Photo by Christine Peterson, 2004


October 29, 2004 -- Washington D.C. Conference held by the Center for Bioethics & Culture, the 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 Happiness.

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 follows:

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 co-sponsored with the 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.

The 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.

Now.  What does equality mean in terms of human enhancement?

It is certainly true that all things being equal, none of us is given the same set of possibilities—genetically or environmentally. 

Zack Lynch, a member of the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics Advisory Board, is developing work on a third term in the Therapy vs. Enhancement tug-of-war.

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.

It allows people to be the best that they can--perceive.

 Life. Liberty. Happiness.

Very 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.

 Life, liberty, happiness. These words are intended to operate in the abstract:

They 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 democratic values.

 I 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 released:

“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.

 Chapter 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.

I 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.

And I agree with the Council’s statement earlier in the introduction that:

The 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.

I pause however, at a section that follows in the Introduction to their Report:

“Such 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.”

 “The 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!

I’ll 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 particularly freighted.

Here, 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”.

Some 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.

Kant declares that only a good will, not happiness is good--But who’s to decide what good happiness is? 

If I see a man at the bus stop drop his wallet and tell him, that might make me happy and good. 

But 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.

This 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.

It 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.”

This 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 democratic concept.

John 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).

That is to say, that there is a fundamental right to determine the meaning of our own lives.

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.

It 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.

Let’s return to the Declaration of Independence.

For 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:
Governments 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.

I end 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.

The Teacher said:

Now, the rules are clear in everybody’s mind

 So there’s no need to repeat them

 We all agree, your parents and we,
 That you simply can’t handle your freedom”…

Liza-Sue replied:

…I don't mean to be rude: I want to be nice.

 But I'd like to hang on to my freedom.

 I know you are smart and I know that you think

 You are doing what is best for me.

 But if freedom is handled just your way

 Then it's not my freedom or free.


Thank you.