For several weeks now I have been trying to write about the Nuffield Bioethics Report called (un)Natural. The Nuffield Bioethics Council is a non-partisan bioethics think tank that analyzes particular issues of importance in science, medicine, and technology. They are based in the UK and have some influence over policy issues because of their presence in the mainstream media.
Their report with the longer title of “Ideas about naturalness in public and political debates about science, technology, and medicine,” analyzes the various ways that the terms “natural,” “unnatural,” and “nature” are used in the media, in journal articles, and in other venues. They are particularly concerned with how those terms shape people’s perceptions of new technologies. They solicited the help from experts in language and had poetry readings.
The report makes good points about how different people view “natural” differently. Some see it as good, others bad, and others as descriptive. They list five views that are helpful for understanding the different ways that people understand these terms:
- Neutral/skeptical – Natural and unnatural are not inherently good or bad
- Wisdom of nature – Nature has found the best way
- Natural purpose – Aristotelian idea of things having a particular purpose
- Disgust and monstrosity – Often linked to science fiction, it is the idea that some things that are unnatural provoke disgust
- God and religion – Ideas of nature are derived from one’s religion
As the report says, debates over nature and values associated with nature are centuries old. It mentioned Hobbes’ versus Rousseau. One considered the state of nature a vicious competition while the other saw it as pure and idyllic.
I have had a hard time analyzing this report because, while it uses careful language and tries very hard to be respectful of people’s views, it has a sense of an agenda about it. I found Michael Cook’s description at BioEdge helpful:
While the report is cautiously phrased, it prepares the ground for an official government stand that the word ‘natural’ is so ambiguous and confusing that it is meaningless and should therefore be ridiculed and discarded. It’s hard to imagine what cannot be approved in the new bio-technologies if this happens.
The report seems to come across as an analytical approach to a study of how words are used, but this may be a case of hiding agendas behind the objective veneer of linguistic deconstruction. As I read this report, I kept thinking of the fact/value split. While it does not say that the neutral, scientific view is the right one, it is treated as though it is the factual one. The report admonishes administrators to kindly consider that when people are using the terms “unnatural” “natural” or “nature” to do so in consideration of differing values.
By way of example, here is one quote that stuck out to me only because mitochondrial transfer has been in the news:
Some of the language used to discuss novel technologies in ways that invoke ideas about naturalness appears to be distinctive to particular sections of the media. Discussion of ‘frankenfoods’, for example, happens rarely outside parts of the press and, similarly, expressions of such ‘designer babies’ or ‘three-parent children’ are infrequently used in non-media contexts. (33)
The implication is that “three-parent IVF” and “designer babies” and “frankenfoods” are inaccurate descriptions that give people a false impression of the technology that may affect what technologies are acceptable. The terms are value-laden and, as the report points out, and only used in the popular media. While these terms are meant to draw attention by overstating or sensationalizing the science, I don’t think the sentiments should be dismissed outright because they are value-laden. Sometimes value-laden terms also describe facts. To say something is “unnatural” and mean it in a value-laden way (usually negative) does not change the fact that the technology may very well be unnatural.
We live in a pluralistic culture that does not have a common moral foundation. Because of this, we can lack a common language for describing something as morally right or wrong. On top of that, many people do not have the rhetorical and introspective capacity to explain their intuitive revulsions in such a way as to make them “sound” less value-laden, or as the report implies, more scientific. The report mentions the President’s Council on Bioethics’ reports on human cloning and human dignity and how they described cloning as being “unnatural” in the value-laden sense. The Council was under the leadership of Leon Kass at the time. Kass received criticism for his admonition that we should not ignore our sense of repugnance in the face of human cloning.
People will argue that some things are repugnant but are still good, such as certain medical procedures. But, anyone who has taken the time to read Kass’s work, including Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity would understand that Kass is not implying that we should just “go with our gut” but that we should not ignore our sense of repugnance and ask ourselves why we have this reaction. This is a way to appeal to something common in our humanity.
Going back to the Nuffield report, let’s take “three-parent IVF” for example. Editors and writers want their articles to draw attention so they use the not-quite-accurate-but-not-quite-wrong phrase “three-parent IVF.” Lasciviousness sells and this phraseology makes it sound like a genetic ménage à trois. The truth of the matter is much more sterile and boring; however, it is not any less disturbing. This technology involves fertilizing an egg that has the mother’s nuclear material, including more than 99% of her DNA, but another woman’s cytoplasmic material, including the other woman’s mitochondria, which makes up a small, although important, percentage of DNA. Will this work? Will it lead to unpleasant side effects? Will the mitochondrial DNA be able to communicate with the nuclear DNA? Ultimately, no matter how many animal trials researchers do, they will not know until they try it with human gametes.
When someone describes this as “unnatural” they are conveying a personal value, but they are also describing a factual notion. “I don’t like it” is a personal opinion. Why the person doesn’t like it, though, should not be dismissed. If the person says, “It is unnatural” that is not an inaccurate statement. If the person says, “It is unnatural because usually babies come from two parents” that is not an inaccurate statement either. Indeed, one could argue that the last statement is relatively value-neutral, particularly without any other cues like tone of voice.
In a world where people do not operate from a common moral foundation, we are ostensibly relativists, but when we appeal to our personal notions of repugnance, this is cast off as un-objective. It is value-laden, which means it is not factual. But, in the above example, while the idea “I don’t like it; it’s unnatural” may not be a basis for policy, the reasoning “most babies come from two parents” should be reflected upon. That is a fact out of which comes the emotional response. While emotive language can be slippery, understanding the reasoning behind the language is helpful.
If I understand the Nuffield Report correctly, they are not against the idea that the reasoning behind the deep-seated notions of value-laden uses of “nature,” “natural,” and “unnatural” are important considerations, but they also seem to be setting up categories that imply the scientists, who use “natural” in a value-neutral way, know best because they are talking about facts.
The problem with this is the veneer of objectivity. Every human being brings his or her culture, values, and experiences to the table. In these discussions, it is often a matter of who sounds the most objective. Whoever can out-analyze the rhetoric wins the objective battle but in doing so, he or she has rendered the rhetoric useless.