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Promises and perils of emerging technologies for human condition

Voices from four postcommunist Central and East European countries

by Peter Sýkora (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 208 Pages
Series: Spectrum Slovakia, Volume 20

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the book
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Chap. 1. Liminal hotspots, transhumanism, and posthumanism
  • Chap. 2. Prolegomena to any ethical reflection on enhancement
  • Chap. 3. Transhumanism and immortality
  • Chap. 4. Can we use the capabilities approach to evaluate human enhancement?
  • Chap. 5. The pragmatist philosophical view of human enhancement
  • Chap. 6. Relevance of ontological and anthropological concepts in synthetic biology
  • Chap. 7. Germline genome editing and human nature
  • Chap. 8. Attitudes to progressive gene therapies in Slovakia in the light of the ethical dimensions of human enhancement
  • Chap. 9. The surgeon’s failure to enhance and tort liability. Polish civil law perspective
  • List of Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

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Foreword

Emerging technologies are defined as fast-growing radically novel technologies with an estimated prominent impact on human society in the future. The ambiguity and uncertainty of emerging technologies at the same time raise techno-optimistic expectations, as well as serious worries about possible unwanted and unpredicted negative consequences following their introduction into wider practice. And because of their radical novelty, emerging technologies also challenge various traditional philosophical and ethical concepts, established risk assessment methods, science and technology governance and policies, science to public communication and practices within and outside the medical domain. We are also witnessing growing interactions between nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and cognitive science: the so-called NBIC convergence. Emerging technologies either individually or in a converging manner promise to open new perspectives, in particular with regards to human health. At the same time, the progress in these technologies can open new horizons for interventions into human beings which go well beyond the medical domain, with the goal of enhancing human potential in lifespan, and the physical, psychological, cognitive and emotional areas.

From the beginning of the 21st century, human enhancement with the use of emerging technologies has become a fast-growing academic topic in bioethical discourse (for example, Savulescu and Bostrom 2009). However, the sphere of academic expertise is only one element in the complex system of technology assessment in modern democratic societies. The role of the public, with its understanding of science and technology, values, fears, hopes and trust in institutions, becomes a key factor which shapes how emerging technologies are accepted and how innovation affects society. Therefore, in a democratic society, public engagements, citizen consulta←7 | 8→tions, public reporting and open communication are as important in the deliberation process of policy formation concerning emerging technologies, as are stakeholder consultations, academic debates, expert assessments, government and parliament.

In the post-communist Central and East European (CEE) countries, technology assessment is almost unknown. The process of policy and law formation concerning new technologies in these countries is usually the passive and mimetic transmission of international legislation (mostly EU law) without the engagement of specialist committees or professional bodies or wider public. The paradigmatic case of this mimetic character of the policy and legal transmission in CEE countries is the process of signing and ratification of the Council of Europe ´s Convention on Biomedicine and Human Rights, with the additional protocol on human cloning (Millard 2010). Although at level of The EU and The Council of Europe, challenges for societies connected with emerging technologies are widely discussed, usually no corresponding debates are taking place at the national level in CEE countries.

In addition the academic discourse on various philosophical, ethical and social aspects related to emerging technologies in the CEE countries is rudimentary and mostly published in local academic journals in national languages, isolating the discourse from that which is international.

The aim of this volume is to emerge from isolation and present the view of ten authors from four CEE countries on emerging technologies and human enhancement. They analyse the topic from various perspectives: anthropological (ch. 1, 6), ethical (ch. 2, 4), philosophical (ch. 3, 5, 7), ontological (ch. 3, 6, 7), empirical (ch. 8) and legal (ch. 9). The chapters proceed from those dealing with the topic at the general level (they also may serve as a good introduction (ch. 1, 2)), through chapters dealing with particular topics on human enhancement and emerging technologies (ch. 3, 4, 5, 6), to chapters related to the debate on this topic in CEE countries (ch. 7, 8, 9).

In the opening first chapter, Liminal hotspots, transhumanism and posthumanism, Miroslav Popper places the debate on transhumanism and posthumanism within a discussion framed by the concepts of ‘liminality’ and ‘liminal hotspots’. These originally ethnographic concepts used for transition rituals in small communities began to be understood from the beginning of the 21st century more generally in order to describe any situation in which not only persons, but whole societies appear to be in an unstable period of transformation: in a situation “betwixt and between”. Popper points out the similarity between permanent liminality and trans←8 | 9→humanism, when human is neither human nor posthuman, when existing social structures and normativity collapse to unknown posthuman ones. He warns of the danger that if in the liminal phase of transhumanism we do not reinvent new forms of order, we will then be trapped in an unstructured situation characterized by the loss of previous coordinates, without having new ones in place. Therefore he suggests “[I]n order to avoid the danger, fear and anxiety, destruction and chaos, disappointment and pain it makes more sense to actively prepare ourselves for a posthumanist liminal hotspot”.

In the second chapter, Prolegomena to any ethical reflection on enhancement, Josef Kuře shows which questions we need to ask before we start to answer the seemingly very simple question: “Is human enhancement right or wrong?” Before raising the question, he first clarifies the semantics of the “human enhancement” term. Then he analyses in detail a particular case of the human enhancement project: the concept of age enhancement. And at the end, he puts several questions we have to raise before we start to think about an ethical evaluation of human enhancement, among them: Is it instrumental reason that frees us from our (natural) limitations? Is it correct that “more is better” and “unlimited is best”? Is the enhanced human a way of overcoming the human condition, a path to Übermensch (as a form of radical enhancement) or to the self (Jungian “das Selbst”)? Does enhancement cause a new estrangement of the person to themselves, or does it bring them closer to themselves?

While Josef Kuře discusses human immortality within the context of age enhancement, Juraj Odorčák in the following third chapter, Transhumanism and Immortality, focuses his analysis directly on immortality as one of the transhumanist central values. After he clarifies the concept of death, he moves to an analysis of the immortality concept, and two arguments against immortality. The first argument is the finiteness argument against immortality (M. Nussbaumm, T. May). The second argument is the argument about the possible tedium of immortality (B. Williams). Odorčák argues that one form of immortality (conditional immortality) does not necessarily lead to the destruction of the meaning of life (T. May) and its values (M. Nussbaumm). The second anti-immortality argument has been developed by B. Williams. He has been inspired by the Leoš Janáček opera ‘The Macropulos Case’ (Věc Makropulos 1925), which was in turn inspired by the original play by Czech writer Karel Čapek, also the author of the play R.U.R. where the word “robot” was coined. Odorčak argues that William´s argument is open to criticism from a transhumanist perspective since it presupposes a prospective practical identity, but transhuman←9 | 10→ists can equally well use the retrospective practical identity concept, which does not preclude the identity of a conditional immortal person.

In the fourth chapter, Ivars Neiders asks himself the question: Can we use the capabilities approach to evaluate human enhancements? His goal is to evaluate the suggestion made by J. Roduit that the best framework for assessing the morality of human enhancement is M. Nussbaum ´s Capability Approach. Neiders shows that Roduit ´s proposal has serious problems, for example, the claim that the capabilities approach can be used as a guiding and restricting tool for human enhancement evaluation. According to Neiders this cannot be justified: first, because the central capabilities are not maximizable. Second, because many capabilities on Nussbaum’s list are such that they cannot be affected by biomedical means. Neiders finally concludes that although the capabilities approach can provide restrictions if the distinction between capabilities and functioning is taken into consideration, it does not provide any incentive for human enhancements.

Emil Višňovský in the fifth chapter, The Pragmatist philosophical view of human enhancement, starts with the transhumanist perfectionism, as is reflected by philosophers such as D. Pearce, R. Rorty, M. A. Walker and presented by M. Sandel. Višnovský provides a historical account of pragmatist philosophical humanism which can be seen as “a precursor of or very close ally to transhumanism”. Humanism was first introduced into the debate on classic pragmatism by F. C. S. Schiller as epistemic humanism. Schiller was in favour of eugenics, which he saw as the future and saviour of humanity, almost making him the forerunner of the transhumanists. He considered human nature to be a set of potentialities that could be improved. His direct inspiration came from the Italian branch of “magic pragmatism” as promoted by Giovanni Papini and Giuseppe Prezzolini in the 1920s. For pragmatist W. James, who does not believe in the perfect life, but in achieving something higher that extends beyond the person, humanism is just one part of pragmatism. Unlike James, J. Dewey rejects Schiller’s conception of humanism and he sees human improvement (‘growth’ in his terminology) in “expansion in which nature and the science of nature are made the willing servants of human good”. At the end, Višňovský explores R. Rorty ´s attitude to humanisms, which for some is one of ambivalence, while for others “a deep and persistent humanism”. In conclusion Višňovský points out that although pragmatism advocates ‘meliorism’ of human life, “it would be a great simplification to equate it with the philosophical grounding of contemporary transhumanism”.

Synthetic biology is a fast-growing emerging technology, combining molecular biology, chemistry, biotechnology, information science and engi←10 | 11→neering sciences. Its aim is to design and construct biological systems not found in nature. In the sixth chapter Relevance of ontological and anthropological concepts in synthetic biology, Jana Tomašovičová focuses on the phenomenon of synthetic biology as it challenges fundamental ontological and anthropological concepts such as life and human self-understanding. She discusses the issue mostly as background to the debate about synthetic biology in the German language environment, which differs from the world-wide debate in English in paying more attention to philosophical and anthropological questions. Tomašovičova starts with the analysis of ontological status of organisms created via synthetic biology. Do we need a new ontological category for them? She agrees with the opinion (e.g. G. Gasser) that from the ontological point of view there is no difference between synthetic biology and natural organisms, and therefore a potential ontological schism is avoided. The anthropological question seems to be more complicated: If humans are capable not only of genetically altering existing organisms but also of creating completely new life forms, the question arises as to whether this will change the way they see themselves. She concludes that we cannot simply agree with the claim that new bioresearch is anthropologically irrelevant, since we cannot ignore the impact of bioscientific research on the knowledge of ourselves, which has to be reflected in philosophical anthropology.

For decades interventions into human germline genes were simply not an issue because no biotechnological tools were available. That has recently changed with the emerging genome editing technologies. Now it is much more realistic to imagine the alteration, or even destruction, of human nature as far as it is determined by genes. In the seventh chapter Germline Genome Editing and Human Nature, Peter Sýkora explores the argument against radical human enhancement within the Czech and Slovak intellectual context as was originally raised by Z. Sitarčikova in her book in Slovak On human breeding: Nanotechnologies, transhumanism and human nature published in 2012. According to her argument it is necessary to protect human nature from radical (bio)technological interventions, because humans will be deprived of the possibility to lead a good life and reach the final end of their existence (which is the understanding of God). That happens as a consequence of the destruction of human nature due to radical human enhancement. Although Sitarčikova’s argument is grounded in the Catholic doctrine of natural law and final goal of human existence, Sýkora argues, in contrast to Sitarčikova, that the argument does not require the acceptance of the Catholic doctrine of natural law, or the premise of God’s existence, and can be fully transformed into a secular version. Such ←11 | 12→transformation is possible insofar as we accept naturalized concepts of human nature, natural law and the natural meaning of human existence. The conclusion is that the argument that radical intervention in human germline genes may deprive humans of the meaning of life can be independent from the acceptance of God’s existence or of cosmic teleological premises.

Summary

Emerging technologies are defined as fast-growing radically novel technologies with an estimated prominent impact on human society in the future. The ambiguity and uncertainty of emerging technologies at the same time raise techno-optimistic expectations, as well as serious worries about possible unwanted and unpredicted negative consequences following their introduction into wider practice. And because of their radical novelty, emerging technologies also challenge various traditional philosophical and ethical concepts, established risk assessment methods, science and technology governance and policies, science to public communication and practices within and outside the medical domain. The aim of this volume is to present the view of ten authors from four postcommunist Central and East European countries (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Latvia) on emerging technologies and human enhancement. They analyse the topic from various perspectives: anthropological, ethical, philosophical, ontological, empirical, and legal. A variety of views will contribute to a development of the discourse on technology assessment in their countries, help to make the process of national policy and law formation more active and less “mimetic”, and open the national discourses to international discussion and critical analysis.

Biographical notes

Peter Sýkora (Volume editor)

Peter Sýkora is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre for Bioethics, University of Ss. Cyril and Methodius in Trnava, Slovak Republic. His recent publication is on Germline Gene Therapy in the Era of Precise Genome Editing.

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Title: Promises and perils of emerging technologies for human condition