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The Tipping Point Between Enhancement and Endangerment: A Q&A with Dr. Sarah Bianchi

April 19, 2016 • By Sarah Bianchi The Tipping Point Between Enhancement and Endangerment: A Q&A with Dr. Sarah Bianchi

Often, debates over whether we should embrace human enhancement technologies like gene editing and performance-enhancing drugs revolve around risks and benefits for the individual. Sarah Bianchi, currently Visiting Postdoctoral Research Associate at Princeton University, argues that instead, we should think of humans as relationally embedded, rather than isolated individuals. At the intersection between philosophical anthropology, bioethics and biotechnology she is building a bridge from the philosophy of Kant to Nietzsche and  conceptualizing an ethic in which humans set an example for others through their own mode of living. A so-called “exemplary ethic” can serve to measure enhancement technologies without restricting their development a priori, by enabling humans to understand their individual choice to use these technologies as linked with the fate of humanity as a whole.

Read a blog post by Sarah Bianchi about vulnerable humans facing enhancement here.

What was the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project? Are these new questions, or an extension of past research, or both?

In the debate about what humanity means today, I’m responding to one big question of The Enhancing Life Project: how can we assess enhancement technologies? Philosophers cannot say any more that there is a fixed, essential human nature—if we could, it would be easy to dismiss these technologies as being opposed to some sort of core humanity. But today, we cannot do so. I aim to approach the concept of humanity grasped as human self-understanding from a non-essentialist and pragmatic point of view, which means it’s harder to say that one form of technological enhancement is good and another is bad.

My doctoral work was about sociability in Nietzsche, and in that research I came across his notion of humanity. Nietzsche is ambiguous about this, he has no “pathos for humanity as a whole” but does offer deep insights. Among people who are very enthusiastic about human enhancement technologies, like the “trans-humanists,” Nietzsche is often seen as an ally. They read him as wanting to overcome the notion of ordinary humanity, he has this idea of the “superman,” and people want to use his work in an evolutionary context. But I think for Nietzsche it’s more about the “free spirit” referring to the tradition of the Enlightenment: the individual person’s ability to overcome themselves in a reading related to the tradition of the Enlightenment and construct what is good or bad by his or her own thinking, but always embedded in a broader social context. Nietzsche is interesting because he stressed people’s difference but not that they existed totally separately from one another. So I think radically individualistic readings of human beings in Nietzsche are not really accurate. Humanity for him isn’t fixed, but it is relational or social. That’s an aspect of my previous research that I’m incorporating here.

What does “enhancing life” mean for you? In what way will your project contribute to the enhancement of life?

I’m considering the link between the broader notion of “enhancing life,” which as we see in our overall project can mean many different things, and the more specific issue of biotechnologies that enhance human life. How is the broader question of “enhancing life” different from that technological aspect? How can we think about “enhancing life”—in my project conceived as “inner aspirations”, the ability to build freedom in a person, the kind of freedom that enables each individual to make reasonable and responsible decisions— with respect to human enhancement technologies?

Human beings are such vulnerable entities, so I think there’s much at stake in the technological development. But these developments are also huge progress. So one of our great challenges is to figure out the tipping point between enhancement and endangerment when it comes to technology. Thinking about the broader concept of “enhancing life” is in my project the basis for that.

How do public debates shape your work? What are you hoping to offer those debates?

With respect to advancements like CRISPR/Cas9 (a new gene editing technology that Christopher Scott and I wrote about in February) I would like to ask: Do we want to put everything in practice that we are able to do? And how are we making these decisions? Enhancement has a normative framework, and we need to ask where these norms come from and be aware of the fact that we are the ones building them. In different countries, these frameworks are applied in different ways that sparked controversial debates. Germany, for example, has very strict regulations on technologies like CRISPR/Cas9; in contrast, in Great Britain it’s more permissible. Technology is changing so quickly these days, we have to discuss the normative perspectives before putting it in practice.

Society shouldn’t loose the benefit of a technology by constraining it too early. Sometimes it’s hard to discern what the result will be. Glasses, for example, are an enhancement technology that we think of as utterly ordinary. But gene editing is in something of a different category because it would potentially allow parents to make decisions for children who aren’t yet born, and the children might be unhappy with the result. So we need to think in terms of our individual decisions’ impact on others: our children, and future generations.

You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?

Due to my research, I’m currently living in Princeton, New Jersey and it’s my first time in the United States, so I’m very excited to be here and very thankful that the John Templeton Foundation supports my stay generously. So far I have traveled a lot to New York City, to see my communicating partners at the New School for Social Research. I particularly like the art scene, but find the whole city very inspiring as well.