Share via Email The reasons for the persistence of the notion of the equality of human dignity are complex. Partly it is a matter of force of habit, and what Max Weber once called the "ghost of dead religious beliefs" that continues to haunt us. But another important reason for the persistence of the idea of the universality of human dignity has to do with what we might call the nature of nature itself. Many of the grounds on which certain groups were historically denied their share of human dignity were proven to be simply a matter of prejudice, or else based on cultural and environmental conditions that could be changed.
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Share via Email The reasons for the persistence of the notion of the equality of human dignity are complex. Partly it is a matter of force of habit, and what Max Weber once called the "ghost of dead religious beliefs" that continues to haunt us.
But another important reason for the persistence of the idea of the universality of human dignity has to do with what we might call the nature of nature itself. Many of the grounds on which certain groups were historically denied their share of human dignity were proven to be simply a matter of prejudice, or else based on cultural and environmental conditions that could be changed.
The notions that women were too irrational or emotional to participate in politics, and that immigrants from southern Europe had smaller head sizes and were less intelligent than those from northern Europe, were overturned on the basis of sound, empirical science. That moral order did not completely break down in the west in the wake of the destruction of consensus on traditional religious values should not surprise us either, because moral order comes from within human nature itself and is not something that has to be imposed on human nature by culture.
All of this could change with the impact of future biotechnology. The most clear and present danger is that the large genetic variations between individuals will narrow and become clustered within certain distinct social groups. Of course, there has always been a degree of genetic selection: successful people tend to marry each other and, to the extent that their success is genetically based, will pass on to their children better life opportunities.
This means that social elites may not just pass on social advantages but embed them genetically as well. This may one day include not only characteristics such as intelligence and beauty, but behavioural traits such as diligence, competitiveness and the like. The genetic lottery is judged as inherently unfair by many because it condemns certain people to lesser intelligence, or bad looks, or disabilities of one sort or another.
But in another sense it is profoundly egalitarian, since everyone, regardless of social class, race or ethnicity, has to play in it. The wealthiest man can and often does have a good-for-nothing son; hence the saying "Shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations. What the emergence of a genetic overclass will do to the idea of universal human dignity is something worth pondering.
Today, many bright and successful young people believe that they owe their success to accidents of birth and upbringing, but for which their lives might have taken a very different course. They feel themselves, in other words, to be lucky, and they are capable of feeling sympathy for people who are less lucky than themselves. But if they become "children of choice" who have been genetically selected by their parents for certain characteristics, they may come to believe increasingly that their success is a matter not just of luck but of good choices and planning on the part of their parents, and hence something deserved.
They will look, think, act, and perhaps even feel differently from those who were not similarly chosen, and may come in time to think of themselves as different kinds of creatures.
They may, in short, feel themselves to be aristocrats, and unlike aristocrats of old, their claim to better birth will be rooted in nature and not convention. The possibility that biotechnology will permit the emergence of new genetic classes has been frequently noted and condemned by those who have speculated about the future.
But the opposite possibility also seems to be entirely plausible - that there will be an impetus toward a much more genetically egalitarian society. For it seems highly unlikely that people in modern democratic societies will sit around complacently if they see elites embedding their advantages genetically in their children.
Indeed, this is one of the few things in a politics of the future that people are likely to rouse themselves to fight over. By this I mean not just fighting metaphorically, in the sense of shouting matches among talking heads on TV and debates in Congress, but actually picking up guns and bombs and using them on other people. There are very few domestic political issues today in our rich, self-satisfied liberal democracies that can cause people to get terribly upset, but the spectre of rising genetic inequality may well get people off their couches and into the streets.
If people get upset enough about genetic inequality, there will be two courses of action. The first and most sensible would be to forbid the use of biotechnology to enhance human characteristics and decline to compete in this dimension. But the notion of enhancement may become too attractive to forgo; it may prove difficult to enforce a rule preventing people from enhancing their children; or the courts may declare that they have a right to do so.
At this point a second possibility opens up, which is to use that same technology to raise up the bottom. This is the only scenario in which it is plausible that we will see a liberal democracy of the future get back into the business of state-sponsored eugenics.
The bad old form of eugenics discriminated against the disabled and the less intelligent by forbidding them to have children. In the future, it may be possible to breed children who are more intelligent, more healthy, more "normal". Raising the bottom is something that can only be accomplished through the intervention of the state. Genetic enhancement technology is likely to be expensive and involve some risk, but even if it were relatively cheap and safe, people who were poor and lacking in education would still fail to take advantage of it.
So the bright red line of universal human dignity will have to be reinforced by allowing the state to make sure that no one falls outside it. The politics of breeding future human beings will be very complex. Until now, the left has on the whole been opposed to cloning, genetic engineering and similar biotechnologies for a number of reasons, including traditional humanism, environmental concerns, suspicion of technology and of the corporations that produce it, and fear of eugenics.
The left has historically sought to play down the importance of heredity in favour of social factors in explaining human outcomes. For people on the left to support genetic engineering for the disadvantaged, they would first have to admit that genes are important in determining intelligence and other types of social outcome.
The left has been more hostile to biotechnology in Europe than in North America. Much of this hostility is driven by the stronger environmental movements in Europe, which have led the campaign, for example, against genetically modified foods. Whether certain forms of radical environmentalism will translate into hostility to human biotechnology remains to be seen. Some environmentalists see themselves as defending nature from human beings, and seem to be more concerned with threats to nonhuman than to human nature.
The Germans in particular remain sensitive to anything that smacks of eugenics. The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk raised a storm of protest in when he suggested that it will soon be impossible for people to refuse the power of selection that biotechnology provides, and that the questions of breeding something "beyond" man that were raised by Nietzsche and Plato could no longer be ignored.
Some on the left have begun to make the case for genetic engineering. John Rawls argues in A Theory of Justice that the unequal distribution of natural talents is inherently unfair. A Rawlsian should therefore want to make use of biotechnology to equalise life chances by breeding the bottom up, assuming that prudential considerations concerning safety, cost and the like were settled.
It is impossible to know which of these two scenarios - one of growing genetic inequality, the other of growing equality - will come to pass. But once the possibility of bio-medical enhancement is realised, it is hard to see how growing genetic inequality could fail to become one of the chief controversies of 21st-century politics.
A post-human future? Despite the poor repute in which concepts such as natural rights are held by academic philosophers, much of our political world rests on the existence of a stable human "essence" with which we are endowed by nature, or rather, on the fact that we believe that such an essence exists. We may be about to enter into a post-human future, in which technology will give us the capacity to gradually alter that essence over time. Many embrace this power, under the banner of human freedom.
They want to maximise the freedom of parents to choose the kind of children they have, the freedom of scientists to pursue research, and the freedom of entrepreneurs to make use of technology to create wealth.
But this kind of freedom will be different from all other freedoms that people have previously enjoyed. Political freedom has heretofore meant the freedom to pursue those ends that our natures had established for us. Those ends are not rigidly determined; human nature is very plastic, and we have an enormous range of choices conformable with that nature.
But it is not infinitely malleable, and the elements that remain constant - particularly our species-typical gamut of emotional responses - constitute a safe harbour that allows us to connect, potentially, with all other human beings.
It may be that we are somehow destined to take up this new kind of freedom, or that the next stage of evolution is one in which, as some have suggested, we will deliberately take charge of our own biological makeup rather than leaving it to the blind forces of natural selection. But if we do, we should do it with eyes open. Many assume that the posthuman world will look pretty much like our own - free, equal, prosperous, caring, compassionate - only with better healthcare, longer lives, and perhaps more intelligence than today.
But the posthuman world could be one that is far more hierarchical and competitive than the one that currently exists, and full of social conflict as a result. It could be one in which any notion of "shared humanity" is lost, because we have mixed human genes with those of so many other species that we no longer have a clear idea of what a human being is. It could be one in which the median person is living well into his or her second century, sitting in a nursing home, hoping for an unattainable death.
Or it could be the kind of soft tyranny envisioned in Brave New World, in which everyone is healthy and happy but has forgotten the meaning of hope, fear, or struggle.
We do not have to accept any of these future worlds under the false banner of liberty, be it that of unlimited reproductive rights or of unfettered scientific inquiry. We do not have to regard ourselves as slaves to inevitable technological progress when that progress does not serve human ends.
True freedom means the freedom of political communities to protect the values they hold most dear, and it is that freedom that we need to exercise with regard to the biotechnology revolution today. Fukuyama will be speaking at the Guardian Hay festival on Saturday June 1.
'Our Posthuman Future'
Human Nature[ edit ] Fukuyama defines human nature as "the sum of the behavior and characteristics that are typical of the human species, arising from genetics rather than environmental factors. Fukuyama refers to the irreducible totality of these qualities as "Factor X", "the complex whole" as opposed to "the sum of simple parts", which forms the foundation of human dignity. Moreover, he believes that "every member of the human species possesses a genetic endowment that allows him or her to become a whole human being, an endowment that distinguishes a human in essence from other types of creatures. Therefore, biotechnology targeting human nature will inevitably affect the discourse of values and politics. He provides several arguments to defend his human nature-based theory of rights: Classic philosophical accounts by Socrates and Plato argue for the existence of human nature. In response to the assertion that moral obligations cannot be derived from the observation of natural world "naturalistic fallacy" , Fukuyama demonstrates that humans routinely use emotions to prioritize values. For example, the fear of violent death produces the basic right of life, which some will consider a value higher than the freedom of religion.
The novel was about what we now call information technology: central to the success of the vast, totalitarian empire that had been set up over Oceania was a device called the telescreen, a wall-sized flat-panel display that could simultaneously send and receive images from each individual household to a hovering Big Brother. The telescreen was what permitted the vast centralization of social life under the Ministry of Truth and the Ministry of Love, for it allowed the government to banish privacy by monitoring every word and deed over a massive network of wires. That year saw the introduction of a new model of the IBM personal computer and the beginning of what became the PC revolution. But instead of becoming an instrument of centralization and tyranny, it led to just the opposite: the democratization of access to information and the decentralization of politics.
Don't mess with human nature...
Francis Fukuyama fears that biotechnology will make monsters of us. Steven Rose weighs the evidence Published on Sat 1 Jun It was not some futuristic speculation, but an argument that the collapse of Soviet communism and the triumph of US-style liberal democracy meant that, effectively, the world was now under stable management. He has been rowing back ever since. This is not, as one might have imagined, because the world has been anything but stable in the past decade. It is because he has belatedly realised that so long as scientific and technological innovation proceeds at its current breakneck pace, social stasis - the end of history - is impossible.