Dr Rick Thomas

The wisdom of repugnance

Dr Rick Thomas is a Public Policy Researcher at CMF.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

treeThe Nuffield Council on Bioethics has just published its findings in answer to the question ‘what do we mean when we talk about nature, natural/ unnatural and ‘naturalness’? They set out five broad understandings of naturalness:
1. Neutral or sceptic – the view that there is no real distinction between natural and unnatural; ‘natural’ does not necessarily imply ‘good’
2. Wisdom of nature – the idea that we should trust in natural or evolved processes; to tamper with them would risk consequences
3. Natural purpose – the notion that humans, animals and plants have a natural purpose , in essence, that they are meant to fulfil
4. Disgust and monstrosity – the recognition of an intuitive repugnance in the face of some novel technologies perceived as unnatural
5. God and religion – the idea that certain technologies distort or counter God’s purposes for his creation

Nuffield’s aim is not to promote a particular use of the term ‘naturalness’ so much as to show the different ways in which the term is used. Their goals appear laudable – to raise awareness of the different ways in which people use the terms nature, natural and ‘naturalness’, and to enable individuals and organisations to engage in conversation and debate without talking at cross-purposes.

They conclude, however that scientific organisations, public bodies, policy-makers and journalists should no longer use the terms nature, natural and unnatural when talking about science, medicine and technology without conveying the values or beliefs that underlie them.

In his BioEdge editorial, Michael Cook suggests we are being ‘softened up’: ‘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 term ‘the wisdom of repugnance’, was first coined by Leon Kass in his argument against human cloning.  Sometimes known as the ‘yuk factor’, the term refers to the intuitive repugnance felt by many at the thought of some practice that offends their sense of ‘the way things ought to be’.  We are not now talking about squeamishness – ‘I can’t bear to watch an operation on TV’ – but a deep-seated concern that such a practice would violate things we hold dear and that are important to the health of society. Such repugnance may be felt equally by the man in the street and the intellectual, the believer and the atheist.

Of course, some things that would have made our grandparents recoil are now calmly accepted by the majority, even if not wholly approved of. But there are other things that, as Kass argues, are ‘the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it’. He cites examples such as father-daughter incest, sex with animals, mutilating a corpse or eating the flesh of another human being. That we may not always be able to give rational justification for our horror does not mean that repugnance is ethically suspect.

Nuffield’s findings come at a time when gene editing is in the news. So momentous are the prospects for this technology that an international summit about it was held in Washington DC this week. The developing CRISPR technique has raised hopes that certain genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis might be eradicated in the future.  Of course, such a prospect is welcome news. No voices were raised at the summit in objection to the destruction of embryos this would involve – the science community and perhaps society as a whole, it would appear, no longer feel repugnance over this.  But the same technology opens up the prospect of much greater genetic manipulation, using germline modification for reproductive purposes, with potential for genetic enhancement – the ‘holy grail’ for researchers.  For many, this is a line that should not be crossed – not only because the relevant safety and efficacy issues have yet to be resolved but because the ‘yuk factor’ kicks in at the prospect.

For the time being, the summit concluded that it would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing, recognising that ‘broad societal consensus’ is lacking.  If Michael Cook is correct, then the findings of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics will be used to ridicule and finally discard the notion that repugnance is a valid reason to stand in the way of advance.

What might it be that informs this repugnance? St Paul, in writing to the church in first century Rome, says that God has equipped each person with conscience – an intuitive commentary on our plans and actions, that inner sense of what is good or bad, right or wrong, which acts as a kind of internal moral alarm signal. Conscience is universal, and is remarkably consistent across peoples from widely different cultures. No doubt upbringing and environment help shape (or sometimes misshape) the contours of conscience over time, but Paul suggests it is God who originally plants that knowledge of ‘how things truly are’ in the human conscience.

Even in a post-Christian culture, do these intuitions connect the ‘created’ to their Creator? The writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes states “He [God] has set eternity in the hearts of men” (Eccl.3:11). Could these intuitions be ‘ripples’ of an awareness that finds its explanation in the view of man as a created being? Are they distant echoes of the voice that once spoke “Let us create man in our own image” (Gen. 1:26), ‘the empty print and trace’, in Pascal’s words (Pensees 1966:75), of an image intended to resemble the Creator?

Yet, if that voice is heard and recognized at all, it is generally not heeded. If those intuitions are discerned, they are generally ignored. For modern, Western, liberal society has bought tickets for a voyage marked scientific endeavour, technological progress, personal autonomy and free enterprise; the ship is underway, there’s an ebb tide flowing and momentum is gathering. The faint contours of a pre-liberal shoreline – the sanctity of human life, the integrity of the body, the notion that the best part of a man is somehow not corporeal – are slipping from view, but the course is set and if sometimes voyagers are wistful about a land left behind there are plenty of distractions on board – new horizons every week, brave new worlds to explore and some truly enriching discoveries. Yet each new port of call desensitizes voyagers to what they have left behind, and makes them less able to value the treasures they embarked with.

In ‘Attitudes toward the Newly Dead’, William May recalls the story from the Brothers Grimm of a young man who is incapable of horror, such that he does not shrink even from playing with a corpse, and is sent away ‘to learn how to shudder’. Society’s desperate attempts to find new ways to enhance life and cheat death may drive us to ignore or stifle a deep-seated sense of repugnance, and to consider practices that would erode human dignity and undermine societal goods. Perhaps it is time to pause, lest we too forget how to shudder.




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