Photo by Christine Peterson, 2004
October 29, 2004 --
Washington D.C. Conference held by the Center for Bioethics & Culture,
Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future, and the International Center
for Technology Assessment.
Wrye Sententia, director of
the CCLE, addressed members of the President's Council on Bioethics at a
national bioethics conference in Washington, D.C. concerning their October
2003 Report, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of
Her response entitled,
Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness: Can I Handle My Freedom?
calls attention to what the Council's Report purports to address, the
pursuit of happiness. She reminds us that foundational democratic
values written into this clause of the Declaration of Independence are not
prescriptive values in a functioning democracy. A transcript of her remarks
Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness:
Can I Handle My Freedom?
Thank you very much to Jennifer Lahl for
her hard work and to other organizers with the Center for Bioethics &
Culture for inviting me to participate in this event
Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future and the International Center
for Technology Assessment.
The US Declaration of Independence
(1776) contains this key statement:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that
all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with
certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness.
beauty and value of the first part of this phrase is as a democratic ideal
that all people (I modify men) are created (I
concede creation) equal.
What does equality mean in terms of human enhancement?
certainly true that all things being equal, none of us is given the same set
of possibilities—genetically or environmentally.
Lynch, a member of the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics Advisory Board,
is developing work on a third term in the Therapy vs. Enhancement
Enablement is a concept that allows for a person to self-actualize where
there’s a perceived deficit, for benefits that are not predetermined by a
clear medical need nor by moral or social norms.
allows people to be the best that they can--perceive.
Life. Liberty. Happiness.
simple terms, that may have seemed “self-evident” over 200 years ago, but if
you start pulling at them, they start to tangle-up.
Happiness is an empty word, in the sense that it is a carrier vessel.
Happiness , however, becomes very concrete when filled with personal
perceptions of joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction.
Happiness is an elusive physical/cognitive/emotive state—similar to “love”
in that it is an equally evasive, or elusive, term. And yet, each of us, if
we’re lucky enough to have it, know that it is so experientially full.
liberty, happiness. These words are intended to operate in the abstract:
are components of the equally large concepts we use to talk about human
rights to freedom.
These words simultaneously scaffold and embody some of our most cherished
was therefore, excited that the President’s Council on Bioethics was to
tackle that phrase as the thread in their Beyond Therapy Report. As
Dr. Kass said to the Washington Post last year when the report was
“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."
My particular interest is with those biotechnologies aimed at
cognition--thinking, or feeling—states of human experience that frame
psychological and mental capacities which then allow us to direct our
decisions as embodied, thinking, acting, beings.
5 of the Council’s Beyond Therapy Report is about “happy souls.” This
section raises questions about the connection between how we experience mood
or self-esteem, and about how the acts or experiences that we do or have,
contribute to who we are. Additionally, this chapter raises questions about
the connections we make between what we remember and how that affects
conceptions of our personal identity.
agree mostly with their ideas that what we do works to shape who we are,
that what we remember does as well, and further, that self-esteem and mood
come into play in who we are, or can be.
agree with the Council’s statement earlier in the introduction that:
opportunities and potential of biotechnology for enhancement purposes will
likely be voluntarily adopted or applied on an individual basis for
perceived benefits biotech might have to offer, and that parents may also
want such advantages for their children.
pause however, at a section that follows in the Introduction to their
use of biotechnical powers to pursue “improvements” or “perfections,”
whether of body, mind, performance, or sense of well-being, is at once both
the most seductive and the most disquieting temptation.”
most seductive temptation” to want to be better than I am? I found
myself thinking to myself that, I could be so much
better-- more generous, more empathetic, more aware, less neurotic, Better!
get back to the children later, but this sentence from the Report conflates
an assumption that biotechnological improvements—or technological
perfectibility—is wrapped in hubris (secular sin). It is a sentence that
tacitly demands that we accept that the desire for self-improvement is
grounded in human folly, or overbearing pride (biblical sin).
Framing enhancement with technology as “the most seductive and the most
disquieting temptation” characterizes a pursuit of self-improvement as
an allegiance is signaled to conceptual traditions of moral philosophy—“the
good” that descends from Augustine by way of Kant, and that asks that the
moral norm of our humanity be fashioned in a way that is “meaningful”
according to a function of the “human good”.
good is better than other good.
We would each, I imagine, agree. But the subtext after the colon in the
Beyond Therapy Report: (Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness)
is not supposed to be about the pursuit of the good—it is, I thought,
about the pursuit of happiness. The terms have shifted.
declares that only a good will, not happiness is good--But who’s to
decide what good happiness is?
see a man at the bus stop drop his wallet and tell him, that might make me
happy and good.
If I’m shy—and I say nothing—and let him leave without his wallet on the
sidewalk--it might make me feel bad that I couldn’t muster the fortitude to
overcome my own inhibitions to do the “good” thing—In Kant’s model, I’m
still good, but I am certainly not happy. This is precisely the point of a
moral (Kantian) model of happiness grounded in the good.
sort of functional moral norm is a subtext that comes up again and
again in the Council’s approach to biomedical improvements as, purportedly,
unworthy means to pursue happiness.
drives home the belief that happiness should not be the goal in the pursuit
of happiness, that what we’re really talking about is a pursuit of the
good—a striving that will make you both happy and good—if you can
achieve these goals without “enhancements” you benefit from the model, and
if you can’t, you’ll be unhappy but you’ll have the moral high ground of
knowing you’re “good.”
moral wrangling, with its prescriptive values of happiness—telling us what
happiness should be, and then seeking to make their terms applicable
to everybody, is even though proposed in what I do see as an effort of
good will on the part of the Council, is a gesture, nonetheless, that
undercuts the very idea of human flourishing, or human happiness as a
Rawls, sometimes called a neo-kantian philosopher, proposes a different
moral model that takes the idea of pleasure, of the good, in terms of
personal autonomy (his deontological moral theory).
is to say, that there is a fundamental right to determine the meaning of our
For Rawls, rudimentary
autonomy: corresponds to two kinds of choices, framed as the powers of moral
and prudential choice:
1. prudential choice is a
person’s capacity to inquire about, formulate, revise, deliberate and pursue
his or her own conception of the good
2. moral choice depends
on what Rawls calls the sense of justice or fairness in societal
contexts—one might think of the issue of distributive justice that comes up
in many discussions of biotechnological advantages.
Rawls also embraces a
concept of enhanced autonomy, working from the premise that each of us is
given, or born, with basic capacities for autonomous acts, but that our
choices must be enhanced by activities and conditions of our individual life
circumstances and experiences.
may be, in this sense, that with biotechnologies, some people enhance
themselves to lead meaningless lives by some other people’s estimation—but
it may also be that a person using biotechnological improvements sees a
concordance, not a dissonance between their intentions and their actions,
and is therefore more happy. Dr. Peter Kramer has suggested that a shy
person who becomes more of him “self” through the use of Prozac can’t be
argued with—the person’s self-improvement is a gesture towards greater, not
less “authenticity” or unity with his self-image. A shy person using Prozac
who tells you that you dropped your wallet is probably happy to be good.
There are lots of other variables—but I’ve only got 10 minutes.
return to the Declaration of Independence.
those who have memorized the
Declaration of Independence,
you’ll recall that after the life liberty, happiness triad of asserted human
rights, it continues
That to secure these rights:
are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the
governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of
these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to
institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and
organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to
effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Happiness is the common democratic good.
with 2 stanzas from a children’s book by Toni Morrison that was given to my
son for his birthday earlier this week:
The BIG Box,
as the book is titled, is about forced conformity and about encouraging a
creative spirit in children. It chastises a parental agenda to create “good”
productive, obedient citizens and authorities who, with nonetheless good
intentions, wield unnecessarily restrictive control: shame on them.
rules are clear in everybody’s mind
there’s no need to repeat them
agree, your parents and we,
That you simply can’t handle your freedom”…
mean to be rude: I want to be nice.
like to hang on to my freedom.
know you are smart and I know that you think
doing what is best for me.
freedom is handled just your way
not my freedom or free.