May 16, 2002

THE RISE AND FALL OF MAN :

What Is Man? : Is human nature an oxymoron? (Peter Augustine Lawler, 4/26/02, National Review)
[T]he dominant view, today, is that biotechnological progress is good because it mainly promises us more health and safety. It will remain safe as long as libertarian principles are respected: Biotechnological choices must remain in individual hands and respect reproductive freedom. But, as it's easy to see, that choice will not be allowed for long. Will women really be permitted to have babies with genetic defects--given the burdens they will impose upon society by so doing--if they can knowledgeably choose against them? And will parents really be allowed not to choose the latest designer features for their children? Can a parent really be allowed to deprive a child of the best life available? And if, in the end, human beings really are able to live indefinitely long lives, can they really be allowed to have as many children as they want?

The longer human-life expectancy becomes, the more human fertility will have to decrease. It already has, of course: In the most advanced, Bobo countries, the birth rate has dropped below the rate of replacement. But at a certain point--say, when the average age of death reaches 120, the government will still have to step in. A world where women are no longer allowed--or no longer desire--to have children could hardly be called "pro-choice," unless we have or will become so libertarian as to believe that what people really want is to be freed altogether from the burden of babies.

Surely our biggest miscalculation is to assume that we will be happier because our lives become longer, our IQs higher, and our health better. Bobos already live longer than human beings ever have before; they're really smart, and take care of their bodies. But they also seem pretty miserable. The longer and healthier life becomes, the harder a time we have living with the necessity of death. Death comes to seem accidental - and thus far more terrible - and such death-defying virtues as courage seem all the more reckless and ridiculous. Thus the final result of our best efforts to escape the fear of death is to make us more fearful than ever before. Not only that, but even today most Americans say that their families--especially their children--are what makes life most worth living. What will human life become when the terror of death is virtually uncompensated by the demanding responsibilities and joys given us with birth?

Fortunately--in a way--biotechnology can change not only our bodies but our minds. Genetic manipulation and chemical treatments can suppress those human experiences connected with self-consciousness--anxiety, love, death, and God--that make us unhappy even (or especially) in the midst of prosperity. The natural conclusion of the biotechnological project to make us healthy and happy is thus to make human beings no different by nature than the other animals. It may turn out that a perfect human being is one without any uniquely human or screwed-up qualities. The biotechnological project therefore turns out to be to make sociobiology completely true--whether or not it was before.


What I believe libertarians who support this stuff are underestimating is just how attractive people may find the prospect of an "eternal", drugged out, bliss--of a life with no true freedom, but rather a comfortable, pleasurable, nearly vegetative existence. In what important sense would such a future differ from what the Left has sought for centuries?--a life of complete security and pure happiness. Now that may be what libertarians too see as the end goal of humanity. But I take them at their word that what they most relish is freedom and I wonder whether these biotechnologies they are demanding are in the end compatible with human freedom.

(via Reductio ad absurdum)

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 16, 2002 8:57 AM
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