Neo-Aristotelian Natural Rights & Human Nature


A review of (Post)Human Flourishing: Neo-Aristotelian Natural Rights and the Challenge to Human Nature, by Victor Cole.

Many discussions of human enhancement centre on the concept of human nature. Some critics of human enhancement, such as Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama, contend that human genetic modification is a threat to human nature and should therefore be resisted. These critics refer loosely to the idea of “natural rights”, which build on the idea that nature itself is a source of value. However, to date these criticisms have been somewhat hollow. They lack a substantive conception of what a “natural right” actually is, or an explanation of the ways in which human nature can ground value.

In his dissertation, Victor Cole fills this gap in the literature by applying recent work on neo-Aristotelian rights theories to the enhancement debate. In doing so, Cole provides an extensive overview of how the concept of natural rights can help shed light on debates regarding the ethics of human enhancement. He also explores how the basis of natural rights themselves could be changed in a “posthuman” future where enhancement technologies have changed our very nature.

In Chapter 1, Cole provides an overview of the idea of natural rights. After providing a brief history of the concept, he explores how natural rights could be understood in a post-Darwin era which has rejected the notion of “essences” but adopted biological notions such as “Homeostatic Property Clusters” (p. 19). He then descries three different accounts of how human nature can ground natural rights that have been developed by John Finnis, Martha Nussbaum, and Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl. These accounts develop the idea that natural rights can be expressed through the notion of human flourishing, which is in turn related to the achievement of natural ends (although they differ in the details about what our natural ends and flourishing consist in).

Human nature is Cole’s focus in Chapter 2. With the background of modern species concepts, Cole analyses commonly used terms in the enhancement debate such as “transhuman” and “posthuman”. He argues that both advocates and opponents of human genetic modification rely on a sense of human nature in order to ground their arguments. Transhumanists favour using genetic enhancement technology to enhance the parts of human nature they find valuable. In this way, transhumanists show a preference for facilitating the same kinds of human goals that neo-Aristotelians treat as natural ends. He then distinguishes three types of changes that could be made to human nature which would affect the types of ends they would pursue and the types of flourishing they could achieve: ultra-human (enhanced to fulfil existing human ends), extra-human (enhanced to fulfil new ends), and sub-human (the deletion of capacities to pursue existing human ends).

In Chapter 3, Cole considers whether natural rights could justify the use of genetic engineering technologies by individuals to “self-modify”. Negative natural rights are based on a respect for individuals as self-directed agents that have the ability to select their own goals and pursue them according to a life plan. As self-modification may allow individuals to achieve their own natural ends, Cole argues there is a prima facie negative right to allow individuals to self-modify. Hence individuals may, in theory, be justified in using genetic modification technologies in this way. While there would be risks in allowing individuals to self-modify, Cole argues these are unlikely to be significant enough to defeat the negative right.

Cole next turns his attention to the question of whether individuals may also have a positive natural right to be modified by others. Cole first considers if early embryos could have a positive right to be enhanced through genetic modification or screening technologies. He rejects this notion, arguing that no kind of neo-Aristotelian account of natural rights could result in parents having a duty to enhance embryos. This is because flourishing can occur at a threshold level of functioning, and any claims to be raised above this threshold level would not be recognized. He then considers whether embryos could have a positive claim to therapeutic modifications rather than enhancements. After outlining a series of objections to this claim, Cole concludes that although we should promote those functional capacities that are necessary for human functioning, no claim to corrective treatments could properly be considered as a “natural” right.

In Chapter 5, Cole again considers negative natural rights. While in Chapter 3 he argued that negative natural rights can protect a space for individuals to modify themselves free of interference from others, in this chapter he explores the role negative natural rights might also play in the protection of entities from certain forms of genetic modification. He argues that genetic modification will not necessarily impinge on any negative natural rights, as long as it did not interfere with an individual’s ability to exercise self-directedness, or other capacities through which flourishing might be realized. However he does outline a number of modifications which negative rights would protect people from, including those that reduce an individual’s capacity for autonomous movement, sensory function, cognitive function and longevity. He also points to some of the risks that enhancing other traits could have, such as the risk that enhancing intelligence may make individuals more likely to develop some types of mental illness. However, he ultimately concludes that such enhancements would not be a violation of negative rights as they cannot be considered as impeding an individual’s capacity to flourish.

In his final chapter, Cole changes his focus somewhat to see how the foundations of natural rights might be affected through human enhancement.  He notes that many bio-conservatives have claimed that manipulating human traits through biotechnology may undermine natural or human rights. He then considers whether a population of post-humans would have a higher moral status than a population of unenhanced humans based on their superior capacities, as has been suggested by Francis Fukuyama. Cole rejects this idea, arguing that natural rights could support a threshold approach to moral status. Moral equality resides in membership of a class of beings that have the capacity to form plans and set goals. Hence each person, enhanced or not, has the same moral status. He then argues that although the enhancement of traits may change the types of ends that individuals pursue, some neo-Aristotelian natural rights theories (specifically the theory developed by Douglas Rasmussen and Den Uyl) could accommodate both human and posthuman ends in a unified account of flourishing. Hence, natural rights could still be an important ground for morality in a future where our ends have been radically changed by enhancement technologies.

Cole’s research is an important contribution to the enhancement debate.  Previous appeals to natural rights in the context of human enhancement lacked a substantive account of how the concept actually applies to the debate.  In his balanced dissertation, Cole shows that when the concept of a natural right is carefully analysed it can be used both in support of, and against, various forms human genetic modification. Cole’s work will be of great interest to those working in the area of human enhancement, as well as philosophers with an interest in natural rights theory.

Chris Gyngell
School of Philosophy
Australian National University

Primary Sources 

Finnis, J, 1980, Natural Law and Natural Rights, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Fukuyama, F, 2002, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York.
Nussbaum, MC, 1997, “Capabilities and Human Rights”, Fordham Law Review, vol. 66, no. 2, pp. 273-300.
Harris, J, 2007, Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
Rasmussen, DB & Den Uyl, DJ, 1991, Liberty and Nature: An Aristotelian Defense of Liberal Order, LaSalle, Ill., Open Court.

Dissertation Information

Monash University. 2011. 233 pp. Primary Advisor: Justin Oakley.

Image: Supreme Court Building in Singapore. Photo by Author.

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