How Brave a New World?

2007 Convocation Address, St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland. Reprinted in Society 45 (1): 5-8 (February 2008).


Surveying the world you graduates are about to enter, I am reminded of the ancient Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” My own time has been interesting to a fault, but yours will almost certainly be more so. For the world has rolled itself into a new millennium amidst signs of great promise but also of great peril, calling for great courage and still greater wisdom. I have in mind not only the need, post-9/11, to stand-up against terror and fanaticism in defense of life, liberty, and the rule of law, a need that is likely to continue for your entire lives. I am thinking also of the need, in Winston Churchill’s words, to “Deserve Victory,” and especially to keep human life human in the dawning new age of biotechnology.

The greatest moral challenges headed our way do not in fact come from hate-filled fanatics threatening death and destruction. They come rather from well meaning scientists and technologists offering life, pleasure, and enhancement. They are the by-products of modernity’s noble and humanitarian quest to conquer nature for the relief of man’s estate. They are, in a word, the challenges of bioethics, challenges to our humanity arising from burgeoning new technological powers to intervene in the bodies and minds of human beings.

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