The Future of Human Nature
Recent developments in biotechnology and genetic research are raising complex ethical questions concerning the legitimate scope and limits of genetic intervention. As we begin to contemplate the possibility of intervening in the human genome to prevent diseases, we cannot help but feel that the human species might soon be able to take its biological evolution in its own hands. 'Playing God' is the metaphor commonly used for this self-transformation of the species, which, it seems, might soon be within our grasp.
In this important new book, Jurgen Habermas - the most influential philosopher and social thinker in Germany today - takes up the question of genetic engineering and its ethical implications and subjects it to careful philosophical scrutiny. His analysis is guided by the view that genetic manipulation is bound up with the identity and self-understanding of the species. We cannot rule out the possibility that knowledge of one's own hereditary factors may prove to be restrictive for the choice of an individual's way of life and may undermine the symmetrical relations between free and equal human beings.
In the concluding chapter - which was delivered as a lecture on receiving the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade for 2001 - Habermas broadens the discussion to examine the tension between science and religion in the modern world, a tension which exploded, with such tragic violence, on September 11th.
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Habermas has written a critique of prenatal interventions that offer parents some measure of control over the children they have and the traits of the children they have. This book is not for beginners; it is written in a very complex way, but the general idea is that parents should not take steps to select traits in their children because that undermines the equality of their children in relationship to all others. Up to now, our biogenetic natures are accidents of nature; prenatal interventions stand to change all that. In a sense, Habermas argues, in selecting the traits of children through various prenatal interventions, parents are becoming co-authors of their children's lives. That's a fundamental threat to the equality of those children in relationship to all other people. Not only that, but Habermas thinks that we really don't need embryo selection, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, oocyte mitochondrial transfer, and other interventions because children can have good and valuable lives without them.
This is, therefore, a fundamentally bioconservative analysis.
The analysis is, however, open to criticism on several grounds. First, children are already affected genetically through the choices society and their parents make, and we don't normally think of this outcome as the authorship of their lives. Secondly, Habermas himself opens the doors to some genetic interventions when he says they can be used to prevent extreme evil. If they can be used against extreme evil, why not other lesser kinds of evil, in a proportionate way? No matter if parents select the traits of their children, moreover, those children will have as much power to author a life as anyone else.