Last year I invited readers to submit their thoughts as to what grand themes will dominate the 21st century, and I highlighted some of the responses in recent issues. As promised, my own views follow.
As the issues of war and peace and the defeat of totalitarianism were the dominant global themes of the century just past, there is a good chance that the war on terrorism, properly executed, with all of its repercussions, including the transformation of the Middle East, the reformation of radical Islam, and the reconfiguration of America’s role in the world, will be the dominant theme of the next 100 years. Certainly, these issues will dominate the headlines for at least the first decade or two.
There is, however, in my opinion, an issue that will trump even those of worldwide war and peace. It is the looming cultural, philosophical, and religious conflict on the question of the meaning of human nature. The advances in the biosciences and neurosciences have for the first time provided man with the capability to transform his very nature. As a result, we will be forced to return to the questions of who are we? and why are we here? in a way that has been too long absent from public discourse. And, because of the enormous incentives on the so-called “progressive” side of the debate, the implications for it will make the abortion debate of the past thirty years seem mild by comparison. As Eric Cohen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has noted, this conflict will require new political thinking and a grappling with our dependence on modernity (and its handmaiden, “scientific progress”), its failings, and its presumed superiority.
The silliness of the recent announcement (probably a hoax) of a baby cloned by the clinic founded by the Raelian cult tends to trivialize the discussion while discrediting the pro-cloning argument. Thankfully, there is responsible debate on these questions that is well underway among a number of public intellectuals, such as Francis Fukuyama and Gregory Stock, and the President’s Council on Bioethics, under the leadership of Leon Kass, has published its report, which has been described as reminiscent of The Federalist Papers in its succinct outline of argument and counter-argument.
There will be political decisions on these issues of enormous impact and complexity under deliberation over the next several years. To hope that these decisions can be made in a morally neutral vacuum is a delusion. All due respect and sympathy for Christopher Reeve, but his comment to Barbara Walters that “religion and social conservatives should not even have a seat at the table in the debate…..” is hopelessly utilitarian and totally misguided. To delegate these decisions to the scientists and professional “bioethicists” (or worse, the judiciary) is a dereliction of duty in a democratic republic.
A final thought: For those who place their faith in the rationality of man, I think of Pascal’s “wager”—if you’re agnostic, you’d better hope (and bet) that there is a transcendent Creator. The rationality of man doesn’t have a very good record. One century of mass murder perpetrated by totalitarian regimes driven by the utopian notion of the denial of human nature should have been enough to convince us that just because man can doesn’t necessarily mean he should.