We can go on imagining futuristic scenarios of this kind, and there is no real limit to them. Techniques now opening before us–cloning, hybridization, genetic manipulation–present possibilities that both fascinate and frighten us. Already researchers have implanted a variety of human genetic sequences into the DNA of mice, so as to induce diseases previously observed only in humans–all in the worthy cause of finding a cure. Such experiments inevitably recall science fiction stories about hybrids of humans and animals. Ordinary people, confronted with these scenarios, will throw up their hands and say, “Don’t go there!” This was the reaction of the British Parliament last year when it proposed a law that would forbid the hybridization of human embryos. Interestingly enough, however, scientists already working on the project complained that the government had not understood its value, that important medical breakthroughs were promised, that the research would bring hope to many who are currently suffering from terminal ailments. In other words, the project should be permitted, since the results might be beneficial.
Hubris and Piety
Sherwin Nuland refers to his own “secular spiritual” position, which prompts him to recoil from this kind of radical refashioning of human destiny. I know what he means. Religious people, who see their time on earth as a pilgrimage, will have no difficulty in understanding that some discoveries should not be pursued; didn’t death enter the world through the lust for knowledge? There are techniques that we ought not to develop, since in developing them we are playing at God, as Adam played at God in trying to distinguish good and evil for himself. The Greeks described this playing at God as hubris and also as an offense against sebas, or piety. And hubris, they believed, brings down the vengeance of Olympus. The Romans took over the idea of piety and made it into the cornerstone of their somewhat godless, or at any rate very earthbound, religion. And the Roman pietas corresponds, I believe, to the “secular spiritual” hesitation expressed by Nuland. Piety is a kind of metaphysical humility–a recognition of our dependence and fragility, and of the dangers of meddling too much in nature’s secrets. It is another name for the “we” attitude that I have been expounding in this essay, the attitude that asks us to respect the fixed points that we should never displace from their allotted positions in our moral universe.
By putting the problem in that way, however, we endow it with an insoluble character. The “we” attitude, which puts intuitive limits on our desire for knowledge and power, is an attitude that we have every reason to acquire. But it is not a reasonable attitude. On the contrary, it involves a rooted refusal to reason, a determination to draw a line and to take a stand at the point fixed by our moral intuitions. “Don’t go there!” is all it has to say to us; and its deliverances are as unpersuasive to the person who does not share them as the taboos of a primitive religion. Indeed, some would respond, the Roman concept of piety is no real advance over the Polynesian concept of taboo: these are just two different names for the same fear, the same retreat, the same offense against knowledge and discovery. We have no alternative, as rational creatures, to pursuing the path that knowledge has opened up to us.