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