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Transcendence, Immanence, Clarity, Passion

Balancing Freedom and Constraint for the Enhancement of Life

January 27, 2017 • Balancing Freedom and Constraint for the Enhancement of Life

In recent years, projected life spans have lengthened, communication technology has bridged some of the gaps that divide us, and yet inevitably, our capacity to enhance life remains constrained by certain boundaries. This excerpt from The Enhancing Life Project’s report for the Religion and Culture Web Forum, written by William Schweiker, Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago, and Günter Thomas, Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany, Principal Investigators for The Enhancing Life Project, explores some of those boundaries.

The current public debate about enhancement technologies and the more general idea of enhancing life focuses on individual persons and their bodily and cognitive capacities, the expansion of their lifespans, their sexual activities, etc. This general debate about life enhancement should not be rejected out of hand – because it entails the double foci of freedom: First, the freedom of the individual person is at the very core of the most important philosophies of the Western traditions as well as the Western Christian tradition, where the dignity of every human being is mirrored in the trope of God calling every being by name. Second, lived life is always unfolding life – unfolding in social spaces, in physical spaces, and in temporal spaces. Every individual life is unfolding into an individual trajectory of a responsive and responsible life. 

An unfolding life implies freedom from life-threatening forces in the natural environment, the freedom of self-expression, and the freedom for an adventurous life. Freedom from constraints is essential for the unfolding of life. However, to enhance life by only strengthening this freedom can become illusionary and self-destructive, because it would overlook two essential aspects of life: a life of freedom is lived in a multitude of interdependencies, and, even more concretely, life is costly. Who is paying the price? What dependencies are the foundation of a practice of freedom? Both aspects ask for limitations in order to open spaces of living for others. The life in biological, social, financial, ecological, and cultural dependencies is asking for constraint, for self-limitation and practices which nourish the freedom of others.  Every individual life is lived in a web of lives.

The necessity for self-limitation and self-constraint in the praxis of freedom is leading into the center of two crucial issues in political and social philosophy. Given that a shared life of freedom is asking for limitations, the question is: Is this enabling of others only based on self-limitation or can this limitation be imposed by other authorities, be it political, religious, legal or just the assumed majority opinion? Societies differ widely in terms of their balancing self-limitation and being confined by tradition, law, and public opinion. 

Practices of self-limitation are always highly risky. What could be a powerful gesture of inviting another life to unfold can be seen as an invitation to exploit this life. The demand for confinement and limitations, humbleness and respect could just be part of a power-play helping the ruthless autopoiesis of other lives. Many liberation movements had to work through this abuse of moral communication and legal disadvantaging. So there is a constant dynamic negotiation between individual freedom and limiting rules and practices. 

 In this ongoing social negotiation, two questions come to the forefront: What are the criteria of distinguishing life-enabling forms of limitations from exploiting limitations? And: What enables and encourages people to take the risk of limiting oneself and giving to others? For instance, practices of philanthropy as well as legal regulations in favor of disadvantaged people need this sensitivity in society’s ethos. Many religious counter-worlds and forms of a humanistic ethos symbolize this life-enabling limitation – without being able to escape a deep moral ambiguity in terms of possible practices.

Read "Forms of Life and Life's Enhancement" and "Transcendence, Immanence, Clarity, Passion", also from the Web Forum Report.

To download a PDF of the report, please click here.