On the Sanctity of Nature

Article excerpt

Concerns about the sacred--common in everyday moral thinking--have crept into bioethics in various forms. Further, given a certain view of the metaphysics of morals that is now widely endorsed in Western philosophy, there is in principle no reason that judgments about the sacred cannot be part of careful and reasoned moral deliberation.

In philosophically trained circles, it is a bit gauche to describe something as sacred. To speak seriously of the sanctity of life; of humans, nature, or the natural order as being sacred or of why we ought not to "play God," is to risk appearing muddleheaded and deeply conservative. Also, one will likely be viewed as doing uniquely religious ethics, and so as offering only a sidelight that must somehow be translated into another language if it is to have any general impact. The risk is perhaps even worse in bioethics, which at least until recently has favored moral requirements whose enforcement is as straightforward and uncontestable as possible. To respect a person's wishes, maximize happiness, or ensure some kind of equality among people, we can often look to what a person has actually said about his or her wishes, what people are in general known to like, what goods others have, and so on. Of course we still run into various troubles, but we have an easier time of it than we would if we were arguing about how to respect autonomy in the way Kant had in mind. And we fare much better than we would if we were maundering on about the "sacred."

The usual philosophical attitude to the sacred comes out nicely in the President's Commission's patient but ultimately dismissive analysis of the belief that genetic engineering might amount to "playing God." In the 1982 report Splicing Life, the commission asked what the objection really means, identified a handful of interpretations, and easily dispensed with each. If the objection is simply to interfering with nature, for example, we are quickly caught in a dilemma. In one sense, all human activity interferes with nature, indeed medicine is nothing but organized interference in nature. In another sense, though, no human activity can interfere with nature; medicine adheres to the laws of physics, after all. Plainly, then, the objection must seek to make distinctions among interventions--some are laudable, some worrisome. The commission considered making a distinction by appealing to God's plan or purposes as revealed in nature, but found the appeal too raw: "some reason must be given for this judgment."[1] Finding no reason at hand, the commission set the objection aside. Years later the commission's executive director, Alexander M. Capron, wrote that one of the work's signal achievements was its ability to debunk the "playing God" objection: "By carefully dissecting the complaint that gene therapy amounted to `playing God,' the report was able to differentiate important concerns about means and consequences from rhetorical claims."[2]

The idea that genetic engineering threatens the sacred still resonates in less philosophically astute crowds, however. When President Clinton asked the National Bioethics Advisory Commission to comment on the creation of a part-cow, part-human embryo, he wrote that he was "deeply troubled" by the development, not that he was worried somebody might get hurt. There was a lurking anxiety about the very idea of chimerical embryos. Thus he asked the commission to consider "the implications of such research," not just its possible consequences, although he went on to note implicitly that truly wonderful consequences might legitimately encourage us to create and study cow-human embryos anyway.

Worries about how humans relate to their world are also involved in Jeremy Rifkin's broad assault on biotechnology. Rifkin's explicit objections underline possible horrific outcomes, but his description of biotechnology as "algeny," as an effort to change the essence of living things analogous to the alchemists' attempt to change the essence of physical things, needs no mention of consequences to work as an objection. …