In bioethical debates of the last two decades, the concept of "human nature" has drawn considerable suspicion of being a misused and ideological topic, aimed only at a blocking rational argument. The charge has been made against those who simply speak out "in defense of human nature" that they are not really willing to engage in sensible discussion, but instead rejecting all high-tech developments in medicine and medical research out of hand simply for the fact that they involve an advancement in technology and, consequently, are considered to be "unnatural". Much of this suspicion about this type of human-nature argument has certainly been justified. There is no logical, or otherwise rationally certified way of deriving normative principles for human conduct from whatever facts of human (or nonhuman) nature one wishes to take into account. Moreover, it can be argued that an element of permanent self-modification - an endless process of transcending previously insurmountable limits of humanity -, is an integral part of human nature itself. Furthermore, in developing their mental capabilities, humans have always employed artificial means of different sorts by coupling them, as it were, with their "natural" brain functions. Such activity is part of an ongoing process, which began with developments such as the use of pen and paper in arithmetic calculations and that has led to the use today of the most advanced super-computers to conduct complex calculations, far beyond natural human abilities. Some philosophers have recently come to characterise this "brain-artefact interface" (which has always been part of the development of human mental capabilities) by employing the concept of an evermore artificially "extended human mind" as a regular phenomenon of human thinking (see e.g. Clark and Chalmers 1998; Adams and Aizawa 2001; Clark 2005). From the perspective of "naturalness" (and "unnatural-ness" respectively), what is the a-priori normative difference between coupling one's natural mental abilities with the functions of a computer, by using one's hands on the computer keyboard, and having one's brain functions directly linked with that computer, with no more manual bridging necessary in between?255 It would not appear easy to give a well-founded answer
255 The risks of the implantation of the computer device into one's body aside, of course. They belong to the realm of problematic side effects. For our present purpose, we (counterfactually) presuppose the complete safety of that brain-machine interface in order to clarify whether there are other objections against such a procedure.
to this question. On the contrary, one conclusion that we would seem able to draw at this stage is that there appear to be sound reasons to assume that a principled difference between these two types of activity resting simply on the "unnaturalness" of the latter does not exist.
On the other hand, there might be better, theoretically more appropriate ways of deploying the term "human nature" in normative discourse. First, as indicated above, one must distinguish between the various descriptive contents and the alleged normative implications one wishes to base on certain facts these descriptions might contain or depict. And second, since there is no rational way to derive such normative implications directly from the facts, one must demonstrate or stipulate some background norm as a plausible premise to be applied to the factual situation, thus yielding the alleged normative consequences. Following philosopher Neil Roughley (who in some respects refers to a much older conception by Aristotle), we suggest three basic distinctions within the semantic realm of "human nature" (cf. Rough-ley 2005:137):
- species membership,
- the characteristically human form of life,
- "interventionless" human features, i.e. objects and states of affairs belonging to human existence, and emerging or developing without any causal or otherwise intervening human conduct.
For reasons of convenience, we will follow Roughley in labeling these three concepts of human nature "HN 1", "HN 2", and "HN 3". In this way, they are merely descriptive concepts, devoid of any normative content. As we have pointed out, making each of them normatively relevant requires their affiliation with a valid norm, containing a so-called normative operator ("prohibited", "obligatory", "permissible"), which determines what should be the case with regard to the factual elements depicted by the descriptive concepts. We presuppose that only HN 2 and HN 3 can plausibly be taken as points of departure to effectuate normative prescriptions alongside their descriptive content. Possible norms to be invoked by such a theoretical operation lie readily at hand. For HN 2, the required norm could read as follows: "Certain basic features that constitute the particular human form of life are valuable for human individuals and society. Therefore, they should be preserved to the greatest extent possible (alternatively: to the extent most reasonable)." As for HN 3, a relevant normative prescription could read:
Naturally developed human features, i.e. features not (at least not primarily) brought about by the external interventions of other human actors, are to be judged as being more valuable than human features that are artificially arranged or induced. Therefore, human development without intervention should be pursued to the greatest extent possible (alternatively: to the extent most reasonable).
Obviously, the latter sentence must be qualified in some sense to make it an object of serious deliberation. Since very much, or even most, of what is crucial to the development of an autonomous person from infancy to adulthood must somehow be caused or influenced by the conscious interventions of other people (parents, teachers, peer groups, etc.), the norm invoked could not seriously stipulate that individual human development should, to the greatest extent possible, be free from formative interventions by others. One might accept such a qualified version of this stipulation and select only a few particular features of the typical natural make-up of a human person, such as "the anthropological state of imperfectness, vulnerability, and needi-ness" (Siep 2002:114). Then one might consider these features valuable per se, perhaps based on the important role they play for the development of certain virtues in human society (such as solidarity or compassion). However, the identification of such an important role neither makes these features valuable in themselves (i.e. a good thing to have), nor can it imply that we should not try to help people to minimise their "imperfectness, vulnerability, and neediness" as best they can. This becomes obvious if we follow the implications of this position to its normative conclusion. One could then put the above argument as follows: See to it that there are always helpless, needy, vulnerable people (even if you could prevent them from being so), so that enough others will have an opportunity to develop virtues like solidarity, compassion, and the like. It is ethically wrong to intentionally preserve certain states of affairs in order to grant some people opportunities to exhibit socially valuable attitudes at the expense of others' misery.
However, it is one thing to reject such sweeping claims as unpersuasive, but quite another to say that humans, nevertheless, have good reasons to observe some limits of "natural" normality (in the sense of HN 3) in their individual physical and mental development, which should not be crossed by intentional bio-medical interventions. Of course, individual human development is always driven and shaped by a complex interplay of natural and cultural (artificial) forces. Hence this "limit of normality" is anything but a clear-cut demarcation that could be defined scientifically or philosophically. Instead, it is a complex, vague, value-laden, gradable and, in many of its facets, disputable concept. Similarly, the corresponding concept of "human nature" (HN 3), in the sense of a condicio humana, that remains within the boundaries thus defined is equally complex and, to some extent, elusive. Up to the present time, however, there has been no great need to clarify these concepts with respect to anything like their practical applicability on human action. Of course, there have always been individual shifts of emphasis between nature and nurture as (traditional) sources of human flourishing, but they have usually been considered a matter of private liberty and not been subject to any great ethical concern.
However, this may presently be about to change with the development of procedures capable of genetically altering basic human features in order to substantially enhance certain physical or mental capacities. We are now, or at least may soon be, confronted with the question of where to draw the line between ethically permissible interventions into natural human conditions, and other interventions that we should avoid or prevent.256 Such reasons might be concerned with two different types of risks. On the one hand, certain risks will be associated with the possible emergence of features that humans do not naturally possess and that, for various reasons, we would not want them to be endowed with. On the other hand, risks may also be associated with the danger that the very complex interplay of biological features, especially in the human brain, might be profoundly distorted by the "unnatural" enhancement of one set of features at the expense of others.
Turning to the first set of risks, one might think of physical capacities such as a bat-like "radar vision" or a plant-like ability to photosynthesise (each affiliated with a host of incalculable consequences), or mental capacities, such as the ability to block out from one's consciousness any vestige of empathy towards fellow humans.257 We certainly have reason to pause and think - and probably to intervene - before we allow such developments to occur. In addition, it is clear that the occurrence of sufficiently large numbers of individuals exhibiting such non-natural traits would also exert an almost incalculable distorting influence on HN 2, i.e. on the fundamental characteristics of the specifically human form of social life. However, for all we presently know, this possibility of intentionally introducing completely new human traits by transgressing the biological boundaries of "human nature" (as explicated above in HN 3) will, in the foreseeable future, if ever, only be possible through such deep-running interventions as germ-line alterations of the human genome. The means and methods that we address in our inquiry do not, at least not yet, hold such potential. Intervening in the human brain by employing such methods may certainly pose serious risks of grave side effects. However, side effects are not what we are talking about when expressing concerns about "human nature". On the other hand, interventions that aim at the enhancement of specific mental capacities always need to draw on something that is already there, a minimum stock, as it were, of the capacities to be enhanced. Even if the results of such an enhancement were to reach a "superhuman" quality (e.g. of intelligence, memory, alertness, etc.) that some might find repulsive for whatever reasons, it could not bring about completely new traits previously unknown in human beings (as some genetic enhancements certainly could).
Hence, we do not feel compelled to embark on the difficult task of delineating legal and ethical limits to future enhancements that would be equiva
256 Note that we do not have to possess a clear definition of the "permissible" in the above sense, or anything like certainty of where to draw the line, to nevertheless be completely safe in judging that some instances are doubtlessly beyond that limit.
257 To be sure, such individuals might actually exist; but this does not mean that we could reasonably blame their being thus on "nature", nor that we would accept, let alone endorse, their having that trait, nor that we would seriously deliberate on intentionally bringing it about.
lent to enhancements altering the human genome. Suffice it to say that the future development of the techniques of intervening in the brain should be monitored closely. The development and use of techniques, comparable to those which germ-line genetic interventions might soon possess (viz a potential to transgress norm-sensitive borderlines of HN 3, wherever they be drawn) should not be allowed to be developed and utilised, not, at least, until the far-reaching implications of such a development have been sufficiently clarified and found to be normatively acceptable.
Much more realistic are concerns that enhancements through interventions in the brain could massively distort a very delicate equilibrium in the most complex piece of matter in the human body, perhaps even in the entire universe. This points, first of all, to problems of undesired side effects which are not our present concern. However, it also attempts to identify a certain standard, derived from a criterion of "naturalness" which, if deviated from, will supposedly cause such effects. This standard might be labeled "the wisdom of billions of years of evolutionary history" whose physiological product is the human brain (cf. a similar remark in Marcus 2002:174). To interfere with such an immensely complex structure, still far from being sufficiently understood, by disturbing the fine-tuned balance between its various functions is bound (so the argument goes) to open up a Pandora's Box of unforeseeable and potentially dangerous consequences.
This does certainly not provide us with anything like a clear, applicable criterion by which to judge right from wrong in the present context. However, it does not simply testify to an irrational or ideological view. It rightly reminds us of our continuing and profound ignorance of the hyper-complex system of interdependencies between processes and functions that are realised on the cellular level of the human brain. This ignorance increases considerably with respect to unwelcome consequences which might result from risky interferences in those processes. Thus, it certainly warrants a strong principle of caution, which should apply to all attempts to isolate and amplify (enhance) particular brain functions by directly targeting them on the cellular level and thus possibly disturbing their systemic interconnectivity with other important functions. This maxim of caution might be confirmed by the rather irritating observation that so-called "savant idiots", individuals who exhibit one specific mental ability (e.g. memory) to an extent far beyond anything that could be called "normal" or even "extraordinary". Quite often, though, this "super-human" strength of the one skill or function goes along with a significant impairment of others and, hence, usually with an overall intellectual disability (cf. Hermelin et al. 1999; Treffert 2006).
Thus the initial insistence on an allegedly "true nature of human beings," with which we started out, turned out to be not so much a concern for human nature, but for human well-being. The latter, of course, is central to ethical debates in general. Human nature (or at least a critically refined con ception of it) is not so much the object to be defended for its own sake, but is a reasonable measure of pursuing moral goals, i.e. in the service of human needs and interests. The precautionary principle we wish to advocate in this respect is, as all such principles are, not a strict but a "soft norm" (to invoke an illustrative analogy to the concept of "soft law" in public international law). This means that it should not be handled as a prohibitive blockade, but as a flexible instrument of scepticism. There should be a shift of the burden of proof from the sceptics to those who wish to transgress sensible boundaries of "natural" human biology through the introduction of new procedures to enhance mental traits through intervention in the brain.
Was this article helpful?
Have you ever been envious of people who seem to have no end of clever ideas, who are able to think quickly in any situation, or who seem to have flawless memories? Could it be that they're just born smarter or quicker than the rest of us? Or are there some secrets that they might know that we don't?