Sunday, April 8, 2012

Transhumanism, Bioethics, and Me

I finally got around to reading a series of articles, "Transhumanism and the Perfection Imperative," on Zenit.org.1 Since it started with the 'expert' mentioning "Captain America," I was a bit apprehensive.

I'd enjoyed "Captain America." But between the movie's lightweight treatment of Nazi supermen, and the culture I grew up in: I braced myself for an all-too-familiar rant about the evils of science.

Instead, I found a fairly calm discussion of bioethics: and what we can expect over the next few years.

The Revenge of Frankenstein Meets Dracula and the Wizard of Mars

Those are real movie titles, by the way.2 I thought the Jack Palance "Dracula" was fairly well-done, and that's another topic.

One reason I was so apprehensive about those "transhumanism" articles was that I grew up in an area where some folks seemed to assume that science was a Satanic plot to deceive people who read too much. Even more level-headed folks didn't always act as if they had a clear idea of where Hollywood fluff ended, and reality began. More topics.

E. Christian Brugger (Senior Fellow of Ethics and director of the Fellows Program at the Culture of Life Foundation, among other things) mentioned Captain America a few more times: but he clearly had kept track of what's been happening for the last couple hundred years.

Eugenics, Enhanced Humans: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Eugenics, the noble-sounding movement to clean up the human race, had an enormous public relations problem on its hands when a German Chancellor started culling 'defective' people from Europe's gene pool.

The idea that the human race needs improvement is, I think, based on observation. We're not perfect.

As a practicing Catholic, I acknowledge original sin. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 388-390, 396-409) Which isn't the same as thinking that human beings are completely, totally, icky. Still more topics.

I also think that we don't need to accept the status quo. Which is part of what "Caritas in Veritate" is about - and I've got another post about that due tomorrow.

But I do not think that 'improving the race' by killing people who aren't sufficiently 'Aryan' is a good idea. Partly because I don't measure up to those standards. What can I say? I enjoy breathing, and prefer to keep doing so.

I don't think "eugenics" will come back as a popular word - at least for a while. But the idea has been back for quite a while. These days, we're told it's 'compassionate' to screen people before they reach some arbitrary age: and kill the ones who have undesirable traits. But the effect isn't much different from what was done in places like Dachau, before they were liberated.

Stronger, Smarter, Prettier: But Should We?

I suppose many parents would like their children to be smart, strong, good-looking, and enjoy good health. There's nothing wrong with that, I think.

It's been decades since teenage athletes started dropping dead when strength-enhancing drugs pushed their organs too hard. Granted, their teams may have won a few more games: but I think the tradeoff was dubiously prudent.

That was then, this is now. We don't have clinical trials yet, but I don't think it'll be very long before some coaches get the idea of splicing 'strong' genes into young athletes. Or some parents demand gene 'therapy' that will make their child a trophy kid, with perfect grades, perfect teeth, perfect hair: you get the idea.

I'm not 'against science.' But a really good time to start thinking about the ethical angles on rewriting the human genome would be year-before-last. At least.

Happily, the Catholic Church already has bioethics standards on the books: and thousands of years' experience with human folly to draw on.

Ethics: Simple, Sort of

I've said this quite a lot: Jesus told us that the important rules were to love God, and love our neighbor. That sounds simple, until folks start trying to squirm their way out of following these principles:

The Moral Superiority of the Healthy and Attractive?

The Zenit.org article did not reflect this attitude, but I've run into it now and then: 'People who need medication are morally inferior to those who don't.' Folks expressing that attitude are, I think, sincere. Also relatively healthy: and mistaken.

I'll grant that I'm biased about this. I'm taking medications to control high blood pressure, diabetes, major depression, and ADD-inattentive. On top of that, I have two artificial joints, my gut is held in place with a plastic mesh, both hands have been re-engineered, my teeth are mostly metal or ceramic, and I keep a set of clip-on lenses in front of my eyes.

By some standards, I'm more of a cyborg than a human. But - and yes, I checked - swapping out hip sockets that never worked correctly, fixing my teeth so that I can chew without pain, and wearing glasses so that I can operate a motor vehicle legally, is okay.

Even taking drugs to correct serious chemical imbalances in my central nervous system don't mean that I have to choose between being healthy, and being Catholic. I put more about that, under Background, below.

Related posts:
Background:
  • Health
    • "Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good...."
      (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2288)
    • Making an idol of my body is a bad idea
      (Catechism, 2289)
    • Taking stupid risks with drinking and/or driving is - stupid
      (Catechism, 2290-2291)
  • Curing illness
  • Using drugs
    • No
      • "The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life...
        (Catechism, 2291)
    • Yes
      • If drugs are needed for health
      • "...Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense...."
        (Catechism, 2291)
        • This isn't an order to never take aspirin
          (See "painkillers, below)
    • But let's get real - - -
      • "...Clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs are scandalous practices...."
        (Catechism, 2291)
  • Surgery
    • John Paul II had a benign intestinal tumor surgically removed in July, 1992
      ("Events in the Pontificate of His Holiness Pope John Paul II")
      • Looks like the Pope's okay with surgery
        • Good enough for me
    • Organ transplants
      • Okay "if the physical and psychological dangers and risks to the donor are proportionate to the good sought for the recipient"
        (Catechism, 2296)
      • Voluntary organ donation after death is "noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as a expression of generous solidarity"
        (Catechism, 2296)
      • Involuntary organ donation isn't right
        • Like killing someone for the parts
          (Catechism, 2296)
  • Euthanasia
    • Don't
      (Catechism, 2276-2279)
    • But "medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome" aren't required
      (Catechism, 2278)
      • I'm about as sure as I can be that getting impatient about getting an inheritance isn't "burdensome" in this context
    • "Ordinary care" of someone who is dying is required
      • Including painkillers
        (Catechism, 2279
    (from September 14, 2011)
In the news:

1 Excerpts from "Transhumanism and the Perfection Imperative:"
"Transhumanism and the Perfection Imperative (Part 1)"
Zenit.org (March 7, 2012)
"Should We Use Science to Make Ourselves More-Than-Human?"

"Here is a question on bioethics answered by the fellows of the Culture of Life Foundation.

Q: I recently read something about a current philosophy called 'Transhumanism.' Are you familiar with it and can you shed some light on what's problematic about it from the perspective of a Catholic worldview?


"E. Christian Brugger replies:

"The problem of 'Transhumanism' is so critically important to understand, and so poorly understood, that I think the topic deserves more than a single column. I therefore address it here and in my next ZENIT bioethics briefs.

"You might have seen the feel-good movie Captain America. It takes place during World War II. A patriotic fine arts student from New York City named Steve Rogers wants to enlist in the army. But the army won't take him because he's too scrawny. The recruiters tell him that they're doing him a favor by rejecting his application.

"One of his interviews is overheard by a brilliant German scientist, now working for the Americans, named Abraham Erskine. Dr. Erskine is impressed by Rogers' tenacity and thinks he might make a good candidate for a secret military project named Operation Rebirth, intended to transform the bodies of U.S. soldiers into super-human fighting machines...."

"Transhumanism and the Perfection Imperative (Part 2)"
Zenit.org (March 21, 2012)

"...I said in my first column on Transhumanism that there were several good reasons to sit up and take note of the current of thought. The second reason is that biomedical science is moving very rapidly and enhancement possibilities are multiplying at a startlingly swift pace. Ethics must keep pace with science. The question of whether our community sanctions this or that technique, or the enhancement agenda at all, cannot rest merely on whether things are technically possible.

"A few examples of what’s coming might be instructive. Research is presently underway into the prospect of the genetic enhancement of physical strength (we’ve already mentioned muscle enhancement through the use of drugs)...."

"Transhumanism and the Perfection Imperative (Part 3)"
Zenit.org (April 4, 2012)

"...The final reason to wake up to the problems posed by Transhumanism is that -- in the immortal words of Benjamin Franklin -- 'an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.' If we don't draw good lines in the ethical sand now, we may -- we will -- find ourselves later picking up the pieces of our ruined sandcastles. To rephrase Jesus' words in the Gospels: if the householder had known when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake. Be ye ready, for the thief will come when you least expect it (cf. Lk. 12:39-40). Well, the thief is coming. He may already be in our homes.

"None of us is immune from the devil's temptation to raise himself to the place of God. Indeed, we might even say that as created in God's image and likeness, and destined for a life of happiness beyond all imagining, we're made for immortality and perfection. Our desire for these things is, in a sense, 'natural.'

"But as I said in my first installment, few of us are as pure in intention as the young Steve Rogers (Captain America). What will we do when the Promethean temptation comes to grasp at solutions to our human limitations that may require us to compromise our humanity? For example, to screen out embryonic children in order to prevent the transmission of debilitating inheritable diseases? Or to generate new children to be used as medical treatments for others whom we love? Will misguided parental pride tempt us to use biotechnology to produce better children? Will musical parents be tempted to select for the gene for perfect pitch in their offspring? Will loving parents concede to their children's request for cognitive stimulants when 'everybody's doing it' and when doing it would only level the playing field? Will socially defined images of beauty tempt us to use Botox or cosmetic surgery, not for therapeutic purposes, but merely to meet current notions of fashion?..."
2 Some of these movies were re-named after their original release:

3 comments:

Brigid said...

Editing glitch? "what was done in before places like Dachau were liberated."

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

The Ranter said...

This is really great stuff. I'm looking for the document from the Vatican about transhumanism, and can't find it. What I'm looking for isn't in Dignitas Personae or the preface on that document. This document talks more about surgery & enhancements to the human body - not talking about gene therapy, etc. Any help would be appreciated if you know which document I'm talking about.

Brian Gill said...

Brigid,

Editing glitch! Fixed. (Finally)

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Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.