Faith, Reason and the Bioethical Brouhaha

Peter Augustine Lawler, one of three recent additions to President Bush's Council on Bioethics, is the Dana professor and chairman of government and international studies at Berry College in Alabama.

Born in Alexandria, Va., he received a doctorate in government from the University of Virginia. He is editor of the journal Perspectives on Political Science. He spoke with Register correspondent Stephen Vincent.

Why were you chosen for the bioethics council?

I was recommended to the White House by [council chairman] Leon Kass. When I was interviewed by the White House, I was asked only one substantive question: How do your views differ from those of Kass? What do you offer the council that it does not already have?

The council has addressed cloning and genetic engineering. What's ahead?

My understanding is that the council will turn to issues such as neuroscience and aging. The new focus may well be primarily what sort of virtue will be required to live in a world where people live much longer and healthier lives progressively more detached from the joys and responsibilities of family life. It might also involve end-of-life issues. This remains to be determined.

Does the Catholic faith play a role in your thinking?

As I understand it, the Catholic, natural-law view is that revelation completes what we know through reason and does not contradict it. When we Catholics deliberate with our fellow citizens, we do so primarily through what we all can know through reason about our natures. Strangely enough, we Catholics have much more confidence in reason than most ethicists and scientists today, who believe ethical judgments are only value judgments or merely emotive.

So for the purposes of this council, I can't confine myself to what Catholics know as Catholics, but nothing I will think or say will be contrary to what Catholics know as Catholics. So there's no question of imposing the Catholic faith on American political life but only, I hope, of illuminating and defending what any human being should be able to see as true.

Some argue that morality or faith should play no part in scientific progress.

There's no way of separating scientific progress from moral regulation. Nobody really believes that what's invented or discovered will inevitably serve all the various goods that constitute human life. And nobody really believes that technology or biotechnology will be able to free us to live “designer” lives. Believers as believers have to view scientific progress theologically, but it's not reasonable to believe a merely theological view will prevail in the public-policy arena.

If embryos, for example, are to be protected, it will be because of what any human being should be able to see as true about the nature of embryos. So public arguments about moral and political regulation have to be natural-law arguments.

The council has been unable to come to unanimous decisions about cloning, with some members calling for a ban on all cloning and others allowing research cloning.

What practical good is the council doing?

The council's unanimous opposition to reproductive cloning is not insignificant. The council is criticized both for its lack of diversity and its lack of unanimity; both facts are said to undermine its credibility. But it really is quite diverse, and the meetings are often very contentious. So the consensual recommendations are bound to be somewhat disappointing to everyone.

The practical results remain to be seen, but the goal is to provide public policy guidance. The transcripts of the meetings do seem pretty theoretical. But shouldn't our public policy be informed by deliberation by excellent philosophical and theological minds? Anyone — the president, a member of Congress, a voter — who wants to be informed on bioethical issues could rather quickly get up to speed on the issues and policy alternatives by reading these reports, especially with the reader the council put out [“Being Human”], which is full of well-chosen literary, philosophical and theological excerpts.

Catholics who doubt the good intentions animating this council should read Kass’ Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity, which is an amazing mixture of deep philosophical reflection and public-policy guidance. It might be the best introduction to the problem of technology in our time. And anyone who thinks Kass is a merely secular philosopher should read his big book on the Book of Genesis.

Is the council making history?

So far, the council has issued five quite informative and challenging reports that should aid citizens and political leaders in thinking about bio-ethical issues. The recommendations of the council, if followed, would put sound limits on biotechnological development.

Catholics can't be satisfied with the relatively permissive stance on research cloning. But research cloning is not at all endorsed; as far as I can tell nothing is endorsed that is contrary to Catholic teaching. And the recommendation to ban all reproductive cloning is quite significant and quite contrary to the libertarian drift of our time. In general, the council's reports all oppose a thoughtless libertarian drift, and they are among the most morally sensitive and profound government documents ever.

Catholics should pay close attention to the personal statements of Robert George of Princeton University, who unfailingly and quite brilliantly introduces the Catholic “voice” into the record. All in all, I think these reports do have genuine historical and political significance.

Some scientists will go ahead with cloning and other research despite the council's findings. Does this make your work futile?

Much of the council's work is concerned with thinking about what sort of virtue will be required to live in the biotechnological world to come. It's not futile to help people do the thinking they're going to be stuck with doing.

There's no doubt that much bio-technological progress is going to occur more or less unimpeded, and much should occur. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with living longer and safer lives. And we can't say in advance that outlawing cloning will be futile. We have the responsibility, of course, to try to do what we can.

You refer to St. Thomas Aquinas often in your work. What do such “old” thinkers have to say about such modern, complex issues we face today?

The old thinkers are relevant insofar as they teach the truth. Human beings are the animals fitted by nature to be open to the truth about all things. This openness gives us certain distinctive and high natural joys and miseries, and it gives us certain very definite responsibilities. What distinguishes us as human beings is both real and good, if also quite flawed or imperfect.

This view — which is often called philosophical and moral realism — was best articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas. A particularly lucid and deep proponent of it in our time was the American Catholic philosopher-novelist Walker Percy, and it also informs the literary artistry of Flannery O'Connor.

You seem to downplay Kass’ warning about the advent of a post-human future.

The view that we could engineer our humanity out of existence can be traced to writers such as Nietzsche and [Aldous] Huxley. I doubt we have that power. All evidence so far is that we primarily have the power only to make our existences more contingent or “homeless.” The more we are dependent on technology, the more our fundamental mood will be anxiety, not contentment. As we come to make our existences more objectively secure, the more paranoid we get about our security. So healthy Americans today are paranoid about diet and exercise, and they over-regulate their children's lives.

The main result of biotechnological progress will be increasing self-obsession and personal alienation. This is both good and bad news. The bad news is that we will in some ways be more miserable than ever. The good is that we will have in some ways more evidence than ever of our human freedom and so of the possibility that we are contingent creatures. More than ever we will need faith to be happy and make sense of what we really know.

Stephen Vincent is based in Wallingford, Connecticut.

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