Review of Jürgen Habermas, 'The Future of Human Nature' [Book Review]

Ethics 115 (4):816-821 (2005)
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Habermas's collection of essays "The Future of Human Nature" is of particular interest for two sorts of reasons. For those interested in bioethics, it contains a genuinely new set of arguments for placing serious restrictions on using prenatal genetic technologies to “enhance” offspring. And for those interested in Habermas’s moral philosophy, it contains a number of new developments in his “discourse ethics”—not the least of which is a willingness to engage in applied ethics at all. The real key to Habermas’s argument is that human personhood and moral agency presuppose certain modes of relating to oneself that are threatened by the asymmetrical way in which genetic enhancements would presumably work. Thus, instead of taking up and then extending familiar normative concerns about unequal opportunities or the criteria for moral personhood, Habermas believes that the emerging technologies of genetic enhancement demand genuinely new arguments, and he proposes to focus on the effects of genetic programming on whether the agent can consider herself free and equal—effects, that is, regarding what one might call the reflexive attitudinal preconditions for moral agency. Like contractarians and Kantians more generally, Habermas faces difficulties accommodating the intuition that we might have obligations toward potential persons. The difficulty is particularly pronounced in the case of Habermas’s “discourse theory of morality,” since it construes the moral point of view in terms of processes of deliberation among all those affected by the norm at issue which the participants consider in the deliberative process to be open, fair, and inclusive. Future generations do not fit neatly into this deliberative process, nor do prepersonal humans. Moral norms adjudicated in such discourse clearly affect their interests, but they cannot themselves participate in the discourse. In the past, Habermas and other “discourse ethicists” have tried to address this worry by introducing “advocatory discourses.” But this move threatens to undo a distinctive, appealing feature of Habermas’s moral theory: the pragmatist insistence on the innovative, critical, unpredictable discourse generated by actual participants in discourse and the refusal (contra Rawls, in particular) to rely on hypothetical representatives. In The Future of Human Nature, Habermas ventures a different strategy,focused on expanding what he calls the “ethical” domain, which differs from the “moral” domain in being a matter of a community’s articulation of its core values and conception of the good. Previously, Habermas distinguished “ethical-existential” and “ethical-political” domains, as a matter of who an individual or a community, respectively, is and wants to be. In the present book, Habermas makes the remarkable move of introducing the category of the “species-ethical,” which is supposed to be the domain of questions raised by the human species as a whole about the question of what it is to be human. This theoretical move extends further steps Habermas had already taken in speaking of ethical solidarity within the global community.

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Joel Anderson
Utrecht University

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