The Importance of Being Eugene

by D.G. Boland (c) 1998

There is a story of a doctor being asked by one of his patients: "What is the recipe for a long and healthy life?" His reply was: "To be the child of long-living and healthy parents". Being "well-born", evidently, is something which has a significant bearing upon one’s life and health. It is not something, to be sure, which is peculiar to health; it also has relevance to our possession of the other goods of wealth and wisdom (as an intellectual virtue rather than a moral one). But we wish, in this article, to look particularly from the standpoint of health at the significance for us, as individuals and as a nation, of being eugenitum (eugene). Our subject is eugenics.

Everyone of us would like to be healthy, wealthy and wise, though we have some strange notions about what constitutes wealth and wisdom. Many people today, for instance, would identify wealth with money and wisdom with science. But money is not wealth, or only relatively so, and science, as currently understood, is only relative knowledge, and can even be devoid of wisdom. Science and technology will not save the world; the getting of wisdom will.

Be that as it may, there is no mistaking what health is - or is there not? Surely health is fitness, strength, agility, joie de vivre, good eyesight, hearing, etc. But what about mental or psychological health? Is it possible to have an unhealthy preoccupation with health or fitness? Is there such a thing as a right or balanced attitude to life’s persistent problems, which we might call spiritual or moral health? Is it not possible to have an unhealthy attitude in relation to pain and suffering, or even death?

It is indeed just as possible for us to have a partial or even false understanding of health as of wealth and wisdom. Moreover, a false notion of any one of these fundamental human goods tends to engender a false notion in respect of the others. An integration in the complex of human goods is required if we are to be happy in human terms, i.e., healthy wealthy and wise.

For the moment, though, we are focusing on the meaning of health, as it is a human good. The word "health" is obviously derived from "heal" which means (make) whole; it has the same root as "holiness" (practical wisdom). Interestingly enough, the word "wealth" similarly has an origin in a most general term ("weal" being an old English word for "good"). In these original general senses we can speak even of our spiritual health and wealth. But they have come to be applied to more specific goodness and wholeness.

Some idea of these more particular meanings may be gathered from a division of good which goes back to Plato. He divided them first of all into internal goods and external goods, and then internal goods into goods of the body and goods of the soul. The most external of goods correspond to what we call now wealth; of the internal goods the most bodily are what we call health, and to the most spiritual we give the name wisdom. These particular goods are not to be taken as being the only ones in each division but the more principal of such. And there are of course intimate interrelations between all of them.

The word "health", as is clear, has come to be particularly associated with bodily integrity and fitness, which is only one aspect of the wholeness appropriate to human beings. But even this more particular meaning has complexities which need to be unravelled, especially as it applies to the human body. In order to understand the meaning of health, as it pertains to the human body, then, we need to take a close philosophical look at the bodily functions proper to human beings. Physical fitness is only one aspect of human health. The human body is a much more complex organism than any other natural body.

What are some of the specific differences? Let us first note what we have in common with other animals. Together with some (lower) animals we have various levels of cognition; most fundamentally sense consciousness and the senses of touch, taste and smell; with other (higher) animals we have the capacity to move about and the (higher) senses of sight, hearing and some imagination; with other (higher still) animals we have what may be called loosely "intelligence," imagination and memory. On the affective side, we share the basic "sensations" of pain and pleasure; and the "emotions" of desire and sadness, fear and confidence, etc.

How, then, does human life differ from that of other animals? We know that there is a specific difference and a huge one at that, despite the pretence of some, generally from ulterior motives, that there is no difference. But that does not mean that it is easy to define. Philosophically it is expressed in terms of having an abstractive intellect, ie. a cognitive capacity which transcends the limits of time and place, and a consequent free will, i.e. an affective power of choice over the means to the ends desired (and indeed over the very ends themselves in the concrete). The human soul is therefore called "spiritual", but it is nonetheless intimately connected to the body and therefore has a relevance also in any discussion of the health of the body. (For a fuller discussion of these differences, see my article "Homo Insipiens").

There are two ways to consider these differences, however, especially in this context. The spiritual life of man must redound on his bodily life even when it is considered in a purely spiritual way. We can leave aside the theoretical cognitive life of the intellect, for this has only an indirect influence on bodily welfare and functions, such as because of excessive study. The practical life, however, even at the highest spiritual level, has a significant and direct influence on our whole well being. We could call this the religious dimension of human life, in so far as it is to be understood as also applying to its opposite, the irreligious. An immoral life, for instance, often has a deleterious effect (sooner or later) upon one’s bodily health.

The presence of a spiritual life in man, however, also changes the very way his higher animal (cognitive/affective) life operates, at the level of imagination, memory and animal "intelligence", and behaves, at the level of the desires, fears and other affects which arise in consequence. In terms of cognition or knowledge, for instance, there is a world of difference between the creative imagination of man and the purely reproductive imagination of the animal, and between human reminiscing and mere remembering, indicative in each case of the influence of (human) intelligence. So far as bodily health is concerned, however, it is the affective life in this regard, i.e. that of the properly human emotions which stir up bodily reactions, which has the great influence on us. It is here that we may identify our more important psychological health or illnesses, which belong nonetheless to our bodily life.

Having clarified somewhat the meaning of human health we are in a much better position to consider the significance of eugenics for us individually, and for the human race generally. Most of the mistakes we are making (again) in this regard, not having learnt from past mistakes, can be attributed either to deficiencies in our conception of human health or to false notions regarding its relative importance in the context of a properly human life.

Present day society puts great emphasis on health and fitness. But is this healthy? It puts one uncomfortably in mind of a certain nasty period of social experimentation in the not so distant past. The not so old ogre of the perfect human being as some sort of super animal, is beginning to raise its ugly head again. It promotes human perfectibility on the basis of a concept of health, but one soaked with materialism/paganism. Such a program is decidedly unhealthy and can turn quite nasty.

It is not so much the concerted attempt to improve the health of individuals and of nations as such which gives cause for concern. It is rather the belief that this can be achieved by what are virtually programs of (animal) breeding (aimed at the elimination of the physically or "mentally" deficient or "unfit"- a sort of assisted evolution). We have not quite reverted to past uncivilised practices of direct elimination (i.e. to the primitive means of murder), though there are some modern medicine-men, who like to call themselves "bio-ethicians", that are prepared to argue for such a "humane" program.

Recent advances in our (scientific) knowledge regarding human genetic make-up, however, seem to promise the possibility of an improvement of the health of mankind by technological control of our "genes". This is very exciting for the medical scientists and technicians, whose business is human health. It is also, unfortunately, something that is seized upon by those of a materialist philosophy of man, and of a utilitarian "ethics" (in this regard a sort of "bio-ethics" of the human animal), as presenting the opportunity to argue for a "civilised" program of human perfectibility. No need to eliminate the "unfit" or "unhealthy"(and hence unhappy - from an animal point of view) by a lethal dosage administered to an existing human being; one can simply be patient and achieve the same result by eliminating the deficient gene. Who could possibly object to that?

In the abstract, there can be no possible objection. What the progress of science has done is to make it technically possible for us to do something that we couldn’t do before. The problem does not lie in an advance of our science and technology but in a retreat in our ethics and politics. It is not the new medical means, which can now be made use of, which is the worry, but the moral (or rather amoral, which inevitably becomes immoral) milieu, in which these means are employed.

In other words, the advances are occurring in a cultural atmosphere where we cannot any longer discern the differences between the properly human and the merely animal in relation to human health and well being. Even ethics in this regard has been renamed by some "human bio-ethics", as if it were only some more particular aspect of a general ethical viewpoint ("animal bio-ethics"?).

No one would want to criticise the promotion of eugenics in general. There is no question that in the case of health being eugenitum (eugene) is a bonum. If modern science can make it more abound then that is a great bonus for the human race. Unfortunately, however, we have more reason to view with foreboding this advance in scientific knowledge than the invention of nuclear power - for the same basic reason; a lack of the wisdom to use it well.

We cannot possibly use it well (i.e. rationally) if we conceive of man as no more than a higher (more "intelligent") animal. One great mistake we immediately make is in the significance we attach to physical (and psychological) suffering. To the animal bodily pain is something absolutely bad, but to the human it is something only relatively bad, for there are higher and purer pleasures than the merely physical. Even from a natural point of view we prefer pain in the pursuit of a noble enterprise to a pleasant ignobility. Thus suffering often provides a person with an opportunity to win greater goods (and joys). It is a choice that should not be denied to the person concerned, and which, if he is rational, he will not deny to himself.

Similarly, especially in the context of eugenics, we make a great mistake regarding the importance of physical (and psychological, even "mental") disabilities. It is "human" to admire too much physical prowess and (animal) fitness, witness our quasi-worship of Olympic athletes. But normally that does not spill over into a contempt for the disabled or unfit (as we might be inclined, for instance, to put down a defective calf). Indeed, we recognise, and admire more, the virtue of courage that is found in the physically disabled. This is often found; just as those who are deficient in one sense, such as sight, generally have a compensating improvement in another, like hearing. In the case of the incapacitated human, however, the exercise of this different kind of strength is a matter of free will.

Thus, even from a natural standpoint, the presence of physical or animal-type deficiencies in individuals within a community may be the occasion for greater human goods (and pleasures) than otherwise would be. When, moreover, this is translated to the religious and moral dimension of a Christian community considerations of even higher goods come into play - suffering, as is plain, has a central role in the life of the Christian saint (the model of human perfection).

It is a serious mistake then to so regard the sick, suffering and disabled as being thereby somehow diminished in their humanity, or in their capacity for happiness. They may be, and very often are, better off (from a fully human perspective) than those regarded as being in a state of perfect health and fitness. This applies not only to the physically sick, but also to the psychologically suffering, and even to the mentally disabled, in so far that is as they have the exercise of free will. Their disabilities and suffering can be the very occasion of them becoming great human beings, and moreover can also inspire others to a greater humanity.

This is not to say that these bodily deficiencies are in any way good in themselves, for there is a physical and animal dimension to human nature itself. It is only a question of their relative importance, and the opportunities they provide for the bringing of good even out of evil (in imitation of God himself).

Nor does it imply that we should not constantly endeavour to reduce the incidence of such evils. It is a question of perspective and proportion. It is to recognise the pre-eminent human dimension (of intellect and free will) in ourselves, and the presence in our individual lives, and in our national and international communities, of a range of goods which transcend the limits of this world.

The truly healthy attitude in this regard is to eschew a belief that we as mere mortals can ever hope, by eugenic engineering, to eliminate all evils pertaining to our bodily life - and thus "create" the perfect human being. It is also to realise that bodily deficiencies, whether genetic or not, though something evil, are not as bad for humanity as we are being led to believe.


Don Boland is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted May 2000. It was published in Universitas, Vol 3 (1999), No. 1.
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