The true men of old

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For a second time, Ian’s comments have prompted me to clarify my personal response to eugenics, beyond the ethical critique and into a domain that I have not reflected on in this light for a long time.

In practical terms, I realised some time ago that I could not wait for science to unravel the various psychological, biological, and physical mysteries that limit and confuse us.

Nor did I think I could simply work these things out for myself.

But I knew there were people considered ‘wise’ and better still, there were writings and teachings left by wise and mysterious individuals from centuries and millennia ago. What I found in them was the near-universal understanding that our current state was one of decline from our origins. Humans had, through a variety of attributed reasons, lost their original state, their natural state, and suffered for it.

Take for example the Zhuangzi’s depiction of the ‘true men of old’:

What is meant by ‘the True Man?’ The True men of old did not reject (the views of) the few; they did not seek to accomplish (their ends) like heroes (before others); they did not lay plans to attain those ends. Being such, though they might make mistakes, they had no occasion for repentance; though they might succeed, they had no self-complacency. Being such, they could ascend the loftiest heights without fear; they could pass through water without being made wet by it; they could go into fire without being burnt; so it was that by their knowledge they ascended to and reached the Tâo.

The True men of old did not dream when they slept, had no anxiety when they awoke, and did not care that their food should be pleasant. Their breathing came deep and silently. The breathing of the true man comes (even) from his heels, while men generally breathe (only) from their throats. When men are defeated in argument, their words come from their gullets as if they were vomiting. Where lusts and desires are deep, the springs of the Heavenly are shallow.

The True men of old knew nothing of the love of life or of the hatred of death. Entrance into life occasioned them no joy; the exit from it awakened no resistance. Composedly they went and came. They did not forget what their beginning bad been, and they did not inquire into what their end would be. They accepted (their life) and rejoiced in it; they forgot (all fear of death), and returned (to their state before life). Thus there was in them what is called the want of any mind to resist the Tâo, and of all attempts by means of the Human to assist the Heavenly. Such were they who are called the True men.

3. Being such, their minds were free from all thought; their demeanour was still and unmoved; their foreheads beamed simplicity. Whatever coldness came from them was like that of autumn; whatever warmth came from them was like that of spring. Their joy and anger assimilated to what we see in the four seasons. They did in regard to all things what was suitable, and no one could know how far their action would go. Therefore the sagely man might, in his conduct of war, destroy a state without losing the hearts of the people; his benefits and favours might extend to a myriad generations without his being a lover of men. Hence he who tries to share his joys with others is not a sagely man; he who manifests affection is not benevolent; he who observes times and seasons (to regulate his conduct) is not a man of wisdom; he to whom profit and injury are not the same is not a superior man; he who acts for the sake of the name of doing so, and loses his (proper) self is not the (right) scholar; and he who throws away his person in a way which is not the true (way) cannot command the service of others.


4. The True men of old presented the aspect of judging others aright, but without being partisans; of feeling their own insufficiency, but being without flattery or cringing. Their peculiarities were natural to them, but they were not obstinately attached to them; their humility was evident, but there was nothing of unreality or display about it. Their placidity and satisfaction had the appearance of joy; their every movement seemed to be a necessity to them. Their accumulated attractiveness drew men’s looks to them; their blandness fixed men’s attachment to their virtue. They seemed to accommodate themselves to the (manners of their age), but with a certain severity; their haughty indifference was beyond its control. Unceasing seemed their endeavours to keep (their mouths) shut; when they looked down, they had forgotten what they wished to say.

These religious and philosophical texts unanimously point toward the reestablishment of this unusual state, a state of being that is achievable, yet difficult. It depends on spiritual discipline, and a certain understanding of metaphysics – the nature of existence and our place in it:

7. This is the Tâo;– there is in It emotion and sincerity, but It does nothing and has no bodily form. It may be handed down (by the teacher), but may not be received (by his scholars). It may be apprehended (by the mind), but It cannot be seen. It has Its root and ground (of existence) in Itself. Before there were heaven and earth, from of old, there It was, securely existing. From It came the mysterious existences of spirits, from It the mysterious existence of God. It produced heaven; It produced earth. It was before the Thâi-kî, and yet could not be considered high; It was below all space, and yet could not be considered deep. It was produced before heaven and earth, and yet could not be considered to have existed long; It was older than the highest antiquity, and yet could not be considered old.

After years of reading this kind of stuff in its varied religious contexts, I still find the Chinese Daoist and Confucian traditions most appealing. At the same time, I no longer put much stock in the standard sources of civilisational hope and comfort as before. Technology is great, exciting, and full of promise. But it is also an amplifier of our deeper faults and should be viewed in light of the more profound, restorative path illumined by our ancestors.

As a society we are very good at pursuing what we desire. We are very bad at determining what we should and should not find desirous in the first place. We muddle through life, measuring our failure and success by superficial and shifting social standards. In rare moments we become aware of something deeper, more solid, more real than our own selves. I think our lives ought to focus on that deeper reality, despite all the distractions, social expectations and pressures of life that draw us away. If we could grasp hold of that deeper reality and never let it go, then I think we would know what to do in the rest of our lives.

In this respect, I share C.S. Lewis’ dismay at the prospect of a weak and ungrounded humanity modifying itself – or more realistically, some humans modifying others – under the sway of a poorly-examined technological imperative and an emotivism without true ethical boundaries.

The recent decision in the UK to allow alteration of the human germline means that children created with transplanted mitochondrial DNA from a third person (in addition to biological mother and father) will pass this genetic modification down through their own future offspring.

The logic of this change to the legislation is the same as that which I witnessed in a professional capacity as an ethicist during the stem-cell and then cloning debates in Australia.

It suggests to me that there are no limits to what biotechnological innovations our legislatures will approve, so long as a sufficiently compelling technological and emotive case can be made. In a few short years the Australian parliament went from condemning all forms of human cloning (as a line that could not be crossed) to endorsing ‘therapeutic cloning’ for the exact same reasons they had originally endorsed the destruction of embryos for the purposes of stem cell research. This is not even a case of our legislators holding ethical beliefs with which I disagree, but of a parliament that can’t even hold to its own stated ethical conclusions for more than a few years.

Eugenics and the artifice of man

Replying to an interesting comment on my previous post, I thought it deserved a post of its own.

Briefly, in keeping with the ethical principles referred to in the earlier post, I do not assent to the destruction of human embryos because this would be inconsistent with respect for human life per se. I realise that many people prefer to respect persons rather than human beings, but in my opinion such a position tends to err on the side of a narrower range of respect, and, more simply, does not reflect my experience with human beings who would not meet the criteria of personhood.

Aside from that, I am not opposed in principle to the improved condition of the human race, but I am wary of overly contrived attempts to do so. I don’t have great confidence in society, less so in government or business; who would we depend on to determine the most favourable direction of human improvement and to execute it?

Ultimately, I think I am a mystic (albeit a poor one) and I regard our deepest faults and failings as spiritual ones. I do not believe we can remedy these faults with any technology, and I suspect our faults would lead us to abuse whatever technology we might employ in our attempts to manipulate our descendents.

C.S. Lewis put it quite well in his short dystopian text The Abolition of Man:

“For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. In all ages, no doubt, nurture and instruction have, in some sense, attempted to exercise this power. But the situation to which we must look forward will be novel in two respects. In the first place, the power will be enormously increased. Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted…But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.

The second difference is even more important. In the older systems both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by the Tao — a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart. They did not cut men to some pattern they had chosen. They handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly. This will be changed.

Values are now mere natural phenomena. Judgements of value are to be produced in the pupil as part of the conditioning. Whatever Tao there is will be the product, not the motive, of education. The conditioners have been emancipated from all that. It is one more part of Nature which they have conquered. The ultimate springs of human action are no longer, for them, something given. They have surrendered — like electricity: it is the function of the Conditioners to control, not to obey them. They know how to produce conscience and decide what kind of conscience they will produce.”

In practical terms this kind of thinking means that it would be better to treat successive generations individually for a particular disease than to modify the germ line to prevent the disease from ever arising. The first comes under the auspices of medicine, whereas the latter constitutes a manipulation of humanity itself into posterity. It would make us (or more pertinently, a tiny minority of scientists and politicians) partial creators of future generations. Such an act would set a terrible precedent.

I think this is the real problem with eugenics – not that the means are accidentally immoral (abuse and murder), but that they are intrinsically immoral. Eugenics is an ab-use of humanity in the literal sense. We cannot become partial creators or modifiers of future generations without dramatically altering our relationship with those future generations, and hence our own selves.

I’ll leave you with more of Lewis’ dystopia:

“Thus at first they may look upon themselves as servants and guardians of humanity and conceive that they have a ‘duty’ to do it ‘good’. But it is only by confusion that they can remain in this state. They recognize the concept of duty as the result of certain processes which they can now control. Their victory has consisted precisely in emerging from the state in which they were acted upon by those processes to the state in which they use them as tools. One of the things they now have to decide is whether they will, or will not, so condition the rest of us that we can go on having the old idea of duty and the old reactions to it. How can duty help them to decide that? Duty itself is up for trial: it cannot also be the judge.

And ‘good’ fares no better. They know quite well how to produce a dozen different conceptions of good in us. The question is which, if any, they should produce. No conception of good can help them to decide. It is absurd to fix on one of the things they are comparing and make it the standard of comparison.

To some it will appear that I am inventing a factitious difficulty for my Conditioners. Other, more simple-minded, critics may ask. Why should you suppose they will be such bad men?’ But I am not supposing them to be bad men. They are, rather, not men (in the old sense) at all. They are, if you like, men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what ‘Humanity’ shall henceforth mean. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’, applied to them, are words without content: for it is from them that the content of these words is henceforward to be derived.

Nor is their difficulty factitious, “We might suppose that it was possible to say ‘After all, most of us want more or less the same things — food and drink and sexual intercourse, amusement,art, science, and the longest possible life for individuals and for the species. Let them simply say. This is what we happen to like, and go on to condition men in the way most likely to produce it. Where’s the trouble?’

But this will not answer. In the first place, it is false that we all really like the same things. But even if we did, what motive is to impel the Conditioners to scorn delights and live laborious days in order that we, and posterity, may have what we like? Their duty? But that is only the Tao, which they may decide to impose on us, but which cannot be valid for them. If they accept it, then they are no longer the makers of conscience but still its subjects, and their final conquest over Nature has not really happened. The preservation of the species? But why should the species be preserved? One of the questions before them is whether this feeling for posterity (they know well how it is produced) shall be continued or not. However far they go back, or down, they can find no ground to stand on.

Every motive they try to act on becomes at once petitio. It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.”

Terrifying moral dilemmas

A regular interlocutor and occasional sparring partner over at MercatorNet asked for my opinion as an ethicist on a difficult moral dilemma: should couples who are, or suspect they are, genetically predisposed to terminal illness or other serious disease avoid having children?

For me these questions hit close to home. It is not difficult to imagine having children with serious illnesses or disabilities, though it is undoubtedly more salient for people who have witnessed and experienced the same in their families for generations.

Difficult cases such as these seem overwhelming when considered in isolation. It does indeed appear prudent and reasonable to avoid having children in order to avoid certain or highly probable disease.

However, ethics forces us to think not only of the outcomes, but of the principles behind an action. This is reasonable in part because our ability to assess outcomes is heavily constrained. For example, how do we correctly weigh the value of a life lived for thirty years, cut short by illness?
Even in a strictly consequentialist sense, we are not equipped to predict what medical advances or discoveries may come in the future.

In terms of the principles behind the action: at first glance, simply avoiding having children does not appear to be as bad as, say, actively killing people in order to root out genetic faults or variables either in utero or in vitro. The harm done is not to the non-existent offspring (assuming non-abortifacient contraceptive methods or alternatively NFP methods).

The harm done is to the marriage, and to the otherwise-would-be parents themselves. The nature of the harm or error is multifaceted and not obvious. It ranges from the simple harm of missing out on the fulfillment and enrichment that offspring provide, to the perhaps more ‘existential’ harm of adopting a worldview in which one is able and morally required to act with certitude and control in regard to circumstances and outcomes that are generally speaking beyond both our knowledge and our true control.

However, this last point broaches on terrain typically regarded as ‘religious’ and not encouraged in public debate. But I would say nonetheless that if the purpose of life is to avoid suffering and delay death, then perhaps such actions are a noble sacrifice. But if the purpose of our life is more than that, or better yet, the context of our life is broader than suffering and death, then we may have hope that such painful moral dilemmas are not as closed and complete as they appear.

I think the melancholic temperament is well-suited to ethics because it searches always for the principle or ideal behind an action. Melancholics are not good with ‘exceptional circumstances’ or arbitrary redrawing of boundaries. If we decide as a society that it would be wrong for children with certain disabilities to not be born, then an ethicist should (quite rightly) start to look for the operative principle behind such a conclusion.

The melancholics are, I think, merely more sensitive than most to the principles that exert constant albeit imperfect influence on all humans. That is why the eugenic fantasies may begin on ‘safe’ territory with the killing of severely disabled infants or the execution of the very worst serial criminals, but they tend to end with the elimination of those unlikely to achieve good university GPAs, and the culling of people with minor impulses toward rebellion or unconventional behaviour.