Spool Five

Species Ethics


A concept used by Jurgen Habermas in his book The Future of Human Nature. The book is largely a response to the model of liberal eugenics found in From Chance to Choice. There are many arguments you could make against liberal eugenics, but Habermas approaches it from what you could possibly call an existentialist perspective. In short, he considers the problem of genetic therapies from the perspective of the child whose genotype has been altered. His argument centers on the idea that, through pre-birth genetic intervention, the child’s singularity has in some manner been tampered with. The situation is qualitatively (I hesitate to say “metaphysically”) different from cases where, for example, a parent forces their child to practice violin every day from the ages of four until eighteen. Here, there is indeed some infringement on the autonomy of the child, but it is an infringement that is reversible. The child is always free to rebel later on, and distance themselves from this relation. However, in the case of genetic intervention, the infringement is irreversabile - the child is forced to live with a decision that was made prior to their existence, involving their parents and medical professionals, and which affects them in the most intimate way possible.

The concept of a “species ethics” emerges as a response to this hypothetical future in which genetic technologies would be used to intervene, either therapeutically or with the aim of “enhancement”, in the genome prior to birth, and prior to the point at which the person being altered is capabale of responding. A species ethics accepts the contingency of the human genome as a potential ground for the singularity of the person. It aims to promote the dignity and autonomy of the human person by drawing a link between the existential singularity of the self and the genetic singularity that is produced at a lower level. A species ethics accepts the givenness of life a the starting point for dialogue, not as a “problem” that has to be overcome with technical solutions.