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Habermas and the Question of Bioethics

Hille Haker

Abstract

In The Future of Human Nature, Jürgen Habermas raises the question of whether the embryonic genetic diagnosis and genetic modification threatens the foundations of the species ethics that underlies current understandings of morality. While morality, in the normative sense, is based on moral interactions enabling communicative action, justification, and reciprocal respect, the reification involved in the new technologies may preclude individuals to uphold a sense of the undisposability (Unverfügbarkeit) of human life and the inviolability (Unantastbarkeit) of human beings that is necessary for their own identity as well as for reciprocal relations. Engaging with liberal bioethics and Catholic approaches to bioethics, the article clarifies how Habermas’ position offers a radical critique of liberal autonomy while maintaining its postmetaphysical stance. The essay argues that Habermas’ approach may guide the question of rights of future generations regarding germline gene editing. But it calls for a different turn in the conversation between philosophy and theology, namely one that emphasizes the necessary attention to rights violations and injustices as a common, postmetaphysical starting point for critical theory and critical theology alike. 

In 2001, Jürgen Habermas published a short book on questions of biomedicine that took many by surprise.[1] To some of his students, the turn to a substantive position invoking the need to comment on a species ethics rather than outlining a public moral framework was seen as the departure from the “path of deontological virtue,”[2] and at the same time a departure from postmetaphysical reason. Habermas’ motivation to address the developments in biomedicine had certainly been sparked by the intense debate in Germany, the European Union, and internationally on human cloning, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, embryonic stem cell research, and human enhancement. He turned to a strand of critical theory that had been pushed to the background by the younger Frankfurt School in favor of cultural theory and social critique, even though it had been an important element of its initial working programs. The relationship of instrumental reason and critical theory, examined, among others, by Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse and taken up in Habermas’ own Knowledge and Interest and Theory of Communicative Action became ever-more actual with the development of the life sciences, human genome analysis, and genetic engineering of human offspring. Today, some of the fictional scenarios discussed at the end of the last century as “science fiction” have become reality: in 2018, the first “germline gene-edited” children were born in China.[3] Furthermore, the UK’s permission to create so-called “three-parent” children may create a legal and political pathway to hereditary germline interventions summarized under the name of “gene editing.”

In this article, I want to explore Habermas’ “substantial” argument in the hope that (moral) philosophy and (moral) theology become allies in their struggle against an ever-more reifying lifeworld, which may create a “moral void” that would, at least from today’s perspective, be “unbearable” (73), and for upholding the conditions of human dignity, freedom, and justice. I will contextualize Habermas’ concerns in the broader discourse of bioethics, because only by doing this, his concerns are rescued from some misinterpretations.


[1] Jürgen Habermas, The Future of Human Nature (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2003).

[2] Ibid., 125, fn. 58. 8

[3] Up to the present, no scientific publication of the exact procedure exists, but it is known that the scientist, Jiankui He, circumvented the existing national regulatory framework and may have misled the prospective parents about existing alternatives and the unprecedented nature of his conduct. Yuanwu Ma, Lianfeng Zhang, and Chuan Qin, "The First Genetically Gene‐Edited Babies: It's “Irresponsible and Too Early”," Animal Models and Experimental Medicine  (2019); Matthias Braun, Meacham, Darian, "The Trust Game: Crispr for Human Germline Editing Unsettles Scientists and Society," EMBO reports 20, no. 2 (2019).

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