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by Jrgen Habermas
Polity Press, 2003
Review by Neil Levy, Ph.D. on May 14th 2003

The Future of Human Nature

In this short book, Habermas, one of the world's most eminent philosophers, turns his attention to the question of the permissibility of the genetic engineering of human beings. He is concerned with whether societies have the right stringently to regulate genetic engineering, or whether it ought to be left to individual choice and (therefore) to the market. Habermas, along with many other people, believes that genetic engineering ought to be regulated, with only those interventions that prevent very serious congenital defects allowed. But he is also a liberal, of sorts, who denies that people have the right to impose their comprehensive worldviews upon each other. Reconciling these two positions is his project here.

Habermas distinguishes between what he calls morality, which is the 'thin' system of rules which regulates everyone's interactions with one another, and ethics, which is the comprehensive worldview and notion of the good which individuals might accept (whether this is a theological view, metaphysical liberalism, Aristotelianism, or whatever). Morality is universal, and therefore rightly enforced by the state. But ethics is personal, and the state must be neutral between rival ethical worldviews.

Presumably, though Habermas doesn't say, morality is based upon the harm principle dear to liberals: we are free to act (more or less) as we please, so long as we do not harm one another. This leaves Habermas with a problem, since it is far from clear that the genetic engineering he finds objectionable, such as the genetic enhancement of children by their parents, inflicts harm upon others. He solves this problem by suggesting that there is what he calls 'a species ethics', the ethical self-understanding of all rational beings just in so far as they are language-using agents. It is the species ethics that is under threat from biotechnology.

Though the development this idea receives here is idiosyncratic, reflecting Habermas's intellectual background, the basic position will be familiar to many English-speaking readers who have followed the debates concerning biotechnology in the United States and the United Kingdom. Essentially, the idea is that 'human dignity', which is the quality in virtue of which we are each entitled to equal treatment, is threatened when human life becomes an artifact, rather than the product of natural processes. When we intervene into the development of a foetus to prevent extremely serious disabilities, we can assume the future person's consent, since no one can rationally withhold consent for the treatment of disabilities that render life extremely short and painful. Since we rightly assume consent, when we intervene in this manner, we treat the potential human being as future person, a participant in ongoing dialogue. But we cannot assume consent when we enhance a genome, since it is quite rational to reject enhancements. Thus, when we engage in genetic enhancements, we treat the foetus, and the future person, as a mere object.

As the enhanced person grows up, she will regard herself as in part someone else's project. Her individuality and her freedom will be diminished by the fact that her abilities have been chosen for her by others. She shares the authorship of her life with others. Thus, genetic enhancement threatens the fundamental relations of human beings with one another, and for that reason the state ought to prevent it.

This kind of argument seems open to the accusation that it based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of the genome in shaping organisms. Though Habermas uses the phrase 'genetic programming' throughout this work, the genome is not a program. It is a developmental resource, one among many. It shapes the organism, but only in concert with the other resources, and the environment. The resulting phenotype is the result of the interaction of many factors, among them the genome. For this reason, it seems misguided to focus on the genome. Parents shape their offspring in many ways already, most of them unavoidable. They impart worldviews, aspirations, and, to a large extent, character. Why object to genetic intervention, when it is no more powerful than these socializing forces? Habermas is aware of this objection, and denies that it is appropriate. But his arguments against it are confused. He holds, first, that we are free to revise or reject our socialization, but not our genetic enhancement, since the former is less profound than the latter. But this is false. Socialization quite literally shapes the brain of the growing infant. Second, Habermas argues that whether or not genetic enhancement actually is more powerful and constraining than socialization, it is pernicious because socialization is addressed to a second person, whereas enhancement treats the embryo as an object. But this seems doubly false. It is false, first of all, that treating an embryo as an object leads to treating the resulting person as an object, or that the person who was so treated must inevitably feel demeaned by it, and it is false, secondly, that socialization is addressed toward a second person. It begins from birth, and it is inevitably imposed upon an uncomprehending infant.

It might nevertheless be that certain kinds of intervention are objectionable (assuming that they will ever be technological possibilities). Those interventions that constrain the child's life plan, by fitting her only for certain careers or ways of life, might infringe her right to an open future. This view also faces an objection from current social practices: we currently allow parents to, say, impose a regime of intensive tennis practice upon their very young children, a regime designed to produce professional tennis players, but which is certain to leave the child ill-equipped to do anything else. Here, Habermas bites the bullet: if genetic interventions are objectionable because they infringe the right to an open future, then so are these practices.

This kind of constraining intervention aside, however, Habermas gives us no -- coherent -- reason to reject genetic enhancement. It is not even true that we can distinguish between prevention and enhancement on the basis of assumed consent, since it seems as rational to consent to enhancement of all-purpose capacities -- intelligence, memory, strength, and the like -- as it does to consent to the prevention of disabilities (Habermas does address this point, but he does so unconvincingly). Habermas is to be credited with offering arguments for his anti-engineering stance, where so many others have offered nothing more than appeal to sentiment. Nevertheless, this latest attempt to articulate the widely-felt revulsion at the genetic engineering of human beings does little to advance the question.


2003 Neil Levy


Dr Neil Levy is a fellow of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University, Australia. He is the author of two mongraphs and over a dozen articles and book chapters on Continental philosophy, ethics and political philosophy. He is currently writing a book on moral relativism.