International Workshop on Human Nature and Bioethics

Event date: 6 - 8 December 2007


From the UK: Jonathan Glover (Professor Director of the Centre of Medical Law and Ethics, King’s College London); John Harris (Sir David Alliance Professor of Bioethics, University of Manchester); Jo Wolff (Professor and Head of Department, University College London); Mark Sheehan (James Martin Research Fellow, Program on the Ethics of the New Biosciences, University of Oxford); Nick Bostrom, (Director, Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford); Rebecca Roache (James Martin Research Fellow, Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford); Julian Savulescu (Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics and Director of the Program on the Ethics of the New Biosciences, Oxford University); S. Matthew Liao (Deputy Director and James Martin Senior Research Fellow, Program on the Ethics of the New Biosciences, University of Oxford)

From  Hong Kong: Julia Tao (Professor and Director of Governance in Asia Research Centre, City University of Hong Kong); Fan Ruiping (Associate Professor, City University of Hong Kong); P J Ivanhoe (Professor, City University of Hong Kong); Zheng Yujian (Professor, Lingnan University); Yu Kam-por (Senior Lecturer, Polytechnic University of Hong Kong); Li Hon-lin (Professor, Chinese University of Hong Kong); Chong Kim-chong (Professor, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology); Jonathan Chan (Associate Professor, Baptist University of Hong Kong); Wang Qinjie (Professor, Chinese University of Hong Kong)

From the US: Jefferson McMahan (Professor of Philosophy, Rutgers University); Dan Wikler (Professor of Ethics and Population Health, Harvard University); Dan Brock (Frances Glessner Lee Professor of Medical Ethics, Harvard University); Agnieszka Jaworska (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Stanford University)
From Sweden: Ingmar Persson (Professor of Philosophy, Gothenborg University)

Venue: City University of Hong Kong

Abstract: Jointly organized by the Program on the Ethics of the New Biosciences, James Martin 21st Century School, Oxford University & Governance in Asia Research Centre, City University of Hong Kong.

Human nature is an important notion in moral philosophy and bioethics. Our beliefs about human nature have implications for such topical issues as abortion, euthanasia, organ transplantation, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, gene therapies, and enhancement; and about how we should treat the environment, animals, and artificial life. Moreover, it is not only academic philosophers who recognise the importance of human nature to ethical debates: the US President’s Council writes in Being Human (2003), ‘To enlarge our vision and deepen our understanding [of bioethical dilemmas], we need to focus not only on the astonishing new technologies but also on those … aspects of “being human” on which the technologies impinge and which they may serve or threaten’.
In recent years, thinkers from a range of disciplines around the world have questioned whether human nature exists, and if so what it is and what are its normative implications. We believe that Hong Kong, China is an excellent location for such a workshop because the Asian setting would provide an ideal environment in which to identify possible sources of bias and irrationality in mainstream western ideas about human nature, arising from cultural or other factors, and to evaluate and compare Western and Eastern conceptions of human nature and its relevance to bioethics. We propose to examine the following questions:

1. Is a plausible account of human nature possible?
Following Aristotle, some writers define human nature in terms of properties judged essential to humanity, such as rationality. An objection to this is that Darwinism shows that species have no essential properties. As a result, it is tempting to give a purely descriptive account of human nature, according to which it consists of those properties typical of humans at some stage of evolution. A purely descriptive account is not satisfactory, however. Consider that, for it to be possible for humans to speciate (evolve into another species), there must be some property or set of properties that humans currently have which, if lacking in future generations, would disqualify these generations from membership of the human species. In this sense, there must be some properties of humans that are more important than others. How do we decide which properties are more important, and what are the ethical implications of doing so?
2. Is human nature part of nature?
Can a plausible account of human nature be of the same sort as accounts of what we might call natural phenomena, such as ecosystems and animals? If so, beliefs about how we ought to treat natural phenomena might be straightforwardly applicable to humans. If an account of human nature is unlike accounts of natural phenomena, if however, for example, it must be evaluative in a unique way, then humans might occupy a different moral category, holding rights and a moral status not possessed by natural phenomena.
3. Do human beings have an intrinsic worth or dignity, and what is the relationship between this and human nature?
Some believe that humans have a special moral status in virtue of possessing a unique set of important properties. However, the idea that there are properties that all and only humans possess is controversial: properties claimed to be unique to humans (such as rationality) are not possessed by all humans, and properties claimed to be possessed by all humans (such as linguistic capacity) are possessed by some other animals. Do observations like this undermine the claim that all humans possess a special dignity? If not, in what does human dignity consist? Do any other beings have a claim to the same moral status as humans?
4. What is it to become dehumanised, and is this always a bad thing?
We sometimes think of people living in certain conditions as being dehumanised: the soma-users of Huxleys Brave New World, or people abused by a political regime. Are such people literally less human, and if so, is becoming less human always bad? It may, in the future, be possible to become more than human, using medicines and technology to enhance our capacities beyond what is considered normal. Some writers view even interventions like these as dehumanising. Would taking a medicine to make ourselves, for example, more intelligent or more virtuous, be bad?
5. How important is a shared human nature?
It seems prima facie plausible that, to have a workable society and moral code, we must all be the same in some crucial respects. We must, for example, be roughly similar in intelligence, self-interestedness and sociability in order for certain laws to be understood, accepted and obeyed. Some writers worry that the enhancements described above would be socially disruptive because they may change human nature, thereby undermining our ability to live together harmoniously. Do we really need a shared nature? If so, in what respects and to what extent must we be similar? What influence does this practical need for similarity have on our conception of human nature?

Added value of collaboration:
Bioethical issues such as stem cell research, transplantation, enhancement, and genetic intervention increasingly receive discussion in the media. Scientists, philosophers and social scientists are frequently asked not only to comment on the safety and prudence of such technologies, but also to answer more far-reaching questions about what it means to be human, such as: What is special about human life? Is the selection of embryos on the basis of genetic traits risk or allowing people to undergo novel, risky procedures such as face transplants disrespectful to human nature and human dignity? Despite the relevance of human nature to such questions, however, human nature can mean different things to thinkers from different disciplines and from different cultures. Given this, we believe that there is much to be gained from bringing together leading thinkers about human nature from around the world to discuss, explore, and evaluate this concept. Moreover, UK bioethics can benefit from locating the workshop in China because of the opportunities it affords to strengthen academic ties with what has become a leading country in the area of biosciences and biotechnologies. We intend this workshop to advance ethical thought, both through discussion during the workshop and with the publication of the presentations as a volume which is intended to represent the most recent, cross-cultural thinking on this topic. Further, given that thought about human nature is relevant to many ethical issues that receive wider public attention, providing academics with the opportunity to debate this topic could have the additional benefit of increasing the extent to which they are able to advise and educate the public about ethical issues.

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