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Framework #2: Protecting Human Nature from Brave New World

This brings us to the second moral framework on our list, the nature protectionframework. This framework responds to a perceived. threat to human nature posed by stem cell research and especially cloning; it is the threat that ours scientists will play God with the human genome and lead our society toward Brave New World. Those who operate within this framework concentrate their ethical attention on potential unforeseen negative consequences of stem cell research, consequences triggered by human limitation and human pride. Despite the good intentions that inform scientific pursuit, those who employ this framework perceive threats to nature, even our human nature, in the face of advancing biotechnology.

Two arguments cluster in this framework. Both arguments begin by imagining future negative consequences of research and work back to our present situation to assess whether or not contemporary science is on a trajectory toward those futures. The first argument is consequentialist: The use of our technologies is walking us down the path toward a “Brave New World.” Those who advance this argument fear that if we do not stop proliferating new technologies, we will drift toward the Brave New World that novelist Aldous Huxley warned us against in the 1930s. Whatever our good intentions might be today, lurking in the future is a world that we will not be able to control. Hence, we should not take the first steps.

This is a version of the “slippery slope” or “camel’s nose under the tent” argument: once we take a first step, such as developing stem cells, we will not be able to draw a line and prevent further technologies, and eventually we will do something immoral and regret the consequences of our actions. Some argue, for example, that the destruction of the developing zygote will coarsen our collective conscience, desensitizing society to the value of human life. This desensitization, in turn, will signal a fundamental violation of our own humanity.

For some, however, the immoral step is not eventual, but immediate. Here we find the second argument in this framework. This argument suggests that the use of stem cell technologies violates something essential about human nature. This is not simply a question of consequences, but of not violating important natural and human boundaries. Some will argue, for example, that the fertilization of an egg outside the human body is “unnatural” and therefore wrong. Such technologies (e.g. cloning) are said to elicit within us a deep sense of repugnance; our moral judgment should be guided by this intuitive sense of repugnance.Leon R. Kass, "The Wisdom of Repugnance," in Ethical Issues in Human Cloning, ed. Michael C. Brannigan (NY: Seven Bridges Press, 2001) (first published in New Republic, June 1997)

Both of these arguments claim that any manipulation of human genes - even to support better human health - risks violating something sacred lying deep within our nature. As such, these manipulations reflect human pride or hubris.A central ethical agenda is to prohibit our scientists from “playing God” - that is, to prevent our society from thinking that we can improve ourselves by genetic technologies. Instead, we should appreciate what nature has bequeathed us, including our limitations and our imperfections. This concern is forcefully articulated by the current chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics , Leon Kass.Leon R. Kass, Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity ( San Francisco : Encounter Books, 2002)

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Gaymon Bennett, Karen Lebacqz and Ted Peters

Go to Genetics Topic Index

Framework #2: Protecting Human Nature from Brave New World

Stem Cell Ethics: A Theological Brief
The Promise and Science of Stem Cells
Stem Cells and Cloning
Framework #1: Protecting the Early Embryo
Framework #3: Medical Benefits
Jewish and Muslim Frameworks
More Ethical Questions
What about Other Sources of Stem Cells?
Souls, Humans, and God
What Should We Do?
Further Reading


Gaymon Bennett, Karen Lebacqz and Ted Peters

See also:
Pain and Suffering
Books on Biology, Genetics and Theology
DNA Double-Helix