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Nature's end: the theological meaning of the new genetics.

EVER SINCE THE ANCIENT GREEKS, the ethical tradition of the West has been powerfully dominated by claims about human nature. Such an intellectual orientation has an eminently practical value. If we can indicate features common to all humanity as the basis of a moral principle, we at least have a common point of reference with which others can conceivably come to agree. Moral and political deliberation may then be reduced to a debate about the precise meaning and application of shared moral principles--and not the much more contentious question of the ultimate ground of such principles. We can see how prevalent the Western appeal to human nature is by considering two quite different thinkers.


In the Nicomache an Ethics Aristotle views human beings teleologically. Human beings possess a specific nature, one that is purposefully directed to a specific end, the good. This human good represents the flourishing of a set of distinctively human capacities. These are natural human desires, the fulfillment of which constitutes the good life for human beings. Such "moral passions" are the natural dispositions to moral activity that can be developed through habituation into the virtuous life. Reason, especially practical reason or prudence, guides the expression of these universal desires into activities suited to the particulars of a given human life.

Aristotle's teleological biology and metaphysics form the context for this view of human nature, but for our purposes we may turn briefly to the early part of the Ethics, where Aristotle observes that every human act is commonly held to aim at some good. Action is intentional; it aims at some end. This end is pursued as good, either in itself or as a means to another good. Goods are, thus, either primary or secondary. But a perceived good is what all human action is directed toward.

Having laid out the teleological structure of human activity and discussed the twofold character of activity at the outset of the work. Aristotle turns in Ethics 1.7 to the question of how we shall comprehend the good for human beings. There are, he notes, secondary goods such as health, which is the end of a particular art like medicine. But these goods are subsidiary in that they are pursued for the sake of some other good. No one seeks to rest satisfied with simply being physically healthy. While not all ends are final ends, the teleological structure of human activity implies for Aristotle the existence of a final or supreme good, one that is self-sufficient. Aristotle calls this supreme and self-sufficient good eudaemonia or happiness. Almost immediately, however, he recognizes that this claim seems little more than a platitude. In order to make it intellectually plausible his assertion needs to be more clearly specified.

Thus, Aristotle analogizes his search for the human good to the search for the more particular goods of craftsmen or artisans like tanners, carpenters, or flute players. There are characteristic features of a good carpenter or flute player. They are good insofar as they perform well the activities required of their art or craft. They fulfill well the functions inherent in their activity. Similarly, we may speak of good sight or hearing when the eye or ear perform well their natural tasks of hearing or seeing.

Aristotle believes that human beings have a specific nature whose flourishing is analogous to the flourishing artisan who pursues his art with skill. This good will be unique to human beings--though it will require the lesser goods that human beings share with other forms of life. Nutrition and growth are shared with plants, so that will not be specific to human beings. Perception seems to be shared with animals, so it will likewise not be the basis of the good we are searching for. The good we are seeking is one proper to man and only to man. Hence, Aristotle defines this peculiarly human good as an activity of the rational soul, a feature that other forms of life lack. The soul is said to have a characteristic set of "natural functions," and proper actions in accordance with these functions represent the good for man. "For all things which have a function or an activity, the good or the well is thought to reside in the function, so it would seem to be for man." In short, we find the distinctive human good by examining what contemporary academic philosophers call the "species-specific functioning" of a human being. Since a rational soul is unique to man, Aristotle concludes that "the function of man is an activity of soul which follows or implies a rational principle."

The rest of the Ethics represents Aristotle's attempt to develop this insight by specifying the virtues or qualities of soul that represent human flourishing. In accordance with Aristotle's distinction between theoretical and practical wisdom, both moral and intellectual virtues are necessary for happiness. This is not the place to give a comprehensive treatment of Aristotle's teaching on these complicated matters. Suffice it to say that Aristotle grounds his whole enterprise in a detailed account of human nature and the flourishing to which that nature is directed.


Hume's appeal to fixed regularities in human nature is less direct than that of Aristotle. It is also not connected to a teleological biology and metaphysics. But it is still an appeal to human nature as the grounding for ethics.

Hume's moral philosophy is deeply rooted in his moral psychology, a psychology that is central to his discussion of the "moral sense" which, he asserts, is common to all human beings. Hume begins his celebrated discussion of ethics in the Treatise of Human Nature with a criticism of eighteenth-century moral rationalism, a view which held that moral principles could be intuitively grasped by speculative reason alone. Moral principles. Hume holds, are not derived from percepts of fact, nor from a rational intuition of things in the world or the relations among them.

It is in this context that Hume raises the question of the relationship between matters of fact and matters of moral principle--the celebrated is/ought problem--around which so much debate has revolved. Hume is not arguing for moral irrationalism or emotivism. Rather, he is locating the source of morality in a feature of human nature more readily appealed to, and more obvious, than the rationalist alternative: the moral sense.

Since, for Hume, moral distinctions do not represent a rational judgment of ideas, his alternative explanation is that "it must be by means of some impression or sentiment they occasion that we are able to mark the difference betwixt them." Morality is based on a natural feeling or sensation such that "we do not infer a character to be virtuous because it pleases; but in feeling that it pleases after such a particular manner we in effect feel that it is virtuous."

Hume's account of the root of morality is fully natural. It is directed against both rationalism and religious theories of conscience. Though superficially similar, seventeenth-century Calvinist or Puritan theories of conscience were fundamentally different. The theological writers understood conscience as a witness of the Holy Spirit directly to the human soul. Conscience, whether an idea or a feeling, was not natural: it was supernatural. Hume, however, locates morality in a natural feeling of sympathy for others, a point he drives home with an extensive discussion of the meaning of the word "natural" and its application to the question of morality.

A century and a half after the publication of Hume's Treatise, Charles Darwin returned to this theme with a late work on the evolution of "moral emotions" in man and animals. Especially in human beings, fellow feeling (Hume's sympathy) would have evolutionary value. Human beings require parental affection and care for a long period of time. Since in Darwin's view, as well as Hume's, parental affection or sympathy is the most basic form of sympathy, those humans who had a better developed natural moral sense would be selected for in the course of evolutionary development. Hume's and Darwin's naturalized morality can form a formidable basis for ethics, one that has many attractions. It preserves the distinction between morality and the exact sciences, articulates a natural (and therefore universal) human ground for ethics, and finally, accounts for the common experience of right and wrong even by those with no formal training in such matters from philosophers or theologians. Once again, ethics is a matter of human nature.


In the face of the new genetics, however--cloning, gene-therapy, genetic engineering, and such--nature would seem to have played out its string. Technological mastery has proceeded to the point that we now face unprecedented moral questions, ones which the philosophical tradition of the West may simply not be equipped to answer.

Aristotle, for example, referred frequently to the natures of animals for insights into biological patterns that could ground an understanding of human moral relationships. But in an era when animal transgenics (i.e. the genetic engineering of animals to create completely new hybrids) has moved so far and so fast, is such an appeal to animal regularities plausible?

It is not the case that animal transgenics does no more than what animal breeders and domesticators have been doing for millennia. Such an assertion might have been possible if transgenics had stopped at identifiable species boundaries. Transgenics, however, regularly crosses species boundaries. And there is no more troubling example of this than the use of animal organs for transplant into human beings. Attempted sporadically for three decades, this effort has proven to be a failure. The human body's natural defense mechanisms almost immediately recognize that an animal organ does not belong in a human body. The biological wholeness of the human body does not include a baboon heart or a pig liver.

But human sympathy for thousands of our fellow creatures dying on waiting lists for a human organ transplant combines with science to develop a transgenic solution. For reasons of organ size and morphology, pig organs are the candidate of choice. Two companies have therefore developed transgenic pigs that are modified by the insertion of two human genes. The human genes will, it is believed, allow the pig organs to "fool" a natural defensive process of the human body which protects its human integrity.

Critics of transgenics usually appeal to two concerns. First, they point to the risks of disease coming into humans from animals. Second, they focus on the moral standing of animals independent of human welfare. Though significant, these intellectual objections avoid the most profound issue. Has science brought us to the point where the idea that species are natural kinds, each with its own proper good, is no longer a useful theoretical concept? If it is so questioned as a concept, can the appeal to nature, as Aristotle and many modern sociobiologists believe, remain the starting point for serious moral reflection?

Our nature as sympathetic beings concerned about hunger, disease, and physical deformity has brought us to the ultimate form of domination over other sentient creatures. Once thought to be independent kinds seeking to flourish themselves, they are on the verge of being fully created as dependent beings servicing the flourishing of human beings in the most profound way possible. To bring a sick human being to normal functioning, we must destroy the normal functioning of some animals which will now have human genes.

Human beings are afflicted with many illnesses caused by defective genes. Many others have some genetic component. Consider only those like cystic fibrosis that are specifically genetic and where the genetic abnormality has been well identified. Could we not use transgenic technologies to relieve the suffering and early death of thousands afflicted with such a disabling and fatal condition?

For the last decade a number of researchers have attempted precisely that with a process known as somatic cell therapy. The process aims to cure a genetic disease in an afflicted individual by attaching a "good" gene to a carrier (called a vector) and then inserting the vector into the afflicted organ. The theory has been that the vector, typically a virus, would spread throughout the affected organ; the good gene would do what the malfunctioning gene was supposed to do. Unfortunately, this process has not worked well. It now appears that somatic cell therapy is very difficult, and major drug companies that once invested heavily in the process have pulled back.

In this form of genetic change, one did not propose altering the human species or even just one genetic line of a species. All one was proposing was "fixing" a broken part of one individual. If somatic cell therapy could work, we would avoid the troubling questions of the right of one generation to choose the genetic destiny of its progeny for generations to come. But this therapy has not worked.

When somatic cell therapy begins to look difficult, the moral impulse that gave rise to gene therapy in the first place remains: the desire to help the unfortunate and the suffering. Consider a family with retinoblastoma in their history. Retinoblastoma is an inherited eye disorder that causes blindness in children, typically only in one eye. Half of all those who carry the defective gene will have affected children.

The obvious technical answer to the tragedy of retinoblastoma is to extract the DNA that might be abnormal and insert a healthy replacement at the embryonic stage of human development. After all, as the neo-Aristotelian language widely employed in discussions of genetics would have it, blindness is not part of the "species-typical functioning of homo sapiens." In doing so, scientists will have insured that retinoblastoma will never appear in the progeny of this family. We have given the gift of sight that keeps on giving. In order to fulfill the demand given us by the moral sensitivities which seem innate in humanity, we must, it is said, take our given nature in our hands and alter the destiny that God or fate has left us. What supposedly will provide the moral limits to our use of such bio-technology is a ubiquitous appeal by ethicists to that phrase, "species-typical functioning."

The idea is that genetic transformations are morally acceptable, and indeed praiseworthy, when they restore an individual (and perhaps his progeny) to the typical functioning of a healthy human being. A particular patient's liver is not producing an essential enzyme. Perhaps a modified pig liver would do the job. Perhaps somatic cell therapy can inject genes that would code for the production of the missing chemical. When the specific genetic problem and inheritance pattern are identified, we can use nuclear cell transfer to prevent the birth of infants whose genetic destiny is not typical.

But the very science that has brought us to a potential cure for one family's retinoblastoma calls into question the limits that commentators try to set to its use. The same technology that can be used to target one genetic sequence and replace it in a fertilized human egg can be used to target any genetic sequence--from those more loosely correlated with diseases such as alcoholism or gender preference to those controlling eye color, height, or body build. As our knowledge of the precise genetics that control some parts of our bodies and influence both body and behavior increases, the seemingly neutral and conventional appeal to species-typical functioning increasingly appears as a chimera. It cannot bear the weight that its advocates place on it, and this, for two reasons.

First, what was originally a physiological or biological claim about a species is now employed as a moral limit to science. As a purely biological claim, this won't work. To be sure, we can claim that "genetic repair," as it can be called, will benefit the patient and the patient's progeny. Hence, genetic repair of a missing function might be generally considered as good. But what about enhancing functions? Might someone not consider it better for him and his progeny to be taller than average, less prone to shyness, or less sensitive to the effects of alcohol? If repair is likened to typical functioning, these three and literally thousands of other possibilities do not look as neatly like repairs; but they are beneficial nonetheless. So they seem to follow from the same rationale as that given for repairs more narrowly conceived.

The new genetics has brought us to a point where any appeal to the fixed regularities of human nature for moral principles may no longer be persuasive. We are then left with a challenge. The tradition that has provided the context and limits for human activity in ethical and political matters for millennia may no longer be adequate. Insofar as human beings now take their own nature as an object to be crafted rather than a pattern to be followed, they have left behind both Aristotelian teleology and Humean naturalism.

The second difficulty with the appeal to species-typical functioning is that, as such, it is only partially a teleological claim about final causes. Philosophers have long believed that the most persuasive view of Aristotle's discussion of final causes sees teleology as immanent in the individual but not tied to a cosmic plan. In this way, commentators have tried to "save" Aristotle from the discredited fate of natural theology. In this view, final cause represents the individual nature's irreducible potential for a specific form of life. Final cause gives order and meaning to an otherwise disparate batch of material parts. One of the greatest biologists of the twentieth century, Ernst Mayr, explicitly used Aristotle to articulate how the teleological ends of living entities are prefigured in the genetic eidos inherent in their being. The eidos is the blueprint that gives form to the growing being. In such an understanding, we assume that DNA represents the organizing principle of a living being that sets forth its potentialities understood as final cause. Even granting that it is only necessary but not both necessary and sufficient for flourishing, our ability to rewrite the program points to the limits of such an "immanent" teleology as a moral guidepost for the new genetics.

One recent commentator on the moral meaning of Aristotle's teleology holds that "Aristotle's biological teleology cannot be cosmic because to explain natural occurrence through its final cause is to explain 'why it was better this way not absolutely but relative to the substance of each thing.'" This is an extremely plausible reading of Aristotle and it shows why Aristotelian (and neo-Aristotelian) teleology is not adequate to the task of articulating the proper limits of the new genetic technology that is now upon us. Flourishing is relative not to a cosmic purpose but to the specific substance of each thing. But when we can deliberately change substances, even our own, we can no longer appeal to the immanent telos of such substances for the limits to change.

One solution might be to throw the baby out with the bath water: to reject genetic technology altogether. There is now a substantial literature developing this moral view. But for all its appeal to a natural way of being, such writing fails to give any account of one of the most elementary parts of human nature: our feeling of sympathy for those afflicted with severe genetic diseases and our desire to help families avoid such diseases or cure them if possible.

On careful analysis it would appear that we need the intellectual resources to make a delicate judgment about planned genetic change. Our natural concern for our fellow human beings leads us to consider as morally acceptable or even required some such changes. Yet our wariness toward or even revulsion at many such schemes, a revulsion born of moral concern and an awareness of the dismal history of eugenic schemes, remains. Still, it is the capacity of the moral tradition of the West that once provided the resources for such a judgment which biological science now calls into question.


It seems, therefore, that we must take a road less traveled, the road that modern science rejected and modern ethical and political philosophy has viewed with suspicion. Science has brought us to the point where we must question the sufficiency of philosophy itself to continue to provide the meaning and context for science. To understand the meaning of, and limits to, human genetic change--to even make sense of its claims to better or worse--we must conceive of human beings in a cosmic or, to put it plainly, a theological context.

One of the least developed of Saint Thomas Aquinas' arguments for the existence of God is relevant here. Aquinas appeals to our common experience of judging or grading things as more or less virtuous, wise, or noble. Such an activity in the world presupposes a perfect standard of wisdom, nobility, or virtue, that itself is beyond the world. Just like the activity of attributing a chain of causality, the activity of grading implies a transcendent being whose existence alone makes our common activities such as grading or comprehending a chain of natural causes coherent. Though this is the beginning of a natural teleology whose limits are evident in the new genetics, I believe it is significant that Aquinas' proofs for the existence of God are only a very small part of a much larger theological work. They are not meant to stand alone in the fashion of Enlightenment natural theology. They are meant as a first engagement with theology proper. The argument we are considering here only leads to the conclusion that a transcendent standard is required by the common activity of normative judgment. It is theology proper which displays in full form what that divine standard is. This is not the place to develop a full theology of any sort, let alone one adequate to the tasks I have set for it here. However, we can perhaps establish three elements that such a theology must include.

First, it must reject a reductionistic view of human beings as no more than a collection of molecules. The qualities that matter to human beings are qualities that are traditionally thought of as virtues of the soul, not the body. Embodiment may be necessary for human existence but it cannot be sufficient. This is especially true if embodiment is given a standard "flesh and bones" understanding. Those philosophers and theologians who speak of a sort of matter that is different from our common understanding, or of a materialism that is anomalous or non-reductionistic, have not actually solved the difficulties with standard accounts of personhood. It may be better to admit frankly the poverty of materialism as such, and to work out a fully alternative account of the holistic nature of human beings as embodied souls. The alternative account will need to include qualities of embodiment as part of a comprehensive view of human beings, but it cannot reduce qualities of soul to qualities of the body.

In other words, while the needed account of human beings' transcendent end must speak of the soul and its temporal embodiment, it may remain neutral with respect to the nature of this ultimate state of transcendence. To put the matter in terms of Christian theology, the theology which I believe is now required does not need to solve the problem of the difference between a concept of bodily resurrection and the concept of the immortality of the soul.

Second, this theology must be incarnational in a strong sense. Much of modern Christian theology has been ambivalent or worse regarding a strong view of the Incarnation. It has preferred to regard the founder of the Christian religion as a superior human being whose superiority is noted by conformity to whatever standard a given author prefers: authenticity, "god consciousness," or love of neighbor are familiar alternatives. This intellectual standpoint cannot meet the current need. It selectively extracts some part of the world as normative and then reads the Christian story in this light, finding what was presumed all along--the superiority of the founder. Such intellectual moves start at the wrong end. They read eternity in light of the humanum and not, as a serious theology should, the humanum in light of eternity. As the humanum becomes ever more an artifact, this has the ultimate effect not of "playing" God but of making God.

All readings of human nature are selective, but in this perspective, those who select some part of human nature for theological purposes are correct. They have started, however, at the wrong end. Given our limited position in the process of becoming, we cannot finally and fully grasp the terminus of our becoming by looking only at features of our existence at this point. We cannot pick out those features that are existentially appealing and simply throw away the rest. We must have a vision of the final end of our existence in light of which we can do the selecting.

Third, this theology must be revelational. The principles that it sets forth to guide practice must be rooted in a grasp of divine and not merely natural law. The appeal to natural law has been an honorable enterprise for much of Christian history. Like the philosophical counterpart, theological variations have many attractions for political and moral practice in a complex and religiously diverse world. Its most persuasive theological defenders have made appeals to specifics about human nature such as the sensation of pleasure or the teleological structure of human sexual intimacy to ground moral practice. But cloning, the most immediate and troubling result of human scientific mastery, promises asexual reproduction for those who either cannot or do not want the heretofore "natural" variety. This science, however, leads directly back to the difficulty of appealing to human nature for guidance about changing once stable features of our natural existence.

Divine law has always been thought to clarify the more obscure elements of naturallaw. It has long been held to show more clearly the moral features of human existence, amplifying natural law and supplementing it where necessary. Even if one regarded natural law as still moderately useful for practical purposes, this revelatory feature of traditional theological morality must be reinvigorated to meet the deepest needs of the present.

We may return to the problem of human cloning for an illustration of this need. Critics of human cloning have often referred to its asexual character as deeply disturbing. The concern is that asexual reproduction is unnatural because it divorces the expression of sexuality from the natural telos of marital union, if not actually reproduction. Setting aside the way this critique intersects with the problem of deliberate technological reproductive control in other ways, the appeal to the natural telos of sexuality is problematic. We might well ask: why is asexual reproduction wrong? We are then told that it distorts a natural telos. Probing further we are pointed towards stable regularities of human biological existence that the very possibility of human cloning calls into question.

In rather traditional fashion we might return to the biblical account to clarify the manner in which asexual reproduction is unnatural. It might be because sexual distinction, not asexuality, is coequal with human existence as seen theologically. God, it is said, "created man in his own image ... male and female created he them." Sexual distinction is not only a product of biology, it is a product of humankind's status as divinely created. This creation may be expressed biologically, and evolutionary biology certainly may offer some explanation of how we got to the biological and social point that we are at. But a fuller comprehension of biology is only given in a theological context.

Sexual union is also understood in a context of divine creation. Reproduction is the first task given to Adam and Eve (not to one alone) and in the second creation story in the second chapter of Genesis it is noted that human beings are created such that they leave the families of their birth and unite with one another whereby "they will become one flesh." My reading of Genesis in relation to cloning is of course contestable. I claim for it no authoritative status. The point has not been to offer a full account of this highly complicated question. I have only used this issue to exemplify the way in which revealed theology provides the richer context that is required to fully comprehend developments at the frontiers of the biological sciences today. The discussion of cloning illustrates the way in which divine law amplifies and makes clear the ultimately significant features of our biological existence.


At the foundation of modernity was a self-conscious desire to establish a political order divorced from the theological concerns and conflicts of the past: Scientific mastery would turn human attention to the sturdy realities of this world and away from the always contentious concerns about salvation in the next. The success of the modern project is everywhere evident. No one would wish to return to those ages in which human life was actually "nasty, brutish, and short."

But the advance of modern science, especially in the area of genetics, has now called into question the sufficiency of the classic liberal attempt to keep questions of ultimate purpose from intruding on public life. This liberal tradition of narrowing the focus of the questions addressed in the political order and the reasons that may be offered in the public square was a noble endeavor in which religious communities fully played their own part. Since the Enlightenment, religion has largely spoken the language of liberalism, and when it did not, it was ignored. Christian communities in America, for example, have frequently addressed public issues such as slavery, civil rights, the Vietnam War, and abortion. When Christian communities have addressed these problems, however, they frequently relied in a large measure on reasons that met a liberal or Enlightenment test of acceptability. Abortion, for example is usually opposed not because of the corruption of the soul that is involved in assenting to the practice but because of the apparently positivistic claim that "science has proven that human life begins at conception."

For the most part, this taming of theological claims has been pragmatically beneficial. In public debate a most effective strategy is to show an opponent that, even on grounds that he or she accepts, your own conclusion follows. In the case of recent advances in genetics, however, this tradition of liberal theology is no longer adequate. What is required is not a tamed and muted quasi-religious voice but a robust expression of a theological vision of the nature and destiny of mankind. To be sure, theology must be informed about the issues posed by the new science. But its speech must be vigorous in response to the questions that arise from the scientific manipulation of the humanum. Theology's most constructive role in the discussion is to be itself, not a weak version of sociology or political science--or even philosophy.

This undertaking will require theology to give cogent reasons for its conclusions, reasons which follow from its grounding vision of human existence. Theology's role in the present discussion, however, is not limited to giving specific reasons, even reasons rooted in a robust theological commitment, for this or that moral view. More fundamentally, theology must bear witness to its complete vision of reality. To bear religious witness is different than giving a discursive reason for a conclusion. No one is convinced to be a Christian by studying Aquinas' "five ways"--but a deep engagement with Augustine's Confessions, the most powerful testimony of God's love for a lost soul in all literature, just might.

In bearing witness, theology points to certain features of our existence which it is convinced are intimations of immortality or dimly lit parts of our experience that show a transcendent purpose. Theology shows how disparate parts of our existence can be brought together coherently in one unified picture. Recognizing this truth may not be a matter of reasoning to a conclusion but a matter of recognizing oneself in the "story" thus presented. One says at the end, not "I accept your reasons," but "Ah, now I see." Conversion, not persuasion, may be the proper goal of our efforts.

If these tentative remarks are sound, then theology's role in our time is best fulfilled not by appealing merely to naturallaw or to liberal values, but by bearing full and vigorous witness to the truth that it alone holds sacred. This is the truth that allows us to see the deepest and most profound view of human nature as ordained toward a transcendent destiny. This is the story that theology alone tells. It is also the story that alone can face the challenge of the present and future of man's technological mastery.

RICHARD SHERLOCK is Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University.
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Author:Sherlock, Richard
Publication:Modern Age
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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