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Fenton to Habermas and bio-cons:  Human nature is not fixed

The November-December 2006 issue of The Hastings Center Report contains an important article by Elizabeth Fenton, entitled “Liberal Eugenics and Human Nature: Against Habermas”, the thrust of which is to attack - and demolish - the distinction made by Habermas and other bioconconservative thinkers between the natural and the artificial.

While Fenton also makes reference to the views of George Annas and Francis Fukuyama, she concentrates on those of Jurgen Habermas, who has presented what she describes as a “subtle and complex” argument for the prohibition of so-called liberal eugenics.

In the context of this debate, liberal eugenics is the practice of parents selecting some of the genetic characteristics of their own children, within some limits. The usual limits that are proposed relate to the avoidance of harm to the children, though some philosophers and bioethicists also discuss other possible constraints that cannot easily be brought under that heading. For example, Nicholas Agar, who has defended liberal eugenics, opposes the (hypothetical) use of genetic technology to select the sexuality of children, not because this would be harmful to the children themselves but because of the possible social ramifications (e.g. for the position in society of homosexuals).

In any event, liberal eugenics would allow parents considerable scope to select their childrens’ genetic potentialities. It stands in contrast to authoritarian eugenics: historical attempts by the state to control the distributions of genetic traits across an entire population.

As Fenton reconstructs Habermas’ argument, it relies on the assumption that there is a fixed, and morally normative, human nature, which would be disrupted if parents could choose (some of) their children’s genetic traits. In response, Fenton makes several telling points, that at the least require some more sophisticated reply from biocons like Habermas:

  • First, we cannot look on human nature as something fixed and stable - it is open to modification, and possibly even to improvement. We cannot be sure that any set of identifiable core characteristics of humanity merits protection from change.
  • Habermas is wrong to ground a concept of “human dignity” in the current concept of what it is to be human.
  • The claim, made by Habermas, that liberal eugenics would fundamentally alter the relationship between parents and children is “overblown”: on the one hand, there is an inherent inquality between parents and children in any event; and on the other - provided that they possess subjectivity similar to that of other human beings - genetically modified humans will be as well placed as the rest of us to claim political equality in their moral communities.
  • It is difficult to draw a line between the natural and the artificial, and wherever the line is drawn it is not of moral significance. Something else needs to be relied on to make distinctions of good and bad.
  • The concept of a fixed and normative human nature is at odds with liberal conceptions of autonomous agency and the value of individual freedoms.
  • There is a contradiction in the claims by Habermas and other bioconservatives that liberal eugenics is intrinsically morally wrong, while at the same time they want its regulation or acceptance to be determined by a democratic process. The latter claim appears to undermine the former. (I add that if the criterion is harm rather than inherent moral wrongness, as any Millian liberal should argue, precisely the same problem arises: it is either harmful enough to require prohibition, or it isn’t.)

Fenton does not attempt to argue that liberal eugenics is morally acceptable. She confines herself to the more modest point that, if it is morally wrong, its wrongness must consist in something other than its supposed unnaturalness. Even that, however, is an important point which can never be made, and given intellectual support, too often. Fenton is someone who gets it.

She concludes that there may be shared characteristics which separate human beings from our environment at a point in time, and that these may define us uniquely at the time ... and may be of moral significance. But there is no imperative to preserve them - they should not be granted intrinsic value or be protected from change. “For whatever they are,” Fenton says, “they are open to change and improvement; to deny this is to deny humanity its most cherished freedom - the freedom to evolve.”

Russell Blackford Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, an attorney, science fiction author and critic, philosopher, and public intellectual. Dr. Blackford serves as editor-in-chief of the IEET's Journal of Evolution and Technology. He lives in Newcastle, Australia, where he is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.

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