Humility earlier than the secrets and techniques of the human situation
Gilbert Meilaender is one of the most famous Christian ethicists in America and has written with conviction and insight for decades from his chair at Valparaiso University. He served on the President’s Bioethics Council under George W. Bush for seven years. Meilaender’s new collection of essays, Bioethics and the Character of Human Life, combines recent reflections on gene-editing technologies like CRISPR with older ones from the end of his tenure on the President’s Council. The latter occasionally feel like they have the biggest hits: reflections on stem cells and torture in the Weekly Standard now play out like an Allman Brothers recording as a marker of their time and place. Nonetheless, the collection has given more than a decade of serious reflection on issues of public concern that relate to the most pressing issues of human life.
Meilaender is not interested in the genealogy of modernity and the problems with our ideas of autonomy and self. Nor does it always focus on policy regulations and outlines the laws we should have for euthanasia, surrogacy, or stem cell research. For Meilaender, bioethics focuses more on how we view ourselves as humans, what kind of creatures we are and why this is morally important and how we discuss and recognize this as a people. Who counts in the common good is more urgent to consider than how we should regulate cloning, also because the former type of question helps us answer the latter. Meilaender seeks to help its students, its readers, and the nation as a whole think these questions through rather than quickly reaching crucial conclusions.
That is a good thing, of course, and all too often scholars of his caliber do not associate such care and humility with their expertise. Even so, in some places I couldn’t help but want Meilaender to lead his arguments to their conclusions. We can all ponder human nature, but bioethicists apply specialized knowledge of biology and medicine to controversial matters of public concern, often with legal implications. Non-specialists count on your help in carefully assessing such technical issues. “The conversation and the arguments never come to a final end,” Meilaender writes. Perhaps, but let’s dig into the arguments in order to arrive at a sure – or largely certain – correct answer.
This reluctance is evident in the above-mentioned essay on stem cells and torture. Meilaender distinguishes between obligations we soldiers owe and those we may owe to terrorists who are likely to plan to attack innocent civilians again in the future. He focuses on the distinction between trying to coerce someone and dehumanizing or “dingifying” them. It is morally acceptable to force a captured terrorist to listen to loud music or to hit him around (in a never fully defined way). Forcing him to be naked or to sit in his own excrement is not. Giving him a truth serum is likely. What about waterboarding? When it comes to the critical 2009 question, Meilaender doesn’t give a definitive answer:
Now I am beginning to suspect that it is corrupt to answer this question in advance, as if there were a policy we could formulate to protect ourselves in a moral no man’s land. But the answer, I think, has to turn on whether it would be more of a coercive attempt, which is still a strength test, or whether it would aim from the beginning to identify the captured terrorist and try to bypass his overall decision-making ability.
This is a helpful distinction, and certainly better than the shallow utilitarianism that underpins much of our public moral reasoning. But when the questions have been asked and the criteria specified, our policymakers and our country need an answer. I think Meilaender’s criterion gives a good reason to oppose waterboarding, and I wish he would have followed that conclusion or offered a decisive antithesis to it.
Similarly, in The Future of Baby Making and The End of Sex, Meilaender would like to argue that procreation is an inherent end to sexual intercourse. This is not an absurd moral point for him, but an important principle that helps us understand the problems with many reproductive technologies. The birth of a child is the inner realization of the sexual act, not something that can be separated from it without consequence. This argument leads to the idea that birth control is immoral, but that’s a conclusion Meilaender wants to avoid. He believes that contraception is a part of a marriage whose “whole ensemble of sexual acts”, as Pope Paul VI used it. In his encyclical Humanae Vitae declined to be morally permissible. After all, Meilaender argues, marriage is not just “a series of one-night stands” but a story of the growth of love and care.
Of course we should hope that it is. Yet people are actors who take discreet actions, not stories. The overall trajectory of these actions and the shape they give a life are important, but so is each one. Getting irresponsibly drunk is still an unequivocal decision, right or wrong, even if it occurs in a story or a life of sobriety. Likewise, locating a discreet sexual act in the context of marriage does not answer the question of whether or not it is wrong to block its reproductive aspect. The story of a marriage does not determine the moral nature of an act, but rather the other way round: sexual acts determine the character and direction of a marriage, just as more general acts make our character moral or immoral, and not vice versa. It seems to me that Meilaender doesn’t have and can’t eat his cake either. Procreation may or may not be eliminated from sex without moral consequences, but either way, moral logic applies to both artificial and natural procreation. If contraception is moral, he will lose one of his strongest arguments against many reproductive technologies.
Meilaender provides safer norms and conclusions on performance enhancing drugs, genetically modified reproduction, and palliative care in its essays. In its report, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, the President’s Council concluded that the danger of performance-enhancing drugs and procedures is not that they give us unfair abilities, but that they affect our humanity, especially the humanity of our agency , endanger: “So the problem with some improvement techniques, at least if Beyond Therapy is correct, is that they further alienate us from ourselves and exacerbate the division of the self rather than uniting doers and deeds. Using techniques designed to circumvent our own will and reflection means losing some of the distinctively human character of our performance. “Meilaender agrees with Michael Sandel that our quest to rule the world and human nature can lead us to lose our sense of the“ gift ”of life. Respect for our humanity gives us good reason to recognize the lure of improvement and to withdraw from it.
Likewise, when “designing our descendants” we should consider the limits within which our humanity is inscribed. We need cleverness, writes Meilaender, in order to recognize the order and form of human nature and to adapt to the reality of things as they exist. In a reversal of Marx’s dictum, he remarks: “The first task is not to change the world, but to understand and interpret it.” This cleverness should lead us to resist the new era of eugenics we are in. In contrast to the supposedly rejected eugenics of figures such as Margaret Sanger and Oliver Wendell Holmes, the new eugenics is based on compassion and consent and encourages us to alleviate the suffering due to the right to privacy and free choice. Meilaender competes against designer babies and ends the pregnancy of children who are considered defective.
In summary we can say that if we want to carry out the project of designing our descendants, we want them to be people who do not consider the natural world to be infinitely malleable for their projects; who anticipate the limits of their own knowledge and control over the future from the start; who respect the equal dignity of others and do not seek to co-opt others as means for their own ends, even if they are good; who acknowledge their own death, the ultimate limit; willing to subordinate their needs to the good of others; who are more willing to seek wisdom than power; who know that good is not finally at their disposal; and who live in a way that says to others, “It is good that you exist.”
Meilaender’s consideration of the ethics of palliative sedation provides a crash course on how the dual action principle helps us think through complex moral issues. The concept of the double effect is based on the distinction between “what we do and what is achieved by what we do” (italics in the original), between the results of our actions that we intend and those that we do not. We should say no to euthanasia, writes Meilaender, but that doesn’t mean we should do everything in our power to prolong life at any time. Choosing life sometimes means choosing how to live well when we die. This means that we can give pain relievers intended to knock a patient out to relieve acute suffering, while anticipating the effect and taking into account that they may shorten their life. Meilaender argues that unconsciousness in these cases is not an evil, but something that can be properly chosen, and he examines various scenarios where sedation may and may not be the best ethical option for treating a patient with debilitating pain.
Meilaender’s essays are accessible to readers of many beliefs, but he thinks within the Christian tradition of moral reflection. According to Karl Barth, he believes that the Christian ethicist has to consider three angles from which we can observe and analyze human life and its dilemmas: creation, reconciliation and redemption. Perhaps the strongest essay in this collection is “An Ecumenism of Time,” which further explores what it means to think within a tradition: to talk to those who previously believed to learn from them and them Let yourself and your questions ask your own time. This is not limiting, but gives the thinking the depth and nuance it needs. We can be grateful to Gil Meilaender for decades of nuanced reflection humbling before the secrets of the human condition as we draw upon wisdom, old and new, to help us choose properly and live the good life.