Bring me my Philips Mental Jacket

Bring me my Philips Mental Jacket
Bring me my Philips Mental Jacket

Do we today have an available bioethics? Yes, we do, a bad one: what the Germans call Bindestrich-Ethik, or ‘hyphen-ethics’, where what gets lost in the hyphenation is ethics as such. The problem is not that a universal ethics is being dissolved into a multitude of specialised ones (bioethics, business ethics, medical ethics and so on) but that particular scientific breakthroughs are immediately set against humanist ‘values’, leading to complaints that biogenetics, for example, threatens our sense of dignity and autonomy.

The main consequence of the current breakthroughs in biogenetics is that natural organisms have become objects open to manipulation. Nature, human and inhuman, is ‘desubstantialised’, deprived of its impenetrable density, of what Heidegger called ‘earth’. If biogenetics is able to reduce the human psyche to an object of manipulation, it is evidence of what Heidegger perceived as the ‘danger’ inherent in modern technology. By reducing a human being to a natural object whose properties can be altered, what we lose is not (only) humanity but nature itself. In this sense, Francis Fukuyama is right in Our Posthuman Future: the notion of humanity relies on the belief that we possess an inherited ‘human nature’, that we are born with an unfathomable dimension of ourselves.

The gene directly responsible for the onset of Huntington’s chorea has been isolated, and anyone can now be told not only whether they will get Huntington’s, but when. At issue is a transcription mistake: the stuttering repetition of the nucleotide sequence CAG in the middle of a particular gene. The age at which the disease will appear depends implacably on the number of repetitions of CAG: if there are 40, you will get the first symptoms at 59; if 41, at 54; if 50, at 27. Healthy living, keeping fit, the best medicine, none of them can help. We can submit to a test and, if it is positive, find out exactly when we will go mad and die. It’s hard to imagine a clearer confrontation with the meaninglessness of a life-determining contingency. No wonder the majority of people (including the scientist who identified the gene) choose not to know, an ignorance that is not simply negative, since it allows us to fantasise.

The prospect of biogenetic intervention opened up by increasing access to the human genome effectively emancipates humankind from the constraints of a finite species, from enslavement to the ‘selfish gene’. Emancipation comes at a price, however. In a talk he gave in Marburg in 2001, Habermas repeated his warning against biogenetic manipulation. There are, as he sees it, two main threats. First, that such interventions will blur the borderline between the made and the spontaneous and thus affect the way we understand ourselves. For an adolescent to learn that his ‘spontaneous’ (say, aggressive or peaceful) disposition is the result of a deliberate external intervention into his genetic code will undermine the heart of his identity, putting paid to the notion that we develop our moral being through Bildung, the painful struggle to educate our natural dispositions. Ultimately, biogenetic intervention could render the idea of education meaningless. Second, such interventions will give rise to asymmetrical relations between those who are ‘spontaneously’ human and those whose characters have been manipulated: some individuals will be the privileged ‘creators’ of others.

[Extract. Appeared in London Review of Books on May 22nd 2003.]

Tell us what you think...