Knowing What To Want

Knowing What to Want

Tom Burnett

September 9, 2006

    Biotechnology holds forth many promises. One promise is that we can fix our children prior to their conception, insuring that they will not inherit terrible diseases like cystic fibrosis. Technology also promises us the chance to fix ourselves, cure our diseases and remake our biology. The temptation will be great. Whatever our will dictates, we shall have. Self-determination is an American ideal. Choice is hallowed. What could be better choices than the dimensions and powers of our own bodies?

    Prior to this present flush state of prosperity, choices fell in narrow boundaries. We were subject to biological verities, bequeathed at birth and prior. Advancing prowess in genetics introduces a way to transcend those verities. The range of choices is set to expand like the floret of a Roman Candle on the Fourth of July.

    What is the wise use of choices? Shall we be glad that our genetic endowment is no longer an impediment? Maybe we should be spooked because we may be inept agents. By exercising our will, we may choose soft, meaningless lives.

    One writer that worried about this was Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World. He portrays “a dystopia that goes with, rather than against, the human grain, a dystopia that eliminates disease, aggression, war, anxiety, suffering, guilt, envy and grief at the heavy price of homogenization, mediocrity, trivial pursuits, shallow attachments, debased tastes, spurious contentment and souls without loves or longings”. (Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity, by Leon Kass, page 5.)

    For society, such a price would be great. Individuals may pay the same toll, entirely because of insisting on choosing according to desire. Our tastes may be debased when we are fully in charge of the menu. And the pity will be that we won’t know how spurious our contentment is. Having looked over the college catalog, we choose basketweaving and badminton over sonnets and symphonies.

    The book Beyond Therapy, published by the President’s Council on Bioethics, notes that we are obtaining “a science-based power to remake ourselves after images of our own devising”. ( Page 11.) We seek cosmetic surgery, performance enhancing drugs, mood-altering and attention-altering drugs. We take pills for sleep and wakefulness, and for birth control. We treat ourselves for fat and wrinkles, breast insufficiency and baldness. We know to what image we aspire. Hopefully it is the right one.

    Our will, though sovereign, may err. Our limited wisdom may produce the saddest result, getting everything we want, while not knowing what the best things are.

    Virginia Postrel, author of The Future and Its Enemies, predicts no problem with people choosing their genetic futures, their bodily treatments and enhancements. She defines “health not as a static standard, but as a “condition defined by the lives people want to lead.” (Page 162.) I ask: Do people know what to want? Leon Kass says this is an age in which “everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done,” and, “doctrinaire libertarians will not consider that freedom can lead us anywhere but upward.” The alliance of scientific advancement and individual choice is utterly compatible to those who enthusiastically embrace all genetic engineering.

    Postrel says “change and self-transformation are among the truest expressions of our enduring human nature, ( Postrel, page 164), and that whatever interferes with human purposes is “unhealthy”.

    Instead, is part of the dignity of human beings seen when they cope with their limitations? We honor people who try to complete their race, game or task even though hurt or handicapped. We also admire people who keep a cheerful face on even when they experience pain or failure. I admire Ron Thorsen who rebounds skillfully with only one arm. I admired a certain church member for enduring in marriage though his wife was a recluse, and an associate whose spouse is childish. Spectators do not admire players whose strength or speed comes from pills. This is no achievement. Overcoming limitations through pharmacology is hollow. Overcoming limitations through striving is better.

    I never expected to like Shakespeare. Mrs. Wallin forced it on us. It was in the curriculum. Now I love Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. I never liked poetry. Randomly listening to National Public Radio’s The Writer’s Almanac, has made me avid for poetry. I did not think I would like living in town. My wife prevailed and now we live in a neighborhood. I like it very well. If I had only followed my will, Shakespeare, poetry and city life would be hidden to me. Chemistry, soil physics, plant pathology, accounting, economics, and plant biochemistry were all pushed on me in college. If I had devised my own curriculum, I would be poorer, narrower and shallower.

  People who eat themselves into an unhealthy state exemplify the problem of allowing the will full rein. Americans can afford all manner and quantity of food. And some of us cannot exercise prudence and restraint. Freedom of choice, coupled with limitless selection leads many to destruction. A will sated is frequently a pathetic sight.

    I may not want my nose straightened, my skin tanned, my hair thickened, and my fears undone, though I think, at this time, that I would. I do not yet know what to want so I hesitate to embrace the scientific changes that will fulfill every desire.

    I expect that in the course of doing my duty to God, family and country, in the course of random encounters through service, schooling and work, I will discover interests, passions and desires that, without those influences, would be latent, undiscovered , unimproved. I welcome those pushes and prods.

    A boy only wants to eat Oreos, play video games, and when the endocrine system cries out, to enter into unfettered conjugality. Adults know that allowing him to pursue only his apparent desires would leave him stupid and fat, a prisoner of his will .We steer him into classes, service, athletics and work. He is better for it.

    In charge of my own development, I must not succumb to only those interests that I think I have. I must not form myself completely on the basis of my own tastes, my will. Appetite can lead me awry. Not that I am willing for the state or society to force my choices. I am a libertarian. I know far better than central planners and busy-body socialists what is good for me and what I want, and what I should want. Yet I have serious doubts that I really know what I should want. What should I want my body to look like, my mental constitution to be?

    A higher level of wisdom is called for than ever has been in the past. I take this to be, for me, the great challenge of prosperity and the widening options science presents. If I can have anything I want, be anything I want, what should that be?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: