Monday, June 14, 2010



"We do not know what our nature permits us to be". J-J. Rousseau, Emile

Retrieving the normative significance of the question: What does it mean to be a human being?

To say, with Rousseau, that we do not know what our nature permits us to be, is to say that our status as natural beings underdetermines our status as normative beings—in other words, that "our nature" does not answer the question of what it means to be a human being, or dictate what it is that we should become. This is somewhat reassuring since it tells us that there is a domain of human freedom not dictated by our biological nature, but it is somewhat unnerving because it leaves uncomfortably open what kind of beings human beings could become. On the other hand, if the question of what it means to be human is unanswerable simply by an increase in knowledge, how is it to be answered? Put another way: What are we prepared to permit our nature to be? And on what basis should we give our permission?

One of the disturbing features of modern life is that we live in times in which it is no longer possible to know what to expect of the future based on what we now know of the past. All we can be sure of is that the future will not be much like the past we have known, and because historical time is constantly accelerating, it is a future that will arrive ever more quickly. The disorientation this causes, the disorientation that comes from living modernity’s form of life, can become so intense and perplexing that we find it hard to contain our anxieties. We panic.

Prompted by the successful mapping of the human genome, and the consequent risks posed by genetic interventions into the basis of human life, the late Jacques Derrida, a philosopher renowned for, among other things, his extremely skeptical attitude towards apocalyptic thinking, expressed the following decidedly apocalyptic worry:

"...the risk that is run at this unique moment in the history of humanity is the risk of new crimes being committed against humanity and not only… against millions of real human beings as was [previously] the case, but a crime such that a sorcerer’s apprentice who was very cunning, the author of potential genetic manipulations, might in the future commit or supply the means for committing… against man, against the very humanity of man, no longer against millions of representatives of real humanity but against the essence itself of humanity, against an idea, an essence, a figure of the human race, represented this time by a countless number of beings and generations to come."

A crime against the essence of humanity, irreversibly programmed to repeat itself over and over again from generation to generation, and so a crime against the very future of humanity? Now, that sounds pretty apocalyptic. What are we supposed to make of this? Should we say that Derrida panicked, unthinkingly reverting to an anthropocentric essentialism whose fierce critic he once was? Did the hyper-skeptical, hyper-critical master of deconstruction go soft in the end, revealing himself to be a sentimental "humanist," still attached to the hoary old question, perhaps, the oldest philosophical question—the question of what it is to be a human being? Or is it the case that Derrida, along with a number of other philosophers, social scientists, and public intellectuals have awakened to the power of the new technologies—the power of genetics, nanotechnology, robotics, and synthetic biology—to radically and permanently alter what it is to be a human being, and to make what it was to be human potentially unrecognizable as human?

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