The Newsletter of the Philosophical Discussion Group
Of British Mensa

Number 100 : March 2000

23rd January 2000 : Theo Todman


On Friday evening, 21st January, I managed to turn up at one of the Royal Institute of Philosophyís weekly London public lectures (as advertised in Commensal !). The lecture was delivered by Professor David Cooper, Professor of Philosophy at Durham University, with the Chair occupied by Professor Anthony OíHear (Professor of Philosophy at Bradford University, Hon. Director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy & Editor of its Journal "Philosophy"). The lecture was concerned with the Philosophy of Technology and the Philosophy of the Environment, and why the two should be so inter-linked. The lecture, while clear, was from my perspective not very startling, and I donít intend to pursue its themes here, with the one exception below. I will just say that the most memorable episode during the lecture itself was the extremely exiguous mouse that was seen scampering up and down the lecture hall, quite appropriately given the subject matter.

What I did find interesting, as is often the case, was the discussion that followed the lecture (at least when I got into it, or so I thought !). During one discussion thread, Professor Cooper suggested that if we adjust the genes of a bull to make it quiescent (while keeping it sexually fertile) we are "violating its integrity", and is there something about this that would be deemed repellent to most people ?

I questioned whether the new animal is a bull, or is it something else, and suggested that thereís a distinction between violating a bull by lobotomising it and simply breeding one that is quiescent - whether by genetic engineering or by natural means. Has humanity violated wolves by breading lap-dogs from them : are lap-dogs violated wolves ? Alternatively, is the issue one of gradualism versus instantaneous change ? Do we not notice if the change is gradual in an evolutionary manner ? Is the talk about "bulls" having integrity that can be violated really a Platonic notion that there is an ideal form of a bull ? Is this undermined by evolution, in which organisms are always adapting to their environments (or not - and becoming extinct) - so is there ever an immutable proper form for them to be ?

If we modify all bulls, so they are all quiescent, the loss is greater than if only some are bred that way. Then we have made bulls extinct & created another line (but maybe not another species - this didnít occur to me at the time - as these bulls would have been inter-fertile with the un-engineered species). Another point not appreciated in the heat of debate - the genetic method of creating quiescence was of introducing similar genes to those that lead to Downs syndrome in humans. If I say these modified bulls are not bulls, am I committed to saying Downic humans are not humans ? If we avoid speciesist categorisations, does it matter ? Peter Singer, who would treat all organisms equally on non-specific lines in accord with their ability to suffer (or with various other criteria - such as boredom, restriction & other goods or ills, but irrespective of species except in so far as their members experience or anticipate these goods or ills), would presumably so "no" from a philosophical or ethical perspective (though clearly from a legal perspective, much hangs on these distinctions).

The argument may be that bulls are by nature "noble savages" and that by breeding them to be quiescent we are demeaning them. Maybe like the Romans booing when elephants were slaughtered in the arena, as elephants are noble creatures which shouldnít be treated that way. But a genetically modified bull isnít noble, and never has been and doesnít know that that humans think it ought to be.

Another example introduced by Professor Cooper was that of biologically engineered capons with small brains, few feathers & high meat content - are they violated chickens, and do (or should) most people find their existence abhorrent ? We might ask whether chickens are violated birds because they are fat and flightless. Does it just not depend on "what it is like to be" an X ? If we engineer Xís that are happy to be Xís (or donít know they could be happier as Yís) is this not better than violating un-engineered chickens by keeping them in the desperate conditions of factory farms ? Is the issue one of naturalism versus artificiality ? If so, are the objections irrational ? We had agreed to ignore the consequentialist side of the discussion, so I presume the judgements are aesthetic.

This aesthetic aspect had been raised earlier. We had discussed whether it would be wrong to change a painting - even if people would like the change - because this would violate its integrity. But, this happens in restoration - sometimes treated as a violation, sometimes as preservation. Great architects violate the integrity of buildings when they add to them (as in the adding of Georgian fronts to mediaeval buildings, Renaissance additions to mediaeval cathedrals etc.). Is this violation or development ? It depends whether it is done well or badly - a value judgement. Does the Pompidou Centre violate the Louvre ? Salisbury Cathedral once only had a tower rather a spire ? Was it violated by having the spire erected, or only if it had been as at Chesterfield - ie. bodged ? Would we violate the leaning tower of Pisa by straightening it ? Why are old things so easily violable while new ones arenít to the same degree ? Why is history venerable while current affairs are ephemera ?

Violation of corpses also came up for discussion - as a counter-argument suggesting that the sort of stand I was taking would suggest that nothing was violable. Did I object to the violation of corpses - they are not sentient, but we donít do it - why not ? We do not do to protect the sensibilities of the living. So why not avoid certain genetic modifications for similar reasons - not to protect the sensibilities of the modified animals, but the sensibilities of observing humans ? Discussion time ran out here, but I would have thought there is nothing new in this case - the sensibilities of humans are already protected by keeping the unpleasantness of animal husbandry out of sight. Getting back to corpses - some uses are deemed violation by some to the frustration of others - objections to the use of body-parts for research or remedial surgery or some religious sensibilities restricting the archaeological study of human remains (eg. of mummies, bones of native Americans, ossuary contents in old Jerusalem, etc.).

Thatís about it for now - the discussion of genetic engineering was centred on the idea of violation, rather than on the potential adverse consequences related to the potential backfiring of such "Frankenstein" tactics. Is there a valid aesthetic objection ? Or are the alleged aesthetic issues just ill-considered "yuk-factor" objections disguised as moral objections ?

Theo Todman

The above was posted to PDGList, and received the following response from "Rhodotus" in the US. To save space, Iíve printed the contextualising quotes in tiny type after the first few words.


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