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Thursday, March 11, 2004

Whereupon I reflect on the meaning of my existence and its supposed inverse relationship to technology....

I have just returned from a lecture by Leon Kass, head of the President's Council for Bioethics, on the topic of "Brave New Biology: the Challenge for Human Dignity." As ever, I am aggravated by his arguments and I find them completely without merit.

Personally, however, I thought Kass was disarming and eloquent. He is clearly well educated, well spoken, and thoughtful. Therefore, it is all the more disturbing that he did not do a better job of making a logical case for the supposed doom that awaits us....especially after he announced his intention to argue forcefully for a position he knew most of us did not accept.

In short, Kass' position is that some of the controversial biomedical advances being developed today will degrade our humanity and trivialize our lives. Even if we approach them with the best intentions, we will be less human if we embrace them.

In particular, he made examples of stem cell biology, therapeutic cloning, genetic enhancement, psychotropic drugs, steroids, and longevity research. For each technology he mentioned a few of the possible real dangers, and then claimed that worse than these, we would lose most by the fact that our thinking about our lives and identities would change.

It is precisely here where I dig in my heels. I am willing to admit that many good technologies have a bad side, perhaps even that every advance has a cost. If that was his message, I would agree with him. But it's not. Kass proposes that the consequence of getting what we desire: good health, longer lives, decreased suffering, will cause us to cross a line into triviality. He specifically says that our lives will be less rich, less meaningful, less heroic. We will be less human.

Wow. That's some thesis.

To support it though, Kass must define the supposed harm and then make a good case that a technology will cause it.

First of all, "loss of dignity", is an abstract concept. It may represent some sort of symbolic truth for Kass, but it's significantly harder to define than a quality like sadness, pain, or grief. It's also incredibly subjective. Is "loss of dignity" limited to the way I feel about myself, or does it also encompass what you think about me? Have I lost dignity when I lose my virginity? Refuse to duel? Kill someone in combat?

As far as I understand him, Kass acknowledges that he's talking about an abstract harm and then embraces it. Its like he's trying to assert that symbolic harm is the scariest kind. Why? Because he says it is. Moreover, by retreating to the abstract, the question of whether a particular technology might actually cause a loss of dignity can't be challenged by real life counter examples.

Tellingly, I think, Kass retreated when faced with any real life examples. Is contraception dehumanizing? Er, well, no but it can have a down side. How about IVF? Maybe that's not so bad either.

Markus Meister, a professor in the Molecular and Cellular Biology department, brought up a good example of a technology that has completely changed our lives: telecommunications. A hundred years ago one could have argued that it would be highly unnatural for us to be able to talk to people out of earshot, much less across the globe. Language is one of the real features that makes us human, so given that telephones have changed the way we speak to each other and even changed the way we think about speaking to each other, where did Kass stand on the issue of phones....were they dehumanizing?

Kass' answer: Well, phones have been around for 100 years but the quality of discussion hasn't improved at Harvard.

Well Dr. Kass, you know, it may not have. But it's probably better on average across the world. And when I call up my family and friends and tell them about your talk, I bet they won't find it convincing either.

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