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  • Shaping Our Selves: On Technology, Flourishing, and a Habit of Thinking by Erik Parens
  • Nancy M. P. King
Erik Parens, Shaping Our Selves: On Technology, Flourishing, and a Habit of Thinking, Oxford University Press, 2014

In Shaping Our Selves, Erik Parens offers both a personal history of bioethics and a cleverly clarifying lens to train on disputes in bioethics about emerging technologies. The question for readers is whether this lens, as useful as it is, leaves too much outside our field of vision.

Parens, born in 1957, comes from the first wave of bioethics scholars—those of us who still mostly happened into bioethics as a field, before it was sufficiently well-established to be identified as a career pathway. Bioethics enjoys a fascinating diversity of origin stories, and Parens’s is no exception. He began his studies at the University of Chicago’s pan-disciplinary Committee on Social Thought, one of a handful of less standard programs of undergraduate study, like St. John’s College (my own alma mater), that seems to have a natural affinity with the broad sweep of bioethics. In contrast, however, scholars entering the field today are at least somewhat more likely to come from a more narrowly focused disciplinary education and to cultivate a more narrowly focused area of empirical research. When Parens emphasizes that each of us comes to ethical debates “from somewhere in particular” (16), that important truth is as reflective of the differences in bioethics scholars’ origin stories as it is of the differences in perspective between scientists and philosophers that he addresses.

The central argument of this slim volume is the exhortation to develop “a habit of thinking about meaning questions” that Parens calls “binocularity,” or a way of integrating two sets of “apparently opposing insights” rather than championing one view over another in bioethics arguments (4–6). He focuses particularly on arguments about novel biotechnologies. He examines and discusses a set of paired insights-in-opposition: humans as subjects, choosing our paths freely, and as objects, influenced in important ways by the social and cultural contexts in which we live; perspectives of creativity and gratitude about human enhancement (that is, views of ourselves as shapers of our future and as accepting of what we are at present); and technology as value-free and value-laden. Beginning from deep reflection about his own disposition toward the enhancement debate, he carefully and slowly builds a persuasive argument that meaningful discourse must move beyond arguing for a position to embrace oscillation between opposing positions. To be genuinely faithful to the full value of the human condition, we need to view ourselves through his binoculars. [End Page E-5]

Parens’ writing is fluent and graceful. But as I’m not a philosopher, I’m less accustomed than others are to the measured pace at which philosophical argument in bioethics is often developed and articulated. Thus, my response to the notion of binocularity is itself binocular, oscillating between admiration and impatience. There is much to admire in a stance that abjures the application of traditional notions of expertise to “bioethicists”—a term that Parens and I both dislike (we may be among its few remaining critics). There is even more to admire in a view that emphasizes the importance of moving beyond advocacy for a position, despite ever-increasing pressures from the media, the public, research funders, academia, and all of the powers that be to demonstrate expertise through superiority of argument rather than through fostering productive discussion and meaningful examination of questions about meaning.

At the same time, however, binocularity may simply be a new and easy-to-grasp shorthand for perspectives that have long been fundamental, both in bioethics and outside it. One example is the instruction to clinicians: “Don’t just do something, stand there!”—an injunction to remember that being with patients is always important and sometimes must take precedence over doing to patients. Another example is Keats’s concept of “negative capability” (Rollins 1958, 193–4), which translates very loosely as comfort with uncertainty, and which has great salience for bioethics. Uncertainty itself—understanding it, embracing it, and exploring those questions of meaning that both excite us...


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