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IEET > Rights > Fellows > Russell Blackford

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Human enhancement and the religious worldview


Russell Blackford
By Russell Blackford
Metamagician and the Hellfire Club

Posted: Nov 21, 2006

Though he does not take the stance of a religious believer, Francis Fukuyama is deferential to religion and its interests. In Our Posthuman Future, surely one of the most influential of the many post-Dolly bioconservative tracts, Fukuyama discusses why religious believers in the Abrahamic tradition might oppose a whole raft of technologies, including but not limited to postulated forms of genetic enhancement. Broadly, the use of these technologies is inconsistent with a certain worldview in which God acts through nature to produce human beings with certain characteristics such as morality, free will, and faith. Within this picture, “natural norms” such as sexual reproduction and the family (as understood in some traditional way) are products of God’s will.

I’m not convinced that religious believers of any kind must reach such a strong conclusion and thus reject the technologies in question as contrary to their concepts of God’s will and human dignity. Certainly Fukuyama does not present a tight argument to that effect, and it may well be possible to reinterpret the religious tradition in ways that are much more sympathetic to supposedly “unnatural” technologies ranging from birth control to genetic enhancement. Indeed, the widespread discomfort with these technologies - among religious believers and others - may result more from a discomfort with changing what seem to be essential “givens” in the background of our lives, e.g. the connection between sex and reproduction. This is, in a nutshell, the theory of background conditions, which I have referred to frequently in this blog.

Still, it may be that there is a religious worldview, or at least a religious sensibility, according to which human enhancement and so on are almost inevitably objects for moral repugnance. Someone with this worldview or sensibility may reject many practices in contemporary society, including contraception (for example), even if it places her and those who depend upon her at a disadvantage in many ways. I’ll refer in this entry to “the religious worldview”, but with the warning that there may well be other religious worldviews available and that, in any event, religious doctrine is always open to reinterpretation.

Fukuyama does not necessarily share the religious worldview, although he seems keen to defend a secular equivalent. But even if the religious worldview is incorrect and no secular justification can be given for anything similar, he provides the materials for a policy argument something like the following:

1. If we allow human enhancement, it will be widely practised. (This seems to be assumed and to be plausible.)
2. If human enhancement is widely practised, those who do not practise it will place their children at a relative disadvantage. (Again, this seems to be assumed and to be plausible.)
3. If human enhancement is widely practised, people who have the religious worldview will (nonetheless) not practise it. (This follows from Fukuyama’s discussion of the religious worldview.)
4. If human enhancement is widely practised, people who have the religious worldview will place their children at a disadvantage. (From 2. and 3.)
5. If we allow human enhancement, people who have the religious worldview will place their children at a disadvantage. (From 1. and 4.)
6. If people who have the religious worldview place their children at a disadvantage they will come under social pressure to act in ways that are contrary to their worldview. (Assumed. I think this is plausible.)
7. We should not act so as to create a situation where people who have the religious worldview come under social pressure to act in ways that are contrary to their worldview. (Assumed.)
8. (Therefore) We should not allow human enhancement.

I think that this argument is valid. Accordingly, it is a sound argument if its assumptions are true. It does seem to me that all the assumptions made are near enough to being true that we should accept them - I don’t think that any quibbling will undermine the argument, as opposed to requiring it to be phrased more carefully. The one important exception is line 7.

It is one thing to be opposed to the persecution of people with religious beliefs, or even to wish that people with certain religious beliefs be exempted from some laws that would intrude oppressively on their practices - practices that may be of overwhelming subjective importance to them and may do no great harm. But how far must we go to prohibit and “nip in the bud” new practices that may end up putting people with the religious worldview under social pressure to act in ways that are contrary to their worldview?

This strikes me as an enormously important question, in a world where more and more practices are likely to be rejected by people with the religious worldview - often to the detriment of those people themselves, or those close to them such as their children. People with the religious worldview may have cause to fear, but can the rest of us allow ourselves to let them have a kind of veto over our practices and technologies? I suggest not - being required to relinquish practices and technologies that we find valuable, based on this sort of solicitude to people with the religious worldview, is something that we have every reason to fear, even if we have some other reason for disliking a particular practice. Freedom of religion does not extend to ensuring that adherence to the religious worldview will never have a downside in new social circumstances or that its adherents will never come under pressure to act against it or reinterpret it.

The kind of argument that I have analysed above should not make us feel inclined to defer to the wishes of religious believers, and it should have no influence on the formulation of public policy.


Russell Blackford Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, an attorney, science fiction author and critic, philosopher, and public intellectual. Dr. Blackford serves as editor-in-chief of the IEET's Journal of Evolution and Technology. He lives in Newcastle, Australia, where he is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.
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