Joanna Zylinska,  ‘Playing God, Playing Adam: The Politics and Ethics of Enhancement’,Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, Vol. 7, No 2 (2010), pp. 149-161. [self-archived author’s manuscript]


Joanna Zylinska

Playing God, Playing Adam: The Politics and Ethics of Enhancement


Why enhancement?

The question of enhancement occupies a prominent place in current bioethical debates. This is evident not only in the publication of volumes such as Liberal Eugenics: A Defence of Human Enhancement by Nicholas Agar (2004), Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People by John Harris (2007), or Julian Savulescu and Nick Bostrom’s edited collection Enhancing Humans (2009), but also in the setting up of a number of interdisciplinary groups and workshops on the subject: e.g. the Enhancement Technologies Group at McGill University, first led by Carl Elliott and then by Margaret Lock in the late 1990s; or the Arts and Humanities Research Council workshop on Human Enhancement Technologies held at the Royal College of Art in February 2008.[1] The issues of enhancement also feature increasingly in wider public debates about ‘our human future’ and the direction of its transformation. Mobilising, unsurprisingly perhaps, experts and non-experts alike, the problem of enhancement is usually articulated via two sets of questions: moral questions over its permissibility, extent and direction; and technical questions over the feasibility of different forms of regenerative and synthetic alterations to human bodies and minds. My article postulates that none of the dominant positions on enhancement within the field of bioethics is entirely satisfactory due to the limited, monadic, pre-technological and non-cultural conception of the human that is adopted in these models. Enhancement therefore becomes for me an entry point into a broader interrogation of the limitations of liberal moral and political philosophy, with its particular set of assumptions about human and nonhuman subjectivity, capitalism and ‘life itself’,  when applied to bioethics.


Critically engaging with both opponents of enhancement (Jürgen Habermas) and its advocates (John Harris, Nicholas Agar, Nick Bostrom, Ronald Dworkin), I also want to take some steps towards outlining a non-normative ethics of enhancement that sees its human and non-human subjects as always already enhanced, and hence dependent, relational and co-evolving with technology. This latter position will not be used to justify the ‘anything goes’ approach to biological or technical intervention into the human or animal body, but rather to outline a more responsible engagement with enhancement. As such this article will constitute a modest attempt to start thinking about bioethics differently, beyond the more established liberal framework which takes a singular and fixed moral entity – a patient, a foetus, a guinea pig – as the object of its enquiry.[2] My focus is thus not on how much we can or should enhance, and by what means. Instead, my argument is guided by the following two questions:

(1)  What kind of ethical framework would we need to adopt if we were to concede that enhancement is inherent, rather than external, to human existence?

(2)  Even if enhancement as such is inherent to humans, are all kinds of enhancements to our bodies and minds equally desirable from a cultural and political standpoint?


‘For’ or ‘against’ enhancement?

Few moral philosophers, scientists or even media experts would advocate a tout court rejection of human enhancement. Indeed, the term itself covers such a complex network of procedures – from inoculations and cosmetic surgery, through to height enhancement and engineering new kinds of human functions such as flight (Miah 2008) – that it is difficult to imagine anyone being ‘against enhancement’ per se. Some efforts to eliminate the ambiguity of this term involve positing enhancement as an intervention into human corporeal or psychic integrity, one that is negatively contrasted against ‘therapy’. The latter is then presented as focused on reducing or even eliminating human suffering, while enhancement is characterised in terms of ‘added value’ or even gratuitousness. This rather crude distinction obviously entails making a number of assumptions not only about what it means to live a good life but also about ideas of ‘life’, ‘nature’, ‘goodness’ and ‘necessity’. The moral question about enhancement is thus also, inevitably, cultural and political: it is a question about the moral values one holds dear, but also about the socio-political context through which these values are shaped, tested and contested.


Jürgen Habermas, for example, positions the human as uniquely singular, autonomous and bearing ‘the right to an unmanipulated genetic heritage’ (2003, 25). In The Future of Human Nature, Habermas draws on Kierkegaard to present the idea of the human as existing outside, but also somehow above, his environment.[3] Pulling himself out of ‘the anonymous, scattered life that is breathlessly disintegrating into fragments’, the human achieves transparency, moral agency and freedom precisely via this separation from the biological (6). In Habermas’s ethical framework life seemingly has to be disavowed for the moral agency of the human to emerge. Even though he acknowledges that we are born as biologically ‘unfinished’, it is only in mutual exchanges with other humans that our autonomy and subjectivity are ultimately confirmed (34). Habermas is therefore deeply suspicious about any technical developments aimed at enhancing our biological makeup. For him, such developments can at best be seen as the work of rhetorical hubris; at worst, as threats to our ‘organic disposition’. Habermas writes:


Bodies stuffed with prostheses to boost performance, or the intelligence of angels available on hard drives, are fantastic images. They dissolve boundaries and break connections that in our everyday actions have up to now seemed to be of an almost transcendental necessity. There is fusion of the organically grown with the technologically made, on the one hand, and separation of the productivity of the human mind from live subjectivity, on the other hand. Whether these speculations are manifestations of a feverish imagination or serious predictions, an expression of displaced eschatological needs or a new variety of science-fiction science, I refer to them only as examples of an instrumentalization of human nature initiating a change in the ethical self-understanding of persons who live in the mode of self-determination and responsible action. (41-42; emphasis added)


For Habermas, any form of interaction with non-human others, or, more broadly, with the forces of the environment that produce and reproduce life, amounts to instrumentalisation because it leads to the dissolution of our autonomy and moral agency. The philosopher perceives the distinction between ‘the naturally grown’ and ‘the made’ as ‘categorical’ (42). Enhancement is therefore a potential ontological and moral pitfall, although Habermas is careful to distinguish between human ‘development’ via socialisation, which is both necessary and morally right, and technical or synthetic enhancement, which is always potentially dangerous and hence morally suspect.


Yet British bioethicist John Harris argues that no one has so far provided a systematic and intellectually satisfactory account of the relevant moral differences between biotechnological interventions on the one hand, and medical and social ones on the other. He also doubts whether such an account can actually be provided. Harris admits that there are ‘moral differences between different sorts of interventions... But these are not mirrored by the distinctions, such as they are, between therapy and enhancement nor between the normal and natural on the one hand and the artificial and unusual on the other’ (2007, 125-6). It is precisely around ways of determining the stability of the distinction between the natural and the artificial, or the organic and the technological, that many debates regarding the permissibility of enhancement pivot. Some philosophers, such as Habermas, oppose most forms of enhancement due to the ‘dedifferentiation’ effect it allegedly exerts on what is seen as a natural and inviolable distinction between categories. Others, such as Harris, reject such criticism on the basis of the existent continuity they perceive between enhancement and therapy as well as between different forms of social and technological enhancement throughout human history.


Playing God, playing Adam

Harris himself is one of the most vocal supporters of enhancement. In Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People, he goes so far as to present the need for enhancement as a universal ‘moral imperative’. Interestingly, Harris has a very clear sense what this ‘enhancement’ actually means: it will lead quite simply to the creation of ‘better people’. These people will be more intelligent, more beautiful, but also ‘longer-lived, stronger, happier, smarter, fairer (in the aesthetic and in the ethical sense of that term)’ – in other words, ‘more of everything we want to be’ (2007, 2, 5, 8). However, Harris seems to turn a blind eye to the socio-cultural circumstances of his technologically enhanced moral subjects. By merely focusing on the expansion, through technological means, of the already agreed on ‘good’ human characteristics, he ends up reaffirming their humanism. While I am in agreement with Harris that there is no need for a moral panic over enhancement since ‘many of us are already enhanced’, there is little realisation in his argument that the allegedly objective human qualities he presents as desirable – beauty, fairness and so on - are actually cultural values, underpinned by numerous assumptions and judgments. What is more, the issue of equal opportunity, which is the guiding force behind his project, cannot be resolved merely on a philosophical level as he proposes it without addressing the broader question of politics and its alleged progressivism. Yet Harris seems to take the latter for granted: he believes that the ‘good’ of enhancement enjoyed by the ‘early adopters’ will then spread into whole populations. He does not spend too much time reflecting on the logic of capitalism in which, arguably, a certain sense of inequality is imbedded. To think that technological enhancement as such will magically solve the issue of inequality is not particularly innovative – various technolibertarians have had similar thoughts about the automobile or the internet – but it is politically reductive and hence rather naïve.


An interesting critique of the categorical distinctions between, and assumptions about, nature and technology is provided by another supporter of enhancement, Ronald Dworkin, even though his argument ultimately runs into problems similar to those encountered by Harris. In a chapter entitled ‘Playing God: Genes, Clones, and Luck’ from his Sovereign Virtue, Dworkin takes to task those critics of genetic engineering and cloning who resort to what he calls ‘derivative values’: i.e. values that are parasitic on the interests of particular people. It is not so much people’s rejection of, or revulsion at, genetic transformation he disapproves of as their lack of (self)transparency over which values they actually defend in their moral positions. And yet, even though most users of the ‘playing God’ rhetorical device dress their moral revulsion in the ‘heated and logically inappropriate language’ that allegedly shows their reliance on derivative, self-interested values, their position is in fact shaped by an adherence to deeper, or what Dworkin calls ‘detached’, values – values that are intrinsic to the object itself (2000, 443). (Dworkin has much more sympathy for the second position, at least as far as the constitution of a credible moral argument goes.) He writes:


it is deeply unclear what the injunction [not to play God] really means – unclear what playing God is, and what, exactly, is wrong with it. It can’t mean that it is always wrong for human beings to attempt to resist natural catastrophes, or to improve upon the hand that nature has dealt them. People do that – always have done that – all the time. What is the difference, after all, between inventing penicillin and using engineered and cloned genes to cure even more terrifying diseases than penicillin cures? (443)


Dworkin goes on to interpret the act of reaching for the ‘playing God’ trope as a manifestation of the emergent moral instability over distinctions between categories – such as those between nature and technoscience, between the given and the made, and, most fundamentally, between chance and choice. He actually shows understanding for this kind of psychological reaction – ‘we are entitled to worry that our settled convictions will, in large numbers, be undermined’ (446), he states - even if he does not find this kind of anxiety satisfactory on a philosophical level. So, even though Dworkin does acknowledge that ‘Playing God is playing with fire’, he insists that play with fire we must because ‘that is what we mortals have done since Prometheus, the patron saint of dangerous discoveries’ (446). It is precisely this injunction towards invention and change, coupled with the warning that any such intervention always threatens to upset the existent world order, that Dworkin borrows from the Promethean myth.


There seems to be something both hubristic and tragic in Dworkin’s story about this human imperative to go beyond the limits of the familiar in order to reach for the unknown – a myth that comes to us not just from the Greeks but also in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. In upsetting God, man becomes Prometheus - a Titan famous for disobeying the omnipotent and omniscient Zeus. But he is also called to act like Adam, a Biblical rebel who has eaten from the tree of knowledge, ‘because the alternative is cowardice in the face of the unknown’ (446). As we can see, Dworkin’s essay is full of intriguing rhetorical slippages between different religious traditions and their deities – i.e. between the Judeo-Christian God, the king of gods and ruler of the Mount Olympus Zeus and the Greek Titan Prometheus. Even though the ontological structure of the world and its beings may be changing in the age of biotechnologies, Dworkin reconfirms its moral framework, with the capital G ‘God’ becoming for him a metaphor for a particular, temporarily stabilised natural and moral order, while the lower case ‘god’ stands for a symbol of rebellion against this order. There are limitations to this blasphemous bravery though. Dworkin admits to being aware of the dangers which genetic engineering and other technological transformations allegedly pose, and hence issues a moral admonition against ‘losing our grip on what is wrong’ (446). What he therefore ends up proposing by drawing on all these different religious myths of rebellion is familiar human-centred liberalism. He terms this stance ‘ethical individualism’ and dresses it up as heroism and adventurousness – i.e. a willingness to take on God, although one that should not be exercised too lightly. Significantly, enhancement for Dworkin does not fundamentally alter the biological make-up or the ontological position of the human species. Indeed, the moral imperative for him lies in the injunction to maintain this very distinctness of the human, in spite of any genetic kinship or overlap with other living or even machinic entities that may be opened up by scientific investigation and experimentation.


As in Habermas’s case, Dworkin’s ‘human’ seemingly exists outside the complex biological and political nexus of forces and influences. Due to his or her unique position as both a species and a moral being, the human can raise him- or herself above the world in order to exercise judgement over it as well as ensure his or her own successful functioning, or living a ‘successful life’, in an ‘objective’ way. Dworkin insists nevertheless that ‘one person – the person whose life it is – has a special responsibility for each life, and that in virtue of that special responsibility he or she has a right to make the fundamental decisions that define, for him, what a successful life would be’ (449). We can hear an echo of Harris’s ‘flourishing’ in Dworkin’s notion of ‘living a successful life’ – an allegedly neutral concept which is rooted in the rather odd coupling of the biological idea of growth and the atemporal, humanist idea of spiritual progress.[4] The overt depoliticisation of ‘success’ in Dworkin does not therefore mean that the concept itself is free from any political connotations. Dworkin himself makes it clear that his ethical fundamentalism is a theory of ‘political morality’ which is egalitarian but also liberal, ‘because it will insist that government must leave people finally free to make decisions that set the parameters of success for their own lives for themselves’ (449). It is not only Adam the Biblical Rebel that Dworkin wants us to play: we must also become Adam Smith.


In his defence of making enhancement initially available only for the wealthy, who will then pass the benefits on to the rest of the population, Dworkin’s moral framework is clearly underpinned by the liberal economic model in which rational self-interest and competition are seen as goods in themselves. The exercise of this rational self-interest by the select few – in our particular case, doctors, genetic engineers, global biotech companies, rich clients – is supposed to lead eventually to the economic prosperity and well-being, or ‘success’, of all. Waving Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market at any objections against the accumulation of enhancement as well as against the emergent normativity to which such a model of the distribution of enhancement will inevitably lead, Dworkin admits, somewhat impatiently, that ‘the unfairness ... is already part of our lives’ (434). This is not to say he does not care about injustice. But any solution he may propose will be rooted in a monadic, individualistic, liberal moral and political framework. The problem with the bioethics rooted in ethical individualism, however, as noted by Timothy Campbell in his introduction to Roberto Esposito’s Bíos, is that it ends up being rather non-ethical because it exerts too many a priori constraints on bios: i.e. on life in its political configuration. Campbell writes: ‘Dworkin’s perspective on life is disastrous for any affirmative biopolitics .... [I]n such a scheme, ethic individualism quickly becomes the norm that transcends life; it is a norm of life that limits life to the confines of an individual subject and individual body; in this it operates, as it has traditionally done, to immunize the community and modernity itself, from the immanence of impersonal, singular life’ (2008, xxxvii-xxxviii).


Yet monadic ethical individualism of this kind underpins the majority of bioethical theories developed in Western moral philosophy. In this respect Dworkin’s position is actually quite similar to that espoused by Habermas, who in The Future of Human Nature is deeply critical of the ‘explosive alliance of Darwinism and free trade ideology’ (2003, 21), but stops short of analysing the political and economic aspects of the current bio-technological transformations. Instead, he all too quickly takes recourse to firm but unexamined notions such as ‘human freedom’, ‘dignity’ and ‘nature’, and to the belief in the naturalness and linearity of evolution. Even Peter Singer, one of the most radical and controversial thinkers of bioethics today, resorts to the very same monadic model of the human in outlining his ethical theory. While in his book Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics, Singer takes significant steps towards radicalising the humanist bioethics by shifting the boundaries of who counts as a ‘person’ - an ape or possibly a dolphin may, while an anencephalic baby does not – the individual person still serves as a cornerstone of his bioethical theory. For Habermas, Harris, Dworkin and Singer, then - who all take different positions on enhancement - the moral agent and the object of bioethical enquiry are defined as individual self-enclosed entities which are extricated from the networks of social relations and political circumstances, as well as from the material and discursive conditions of their own emergence.


In religious as well as secular versions of many bioethical theories, bioethics clearly conjures up the idea of a freethinking neoliberal subject, both as someone who is in charge of making a decision and as someone regarding whom a decision regarding life and death is to be made. Enhanced persons are merely ‘stretched persons’ – both in a literal sense and on a metaphorical level, with Singer adjusting his notion of moral agency by stretching the boundaries of who counts as ‘human’ but not questioning the notion as such. But any bioethics that relies on the firm idea and material distinctness of its subjects, and that develops firm moral positions in advance and then applies them to specific cases, may be difficult to retain if the self-enclosure of ‘the person’ which is its prerequisite turns out to be both a philosophical and a biological fiction. A number of examples which stretch or enhance individual personhood in totally unpredictable ways, perhaps even beyond the point at which calling them ‘human’ is still applicable, could be evoked here. If we take into account the radical opening of the boundaries of the human body and life – through prosthetic enhancements such as corneal implants or gene therapy, programs such as the Human Genome Project and the redefinition of death through the notion of being ‘brain dead’ - the presumed humanism of what I call here, for reasons of brevity, ‘traditional bioethics’, as espoused by both critics and supporters of enhancement, is indeed found wanting (see Zylinska 2009, 3-34). Catherine Mills argues that  ‘the “epistemic” shift wrought by new technologies can be seen as an opportunity and invitation to re-imagine our ontologies of ourselves as ethical agents in such a way that rational individuality is no longer seen as the primary modality of being ethical’ (2008, 43). In what follows I will argue that it is precisely in re-imagining the conceptual and material boundaries of ethical subjects that any attempt to outline an alternative ethics of enhancement must lie.


Human, transhuman, nonhuman

Not every attempt at the ontological re-imagining of the human via new technologies creates such potential for an ethical opening, though. For example, Nick Bostrom’s ‘transhumanism’ ends up reinforcing the humanist framework it purports to transcend. In his ‘Letter to Utopia’, Bostrom observes, not without chagrin, that ‘We are built for mundane functionality, not lasting bliss’ (2008). In order to achieve the latter he advocates enhancement as a panacea for the natural processes of illness and ageing, all with a view to achieving ‘a higher life’. Steeped in what sounds like a bizarre mixture of Christian transcendentalism and new age spiritualism, Bostrom gives the following advice: ‘In the attic of your mind, reserve a drawer for the notion of a higher state of being, and in the furnace of your heart keep at least one aspiring ember alive’ (2008). In recommending the construction of enhanced – better, smarter – brains, he adopts a linear idea of human progress and a quantitative understanding of value, culture and art, which clearly does not need any further investigation because all rational beings will already share it. Transhuman enhancement for Bostrom is thus merely a process of the multiplication of what is self-evidently ‘good’ in the human.[5]


It is however possible to put forward a different framework for understanding enhancement, one which is rooted in the ontological conception of the human as always already enhanced. Such a framework can offer a more immersive and less normative entry point for debates on bioethics. The account of our being-human as being-technological, or even perhaps becoming-technological, also raises questions for many of the philosophical positions that present ‘human enhancement’ as a desirable good, something the human does not yet have but should reach for in order to ensure his survival, optimum functioning and competitiveness on a biological and social level. Indeed, what distinguishes the bioethical standpoint I want to defend in the latter part of this article from those espoused not only by critics of enhancement but also its supporters, is that this ‘we-are-already-enhanced’ position is based on the acknowledgement of our inherent ‘technological condition’: i.e. our co-emergence and co-evolution with technology. This is not to say that singular instances of enhancement cannot be subject to a critique. But if we accept ‘originary technicity’ as the intrinsic condition of humanity – although I realise this may be a very big ‘if’ for some – then the very articulation of the debate on enhancement in terms of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ it will need repositioning. Simply being ‘for’ or ‘against’ enhancement will become an impossible position to sustain.


A more fundamental reconceptualisation of ‘enhancement’ is therefore needed, I suggest, one that goes beyond its everyday understanding as a mere extension or external attachment. Drawing on the philosophy of tekhnē as elaborated by the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, as well as experiential developments in the area of digital technologies and biotechnologies, I want to suggest we need to rethink the mainstream understanding of technology as a tool that can be applied to discrete entities, and consider instead mutual co-constitution between the entity that gets designated as ‘the human’ and what we call ‘technology’. Significantly, in the Greek word tekhnē one can still hear echoes of technique, craft, skill and art, with what we translate into English as ‘technology’ being originally understood as a creative process of poièsis, i.e. bringing-forth, rather than just an instrumental application of a tool (see Weber 1996 and Poster 2001). In Technics and Time, Stiegler goes back to this now occluded meaning of tekhnē – rendered as ‘technics’ by his English-language translator - in an effort to trace a different history of technological development and thus re-tell and re-imagine the history of ‘technics’.


Playing Prometheus

Stiegler’s excursion into the past is not only etymological. In his search for alternative narratives about technology and evolution, he draws on the paleontological theories of André Leroi-Gourhan as well as Greek myths. Stiegler also revisits the myth of Prometheus on this journey, but he does so in a different manner from Dworkin. For the latter Prometheus is just one of a series of mythical god-like figures portrayed as embodying some very human characteristics: individualism, adventurousness, bravery, curiosity. For Stiegler, however, an attempt to play Prometheus is not just about making ‘dangerous discoveries’ or about playing with dangerous objects – fire, weaponry - but rather about being prepared to radically challenge the established ontological and epistemological order in which man is positioned as a self-contained being, fully present to himself. The myth of Prometheus serves for Stiegler as a reminder of man’s technical being, whereby technology is what brings man forth and is fully active in the process of hominisation, rather than just functioning as an external agent that can be picked up, appended and then discarded at will. According to him, man’s drive towards exteriorisation, towards tools, fire and other prostheses – towards tekhnē, in other words – is due to a technical tendency which already exists in the older, zoological dynamic. It is due to this inherent tendency that the (not-yet) human stands up and reaches for what is not in him. It is also through visual and conceptual reflexivity - seeing himself in the blade of the flint, memorizing the use of the tool - that he emerges as always already related to, and connected with, the alterity that is not part of him. ‘For to make use of his hands, no longer to have paws, is to manipulate - and what hands manipulate are tools and instruments. The hand is the hand only insofar as it allows access to art, to artifice, and to tekhnē,’ writes Stiegler (1998, 113). The human is thus always already prosthetic, whereby relationality and dependence on ‘the outside’ are the condition of his emergence and existence in the world. It is precisely in this altered understanding of what we could term ‘technology as originary and inevitable enhancement’ that a potential for a new theory of bioethics lies, I want to suggest.  


Before we consider in more detail what the parameters of this new bioethics might be, I would like to spend a little time looking at Stiegler’s engagement with Prometheus. In Technics and Time, 1 and an interview included in the film The Ister he provides a careful exposition of the Platonic dialogue Protagoras, which narrates the story of the creation of living yet mortal beings, including man, and the role that two Greek gods, Prometheus and Epimetheus, played in this process. Epimetheus – a god that Stiegler presents to us as rather absent-minded and not particularly clever – takes it upon himself to furnish all newly created earthly creatures with ‘qualities’. So he distributes strength to the lion, speed to the gazelle and hardness to the turtle and its shell, making ‘his whole distribution on a principle of compensation, being careful by these devices that no species should be destroyed’ (187, emphasis in original). By the time he gets to man, however, Epimetheus discovers he has run out of qualities, leaving man unprovided for - ‘naked, unshod, unbedded, and unarmed’ (187). This is the moment when Prometheus comes to the rescue by offering to steal from Hephaestus and Athena the gift of skill in the arts, coupled with fire  – ‘for without fire there was no means ... for anyone to possess or use this skill’. In other words, Prometheus gives man tekhnē, while simultaneously completing the creation of man as a technological being - a being that has the power to create but that also needs to rely on external elements to fully realise his being. Thanks to this newly gained ‘art’, writes Plato, ‘men soon discovered articulate speech [phonen] and names [onomata], and invented houses and clothes and shoes and bedding and got food from the earth’ (quoted in Stiegler 1998, 188).


Through his re-reading of the myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus Stiegler provides an alternative story about technology, nature and the human. But he does more than that: he also proposes a different framework for the human’s self-understanding in the technical world. If we want to grasp the question of technics the way it presents itself to us in the 21st century, he claims, we must return to the Greeks because they posed the problem of the human-technology relation very precisely, within their own tragic, religious terms.  The historical expedition Stiegler embarks on has therefore contemporary resonances – not just because Greek philosophy still shapes a number of our ideas regarding ethics and politics but also because in that particular myth the Greeks managed to articulate the dramas, tensions and anxieties of ‘human becoming’ in a world that was constantly evolving. It is in a dynamic, connected model of the world that Stiegler locates the possibility of developing a less hysterical and more responsible understanding of tekhnē. What is however significant about the current moment – and by current Stiegler refers to the modern period inaugurated by the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th/early 19th century - is the speed of technological development. It has increased exponentially over the last two centuries, getting out of sync with the speed of the development of other areas of life: social, cultural, spiritual, legal, etc. This acceleration of the technological development, evident in the emergence of machinic production, railway networks, computation, cybernetics and, last but not least, globalisation, has serious consequences for the philosophical order which has been in place since Plato and the Greeks. It is precisely this order that has allowed for the emergence of the hegemonic consensus in modernity which maintains that technics has no ontological sense, that it is only an artifice which must be separated from Being (The Ister, 2004). So, even though we have always been enhanced, that is to say, technological, a radical change has occurred over the last hundred years or so, with the speed of technological transformation and intensity of technical production constantly increasing and getting ahead of the development of other spheres of life.


The bioethics of (inevitable) enhancement

Indeed, there is something tragic about this emergence of man as a technical being who is equipped with no pre-defined qualities, only with what is simultaneously a skill and an injunction to be technical – to build, bring-forth, create. Stiegler explains that a ‘pros-thesis is what is placed in front, that is, what is outside, outside what it is placed in front of. However, if what is outside constitutes the very being of what it lies outside of, then this being is outside itself. The being of humankind is to be outside itself. In order to make up for the fault of Epimetheus, Prometheus gives humans the present of putting them outside themselves’ (1998, 193, emphasis in original). And yet, even though he has a way of getting outside of himself, as well as a constitutive need to reach for prostheses, the human has no way of being with others. Since he lacks inherent political wisdom [sophia], there is nothing to stop him producing weapons rather than utensils, to prevent him from making war rather than love. The question of enhancement – of the network of which we are part but which is over-encompassing us - is therefore not only an ontological question but also a political one. It is a question of how a lacking, externally-dependent fragile mortal is to live together with other mortals in a constantly evolving universe, without inflicting upon them, upon himself or upon the world ‘as such’ any unnecessary and untimely conflict, violence and death. It is in the very open-endedness of this question that the nature and timeliness of Greek tragedy lies. As Stiegler puts it, ‘the tragic is experienced in terms of (the astonishment that there is) technicity’ (185).


Stiegler’s work is interesting in our search for an alternative narrative about enhancement because it highlights a certain deconstructive logic at work in the dynamic relation between technology and the human, a logic that ultimately disables many of the traditional positions on enhancement and ends up undermining the way the debate on enhancement has been set up so far.[6] There is also something unique about the way in which the story of the human as a technical being is told in his early work, which is why I am focusing on this, by now quite well known, account in my piece. Simply put, tn Technics and Time, 1, Stiegler seems much more aware he is telling us a story. He goes back to a number of established oral and written texts not so much with an intention of informing his readers what the world is like (a far more dangerous, and, one might argue, hubristically naive desire, which he nevertheless cannot resist in the further volumes of Technics and Time), but rather with a preparedness to reflect on and think through some of the stories that others have told about the origin of the human: Greek myths, paleontological theories, earlier philosophical accounts. The same stories – including the key narrative about the fault of Epimetheus - are then reframed via another narratological form, i.e. the interview with the philosopher included in the video-essay The Ister. This very act of conscious reiterative story-telling is significant here. The stories about the origin of the human we are told join a long line of technical prostheses such as flint stones and other ‘memory devices’ that have played an active role in the very process of the constitution of the human. (This latter observation will become significant in the context of my own efforts to take some steps towards proposing an alternative bioethics – a bioethics which, inevitably, will also have a narratological character. In other words, it will be a story about how humans should live with other animate and non-animate beings, in a dynamically interwoven world, and it will be based on the dismantling of the dominant set of narratives about enhancement that shape the debate on this issue in the biomedical and social fields.)


In the pre-Platonic, pre-metaphysical times which the myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus deals with - a myth which Stiegler retells for us - this tragedy is exacerbated by the fact that there is no possibility of redemption from this condition of openness man exists in, other than through the inevitable finality of death. Arguably, similar anxieties are reflected in contemporary debates over ethical dilemmas regarding technological enhancements conducted by experts and non-experts alike in Western, secular, post-metaphysical societies, with hysteria and moral panic frequently serving as strategies to contain and foreclose this Greek-like sense of tragic open-endedness. The post-metaphysical position with regard to notions such as God, soul and eternity is often rerouted via the metaphysical distinction between tekhnē and phusis, i.e. technology and nature, with the latter being positioned as originary, pure and therefore needing protection against the former.[7] Contemporary ecological discourse or the organic food movement are just two examples of how politically significant issues are frequently discussed in philosophically suspect and uncritically conservative terms.


Yet an interesting breach is created in this theory of originary technicity as outlined by Stiegler, a theory which may perhaps be described - not necessarily in a derogatory manner – as ‘softly determinist’. Drawing inspiration from the work of Emmanuel Levinas and his notion of ethics as primordial openness to, and responsibility for, the alterity of the other, we can perhaps go as far as to suggest that this primordial originary technicity is also an ethical condition.[8] If, as Stiegler has it, ‘The being of humankind is to be outside itself’, the always already technical human is a human that is inevitably, prior to and perhaps even against his ‘will’ – engaged with an alterity. Being in the world therefore amounts to being ‘in difference’, which is also – for Levinas, as much as for Stiegler - being ‘in time’: i.e. having an awareness and a (partial) memory of what was before and an anticipation of what is to come (see Levinas 1969, 224, 235; Stiegler 1998, 13-16). The idea of the originary self-sufficient, total man, living in the state of nature is exposed here as nothing more than a myth, whereby the state of nature stands ‘precisely [for] the absence of relation’ (Stiegler 1998, 128). As such, it marks the impossibility of the human (and also of tool use, art, language, and time), as well as of ethics. Originary technicity can thus be understood as a condition of openness to what is not part of the human, of having to depend on alterity – be it in the form of gods, other humans, fire or utensils – to fully realise one’s being. But this imperative to get outside of oneself and to be technical, i.e. to bring things forth, to create, is perhaps also an ethical injunction to create well, even if not a condition of ethical behaviour. A prosthesis is therefore also an ethical ‘prop’.


The condition for ethics is thus constituted before the human - and it is in this sense that ethics for Levinas is primordial and that it precedes being. Yet there exists absolutely no guarantee that the human will respond to this ethical condition responsibly, rather than ignorantly or violently. Indeed, because of Epimetheus’s act of forgetting, the human has no ‘qualities’ that will ensure a particular execution of his relationality with others. But it is in the fact that there is relationality, that the human emerges only in relation with what is outside of him or her, that foundations for a new non-normative ethics of inevitable enhancement lie. This non-normative ethics of inevitable enhancement will not therefore prejudge once and for all whether enhancement per se is good or bad, or even whether particular enhancements as later-time additions or alterations to the fully constituted human, foetus or animal are desirable or not. However, even though the moral subject is positioned as always already enhanced and relational, this does not mean that any interventions to its corporeal or genetic make-up will be seen as unproblematic. The ethical task that emerges here consists in knowing how to differentiate, or, in other words, how to use prostheses well. The taking up of an ethical task involves carrying out the creative work of technics, learning from the connectivities and alterities, while resisting the temptation to rely on singular selfhood as the ultimate arbitrator of this goodness. The ethics of inevitable enhancement is thus also an ethics of infinite responsibility, whereby recognising that we are always already enhanced is another way of saying that we are indebted to (not always human) alterity, that we are always already ‘other’.


Outlining a whole new paradigm for bioethics is naturally beyond the scope of this article. However, we have hopefully arrived at what can be described as a different entry point for bioethical enquiry. We also have to bear it in mind that outlining such an alternative paradigm once and for all is actually impossible if we take into account the question of responsibility that is never entirely mine, and that imposes itself on me from outside, in a myriad singular ways. The framework of originary technicity in which the human emerges only through his or her prostheses brings to our attention the fact that ‘my child’, ‘my genome’ and ‘my foetus’ – concepts that structure many traditional debates within bioethics - never belong just to ‘me’. Instead, they exist as part of a complex network of attachments, dependencies and kinship relations that require a more immersed and hence inevitably limited or even indebted starting point for any ethical consideration – which is also, at the same time, an ethical sensation. The recognition of our own incompleteness and dependency can help us develop a more responsible politics, one that does not position the individual with his fully transparent wishes and desires as its cornerstone but that rather looks at his or her indebtedness to both animate and inanimate alterity.


The bad conscience of bioethics

To sum up, what serves as an ultimate stumbling block for debates on enhancement within traditional moral philosophy is its understanding of the ontological status of technology. For the advocates of enhancement such as Harris, Dworkin or Bostrom, ‘humans’ and ‘technology’ are two separate entities. Even if Harris does acknowledge that enhancement ‘has been part of human history from our first beginnings’ (2007, 16) or that ‘[s]helter, learning and teaching, tool using, body decoration, clothing, gathering and hunting, cooking, storing, co-operation, cultivation, animal taming and domestication, funding, social living, language, and education are all enhancement techniques or technologies’ (13), or even if Dworkin does state that people have always tried ‘to improve upon the hand that nature has dealt them’ (2000, 43), a certain linearity of progression from ‘nature’ to ‘culture’ is assumed in all of these accounts, as is the understanding of technology as artifice, ornament and cultivation, that is, as a sequence of discrete objects and actions. One might be tempted to suggest that this originary interlocking of the human and technology is nevertheless implied by Harris et al. Yet none of the advocates of enhancement discussed in this article seriously consider the radical consequences of this implication, i.e. the fact that it creates fundamental problems for continuing to position singular, monadic subjects, such as individual human beings or singular animals, as cornerstones - both agents and objects - of bioethics. In other words, to acknowledge that human beings do not exist apart from cultures, which include technologies, is not yet the same things as to consider the full radicalism of the deconstructive critique of the human/humanist subject. Deconstructive thinking, as argued by Timothy Clark, ‘upsets received concepts of the human and the technological by affirming their mutual constitutive relation or, paradoxically, their constitutive disjunction. ... The identity of humanity is a differential relation between the human and technics, supplements and prostheses’ (2000, 247). From this perspective, one which posits humans as always already enhanced, it becomes impossible to think about enhancement as a (bio)technical intervention enacted on a singular, skin-bound human, in the way the moral philosophers referred to in the first part of this article have tended to approach it. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that the debate on the ethics of enhancement cannot actually continue in its current form once we have followed the logical implications of adopting such a differential model of human identity.


However, even if we have ‘always’ been enhanced, biotechnologies and digital media are increasingly challenging in new ways our established ideas of what it means to be human and live a human life. Consequently, they command from philosophers and non-philosophers alike a transformation of the recognised moral frameworks through which we understand life, as well as a rethinking of who the moral subject is in the current conjuncture. What is different about the current temporality, then, is that in the biodigital age this tentatively differentiated human needs to respond to an expanded scope of obligations, beyond those exerted by singular human others. Bioethics today has to deal not just with questions of the transformation of life on a biological level – via genomics, DNA sequencing, cloning, and so forth – but also with life situated in a broader political context, through questions of the financing of the biotechnological industry, of the database management of the immigration and asylum systems, of the normativity of cosmetic surgery, of national and cellular surveillance, of biocitizenship, etc. Amidst those complex processes of technological co-emergence, the human is presented with a unique ethical task: that of having to make decisions, always in an uncertain terrain, about life, in all its different incarnations and enactments.


We should therefore bear in mind that the deconstructive mode of thinking about the human as always already technical does not mean doing away with the category of the human altogether, or with the responsibility that those who deem themselves human carry. The decision-making processes of ‘us, humans’ (aware as we need to be of the historical and cultural baggage this term carries, and of the temporary and fragile nature of any such identification), are important in any situation when issues of life and its multiple transformations are at stake. Involvement in these processes does not have to amount to the celebration of human superiority though: it should rather be seen as a practical mobilisation of the human skills, however compromised and imperfect, of critical reflexivity and practical intervention. Now, the question of whether ‘animals’ or ‘machines’ should also engage in such ethical processes is irrelevant, even if we recognize that the features and behaviours that used to be seen as uniquely human have recently been identified across the species barrier. It is irrelevant because this responsibility only ever refers to ‘me’: a temporarily stabilised singular human who emerges in-relation-with technology.


Going beyond the monist, acultural solipsism of humanist moral philosophy which is rooted in the political principle of liberalism, the ethics of inevitable enhancement does not relieve us of the responsibility of having to transform what I described earlier as ethical sensations into workable pragmatic solutions to issues of human and non-human life, in all its different permutations. It thus provides a stepping stone to the work of bioethics committees, policy making bodies, research councils – all those organisations, such as the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in the UK or the US-based President’s Council on Bioethics, that are engaged on a daily basis in making bioethics work. But we should also recognise that what most established organisations and projects that have bioethics in their title are involved in is precisely the work of ‘politics’. It is the necessary but perhaps misnamed work of decision-making within a particular organisational context, frequently at a state level, that most of them are primarily involved in. To do this work well, and not to default on our human lack of sophia, all these organisations need an ethical supplement. So, rather than call for the radical reform or even abolishment of many of the traditional bioethics bodies in my attempt to draw some pointers towards thinking bioethics otherwise, my ethical proposal is much more modest.


The ethics of inevitable enhancement I have attempted to sketch here thus becomes a supplement to both morality and politics. Rather than as a set of guidelines on whether to enhance and by how much, it can be seen as a prior demand on those of us who call ourselves human to respond to the alterity of the world critically and responsibly, without taking recourse all too quickly to pre-decided half-truths, opinions, beliefs and political strategies. Significantly, this kind of bioethics cannot be implemented once and for all. It will therefore not become a practical tool for resolving specific moral dilemmas over life and death, nor will it be able to be instantiated in any single ‘example’. (Any such example would inevitably take over and colonise the need for open-ended critical work of bioethics by becoming a measuring stick against which other bioethical cases and dilemmas could be compared.) My interest in proposing this kind of critical-creative work of bioethics lies first of all with my aspiration to shift the parameters of the conventional bioethical debate - from an individualistic problem-based moral paradigm in which rules can be rationally and strategically worked out on the basis of a previously agreed principle, to a broader political context in which individual decisions are always involved in complex relations of power, economy, and ideology. This non-normative ethics of inevitable enhancement can thus perhaps be taken as a pre-condition of ‘responsible biopolitics’ that is the task of many bioethics committees, panels and policy-making bodies. But it must also become – if need be – the bad conscience of dominant bioethics.



[1] It is my participation in the RCA workshop on enhancement that provided inspiration for writing this piece. I am grateful to Prof. Sandra Kemp for inviting me to attend it.

[2] While my recent book, Bioethics in the Age of New Media (2009), was already an attempt to test the limitations of what I termed ‘traditional bioethics’ in the context of recent transformations to our concepts and bodies facilitated by new media technologies, this article is a continuation of my earlier efforts to think bioethics otherwise, while also attempting to serve as a stand-alone intervention into what seems to be one of the key debates within the established field of bioethics today.

[3] The discourse of human enhancement – from Habermas through to Bostrom and Stiegler – displays a curious gender bias. While we have to take into account different conventions of writing in German, French and English with regard to the use or non-use of gender-specific pronouns, and the different translators’ decisions as to their rendering, I cannot help but notice a strange similarity between the gender-specific language of the philosophy of enhancement and the similar bias revealed in the ‘enhancement emails’ that our mailboxes get flooded with on a day-to-day basis. The comic awkwardness, with its intriguing gender and sexual assumptions, of those emails provides an unintended, Dada-like commentary on the enhancement debate. (‘Your Husk will be so big that you can use it on submarine like periscope!’ or If your wife became cold, light the fire in her again with female enhancers’ - to cite just two of the most recent spam messages found in my inbox.) While I have attempted to avoid replicating here the gender bias of much of traditional bioethical writings, I have sometimes retained the use of ‘he’ when referring to the person of either gender if the context of the worked cited clearly made that assumption.

[4] Incidentally, variations on the notion of ‘flourishing’ - in the form of ‘growth’, ‘emergence’ or ‘creation’ - can be found not only in proponents of liberal humanism but also in authors of more interconnected and less monadic models of the world, such as Canguillhem, Bergson, Spinoza and Deleuze. Indeed, in the work of the latter philosophers it can be sometimes difficult to separate the biology-inspired descriptiveness of their concepts from those very concepts’ socio-political normativity, especially if life’s alleged force and inclination for movement, mutation, and growth is being used by various readers of these philosophers to justify all sorts of ‘developments’ – from human enhancement to market growth and globalisation.

[5] In an earlier piece titled ‘Human Genetic Enhancements: A Transhumanist Perspective’, Bostrom’s floral prose reveals a number of seriously unquestioned hypotheses and assumptions regarding the idea and nature of the human. He writes:


We can imagine beings that reach a much greater level of personal development and maturity than current human beings do, because they have the opportunity to live for hundreds or thousands of years with full bodily and psychic vigor. We can conceive of beings that are much smarter than us, that can read books in seconds, that are much more brilliant philosophers than we are, that can create artworks, which, even if we could understand them only on the most superficial level, would strike us as wonderful masterpieces. We can imagine love that is stronger, purer, and more secure than any human being has yet harbored. Our everyday intuitions about values are constrained by the narrowness of our experience and the limitations of our powers of imagination. We should leave room in our thinking for the possibility that as we develop greater capacities, we shall come to discover values that will strike us as being of a far higher order than those we can realize as un-enhanced biological humans beings. (2003)


[6] It has to be acknowledged that Stiegler’s work runs against some of the very same ‘humanist’ limitations that we have identified in the writings of Harris et al. This is evident in the way he re-introduces a number of problematic anthropological distinctions such as those between culture and nature, or human and animal, into his argument presented in Technics and Time.

[7] ‘Post-metaphysics’ is of course not the only philosophical standpoint that shapes debates on bioethics in the West. Even in those societies which are more explicitly secular, such as the British one, religious frameworks and ideas also feature in the bioethical debate, although these frameworks are of less interest to me in this particular article. Fernando Cascais writes that ‘Whereas in the United States the distinction between “bioethics” in general and “religious bioethics” (“Christian bioethics”, “Jewish bioethics”, etc.) is clear, the latter expressing the distinct positions of various confessional morals, in Europe, especially in the South, the straight and plain impoundment of bioethics by religious morals is notorious …. (2003, 29)’.

[8] Ethics, for Levinas, is not something imposed from outside or above; instead, ethics is inevitable. An ethical event occurs in every encounter with difference, with the ‘face’ and discourse of the other that addresses me and makes me both responsible and accountable (even if I ultimately decide to turn my back on this difference or even annihilate it). I am thus always already a hostage of the other, of his/her ethical demand. As Levinas himself puts it in a poetic but also somewhat menacing way, our subjectivity ‘does not have time to choose the Good and thus is penetrated with its rays unbeknownst to itself’ because the Good ‘has chosen me before I have chosen it’ (1998, 11). It is through this encounter that I become aware of my place in the world, of my corporeal boundaries, of the language that comes to me as a gift. But it is also through this encounter that I may become a murderer, a destroyer of the difference that threatens my ‘place in the sun’ (even if I manage to persuade myself or others that this murder is ‘only’ an act of retaliation, that it is part of a ‘just war’, or that the other hates me and thus needs to be excluded from my world). For an introduction to Levinas’s philosophy of alterity, see his essay, ‘The Trace of the Other’ (1986).



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