The Pursuit of
Biohappiness By Leon R. Kass,
Thursday, October 16, 2003; Page A25, (c)
By all accounts, we are entering the golden age of biotechnology.
Advances in genetics, drug discovery and regenerative medicine promise cures
for dreaded diseases and relief for terrible suffering. Advances in
neuroscience and psychopharmacology promise better treatments for the
mentally ill. Techniques of assisted reproduction have already allowed more
than a million infertile couples to have their own children. Without such
advances -- past, present and future -- many of us would lead diminished
lives or not be here at all.
But our desires for a better life do not end with health, and the
possibilities of biotechnology are not limited to therapy. Although most
biomedical technologies are developed for therapeutic purposes, once here
they are quickly available to serve many other ends, good ones and bad. And
the powers they provide to alter the workings of body and mind -- the very
essence of biomedical technology -- are attractive not only to the sick and
suffering but to everyone who desires to look younger, perform better, feel
happier or become more "perfect."
Some of our most popular dreams and nightmares -- such as a world of
genetically engineered "designer babies," with parents ordering up their
children's characteristics -- are scientifically unlikely. But other
scenarios are more than plausible, and many desire-satisfying uses of
biotechnology are already here: embryo screening or sperm-sorting to choose
the sex of offspring; growth hormone to make children taller; Ritalin and
similar drugs to control behavior or boost performance in the young, and
Prozac and similar drugs to brighten moods or alter temperaments -- not to
mention Botox, Viagra or anabolic steroids. Many of these technologies are
used mostly for good medical reasons. But not simply and not always.
Looking ahead, other biotechnical powers are already visible on the
horizon: Drugs to flatten the emotional tone of painful or shameful
memories. Genes to increase the size and strength of muscles. Nano-mechanical
implants to enhance sensation or motor skills. And perhaps techniques to
slow biological aging and increase the maximum human life span.
All this leaves us wondering: What's the problem? What could be wrong
with seeking better children, superior performance, ageless bodies and happy
souls? These are, after all, old and often worthy human desires, which
biotechnology promises to help us satisfy more easily. Moreover, in free
societies such as ours, choices about using technical enhancers of this kind
are not made by central planners pursuing some vision of a perfect future
society. They are made largely by private individuals pursuing their
personal dream of happiness, for themselves and for their children. Why
worry, then, about letting people decide for themselves which uses of drugs
or devices, serving which goals, are right for them?
To be sure, there are questions about the safety of new
biotechnologies and about equality of access to their use. But these
familiar concerns do not reach either the true promise or deeper perils of
the biotechnology revolution. Our hopes for self-improvement and our
disquiet about a "post-human" future are much more profound. At stake are
the kind of human being and the sort of society we will be creating in the
coming age of biotechnology.
On the optimistic view, the emerging picture is one of unmitigated
progress and improvement. It envisions a society in which more and more
people are able to realize the American dream of liberty, prosperity and
justice for all. It is a nation whose citizens are longer-lived, more
competent, better accomplished, more productive and happier than human
beings have ever been. It is a world in which many more human beings --
biologically better-equipped, aided by performance-enhancers, liberated from
the constraints of nature and fortune -- can live lives of achievement,
contentment and high self-esteem, come what may.
But there are reasons to wonder whether life will really be better if
we turn to biotechnology to fulfill our deepest human desires. There is an
old expression: To a man armed with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
To a society armed with biotechnology, the activities of human life may seem
more amenable to improvement than they really are. Or we may imagine
ourselves wiser than we really are. Or we may get more easily what we asked
for only to realize it is much less than what we really wanted.
We want better children -- but not by turning procreation into
manufacture or by altering their brains to give them an edge over their
peers. We want to perform better in the activities of life -- but not by
becoming mere creatures of our chemists or by turning ourselves into tools
designed to win and achieve in inhuman ways. We want longer lives -- but not
at the cost of living carelessly or shallowly with diminished aspiration for
living well, and not by becoming people so obsessed with our own longevity
that we care little about the next generations. We want to be happy -- but
not because of a drug that gives us happy feelings without the real loves,
attachments and achievements that are essential for true human flourishing.
For the past 16 months, the President's Council on Bioethics has
explored the ethical and social meanings of using biotechnologies for
purposes "beyond therapy."
released today, tries to show what is increasingly at stake when
biotechnology meets the pursuit of happiness. Lacking prophetic powers, no
one can say for certain what life in the age of biotechnology holds in
store. Most likely it will be the usual mix of unforeseen burdens and
unexpected blessings. But we must begin thinking about these issues now,
lest we build a future for ourselves that cheapens, rather than enriches,
America's most cherished ideals.
The writer is chairman of the
President's Council on Bioethics and the Hertog Fellow at the American