A still from Terrence Malick's film, The Tree of Life 

I suggest that the most fundamental divide in contemporary Western democratic societies relevant to ethical issues relating to science and medicine, is between those who believe there is a mystery in human life – even if it’s just the mystery of the unknown/Unknown – and those who adamantly deny there could be any mystery in their existence and are certain this life is all that there is.

The latter answer the questions “Who am I?” and “What am I doing here?”, with “I am a living, conscious biological entity” and “There is no point to my existence other than to experience this world while I exist and to avoid or ameliorate suffering for myself and others.”

Some people who adopt this view argue that there are no morally or ethically relevant differences between humans and other animals, that a human is just another animal in the forest. Consequently, animals’ “rights” and our responsibilities to them with respect to what does and doesn’t constitute ethical treatment of them are the same as humans enjoy or owe. What we don’t do to humans we should not do to animals and what we do for humans we should do for animals.

Consistent with that view, the “no mystery” adherents reject the idea that humans are “special” as compared with other animals – the concept of human exceptionalism – and, therefore, that humans have rights and protections not accorded to animals.

They propose that just as there is no mystery in animals’ existence (a view which can be challenged, although it’s true that animals don’t ask themselves “Who am I?” or “What am I doing here?”), the same is true of humans’ existence, in that both life forms are explicable on the same purely biological and evolutionary bases.

Yet, some non-believers seem to seek a form of spirituality, perhaps a “secular spirituality”, which could be an oxymoron. For example, the online magazine Tikkun speaks of “Spiritual Activism Training” and invites people to “join our interfaith and secular-humanist-and-atheist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives (no, you don't have to be religious or believe in God to be a spiritual progressive–you only have to want our society to be governed by a New Bottom Line of love, generosity, environmental responsibility and awe and wonder at our wondrous universe).”

In contrast, those who believe there is a mystery in human life often answer the question, “Who am I?”, by finding their identity, at least in part, in a religion or spiritual practices, seeing themselves as having a soul or spirit and experiencing transcendence, the feeling of belonging to something larger than themselves. Many respond to the question, “What am I doing here?” with a belief that this life is not the end of their existence, but is a way stop on a larger trajectory.

So how do these different views play out in relation to some contemporary social-ethical values debates, such as legalizing euthanasia? Or the use of new molecular genetic technologies, for example, altering the human germ line (the genes passed on from generation to generation)? Or reproductive technologies, such as making artificial gametes (sperm or ova) to allow two women or two men to have a genetically shared child, or human cloning, or ectogenesis (gestation of a baby outside a woman’s body) using an artificial uterus, or transplanting a uterus to a man so he can bear a child? Or transplanting human brain cells into rats’ brains?

Those who do not believe that there is any mystery in human life that must be respected and especially if they give priority to individuals’ rights to autonomy, will be likely to see some or even all of these interventions as ethically acceptable. They will do this by analysing each of these situations as presenting a problem to be addressed with a technological solution and argue that great good can be done by implementing that solution.

So a lethal injection is seen as the solution to the “problem” of death, rather than natural death being accepted as a mystery to be respected. If a suffering person wants euthanasia, it’s their life and, therefore, their right to decide to end it – perhaps, even if they are not suffering, although some would consider protecting the “common good” justifies refusing the latter.

Altering the human germ line solves the problem of passing on to our children serious inherited disease, even though it involves designing our children and constitutes a failure to accept them simply because they are our children – it contradicts the mystery of unconditional parental love.

Creating a clone overcomes the problem of the shortage of tissues or organs for transplantation, although, like altering the human germ line, it negates the mystery of “the great genetic lottery of the passing on of human life”. It rests on the argument that if a person wants to be cloned that is only their business, unless again the “common good” is a limiting factor or the rights of the clone not to be brought into existence or used in that way are taken into account.

Creating artificial gametes provides a response to the problem of a married same-sex couple’s longing for a genetically shared child; an artificial uterus solves the problem for a woman who wants a child, but does not want to interrupt her career with a pregnancy; and a uterine transplant the problem faced by a man who wants to experience pregnancy (and, in the past, such men have contacted me). Individuals’ “absolute rights to reproductive freedom” would support as ethical, making available artificial gametes, ectogenesis and probably a uterine transplant to a man, unless wider considerations were factored in and militated against these procedures.

And transplanting human brain cells into rats’ brains in research on artificial intelligence raises the possibility of rats having some level of human consciousness. The consequences are literally and metaphorically mind-blowing and the ethical issues are unprecedented.

If, on the other hand, we believe that there is a mystery in human life that must be respected, starting with life itself, and if we see one or more of these interventions as failing to respect some aspect of that mystery, we will regard them as unethical.

For instance, in relation to euthanasia, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, commenting on the defeat of the NSW Voluntary assisted Dying Bill by one vote, has just written:

“By a whisker, the NSW upper house has preserved the country’s ethical clarity. The Council didn’t cave in to the defeatism of those who think the struggle at the end of life is a struggle in vain. …

“The state should be giving a lead on the optimism of life not the pessimism of suicide. … What we need is kindness, compassion and palliative care. We need our hand held rather than the state giving up on us, by underwriting our ignominious departure.

“We need faith in our human experience, and by faith, I mean not religious faith, but faith that goes to the essence of our importance, that goes to who and what we are.”

I have described the two poles of a spectrum of views about the ethics that should govern our technological interventions in human life. Many people probably fall somewhere along that spectrum, including those who are non-religious, rather than non-believers, the “nones”, around 70 percent of whom, surveys show, believe in a supernatural power or even God. And over half of atheists surveyed say they have a sense of wonder at the natural world. Might this be a mystical experience? If so, could a reconnection with Nature and revaluing of the natural bring the views of more of us on the ethics of the use of technologies, such as those considered above, closer together?

Margaret Somerville is professor of bioethics in the school of medicine at the University of Notre Dame Australia.  

Margaret Somerville

Margaret Somerville is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine (Sydney campus). She is also Samuel Gale Professor of Law Emerita, Professor Emerita in the Faculty...