Monday, 9 November 2015

Gregory E. Kaebnick on Nature and Moral Humility

Bioethics as a profession has a strong tendency to simplify things, to do away with the messiness of real-life situations, to escape from the fuzziness of real-life ethics. It seeks to impose order and rational structure onto the chaos of our moral life. Irreducible individuality, the uniqueness of the concrete, the uncertainty that comes with complexity, are its sworn enemies and cannot be tolerated. Because it is supposed to tell us how we ought to act, bioethics’ findings need to be easily applicable, and hence universalizable. That is why bioethicists are so fond of trolley problems and similar schematics. They make things appear simple and straightforward, whereas in reality they almost never are. That is also why the concepts that bioethicists prefer to use tend to be ones that can be clearly defined. What cannot be clearly defined is deemed to have no ethical relevance. Think of the concept of ‘potentiality’, or the concept of ‘dignity’. Pretty damn useless, both of them. Bioethics, rational bioethics, cannot afford to take moral intuitions into account that draw on those concepts. The same goes for the concept of ‘nature’, which many people appear to attach some normative significance to, but which is so vague and lacking in content that common appeals to what is ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ can best be understood as the expression of a deep-seated, but entirely unreflected aversion to change. In other words, talk about nature and the natural and that both should be protected from human interference merely voices a (conservative) attitude, but not a (rational and therefore worth-considering) argument. Or so we are being trained to think by a bioethics that is largely liberal, progressivist, and most importantly result-oriented in its outlook.

Yet even though the concept of nature is without doubt difficult to apply in a coherent and consistent manner, we may not have to give it up entirely. At least that is what Gregory F. Kaebnick argues in his book Humans in Nature. The World as We Find It and the World as We Create It (Oxford University Press 2014).  Kaebnick is the editor of the Hastings Center Report and a research scholar at the Hastings Center, which describes itself on its website as a “nonpartisan research institution”, and nonpartisan is exactly what it is. Kaebnick’s work is, like that of his colleague Erik Parens[1], infused by the ethos of his institution and thus bears no traces of the self-assured dogmatism that too many professional bioethicists adopt as a matter of course when they set out to tell us what is right and wrong, morally permissible and morally obligatory, justified and unjustified, rational and irrational. Kaebnick is not interested in prescribing actions to his readers, and he certainly doesn’t want to persuade us to ‘do what is natural’ or to ‘protect nature’. Instead he explores with an open mind what, if any, moral significance the concept of nature has or can have in various different contexts, looking at the discourses in which the concept is used, and leaving it to the reader to draw his or her own practical conclusions from those discussions.

Kaebnick’s open-mindedness results from his neo-Humean ethical subjectivism (or maybe his ethical subjectivism results from his open-mindedness), which shies away from postulating the truth of certain moral judgements (and, as a corollary, the falsity of others). Because ethics is not about truth, but about positioning oneself in the world of human (and non-human) relations, we need to practice what Kaebnick calls “moral humility” (32). Ethics is about commitment. But commitments are personal. They are built on, or nourished by, individual ideals that cannot and should not be regarded as obligatory for everyone. “If moral standards are projections on the world of human attitudinal stances, then why not allow that, within the complex social web of moral standards, there arise some that are endorsed by individuals specially to guide their own lives?” (56) But the fact that those standards are not universally binding constitutes no good reason to take them less seriously: “If we are committed to our commitments, then we need not relinquish them just because somebody else disagrees with us.” (35) If we genuinely care about something, then knowing or believing that it is not objectively true that we ought to care gives us no reason at all to stop caring. That doesn’t mean that we should blindly follow our intuitions and initial emotional reactions. Reason is important to sort out our preferences and to understand and negotiate conflicting intuitions. It helps us figure out what we care about most and why. “The very point of morality, after all, is that it is about what matters most: therefore we must (and often will) try to get to the bottom of our values, to articulate them in their most general terms, and also to think about how seemingly competing considerations compare.” (41) However, a complete rationalisation of our moral outlook is not possible (and understanding this may well be part of what it means to be morally humble). This is no reason to resign ourselves to a brute-fact view of morality: “We will not be able to support our positions with arguments that are entirely noncircular: ultimately, our values form a closed system, since they are not grounded on analytic truths or objective features of the universe. But we should still be able to articulate, convey, and defend our views.” (43)

This articulation, however, is not always as easy as we may wish. Thus, if we want to protect ‘nature’ from human interference, be it as ‘wilderness’ and ‘wildlife’, as genetically unmodified animals and plants, as analytic rather than synthetic biology, or as human rather than posthuman biology (or post-biology?), we shouldn’t expect to be able to come up with a persuasive rationale for our concerns. “Concern for nature can be brute feature of our moral lives.” (181) Nor should we expect to be able to defend (before others as well as ourselves) an indiscriminate condemnation of all human interference in those areas. Instead we have to look at what exactly is being done or proposed and then decide whether this particular instance of, say, genetic modification or change of the human condition violates or undermines our shared or personal values.  A dogmatic stance on those issues cannot be justified given the interconnectedness of all things. While the subtitle of Kaebnick’s book (“the world as we find it and the world as we create it”) suggests that we can neatly distinguish between the natural (i.e. the world as we find it) and the artificial (the world as we create it), he makes it very clear that in practice there is no clear-cut distinction between the two. Instead, the world as we find it is already a world that we have created, and any world that we create does of course also have to be built out of the world that we have found. So the natural is never completely opposed to the artificial.

Yet despite the “ineradicable fuzziness” of the concept of nature (126), it has some heuristic value for us, functioning, if I understand Kaebnick correctly, as a comprehensive label for a group of concerns that have to do with the kind of relationship that we have to the non-human world. This relationship, Kaebnick believes, should ideally (and this may well be a personal ideal) be not one of domination, but more like a conversation: “What makes a food ‘natural’ (or ‘organic’) is not that humans did not produce it, but that its production reflects a kind of limited exchange with nature, one in which nature is not thoroughly dominated.” (126) One may say, of course, that this is not an argument, and indeed it is not. There is no persuasive argument in support of conversation rather than domination. Whether you favour the one or the other depends on your mind-set. I personally find the ideal of conversation much more appealing than the ideal of domination, and so, obviously, does Kaebnick, but I’m sure some other readers will not. That may also be the reason why I am often taken aback by the way many bioethicists practise their profession.

Talking about the difference between an “industrial paradigm” and an “ecological paradigm” in agriculture, Kaebnick suggests that the industrial paradigm, although

“featuring technological sophistication, (…) is really fundamentally about simplicity , about trying to iron out the irregularities of nature and ignoring the complexities that careful organic farming is based on. It is about control of nature, with practices that fly in the face of natural mechanisms and must be strenuously maintained over against nature, rather than about collaboration with nature. (…) With animals, too, industrial agriculture tends to depart from nature, at least in the sense that it encourages farmers to treat their animals in ways that have ever less to do with animal husbandry, with caring for animals, and more to do with productivity.” (125, my italics)

It seems to me that what Kaebnick says here about agriculture could also be said about bioethics. The dominant paradigm in bioethics today is industrial. It aims at what Kaebnick calls the “industrialization of life” (125). In contrast, the paradigm that Kaebnick himself follows with his style of conducting an ethical inquiry is ecological, i.e., far more willing to acknowledge the complexities (what I would call the ‘messiness’) of our ethical life. I for one would like to see more of that.

[1] Last year Parens published Shaping our Selves: on Technology, Flourishing, and a Habit of Thinking (Oxford UP 2014). Brian D. Earp and I have (sort of) reviewed the book for the American Journal of Bioethics, endorsing Parens’s defence of “binocularity”:

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