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human nature and the human condition

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human nature and the human condition
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  1 Human Nature and the Human ConditionGordon GrahamI Crossing ethical boundaries  There is a widely held belief that the advent of sophisticatedgenetic technologies has opened the door on a new and dauntingrange of ethical problems, and that this is because genetictechnology makes it possible for human beings to do things thatthey could never have contemplated doing before -- cloning andgenetic modification, for example. If this is true, it is not a featureunique to genetic technology. Nuclear technology may be said tohave done the same, for, though the danger of their use hasreceded with the end of the Cold War, it remains the case that theinvention of nuclear weapons gave human beings, for the first timein history, the power to destroy the entire planet on which they live. There is, however, a difference between the two cases. We canidentify easily the awful prospect nuclear war presents, and sayprecisely where its ethical dimension lies. The traditional Just Warproscription against killing non-combatants rests on the moralprinciple that the innocent ought not to be killed. The nature of nuclear weapons is such that their use would result in the death of vast numbers of non-combatants. Thus, though nuclear weaponsare new, the ethical principles applicable to their use are the sameas they have always been 1 It is sometimes suggested that the moral 1 Graham, G,  Ethics and International Relations , (Oxford, Blackwell, 2 nd edition 2008)1  2 issues surrounding nuclear technology are not confined to weaponsof mass destruction, but involve the use of nuclear power quitegenerally. The technology of nuclear fission has opened up theprospect of our unleashing physical forces that we cannot thencontain, a modern scientific equivalent of Pandora’s Box. Thisperception is not the only factor that has brought about a reductionin the nuclear generation of power, but it has figured prominentlyamong objections to it, despite the fact that concern over globalwarming and greenhouse gases might have been expected toadvance the case for a form of energy that is free of carbonemission, as nuclear energy is.Closer analysis of just what it is about this feature of nuclearpower that might morally constrain our use of it usually reveals anappeal to what is known as ‘the precautionary principle’. Accountsof this principle vary, and some interpret it as meaning little morethan urging caution in assessing anticipated benefit over predictablecost. But a more robust interpretation makes important use of acontrast between the merely harmful and the catastrophic. Indeciding what to do we ought to avoid harmful outcomes, but thenature of life is such that it is not in fact always possible to do so.Consequently, if human beings are to act at all, they have to run therisk of their actions, however well intentioned, proving harmful tothemselves and others. Accordingly, as an ancient watchword has it,probability must be the guide to life. The form this guide takes iseasily stated: we should assess possible actions in terms of the 2  3 ‘value of outcome’ (V) multiplied by ‘probability of its coming about’(P). This means that we are justified in embarking on potentiallyharmful courses of action if there is a reasonably low probabilitythat their undesirable consequences will come about, and a higherprobability that their advantageous outcomes will be realized.Against this background, the precautionary principle statesthat, where there is the prospect not merely of harm, but of  catastrophe , then V is so high, we cannot be justified in proceedingwith the action in question, however  low P may be. In short, bycombining the desirability of avoiding catastrophe with aprobabilistic account of practical reason, the precautionary principlegenerates an absolute ban on certain actions, and by extension,certain government policies. The precautionary principle has been invoked by opponents of genetic modification and research on human embryos, as well asthe opponents of nuclear power. The problem is, however, that itsserious application leads to more than precaution; it leads toparalysis. Everything turns, of course, on the definition of ‘catastrophe’, but if this means ‘extremely harmful outcomes’, thenthere are very few courses of action (if any) that have no probabilitywhatever of leading to such outcomes. The two world wars beganwith a series of initially relatively innocuous actions, not with acts of reckless endangerment. Yet these actions led to terrible outcomes.But if all (or almost all) actions have a miniscule probability of  3  4 producing catastrophic outcomes, the precautionary principleprohibits us from doing anything.More importantly, perhaps, the slogan ‘nothing ventured,nothing gained’ applies to large scale outcomes as well as to smallscale ones. To place an absolute ban on actions that have even thesmallest chance of ending in catastrophe, is also to put a ban onactions that offer the prospect of immense benefits 2 . This feature of the precautionary principle is especially important when applied togenetic technology. To invoke it in support of a total ban on thegenetic modification of organisms or research on human embryos,may avoid potential catastrophe. But by the same token, it denieshuman kind the potentially vast benefits that these sametechnologies might produce.In any case there is this further point. The precautionaryprinciple is consequential. That is to say, it seeks to regulate andproscribe behaviour in accordance with anticipated consequences.By contrast, the widely held belief with which we began intuitivelysees something intrinsically  wrong with the actions that genetictechnology has made possible. The thought is that if there issomething deeply objectionable about genetic enhancement (forinstance), this is not just a matter of the consequences it mighthave, however good or bad. There is something wrong about it initself  . 2 see Manson, N, ‘The Precautionary Principle, the Catastrophe Argument andPascal’s Wager’  Ends and Means (Vol 4 No 1,1999)4  5 It is this sense of intrinsic error that the language of ‘playingGod’ signals. The idea can be spelt out theologically 3 , or in a quasi-theological way 4 . But it is also an expression that has been usedeven by authors who mean nothing properly theological by it 5 . Thissuggests that some further way in which the intrinsic error of certaingenetic technologies can be articulated is required, an articulationthat can encompass both the theological and the non-theological.One interesting idea in this connection is that the boundary genetictechnology is in danger of crossing, is the boundary that liesbetween the age old endeavour of ameliorating the humancondition, and the new ambition of changing human nature itself.However, this way of stating the issue begs an important question.Some recent literature on ‘transhuman’ and ‘posthuman’ futures,does not regard such a boundary crossing as a danger, but anexciting new opportunity. The purpose of this essay, then, is to askfirst, whether the distinction between human nature and the humancondition does indeed constitute a significant boundary relevant to 3 see Peters, T, Playing God? : genetic determinism and human freedom , (London andNew York, Routledge, 1997) 4 see Graham, Genes: a philosophical inquiry , (London and New York, Routledge,2002) Chp 4 5 see Goodfield, J, Playing God : genetic engineering and the manipulation of life ,(New York, Harper and Row, 1977)5
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