Today's date:
Winter 2008

The Moral Fog of Progress

Fall 2003

In the Diet-Coke Civilization it may be possible to get around taxes (for a while at least, as Proposition 13 in California demonstrates) the way it is possible to have a sweet drink without the calories of sugar. Alas, life's other certainty, death, remains. But that hasn't stopped dreams of immortality.

As far as we know, being is better than being dead, of course. But, there is no cure for death, no liposuction or lasers to restore that mysterious breath which at first gives life its form and then corrodes and withers it. It is in this breathing space between womb and tomb that, as Leon Kass puts it, we love, long and become human.

But that idea of being a human conditioned by limits is at a new threshold where the growing disbelief in an afterlife meets awesome technological advance. Why not do what we can to extend this life if it is all we have? We stole fire from the gods. Why not the breath of life?

Why not clone ourselves? Why not change the genes we have? Why not build organ farms to create and harvest all those kidneys and livers so many people are waiting for as they suffer? What's so wrong with the already extant trade in human organs? In the globalized marketplace if there is demand, who is to stop the supply?

That we can't answer these questions with any moral authority defines today's epochal juncture. As Leon Kass and Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel poet, have pointed out, liberal democracy, no less a consumer society wedded to a scientific world view, can offer no intellectual defense on its own terms of the person or of human dignity when faced with such questions. There is only a utilitarian reply. "Health" and "saving a life" are the only standards. If that is what people want, and that is what science can do, then what's the problem?

Science has no knowledge of being. It can only report that we are a collection of cells. A bundle of nerves. An immune system. "Being," "the person" and "human dignity" are concepts arising instead from the religious imagination. In Islam, our body is God's trust. In Christianity the person is inviolable because he or she is a reflection of God's grace, made in God's image.

If we no longer believe that, the bottom falls out of the values that undergird liberal democracy, leaving the lethal concoction of nihilism and technological prowess. As Bergson wrote in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, "in this disproportionately magnified body, the soul remains what it was, too small to fill it and to feeble to direct it."

In Fides e Ratio, published in 1998, Pope John Paul II expressed the Church's concern: "It should never be forgotten that the neglect of being inevitably leads to losing touch with objective truth and therefore with the very ground of human dignity. This in turn makes it possible to erase from the countenance of man and woman their likeness to God, and thus to lead them little by little either to a destructive will to power or to a solitude without hope." Coming out of the 20th century traumas of Eastern Europe, the Pope rightly focused on how this erosion of the basis of human dignity paved the way for willful totalitarian rule.

Ivan Illich, the late philosopher and former vice-rector of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, took this view one step further by placing it in the context of the 21st century technological order. "What I fear," Illich wrote in NPQ in 1994, "is that the abstract secular notion of 'a life' will be sacralized, thereby making it possible that this spectral entity will progressively replace the notion of 'a person' in which the humanism of Western individualism is anchored." Illich goes on to argue that "a life" defined no longer as "the miraculous sharing of God's intimacy" but as an "immune system" to be medically managed is "the most powerful idol the church has had to face in the course of its history."

Just as the crumbled ground of human dignity yielded to totalitarianism in the 20th century, Illich views the "depersonalization" of the technological order as preparing the path to a Brave New Biocracy in which all are reduced to patients managed from sperm to worm by the medical-industrial complex, staying alive rather than living. As Huxley, like Illich, sensed, this new enslavement would not be imposed, but self-willed in the name of happiness and progress.

Indeed, isn't it all too easy to see the baby-boom generation, the first thoroughly consumer generation in history, succumbing to this idolatrous embrace of mortal splendor, devoting vast sums of the GDP to the end of postponing the end as long as possible? As is already mostly the case, where once there stood churches, temples and mosques now stand hospitals and clinics.

It's a juggernaut that probably can't be stopped not only because no one wants to, but because the only moral language we have says yes, not no.

To Leon Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, the biotech dream is a new Tower of Babel. For that reason, at the end of history he looks for the "beginning of wisdom" in the oldest book of the Bible, Genesis, which recounts the fate of the ancient Babelien vision. God didn't like it and confounded that proud human project. Humankind learned its own limits.

Kass is right to suggest that the new power of technology not only to change the world but ourselves ought to prompt an urgent search for what wisdom we can find about the human condition wherever we can find it. Like T.S. Eliot, he wants to know, "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?" And, like Eliot, he worries that "the cycles of Heaven in 20 centuries bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust."

Disastrous judgements in battle are often attributed to the fog of war. It is the fog of progress that enshrouds our stumbling steps today.