Skip to main content

Get the latest update on our emergency campaign:

Review: Stuck with Virtue

May 22nd, 2008 | 6 min read

By Tex

We also must return to Pascal for a reminder that the biotechnological project cannot turn us human beings from mysterious into manufactured beings. The effort to deny the reality of the fundamental unpredictability of human life that is intrinsic to technological thinking is ultimately futile. The good news is that technology may finally make us so unhappy that we will being to effectively criticize its consequences with the whole human good in mind.” (p. 71)

Peter Lawler opens a notoriously difficult topic, the actual and theoretical relationship between biotechnology and human identity, with a surprising rush of optimism. “Stuck with Virtue: The American Individual and our Biotechnological Future” blazes with a collection of stand-alone chapters exploring, among other things, the American notion of individuality, the tensions between individual and communal goals and ends, competing theories of how things ought to be given our technological advancements, and the utopian dreams of Americans today.

Acknowledging the range of views on these subjects—from shameless romantic idealism of a world free from necessity to gloomy predictions of the destruction of human liberty—Lawler forcefully argues that, whatever advances are made in technology, they will always be limited by human beings themselves. His optimism smacks of irony in that it is largely the continued phenomenon of human dissatisfaction, misery even, despite an unprecedented increase in healthy, beautiful, and leisurely lifestyle options that undergirds his conviction that technology will never free humans from the necessity of virtue.

…Both the hopes and the fears we have concerning technology today are exaggerated. The limit to both is human nature; technological progress cannot satisfy our deepest longings or make us at home in the world. Nor can it completely uproot us from our human attachments or produce beings without moral or spiritual lives. We remain social beings open to the truth, nobility, and God, beings who love an die, and it is a large exaggeration to say that technology has reduced our world to a wasteland completely inhospitable to beings such as ourselves. It is equally an exaggeration to say that technological progress has been good for moral and spiritual life, or to say that we are able to control adequately that progress on behalf of properly human purposes. The very idea of technological control takes part in a way of thinking that is incapable of making properly human distinctions. We should thank God that we are still required to live morally demanding lives, and that we seem unable to bring human nature or human self-consciousness under our control.” (p. 68)

No advancement will be made, he argues, that will ever be able to free humans from themselves and the necessities imposed by their contingent existence. It is this argument that provides an answer to the hopes and fears of those on both sides of the promises of technological advance. Lawler grounds his argument in empirical observation of human experience, often noting the interesting phenomenon of increased dissatisfaction among those Americans who most benefit from advance technology—it is the middle-class American with more options, better health, greater wealth, and easily accessed pleasures that also tends to be the most unhappy. The disparity present immediately raises questions regarding the possibility of technological advancement to give true happiness.

Besides empirical observation, Lawler also spends a good deal of time parsing out Locke’s human being “as [an] autonomous individual and nothing more,” emphasizing that this concept of humanness was primarily employed in the abstract by Locke (a theory of what humanity could be, rather than a statement of fact) to create a society in which human beings would be able to become more and more like this abstraction. Given the general American acceptance of Locke’s individual as a worthy ideal, Lawler shows that, since this ideal is an abstraction it will never be fully realized since it leaves out certain important aspects of what it means to be human—things like the natural gregariousness of humanity, the continued propensity of humans to think of themselves as citizens and parents as well as autonomous individuals, and the terrible fear of being alone that motivates so much human behavior.

Drawing on anecdotes from college campuses as much as from suburban coffee shops, it is this latter feature, the modern fear of being alone, that provides grounds for much of Lawler’s optimism. With the freedom to design increasingly perfect lives and bodies comes the sinking realization that this perfection alienates at least as much as it frees us to be happy. As biotechnology isolates individuals by freeing them from any sort of perceived dependance on others and necessity of any kind limiting their choices, the political or social drive of humans will provide a counter-balance to the otherwise completely isolating tendencies of technology.

Take-away question: Can the absolute freedom of human beings (free from necessity, impositions of nature, society, and God) result in happiness?

Sign in to read more

Sign in or create a free account to access Subscriber-only content. 

Sign in