Humanity Enhanced: Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies

Humanity Enhanced: Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies

By Russell Blackford
Massachusetts: MIT Press 2014
ISBN 978–0–262–02661–1
248 pp(hb)

RRP: £20.95

There seems to be a plethora of books coming out at present which address the subject of human enhancement. In some respects this is encouraging and testament to the fact the issues are beginning to move from the sidelines into more mainstream debate. Undoubtedly more needs to be done as I don’t think we’ve quite got to the stage yet of the proverbial man or woman on the Clapham omnibus contemplating the future impact of human enhancement. The reason for this may be in part due to a mix of the hope and hype: what really is possible and what is not? There remains a fair degree of scare mongering going on which perpetuate catastrophic ‘end of the world’ scenarios should enhancement technologies be embraced and permitted without question. While I believe that in certain circumstances there can be serious consequences to the application of these technologies, there must be sensible and informed discussion of the issues at stake.

This is where Russell Blackford’s new book Humanity Enhanced: Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies makes a helpful contribution by taking a step back from the heat of the debate to offer some thoughtful analysis and critique of some of the key arguments which predominate the conversation.

A writer, philosopher, and critic, Russell Blackford holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Newcastle, Australia and a PhD in Philosophy from Monash University. He is Conjoint lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle. A prolific author and writer he has written several science fiction novels as well as numerous books including Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. Despite Humanity Enhanced standing alone as book in its own right, Blackford notes that the former is a helpful companion to Humanity Enhanced in order to more fully appreciate his perspectives on legal/political philosophy and liberal theory.

Illiberal responses

In succinct terms, Humanity Enhanced lays out Blackford’s understanding of the relationship between emerging technologies and liberal tolerance, leading him to argue why he believes it is moral for people to radically increase their healthy life spans and to enhance their capacities. He argues that public policy in this area has shown a considerable degree of illiberalism and even moral panic. In his opinion the broad direction of public policy in the world’s economically developed countries has been against liberal tolerance of existing technologies (p9). In championing liberal tolerance, Blackford argues that it is not the “business of the state to make us virtuous or establish a common morality” (p14) and that laws should “not be made on the basis of an esoteric moral system….even if this moral system is actually endorsed by the majority of voters” (p5). The idea of a liberal society, with particular regard to new genetic based technologies, is to promote individual autonomy and allow the individual to decide how they wish to live their lives. Society is free to hold a wide range of moral, religious and nonreligious positions, without the law seeking to enforce a set of core values or public morality (p7).

On the point regarding the need to do better in framing and discussing the issues, I agree with Blackford that we can and should do better than this. We need to push forward the debate so that when (certainly not if) the next new innovation comes along we have a means by which to assess and respond to these new challenges and not respond by default with panic and prohibition. Secondly, I agree that mutual respect and tolerance of differing views should be a characteristic of our society.

However, I do not agree with all that Blackford writes and question the extent to which he champions liberal tolerance. In the spirit of tolerance and diversity his ideas and thinking provoke me and need to provoke us collectively to engage further with this subject. In response to his point about the state not assuming the role of making us virtuous, while I can see his point and to some extent I would agree, I quickly respond to him: who’s responsibility is it then in such a setting?

Blackford argues that we need to question whether prohibition is really justifiable on the basis of secular and liberal principles more than anything else. His philosophical position advocates that ample space and discretion be given to voters, electorates, political parties, and legislatures to disagree reasonably on these issues under debate and from here determine what laws should be enacted.

The idea that the state can be tolerant of all points of view in any meaningful sense is nice in theory but difficult to achieve in practice. Very often there are no scenarios where communities are entirely satisfied, with all political parties in a place of contentment. There is some level of dissatisfaction which is driving them to campaign and gain some legal ground. The best state of affairs that can therefore emerge is one of fair process, characterised by change and debate. At the other end of the spectrum there is what Prof John Horton has called the paradox of toleration. Any thought of a liberal policy is given up and the conclusion drawn that there are some positions, some views, which should be rejected and dismissed. I perceive that this is what Blackford is pointing towards, or at the very least arguing that if, in his opinion, he believes that the case cannot be made convincingly for them, the arguments should be rejected. A touch of intellectual humility may be necessary here acknowledging that truth is never completely within our grasp and that other more esoteric perspectives may well be helpful in shaping the discussion and leading us to a place of greater understanding. It may not be right for the state to enact laws that follow a certain set of esoteric values but for those values and perspectives not be taken into consideration at all seems to be in opposition to liberal tolerance.

Likewise while reference to community is made in the book, the focus on individual liberty remains. The harm principle is discussed but to bring everything done to the level of trying to formulate the degree to which harm will be caused to another has always seemed to me to be lacking something inherently more human. For me relationality, our interdependency on one another and the need to recognise this as central to our anthropology is crucial, making a significant contribution to how we define and appreciate human identity and worth. Promoting individual liberty and freedom is laudable but surely true liberty and freedom is founded upon our relationship with one another, not in isolation from it. This kind of discussion is not taken up by Blackford as I suspect it strays away from what he terms secular interests.

Focus and style

Blackford readily acknowledges that the term ‘enhancement technologies’ can cover a broad range of technologies so he confines his discussion to reproductive cloning, PGD and genetic engineering as they all pertain to genetic choices involving human children. The book consists of eight chapters along with an appendix where Blackford discusses at greater length the much debated therapy–enhancement boundary. This is useful and offers some interesting perspectives to an issue which is still batted backwards and forwards amongst proponents and opponents of enhancement. Like me, Blackford questions the usefulness of the distinction strongly advocating moving away from it.

Chapter one sets out the motivation and overview of the book clearly and concisely. Indeed, whether as result of the author’s experience as a sci–fi author or not, Blackford exhibits an excellent style of writing which draws the reader in and constructs arguments effectively. The book is challenging in ideas but easy to read in style, no mean feat as it primary focus is on ethics and political philosophy!

In chapter two the authors considers the bases of legal prohibitions in liberal theory, the nature of ‘harm’ and the issue of the non–identity problem: in other words, how should we view acts that supposedly harm someone who would not even exist but for the act in question? Blackford acknowledges that this may well represent some of the most difficult material covered by the book for the reader to process. Nevertheless Blackford tackles it well and discusses the material effectively.

Chapter 3 moves on to specifically address what harm might be done by attempts to modify the DNA of embryos in order to increase their potential for characteristics such as intelligence, longevity and strength. Habermas is taken to task in chapter 4 where his claims that the genetic engineering of human embryos pose a serious threat to liberal social arrangements. Blackford does not dismiss these concerns outright but questions the extent to which legislative prohibitions should be enacted to curb them.

Chapter 5 address the idea of an inviolable natural order. The focus is Stephen Holland’s arguments that these genetic based technologies supposedly harm certain core conditions of human choice, resulting in them loosing a certain degree of meaning to their lives. Blackford believes that while these considerations may be tolerated, they do not constitute a significant threat and should not overturn ordinary liberal assumptions. In Chapter 6 the author turns to look at less direct and tangible harms that might result from human enhancement.

Chapter 7 looks at the claims of distributive justice. Here Blackford makes the interesting point that as an argument, distributive justice is not as forcefully argued for in policy development as it is in the human enhancement debate. Why should genetic engineering invoke special consideration of this issue when there are many other circumstances in life where it can be argued that parents ordinarily use their position and resources to provide for their children? I would still maintain that distributive justice remains one way of usefully framing the policy debate but Blackford’s arguments provoke us to think how this line of argument can be applied to other aspects of our lives.

Understandably the rest of the book builds up to chapter 8 in which Blackford sets out a model for policy formation based on four principles:

  • Principle 1 – The need for a compelling case. Concerns needs to be pressing and substantial.
  • Principle 2 – The need for narrow defining. The aim should always be to preserve as much individual liberty as reasonably possible.
  • Principle 3 – The need for flexibility. It is better to use narrow administrative guidelines, as opposed to sweeping legislation, in order to retain our capacity to make refinements as events develop.
  • Principle 4 – The need to avoid moral stigma. Moralistic posturing by the state should be avoided.

Having used the rest of the book to set out his analysis and discussion of liberal ideals, he sets out to argue against draconian uses of state powers to suppress human enhancement while at the same time recognising that there may well need to be some specific and limited regulation. At the current time, though, Blackford believes the focus must not be on restraining and limiting but reaffirming liberal values and allowing them to flourish. Certainly I concur with Blackford’s concluding reflections on the relative merits of political inaction. In this emerging field of science and technology, sometimes there is more merit and wisdom in well chosen political inaction as opposed to knee–jerk reaction. To this though, I would add political inaction does not read as political disengagement.


In conclusion, Humanity Enhanced is a helpful provocative in the discussion surrounding new genetic technologies, and emerging technologies in general. While clearly conveying the author’s own views, it is not a campaigning book but rather seeks to bring greater understanding and analysis to how political theory intersects with the ever growing field of emerging technologies. This book may have specifically focused on genetic technologies, but it is clear that the future promises far more challenging and difficult situations for us to engage with and determine how best to proceed. Ignorance and knee jerk rejection are not wise responses. It calls us to a wider and deeper engagement. Blackford offers a thought provoking analysis a set of useful perspectives upon which to reflect on, debate and help shape the conversation.




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