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Enhancing Life Through a Journey

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

October 18, 2016 • By Sarah Bianchi Kant and Enhancement Technology: A Q&A with Dr. Sarah Bianchi

What does it mean to be human in an age of radically expanding enhancement technology? This fall, Sarah Bianchi, post-doctoral fellow in philosophy at Humboldt University in Berlin, will offer an undergraduate seminar exploring the perspectives that emerge from the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant’s Lectures on Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1798). In the course, Bianchi will challenge her students to consider the role of human autonomy and freedom when it comes to decisions around enhancement technology, especially technologies like “smart drugs” that focus on the individual.

What will your Enhancing Life Studies course be about and how did you choose the topic?

Today, biotechnology is challenging us to rethink what human self-understanding means. In this context I think Kant has a lot to say and we can learn a lot from Kant, specifically his Lectures on Anthropology, which are the focus of the class. In Kant’s Lectures on Logic, he divides philosophy into four questions: 1) What can I know? 2) What should I do? 3) What can I hope for? and 4) What is a human being? The last question refers to his lectures on Anthropology. He says the first three questions will be answered by developing the fourth question: the reference to the human being. In the seminar, I will begin by explaining what enhancement is and why enhancing life matters. Then we will show how Kant contributes to the way we think about human self-understanding, which can help us create a frame or tool to measure the enhancement field.

What will you have the students do?

It’s a discussion-based class, with introductions from me and each lesson will start as well with a small introduction from a student. Following Kant’s paradigm “thinking for oneself,” we want to read the text closely and aim to really understand its content. The students will also write a small essay or paper. The framework of the class is, therefore, quite simple—we will follow the lectures by Kant. The interesting thing about the lectures on Anthropology is that they were published very late with respect to Kant’s own work, but they’re collected from lectures that were given over 20 years. So it’s interesting to see how it develops in the context of his other works. 

What is the public relevance of this material?

In bioethics, the current debate on how we should approach enhancement mostly focuses on costs and benefits or risks and considerations on safety. Thinking from the perspective of philosophical anthropology is less popular. But Kant, through the categorical imperative—the idea that you should only act on principles that could become universal laws of nature—offers us a tool to measure which actions are good and bad. 

You can think about an issue like CRISPR/Cas, the new gene editing technology that Chris Scott and I wrote about earlier this year, or the more individually focused issue of “smart drugs” that you can take to make you focus better or work harder, and Kant is actually very useful for helping us think about these issues in terms of relationships. Because these technologies are often talked about in terms of personal freedom, especially the “smart drugs.” But it’s not a mere personal decision about whether I want to enhance myself. It affects others, always, because we are embedded in society. And then there’s the question of whether you are self-instrumentalizing by taking these drugs—essentially using yourself in a way that is problematic. So Kant raises important questions of vulnerability and relatedness that I want to explore with the students. 

What are your goals for the class?

I want to bring closer to the students why enhancing life matters and what Kant can contribute to today’s discussions, even though he had no clue that these enhancement issues would appear one day. I want to give them new ways of thinking about these issues of enhancing life and maybe also give them an incentive to read more texts on philosophy and enhancement and culture, to keep engaging with these questions.