Sunday, 7 December 2014

Erik Parens on Binocularity

Erik Parens just published a wonderful new book on human enhancement and related issues. It is called Shaping Our Selves. On Technology, Flourishing and a Habit of Thinking (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015) and I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone working in the field, and indeed everyone who is interested in ethics in the broadest sense, that is all serious reflection on what it means to live a life well.

Parens is uncomfortable with the label that is usually attached to people like him, namely that of a bioethicist, because bioethicists are often seen (and indeed behave) as if they had all the answers. If you don’t know what’s right or wrong in a tricky moral situation, ask a bioethicist and they will tell you. At least that is what we have learned to expect from the profession. But ethics, including bioethics, is not really about what is right or wrong, permissible or impermissible, what we are obligated to do and what we are obligated not to do. Instead, the questions that we actually ask when we engage in ethical reflection are much bigger and less simple (or simple-minded) than that. What the inquiry is really about is “the meaning of being human and about how we ought to live: questions about the nature of persons and what makes them truly flourish, about the nature of the various means we use to pursue our flourishing, about what if anything we owe our fellow citizens when we seek our flourishing, and so forth.” (3-4)

In other words, it’s complicated. There’s a lot to consider, and there are no simple, straightforward answers that can claim to capture the truth of the matter. There are always other sides to the issue, other perspectives to be considered, and only if we do that can we hope to get an adequate understanding of what is at stake when decisions have to be made that concern life and death and generally the well-being of people.

This is also true for human enhancement. The nature of the (academic) game often entices us to make a clear stand for or against enhancement, or for or against a particular kind of enhancement, although we actually know very well that it is hardly ever so easy. Our position usually reflects some true insight, but so does the position of our opponents, and it is important to be aware of the lop-sidedness of our own view, the fact that it roots in our personal experience and our character, which determines our individual perspective on life, and that we have no privileged access to the truth. Even though our own view might strike us as perfectly rational (and as the only truly rational view on the matter), it never is. There’s always something important to be learned from listening to the other and trying to understand where they come from and what is right and true about their way of seeing things. This is why we should learn to embrace what Parens calls binocularity, which he defines as “a habit of remembering that my insights are partial, both in the sense that they are always incomplete and in the sense that they reflect a stance toward the world that feels congenial to me.” (10)

Adopting this habit of thinking might even help us to discover that we and our opponents are actually not so far away from each other as we thought. We may find that we actually “share the same fundamental moral ideal but see it from such different stances and through such different lenses” (50) that our agreement on a deeper level is easy to overlook. Thus both those who think that human enhancement is generally a good idea (the “enthusiasts”) and those who are rather suspicious of it (the “critics”) seem to share the same moral ideal of authenticity. They just interpret it in different ways because the former are more inclined to see human nature as essentially transformative and progressive (thus adopting what we may call a “creativity stance”), whereas the latter feel more inclined to emphasise the essential goodness of what we have and are (thus adopting what we may call a “gratitude stance”). Accordingly, staying ‘true to ourselves’ can mean very different things to us, neither of which – and that is the important point to remember – is truer or more appropriate than the other. Creativity and gratitude both have their place in a well-lived life, and it would suit us well to remain aware of that.

The truth is that we are always biased towards one thing or another. Enhancement critics have been accused of suffering from a “status quo bias”, which may well be true, but the enthusiasts suffer from their very own status quo bias because “they tend to be biased in favor of accepting more of the same, where ever-expanding technological intervention into our selves and the rest of the natural world is the status quo.” (90) Bias comes natural to us, and complete objectivity is impossible to achieve. All we can hope to achieve is a viewpoint that is informed by the knowledge that we are biased and that the biases that other people have often represent genuine insights that are likely to complement (rather than refute) our own. 

That is certainly a lesson worth learning.