Redesigning Life: Eugenics, Biopolitics, and Originary Technicity

Dr. Nathan Van Camp

Promotor: Prof. dr. Vivian Liska

The emerging development of human genetic enhancement has recently become the focus of a bioethical and politico-philosophical debate about the moral acceptability of a “liberal eugenics.” Advocates of a liberal eugenics argue that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the eugenic goal of engineering human beings with specific genetic traits and that its moral acceptability depends on the values and principles of the political ideology that regulates its implementation in society. They reject as unjustified any comparison that might be drawn between human genetic enhancement and past authoritarian eugenic practices by arguing that the new eugenics will be firmly rooted in the core liberal principles of state neutrality and individual autonomy. Liberal critics of human genetic enhancement, on the other hand, claim that any attempt to integrate the eugenic ideal into a liberal framework is bound to fail and that it will inevitably corrupt the central tenets of political liberalism. Although this argument against human genetic enhancement takes many different forms, the basic assumption is that it should be rejected because it threatens to change human nature.

In my recently defended doctoral dissertation, I seek to show that neither position is fully tenable due to the problematic ontological assumptions about the nature of and the relation between life, politics, and technology adopted in these approaches. The first chapter (‘Enhanced Life’) sketches the basic outlines of the liberal eugenics debate and argues that both positions are inconsistent on a conceptual level as each side winds up violating those very liberal principles they pretend to defend. In particular, it is shown that while the argument against a liberal eugenic regime necessarily entails a preemptive dehumanization of any potential enhanced form of life, the argument for it risks reducing any future non-enhanced form of life to a “wrongful life.” The second chapter (‘Bare Life’) argues that the paradox that attempts to either improve or protect human nature inevitably result in the emergence of a form of life devoid of any intrinsic value is at the heart of Michel Foucault’s theorization of biopolitics. It is furthermore shown how Giorgio Agamben and Roberto Esposito have sought to grasp the mechanism behind this paradox through their work on the state of exception and the paradigm of immunization respectively. The third and fourth chapters (‘Factical Life’ and ‘Natal Life’) endorse Agamben’s and Esposito’s suggestion that a dialectical reversal of a life-negating biopolitics into a life-affirming biopolitics is predicated on understanding the biological and political dimensions of human existence as radically entwined and argues that such a conception of life can be found both in Martin Heidegger’s early writings on the hermeneutics of factical life and in Hannah Arendt’s philosophy of natality. Finally, the fifth chapter (‘Prosthetic Life’) draws on Bernard Stiegler’s theory of originary technicity to argue that human life is phylogenetically as well as ontogenetically radically bound up with technical prostheses and therefore always already technologically “enhanced.” This will lead to the conclusion that biogenetic intervention is neither unprecedented, nor contrary to human nature, but that it has made the process of humanization possible in the first place.