In the Shadow of Progress: Being Human in the Age of Technology

by Eric Cohen

Encounter, 180 pages, $21.95

One of the more interesting rock groups of the 1990s was a trio called Morphine, which consisted of a drummer, a saxophonist, and a bass player named Mark Sandman. Sandman’s bass guitar had only two strings; when asked why he didn’t have a third string, according to a perhaps apocryphal story, Sandman replied, “I like to limit myself.”

A little glib, perhaps, but it tells us something about the pursuit of excellence”human excellence is available only against a background of limitation. Not only must we overcome such limitations, we must capitalize on them, as when the sculptor takes advantage of the flaw in the marble. Excellence demands that we extend the boundaries of human accomplishment in a way inseparable from nature’s checks on our aspirations.

A similar claim is made in In the Shadow of Progress , the new book in which Eric Cohen articulates the groundwork of a conservative Jewish bioethics: a bioethics that takes seriously, in a number of ways, the need for limits, and the relation between such limits and human achievement. Cohen is an important new voice in the continuing conversation about biotechnology and the human future. The story he tells about the converging forces at work in the modern biotech revolution is, repeatedly, a story of scientists and philosophers seeking to overcome every rational, biological, or moral limit by which we might be constrained.

Excellence in achievement is only one casualty of this Promethean striving, but Cohen sees it as an important one: “To understand the excellence of human beings”biological human beings”one must consider the double meaning of the fact that such excellence might not have happened at all: because the beings capable of being excellent might not have been at all; and because the beings capable of being excellent might not have performed excellently.”

Modern biotech seeks to overcome both these limits, in enhancing, designing, or at least screening children, to ensure that only the best are born, and in treating those who are then born as though they were machines: guaranteed, through drugs, surgery, or technique, “to work . . . every time.” This democratization of excellence removes the possibility of real achievement, won against the competing forces of nature and nature’s lottery. More, it removes the possibility of the right kind of failure . As biological organisms, and not as perfected biological artifacts, we are destined to come up against the limits of our bodies, of ourselves. And this experience of limit is crucial to our aspirations toward something more.

Here, in the experience of limit, Cohen finds the origin of religious consciousness. In response to the clash between our awareness of our bodily nature, destined to fail in sickness, death, and loss, and the desires to which that nature is not commensurate, man is prompted to seek something higher, something without limit, something for which only faith and hope are appropriate.

The natural aspiration to transcend our biological finitude is perverted, in Cohen’s telling, by the forces of biotechnology. Consider modern science: Cohen diagnoses its hostility to religion as stemming from religion’s assertion of human finitude, and the false hope religion holds out for something beyond this life. Modern science, by contrast, believes man to be infinitely perfectible and science itself to be the only necessity for realizing human potential.

From this also comes science’s hostility to morality: If some other discipline is needed for reasonable judgments to be made about science, then science’s claim to self-sufficiency is cast into doubt. Yet science, in the end, adopts its own faith in progress and speaks in the language of morals to persuade us that its path is better than the path of religion.

Cohen sees a parallel in the commercial forces at work in biotech. The idea that we can buy perfection”in the form of research into further techniques that will then be marketed to the masses”drives industries in egg donation from female students at elite colleges, Viagra, plastic surgeries, and more. But limitless commercialization destroys the boundaries of biological family, modesty, and identity-forming imperfection.

In the Shadow of Progress characterizes “conservative bioethics” as having two concerns: the “greatness of the great” and the “dignity of the weak.” The former is threatened by abandoning limits and seeking perfection through the microscope, the scalpel, and the dollar. The latter is threatened when excellence is the norm. If we let ourselves believe it is under our control, then the imperfect, the weak, and the defenseless are alternately a rebuke to our failures and a resource to be used in refining our knowledge and technique.

So embryos are exploited as biological resources to cure the sick; Down-syndrome fetuses are aborted out of existence; and euthanasia is contemplated and even legalized in countries with increasingly aged populations whose welfare jeopardizes the pursuit of happiness by the young and wealthy. The emphasis on the dignity of the weak, as a counterbalance to the greatness of the great, and in contrast to the democratizing ruthlessness of modernity, explains why a conservative bioethics”one focused on limit and its relationship to both excellence and dignity”is often also a religious bioethics. As Cohen writes, “Part of the reason many people of faith (mostly Christian) are so willing to oppose aborting ‘imperfect fetuses’ or destroying embryos in the pursuit of health is that their faith provides good answers to the problems of human limitation, suffering, and mortality. Biblical religion teaches that there is an inherent dignity that comes with creation, a dignity that all human beings possess at all stages of life, simply by being God’s creatures. And while people may suffer in this life”with disability, disease, imperfection, and death”they can be saved in the next one.”

Of course, willingness to live one’s life with openness to God and in awareness of one’s own finitude”a willingness common to both Christians and Jews”is not the same as having a well-worked-out bioethics, a philosophical account of the norms governing the creation, destruction, enhancement, protection, and treatment of human life. Cohen provides no such account”and why not is a question of some interest.

In a Slate magazine essay to which Cohen alludes, William Saletan describes a meeting of the President’s Council on Bioethics in these words: “The Catholics were clear about what was moral and what wasn’t. The Jews were fuzzy.” Or, as Cohen puts it, the “Catholics raise deep questions and then presume to answer them with divinely confident reason. Jews raise those same questions but seem less certain that reason can ever finally settle them.”

In other words, human limit and finitude plays an essential role in the sphere of moral deliberation and (in Cohen’s assessment of what seems our most basic tool for such deliberation) human reason. Cohen is less “divinely confident” of the full moral standing of the embryo than are his Catholic counterparts, even though he shares the deep consensus that embryo-destructive research is bad for the soul of whoever engages in it.

Of course, the story is more complicated, but Saletan’s stereotypes are helpful in identifying the genre to which In the Shadow of Progress belongs, for it is clear that the genre is not that of philosophical bioethics. Cohen has a fine gift for drawing together images from our common history”the image of Jacob’s dying, for example”and eliciting from them a model for how to think about some bioethical question, such as: How ought one to die? Similarly, he excels at providing categories for thinking about our attitudes, and he captures across a wide variety of contexts the dichotomous nature of our errors: the conjoined optimism and pessimism of science, together with our worrying too much too early, and too little too late, about advances in genetics.

Cohen draws moral lessons from all this, and he concludes his book with what I think is an accurate description of the book’s aim: “persuasion . . . [and] the recovery of forgotten images of man.” He has, in other words, given us a rhetoric of bioethics”a conservative Jewish rhetoric.

I do not say this to criticize. It may be that, in addition to Catholic and other philosophical bioethics”which make the case, in hard ana­lytic terms, for the sanctity of the human embryo, the biological nature of human beings, and the inviolability of human life”such a rhetorical bioethics is necessary to speak to a people who are losing the morality of their ancestors. If Cohen succeeds in persuading some of these to listen to the wisdom of their Judeo-Christian heritage, then he will have provided an admirable service to human life and the human good.

But whether this division of labor is essential to a Jewish-Catholic bioethics is, I think, a question in need of further deliberation.

Christopher Tollefsen , a fellow of the Witherspoon Institute, is an associate professor at the University of South Carolina and author, with Robert P. George, of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life.