Humility Before the Mysteries of the Human Condition

Gilbert Meilaender is one of the most prominent Christian ethicists in America, having written with conviction and insight for decades from his professorial chair at Valparaiso University. He also spent seven years on the President’s Council of Bioethics under George W. Bush. Meilaender’s new collection of essays, Bioethics and the Character of Human Life, combines newer reflections on gene-editing technologies like CRISPR with older ones from the end of his time on the President’s Council. These latter ones occasionally have a “greatest hits” feel to them: reflections on stem cells and torture in the Weekly Standard now play like an Allman Brothers record as a marker of their time and place. Still, the collection marks more than a decade of serious thought on matters of public consequence pertaining to the most pressing questions of human life.

Meilaender is not interested in genealogies of modernity and the problems with our conceptions of autonomy and the self. Nor does he always focus on policy prescriptions, sketching the laws we should have on euthanasia, surrogacy, or stem cell research. For Meilaender, bioethics is more focused on how we think about ourselves as human beings, what kind of creatures we are and why that matters morally, and how we discuss and discern that as a people. Who counts in the common good is more pressing to consider than how we should regulate cloning, in part because the former kind of question will help us answer the latter. Meilaender wants to help his students, his readers, and the nation as a whole think through these questions rather than jumping quickly to decisive conclusions.

This is good, of course, and all too frequently scholars of his caliber do not pair such care and humility with their expertise. Still, in some places I couldn’t help wanting Meilaender to take his arguments all the way to their conclusions. We can all reflect on human nature, but bioethicists apply a specialized knowledge of biology and medicine to contentious matters of public import, frequently with legal implications. Nonspecialists count on their help in making prudent judgments about such technical questions. “The conversation and the arguments never reach a definitive end,” Meilaender writes. Maybe, but we want to grapple with the arguments to get to a sure—or mostly sure—right answer.

This reluctance appears in the aforementioned essay on stem cells and torture. Meilaender distinguishes between obligations we owe to soldiers from those we may owe to terrorists, who are likely to be planning to make an attack on innocent civilians again in the future. He focuses on the distinction between attempting to coerce someone and dehumanizing or “thingifying” them. Forcing a captured terrorist to listen to loud music or slapping him around (in a manner never fully defined) is morally acceptable; forcing him to be naked or sit in his own excrement is not. Giving him a truth serum probably is. What about waterboarding? When it comes to the critical question of 2009, Meilaender gives no definitive answer:

Now I begin to suspect that it is corrupting to try to answer that 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 must, I think, turn on whether doing it once would be more like an attempt at coercion, which is still a test of strength, or whether from the start it would aim to thingify the captured terrorist, trying to bypass altogether his capacity to decide.

This is a helpful distinction, and certainly better than the shallow utilitarianism that undergirds for much of our public moral argument. But when the questions have been posed and the criteria given, our policy makers and our country need an answer. I think Meilaender’s criterion gives a sound reason to oppose waterboarding, and I wish he had joined that conclusion or offered a decisive counter to it.

In a similar way, in “The Future of Babymaking” and “The End of Sex,” Meilaender wants to argue that reproduction is an inherent end of sexual intercourse. This isn’t an abstruse point of morality for him, but an important principle that helps us understand the problems with many reproductive technologies. The birth of a child is the internal fruition of the sexual act, not something that can be separated from it without consequence. This argument leads to the idea that contraception is immoral, but that is a conclusion Meilaender wants to avoid. He thinks that contraception within a marriage whose “whole ensemble of sexual acts,” as the language Pope Paul VI rejected in his encyclical Humanae Vitae put it, is morally permissible. After all, Meilaender argues, a marriage is not just “a series of one-night stands,” but a history of growth in love and care.

Of course we should hope that it is. Still, human beings are actors who perform discrete acts, not histories. The overall trajectory of those acts and the shape they give a life matter, but so does each one. Getting irresponsibly drunk is still a distinct decision that is right or wrong even if it takes place in a history or life of sobriety. Likewise, locating a discrete sexual act in the context of marriage does not answer the question of whether or not it is wrong to block its procreative aspect. The history of a marriage doesn’t determine the moral nature of an act but the other way round: sexual acts determine the character and direction of a marriage, just as more generally actions make our character moral or immoral and not vice versa. It seems to me that Meilaender cannot have his cake and eat it too. Procreation can be eliminated from sex without moral consequences, or not, but either way the moral logic holds for both artificial and natural reproduction. If contraception is moral, then he loses one of his strongest arguments against many reproductive technologies.

Meilaender offers more sure norms and conclusions in his essays on performance-enhancing drugs, genetically altered reproduction, and palliative care. 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 an unfair ability but that they endanger our humanity, especially the humanity of our agency: “Thus, the problem with some techniques of enhancement, at least if Beyond Therapy is correct, is that they alienate us further from ourselves, exacerbating the self’s division rather than unifying doer and deed. To use techniques that are calculated to bypass our own will and reflection is to lose something of the distinctively human character of our performance.” Meilaender agrees with Michael Sandel that our drive to master the world and human nature can make us lose a sense of the “giftedness” of life. Respect for our humanity gives us good reason to recognize the lure of enhancement and back away from it.

Likewise, when it comes to “designing our descendants,” we should bear in mind the limits within which our humanity is inscribed. We need prudence, Meilaender writes, to see the order and form that human nature has and to conform to the reality of things as they exist. In an inversion of Marx’s dictum, he observers that “The first task is not to change the world, but to understand and interpret it.” Such prudence should push us to resist the new era of eugenics in which we find ourselves. Unlike the ostensibly repudiated eugenics of figures like Margaret Sanger and Oliver Wendell Holmes, the new eugenics is predicated on compassion and consent, encouraging us to relieve suffering on the grounds of the right to privacy and free choice. Coming down against designer babies and terminating the pregnancies of children deemed defective, Meilaender concludes:

We can say, by way of summary, that were we to undertake the project of designing our descendants, we should want them to be people who do not think the natural world infinitely malleable to their projects; who reckon from the outset with the limits to their own knowledge of and control over the future; who respect the equal dignity of their fellows and do not seek to co-opt others as means to their own (even if good) ends; who acknowledge their own death, the ultimate of limits; who are prepared to subordinate their needs to the good of others; who are more disposed to seek wisdom than power; who know that the good is not finally at their own disposal; and who live in a manner that says to others, “It’s good that you exist.”

Meilaender’s consideration of the ethics of palliative sedation offers a crash course in how the principle of double effect helps us think through complicated moral questions. The concept of double effect relies on the distinction between “what we do and what is accomplished by our doing” (italics original), between the results of our action that we intend and those we do not. We should say no to euthanasia, Meilaender writes, but that does not mean that we should do everything in our power to extend life at all times; choosing life will sometimes mean choosing how to live well as we die. This means that we can give pain-killers that intend to render a patient unconscious so as to relieve acute suffering, while foreseeing and allowing for the effect that they may shorten his life. Meilaender argues that in these cases unconsciousness is not an evil but something that can be rightly chosen, and he explores different scenarios in which sedation might—and might not—be the best ethical option for treating a patient living with crippling pain.

Meilaender’s essays are accessible to readers of many convictions, but he does his thinking within the Christian tradition of moral reflection. Following Karl Barth, he thinks that the Christian ethicist must take account of three angles of vision 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: entering into conversation with those who came before in the faith, learning from them, and letting them question you and your own time. This is not constricting, but gives one’s thinking necessary depth and nuance. We can be grateful to Gil Meilaender for decades of nuanced reflection that is humble before the mysteries of the human condition, while drawing on wisdom ancient and new to help us choose rightly and live life well.