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Friday, 17 September 2010

‘If it weren’t an enhancement it wouldn’t be a good’

Last weekend I buggered my knee (again) playing cricket. I say ‘again’ because it’s two years since I had an operation to clear up an original injury.

Back then, playing football, I tore my anterior cruciate ligament (AKA, by me at any rate, ‘the Gazza injury’) ending any lingering pretentions I had of playing professional football (ok and the fact I was 33-years-old, ok and the fact that I probably, just maybe, wasn’t good enough)

So back then I had an op to graft a new ligament to replace the torn one. And now I fear I’ve re-torn it. Anyway, it dawned on me, really for the first time, that you only get one pair of legs in life. A depressing thought, if an odd one.

You see I think there was part of me, deep down, that thought one day I’d be able to sort the leg out, get it repaired, ‘fix’ it. You only get one set of legs in life, but I could sort that dodgy leg, you know, when the technology was in place and all that. And it would be a good thing.

It was in this context that I read a piece by Professor John Harris on human enhancement technologies.

There are some interesting discussions out there amongst trans-humanist thinkers who emphasise the emancipatory potential of technologies aimed at enhancing our bodies. . There is also a separate movement of ‘liberal eugenic’ thinkers who seek to justify the idea of ‘parental choice’ in the deployment of such technologies, for example, to inscribe desirable traits in their offspring.

Professor Harris writes, I think, from something like the trans-humanist perspective. He’s interested in how technologies can be used to augment our bodies and make them more – dare I say? – bionic. He argues that such enhancements are obviously goods because well, if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be enhancements would they?

But in my opinion there is something problematic in the “if it weren’t good for you it wouldn’t be an enhancement” line of thought. The problem is with the basic ‘good’ that is assumed from the outset.

Advocates of ‘liberal eugenics’ seek to justify interventions in the human genome on the basis of parental choice. One of the arguments they present to justify parental choice (for example over the size, eye or skin colour of children) is that there is no difference, from the moral point of view, between genetic enhancements aimed at influencing an embryo’s future life plans, and parental influence over a child’s education or career.

Parents want the best for their children, e.g. – a good career; parents want the best education for their children in order to enhance their career prospects; therefore, what’s wrong with a genetic enhancement that would do the same job? For example, by inscribing the mathematic competence requisite to a job as a hedge fund manager or accountant?

A problem arises here when this type of ‘parental choice’ is uncritically assumed to be a good. And I’m not talking about the good of hedge fund managers. One of the worries presented by thinkers who take a more conservative view of enhancing technologies concerns the capacity of future subjects to take up critical positions in relation to the decisions of their parents and their attendant genetic programmers.

Consider this: I ought to be able to decide whether to say ‘no’ to my parents and opt against being an accountant or hedge fund manager. But a child whose genetic inheritance is inscribed with a propensity to develop the characteristics necessary to play basketball, or play the stock markets, has no say in the matter.

In this account it is the capacity to partake of ethical life itself that is feared by conservative minded thinkers (for example Habermas) on this issue. The worry is that relationships of mutual recognition and the symmetries built into our ethical-moral dealings as members of the species might be jeopardized by the unequal terms implied by a relationship between a genetic programmer/parent disposing over an embryo in such a way that a particular essence is inscribed into that life.

The worry is magnified by the knowledge that tastes in such liberal eugenic enhancements, and the capacity to service them, would be generated and delivered by ‘the market’ in accordance with so-called ‘parental choice’. The danger in this is that we risk sacrificing the ethical self-understanding of future generations in pursuit of a particular essence, image or social status that we as parents prefer.

I’ve decided not to go back to the doctor about my leg. Nor am I contemplating further surgery aimed at ‘rebuilding’ that failing ligament. I’ve made my legs work hard for me for the last 36 years, perhaps there are some things I no longer need to impose upon them.

There is a difference between having a body and merely being a body.

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