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Sufficient, Sustainable Lifespan for All: Responsible Biotechnology and ELCA Social Thought

 
 

Life-Extension: Past, Present, and Future

[1] At the beginning of the 20th century, the average life expectancy in the United States was 48 years. One hundred years later, it is 78. This change came from public health gains: sanitation, diet, immunization, antibiotics. Americans did not decide in 1900 to pursue 30 more years on Earth. It just happened, and happily so. One hundred years later, most of us believe that our practices affect lifespan and that the sciences and technology of the 21st century could extend lifespan much further.

 

[2] Beyond the public health measures that allow Americans to experience old age, science and technology continue to increase life expectancy by diminishing the afflictions of aging. Both of my parents have had major reconstructive surgeries in their late 70s (heart valve and shoulder replacement). Yet, this remedial life-extension is piecemeal and inconsequential. If the big killers-diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer-could be eliminated, the gain would be only 12 years. That makes 90 years, almost doubling 48. And more of us would make 122 years-the known maximum. But we will still be old for decades; we will not be that well; and some condition we have yet to control will take us down.

 

[3] So, what about attacking the source-senescence, aging? What if we slow or delay aging and increase lifespan to 200 years? Caloric restriction, genetic manipulation, anti-oxidant therapy, hormone treatment, telomere manipulation-these are current approaches under development. Is there a moral difference between these efforts and current life-extension? Is there reason to draw a line at 90 years? What would be different about 200? We would need to make a major societal commitment to age-retardation. Should we?

 

[4] I select the question of life-extension for three reasons. First, life-extension is a fruit of the technological imperative, coupled to an ancient native desire to transcend death. Why must we die? What next? Life-extension says-"Death? Not yet!" Temporary transcendence-but we will take it. Second, life-extension is a key indicator of the altered nature of human agency in a technological society, so argues Hans Jonas.[1]  For Jonas, with life-extension we take our own evolution in hand, and for this we need an ethics of responsibility commensurate with human powers. Third, the most important American proposal for an ethics of medical limits written twenty years ago, Daniel Callahan's Setting Limits, focuses upon life-extension.[2]

 

[5] I raise the question of life-extension as a question of social decision. And I want to employ the social thought of the ELCA. In previous work, I have argued that the ELCA has a core social ethics that cuts across several social statements.[3] And I have examined the worldwide development and use of genetically modified crops and foods through this ethics.[4] I want here to see whether deciding about limits to human biotechnology can be illuminated by ELCA ethics. Responsibility, according to Jonas, requires such integrated thought, and ELCA social thought embraces a responsibility ethics.

 

Framing the Question

 

[6] I begin with some framing. 1) I am restricting the "we" of our question to ELCA people. Developing a public ethics is another task-and extremely important. Daniel Callahan, the President's Council on Bioethics in Beyond Therapy,[5] Francis Fukuyama's Our Posthuman Future,[6] and Bill McKibben's Enough[7] argue in public on life-extension and other limit issues. These proposals assume a common ethics of liberal individualism and authenticity, which admonishes us to do as we please as long we do not harm others. Callahan, the President's Council, and Fukuyama focus on social harm. McKibben focuses upon the threat that advanced biotechnology poses to individual quests for identity and meaning.

 

[7] 2) While life-extension has profound implications for personal well-being, I focus on social ethics because Christian ethics is social (love the community of life as yourself) and because personal access to age-retardation will require expert agency and vast societal resources. Humanity can pursue life-extension, but only at the expense of other social goods. So, I am asking whether Christian love requires, forbids, or allows a social project of age-retardation.

 

[8] 3) I am assuming that radical life-extension would become a social norm-not a matter of personal choice. Proponents of a technological imperative often claim that technology expands the realm of human choice and so expands human freedom. Yet, the history of technology is more mixed. None of us chose to get to Hickory by horse. We must do e-mail, if we wish to keep our jobs. I assume that age-retardation technology would not be one choice among others. It will be embraced as normative, just as modern sanitation, diet, immunizations, and antibiotics (and now heart valve and shoulder replacement at age 78) are goods judged to serve basic human need. If we pursue life-extension through germline genetic engineering, we will not seek to expand personal choice, but to better the human condition and to take our own evolution in hand.

 

[9] 4) Our question is about obligation to future generations. What do we owe the future? What does love require? Do we owe future humans a societal commitment to a lifespan of 200 years because we probably can? Does believed ability warrant obligation? Not necessarily. We have obligations to the future. But as we shall see, ELCA social thought situates such a commitment within a wider nexus of human and planetary need. If we judge a human lifespan of 200 years to be a basic need and can meet this need within certain conditions along with all others-then we would be talking obligation.

 

[10] 5) ELCA thought bids us to think about the command to love the community of life as an obligation to meet the basic needs of the community and its members. In an age where technology satisfies native desires that become felt needs and entitlements, discerning obligation through judgments about human need is difficult. But debates over biotechnology cannot be responsible without debate around this issue-which the President's Council has championed. Appeals to cost, fair access, safety, and freedom are important norms for governing biotechnology. But once these norms are met, should we undertake aggressive life-extension? The Christian social vision includes these norms and more, because love is thicker than "do as you please as long as you do not harm."

 

Responsibility and ELCA Social Thought

 

[11] It is not obvious that Christians should reject or embrace radical life-extension. We are all beneficiaries of the underlying technological project that could take us there. Leon Kass and the President's Council have given us a good definition of technology: "a desire and disposition rationally to understand, order, predict, and (ultimately) control the events and workings of nature, all pursued for the sake of human benefit."[8] While some Christians may pause at control language, they pursue beneficence with the best of humanity. But they also worry about pride and cultivate humility.

 

[12] Technology is a dialectical space for Christians. An adequate ethics should embody a hard-won wisdom about changing the world and about coexistence--simply letting the world be. In the Christian tradition, there is a creative and vexing tension between living in conformity and consent to the givenness of life and living critically and creatively in anticipation of the transformative reign of God through unconditional service to the needy neighbor. In an age of ecological crisis rooted in an ethics of domination, people of good will strive to discern the human place in a larger natural whole and to limit agency in ways that give space to life beyond them. In an age of emancipation rooted to the dignity of all life, people of good will strive to acknowledge and to defer to the autonomy of others. In addition to an ethics of self-limitation and respect for the other, people of good will also strive to address needs that others cannot fill for themselves. In an age of unjust distribution of material and social goods, people of good will see a world that can live better, within the limits of time, contingency, and finitude.

 

[13] William Schweiker proposes a responsibility ethics that captures the Christian tension.[9] With Jonas, Schweiker contends that the moral problem today is the radical extension of human power. The problem is more than our power to destroy the planet. Equally serious is the moral confusion that surrounds the exercise of power. Human power increasingly becomes an end in itself, governed only by an ethics of self-fulfillment. The case for responsibility faces daunting challenges from the late-modern moral outlook. Responsible exercise of power requires several things. Among them, it demands the cultivation of moral integrity as an abiding commitment to a center beyond the self, "the integrity of life." It requires recognition of the goods of life (material, social, reflective) and ability to enact integrated responses on behalf of the "wholeness of life." While the goods of life are diverse, humans also seek unity and coherence in what they do. They want to be persons of integrity, dedicated to respecting and enhancing life in its moral complexity and wholeness.

 

[14] For Schweiker, the imperative of responsibility is this: "In all our actions and relations we are to respect and enhance the integrity of life before God."[10] This is the sum of a Christian life. Schweiker's understanding of respect and enhancement addresses the tension between change and coexistence noted above. Humans live first and foremost under an imperative to respect-to recognize and show regard for others and for one's self. As life makes a claim upon the self, it also establishes constraints upon what can and should be done. Subjects of respect cannot be treated as means to others' ends. Subjects of respect are members of the same moral community. The moral life involves recognizing and showing regard for others and for the wider web of life. Respect constitutes a moral baseline for all actions and relations. But the imperative of responsibility in Christianity calls for humans to enhance the community of life as well-to make it better. Humans should work for the flourishing of life in all of its complexity but not in ways that violate the demand of respect. Respect governs enhancement. Respect is a mode of reflexive limitation, a constraint against "overhumanization."[11]

 

[15] Schweiker's imperative seeks to articulate biblical commitments to justice, mercy, and humility before God. The moral integrity that responsibility seeks is comparable to biblical righteousness. But Schweiker's imperative could benefit from middle axioms or subsidiary principles for the sake of moral integration. Responsibility needs guidance about how we might respect and enhance the integrity of life in all actions and relations and how we might live with that tension. Responsibility calls upon Christians to respect and enhance multiple life goods with a view to the integrity of God's world. This is love.

 

[16] As a summary norm for the Christian moral life, Schweiker's imperative provides a fitting guide for reflection upon biotechnology. However, the injunction to respect and enhance the integrity of life can be understood in terms more dedicated to this moral space. Four middle axioms or principles seem relevant: participation, solidarity, sufficiency, and sustainability. These principles constitute a pattern of discernment in ELCA social statements. They are operative in three social statements-those dealing with environment, peace, and economic life.[12] They articulate a core ethics of "faith active in love through justice" that guides six statements of the 1990s. Participation, solidarity, sufficiency, and sustainability are all principles of justice and constitute an integral social ethic that enables persons to think in coordinate and comprehensive ways about the many goods of life and about different moral questions.

 

[17] These principles reinforce the sense of holism and interdependence that a responsibility ethics demands. All living things possess moral standing and rights; they are part of the same moral community; and they have basic needs that should be met without compromising the needs of future generations of life. Participation means that community of moral deliberation includes all of life. Solidarity entails care and accountability for the interdependence of life. Sufficiency and sustainability set limits and establish obligations for the interactions of humans with all of life. Each principle makes its own distinct claim, which both supports and stands in tension with the other principles, so that multiple goods might be respected and enhanced in their difference and wholeness.

 

[18] Our question is whether to commit or withhold serious societal resources to age-retardation. In the end, moral discernment delivers a rational yet probabilistic judgment of a critical community of deliberation. The process is contextual and fallible, but seeks truth (moral realism) that corresponds to God's governance.[13] Given the contextual and fallible character of moral judgment, we do well to have a moral policy for novelty and uncertainty. For some thinkers, we need the principle of precaution. Sustainability can also be interpreted as a norm about risk of harm, and I employ this meaning.[14] I turn now to reflection on life-extension through the norms of participation, solidarity, sufficiency and sustainability. I will stay close to the articulation of these principles in the social statement on the environment, where they were first used.

 

Participation

 

[19] For the ELCA, the principle of participation means that humans are ensconced in a vast, interdependent, and created community of life. The principle calls upon the church to be a community of moral deliberation where all living things have a voice-actual, imagined, present, future. The interests of the entire community of life must be considered. The common good shall be pursued.

 

[20] If humans have entered a "golden age" for biotechnology positioning us on the "threshold" of radical alterations of the human condition (a "post-human" society, as some call it),[15] participation calls for a great and urgent conversation. Creating the conditions for such conversation is the first demand of participation. Throughout the biological revolution of the last fifty years, the slow and reactive character of societal response to science and technology has been noted and lamented. Legitimate and responsible social decisions about radical life-extension or other biotechnology-based change remain nowhere in sight. The task of moral formation for a responsible humanity-as a universal initiative-is daunting. World community of moral deliberation will be a long time in coming-at best.

 

[21] While various forces work on building civil society (the ELCA included), humans cannot delay debate and decision making until we have robust institutions. We must go with an imperfect process of communal conversation and social decision-making about the common good. Given that the burden of justification should rest with the agents of change, societies like the United States must exercise global leadership by bringing life-extension and similar questions into the public square of democratically constituted political community.

 

[22] Francis Fukuyama makes the case for national and global regulation of biotechnology-against the grain of much thinking about biotechnology past and present.[16] While we can bemoan the state of politics and wonder whether good public policy can happen, there are no alternative institutions. While we may be inclined to think that the rate and immensity of biotechnological change cannot be governed by states, the United States and the community of nations have acted to regulate other consequential technologies-such as nuclear power. Already, important forms of biotechnology are regulated. Dozens of countries have banned reproductive cloning. Dozens regulate GMOs. The world has adopted laws for experimentation on humans. Embryo research is regulated in many different states today.

 

[23] Universal regulation of biotechnology is both possible and necessary. For Fukuyama, we will need to develop new regulatory agencies, for several reasons. One important reason is the growth of private investment in biotechnology, which does not entail the social leverage created by public funding. Of course, regulation will be contested and messy. The relatively free and pluralistic research practices that created biotechnology will now be subject to critical attention. Society will ban or limit certain kinds of science and technology-and this will seem fundamentally illiberal and even destructive in some quarters. Yet, if we are serious about responsible, communal, and participatory decisions about biotechnology, we cannot delay conversation, and government regulation is the best public mechanism we have for legitimacy and efficacy.

 

[24] Democratic governance depends upon civil society to engender participatory polity. Participatory polity assumes that a plurality of perspectives can be a political good. Certain social actors, such as the churches, play an important role in empowering the many. One voice seems particularly crucial to social debate about life-extension, namely, persons with disability. In a recently updated policy statement, the National Council of Churches identifies the affects that biotechnology can have for perceptions of disability as one of four key challenges requiring attention. After noting the promise of biotechnology, the statement adds that it can be "profoundly disquieting to many with disabilities when disabling conditions or predictions are equated with lifelong suffering, imperfections, or disease."[17] Suffering, imperfection, and disease are social constructs, which condition moral discernment and which are conditioned by human agency. Age-retardation technology would assume that senescence unto death is a disorder or a disease to be cured. Success would validate this assumption and encourage us to imagine that the fundamental limit of life is now something of a question, that should not and need not be.

 

[25] Since the technological imperative seeks to liberate humans from limits and tends to alienate us from the limits we face, avoidance and ignorance are commonplace.[18] Societies like the United States can learn from persons who have deep awareness of living with limits. As Deborah Creamer argues in the July, 2007 issue of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics,[19] persons with disabilities live with the reality of limits as a fluid and complex phenomenon. Disability might well be understood as the embodiment of limits, and limits might be understood as more normal than abnormal. As biotechnology-empowered agency moves ever deeper into denial, refusal, and resistance to limits, the lived experience of disability provides a crucial wisdom for moral reflection. As McKibben grapples with the prospect of genetic engineering, he is mindful of his best childhood friend, Kathy, who had cystic fibrosis. She died young but was the happiest and kindest person he has ever known.[20] Most people know what McKibben is talking about, yet cannot integrate this experience into insight and judgment. At this historical moment, participation needs voices intimate with limits.

 

Solidarity

 

[26] For the ELCA, solidarity has to do with affirmation of God's interdependent creation and with cultivation of a relational agency both local and global toward a harmony of interests and responsibilities among individuals in community. It means standing with the victims of natural disaster---and presumably other assaults such as disease and disability. And it means moral integrity and courage to stand with and for creation. If participation seeks communication with others as subjects of different perspective and wisdom, solidarity seeks community and mutuality based upon a sense of kinship. Funded and constrained by respect, solidarity involves enhancing life by attending to life-giving collective action.

Solidarity speaks to the humanism that grounds and motivates the work of biotechnology. It is about being mindful of and helpful to others. Historically, the technological enterprise has been dedicated to human benefit; solidarity rejects anthropocentrism for a wider community (in Schweiker's language, the integrity of life before God). But the generative, other-regarding and even self-sacrificial element abides.

 

[27] It is unclear to me whether solidarity advances discernment about age-retardation. I have one question without an answer. Given that solidarity rejects anthropocentrism, is there a problem with radical life-extension insofar as it seeks to exempt the human from mortality, the way of all things living on Earth? Arguably, there is a difference between the life-extension of the present and what we might do. Twentieth century gains have addressed premature death. They have enabled people to live out a genetically conditioned, natural lifespan. Biotechnology that would extend life-expectancy beyond 115-120 years (the Hayflick limit[21]) is different. It seeks to override the structures that make us mortal. If we believe that death is not divine punishment for sin but a necessary and universal structure of creation, can humans as a species justify a break from this order? Would humans violate solidarity by aiming to be exceptional? The question is not whether such a project would undermine the interests and needs of non-humankind. The question is whether we ought to stand with the rest of creation in mortality.

 

Sufficiency

 

[28] A responsibility ethics is attentive to time and consequence. Sufficiency guides the present; sustainability, the future. For the ELCA, sufficiency means meeting the basic needs of all humanity and all creation because life comes from God for all. In a world of finite resources, sufficiency means that some should share with the needy. In a world of modern powers, enough for all is possible and normative.

 

[29] Sufficiency is a principle of distributive justice. It calls for personal discrimination and social agreements about the needs of humans and others. These needs include material, social, and reflective goods. These goods are culturally conditioned and variant. Americans 100 years ago would not think of death before age 78 as "premature." They could not judge whether heart valve or shoulder replacement at age 78 is "medically-indicated." Is this need as morally weighty as infant immunizations? Sufficiency requires grappling with such questions within a universal context. Such cross-cultural agreements about human need exist today and are part of the social fabric of 21st century life in response to norms such as sufficiency.

 

[30] In the thought of Seyla Benhabib, universal or global ethics as cross-cultural dialogue has become a "pragmatic imperative" in response to global interdependence.[22] In a context of reciprocal exchange, influence, and interaction, humans share issues of common concern, which become the subjects of inclusive exchanges. For Benhabib, ethical universalism is a necessity of life together; it is also a possibility because modern theories of radical cultural incommensurability are mistaken insofar as they are based upon problematic views of cultural homogeneity. Because all cultures are polyvocal, fragmented, and contested, the local and global are not qualitatively different. Guided by norms of universal respect and egalitarian reciprocity, humans can forge understanding and cooperation.

 

[31] For Yersu Kim, another interactive universalist, Benhabib's cross-cultural moral community appeared in the late 20th century, bearing promise for the challenges of the 21st. A host of cross-cultural discourses and instruments have produced increasingly common norms to guide states and peoples across an array of shared endeavors. The sense that our emerging global society requires common principles has recently prompted UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to undertake a universal ethics project. This is but one example of a growing search for universal norms, which Kim calls "transcendental-reflective" inquiry and which asks what values and principles are needed to orient technological and economic change to the human good-to human need.[23]

 

[32] Subject to global discourse and discernment, sufficiency bids us to act so that all people have access to a decent minimum of health care, just as all people are entitled to a safe and secure food supply or to public education. In a world where so many needs for so many go unmet, resource allocation for age-retardation technology that primarily benefits future generations may need to give way to unmet needs today. Some will argue that we can and should do both today. Humanity can meet the UN Millennium Development Goals,[24] and Americans can fund life-extension research through the National Institutes of Health. In this case, the principle of sufficiency obliges humans to share or create so that all people can eat, can read, can vote, and more in our time. It helps us to discern deficiency in the present and to enhance life within the governance of need. Once the demands of sufficiency are met, life-extension to benefit the future becomes morally optional, perhaps commendable, but not obligatory.

 

[33] However, sufficiency can be a claim intended to create a boundary that forbids further life-extension along a continuum of change. McKibben's "Enough" is an extended argument for the relative adequacy of modern human powers and natural resources to meet the material and bodily needs of humans. Fair access remains a problem. Social evil abounds. Depression happens. But the "average daily life in the Western world" (122) lacks little to nothing and more will be harmful for all around. In other words, "enough" is a limit, not a baseline requirement and goal of the good society. To counter the temptation to go ruinously beyond enough, we need a "muted celebration of the present." And we should ask around: "Can you think of aspects of your daily material life that would be dramatically improved by the next dose of technology?"[25] For people enveloped in a technological world, sufficiency is normal and expected. "Bridges do not fall down in Minnesota," such was the shocked citizen voice I heard on my radio while vacationing in Canada when a bridge in fact collapsed in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

 

[34] McKibben's argument is bold and rare. He says "No" to further life-extension, germline genetic engineering (and GMOs), cloning, robots for the masses, and therapeutic nanotechnology. Why? Because humans simply do not need them to be fulfilled and because these technologies could undermine our humanity. The importance of arguments like McKibben's is less the counter cultural conclusions and more the stimulation of thick conversation about the good life and society. Sufficiency is a relevant norm for discerning whether we should significantly extend lifespan. I am intrigued by McKibben's use of "enough" as a limit principle. Again, we should note that it requires deliberation in detail about human need. Theological and moral anthropology are our most urgent topics of conversation.

 

Sustainability

 

[35] We must converse about human need to practice sustainability as well. For the ELCA, the principle of sustainability means providing an acceptable quality of life for present generations without compromising that of future generations. While the ELCA invokes Hebrew Sabbath and jubilee laws as evidence of an ancient norm, the claim of sustainability falls new on human life. It comes with a scope of accountability that ancients could not imagine-population, power, knowledge. These changes in the human condition warrant revisions to traditional moral codes, such as the Decalogue. Today, we are only beginning to consider what sustainability means. But the concept has standing and support in important texts such as the Earth Charter.[26]

 

[36] While we do not owe future generations radical life-extension, sustainability obliges us to transmit an acceptable quality of life. This norm requires sufficiency as a universal reality both today and for an indefinite future. It requires us to avoid collective, consequential practices that might put sufficiency at risk. Thus, regarding radical life-extension, we must imagine a future, say 100 years from now, when billions of people are living for 200 years. (It is difficult to say how many because such an increase in lifespan will affect fertility and survival rates.) And we must imagine how this change would figure in a summary judgment about an "acceptable quality of life." One may object that radical life-extension technology would never be universally available and used. This is probably true. However, responsibility requires us to test this possibility.

 

[37] That said, imagining whether a world of long delayed senescence and death would be "acceptable" to these humans can seem mistaken and impossible. These people will be very different in experience and outlook. Consider the variables that we cannot foresee and all that we can foresee. How can we begin to assess the quality of this existence? It is tempting to withhold speculation and simply conclude that these people will adapt and flourish, as human populations have adapted and flourished countless times before. But this is to renounce any accountability for the future. With respect to the physical and natural world today, a sense of obligation is real and growing. Humans en masse are beginning to evaluate our production of greenhouse gases with a view to sustainability. Here we do not blanch at the task of imagination and evaluation. Responsibility toward the human world is difficult, but we must have that conversation as well.

 

[38] Radical life-extension through age-retardation could involve different forms of senescence. Do we seek a life where aging and death come on rapidly or will we choose to be old for a long period? Such questions will be tied up with whether we come to think of life as a cycle of different interacting stages or as a succession of the same-the same being mostly decades of relatively vigorous maturity. So, would we have a world that functions without the aged? Today, the young define themselves in relation to the old and vice versa. Callahan has argued that the aged have a crucial social role to teach the young about time, identity, and meaning.[27] Will the young be lost if senescence happens in years, not decades? Will the sense that we have lots of time make our 20s and 30s less stressful? For we will have lots of time to find ourselves and our social niche-living at home with our parents. Happily, personal, social, and biological clocks may not compete for attention as they can today. Perhaps the fear of death will also decrease. Or perhaps this anxiety will increase, the end more brutal than now. With 200 years before us, how will we see social engagement and commitment? Will we find more time for personal development? Will we feel less ground up by the world, less defined by its needs and demands? Will we enjoy living together with partners, parents, offspring, and friends for vaster periods? What about those undying enemies-will we forgive and move on? The cycle of generational succession will be less compressed. People will carry more life experience, and society will be enriched. But with less rapidity of succession, will there be less creativity in the world? Or is that ageist thinking? These are questions of human sustainability.

 

[39] So, a planet where billions lived 200 years would be a different world. But would it be better, worse, acceptable? Thinkers who have studied the matter suggest that we can discern the questions. We can see possible benefits and losses. But how do we get a handle on the issue of "acceptable" quality of life? For now, we can arguably withhold approval of radical life-extension for reasons of cost, fair access, and safety. There are urgent and present human needs that claim our attention. We are not ready to take our own evolution in hand.

 

[40] But suppose that these objections can be met, what then? We are back to the question of the good life and of human need. Perhaps there is a hard truth that creation has an integrity or wholeness and that human well being (the good life, happiness, righteousness, shalom) is inseparable from bodies that age through time and that die as part of a life cycle of generational succession-and that 200 years on earth might be destructive of human needs. As lives of 78 years are better than 48, perhaps 200 would be a boon to creation.

 

Concluding Judgment

 

[41] For the sake of conservation, allow me to end with a personal moral leaning-not quite tipped. Compromise is about exposure to risk. Siding with risk avoidance in the face of novelty and consequence (precaution) and refusing to go further down the road of age-retardation is a responsible stance-provided that a credible case for sufficiency can be made. Given that we owe ourselves and the future sufficiency, we need to establish that the modern norm of 78 years is enough unto human need. I am inclined to agree with the reasoning of the President's Council on this point:

 

[42] The past century's advances in average lifespan, now approaching eighty years for the majority of our fellow citizens, have come about through largely intelligible operations within a natural world shaped by human understanding and human powers. It is a conceptually manageable lifespan, with individuals living not only through childhood and parenthood but long enough to see their own grandchildren, and permitted a taste of each sort of relationship. It is a world in which one's direct family lineage is connected by both genetics and personal experience, not so attenuated by time that relatives feel unrelated. Generation and nurture, dependency and reciprocated generosity, are in some harmony of proportion, and there is a pace of journey, a coordinated coherence of meter and rhyme within the repeating cycles of birth, ascendancy, and decline---a balance and beauty of love and renewal giving answer to death that, however poignant, bespeaks the possibility of meaning and goodness in the human experience. All of this might be overthrown or forgotten in the rush to fashion a technological project only along the gradient of our open-ended desire and ambitions.[28]

 

[43] McKibben speaks of a "muted celebration the human present" as a counter-balance to the refusal and resistance that drives technology. The human present that we celebrate has been richly enhanced by technology. But not everything that we can do is good. In the case of radical life-extension, we can see gain, and we can see risk. For many, the "might" of the President's Council is too cautious, a failure of nerve. Indeed, to take such a stand, we must be convinced of the sufficiency of the present; then we might set limits to the technological imperative.

 

[1]

Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, trans. Hans Jonas and David Herr (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

 

[2]

Daniel Callahan, Setting Limits: Medical Goals in an Aging Society (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987).

 

[3]

Per Anderson, "Deliberation, Holism, and Responsibility: Moral Life in the ELCA," Journal of Lutheran Ethics 1:1 (September 2001), http://www.elca.org/jle/article.asp?k=447.

 

[4]

Per Anderson, "Agriculture, Food, and Responsible Biotechnology" in Karen L. Bloomquist, ed., Lutheran Ethics at the Intersections of God's One World (Geneva: Lutheran World Federation, 2006), 169-92. A revised and expanded version of this essay, "Transgenic Agriculture and Christian Responsibility: A Framework for Global Ethics," was presented at the 2006 meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics in Phoenix, AZ, and is available upon request to the author (anderson@cord.edu)

 

[5]

The President's Council on Bioethics, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2003).

 

[6]

Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002).

 

[7]

Bill McKibben, Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (New York: Henry Holt, 2004).

 

[8]

The President's Council on Bioethics, 2

 

[9]

William Schweiker, Responsibility and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

 

[10]

Schweiker, Responsibility, 125.

 

[11]

William Schweiker, Theological Ethics and Global Dynamics: In the Time of Many Worlds (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), xiii-xiv.

 

[12]

"Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice," Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, adopted at the Churchwide Assembly, August 23, 1993; "For Peace in God's World," Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, adopted at the Churchwide Assembly, August 20, 1995; "Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All," Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, adopted at the Churchwide Assembly, August 20, 1999.

 

[13]

James M. Gustafson, Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, vol. 1, Theology and Ethics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), chap. 7.

 

[14]

In a previous work where I have explored the adequacy of ELCA thought for guiding reflection about genetically modified crops and foods, I saw a need to add a fifth axiom: precaution. I am uncertain whether the best definition of precaution (UNESCO) applies to life-extension and am inclined to think that participation, solidarity, sufficiency and sustainability are adequate. The question is whether these axioms capture the moral density of life-extension and enable us to see the full range of things that should be considered in moral discernment. To quote UNESCO, "The [precautionary principle] applies to a special class of problems that is characterized by: (1) complexity in the natural and social systems that govern the causal relationships between human activities and their consequences and (2) unquantifiable scientific uncertainty in the characterization and assessment of hazards and risks. The existing decision-support tools to cope with risks in a rational way, such as probabilistic risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis, have limited value under these conditions." See United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO], World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology, The Precautionary Principle, (Paris, March 2005), 16.

 

[15]

The President's Council on Bioethics, 4; McKibben, xi; Fukuyama, 7.

 

[16]

Fukuyama, chaps. 10-12.

 

[17]

National Council of Churches USA, "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: A Policy on Human Biotechnology," (Adopted 8 November 2006, Orlando, FL), 15; http://www.ncccusa.org/biotechnology/

 

[18]

Arthur C. McGill, Death and Life: An American Theology, eds. Charles A. Wilson and Per M. Anderson (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003), chaps. 1-2.

 

[19]

Deborah B. Creamer, "What it Means to Be 'Disabled': Theological and Ethical Reflections", Journal of Lutheran Ethics 7:7 (July 2007); http://www.elca.org/jle/article.asp?k=737

 

[20]

McKibben, 132.

 

[21]

McKibben, 150-2.

 

[22]

Seyla Benhabib, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 36.

 

[23]

Yersu Kim, "Philosophy and the Prospects for a Universal Ethics" in Max Stackhouse and Peter Paris, eds., Religion and the Powers of the Common Life, God and Globalization, Vol. 1, (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000), 95.

 

[25]

McKibben, 113, 120.

 

[27]

Callahan, 44-8.

 

[28]

The President's Council on Bioethics, 199.

 

 

© January 2008
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 8, Issue 1