Contra Habermas and towards a Critical Theory of Human Nature and the Question of Genetic Enhancement

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Any ethical treatment of liberal eugenics and of biotechnology in general must presuppose, if not explicitly expose, an understanding of biology in general and of human biology in particular. Critical Theory distinguished itself as, amongst other things, a philosophically guided, cross-disciplinarily oriented expression of the social and human sciences that understood the enterprise of knowledge as a practical human pursuit that could not hide behind a veil of neutrality but rather had to expose and defend its guiding normative commitments. Scientific knowledge could not be construed as a neutral instrument to use or abuse but rather as itself already structurally embedded and implicated in the social reproduction of a society or specifically poised to stand in a reflective and critical relationship to it. How we understand what it means to be human is a normatively structured and norm constitutive enterprise no matter what level of analysis is undertaken. A normative stand on biotechnology is ipso facto a normative stand on what it is to be human, that is, an 'anthropology' in the philosophical sense.

In a recent book entitled The Future of Human Nature, Jurgen Habermas has, for the first time despite a large and extensive oeuvre, directly addressed questions concerning biology, biotechnology and the prospects of liberal eugenics. Rather, however, than extending the Critical tradition into this timely domain, Habermas (even if contrary to cursory appearance) has retreated from the anthropological perspective of his earlier work and rather set forth a thin neo-Kantian based ethics of abstention that swallows and regurgitates the media-hyped jargon of genetic programming holus-bolus. Where unconditional condemnations of reproductive technologies have previously been predicated upon 'metaphysical' criteria, as for example in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, Habermas' goal and presumed achievement appears to have been that of arriving at comparable conclusions on 'post-metaphysical' grounds (a phrase that is peppered throughout the text). But the cost of matching the metaphysically-based categorical rejection of liberal eugenics on the grounds of a putatively post-metaphysical argument is, for Habermas, the need to embrace a preformationistic jargon of 'genetically programmed individuals' and yet in so doing entering into a paradoxical and ultimately untenable relationship with exactly those anthropological presuppositions that his entire argument must depend upon. In order to best elucidate the sense in which Habermas has retreated from the Critical tradition and the very different kinds of considerations it might have led him to, I will attempt to first explicate the unavoidable anthropological dimensions of Critical Theory and then provide a schematic reconstruction of Habermas' oeuvre in terms of its changing anthropological orientation. Finally, I will address the question as to whether Habermas' retreat from Critical Theory, for the sake of an unconditional dismissal of liberal eugenics, has provided a cure worse than the disease, and point in the direction of an alternative standpoint still in tune with the intentions of the Critical tradition.

What would constitute being within the 'Critical tradition'? In his early 'Remarks on Philosophical Anthropology', Max Horkheimer suggested that 'there is no formula that defines the relationships among individuals, society, and nature for all time'. (1) Under the heading of 'nature' Horkheimer surely meant to include the nature within, as well as the nature without, given that the primary purpose of his essay is to eschew the intentions of a philosophical anthropology that would seek to secure a fixed norm with which to guide human life. Critical Theory was conceived as a normative enterprise, but one that, to use Thomas McCarthy's words, seeks to derive its normative standpoint by way of an on-going, 'dialectical interpenetration of philosophy and empirical research'. …