14 Mar

Beyond Therapy: A Report from the President's Council on Bioethics

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 03/14/04

In October the President's Council on Bioethics submitted to the President a report titled Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. In Beyond Therapy Council members address two concerns linked to biotechnology: the inclination of many to seek the fulfillment of the deepest human desires through biotechnology, and the threat to the soul that accompanies such fulfillment. The writers of the report have structured their study "around the desires and goals of human beings, rather than around the technologies they employ" (taken from the letter—by the Council's Chairman Dr. Leon Kass—that accompanied the report to the President). To establish a rich picture of life in the age of biotechnology the report insists on understanding human beings in psychic, moral, and spiritual terms rather than in material, mechanistic, or medical (i.e. therapeutic) ones.

Beyond Therapy considers four ends for which biotechnologies are used: better children, superior performance in the activities of life, ageless bodies, and happy souls. In its early chapters the report asks whether or not using technologies to achieve these ends redefines them. The final chapter considers what kind of society might result from employing technologies not for healing, but for human "enhancement." In setting these boundaries for the discussion of life in the age of biotechnology, Kass writes that Council members are "hopeful that, by informing and moderating our desires, and by grasping the limits of our new powers, we can keep in mind the true meaning of our founding ideals—and thus find the means to savor the fruits of the age of biotechnology, without succumbing to its most dangerous temptations."

In their research for the report members of the Council drew on sources as varied as scientific publications, weekly periodicals and daily newspapers, and classic works of literature and philosophy. The concerns of Beyond Therapy are summarized in the following paragraphs from the report:

"Summing up these 'essential sources of concern,' we might succinctly formulate them as follows:

"In wanting to become more than we are, and in sometimes acting as if we were already superhuman or divine, we risk despising what we are and neglecting what we have.

"In wanting to improve our bodies and our minds using new tools to enhance their performance, we risk making our bodies and minds little different from our tools, in the process also compromising the distinctly human character of our agency and activity.

"In seeking by these means to be better than we are or to like ourselves better that we do, we risk 'turning into someone else,' confounding the identity we have acquired through natural gift cultivated by genuinely lived experiences, alone and with others.

"In seeking brighter outlooks, reliable contentment, and dependable feelings of self-esteem in ways that by-pass their usual natural sources, we risk flattening our souls, lowering our aspirations, and weakening our loves and attachments.

"By lowering our sights and accepting the sorts of satisfactions that biotechnology may be readily able to produce for us, we risk turning a blind eye to the objects of our natural loves and longings, the pursuit of which might be the truer road to a more genuine happiness."

Members of the President's Council on Bioethics include Francis Fukuyama, Robert P. George, Paul McHugh, Gilbert Meilaender, and Michael Sandel. [Posted March 2004, ALG]