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

Trains of Our Time: Vulnerable Humans Facing Enhancement

April 21, 2016 • By Sarah Bianchi Trains of Our Time: Vulnerable Humans Facing Enhancement

Imagine our world about 200 years ago, in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. The first railways saw the light of day. This new technology differed sharply from earlier means of transportation, and thanks to the trains’ speed, goods could be more easily shipped across large distances, new lands could be settled, and horse-drawn carriages became unnecessary. Yet despite these advantages, there were also strong downsides. Coachmen fell into unemployment, trees were chopped down to create rails, and many workers were injured or even died while constructing railways. Nonetheless, today we have good reasons to consider trains as a significant form of technological progress. What enables us to come to such an evaluation?

To approach the question more deeply, let’s examine the history of philosophy in order to better understand at first the basic character of technology in human life. Throughout the centuries, philosophers stressed the compensatory function of technology. Technology was not conceived as a mere arbitrary product, rather a necessary means for survival. In the dialogue Protagoras, Plato stated that human beings are helpless. In contrast to animals, they do not possess corporal organs with which they can effectively defend themselves. Birds have wings, horses hooves, and beasts sharp teeth to do so. Compared to them, human beings are utterly naked and thus mostly vulnerable. In the 19th century, Nietzsche argued that the human being is the “animal not yet properly adapted to his environment." He, therefore, saw the human being as an animal that needs to compensate for his or her natural deficits through skills and intelligence. About a century later, Arnold Gehlen formed the thesis of the so-called “deficient being" by pointing out the compensatory function of technological development. Human beings, he claimed, need something to compensate for their endangered position in the world. Technological interventions represent one of these compensatory functions that protect basically vulnerable human beings. In the long run, technology can contribute to a more civilized and self-determined mode of living.

Crucially, however, technology can also endanger human life. The compensatory function, therefore, does not as such justify the embrace of any specific technology. It rather expresses the need for technology without identifying which particular kind would be worthwhile. In my project, I am exploring the tipping point from enhancement to endangerment, in other words, the thin line between both. There is something here that makes a difference, but this difference cannot be understood by simply turning to abstract guidelines or appealing to an absolute, essentialist human nature.  

In my understanding, it is the task of each individual to navigate the various technological possibilities by themselves, according to their situation and time. To rephrase, this means that each person follows their actions in their self-determined mode of living. But the ability to determine oneself is always to be understood in a relational way. From birth, if we put it in a concrete way, humans develop and are embedded within social relations. Such a relational understanding of human beings leads to the ethical approach that I aim to undertake in my project. To be more specific, through an exemplary ethic I will stress the social understanding of human beings in their self-determined way of life. This sociability is not a mere side-product. Indeed, human beings are always enmeshed in social bounds. The exemplary ethic focuses on Kant’s third formulation of the categorical imperative. In this sense, each individual tries to give an example in their self-determined acting in life to the broader human kind.

But a good application of technological means also requires other human abilities, like self-discipline that leads to a responsible way of coping with a particular technology. Take the example of the discovery of fire in Plato’s Protagoras. To utilize the fire in a useful way, human beings had to overcome their fear of fire and self-discipline themselves so as not to burn the entire village–to illustrate a possible danger somewhat exaggeratedly. They had to learn that there are responsible ways to use fire. More generally speaking, human beings learned to instrumentalize these tools. As a result, we can think through the following advantages among many others: they improved their nutrition by developing the ability to cook, they could be warmed and also protected from animals.

Through balancing the different relations, we may better differentiate which enhancement technologies might comprise a danger only at first glimpse, because they are actually not, and which technologies indeed cross the line between enhancement and endangerment. Although the particulars are too complicated to be worked out here, one important lesson from Kant is that we need to think about self-determination relationally. In an everyday understanding, trains do not compel anyone, passengers are free to use them or not, and they do not, in general, restrain another person’s freedom.

Keeping Kant and Nietzsche in mind, we can refer back to the beginning of this blog post and ask: can we better identify one of the “trains of our time” in current technological development? Let’s take a look at CRISPR/Cas 9, the new technology to modify the human germline. This question is linked to my recent collaboration with Christopher Thomas Scott (see our blog post on “Enhancing Human Embryos”). One possible consideration with regard to this technology is that the genetic modifications done via CRISPR/Cas9 would be introduced to all future generations by parents’ choice and could not be undone.

What would Kant say about that, with respect to self-determination and humans’ relational state? What would Nietzsche say about that, with respect to the idea that tools and technology are to help humans compensate for their natural deficits? To disclose and ethically evaluate the “trains of our time” is the aim of my overall project, and the work of Kant and Nietzsche will help to take more properly into account the links between human beings, nature, technology and the future in a relational way.

Read a Q&A with Sarah Bianchi about her research here.

Photo of the "dinky" train in Princeton, New Jersey courtesy of Sarah Bianchi