May 28, 2024

Debating the word “naturalness”

I’m not surprised that a new report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an influential independent British bioethics think tank, has received no publicity. “Ideas about naturalness in public and political debates about science, technology and medicine” is not a title which sets the pulse racing. Perhaps they should have christened it “Unnatural Acts”. That would have guaranteed it blanket coverage in the London tabloids.

But this study of why people call some things “natural” or “unnatural” could be one of the most important position papers of the decade. It is fundamentally an attempt to undermine what US bioethicist Leon Kass called “the wisdom of repugnance”. Most objections to issues like cloning or mitochondrial transfer or surrogacy are based on that hard-to-define queasy feeling in Bob and Betty’s stomachs: they just don’t pass the smell test.

And this is important.

As the Nuffield Council points out: “People’s ideas about naturalness may influence the degree to which advances in science, technology and medicine are embraced or opposed by the UK public.” So, as I read it, the report sets out to deconstruct the word, to make it meaningless, and so to bury it as a term of intellectual discourse. If people can be taught to mistrust their own intuitions, securing regulatory approval for the most far-fetched projects will be a snap.

No matter where you stand on bioethical issues, this is required reading. It could frame debates for years to come. 

Michael Cook
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has issued a major report on the wisdom of repugnance.