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« A Liberal China | Main | So....Maybe China is a Confucian Society After All...Nah... »

July 08, 2007

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It seems to me like you are thinking along the same lines (and if I can extend myself a little, making the same mistake) as Zhu Xi in that your focus on the great body is so intense that it manages to neglect the small body. I do not think this was Mencius's point nor his goal. He did not censure men for traveling great distances to get their crooked finger fixed -- indeed, he seemed to think that was the right thing to do. He was, however, disappointed that they failed to apply that sort of rigor to their minds.

I think that Yen Yuan represents an authentic return to Mencian thought, where the great body and the small body both need to be honed "like bone cut, like horn polished, like jade carved". In working with those materials, we know that what you end up with is indeed dependent on what you start out with -- there is white jade, there is green jade, there is pure jade and there is impure jade.

While I think that discussions about the 'turbidity of qi' are philosophically suspect at best, I do think that the notion of natural allotment is something that still haunts us. If we can start with finer materials, I do not think that Confucius would have objected at all.

This is a situation where a "rectification of names" would be extremely helpful. The phrase "bioengineering" implies that modern scientists are capable of the sort of mathematical engineering that allows people to build suspension bridges and space shuttles with an ability to predict with almost 100% accuracy how they will operate. When genes are manipulated in a living creature it is a totally different sort of enterprise. What happens there is that a large number of genes are mutated---pretty much at random---and they are then selected to find specific traits. There is no ability to understand the subtle, unanticipated results. Since living creatures are able to both manifest independent behaviour and reproduce, these unanticipated results can have an impact that again is pretty hard to predict.

To give one example that caused a scandal recently, a young man volunteered to submit to an experiment to test form of gene-based therapy for a rare blood disease, one that was already being treated by an established process. In a totally unexpected development, the new process turned his blood to jelly and killed the subject. (I heard about this on the CBC science program "Quirks and Quarks".)

If we look at the issue from this perspective, I think that a Confucian or Daoist would consider any attempt to change the human genome insanely dangerous and a perfect example of people overstepping their bounds.

Thanks for the great comments. The reminder of the "crooked finger" passage is most helpful. I will return to it and think more about how it relates to this question. You may be right, Guy; there is a wider lattitude for medical intervetions of a more personal kind in Confucianism than I suggested. But perhaps Owl is also right: when we get down to the level, and uncertainly, of genetic manipulation - especially when it is done for reasons more of vanity than real substance (why whould we prefer a girl to a boy child? I know, I have to do some work here to undo the traditional Confucian preference for boys, but that is both possible and necessary for a modern Confucianism...) - both Confucians snd Taoists would hesitate. Mencius did not look for a genetic intervention when he thought of fixing a crooked finger...

The radical dangerousness of gene-therapy might turn Taoists and Confucians against it, but it kind of undermines Sandel's "giftedness" critique, no? If gene-therapy is haphazard and chaotic, than successful gene mods would still be appreciated as gifts, I suppose.

I don't think that "dangerousness" was ever something Confucius objected to. After all, he visited a much-maligned woman which would have been quite toxic to his career and felt justified doing so. He was also untroubled by an assassin following him. Indeed, the emphasis was always that one should be very active and that the real danger lies in not taking action and discussing the issue -- specifically if one promises more than one can deliver. The only times I can think of when Confucius argued against action were when he was speaking to Zilu, who was always running around trying to do too much.

Now, I think that good cases could be made that genetic engineering has promised more than it can deliver and so deserves censure on that account and I also think one could argue that technology is a run-away train (like Zilu) and its enthusiasm needs to be curbed.

But dangerous? Confucius never argued one shouldn't act for fear of danger. "Faced with what is right, to leave it undone shows a lack of courage." So the wrongness of GE needs to be firmly established.

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