[Paleopsych] TLS: John Gray: Ethically engineered

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John Gray: Ethically engineered
The Times Literary Supplement, 4.1.16

    THE FUTURE OF HUMAN NATURE. Jurgen Habermas. Translated by Hella
    Beister. 128pp. Oxford: Polity. £40 (paperback, £13.99). - 0 7456 2986

    ENOUGH. Genetic engineering and the end of human nature. Bill
    McKibben. 274pp. Bloomsbury. £17.99. - 0 7475 6536 8.

    The development of genetic engineering opens up the possibility that
    humans may be able to design future generations of humans. The Nazis
    launched a hideous experiment in breeding a new humanity, but the
    power of creating new humans beings eluded them. Mercifully, the
    necessary scientific knowledge did not yet exist.

    It exists now. There is some debate about when it will be practically
    usable, but the technology itself is no longer the stuff of science
    fiction. This new human power poses a fundamental difficulty for
    liberal ethics. Nazi eugenic policies were based on racist
    pseudoscience; genocide was their logical result. It is easy to see
    the horror of what the Nazis attempted, but eugenic policies based on
    good science and serving impeccably liberal ends have moral
    difficulties of their own. Designing future humans to embody liberal
    notions of the good life seems to involve treating them as instruments
    of our ends -something forbidden by liberal notions of personal
    autonomy. True, in doing this we would not be using them simply as
    resources to satisfy our wants; we would aim to enhance their freedom
    and well-being, by reducing their liability to hereditary disability,
    for example, or increasing their intellectual capacities. But we would
    still be intervening in their lives in the most radical way
    imaginable. We would shape them irrevocably.

    It seems we cannot help violating liberal values, even as we strive to
    apply them.

    There may be no such thing as liberal eugenics.

    The contradictions of liberal values are a central theme of Jurgen
    Habermas's thoughtful and stimulating new book, The Future of Human
    Nature. Unlike most philosophers in anglophone countries, Habermas
    does not take liberal ethics for granted. Even more unusually, he
    understands that the root of the liberal ideal of autonomy is in a
    religious conception of the person. He begins his inquiry with
    Kierkegaard's explicitly theocentric account of an authentically human
    existence. As a secular humanist, Habermas does not endorse
    Kierkegaard's claim that authentic human selfhood is achievable only
    in the presence of God; but he is insistent that the question of what
    constitutes authentic human existence is central to thinking about the
    new biotechnologies.

    The tendency in analytical philosophy is to view such questions as
    relics of metaphysics or - even worse - religion. A liberal philosophy
    can be developed, it is believed, which does not depend on
    controversial answers to murky - perhaps even senseless - questions
    about the meaning of life. Yet such questions cannot be banished from
    philosophy. If new biotechnologies make it possible to create new
    human beings, they also make it impossible to avoid questions about
    what it means to be human - questions that cannot be answered by
    science. Many contemporary philosophers want not only to reject
    religious belief but also to purge philosophy of religious questions
    and categories of thought. One of the less obvious consequences of
    biotechnology is that such a purely secular mode of thinking has
    ceased to be a viable option.

    Habermas's achievement in this short, dense, suggestive volume is to
    reconnect contemporary thought in bioethics to the central traditions
    of Western philosophy and religion. But by situating his inquiry in
    this way, he does also limit it.

    Habermas assumes without question that humans belong in a different
    moral category from all other animals. He is right that profound
    ethical issues are raised by the power to shape new human beings, but
    why should that be more problematic than similar technological
    interventions in the lives of other animals? The answer is that, like
    almost all contemporary Western philosophers -not least those who
    claim most stridently to be rigorously secular in their thinking -
    Habermas takes his conception of the human subject from Christianity.

    The notion that humans are separated from other animals by an
    impassable gulf is a Christian inheritance. Pervasive in
    post-Christian cultures, it is absent in most others. Hindus and
    Buddhists acknowledge that humans have some distinctive
    characteristics, but they do not believe that humans possess
    extraordinary attributes - such as free will and an immortal soul
    denied to their animal kin. It is scarcely accidental that it was a
    pious Christian (Immanuel Kant) who first formulated the liberal idea
    of personal autonomy. More to the point, it may not be fully coherent
    when wrenched from a Christian view of humans and their place in the
    world. Contemporary philosophers pride themselves on their
    sophisticated understanding of moral concepts, but in taking the
    categories of post-Christian cultures as the unquestioned framework of
    moral thought they are being naive. After Habermas's new book this
    innocence will be harder to sustain.

    Enough: Genetic engineering and the end of human nature makes no
    pretence to being a work of conventional philosophy, and it is all the
    better for it. Written in a light, graceful style that does not aim
    for false clarity or spurious precision, it is a lucid and
    illuminating critique of the techno-utopian belief that by applying
    scientific knowledge the human condition can be improved beyond
    recognition. Bill McKibben does not deny that technology may change
    human life irreversibly - on the contrary, that is precisely what he
    dreads. It is not science itself he fears, but scientism: the belief
    that science can render the pursuit of meaning through myth and
    religion superfluous and redundant. If such a reductive utopia were
    achievable, it would be at the cost of an immeasurable human loss.

    In practice, those who seek to use science to undermine religion end
    up turning it into a new religion - and one incomparably more
    primitive than the traditional creeds that they aim to supplant. Older
    religions help us come to terms with sadness and mortality. The new
    ideology of salvation through science promises to eradicate
    unhappiness and even do away with death. Showing an impressive
    knowledge of the wilder shores of techno-utopian thinking, McKibben
    quotes extensively from cryogenicists who seek immortality by having
    their cadavers frozen, post-humanists who look forward to the
    technological reconstruction of the human organism, and "extropians",
    for whom having a body at all is an intolerable constraint on freedom.
    These evangelists for science seem to be an endearingly eccentric
    bunch, but they do an enormous amount of harm. By representing
    technological advance as at once inevitable and somehow inherently
    benign, they obscure the choices that we are actually making. In
    McKibben's view, the most valuable human characteristic is the ability
    to call a halt to technology. Given the new powers conferred by
    biotechnology, we can choose to restrain ourselves, and say, enough.

    This is an impassioned plea, but it is unlikely that technology can be
    controlled by moral restraint. If history is any guide, humans will
    use the new powers given by science to the limit. Whatever else it may
    produce, the advance of technology will not bring about the world -
    rational, hygienic and sterile -that McKibben fears. Instead it will
    magnify the capacity of humans to act as they have always done. The
    most predictable result of accelerating technological advance is to
    increase the intensity of war. Human knowledge grows and changes, but
    human needs - with all their attendant conflicts - stay the same. This
    may seem a dispiriting prospect, but at least we can forget the
    nightmare of a post-human world.

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