On Human Dignity

Will biotechnological progress lead to human degradation? Leon Kass thinks so.


"Discussions of human dignity are, alas, not generally known for their concreteness," acknowledged Leon Kass in his Bradley Lecture entitled "Defending Human Dignity" earlier this week. Indeed, the typically graceful and evocative talk by the former chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics at the American Enterprise Institute displayed this lack of concreteness. Like all other prior commentators, Kass circled around the concept of human dignity but was ultimately unable to quite capture it. And it's not his fault. Human dignity is a notoriously elusive topic. In earlier times, dignity was an aristocratic concept implying respect owed to elevated rank, office, station. But today, dignity more generally encompasses "the quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect."

"Today, human dignity is of paramount importance especially in matters bioethical," declared Kass. "As we become more and more immersed in a world of biotechnology, we increasingly sense that we neglect human dignity at our peril."

In his lecture Kass made a distinction between the dignity of being human and the dignity of human being. For Kass, the first denotes the possibility of full flourishing of a person-the exercise of virtues and excellence. The second is the dignity that is particular to our species as distinct from that of other animals. Kass argues that both are necessary to account for human dignity. "The flourishing of human possibility-in each of its many admirable forms-depends absolutely on active human vitality, that is, on the goodness and worth of life as such," explained Kass. In other words, whatever quality that makes humans worthy of esteem or respect depends on the existence of a vital human body.

But against whom is Kass defending human dignity? Who threatens it? Tyrants who treat other people as mere means to their aggrandizement? Unscrupulous corporate mandarins who run roughshod over their employees, loot their shareholders, and defraud their customers? No doubt Kass is against such outrages against human dignity, but they were not his concern in his lecture. No, the threat to human dignity, according to Kass, comes from "a new field of 'trans-humanist' science [that] is rallying thought and research for wholesale redesign of human nature, employing genetic and neurological engineering and man-machine hybrids, en route to what has been blithely called a 'post-human future.'"

But how does biotechnological progress imperil human dignity? Kass offered a catalogue of the enhancement technologies that trouble him. They include growth hormone to make children taller; pre-implantation genetic screening of embryos; stimulants to boost performance on exams and at work; anti-depressants to improve moods; and medicines such as Viagra and anabolic steroids that restore some of the powers of youth. Just over the horizon, he foresees drugs to erase painful or shameful memories or to simulate falling in love; gene therapy to increase the size and strength of muscles; treatments to slow aging and increase the maximum human lifespan. "Thanks to these and other innovations, venerable human desires-for better children, superior performance, ageless bodies, and happy souls-may increasingly be satisfied with the aid of biotechnology," warned Kass.

Kass fears that the biotechnological quest to satisfy "venerable human desires" will lead to humanity's self-degradation, that it will cause us to lower our own dignity. In our attempt to become more than human we will end up less than human. Kass cited Aldous Huxley's Brave New World as an example of human degradation. And he is right. The fictional inhabitants of Brave New World are degraded. But they are not degraded because of biotechnology or because of their voluntary choices. No, they are degraded because they are ruled by a totalitarian elite that abuses technology to stunt their bodies, their minds and their moral capacities. Tragically, the Epsilons, Gammas, Deltas, Betas and even the Alphas are not superhuman or transhuman, but subhuman. Surely the salient lesson we learn from Brave New World is that we must guard against tyranny, not against technological progress.

Kass also objected that transhumanists cannot offer standards in advance for judging how a posthuman would be better than the current model Homo sapiens. Transhumanists reply that better, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Besides how can Kass be so sure in advance that enhancements-be they pharmaceutical, genetic or nanotechnological-will necessarily degrade people? It is certainly the case that some people will misuse the new technological powers to degrade themselves, but keep in mind that some people already use age-old means to degrade themselves now. The fact that some will abuse a new technology doesn't mean that it should be denied to others who would use it to enhance themselves and their posterity.

Near the end of his lecture, Kass offered an eloquent meditation on human aspiration as expressed by Socrates in Plato's Symposium. "Eros, according to Socrates' account, is the heart of the human soul, an animating power born of lack but pointed upward," explained Kass. He added, "The fruits of 'erotic giving-birth' are not only human children, but also the arts and crafts, song and story, noble deeds and customs, fine character, the search for wisdom, and a reaching for the eternal and divine-all conceived by resourcefulness to overcome experienced lack and limitation, and all guided by a divination of that which would be wholly good and lacking in nothing."

That deeply felt lack and limitation, of which Kass speaks, is what motivates scientists to develop new treatments not only to rescue people from the ordinary degradations of disease and the slow loss of vitality that comes with aging, but it is what also inspires them to conjure the new technologies that will enable people to flourish. Transhumanists argue for allowing people to choose the good of augmented capacities such as stronger immune systems, more agile bodies, sharper minds, greater powers of self-control, and radically longer lives. Instead of being degraded, people will be liberated to perfect as never before arts and crafts, song and story, noble deeds and customs, fine character, the search for wisdom, and yes, even a reaching for the eternal and the divine. The pursuit of mastery over pitiless nature will not only expand and enlarge human capabilities, but it will also expand and enlarge true human dignity.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.