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Berlin Residency Seminar: Cross-Disciplinary & Looking Outward

Beyond a Zero-Sum Game

November 10, 2016 • By William Schweiker & Guenter Thomas Beyond a Zero-Sum Game

In quite a few debates over the last year there has been a key moral issue in the room like the famous elephant everyone can see but hardly anyone is able or willing to acknowledge and discuss. The issue that needs to be addressed appears to be an emerging hermeneutical frame of the work done by The Enhancing Life Project Scholars. Put as a question: can life only be enhanced at the cost of other life? If this is the case, it would be an argument for a profoundly tragic understanding of life. There is no progress, because every enhancement is creating new endangerments. There is only a zero-sum game to be played. Any enhancement, be it a new educational program, an innovative patient care model, or a new peace treaty will turn out to have a dark flip side of the coin depending on the observer or the point of time looked at. As can be seen in the theology and political philosophy of the influential 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a very strong religious notion of sin eventually can feed such a tragic view on life. Indeed, many Stoic existential and intellectual postures lean towards such a view. And yet, even though enhancing life quite often needs self-restraint and even the willingness to give life for others, what emerges out of a generous giving of life is not simply another variation in a process of eternal repetition of life feeding on life. It seems to be that a fundamental assumption built into the notion of enhancing life is that it is not  a zero-sum game.  Rather, within the notion of enhancing life lives a basic assumption that we would like to call a deep grammar or deep breath of hope. This deep grammar of hope seems to be an underlying operative assumption in the many individual projects of the 35 scholars in The Enhancing Life Project. This deep grammar of hope can be encoded in and symbolized in many ways and many different forms but prominently in religious and artistic counter-worlds. The peculiar fragility of life’s goodness does not necessarily imply a deeply tragic outlook. At the same time, in the midst of all endangerment of life, we must acknowledge that the deep grammar of hope becomes apparent in the worlds of academic projects only as a tentative, searching, and humble hope.  The work of The Enhancing Life Project nurtures and develops this searching and humble hope.


"Beyond a Zero-Sum Game" is the conclusion of "Which Life; What Enhancement? A Report on The Enhancing Life Project" by William Schweiker and Günter Thomas, written for the Religion and Culture Web Forum. To see the full paper via the Web Forum site, click here.