From Human Nature to Moral Judgments: Reframing Debates about Disability and Enhancement

C.E. Harnacke

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


My goal in my dissertation is to develop an account of how a theory of human nature should be integrated into bioethics and to show what bioethics can gain from using this account. I explore the relevance of human nature for moral argumentation, and especially for bioethics. Thereby, I focus on debates about enhancement and disability. Bioethics is in need of a discussion of conceptions of human nature, as I argue, to better justify and to understand moral judgments in bioethics.
I begin the development of the theoretical framework in by identifying the very different conceptions of the human being implicit in discussions of ?human nature.? Once one distinguishes between naturalistic, metaphysical, and normative conceptions of the human being, it becomes clear that one cannot simply choose one of these conceptions to employ in a moral argument. These conceptions are not directly comparable to each other, because they are not simply alternatives for each other. I also show that conceptions of the human being can?and, in effect, do?play a role in moral arguments. These roles go beyond the much-criticized idea that approaches to human nature can serve as a sufficient basis for making moral judgments. In particular, as I show, there are several indirect argumentative functions for conceptions of human nature in moral arguments.
Next, the theoretical framework is applied to three debates about disability and enhancement. These chapters assess the extent to which employing my framework improves the moral debate in question or allows better arguments to be made. The applications clarify the meaning, relevance, and implications for bioethical debates of the theoretical distinctions and insights developed in the theoretical framework. I start with a real-life case in which a decision has to be made concerning the treatment of an individual. This case concerns Ashley, a severely disabled girl. She received a controversial medical intervention to keep her child-sized and to restrict her female bodily development, with the intention of improving her long-term quality of life. The next chapter challenges the common assumption in debates about disability, which is that as soon as we know what the correct ?model of disability? is, we have an answer to the question of what justice for disabled people entails. Models of disability are taken to have strong normative implications. Lastly, I discuss a more general moral debate: the fascinating debate about designer babies. By discussing these three case studies, I show how my theoretical framework can help to illuminate three debates in bioethics, how it clarifies misunderstandings between scholars holding different positions in those debates, and how it is necessary to understand the arguments put forward in the debates. The choice of a particular account of human nature makes a difference when dealing with practical moral issues. We need such an account to make sensible moral judgments, but also to understand discussions properly and to understand disagreements about moral issues at all.
Original languageEnglish
Print ISBNs978-94-6103-045-0
Publication statusPublished - 6 Nov 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • disability
  • enhancement
  • bioethics
  • human nature
  • moral judgments


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