Poetry Wednesday — Was going

Poetry Wednesday — Was going through old files and found another good bad poem. Aristotelian metaphysicians will like this one. Enjoy!

Love and Accident

Can I love you if you’re more radiant than stars,
If you’re Sardanapalus rich, or Einstein-minded?
A person is not a property,
Though a single lack may be enough
For unlove.

You are not bald for want of a single hair,
Nor do you disappear having lost faith in Democrats.
Yet neither does a gemlike you-ness abide
Nestled just left of your human rights.

We are packages of accidents, hung upon nothing.
Some swarm in league and cause shambles prised away.
Some molt like skin, lost at no great price.
Which are which, though, is an utter mystery;
Our best efforts merely glancing the lovable core.

In the end there is what you want to be loved for,
And that in you which I love.
O’ Lord I pray, may these sets coextend!
And in the case of disjunction,
May we be ignorant of our reasons
And lucky in corruption.

Whig Out! — I do

Whig Out! — I do believe I'm a whig. As my researches into the self-deceptive grounds of ideological commitment continues, I find ideological identification less and less appealing. The thing about “isms” is that while they may accurately account for most of one's views, avowed identification with an “ism” communicates an emotive commitment to an intellectual/political identity, and not simply agreement with a set of propositions. This is distasteful if your first allegience is to the truth, and you would be willing to give up any proposition whatsoever (and any identity based on its truth) in the face of countervailing evidence. That's why I want to call myself a “whig,” since it captures the core of my political views, but does not convey solidarity with a living political/intellectual lifestyle, as “libertarian” might.

Here's Ken Binmore, in his absolutely fascinating and funny Game Theory and The Social Contract, Vol 2: Just Playing, on whigs:

… we whigs are for economic and political freedom, thrift, self-help, and equality of opportunity. Our enemies are either the advocates of big-spending government intent on creating a lickspittle citizenry, or else the corrupt backers of arbitrary government and ancient privelege.

Of course, if too many other people start calling themselves whigs, and turn it into an identity, I'll toss it out. But for now, whiggery rules!

Morality for Adults — I

Morality for Adults — I want to butt in on the methodological conversation between Eve and Julian, which you should probably read first.

Eve speaks of the Objectivist “Birthday Cake of Existence,” according to which metaphysics is the base, and epistemology, ethics, politics, aesthetics are piled on in that order. Other than aesthetics, this is right! My former teacher Michael Devitt likes to say, “Put metaphysics first!” And that's key. Metaphysics is the study of what there is. Well, what is there? There are rocks, cats, trees, and so forth, which we know from ordinary experience. Science tells us what else there is: genes, quanta, and so forth. That's where we start, with our list of stuff drawn from common sense and science.

But isn't epistemology really first? I mean, how do we know that we know that there are rocks, cats, and trees? Well, we do know. That's the data for an epistemology. If your epistemology implies that we don't know that there are rocks, trees and cats, so much the worse for your epistemology. Roderick Chisholm distinguished between particularism and methodism in epistemology. Descartes and Hume are the paradigm methodists. They came up with pretty abstract theories, that is, methods for determining what would count as knowledge, and then went on to see what putative knowledge could clear their theoretical hurdles. Turns out, not much! Thomas Reid, the Rodney Dangerfield of Modern epistemologists (and the paragon of particularism), rightly pointed out that folks like Descartes and Hume pretty clearly had to claim to know that their epistemological theories were true. But are Cartesian and Humean epistemological assumptions really on firmer ground than the existence of cats? Well, no. There are cats. If your epistemology can't handle cats, then it isn't worth a bag of hair.

But how about genes, protons, synapses and the like? That's trickier than common sense knowledge. Why should we think we know that such funny mostly invisible things are part of the Inventory of the World? Well, we slide into a bit of unsophisticated epistemology to figure out some of our metaphysics. The best argument for scientific entities is the argument from predictive and technological success. Our theories that posit these things have made us successful in predicting and controlling the world. The best explanation for that success is that those theories are pretty much right.

So, we've got out list. But we've also got more. We include scientific entities on our list, because they account for predictive & technological success. But how did we find out about them? Science! Now, it's pretty incredible this success of science. And science is a way of knowing stuff, like what exists. So, like Quine, we should regard science as the knowledge gathering enterprise par excellence. Now science, it turns out, is going to tell us lots of things about the way our minds process information, and what kinds of cognitive mechanisms produce reliable belief. And this knowledge can be turned around to improve science, which improves our knowledge about how our minds gain knowledge, and so on and so on.

Now, Eve pretty much suggests that we should be a kind of epistemic particularists about ethics. Maybe we should start with a list of things we know are wrong, like killing babies, and use the items on the list as constraints for the adequacy of our ethical theories. Isn't a moral theory that can't account for the absolute wrongness of baby-killing like an epistemological theory that can't account for cats — not worth a box of mulch? I don't think so!

In order to be secure in the parallel, we'd have to know that the data we derive from ethical intuition derive from mechanisms of belief formation as reliable as the processes that lead us to believe that there are cats. But we have good reason to think the opposite! That the mechanisms of ethical belief formation aren't truth tracking, because truth tracking isn't really their function. In the ancestral evolutionary environment, we certainly needed mechanisms that would inform us of the presence of cats, lest the cats eat us. So it is not surprising that most brain-heavy species have very reliable mechanisms for ascertaining the existence of things like cats, and for categorizing those things with more or less precision.

But what's moral intuition good for? We'll it's good for jiggering with the payoff matrices for social choices in order to promote fitness enhancing moves in social games. Built-in visceral baby protectiveness is a damn good way to protect your next-generation gene vehicles. Visceral anti-incest sentiments are a good way not to waste perfectly good germs cells, and so on. But I think we might do well question whether we need to take the wrongness of incest, say, as a datum for moral theory, since the reasons that incline us to confidently regard it as wrong have nothing much to do with morality.

So, no, we should not be particularists in moral theory. We really do have to develop a general method for determining what things count as right and wrong, largely independent of our intuitions about it. Now, I think morality is, on the personal level, about having a happy, satisfying, meaningful live, and, on the social level, morality amount to a “cooperative endeavor for mutual advantage”. Basically, I'm stipulating that this is what morality is about, although I do think it captures a great deal of what we intuitively take morality to be about. If you don't want to call this morality, then that's fine. It's up to you. But then we might wonder why we ought to care about morality, so construed.

What we have to find out about it what it really means to have happy, satisfying, meaningful lives, and what is necessary to facilitate effective cooperation for mutual advantage. Religion and tradition may help us to some extent, by pointing to emergent solutions to the problems of living. But we should not rely on it. The work for morally serious people is in discovering how human beings mentally represent alternatives courses of action and payoff structures, how they learn and act on cultural norms, how institutional structures relate to socially norms and provide incentives that result in beneficial patterns of behavior. What's happiness, really? How do we best achieve it, given our biological nature and socio-historical condition? This is, as David Gauthier put it, “morality for adults, for persons who live consciously in a post-anthropomorphic, post-theocentric, post-technocratic world.”

Religion, Morality, and Metaphysics —

Religion, Morality, and Metaphysics — Here's a great quote from David Gauthier (twice as good as Rawls, but an 1/8 as famous!) pertaining to the post below:

Religious practice and religious language are, or until recently have been, ubiquitous in human life. But if we take religion at face value, and ask ourselves what must be the case if the claims of religion, literally construed so that they possess ordinary truth-value, are some of them to be true, then we find ourselves driven into an account of the world that is prodigal in admitting into its ontology entitites that play no role in our best explanations and justifications. … The only theory of religion that, to my mind, has the least credibility, is an error theory. [I am not the least easy about this, but] I should be even more uneasy were I to suppose that morality would share the fate of religion, so that our moral claims, literally construed, would, to be true, require us to accept a prodigal and ultimately incredible ontology.

Putting metaphysics first means building a moral theory that does its job with the materials actually provided by nature, and not with “exalted entitites,” to use Rawls's phrase.

Tantamount to Disbelief — A

Tantamount to Disbelief — A reader of Arab News asks, with more than merely academic interest, whether anal sex is indeed forbidden(scroll down) by Islam.

The author of the peculiar theological advice column (also touching on whether to punish a teenage girl who prays during her period) finishes his reply by writing:

Besides, several Hadiths confirm this in very clear terms. A man came to the Prophet and asked him whether it was permissible to have sex with his wife from behind. The Prophet answered in the affirmative. As the man was on his way out, the Prophet called him back and said: “Consider what I have said: from behind, but in the front.” I suppose nothing could be clearer than this. In another Hadith, the Prophet mentions ten sinful actions that are tantamount to disbelief. One of these is “anal sexual intercourse with women.” I suppose no expression of prohibition could be stronger than describing an action as tantamount to disbelief.

Now, I'm fascinated by the fact that the Prophet had a considered, undoubtedly God-endorsed, opinion on the propriety of doggy style versus backdoor. I grew up in a church that relies on ongoing prophesy, but the messages that came through the God-phone were always so general. Prophet Wallace B. Smith thankfully never had anything to say about how to get busy. Probably you could rank religions from best to worst in terms of the invasive specificity of their moral commands. (Taoism rules!) Anyway, its always good to be reminded of the stupidity and credulousness of which we humans are capable when in a religious mode. And I would encourage everyone to express their disbelief explicitly, or, if you wish, through actions merely tantamount to disbelief.

On the Eve of Personhood

On the Eve of Personhood — Eve Tushnet comments on some points of mine (and Julian), thusly:

I think Julian is ignoring the difference between valuing individuals in a rational species, and valuing currently-existing rational mentalities. Will Wilkinson does this too, actually, when he accuses anti-cloners of assigning metaphysical status to a tangle of DNA. (Later, here, Wilkinson conflates not-gonna-be-rational-again individuals with pre-rational individuals. OTOH, he posted more complete notes than Julian did, so he wins in that regard.) The important thing about DNA is not that it happens to be a clump of human DNA–so is a toenail, or a foot, or a cancer, or a corpse. The important thing about the human DNA in, specifically, an embryo, is that it marks the presence of a living human individual. It is that individual whom I value. Individual rational beings go through more and less rational stages; our rationality develops; thus there is a period before we are rational. If I came across aliens who had rational and pre-rational stages, I would value these individual alien lives as I value individual, developing human lives.

First, I didn't conflate “not-gonna-be-rational-again individuals with pre-rational individuals.” Regarding the brain-damage case, I was merely offering a counterexample to the position that being an organism with human DNA is sufficient for full moral standing. Nor did I say anything whatsoever about rationality. It may be the case that some live, yet non-sentient, members of our species have full moral standing, even if terminally brain-damaged folks don't. But if so, then it has to be some feature other than having human DNA that accounts for that standing.

Now, notice that “not-gonna-be-x-again” and “pre-x” are fancy ways of saying “not x”. Perhaps there are some ways of not having full moral standing that are more important than other ways of not having full moral standing. Eve seems to suggest that”not” in the “not yet” sense is more morally special than “not” in the “not ever again” sense. Eve's talking about rationality, so let's talk about rationality. So, it's true that rationality develops. Well, OK… Getting bored…. So…. It just might be time for an Outrageous Thought Experiment!

Suppose a mad scientist develops an implant that, when installed in a chimp brain, makes the chimp fully rational. (Cyborg chimps! YES!) The implants are mass produced, so that there is one per living chimp. Now, since all chimps that have a plug-in have become rational, all those without a plug-in are pre-rational — they are potentially rational. Would we therefore be morally obliged to not kill pre-rational chimps? (Or, if you're sentimental about chimps, try wolves, or whatever).

It might be objected that little humans will become rational as a matter of course. We don't have to do anything, like implanting a chip, to make that happen. But that's untrue!

If we were to put an infant in a room deprived of sensory stimulation for a year, it would develop very little cognitively. We have to do plenty for our little humans. We have to allow them an extended stay in the womb, we have to feed them, we have to talk to them, we have to expose them to novel stimuli, we have to carry them around because they can't just follow us around or just hang on like a proper primate, etc. Of course, we do all that for our little humans as a matter of course, because we wouldn't exist ourselves if the disposition to do that sort of thing wasn't pretty well wired in. But can the relevant moral difference really be that we don't install implants in chimp brains as a matter of course, and so that's why pre-rational chimps don't have full moral standing? Suppose that certain human babies have a funny disorder: the won't develop rationality unless they are shown reruns of The Gong Show everyday for their first year. Now, we don't show the Gong Show as a matter of course, but if that would help our babies develop Reason, wouldn't we think that we'd be obligated to do it?

So, either pre-rational chimps have full moral standing, or little humans don't. (I said it was outrageous.)

Alright, sorry… but I do mean the thought experiment with about 65% seriousness.

Let me lay out some relevant opinions about more foundational matters in a slapdash but hopefully comprehensible fashion. I differ from Julian in that I don't think anything is intrinsically valuable. NOTHING! Not being a member of our grand species. Not being sentient, sapient, rational, or what have you. NOTHING! All value is relative… [GASP!] And that doesn't mean bashing baby heads against bricks “might be wrong for you, but might be right for me.” That means that values are indexed to valuers.

Value is a n-adic relation, not a monadic property. So, if there's some object, process, event or whatever (let's get creative and call it 'X') and it turns out to be valuable, then that's because there's some person, call her “P”, for whom it is valuable. So, for every X, if it's valuable, there is some P that stands in the value relation to X. But wait!There's more… argument places! If X is valuable to P, then P has some purpose for which X is constitutive or instrumental. So, I want to have a happy life. I've got a purpose. Suppose friendship is partially constitutive of a happy life. Well, then friendship is valuable for me. Suppose friendship requires the existence of some friends. Then the existence of some friends will be valuable to me. Friends are other people. So the existence of some other people will be valuable to me. Suppose one of my friends also want to have a happy life. Then I'm valuable to my friend, too.

Look! We've got people valuing each others' existence, and no funny intrinsic values! Qua friend, my friend is not valuable because he's rational, or a member of the human species. Those are surely necessary conditions, as is being carbon based, I suppose, but those things aren't what make my friend valuable qua friend. It's a bunch of other stuff I wouldn't know anything about, because I don't have friends. Rationality's generally like that. It's good for other stuff we want. Lots of our ends have to do with other folks, and other folks figure into our ends quite prominently because of their Very Special Human Cognitive Abilities. But the thing that matters for each of us is how all that figures into our ends. The human world is shot through with value not because some things instantiate the hard gemlike flame of intrinsic value, but because we have purposes, and we figure in to each others' purposes in profoundly complicated ways. I've rather more to say… how tiny tiny humans do and don't fit into the network of human purposes… But I'm becoming loopy with sleepiness… I value sleep. Do cyborg chimps dream of electric genital displays?

Pinker's Natural Approach to

Pinker's Natural Approach to Human Nature — During the audience question period of the AFF biotech debate, I was surprised to discover that some conservatives took Julian and me to be denying that there is a human nature. I was perplexed. I had made a very strong statement to the effect that there is a human nature, and that we learn about it by studying biology, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, and the various sciences that study human behavior. Indeed, I was promoting the picture of human nature, almost to a tee, that is described in Steven Pinker's wonderful new book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

Now, the naturalistic conception of human nature does radically depart from the Greco-Judeo-Christian conception of human nature. An accurate conception of human nature does not depend on the notion that humanness is an Aristotelian metaphysical essence. Indeed, an unorthodox, but philosophically compelling, view in the philosophy of biology, defended by Hull and Ghiselen, is that species are not natural kinds at all. Species are complexly bounded historically and spatially distributed individuals. Very, very roughly you are a member of a species S, just in case you are the offspring of members of species S. That is, you're a member of S just in case your heriditary line is traced back to a particular ancestral individual who divided off, through mutation or drift, from a different “mother” species. This provides for a kind of essentialism, but one very different from traditional essentialism, since here the essence of humanity has to do with location of a particular branch on the evolutionary tree. If, through a massively improbably series of events, a group of organisms genetically identical to human beings, evolved from, say, chimps, they would not be members of our species, even though there would be no feature whatsoever to distinguish them from humans. (Analogy: To use chimps a different way, if a chimp happened to type out a document word-for-word identical to Hamlet, it would not be Shakespeare.)

Anyway, back to Pinker. Pinker's new book is intended to refute the common liberal dogma that human beings are nothing in particular, but can be socialized into anything at all. However, it is also useful for those who worry that if the religious conception of human nature is false, then there is no human nature at all. Indeed, Pinker's vision of human nature can support a broadly classical liberal politics. Anyone who cares about defending classical liberal values ought to take it as a project to defend those values on the basis of our best scientific picture of humanity, not on the basis of a picture of Man totally devoid of rational merit.

Full Moral Standing and Genetic

Full Moral Standing and Genetic Humanity — Here are some notes I wrote in preparation for the AFF debate concerning the logical relationship between having human DNA and having personhood, or “full moral standing” as I'm calling it. I'm riffing off a quote from Ramesh Ponnuru. In a nutshell, there is no relationship, human DNA being neither necessary nor sufficient for full moral standing.

Here are some notes that illustrate why Ramesh is full of shit.


This being is valuable simply because it is a human being and not because of any traits — sentience, hair, the ability to protect itself — that it happens to possess. (Technically, of course, the “it” is wrong here.) It is a person from the first moment, rather than a mere body that becomes inhabited by a person as it develops (which would imply an untenable person-body dualism). You were once an embryonic human person.”

Human DNA is not necessary for full moral standing (FMS):

Imagine that a mist-covered island is discovered in the crater of an unexplored volcanic lake. The excited press calls it Atlantis. Then, the world is stunned to discover that Atlantis is inhabited by creatures that look exactly like humans, and are capable of speaking ,laughing, reasoning, inventing, cooperating, exchanging, loving and so on. However, the world is stunned once more to discover that Atlanteans are not homo sapiens. Atlanteans and humans cannot interbreed. Genetic testing reveals that Atlanteans are descended from the now extinct species that also developed into both humans and chimpanzees. Atlantanteans, it turns out, can not only do everything humans can do, but live to 110, and are especially good at some things, like singing, mathematics, and Yahtzee.

Question: Do Alanteans have FMS? If Atlanteans were mixed into the population at random, no one could tell them apart from humans. It would be absurdly arbitrary to argue that while Atlanteans have all the attributes we humans hold in the highest regard, they nevertheless do not have full moral standing.

Conclusion: Human DNA not necessary for FMS

Human DNA is not sufficient for FMS:

You have human DNA. A piano falls on your head and you sustain massive brain damage. You are taken to the hospital. Although all of your organs are functioning very well (you're in good shape!), there is no activity in the parts of your brain that accounts for consciousness, and there is no prospect of starting it up again. You're declared brain dead, taken off life support, and allowed to die. This sort of thing actually happens a lot.

Now, while it would have been possible to keep you alive indefinitely in a vegetative state, it was clear to all involved that when your ability to maintain an inner life was definitely gone, YOU were gone, and with you, your FMS. But you were still a coherent biological being with human DNA.

Or, you're born with only a brain stem that governs autonomic functions. You are rightfully allowed to die.

Conclusion: human DNA is not sufficient for FMS.

Another argument: You drive around in a van and murder 10 people with a rifle. You are captured and sentenced to death by a court of law. You have human DNA. If having FMS requires nothing more than being human, and requires no other traits, then adding traits, such as being a cold-blooded murderer, cannot negate FMS (If FMS supervenes on nothing more than the simple fact of being human, then [If human, then FMS] is monotonic!). So, either the death penalty is murder, or simply being human is not sufficient for FMS.

More, for fun:

If simply having human DNA is good enough for having FMS, regardless of any other distinctively human attributes, then what exactly is it about human DNA that confers FMS? DNA is a sequence of molecules. What is it about the human sequence that is special. Exactly how does value supervene on sequences, such that it supervenes on the human sequence, and not other sequences? If it's just a matter of the molecular sequence, and not macro properties, that matter for FMS, how do we know that other animals don't also have DNA configured in a way that confers FMS? Maybe snails have FMS conferring DNA. Sure, snails don't have complex mental states, but if it's the molecular pattern that matters, it's the molecular pattern. So, what is the theory of intrinsically valuable molecular patterns? Why should we believe there is such a theory.

On biological classification:

Homo sapiens is a biological species. In virtue of what do members of this species have FMS while members of others species do not? Why is the species level the right place to draw the FMS line. Why not at the Family level. Suppose I say that primates have FMS. What's the argument against that? If the argument against drawing the FMS line well into gestation is that it is arbitrary, and gets us on a slope, so we'd better just draw the line at the beginning, then why not be really sure and just draw the line at primate membership instead. If some primates don't have FMS, how can we ensure that we do. So we better draw an inclusive circle, lest we get on a bad slope (bonobos don't have FMS, we're almost identical genetically to bonobos, so presumably we don't have FMS!)

Suppose I am, in fact, a mutant, the first member of a new species. If that's the case, then the FMS circle clearly goes around homo sapiens plus me, because I'm evidently a person, even if I'm not technically a human. So if you argue for an exclusive circle rather than an inclusive circle, it's going to have to be on the basis of some phenotypic properties, because monkeys and men and mutants are pretty well the same thing looking at it from the genotype. And if I'm a mutant, the thing that makes me a person with FMS bviously ain't my membership in the species. So what does confer FMS? Certain psychological capabilities, clearly.

Biotech Debate Notes — Since

Biotech Debate Notes — Since Julian posted his, here are some of my notes for Wednesday AFF biotech debate. You'll get the the thrust of some of what I said, although there was much more, and there's no guarantee that I actually said any of the following. More on the debate later….



This forum is advertised as concerning “issues that divide the right.” Now, I doubt there's much sense in the left/right distinction, but it's certainly true that libertarians and conservatives share a number of important principles. To a certain extent, American libertarians and conservatives are both offspring of the Enlightenment classical liberal tradition, devoted to individual rights, the rule of law, free markets, and limited government.

Now, libertarians and conservatives generally part ways when conservatives attempt to use the heavy coercive hand of the state to impose on all of us a narrow set of moral dictates. I was delighted to see that both Ramesh and Justin in their writings try to avoid giving the impression that they're up to this sort of conservative moral imposition. Instead, they acknowledge the moral authority of the libertarian philosophy by attempting to squeeze their convictions about cloning and genetic engineering into a compelling framework.

Ramesh argues that therapeutic cloning is homicide, because embryos are destroyed in the process, and embryos are beings with full moral standing. Justin argues that genetic enhancement deprives children of their freedom by subjecting their nature to their parent's will. Now, if it's true that destroying an embryos is tantamount to homicide, and that choosing the color of your child's eyes enslaves them, then the stance of a defender of liberty would certainly be one of opposition.

While it's nice that Justin & Ramesh acknowledge the appeal and power of libertarianism, their attempt to extend that appeal and power to their anti-cloning, anti-genetic manipulation preferences fails. Embryos are not persons, and destroying them is not homicide. Choosing improve your child's genome is not a form of enslavement. If Justin and Ramesh are to wear the libertarian mantle, rather than simply advocate the state imposition of their moral preferences, they must show these claims to be true. But this they cannot do, because their claims are false.

If they want to be taken seriously, they need to provide us with argument rather than assertion.

In a National Review piece, Ramesh writes:

“This being [the embryo] is valuable simply because it is a human being and not because of any traits — sentience, hair, the ability to protect itself — that it happens to possess.”

It's all right to say this, but we need some reason to believe it. A newly minted human embryo is a cluster of cells almost indiscernible from a newly minted dog embryo. Ramesh says it is valuable, that it is a person, has full moral standing “from the first moment” simply because it's a human embryo. Now what makes the human embryo a human embryo, and hence valuable, while the almost identical dog embryo is just a dog embryo and not valuable. Well, the answer has to be that the one has human DNA, while the other doesn't. But DNA is just a sequence of recipes for building proteins. So, Ramesh's position comes down to the claim that some some sets of protein recipes confer intrinsic value, personhood, and full moral standing, while some don't. This is mystifying. What's the theory that explains how personhood emerges from certain sequences of molecules, but not from others, just in virtue of the pattern of the molecules. If Ramesh isn't depending on any tendentious theological assumptions, he needs to give us this theory if we are to treat his claim as anything more than aspirational bluster.

In his Doublethink piece, concerning genetic enhancement, Justin writes,

“Parents who choose their child's IQ, eye color, or athletic abilities, or tweak its genes to produce a musical virtuoso or math prodigy, are abrogating to themselves a frightening power over another human being. To the extent that biology determines our natures–which is to say, to quite an extent, though not in every way–there is no freedom if other people are manipulating the parts without our consent.”

Freedom is the absence of coercion or constraint. Justin needs to explain to us how tweaking genes to amp a kid's IQ coerces them or constrains their choices in any way. Directly intervening to ensure blue eyes is no more coercive than a blue eyed gal choosing a mate with blue eyes. And tweaking the genes for vertical leap seems no more constraining than sending the kid to basketball camp. I can't see the argument here. In the absence of an argument, we can't accept that genetic manipulation is coercive, and thus that the state ought to disallow it.

Genetic science promises to be a huge boon for humanity. Embryonic stem cell research may open up therapies and cures for cancer patients, for Alzheimer's (which is why Nancy Reagan is now a champion), for diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and spinal cord injuries. All of today's discussants are winners in the genetic lottery. The pursuit of happiness is surely enhanced by triumph over disease.

Reproductive cloning provides new hope for couples who want to have genetically related children, but now can't. Cheap and simple enhancements, rather than fostering inequality, may in fact level the playing field, in addition to curing childhood disease. Conservatives have been powerful and effective advocates for the idea that parents, not the state, are best at making decisions about the welfare of their own children. I hope they don't stop fighting for this idea.

Progress can be unsettling. The advent of vaccines was met with religiously inspired outrage. Fortunately, the forces of science and freedom prevailed, to which millions of us owe our very lives. I personally remember the debate about in vitro fertilization. It was said that we should not meddle with nature, or play god. Now, however, we've gotten used to it, no one much cares, human dignity has been unsullied, and around 40,000 Americans conceived in petri dishes, walk among us.

If we ban these technologies real people, with real hopes, dreams, aspiration, friends, and loved ones, will suffer and die. If you have a theory that says we have to let these people face agony and death, then it better be a damn good theory. But so far, opponents of biotechnology have shown us next to no theory at all.

[Later on, when the issue of human nature came up, I had the occasion to say something like this….]

In some sense the dispute over bio-engineering is probably not the deep issue here. The deep issue is about what it means to be human.

From a purely secular perspective, and that's my perspective, human beings are the products of evolution by natural selection. To be human is to be a kind of animal with a certain set of genes. The thing that makes us special is that we have very unusual, complex and specialized brains that give us a spectacularly rich inner life, the possibility to relate to others on levels unknown to the rest of the animal kingdom, the ability to cooperate in complex ways for mutual advantage, and to articulate and reflect on all of this with an amazing degree of precision and discernment.

But we didn't have to turn out this way. Evolution is a chancy process. Accordingly, human nature is not something that is not written into the deep structure of reality. What it is to be a human is a contingent historical fact that reflects countless improbable turns through the space of evolutionary possibility. Moreover, what we are is in no deep sense fixed. We have never stopped evolving. Human nature is changing, bit by bit, as we speak. We just happened to turn out this way. We might never have existed at all. Some other species very much like us, but different in important ways, might have existed instead. It follows that moral principles based in human nature are similarly contingent. If we had turned out differently, then the principles that ought to govern our behavior might have been different. Again, they aren't deeply inscribed in the necessary structure of reality. This may be unsettling to some of us, but it's TRUE. So you can either reconcile yourself to it, or retreat to the consolations of mystification and tradition. But it really is our reason that makes us special, and applying those powers to their utmost is precisely what leads us to the truth about our nature.