Friday, April 03, 2009

agency - the moral dilemma of art, artifact, and artisan

Supermice were accidentally created using transgenic methods about four years ago by injecting a highly active form of a gene for an enzyme called phosphonenolpyruvate carboxykinase (PEPCK-C) into mice embryos. A couple of years ago, I posted an article about the metabolic research at Case Western Reserve that engendered these "supermice". I subsequently came across some very provocative discussion of that research at an intelligent design blog.

Last night my good friend Arnach sent me a deep meditation on the issue of human morality in the context of biotechnology. It's lengthy, but well worth your consideration. With characteristic synchronicity this morning, nanakwame poses the corresponding questions addressed in that essay
The creative/destructive principle of life. where do we go from here? what will the next human look like?
With that, I give you a brief excerpt and encourage you to read the essay and discuss it with me and among yourselves;
The "I" and the "We"
There are two contrasting attitudes that we take toward practical questions, which we might call the "I" attitude and the "we" attitude. As a rational agent, I see the world as a theater of action, in which I and my goals take a central place. I act to increase my power, to acquire the means to realize my objectives, to bring others to my side, and to work with them to overcome obstacles. This "I" attitude is implanted deep in the psyche, since it defines the starting point of all practical reasoning and contains an indelible intimation of the thing that distinguishes people from the rest of nature--namely, their freedom. There is a sense in which animals, too, are free: they make choices, do things both freely and under constraint. But animals are not accountable for what they do. They are not called upon to justify their conduct, nor are they persuaded or dissuaded by dialogue with others. This strange feature of the human condition has puzzled philosophers since Aristotle; and it is the foundation of all that is most important to us. All those goals that make human life into a thing of intrinsic value--justice, community, love--have their origin in the mutual accountability of persons, who respond to each other "I" to "I."

Behind all my projects, however, like a horizon against which they are projected, is another and quite different attitude. I am aware that I belong to a kind, and that kind has a place in nature. I am also aware that we are part of a world to which we are adapted. Whereas the "I" attitude seeks change and improvement, overcoming the challenges presented by nature, the "we" attitude seeks stasis and accommodation, confirming that we and our world are at one. Things that threaten the equilibrium between human beings and our environment, either by destroying that environment or by undermining human nature, awaken in us a profound sense of unease, even of sacrilege. The "we" attitude tells us that we must never disturb the two fixed points of our universe, the environment and human nature. This attitude may be the residue of prehistorical events, an unconscious memory of the original harmony between "our hunting fathers" and their natural home, from which our species departed on its journey into knowledge. But it continues to exert its influence on our practical reasoning, filling our minds with ideas of a prelapsarian innocence.
In my occasionally humble opinion, these questions seem far less difficult in the light of an evolved experience of the loci of agency in our conscious experience. Once you know what you are, or more importantly what you're not, then questions of anthropocentric agency and morality fall somewhat by the wayside. I'm very interested to know what you think about this "Frankensteinian" dilemma.


Temple3 said...

I'm just saying that I need to read you blog much, much, much more often and closer. On the real. Thanks for doing this every day.

CNu said...

My pleasure sir, glad to be of service. {I put this up for my children, especially for my daughter who is old enough now and sophisticated enough to grok some of what this is all about. She filled out an application and had an interview for Harvard summer school the other week and was able to drop knowledge on George Church and computational genomics as a primary interest, so it may actually be working}

Big Don said...

__ Supermice -- Rodent Bio Diversity (RBD)...??