Bioconservatism is a stance of hesitancy and skepticism regarding radical technological advances, especially those that seek to modify or enhance the human condition. Bioconservatism is characterized by a belief that technological trends in todays society risk compromising human dignity, and by opposition to movements and technologies including transhumanism, human genetic modification, "strong" artificial intelligence, and the technological singularity. Many bioconservatives also oppose the use of technologies such as life extension and preimplantation genetic screening.
Bioconservatives range in political perspective from right-leaning religious and cultural conservatives to left-leaning environmentalists and technology critics. What unifies bioconservatives is skepticism about medical and other biotechnological transformations of the living world. Typically less sweeping as a critique of technological society than bioluddism, the bioconservative perspective is characterized by its defense of the natural, deployed as a moral category.
1. Philosophical arguments for bioconservatism
Bioconservatives seek to counter the arguments made by transhumanists who support the use of human enhancement technologies despite acknowledging the risks these involve. Transhumanists believe that these technologies have the power to radically change what we currently perceive of as a human being, and that they are necessary for future human development. An example of this can be seen in the arguments of Nick Bostrom, who believes that genetic modification will be essential to improving human health in the future.
The three major elements of the bioconservative argument, as described by Bostrom, are firstly, that human augmentation is innately degrading and therefore harmful, secondly, that the existence of augmented humans poses a threat to "ordinary humans", and thirdly, that human augmentation shows a lack of acknowledgement that "not everything in the world is open to any use we may desire or devise". The first two of these elements are secular whilst the last derives "from religious or crypto-religious sentiments".
1.1. Philosophical arguments for bioconservatism Michael Sandels arguments
Michael J. Sandel is an American political philosopher and a prominent bioconservative. His article and subsequent book, both titled "The Case Against Perfection", concern the moral permissibility of genetic engineering or genome editing. Sandel compares genetic and non-genetic forms of enhancement pointing to the fact that much of non-genetic alteration has largely the same effect as genetic engineering. SAT tutors or study drugs such as Ritalin can have similar effects as minor tampering with natural born intelligence. Sandel uses such examples to argue that the most important moral issue with genetic engineering is not that the consequences of manipulating human nature will undermine human agency but the perfectionist aspiration behind such a drive to mastery. For Sandel, "the deepest moral objection to enhancement lies less in the perfection it seeks than in the human disposition it expresses and promotes”. For example, the parental desire for a child to be of a certain genetic quality is incompatible with the special kind of unconditional love parents should have for their children. He writes" human fulfillment depends on our being creatures of need and finitude and hence of longings and attachment.
Finally, Kass warns, "the engaged and energetic being-at-work of what uniquely gave to us is what we need to treasure and defend. All other perfection is at best a passing illusion, at worst a Faustian bargain that will cost us our full and flourishing humanity."
1.2. Philosophical arguments for bioconservatism Jurgen Habermass arguments
Jurgen Habermas has also written against genetic human enhancement. In his book" The Future of Human Nature”, Habermas rejects the use of prenatal genetic technologies to enhance offspring. Habermas rejects genetic human enhancement on two main grounds: the violation of ethical freedom, and the production of asymmetrical relationships. He broadens this discussion by then discussing the tensions between the evolution of science with religion and moral principles.
1.3. Philosophical arguments for bioconservatism Violation of ethical freedom
Habermas points out that a genetic modification produces an external imposition on a persons life that is qualitatively different from any social influence. This prenatal genetic modification will most likely be chosen by ones parents, therefore threatening the ethical freedom and equality that one is entitled to as a birthright. For Habermas, the difference relies in that while socialisation processes can always be contested, genetic designs cannot therefore possess a level of unpredictability. This argument builds on Habermas magnum opus discourse ethics. For Habermas:
Eugenic interventions aiming at enhancement reduce ethical freedom insofar as they tie down the person concerned to rejected, but irreversible intentions of third parties, barring him from the spontaneous self-perception of being the undivided author of his own life.
1.4. Philosophical arguments for bioconservatism Asymmetrical relationships
Habermas suggested that genetic human enhancements would create asymmetric relationships that endanger democracy, which is premised on the idea of moral equality. He claims that regardless of the scope of the modifications, the very knowledge of enhancement obstructs symmetrical relationships between parents and their children. The childs genome was interfered with nonconsensually, making predecessors responsible for the traits in question. Unlike for thinkers like Fukuyama, Habermas point is not that these traits might produce different types of humans’. Rather, he placed the emphasis on how others are responsible in choosing these traits. This is the fundamental difference between natural traits and human enhancement, and it is what bears decisive weight for Habermas: the childs autonomy as self-determination is violated. However, Habermas does acknowledge that, for example, making ones son very tall in the hope that they will become a basketball player does not automatically determine that he will choose this path.
However, although the opportunity can be turned down, this does not make it any less of a violation from being forced into an irreversible situation. Genetic modification has two large-scale consequences. Firstly, no action the child undertakes can be ascribed to her own negotiation with the natural lottery, since a third party’ has negotiated on the childs behalf. This imperils the sense of responsibility for ones own life that comes along with freedom. As such, individuals’ self-understanding as ethical beings is endangered, opening the door to ethical nihilism. This is so because the genetic modification creates a type of dependence in which one of the parts does not even have the hypothetical possibility of changing social places with the other. Secondly, it becomes impossible to collectively and democratically establish moral rules through communication, since a condition for their establishment is the possibility to question assertions. Genetically modified individuals, however, never realise if their very questioning might have been informed by enhancement, nor can they question it. That being said, Habermas acknowledges that our societies are full of asymmetric relationships, such as oppression of minorities or exploitation. However, these conditions could be different. On the contrary, genetic modification cannot be reverted once it is performed.
The transhumanist Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies criticizes bioconservatism as a form of "human racism" more commonly known as speciesism, and as being motivated by a "yuck factor" that ignores individual freedoms.
2.1. Criticism Nick Bostrom on posthuman dignity
Nick Bostrom argues that bioconservative concerns as to how transhumanism might threaten posthuman dignity are unsubstantiated. Bostrom himself identifies with forms of posthuman dignity, and in his article In Defence of Posthuman Dignity, argues that such does not run in contradiction with the ideals of transhumanism.
Bostrom argues in the article that Fukuyamas concerns about the threats transhumanism pose to dignity as moral status - that transhumanism might strip away humanitys inalienable right of respect- lacks empirical evidence. He states that the proportion of people given full moral respect in Western societies has actually increased through history. This increase includes such populations as non-whites, women and non-property owners. Following this logic, it will similarly be feasible to incorporate future posthumans without compensating the dignities of the rest of the population.
Bostrom then goes on to discuss dignity in the sense of moral worthiness, which varies among individuals. He suggests that posthumans can similarly possess dignity in this sense. Further, he suggests, it is possible that posthumans, being genetically enhanced, may come to possess even higher levels of moral excellence than contemporary human beings. While he considers that certain posthumans may live more degraded lives as a result of self-enhancement, he also notes that even at this time many people are not living worthy lives either. He finds this regrettable and suggests that countermeasures as education and cultural reforms can be helpful in curtailing such practices. Bostrom supports the morphological and reproductive freedoms of human beings, suggesting that ultimately, leading whatever life one aspires should be an unalienable right.
Reproductive freedom means that parents should be free to choose the technological enhancements they want when having a child. According to Bostrom, there is no reason to prefer the random processes of nature over human design instantiated by the parents. He dismisses claims that see this kind of operations as tyranny of the parents over the children-to-be. In his opinion, the tyranny of nature is no different. In fact, he claims that "Had Mother Nature been a real parent, she would have been in jail for child abuse and murder"
Earlier in the paper, Bostrom also replies to Leon Kass with the claim that, in his words, natures gifts are sometimes poisoned and should not always be accepted. He makes the point that nature cannot be relied upon for normative standards. Instead, he suggests that transhumanism can, over time, allow for the technical improvement of human nature, consistent with our widely held societal morals.
According to Bostrom, the way that bioconservatives justify banning certain human enhancements while not others, reveal the double standard that is present in this line of thought. For him, a misleading conception of human dignity is to blame for this. We mistakenly take for granted that human nature is an intrinsic, unmodifiable set of properties. This problem, he argues, is overcome when human nature is conceived as dynamic, partially human-made, and improvable. If we acknowledge that social and technological factors influence our nature, then dignity consists in what we are and what we have the potential to become, not in our pedigree or social origin. It can be seen, then, than improved capabilities does not affect moral status, and that we should sustain an inclusive view that recognize our enhanced descendants as possessors of dignity. For transhumanists there is no need to behave as if there were deep moral difference between technological and other means of enhancing human lives.
Distinguishing between types of enhancement
Bostrom discusses a criticism levelled against transhumanists by bioconservatives, that children who are biologically enhanced by certain kinds of technologies will face psychological anguish because of the enhancement.
- Actions which are likely to cause individuals psychological anguish are undesirable to the point of being morally reprehensible.
- Therefore, prenatal enhancements are morally reprehensible.
- Prenatal enhancements may create expectations for the individuals future traits or behaviour.
- If the individual learns of these enhancements, this is likely to cause them psychological anguish stemming from pressure to fulfil such expectations.
Bostrom finds that bioconservatives rely on a false dichotomy between technological enhancements that are harmful and those that are not, thus challenging premise two. Bostrom argues that children whose mothers played Mozart to them in the womb would not face psychological anguish upon discovering that their musical talents had been" prenatally programmed by her parents”. However, he finds that bioconservative writers often employ analogous arguments to the contrary demonstrating that technological enhancements, rather than playing mozart in the womb, could potentially disturb children.
2.2. Criticism Hans Jonas on reproductive freedom
Has Jonas contends the criticisms about bio-enhanced children by questioning their freedom without the presence of enhancement. He argues that enhancement would increase their freedom. This is because enhanced physical and mental capabilities would allow for greater opportunities; the children would no longer be constrained by physical or mental deficiencies. Jonas further weakens the arguments about reproductive freedom by referencing Habermas. Habermas argues that freedom for offspring is restricted by the knowledge of their enhancement. To challenge this, Jonas elaborates on his notion about reproductive freedom.
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