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"It's against nature".

A couple of years ago, a physician involved in the Ashley case launched a presentation about it at a bioethics conference by dismissing one of the stupider objections, as he saw it, to the interventions Ashley's parents had requested. Ashley is a profoundly cognitively disabled child; her parents sought and obtained interventions, both surgical and pharmacological, that effectively stalled her physical development at a prepubescent stage. The dismissed objection had this form: "These interventions are against nature, and therefore wrong." The presenter did not analyze the objection; he just said he didn't buy it.

I don't either. On the other hand, I do find myself swayed by a concern of some sort about what human beings do to nature, including to human nature. I think it's better to leave great old trees standing than pointlessly to chop them down, better to leave a patch of prairie than to pave it over, better to let species carry on than to bring about their extinction. I take a fairly dim view of breast augmentation, nose jobs, Botox, skin bleaching, and drug-enhanced muscle building. What stops me from saying that those things are "against nature, and therefore wrong," is an assortment of complexities that require a much more nuanced and qualified comment.

First, a conceptual complexity. To say that an action is "against nature" implies that one has a clear understanding of what "the natural" is and of how and when human action is counter to it, but mostly we lack that. In fact, we use the word "natural" in ways that are sometimes starkly inconsistent with each other. In one use (suggested by examples like felling forests and paving prairies), human action is always counter to nature: it always changes the world. But we might also hold that human action is always natural: it always conforms to the laws of nature.

In another use, "natural" refers to how we change the world, and whether a given activity is appropriately called "natural" depends on the context in which the activity is considered. Chopping down trees looks to be at odds with the goals of a "nature preserve," but it might be quite compatible with organic agriculture. This is a looser way of using the word "natural": calling a state of affairs "natural" indicates that human intervention into it is constrained or absent, but allows that the difference between "natural" and "unnatural" is a matter of convention, informed by what we know about the world and human needs, and understood in ways specific to particular contexts--environmental management, agriculture, child-rearing, human reproduction, sex, athletic performance, and so on. Lacking any one clear definition of "natural," we would have to explain the concept by looking at examples, and while some cases might provide touchstones, there might be many cases where the terms are underdetermined.

Understanding "nature" and "human nature" along these lines means that these concepts do not have all the baggage of "essentialism"; there is no thought that in grasping the concept we have grasped the ultimate truth about a discrete category of things in the cosmos--that we know what it really means to be human, or what separates human from everything else in the universe. There is nothing eternal, immutable, or rationally necessary about them. Indeed, the line between "natural" and "not natural" will be fundamentally contestable. People will disagree about many in-between cases, with no definitive resolution in sight.

Given these limits, calling an intervention "against nature" sounds wrong. For starters, it seems to point to a much more rigid conception of nature. It's also just too cocksure. It does not recognize the contestability of this concept.

The conceptual complexity strikes me as a difficulty even in making sense of a moral concern about nature, but it is not the chief problem with formulating that concern by saying bluntly, "That's against nature, and therefore wrong." A set of moral and political complexities looms even larger.

First, there's the question, How can leaving nature alone be morally significant? This question gets at whether we can have any moral concerns about nature, not how we can best articulate a concern, and it leads to a theoretical exploration of how anything can be morally significant--what are moral values? When thinking about how to put the concern, the relevant question is: In what way is leaving nature alone morally significant? Even if we agreed that an intervention is "against nature" and that its being "against nature" is morally significant, would we conclude that the intervention is wrong?

Questions of right and wrong--about obligatory, permissible, and impermissible--are the core of morality and the subject of most moral argument, but morality is not, in fact, limited to them. Perhaps the moral significance of nature and human nature is more modest: by and large, it is desirable to view nature with a certain humility or gratitude, even reverence. Such a stance would lead one to try to tolerate, perhaps even to celebrate, the diversity of life--of human life and that around us. Questions about what we may or may not do to nature are somewhat out of place here. The issue is more about what is desirable or ideal. It's better not to log forests indiscriminately, but we may and sometimes should chop trees. We also may and sometimes should upgrade our own bodies, but leaving well enough alone can also be valuable.

Such thoughts would give another reason for thinking that "against nature" is off target. That phrase suggests that nature provides norms, rather than directing our attention to how things happen to come into the world. Further, "wrong" is plainly not right. Not to live up to an ideal is not to have done something wrong. In fact, to fail even to hold an ideal is not obviously to have done something wrong; ideals can be in some measure optional. The moral relationship toward nature would be similar in ways to some ideals we have for human relationships. Most would say it's morally desirable to treat other people with humility and appreciativeness, for example, but someone who falls short of that ideal is not therefore doing something impermissible.

The other problem with "wrong" is that we cannot tell whether it is offering only a moral conclusion. Is there a political point as well? It is easy to assume that moral judgments are always mirrored by public policy recommendations, but in fact, whether a moral concern should lead to policy is complicated, and if it does, how it affects policy may also be complicated. Lying is frequently wrong, but honesty is often not enforceable. And how moral ideals intersect with policy is even more complicated. There's certainly no law that we must treat other people with humility and appreciativeness. If we abandon the thought that paving a forest or doping a bicyclist is flat out wrong, then whether there's any role for law here seems to be in doubt. If there is a role, it may be only to carve out space within which an ideal can be upheld--to ensure that those who hold that ideal are able to live by it. This would be one reason to allow private sports governing bodies to set rules proscribing doping. It also argues for labeling genetically modified foods, so that consumers have a choice about what they eat.

This deflationary account of the ideal of nature oversimplifies matters. There are things parents might someday be able to request that might well merit more severe opprobrium and perhaps public intervention. I would be alarmed if children were biotechnologically modified in ways that eliminated the capacity for love or sociability, for example, as transhumanists sometimes envision. If the capacity for moral reasoning depends on a capacity to have certain kinds of emotions, then we can imagine (even if it were never possible in practice) that a child who fundamentally lacked morality could be brought into existence. Should an adult be permitted to deliberately produce a child that fit the label "psychopath"?

Such traits are at the very heart of what it means to be human. Many other traits are not quite so vital but can nonetheless be counted as basic human capabilities, and I would not want to see them deliberately removed from a child. The appreciation of music, art, stories, or humor might make that list. Still other traits are essential to the contours of human life as we now know it, but whether changing them would seriously change human agency is debatable: would a person with an extended life, enhanced intelligence, and superior memory really be so different as to be no longer recognizably human? In contrast, most of the alterations that now get debated under the heading of the question, "What may we do to human bodies?" are really about traits or phenomena that could be changed without dramatically affecting basic human capabilities. It is somewhat hard to believe today that fertilizing an egg in a lab and implanting the embryo in a womb once aroused concerns that human nature was under attack.

By my lights, there is some value in adhering to certain conventional constraints, demarcated by the terms "natural" and "unnatural," on how we will change human bodies--employing exercise and diet, for example, but shunning erythropoietin and anabolic steroids--but for the most part this value has a limited role in policy-making and in moral dialogue. It has more to do with an individual's own orientation than with what can be imposed on others. If an adult wants to take a drug thought to provide some enhancement, concerns about nature do not seem to me to stand in the way. The relevant objections must be to how the drug is produced, provided, marketed, and paid for, and must be grounded in concerns about safety, autonomy, and social justice.

The policy questions seem to me to take similar forms when adults consider alterations to their children. If the child is not cognitively disabled, the ideal of nature gives a reason for thinking that the decision should be put off until the child can be involved in it; the alterations might turn out to be at odds with the child's own developing moral views about nature and human nature. If the alterations are to a child unable to have moral views--as apparently Ashley is--this constraint does not surface, and the decision falls to the parents.

I would not describe the interventions performed on Ashley's body as "against nature," since I think that phrase suggests an overly rigid, essentialistic account of nature. I would also not conclude that they were "wrong," since the decision was the parents' to make, not Ashley's, and the stance toward nature that I advocate does not support that kind of moral judgment. My own experience as a parent is so different from that of Ashley's parents that I cannot really get at some of the facts of the case--I do not really know what they were going through--and so I cannot quite say what I would do if she were my daughter. My guess is that I would not have wanted those interventions. But I don't condemn her parents for seeking them.
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Author:Kaebnick, Gregory E.
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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