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Kam-por Yu

Moderating Nature with Responsibility and Humility

Human Genetics from a Confucian Perspective

Summary

This paper discusses human genetics from a Confucian perspective. Should we try to fix genetic diseases as far as possible? Should we enhance the genes of humans such that they have more desirable qualities? How far should we go, and should a line be drawn somewhere? The Confucian perspective affirms at the same time the need to respect nature and the need to use human intelligence. It emphasizes at the same time the limitations of both nature and man, as well as human responsibility and humility. Man is regarded as a co-worker rather than a competitor with nature. This means that man may moderate nature and »make remedy of the inadequacy of the work of nature«, but not to take over the work of nature in producing life. The practical implications of this perspective in the context of human genetics are drawn. It is argued that the Confucian perspective provides a more comprehensive picture and leads to more balanced and reasonable conclusions. 1

Content

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Introduction

Should we select humans to be born only if they have healthy genes? Should we enhance the genes of humans such that they have more desirable qualities? Should we redesign the genes of humans such that they can have super human qualities that humans would not otherwise have? 1 This paper is on human genetics from a Chinese perspective. As I understand it, »human genetics« here does not refer to our knowledge in human genetics, but how we should do with our knowledge in human genetics. Should we try to fix genetic diseases as far as possible? Should we select humans to be born only if they have healthy genes? Should we enhance the genes of humans such that they have more desirable qualities? Should we redesign the genes of humans such that they can have super human qualities that humans would not otherwise have? How far should we go, and what is the principle or consideration for drawing a line somewhere?
2 Of course, it is unreasonable to assume that there is one uniquely and commonly Chinese perspective on this matter. In this paper I am going to outline a Chinese perspective on the ethics of human genetics. It cannot be regarded as the Chinese perspective, but neither is it just one among many different or possible Chinese perspectives on the matter. It is a perspective that has deep root in the Chinese tradition. It is a typical Chinese perspective that is based on Confucianism, which has formative influence on Chinese culture – both Chinese culture in the past and Chinese culture as we see it today.
3 In the West, there are basically two dominant positions. One position is religiously inspired and it regards reengineering human genomics as intrinsically wrong. Such endeavour has been accused as blurring species, »messing with nature,« violating the sanctity of life, and »playing God.« With such arguments, genetic manipulation is not regarded as wrong merely because of its harmful consequences, but rather because of its very nature (Rollin 1995, 21; Reiss / Straughan 1996, 72). Of course, to say that something is intrinsically wrong does not mean that it is always wrong, but it does imply that it is itself an evil, and it can be justified only when it is necessary as a means to avoid a greater evil. The other position is secular and humanistic, and holds that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with intervening or even redesigning nature. Intervening nature, including genetic intervention, is justified in so far as the intervention is good to human beings, and unjustified in so far as the intervention will bring more harm than good. While the first position recognizes an intrinsic value in respecting nature, the second position is human-centred and sees nothing wrong in using human intelligence to do whatever is necessary in the pursuit of greater human well-being.
4 The Confucian perspective represents a middle position between these two extremes. The Confucian perspective affirms at the same time the need to respect nature and the need to use human intelligence. It sees at the same time the limitation of nature and the limitation of man. It emphasizes at the same time responsibility and humility. Instead of regarding either respecting nature or use of human intelligence as more fundamental, it regards the two as complementing each other. The proper way is not to submit one under another, but to strike the right balance between the two.
The Confucian perspective does not see respecting nature and intervening nature with human intelligence as contradictory to each other. 5 The Confucian position is based on an insight on the distinction between the province of nature and the province of man. Such a distinction is not a dichotomy. It does not mean that the two are at odd with each other or they have to compete with and against each other. The relationship between nature and man is like the relationship between yin and yang. None is self-sufficient by itself, and the two have to complement each other. While human beings should use their intelligence, their intelligence is never perfect and always limited. Although they can make infinite progress, they never know how much they do not know and can never presume that they have understood all the secrets of nature. So it is always necessary to respect nature, and have a sense of humility. On the other hand, while nature is profound and unfathomable, there remains much in nature that is unsatisfactory from the human moral point of view. So human beings should not belittle themselves, and should be ready to make remedy when it is within their capability to do so. Human responsibility should go hand in hand with human humility. Human intelligence is not great enough to replace nature, but it is great enough to supplement nature. This is what is meant by regarding man as co-worker of nature.
6 The Confucian perspective represents a unique position, because it recognizes at the same time that we should respect nature and that we should make use of our intelligence to supplement nature or to make remedy. It does not see respecting nature and intervening nature with human intelligence as contradictory to each other. Instead of choosing one from the two, it is important to moderate one with another and strike the right balance between the two.

The Confucian Conception of Nature-Man Relationship

»The Way of Nature is to give life. It works through discriminating the strong and the weak. The Way of Man is to govern and regulate. It works through distinguishing right and wrong.«

Liu Yu-shih
7 A fundamental principle of classical Confucianism is to »recognize the borderline between nature and man« (Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian, Chapter 121; see also Chapter 130). 2 It is said that a true Confucian should be able to understand the relation between nature and man. Nature and man have different provinces. It is important to distinguish the different roles the two have to play. The way of nature and the way of man are contrasted in a number of Confucian classics. In the Book of Changes, it is said that »[Heaven and Earth / Nature] promotes all things without sharing the anxiety the sage has« (»Great Appendix« [Xici], A5). Nature just promotes things, but only human beings can have worries from the moral perspective. In the Mencius (4B12), the way of nature is characterized as »being so«, whereas the way of man is characterized as »hoping so«. Nature takes the right path as a matter of fact. Human beings can have moral aspirations. When they are right, they can be more so than nature can be. When they fail, they can also fail more miserably. In the Doctrine of the Mean, the line of thinking is similar to that of the Mencius, and it is further elaborated that the way of nature »hits upon what is right without effort and apprehends without thinking«, whereas the way of man »tries to choose the good and hold fast to it« (Chapter 20; Chan 1963, 107). This distinction corresponds to Mencius's distinction between »being so« and »hoping so«.
8 It is interesting to note that nature is neither regarded as perfect nor random. It is believed that nature hits upon what is right in general, effortlessly and without deliberation. Human beings can only hope to hit upon what is right, but they can also hope to do better than nature, at least in some cases. As said in the Doctrine of the Mean, »Great as heaven and earth are, men still find some things in them with which to be dissatisfied« (Chapter 12; Legge 1960, 392). What it means is that nature is in general reliable, and not to be tempered with lightly. But there are also occasions where what nature produces are not satisfactory from the human point of view, and human intervention may be justified.
9 The idea that there should be a division of labour between nature and man is also clearly stated in the Confucian texts rediscovered in recent years. It is believed that the texts were from the first or second generation of the disciples of Confucius. In one Confucian text from the Guodian Tomb Number One (Li 2002), it is said, »There is nature and there is man. There is distinction between nature and man. Discern the distinction between nature and man, and then the right course of action can be known« (»Qiong Da Yi Shi«, Bamboo strip no. 141). It is also said, »Know the work of nature. Know the work of man. Then the way can be known« (»Yu Cong 1«, Bamboo strips no. 467-468).
10 The distinction between nature and man is related not only to the proper domains of the two, but also to their respective limitations. Basically the limit of man is a natural limit, and the limit of nature is a moral limit. Even when human beings have the best intention, they may not achieve what they want, due to the limitation of their knowledge or ability. On the other hand, nature does not have a clear moral direction. Although it has a tendency to hit upon what is right, there are occasions that nature provides outcomes that are unacceptable from the moral point of view. Because of the natural limit of human beings and the moral limit of nature, none should be trusted to take full charge of what is going to happen.
11 Both nature and man have their roles to play, and there are aspects in which one excels the other. These points are made very clearly in the work of another Confucian philosopher in the classical period, Xunzi: »Not to act, yet bring to completion; not to seek, yet to obtain – this indeed may be described as the work of Nature. In such a situation, the [Perfect Man], however profound, does not apply any thought to the work of Nature; however great, does not apply his abilities; and however shrewd, does not apply his acumen for inquiry to it. This indeed may be described as ›not competing with Nature in its work‹. Heaven has its seasons; Earth its resources; and Man his government. This, of course, is why it is said that they ›can form a Triad‹« (Chapter 17, »Tian Lun«; Knoblock 1999, 535). When it comes to giving life, it is nature's specialty. When it comes to making moral deliberation, it is man's specialty. Liu Yu-shih of the Tang Dynasty gives a very illuminating distinction between the way of nature and the way of man: »The Way of Nature is to give life. It works through discriminating the strong and the weak. The Way of Man is to govern and regulate. It works through distinguishing right and wrong« (Liu Yu-shih, »Tian Lun«).
12 According to the Confucian conception of the relationship between man and nature, both man and nature have their proper functions. We should not expect nature to do man's proper job, namely, to be moral. Neither should we pretend that we can ever fully understand the way nature works and take up the task ourselves.

The Confucian Conception of Nature

»Great as heaven and earth are, men still find some things in them with which to be dissatisfied.«

Doctrine of the Mean
13 The Confucian conception of nature is neither moral nor completely amoral, neither random nor completely deterministic. Nature does not have a clear moral orientation. So we can say nature is morally blind. (But we will point out later that nature is not totally blind. It does have some morally relevant preferences. So we can say nature is, morally speaking, almost blind, or quite blind.) As we can note from the two quotations I referred to earlier, nature does not make moral deliberation, and sometimes produces outcome that are undesirable or unacceptable from the moral point of view. As stated in the Book of Changes, »[Nature] promotes all things without sharing the anxiety the sage has« (»Great Appendix«, A5). As stated in the Doctrine of the Mean, »Great as heaven and earth are, men still find some things in them with which to be dissatisfied« (Chapter 12; Legge 1960, 392).
14 However, to say that nature does not have a clear moral orientation does not mean that nature is completely amoral. Nature is not morally neutral in that it has certain preferences or inclinations. It is believed that nature is life-giving and pro-life. It tends to promote rather than destroy life. It gives rise to the life and development of myriad creatures, and this is a morally significant characteristic. So there is a common Chinese saying, »Heaven has the virtue of favouring life.« It is also said in the Book of Changes: »It is the great virtue of heaven and earth to bestow life« (»Great Appendix«, B1; Wilhelm 1989, 328). Again in the Book of Changes: »Favouring the infinite succession of life is the basic principle of Change« (»Great Appendix«, A5). So we can see that while nature has no clear moral orientation, it is not completely morally neutral, as it has some morally significant tendency. The tendency to give life and favour the development of life is regarded as one of the major characteristics of nature.
15 A third major characteristic of nature according to the Confucian perspective is its complexity and unpredictability. It is said in the Doctrine of the Mean: »The Way of Heaven and Earth may be completely declared in one sentence. – They are without doubleness, and so they produce things in a manner that is unfathomable« (Chapter 26; Legge 1960, 420). This sentence actually contains two principles: (1) Every life is unique and unrepeatable. (2) Life is beyond full prediction. No two lives are exactly the same, not even two tree leaves. This means that life cannot be controlled completely, and cannot be completely understood and precisely manipulated. It is also said in the Book of Changes: »That which is unfathomable in the operation of yin and yang is called shen [mystery]« (»Great Appendix«, A5; cf. Chan 1963, 266). The course of development of nature is described as shen or mysterious, because it is not a linear but a complex process. A small change in the initial condition may not yield a proportional difference in the outcome. It may cause an entirely different outcome.
»Harmony gives rise to new things. Homogeneity will lead to stagnation. To balance one thing by another is called harmony, which will lead to enrichment. To add to the same thing yet more of the same thing will ruin the entirety.«

Guo-yu
16 Finally, the Confucian perspective regards nature as having the characteristic of pro-diversity. Nature favours life, not just for the »best«, but for variety, heterogeneity, or diversity of life. The Confucians believe that life flourishing in general, and human flourishing in particular, is based on heterogeneity. If we just preserve what is supposed to be the »best«, then it will sooner or later lead to impoverishment and stagnation. It is said in the Guo-yu: »Harmony gives rise to new things. Homogeneity will lead to stagnation. To balance one thing by another is called harmony, which will lead to enrichment. To add to the same thing yet more of the same thing will ruin the entirety« (Book 16, »Zheng Yu«). Since nature is pro-life, and diversity is favourable to life flourishing, so nature is also pro-diversity. As it is said in the Doctrine of the Mean: »The ten thousand creatures can coexist without excluding one another« (Chapter 30). It seems that the »ten thousand creatures« here refer to ten thousand kinds of creatures, rather than ten thousand individual creatures. What it means is not that nature can support an unlimited size of population, but that nature prefers diversity of species and diversity within species. Such diversity is regarded as favourable to life flourishing.
17 To sum up, nature has the characteristics of (1) lacking moral orientation; (2) pro-life; (3) complex and unfathomable; (4) pro-diversity. This means that in order to respect nature, we have to respect life and respect diversity. In recognition that nature is complex and unfathomable, we should be aware of our own limitation and not to temper with nature lightly. However, nature also lacks moral orientation. This is not something human beings can always respect. In the case where the product of nature is clearly unacceptable from the moral point of view and where humans can strike a right balance between their sense of responsibility and their sense of humility, intervening nature may be justified. This leads us to the next section, which is on the role humans should play in intervening nature.

The Role of Man

»If one is able to give their full development to the natures of animals and things, he can assist the transformation and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth.«

Doctrine of the Mean
18 Given that nature lacks moral orientation and man is able to make moral deliberation, it follows that man should make intervention at least in some cases. Given that nature is profound and unfathomable and man's intelligence is limited, human intervention should also be limited. So the Confucian conception of the role of man in intervening nature is founded on the dual-principle: (1) Man has a duty to use human intelligence; (2) Human intervention should be limited in scope.
19 Although nature is good at giving life and flourishing life and this aspect is in line with the human moral concern, nature cannot make accomplishments without failure. If man remains a bystander or an observer, then man is not using his intelligence properly, which is given to him partly by nature. In order to be a co-worker of nature, man should not avoid making moral decisions and should assist nature when the work of nature is inadequate. In the Book of Changes, it is said, »It molds and encompasses all transformations of Heaven and Earth without mistake, and it stoops to bring things into completion without missing any« (»Great Appendix«, A4; Chan 1963, 265-266). Two recommendations are given here: (1) regulate excesses in nature; (2) remedy omissions of nature. The first recommendation is holistic while the second one is individualistic. Saving endangered species is an example of the first type. Curing genetic diseases of particular individuals is an example of the second type.
20 A duty to respect nature and a duty to use human intelligence conjoined together provide justification to limited intervention of nature. This is intervention of nature under the recognition that nature is complex and human knowledge is always partial. As a result, the use of human intelligence in intervening nature should be: (1) minimal, not maximal use; and (2) confined, not extended use. That is to say, the use of human intelligence should not aim at producing maximal results, but rather at the reduction of suffering. It should focus on making remedy rather than enhancement. On the other hand, large scale, long lasting and irrevocable intervention should be avoided, as a result of recognizing the complexity and unpredictability of the consequences of intervention.
21 Based on the dual-belief that nature can in general be trusted with its job of producing life and that nature is not infallible, only limited human intervention is justified. Large scale and irrevocable intervention should be avoided, as it amounts to replacing the work of nature by human planning. The track record of human intervention of nature is actually not so impressive. It is now worried whether the earth will continue to be a place suitable for human beings to live in. If human beings are not so successful with their intervention of the natural environment, then they should be even more precautious with their intervention of human genetics, as such intervention has even more far-reaching and irrevocable results. As Confucius said, »A gentleman will suspend his judgment in an area beyond his knowledge« (The Analects, 13.3).
22 As co-worker of nature, man also has the role to preserve diversity and assist transformation. Man should avoid decreasing diversity that is contained in nature. Confucianism regards harmony as an important value, but harmony must not be confused with homogeneity. Actually according to Confucianism, harmony presupposes diversity. As said in the passage from Guo-yu we have quoted in the above: »Harmony gives rise to new things. Homogeneity will lead to stagnation. To balance one thing by another is called harmony, which will lead to enrichment. To add to the same thing yet more of the same thing will ruin the entirety.« Artificial selection of the best human type runs the risk of sacrificing the diversity that is contained in nature. Such a move is regarded as improper, as it is a move towards homogeneity rather than harmony.
23 Lastly, man has the role to assist nature's process of transformation. The Doctrine of the Mean makes a distinction between smaller virtue and greater virtue. Conservation of nature is only regarded as a smaller virtue. Proper transformation is regarded as a greater virtue: »The smaller virtues are like river currents [i.e. endless, everlasting]; the greater virtues are seen in mighty transformations« (Chapter 30; cf. Legge 1960, 427-428). What this means is that to preserve things as they are is just a smaller virtue, to help things to transform in a progressive way is a greater virtue. This suggests that man should not always refrain from making remedy and improvement on the work of nature. However, the transformation should be in line with the nature of things such that their potentials can be fully realized. It is said in the Doctrine of the Mean: »If one is able to give their full development to the natures of animals and things, he can assist the transformation and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth« (Chapter 22; cf. Legge 1960, 416). This means that in assisting transformation, man can correct nature, but man should not redesign things from a new blueprint of his own. He should base the transformation on the nature of things, to help them better realize their potentials. Only this kind of intervention can be regarded as fulfilling the dual-duty of respecting nature and responsible use of human intelligence.

Confucian Perspective on Human Genetics

Man should assist nature and make correction and remedy when it is necessary, but should not substitute the work of nature with man's own design. Human intervention should make remedy, not to produce maximal results. 24 According to the Confucian perspective, nature should be respected but not regarded as infallible, and human intelligence should be used, but only with a sense of humility. Such considerations lead to the view that man should assist nature and make correction and remedy when it is necessary, but should not substitute the work of nature with man's own design. As we pointed out in the last section, human intervention should make remedy, not to produce maximal results. In view of the complexity of nature and the limitation of human intelligence, man should avoid making long lasting and irrevocable intervention.
25 Let's begin with one end of spectrum of human intervention. Treating genetic diseases by fixing genetic abnormalities is clearly justified from the Confucian perspective. Nature has bestowed myriad foul-ups upon the human genome in the form of genetic diseases. There are over 3,000 kinds of human genetic diseases. Many of them have serious repercussions for the patients, and often cause grave suffering in children. So we simply cannot agree that nature always knows best (Rollin 1995, 65). Somatic gene therapy does not replace or repair the person's genome, but only masks harmful effects of genetic defects. It can benefit the person concerned but will not affect the next generation. Such kind of intervention is appropriate use of human intelligence. Local mistakes are remedied and the consequences are foreseeable.
26 Gene-line therapy, on the other hand, is more problematic. It removes, repairs, or replaces the defective genes at the embryonic level. It is also a kind of remedy. It aims at making corrections rather than promoting maximal results. So in principle it is not out of line of the human role in moderating nature. But gene-line therapy is more likely to have long-lasting and unknown results. We do not know how well would the genes be transmitted in the next generation and still less in future generations, and we do not have clear idea whether the alleged defective genes also have some useful roles to play in human evolution. It is possible that by fixing one problem, we create more problems inadvertently. So from the Confucian perspective, we should have more caution and reservation with gene-line therapy. It is not wrong in principle, but at least at the present state of human knowledge, it is not yet time to make attempt on such endeavour.
27 Stem cell research, by comparison, is quite unproblematic. The intervention is quite compatible with the duty to respect nature as the intervention is local and piecemeal. No one will be harmed or endangered, and the research has great potential to extend human knowledge and promote human well-being.
28 If we move on the spectrum of human intervention of nature, reproductive cloning will be further to the other end, and designing new humans or super humans will be very close to the other end. They are problematic because they are attempts to replace the work of nature with the design of man. According to Confucianism, giving life is an area of excellence of nature. It is arrogant to think that man can do such work better, or at least as good as, nature. These kinds of intervention do not strike the right balance between the respect of nature and the use of human intelligence. Actually it is an inappropriate use of human intelligence, because nature is no longer regarded as a co-worker, but a competitor which man can beat.
Sang-yong Song / Young-Mo Koo / Darryl R.J. Macer (eds.):
Asian Bioethics in the 21st Century.
Christchurch 2003.
external linkBook


Darryl R.J. Macer (ed.):
Challenges for Bioethics in Asia.
Christchurch 2004.
external linkBook


Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics (EJAIB)
external linkJournal
29 Now, let us consider a more realistic example – prenatal and post-natal gene diagnosis. For prenatal diagnosis, it seems that there are several issues here: screening, selective abortion, and gene therapy. Screening a foetus for genetic defects or diseases is not itself morally problematic. The difficult part is what we (or more particularly, the parents) should do or what we may morally do after we learn the screening results. If no action will be taken, then pre-natal genetic screening only brings forth some knowledge, which may or may not be useful. However, it is usually done with some possible actions in mind. If the foetus is found with serious genetic diseases or defects, is it moral to abort the foetus? According to the Confucian perspective, heaven has the virtue of favouring life. The life of a foetus has intrinsic value. But to say that it has intrinsic value does not mean that it has absolute value. That is to say, it is prima facie wrong to terminate the life of a foetus, but it may not be wrong if there is a separate good reason to justify doing so. In such case we have to weigh the two sides of consideration. If the foetus has some serious disease or defect, such that it can be reasonably expected to have a miserable life, then selective abortion can be justified. But if the reason is to abort the foetus in order to give way to another foetus that has desirable qualities, then the intrinsic value of the foetus's life has not been taken seriously. In short, it is alright to remedy nature's error but not to make fine tuning towards maximal results. The basic principle that we are applying here is that human being should be the co-worker of nature, not a competitor with nature.
30 Based on the same spirit, some forms of pre-natal genetic therapy are morally acceptable. As we said in the above, somatic gene therapy that masks harmful effects of genetic defects is fine because it is in line with the Confucian principle of »making remedy of the inadequacy of the work of nature«. Genetic enhancement, on the other hand, fails to give adequate respect to nature, as it is based on the arrogance that human being can do better than nature regarding the production of life. It is a replacement, not a remedy of the work of nature.

Conclusion

31 The Confucian perspective as I outline in this paper provides a moderate position with regards to interventions in human genetics. It has a human-centred aspect as well as a non-human-centred aspect. On the one hand, human well-being constitutes one major dimension of moral thinking. But this is not the whole story of morality. Confucianism also recognizes the intrinsic value of nature and the duty to respect nature. However, the duty to respect nature is balanced by a duty to use human intelligence. This kind of bipolarity and emphasis on two opposite concerns as complementary to each other is a characteristic of Confucianism. As a result, the Confucian perspective provides a more comprehensive picture and leads to more balanced and reasonable conclusions.
polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 6 (2005).
Online: http://them.polylog.org/6/fyk-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
© 2005 Author & polylog e.V.

Bibliography

Notes

1
This paper is written especially for polylog, but it relies quite heavily on a previously published paper (Yu 2004). go back
2
Unless otherwise specified, all the translations from the Chinese classics contained in this paper are mine. For reference to the Chinese classics, only the name of the book is given. Full reference to the English translation is given whenever another writer's translation is used. go back

Author

Kam-por Yu is a Senior Lecturer in philosophy at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. In the year 2005-2006 he is on leave as a Research Fellow in the Harvard School of Public Health. He was born and educated in Hong Kong, and received his BA, MPhil, and PhD degrees from the University of Hong Kong. He has been a Research Officer in the Philosophy Department of the University of Hong Kong, a University Lecturer in general education at Lingnan College (now Lingnan University), an Associate Professor in the Department of Public and Social Administration of the City University of Hong Kong. He was a Senior Fellow of the Center for European Integration Studies of Bonn University, Germany, in 2003, and a Visiting Research Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2005. His main areas of interest are ethical theory and applied ethics.
Dr. Kam-por Yu
General Education Centre
Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Hung Hom, Kowloon
Hong Kong
Fax +852 2765 6774
emailgeykp@polyu.edu.hk
external linkhttp://www.polyu.edu.hk/~gec/stafflist/geykp/
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