Trapped by Liberty
Stuck With Virtue: The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future
reviewed by Anne Hendershott
Trained as a physician, Catholic novelist Walker Percy recalled at one time thinking that science could explain everything in the world—until he read Kierkegaard’s comments on Hegelianism, the science of his day: “Hegel explained everything in the universe except what it is to be an individual, to be born, to live, and to die.” Percy asked: “If the scientist cannot address himself to this reality, who can?”
Peter Augustine Lawler’s newest book, Stuck with Virtue: The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future is a good start in finding the answer.
Like Percy, Lawler tries to help us understand what it is to be a man or a woman in today’s technological society. Like him, he tries to help us understand our isolation, loneliness, and alienation by restating the Judeo-Christian notion that the individual is more than an organism interacting with his environment and more than an integrated personality. And, like Percy, Lawler traces our alienation to our societal surrender to the biotechnological future, a future in which we experience ourselves either as things, as commodities, or as nothing.
But Lawler goes beyond Percy by arguing for virtue. His thesis is that despite the best efforts of the proponents of the biotechnological world, it will always be impossible to “feel good without being good . . . virtue will still be the best way to live well with what we really know.”
This is something we may not wish to know, but something we are, so to speak, trying to tell ourselves through our worries about who we are and where we fit in the cosmos. And so, he insists, “We have a right to our anxiety.”
Rather than being a symptom that should be eradicated through psychopharmacological remedies, like Prozac or Paxil, promising to “relieve the anxiety and reveal the person,” our restlessness and our anxiety are signposts directing us to the truth about our purpose as human beings.
They are clues that we are homeless wayfarers lost in the cosmos—aliens who can never be truly at home in this earthly city. Our pursuit of ways to alleviate our anxiety only cuts us off from this truth.
In his introductory chapter, Lawler, the Dana Professor at Berry College, argues that in pursuing our self-interest, we have become disconnected from the past and the future, from family and community. In thinking of ourselves as “individuals” as opposed to parents, children, friends, citizens, or creatures, we begin to think that everything exists for ourselves.
What he calls “Libertarian Sociobiology”—the belief that we can free ourselves from human nature by somehow overcoming nature through technology—has let us become individuals with rights but without duties. “The solitude of radical freedom makes human thought and action impossible. And because the individual looks up to no authority, he is stuck with looking around for some orientation from fashion, from public opinion, from whatever the reigning experts are saying.”
The problem is especially pointed in those he calls “atheistic existentialists,” like Rousseau, who “say that our alienation is merely accidental or absurd, and so the liberationists are right to try to overcome it.” When this alienation cannot be overcome, they must see human life as so filled with misery that it is not worth living. As a result, “twentieth century atheistic existentialists tend to vacillate between Stalinism (or Hitlerism) and suicide.”
Lawler is especially hard on those he calls “our perky libertarians” like Virginia Postrel, former editor of Reason and author of The Substance of Style, who maintain that since we have entered the “Age of Aesthetics,” enhancement technologies like plastic surgery are “good” because they allow us to re-create our outward selves to correspond to our inward identities. Rather than reflecting anxious social conformism, she maintains that such aesthetics are rather “a way of being authentic, or special.”
Lawler is equally hard on those like “our utopian poet David Brooks,” author of Bobos in Paradise, who believe it is possible or good to live wholly as autonomous individuals in pursuit of the good life. In response to such dreams, he notes that “we will never live in a world without the reality of catastrophes, without sin, suffering, loneliness, profound disorientation, dementia, and death. . . . We will never become so content, so happy, that virtue, love, friendship, and God are no longer necessary.”
We are indeed “stuck with virtue.” This fact becomes especially clear in a chapter entitled “The Caregiving Society.” Advances in biotechnology produce both the ability to live longer and the desire to do so, but an intractable crisis arises from the aging individual’s need for care in a society where the ties of family and fidelity have weakened and the supply of voluntary caregivers has diminished.
No government program can ever replace what Americans have done for one another. While the dearth of voluntary caregivers has a demographic contributor, as today’s baby boomers have had fewer children than their parents, Lawler maintains that the caregiving crisis is at bottom a “crisis of culture”: a product of our society’s opinion on freedom, dependence, and care.
Still, we are told by the libertarians and their allies among the bioethicists that if we will embrace genetic testing of the unborn child to choose against lives that would be marred by genetic abnormalities, we may never have to worry about caregiving. In “The Utopian Eugenics of Our Time,” Lawler takes on the bioethicists who say that “it is cruel to choose just for life; nobody should choose misery and pain for another. . . . We also have every right to think about the quality of our own lives, which would purportedly be enhanced by a perfect child and decreased by, say, one with Down syndrome.”
He asks whether the lives of family members really are impoverished by caring for such a loving and needy person—not to mention one who probably does not suffer more than most of us. And he reminds us that “sharing death and grief—the inevitable result of love—is arguably what makes a family a family.” Yet, in our death-denying culture we rank curing over caring, and we “view activities based on the thoughtful acceptance of our natural limits as being below those which attempt to overcome those limits.”
In the final chapter, Lawler takes on those who believe, like John Locke and other liberal theorists, that “we have no choice but to create value out of nothing; all that exists which is of human benefit is the product of human will and labor.” Thus, human life for the liberationists (as he refers to Locke and his descendents) is defined not by virtue or love or duty but by calculation, consent, and contract, and so is capable of indefinite perfectibility.
Lawler believes that the most influential group of liberationists today consists of extreme libertarians who say that moral freedom or the freedom to use technology to constitute oneself as one wishes is a necessary companion of political and economic freedom.
Yet, despite their best intentions, the libertarians and biotechnologists have failed us. Indeed, if biotechnology is used only to push back death and eliminate genetically based diseases, human misery may actually increase, because the possibility of longer, healthier lives increases our fear of death. “It turns out that Pascal may have been right; our contingency and our finitude make life almost unendurable without God.”
Stuck with Virtue provides a valuable reminder that we humans are alienated by the very nature of our being here and that our anxiety and what Lawler calls our “ineradicable alienation” is the clue to the real truth about our being. The mysterious experience of displacement that is the source of our greatness and our misery points to the conclusion that “our true home is somewhere else.”
This is why we pilgrims—“we wanderers who wonder”—must come to the inevitable conclusion that we too are “stuck with virtue” until we reach that home.
The quotation from Walker Percy is taken from his “Forward to the New Catholics,” published in Signposts in a Strange Land.
Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of Urban Studies at the University of San Diego. She is the author of the recently released The Politics of Abortion (Encounter Books) and books on family issues, including caregiving. She and her husband have two grown children and are members of Immaculata Parish in San Diego, California, and the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury, Connecticut.
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“Trapped by Liberty” first appeared in the November 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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