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  • Back to the Future:Habermas's The Future of Human Nature
  • Bernard G. Prusak and Erik Malmqvist

To the Editor:

I have already had my say in these pages on Habermas on bioethics, and it is bad form for an author to cite himself. Forgive me, then, for protesting that Elizabeth Fenton's "Liberal Eugenics and Human Nature: Against Habermas" (Nov-Dec 2006) disappoints me, and not only because she does not gratify my ego or satisfy my sense of justice by engaging the arguments in my own paper (see "Rethinking 'Liberal Eugenics': Reflections and Questions on Habermas on Bioethics," Nov-Dec 2005, and the letters in Mar-Apr 2006). The principal source of my disappointment is that, though Fenton accurately tells us what Habermas claims in his book, The Future of Human Nature (Polity Press, 2003), she fails to come to terms with why.

To give some substance to this charge: First, Fenton calls "overblown" Habermas's worry that liberal eugenics might distort human relationships, especially the parent-child relationship. Why? Against Habermas, Fenton notes that "the parent-child relationship is inherently one of inequality; even without explicitly choosing a child's characteristics or traits, a parent has considerable control over the development of that child." Now, yes, a parent does have "considerable control"; but any reflective parent would acknowledge—and all parents should acknowledge—that there are also "considerable" limits to parental power, both in fact and in principle. In fact, socialization is a clumsy and imprecise tool: parents wield it, but often they know not how and to what effect. Habermas asks us to consider a question of principle: whether exercising control over a child's genetic makeup—and so presumably going beyond the most controlling parents we have known to date—would be going too far. Habermas also gives us reasons for thinking that genetically engineering our children would be both unprecedented and imprudent—reasons focusing in particular on how the child's relation to her body might be affected. Following Habermas, I discuss these reasons at length in my paper; Fenton ignores our "bodiliness" altogether. Instead she observes that "such inequalities or asymmetries abound within the human moral community," and that "humans have found ways to overcome them," for example, "by defining universal human rights." But the invocation of "universal human rights" is beside the point. The question is not whether a genetically engineered child would have rights—of course she would—but whether she might feel prevented from freely exercising them. There is much to say here, and it is not at all obvious how to answer; but Fenton does not even speak to the question!

Second, Fenton at least refers to an argument to counter Habermas's claim that genetic engineering might put at risk a person's autonomy. Claiming that "a contradiction lies at the heart of Habermas's claim," she tells us that "Kurt Bayertz has argued persuasively that the concept of human nature that gave rise to the notions of individual autonomy and freedom is very different from the fixed, stable human nature that the argument against liberal eugenics seeks to protect." Somewhat more precisely, "Individual freedom . . . is rooted in the notion that neither nature in general, nor human nature in particular, is intrinsically valuable"—which she takes to imply that it is somehow contradictory of Habermas to claim that manipulating "human nature" puts at risk human freedom.

The argument here is quite confused. It is also again beside the point. What we need to consider is what conditions must be satisfied for a person to consider herself free in the sense of autonomous—free to pursue her own plan of life. The most relevant view of freedom of the will here is "the deep-self view" put forth most prominently by Harry Frankfurt. On this view, what counts in the end for whether a person enjoys freedom of the will is whether he identifies the desires that move him as his own—as expressive of his deepest self. Not denying the obvious, Frankfurt acknowledges that "every movement in a person's body is an event in his history; in this sense it is his movement, and no one else...


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