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Kant and Enhancement Technology: A Q&A with Dr. Sarah Bianchi

In Search of Lost Orientation

October 20, 2016 • By Sarah Bianchi In Search of Lost Orientation

We will never find “a Newton of the blade of grass,” said the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in his last critique, the Critique of Judgment (1790). According to Kant, it is not possible to decode the enigmas of life as Newton deciphered the laws of the physical universe. If Kant had lived to experience today’s rapid growth in technological development, however, he might have come to a different conclusion. Even if human beings haven’t fully identified the laws of life, we are coming closer to unraveling the myths of life in ways that were—until recently—unimaginable. 

These types of research are often related to the theme of enhancement. We can observe the rapidly growing development in biotechnology on different levels. With respect to genetic enhancement, it seems possible that in the near future, we will be able to change human embryos’ genetic code through gene editing. With respect to global environmental effects, the power of human beings has increased so much in the last few decades that the Nobel Laureate Paul J. Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist, says we have entered a new era. According to him, the “Anthropocene”—emphasizing human beings’ central role in shaping natural processes—is replacing the “Holocene,” the era that we have lived in since the last Ice Age. Moreover, if we also examine the growing field of artificial intelligence, Nick Bostrom, one of the leaders of the so-called “post-human” movement, warns human beings of the day in the future when machines will outstrip humans not only in their intellectual capabilities, but also the quality of their moral thinking.

These examples show how technology empowers or even overpowers human beings. Sometimes this new power can be judged as good, but it can also be considered a menace. It seems as if we have lost orientation. Drawing the ethical line between the two is easier said than done. Mapping the landscape of enhancement, obviously, is necessary, butthe question remains, how to develop such an ethical perspective. Essentialist schemes–formerly quite common in the debate–seem to be no longer adequate. Kant, for example, could be accused at first glance of seeing human beings only as rational. Or to explain essentialism more generally: It would support to imagining the future in an already fixed manner that seems no longer justified. In this sense, labels like normal/non-normal, healthy/ill, therapeutic/perfecting, natural/artificial include a more or less subtle essentialist core.

In each case, the following question is foreseeable: Which perspective actually allows us to determine what should be defined as normal or abnormal, ill or healthy? What does the concept of a “natural” human being actually mean today? We can show the difficulty by a quiet common health problem: the issue of deaf. Biotechnological methods allow meanwhile deaf people to hear again. Then they belong to the group of ‘cyborgs’. If we only came across the definition of cyborgs, human beings as mixture of organism and machine, then it would immediately allude to science-fictive, post-human visions. The example clarifies, however, how ‘normal’ these people can be. 

The Enhancing Life Project offers the opportunity to approach these biotechnological developments from a new vantage point, focusing on these technologies’ context within our actual lives. From this perspective, I aim to develop a non-essentialist perspective on enhancement. I argue that philosophical anthropology can play a key role by re-actualizing the notion of human self-understanding. This point of departure leads to a need for a relational understanding of humanity. Human beings can only emerge as human through their relationships with other people, and these relations are neither merely instrumental nor only affective. But at the same time, such a relational approach needs something that gives human beings the ability to make good decisions. Metaphorically speaking, I aim to draw out the necessity of a relational compass that can guide us through the landscape of enhancement. Such an approach is not fixed; it does not rely on a stable guideline that forbids this and allows that. Rather, it attempts to grasp the “mode” of living. Technology will be measured in its relation to human beings that are, as well, conceived in a relational way. These different dimensions are not fixed and should be reconsidered at each step.

By following this path, we also avoid anthropocentric pitfalls. From the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche we have learned that human beings are definitely not the “center” of the world. Why shouldn’t an ant imagine itself at the center of its wood, as the early Nietzsche polemicized in On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense? Against this background, a relational anthropology deals with sociality in two ways. First, it stresses that human beings can only be understood within their relationships; there is no solipsistic human identity that could be developed without other human beings. Second, it underlines the relation between human beings to their world. If we think of research approaches that might attempt to kill a specific kind of mosquito, this could have deep effects on the whole surrounding environmental system, which could be endangered by new and severe imbalances. 

A relationally conceived philosophical anthropology has the central advantage of being able to explore and reflect on necessary limits of enhancement technologies from a non-essentialist perspective. Within this perspective the rethinking of human self-understanding could enable us to design a scale, a so-called “relational compass.” Then we can begin to develop tools that will give us relational—and thus sustainable—orientation in order to begin to map the vast landscape of enhancement.