Against the Enhancement Project: Two Perspectives

Adrienne Asch, James E. Block


Perspective 1

Adrienne Asch

Proponents of so-called moderate genetic enhancements contend that we nee dn’t worry much about possible upgrades to future human beings because they will not be transformative. Proponents of more radical enhancements endorse possible radical changes to humans that might come from their envisioned radical genetic and biotechnological innovations. Like other skeptics, we think both moderate and radical enhancement projects have dangers. We go further, however, to argue that focusing on enhancing the traits of individuals will ultimately fail at transforming humanity or human society in positive directions. We have found little explanation of how even enhanced humans would work together to solve most of the world’s vexing and critical problems. In short, even if the moderate or radical enhancement projects succeeded, we doubt that the enhanced humans (or posthumans) would live in a world markedly better than the one we now inhabit.

Moderate enhancements that proponents have endorsed pertain to immunity to disease, physical size and strength, cognition, aptitudes for mathematics or music, and mood. Proponents contend that enhanced physical, intellectual, and emotional resources would aid almost any life plan parents could want for their children or the children could want for themselves. Why wouldn’t prospective parents in the United States select safe and effective methods of genetically or prenatally improving their future child’s ability to avoid hypertension or diabetes, understand the debates around the science of climate change, appreciate Shakespeare and postmodern novels, play the piano or the saxophone, and enjoy life’s variety of experiences? Proponents point out that virtually all parents try to shape their children by exposing them to particular foods, recreation, media, and ideas about the world that matter to those parents. Supporters of enhancement seem unimpressed with skeptics who think that all shaping methods are not created equal.

Along with these skeptics, we agree that means of enhancement matter. We concur with the critics that there is plenty of hyper-parenting without genetic and biotechnological enhancement, and we join them in opposing all the forms of competitive parenting familiar to those who have struggled about how much shaping to do. What is the right school for our child? Should he or she be spending so much time on schoolwork at the expense of friendships or sports?

These concerns will plague the parents of a genetically enhanced child as well, but the parent-child relationship will be different. Whether or not children know of their parents’ selection efforts, parents will know that they sought particular characteristics for their children. Even if they are counseled that a child’s genetic predisposition to an activity may not lead to the child’s interest in the activity, they may be sorely disappointed when the child with genes for mathematics prefers fashion design. If the parent or parents didn’t care a lot about getting a particular result, they wouldn’t have bothered to do the selecting in the first place. It seems naïve to claim that parents will affirm the child who doesn’t meet their expectations as much as they respect, love, and appreciate the child who does. If the parents were open to discovering and fostering their child’s talents and strengths, they wouldn’t have needed to select particular traits in the first place.

In the world of the genetically enhanced, a high school student with genes designed to give her facial beauty, physical coordination, and a clear speaking voice may still be unable to get leading roles. Her parents’ disappointment may be even keener if she has been enhanced because their plans are thwarted. If their daughter learns that her genetic makeup was selected for a particular goal, she could face a bewildering array of reactions: she failed her parents despite the work they did to select traits designed for success. Living in a body whose characteristics were chosen for her, she may feel that her parents also chose her activities and life course. Drawing on the ideas of Habermas, Bernard G. Prusak explains that whether or not the girl succeeds or fails at living out her parents’ dreams, she may feel that neither her goals nor her body are in any sense hers. They were selected before the people who supposedly love her and are raising her even knew her! Such a child is deprived of autonomy, authenticity, and the sense that her body and talents are hers to use for purposes she selects. The life plan and the body in which she lives were determined before her parents could have responded to anything they knew or saw of her. Genetic selection is even more one-sided, less interactional, and less influenced by the characteristics of the particular child than anything foisted on today’s children by overly anxious parents.

Let us consider the life of an unenhanced girl. She may take music lessons, be enrolled in Little League, and attend religious services because her parents insist upon these activities. But at some point, she can announce that she is not going to practice the cello anymore, and, as is common, her parents would accept the decision. Adolescents from some religious families and communities may have a harder time renouncing tradition, but we all know of “recovering Catholics,” nonpracticing children from Orthodox Jewish homes, and (less common perhaps) birthright Quakers who enlist in the armed forces.

The unenhanced and the enhanced may each have disappointed their parents and taken paths contrary to their parents’ dreams for them. But the unprogrammed child disappoints her parents, not the bodily fate that was predicted, because there was no bodily fate predicted. The successful enhanced child may not be able to take any pride in her accomplishments because she could feel that she had nothing to do with them; they came to her from outside herself. Neither her body nor her interests can be said to belong to her. Genetic programming will be harder to go against than today’s most ardent and involved stage mother. The programming is intended to give a child the predisposition to characteristics parents want and will reinforce. The child will be celebrated for conforming with the parents’ desired aptitudes and behaviors. Going against community and family norms will be even harder to accomplish if children realize they have been bred for a role.

Becoming a reasonably fulfilled and functional adult requires children to receive a mix of trust in and acceptance by the people raising them; they also need the confidence that their caretakers support their exploration of the world. Children need their curiosity stimulated, their efforts to learn about the world and themselves affirmed, their accomplishments applauded. They also need to feel that they had something to do with what happens to them, as well as to learn that they will not always triumph and that not every wish will come true.

We are convinced that endorsing greater parental selectivity in children’s characteristics endangers something central to our understanding of reasonable, not even ideal, parenting—the willingness to commit oneself to the protection, growth, nurturing, and development of another human being. Parenting has been understood as the giving of oneself to someone whose life we will influence but whose life will take its own direction. On this theory, child-raising has been understood as differing from the activity of picking friends or mates, where the major purposes of the relationship are companionship and compatability in activities, values, or goals. We are not saying that parental love should be, or even can be, unconditional; we’re not at all sure how parents should respond to a child who lies, cheats, steals, rapes, or kills. But we think that what has been accepted as the parental role—to help the child develop the interests, talents, and values that are the child’s own—is undermined by increased parental selectivity. One measure of parental achievement is that a child is able to find her or his life path—even if that path radically departs from what a parent encouraged.

The enhanced individual will just as easily have someone to envy; there will be someone with greater enhancements or enhancements added to “better” natural endowment or someone whose parents picked enhancements one would have preferred for oneself but didn’t get. Paradoxically, enhancers don’t seem interested in the fact that even for above-average people, life will include difficulties and disappointments. Yet we’ve seen no statements about enhancing humans’ capacities for handling what cannot be controlled or for adapting to the unexpected and unpredictable. Perhaps this omission stems from the dream that someday we will be able to control everything; but unless the world becomes unimaginably different from the one we know today, humans and even posthumans will not control everything about their lives. Any serious effort to transform humanity through biological and social means had best include aiding future generations and societies to deal well with whatever comes up in life. If we worked with our existing psychological and social means to aid people in dealing with life’s exigencies, there might be no strong interest in trait enhancement because people would be finding meaning and value in the lives they have.

I have put forward similar ideas in other writings, and we recognize similarities to the views of Michael Sandel and Dov Fox. We now link and extend this critique of parental projects of selectivity and enhancement to the societal values these projects reinforce and promote.

The Family, the Society, and Suspect Norms

Individual self-realization is only one significant facet of flourishing. As long as human beings live in groups, it is at least as crucial to discover how to live harmoniously with others. Whether children live in a nuclear family, the kibbutz of sixty years ago, or the world of Marge Piercy’s Mattapoisett nurtured by intended but unrelated parents, children must learn to get along with and appreciate other people. They must learn to share space, food, and adult attention with other people who have different personalities, interests, strengths, problems, and needs.

The parents who teach their young that only certain personalities, moods, predilections, and capacities are good enough for membership in a family are teaching a dangerous lesson in conformity, intolerance, and exclusion. The family becomes, in Leo Kittay’s words, “a club” that can be entered only if a child passes genetic muster. Parents committed to selectivity and enhancement of only certain attributes will have trouble teaching their children that people are not all the same, that people with many characteristics can be appreciated, and that other people’s strengths and problems are as valid and legitimate as the characteristics this family chose.

Seeking to redeem the wisdom of eugenics from its American early twentieth-century and Nazi past, Allen Buchanan et al. write: “Reprehensible as much of the eugenic program was, there is something unobjectionable and perhaps even morally required in the part of its motivation that sought to endow future generations with genes that might enable their lives to go better. We need not abandon this motivation if we can pursue it justly.”

Despite these authors’ acknowledgment that people can’t be reduced to their genes and that most gene expression is influenced by other genes as well as by the environment, these adherents are still talking about genes making lives go better. They are saying that only particular genetic endowments can lead to well-being. As I have pointed out elsewhere, there is a wide range of possible satisfying lives; with very few exceptions, people with less-than-ideal health and people having significant physical, sensory, cognitive, and emotional disabilities can and do find their lives rewarding.

The more important point is not the debate about disability and quality of life. Rather, it is the danger that a set of philosophers and scientists will decide which characteristics are favored and endeavor to persuade parents and society to create more people with the favored set and reduce the number with a set that is out of fashion. Moderate and radical enhancers have their list of attributes they think will make lives go better. All children will be above average; in the enhanced future everyone will be like the people of Lake Wobegon or even better. Sociability is favored; shyness is to be avoided. “Moderate” risk-taking is acceptable but nothing too rash. The more radical scenarios have humans or posthumans devouring all of world literature in seconds, never forgetting anything, being able to stay awake for at least twenty of every twenty-four hours, and living for hundreds if not thousands of years.

To quote the song, “When will we ever learn” that individual lives, and group lives, are more complicated than having more or fewer of a list of favored or disfavored traits?

Even for an individual, the trait we value in one moment can be a problem at another time. Being quick is not always as desirable as taking more time and being thorough. Having a good memory may be valuable in some situations, but it can also mean never forgetting every personal slight, every failure, every irritation, every disappointment. Sociability can make it harder to discover the gifts of quiet, of time alone. How can parents be so sure that the trait they want to enhance will really serve their child throughout the decades and vicissitudes of life?

Leaving the individual and going to the group, do we really want a society of extroverts and speed demons? What will become of people who think there’s something valuable in savoring ideas, experiences, and a few close relationships? We are not complaining because we think that different traits should get more respect and attention than the current list in vogue. We’re suggesting that individuals may value different facets of their personalities at different times. We are arguing against the enhancers’ desire to pick a list of traits and to decide that a given society needs people with more of those traits and fewer people with some other traits. Society needs people with many different traits, and one of the most important tasks of individual, familial, and social life is to respect, nurture, and honor that variety.

Individual Enhancement and the Social World

Our problems with the enhancement project go beyond our concerns for appreciating the diversity of human attributes. We don’t think even successful enhancers will necessarily be solving many of the problems plaguing the world. Both moderate and radical enhancers seem bent on making sure that people who already have a lot will have even more. Giving many humans more intelligence, longevity, health, and strength will not produce a world with fewer difficulties. We suspect that enhancement proponents may not see improving human traits as part of a larger social project of transforming humanity. One of our chief concerns about “transforming humanity” through the existing notions of enhancement is that the enhancement project appears entirely individually focused; it ignores the major psychological, social, economic, and political problems facing individuals, families, nations, and the planet. Even if humans never need to sleep and can devour books in a single gulp, they may not use such powers for anything beyond their own satisfaction.

Individuals in the developed world face boredom, loneliness, alienation, disappointment. Moving beyond the attributes and current difficulties of individuals, we can look at the interpersonal and the societal world to note broken friendships and family estrangement, bullied children, and competitive, frequently uncooperative adults. Violence, discrimination, war, poverty, and famine plague the world. We want to know how the people who would enhance any particular set of individual traits see their better people as using those traits for genuine human and societal improvement. As we read the enhancement literature, we find scant attention to such questions.

Smarter, healthier, harder-working, and more long-lived scientists might figure out ways to produce the material goods to end poverty and famine. We could actually go far toward doing that now if we wanted to change how we distribute wealth. Perhaps a world of people with greater “impulse control” would reduce the violence of the street, but simple impulse control wouldn’t do anything to end death from corporations that sell tobacco and other toxic substances. The people who want to enhance physical and cognitive powers don’t explain what valuable purposes are advanced by their projects. Even if reducing ill health and disability by genetic means is a worthy goal, we already know a lot about how to prevent and ameliorate much about what is wrong for people with diseases and disabilities, but we don’t use our knowledge for such purposes. Improved sanitation, for example, could halt cholera epidemics. Why do we fail to use the knowledge, the money, and the talent already available in the world to make improvements?

The answer to such a question does not lie with “moral enhancement.” Thomas Douglas (and also Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu) endorse a moral enhancement program, although even they doubt easy or quick success in engineering traits to create morally superior beings. Perhaps there has been relatively less attention to what we’re calling “moral enhancement” because there’s less agreement among scientists about whether particular facets of morality can be genetically or chemically induced. We doubt the existence of genes for enhancing empathy, generosity, respect for difference, and recognition of commonality across difference. But even if future scientists discovered mechanisms for such individual attribute enhancements, we don’t find any discussion of how enhancement proponents go from the enhanced individual to the transformed society that fosters the exercise of such capacities.

Will empathic, generous, courageous people automatically create the remedies for interpersonal and world problems? It’s hard to see the paths from genetic to social transformation. Different exemplars of virtue—Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela—don’t come up with the same approaches. Enhancing one or two such morally desirable traits would not go far toward alleviating human problems. Empathy alone, without the will to act on it and the context in which to exercise it, is useless to anyone who might benefit. Feeling another’s pain is self-indulgent and immobilizing if there’s no means for using empathy on another’s behalf. Social reform takes more than empathy; it takes the will to act in ways that may disturb others, a kind of courage and steadfastness, perhaps an imperviousness to criticism. Single-trait enhancement alone could never suffice for creating people with the mix of characteristics that will lead them to turn empathy into a quest for social justice. Moreover, we don’t want or need a society or a world of people with the same mix of even “morally superior” traits. Healers, teachers, crusaders, scientists, artists, accountants, and firefighters all do worthwhile activities in any world and approach their work and interpersonal relations with a variety of intellectual, physical, and personality characteristics that deserve recognition and respect.

But even if we assumed that philosophers could create a list of the most valuable virtues and that scientists could deliver means of enhancing them, we would need to recognize that exercising desirable traits depends on context. “Decent” people can do terrible things depending upon a given situation, and even people with great flaws in some areas exercise heroism in other areas of life, as Oskar Schindler and Martin Luther King demonstrate. It is naïve to think that particular moral traits, absent the contexts for exercising those traits, will conduce to any kind of improved moral behavior.

Save for occasional comments about exacerbating existing social inequalities, enhancement proponents rarely demonstrate any apprehensions about negative consequences of their program, and they also don’t appear to wonder much about what a world of enhanced humans would be like. To date, our quest for scientific and moral progress has always come with unanticipated new challenges. It would seem appropriate for enhancement enthusiasts to justify their quest by talking about how humankind would really benefit and by framing their claims for benefits with due recognition that they cannot foresee all the potential difficulties that the enhanced generations would face.

Creating a more just and empathic society and world strikes us as the most powerful way to transform humanity, as contrasted with enhancing even large numbers of individual human beings. Getting to such a transformed society is a large project. Historians don’t agree about what forces led to clear moral progress such as the abolition of slavery or the enfranchisement of women. Some of the finest minds of the last century have not agreed about what a just society is or about the best moral and political theories. Libertarians and socialists are equally sincere in their convictions about what the world needs. Without any such agreement about these matters, it seems daunting to envision the best environments for alleviating the interpersonal and world problems we can now identify. Ending slavery and colonialism have not ended intergroup conflict. In the remainder of this article, we argue that enhanced genes for any particular morally desirable traits won’t be useful without a commitment to transforming the institutions and environments in which people live and exercise such traits. And we think that humility about the consequences of social engineering is also required when imagining how to deal with the consequences of any large-scale genetic and biological engineering. It is to this quest for a social order that we now turn.



Perspective 2: The Technological Substitute for Political Change

James E. Block

This essay asks whether the genetic alteration, nominally an enhancement, of specific capacities and endowments can be understood as transforming humanity. The language of transformation—as opposed to the technical term of modification—is sociopolitical. What then are the likely sociopolitical and social psychological consequences of the genetic enhancement agenda, and why is the term transformation being applied to genetic makeovers? If social transformation involves a distinct set of priorities, the broader question will be how a transformational agenda might be framed in which new technologies contribute to greater social well-being.

Reflections on the Impact of Genetic Transformations

Technological idealism and political transformation both address the same root issue: the quest for greater mastery of the inner and outer worlds. This part will consider that quest in three contexts: individual, relational, and social.

Individual mastery. What is at stake here is the relationship between experience and mastery. Can the capacity for better conceptual and emotional processing be “built in?” Processing competence in this view is an experiential acquisition. In terms of conceptual processing, the functioning of intellect and memory to recall, comprehend, and manipulate experience—if the model is more than replicating data-processing systems—first depends on the absorption and integration of experience. Individuals now utilize only a fraction of their existing capacities, not primarily because of equipment problems but because we do not encourage our young to engage in deep understanding. The most salient things in our lives, from the lopsided structures of political and economic power and the disjunction between rhetoric and practice in society to the disciplinary nature of schooling and families, cannot be discussed. Ignorance is demanded from childhood on (we call it “protecting innocence”), along with conformity as a form of learned amnesia regarding our loss of thinking for ourselves (the psychologist Erich Fromm called it “pseudo-thinking”).

The experiential understanding of our identity, relations, culture, society, and world must involve continuous reworking and rethinking if it is to provide sequences leading to higher stages of growth and integration. Providing capacities and powers that the subject does not play a role in developing, as in the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, decreases mastery by creating discontinuities in experience and understanding inconsistent with the development of a coherent narrative of identity and world. Greater processing power in a culture that resists efforts to process the complexities of internal and external interactions below the surface can only succeed if the information “crunched” is surface data—Malcolm Gladwell’s “blink.” Given the sense of dislocation, disorientation, and isolation facing those who assert heightened insight over and against cultural pressures, claiming that individuals would be simply given tools to face reality more directly involves wishful thinking and even self-delusion.

Enhancements to emotional processing offer to rectify this problem. Promoting the capacities to create more powerfully, love more deeply, engage more fully, without the difficult ongoing attention to internal conflicts and setbacks, ambivalences, struggles, and contestations, and other internal and external barriers, misunderstands the intricacy of emotional growth. The recent movie Limitless offers just such a magic bullet: enhancements that will overcome all internal barriers and clear the path to super-optimal functioning in the world. A deeply conflicted and paralyzed young writer embraces enhancement as the way out, only to become an extraordinarily efficient information processor and corporate-organizational-political operative. As only his girlfriend realizes, what is missing in this “success story” is any sense of self. But he—and the movie—seem to regard this as an insignificant price to pay.

The shortfalls here again arise less because we lack genetic or internal capacity than from pressures to adopt simplistic functional poses and mindsets. What are prized in this society are extroversional masks and organizational personalities that make us functionaries, despite their being deeply incommensurable with greater connection with and unfolding of the resources and potentialities of the inner world. The current demand for false and simplistic accommodations with set social agendas involves sacrifice of the very personal development and maturity that enhancements claim to provide—but can’t be exercised even now in a society of enforced psychosocial incapacity.

What is conspicuously absent, for example in No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the meritocratic obsession generally, is nurturing young people’s actual desire for and interest in achieving the unfolding and mastery of their lives and processes of greater comprehending, synthesizing, creating, and challenging. Claims that a life of inward mastery and competence, first and most fully imagined by Rousseau in his profound work of education Emile, can be posited not as the result of internal development but as the starting point—no education needed—toy with the realities of human maturation. This is the work of years, demanding much from adults protecting and nurturing emergent capacities until the child has the strength to act upon its wishes and insights on its own. Rousseau asserted that a child, if allowed and enabled, will develop and refine his or her wishes and the capacities to realize them as a fully achieved individuality and humanity. The function of a transformed education would be to enable those dreams to flourish without being defeated by a competitive, envious, comparative culture, so that the child has space to develop his or her own deep sense of purpose, meaning, and identity.

Relational mastery. The question here is, how are relational bonds, acceptance, empathy, and community acquired? The idea that individuals can obtain enhanced relational capacities without relational experience, the complex trial-and-error integrating of feelings and fears, desires and doubts, expectations and evaluations, is fanciful. The promise extended that each will move from baby Einstein to adult Einstein asks us to imagine endless Beethovens without competition, envy, or inflamed expectations (if all are Beethoven, who then is Beethoven?). Simply adding the best possible relational processors to produce this simply circumvents—so common in our time—the mutuality of recognition and appreciation that relations require, including not least an awareness of one’s own limits and the strengths of others.

Moral depth, as Rousseau understood, involves an ever-stronger sense of the value and distinctiveness of others, learned in the long course of growth beyond early and developmentally appropriate egoism, made possible by even-greater confidence in one’s own sense of self, capabilities, and ability to achieve personal fulfillment. One comes to love and appreciate others better as a consequence of more fully coming to believe in one’s self. One could not skip these stages any more than one could fall instantly into a perfect intimate relationship and avoid all the work of creating trust and connectedness. There are words for this, but love is not one of them. The avoidance of the slow emergence of expansive moral and political capacities to ascend Kohlberg’s stages to independent moral life, endemic as Rousseau knew in traditional and liberal society, only lead to internal insecurity and ineffectiveness. The result of seeking a quick fix (a quick fix being precisely to circumvent the self and its developmental timetable) was compliance and conformity with existing social patterns and external agendas.

Social mastery. The impact on society of a culture in which individuals are led to believe they—and/or their children—can have bigger, better, faster enhancements, risk-free, without downsides is toxic. Not appreciating what the potential costs might be, they would want more enhancement continually. The message is permanent dissatisfaction with one’s situation, to be solved by immediate upgrading, the joy coming with the hit from more. This addictive psychology that only more is ever enough produces the inflamed wants, relentless acquisition, and status competition of a consumer society. Every frustration will be overcome by the promise of endless fulfillment, Ahab’s dread disease that was for Melville the quintessential American psychosis. Rather than look within to find one’s resources for happiness, the solution is to be obtained in the market with myriad enhancements for every problem or limitation.

Given the fantasy that a world of “perfect” and “pure” children, of a “wittier and happier” humanity, of unlimited growth and moral and rational enhancement for our taking without conflict could only emerge under present conditions if subjects accept the existing social, moral and rational frames. Real psycho-emotional growth, real creativity out of the box involves an inevitable collision and ultimately confrontation with those frames. The result, unsurprisingly, would be a continually conflictual and dialogical social world—the more profound, the deeper the questions and liberation of the participants. To learn how to evaluate and challenge the status quo, take a stand, dissent when necessary, involves the complex ascertainment and processing of visible and veiled agendas, negotiating troubling, often divisive differences, forming and implementing larger goals and ideals. Unless these are continually nurtured in accessible social learning environments, the result, as de Tocqueville foresaw, is a society where citizens—lacking courage and their own views—can’t say “no,” that is, citizens today who confuse being “out of the box” with the bumper sticker.

Contextualizing the Contemporary Transformative Impulse

The dream of technological idealists is that the forms of mastery that science can offer could be more directly and effectively applied to the larger project of collective well-being. The question is how we came to imagine that human transformation was to be the province of improved technical capacity rather than a deeper understanding of human needs and wishes, of human character and the potential for growth, understanding, and connectedness, of the capacities of improved social processes to provide actualization for individuals and groups.

This agenda of a society of unfolding emotional and creative potential, of realized and liberated individuals growing up in collaborative affective communities, was tried in the 1960s. While seemingly possible to some, most of society resisted the resulting challenge to their basic assumptions. Unprepared to find one’s own reality and meaning, to face the sense of being on one’s own brought on by independence, to resolve the complex relations among autonomous individuals, they at the same time were unwilling to undertake the long historical and experiential journey of psychological and social development required. It was easier to imagine this dream of transformation as a form of instant gratification. The collapse of such illusions has led Americans over the last forty years on a conservative flight to security in the safe harbor of routinized, putatively risk-free life and thought.

So by now there is a pervading sense in the culture that most Americans cannot imagine—let alone understand and implement—an agenda of real human and social growth. Behind the fantasy by elites of genetic transformation lies the wish to skip the laborious development of full psychosocial capacity in ordinary citizens. Somehow, new capacities and skills and techniques will be provided, self-empowerment and self-development instilled in the drinking water, as substitutes for those lacking the power to dream and act for transformation. Change will thus be effected without pushing citizens beyond their comfort zone and without the risks of cultural and social upheaval transformation normally produces, for there is every likelihood they would at this moment want none of the challenges involved.

Linking social change to a technological imperative is a beguiling vision because it suggests an alternative to the often inconclusive, too often regressive course of the political processes. In times of political reaction, this vision is little less than mesmerizing, promising a (dramatic) way forward to reverse the evident—and mounting—failures of society to actualize the capacities for social justice, human development, and engaged communities that appear to lie so closely within reach. The suspicion is that, unable to address these questions openly and productively as a society in a way accountable to the recipients and the community, what is being sought is a substitute for politics.

The rise of discourses of scientific transformation following the failure of the movements for political and social change in the 1960s and 1970s supports this contention. But the problems encountered by these movements for change have never been adequately examined, and simply ignoring rather than addressing the lessons of history does not bode well for surmounting them. Absent a broader discussion of post-industrial social development, in fact, the prospects for democracy, community, selfhood, and empowerment are likely to be set back by a strategy relying on technological makeovers that replaces rather than mobilizes the public.

We now live in a time of social and psychological retrenchment, a staggering return to economic misery, robber-baron elites, market mantras, suburban and Sun Belt conspicuous consumption, isolation in electronic cottages, a tattered social safety net, and global war. This determined political and cultural reaction against the 1950s’ prospect of a post-industrial affluent society and the 1960s’ initiation of new forms of human individualism and connection rejects efforts to embrace and master the challenge and opportunity of this incipient economic and social transformation. As a result, this is a time of magical thinking—in religion, fundamentalistic politics, cultural fantasies, family life, and science. In a 2010 collection of essays titled Utopianism and the Sciences, 1880–1930, a number of authors link the speculations during that period about social utopia arising on the basis of Lamarckian evolution, regenerative life forces, social hygienism, more advanced cultivation of energy and power, eugenics, and so forth to the growing specter of degenerative political and culture forces (think of Oswald Spengler). In their view, the entry of the untutored masses into European politics was derailing the nineteenth-century engine of modern progress. A new biologically inspired society would replace the messy and trivial politics of mass society. Ironically, this Faustian dream of technological transformation eventually made its peace with a mobilized mass politics to create the horrors of the following century.

The Longer View

How do we address these issues in a way that avoids the most sinister forms of blowback? We need to begin by localizing and particularizing the causes of the present political stalemate underlying the wish for quick fixes. Things seem so much worse at the present time—at least by comparison to the stirring images of the immense promise of late industrial life a half-century ago, before something went wrong. And what went wrong is that we had been handed a technological—post-industrial—utopia in our laps but weren’t prepared psychically, emotionally, relationally, or communally to handle it. We saw the future before our eyes but couldn’t take the next step. And yet, unable to walk, we would want to fly through that door!

Many progressives believed that a new post-industrial society would liberate us from onerous toil and stifling hierarchies, but didn’t realize this would demand of us new ways of mastering and actualizing our own autonomous dreams and desires without the safety net of organizational structures and work disciplines and social roles, external agendas to comply with, and superiors to defer to, blame, and depend upon. We would have to know, or come to know, ourselves better, and identify what makes life worth living and values worth sustaining day by day. We would have to be capable of forming democratic communities and collaborative collectives and mutually empowering relations, and to raise the young—all our young—to actualize themselves in new open and enabling spaces and processes. We would need to let go of America-firstism, of gorging ourselves on the world’s resources, by always replacing more with the good and addictive consumption with other forms of activity. We would, finally, have to learn how to create life narratives that speak to the unfolding of our natures and our common dreams.

How well are we doing this? And how effectively will new scientific advances, piled upon the massive technical achievements of the past century, aid us in this task? For the 1960s represented the culmination of a three-hundred-plus-year age of external mastery, when industrial modernization, organizational integration, and cybernetics revolutionized our relation to the physical world and multiplied ad infinitum our power over it. At that time we entered a new era, what I will call the age of internal mastery. The United States, the first modern nation, was the result of this explosive external mastering impulse (exploration, colonization, and economic and industrial expansion), and its vaunted individualistic society with its novel popular institutions, economic opportunity, and mobility provided the global spark that has brought the rewards of worldly mastery into the daily lives of many ordinary citizens. As the great historian Carl Becker has explained, “Man’s effort to control the forces of Nature” led to an “unprecedented acceleration in man’s capacity to create material wealth” and unparalleled increase in ”power and precision” to “supply all that is needed” and create lives “like the gods, free from toil and grief.”

What went wrong? In Becker’s analysis, the parallel effort to “regenerate society” in light of these advances by “co-ordinating the expanding activities of man” failed, leading “only to confusion and despair” at the radical discord between man’s “capacity to control the forces of Nature and his capacity to subdue his social relations to rational direction.” As he muses, “long ago it was said that man can more easily take a city than govern himself.” What the 1960s insisted was that external mastery without internal mastery would surely fail, that the kind of psychological vulnerability to conformity, materialism, the efficiencies of compliance, and passivity tailored to the smooth operation of the machine age would—without a cultivation of internal strength and autonomy—produce individuals in the image of those machines, what writer Alan Lightman in The Diagnosis identified as perfect “information processors,” supremely functional appendages of the technological network (or throw away parts) but dead, emotionally and morally, inside.

Individuals have been left in no condition to develop the capacities for internal mastery because of their continued submission to the systems of psychological shaping for deference employed in the previous age. The creation of a compliant public has resulted in liberal institutions and political processes (once accessible to popular initiative) now used as weapons of attitude-shaping and commitment-manipulation in the hands of those who possess the great system levers of external mastery. With the public’s input and empowerment possessed in the early republic in decline, they now find the only outlet to be in individualistic fantasies of a stateless world. Fed this frontier revivalism by conservative opinion makers, of a coming time when free markets and consumer choice and cowboys will with God’s grace roam unimpeded once again, the Matrix grows about and engulfs them as they stay glued to the fantasy screen. Simply inserting within the historical transition from external, worldly, to internal mastery the middle step of a scientific mastery and technological enhancement of internal processes is too clever. As in Limitless, the continuing commitment to technical solutions and a profound misunderstanding of what is required for the growth of modern subjects as capable and self-knowing members of the polity will not break but reinforce the chains of compliance.

Thoughts (Forward) Out of Season

In suggesting a way out of this predicament, we want to affirm our shared belief in human enhancement and mastery, growth and transformation, both individually and collectively. We believe the way forward is by posing the right questions and suggest that the missing term—the inescapable correlative of internal mastery—is empowerment. Never in human history, in the great transformative religious, social, and political movements, has empowerment been gifted, because it involves the subject’s struggling to affirm for itself its own enhanced place in the world and its capacities—and real world opportunities—for carrying forth that new role.

The lesson of the ages is that there can be no substitute on the road to internal mastery for the attainment of competence. We cannot turn citizens fearful of their own power and capacity into adequate social beings by providing them a shortcut. Nor can we make an end run around their natures to some higher implanted or externally cultivated nature. The dream of American idealism from Crevecoeur and Emerson was to strip away the encumbrances of tradition, hierarchy, and authority to release the natural individual to his or her full possibility of development. One sign of an age of despair is that its wishes for the future are developmentally discontinuous with what is perceived as our present natures—and thus the encumbrances must be leapt over.

In order to avoid such discontinuities, with the decrease in power and efficacy and coherence and comprehension they portend and the further retrenchment in fear that would result, we suggest instead reconnecting with that nature, finding the strengths within our educated and mature society that offer a fulcrum from which to evolve new skills and capacities and a new sense of adequacy. We are indeed on the cusp of a transformative age, a step forward into post-industrial opportunity and mastery, lives liberated from the most onerous toil, global dispersions of power, and forms of education for inner development previously regarded as unattainable. What is hindering this advance is not technological or genetic deficits but fear of how demanding more from our lives and institutions and relationships will unsettle existing forms of social order and organization, identity formation, and institutional integration that provide much of the stability and solidity many hold on to in this rapidly shifting world.

The project of building the internal mastery fit for this new age will require new forms of socialization and education, parenting and teaching, learning and listening, empowering and collaborating. There are many working on and actualizing these as we speak, but they have been marginalized, given the rigid and tightening logic of corporate and organizational routinization. The young must be protected from this debacle through educations that encourage their sense of adequacy (not failures to measure up to the high bar), purpose (not functionality), and empowerment (not drug-induced quietism). In the context of a society that prepares democratic citizens, scientific advances in the psychology of learning and development will become part of the great dreams of the next age and could and should be part of our present consideration.

But we must first ask: Could we handle such enhanced individuals—who would make evident to us through their very being the compromises and shrinkages of self we have allowed ourselves, or undergone without protest? Would we be able to join them in the call for a more enhanced human, democratic, just social order? Or will we continue to play with our smart screens and salivate over the images they offer?


We thank David Wasserman for valuable discussion and suggestions that have improved this article. The views presented here solely reflect those of the authors.

Further Reading

  • N. Agar. Liberal Eugenics: In Defence of Human Enhancement. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
  • ———. Humanity’s End: Why We Should Reject Radical Enhancement. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2010.
  • A. Asch. “Why I Haven’t Changed My Mind about Prenatal Diagnosis: Reflections and Refinements.” In Prenatal Testing and Disability Rights, edited by E. Parens and A. Asch. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2000.
  • A. Asch. “Disability Equality and Prenatal Testing: Contradictory or Compatible?” Florida State University Law Review 30(2)(2003): 315–42.
  • A. Asch and D. Wasserman. “Where Is the Sin in Synecdoche? Prenatal Testing and the Parent-Child Relationship.” In Quality of Life and Human Difference, edited by D. Wasserman, J. Bickenbach, and R. Wachbroit. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • C. Becker. Progress and Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949.
  • A. Buchanan, D.W. Brock, N. Daniels, and D. Wikler. From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • R. Cole-Turner. “Do Means Matter?” In Enhancing Human Traits: Ethical and Social Implications, edited by E. Parens. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1998.
  • T. Douglas. “Moral Enhancement.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 25(3)(2008): 228–45.
  • C. Elliott. Better Than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.
  • D. Fox. “Parental Attention Deficit Disorder.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 25(3)(2008): 246–61.
  • J. Habermas. The Future of Human Nature. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003.
  • J. Hughes. Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004.
  • E.F. and L. Kittay. “On the Expressivity and Ethics of Selective Abortion for Disability: Conversations with My Son.” In Prenatal Testing and Disability Rights, edited by E. Parens and A. Asch. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2000.
  • H. Kohut. The Restoration of the Self. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1977.
  • R. Kurzweil. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Penguin Group, 2005.
  • M.O. Little. “Cosmetic Surgery, Suspect Norms, and Complicity.” In Enhancing Human Traits: Conceptual Complexities and Ethical Implications, edited by E. Parens. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1998.
  • I. Persson and J. Savulescu. “The Perils of Cognitive Enhancement and the Urgent Imperative to Enhance the Moral Character of Humanity.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 25(3)(2008): 162–77.
  • B.G. Prusak. “Rethinking ‘Liberal Eugenics.’” Hastings Center Report. 35(6)(2005): 31–42.
  • M.J. Sandel. “The Case Against Perfection.” Atlantic Monthly. 293(3)(2004): 50–62.
  • L.M. Silver. Remaking Eden: Cloning Beyond in a Brave New World. New York: Avon Books, 1997.
  • L. Walters and J. Palmer. The Ethics of Human Gene Therapy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • D. Wasserman. “My Fair Baby: What’s Wrong with Parents Genetically Enhancing Their Children?” In Genetic Prospects: Essay on Biotechnology, Ethics, and Public Policy, edited by. V. Gehring. Lanham, Md.: Rowland & Littlefield, 2003.
  • V.A. Zelizer. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. New York: Basic Books, 1985.

Adrienne Asch

Adrienne Asch is director of the Center for Ethics and the Edward and Robin Milstein Professor of Bioethics at Yeshiva University. James E. Block is professor of political science at De Paul University.

James E. Block

James E. Block is professor of political science at De Paul University.

  Perspective 1 Adrienne Asch Proponents of so-called moderate genetic enhancements contend that we nee dn’t worry much about possible upgrades to future human beings because they will not be transformative. Proponents of more radical enhancements endorse possible radical changes to humans that might come from their envisioned radical genetic and biotechnological innovations. Like other …

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