Fixing the human being: Robert Spaemann vs. Peter Sloterdijk

Below is a full translation of a previously untranslated 1999 article by Robert Spaemann, his contribution to what is known as the “Sloterdijk debate” or the “Sloterdijk-Habermas controversy” in Germany. It was a debate about eugenics, a taboo subject in Germany since the end of the Second World War. The debate began, as you will gather from the article, when the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk proposed that the traditional ways of improving the human being such as education and culture had lost their effectiveness, as evident from the rising levels of violence and general barbarity in Western Civilization. To “preserve” the human being, then, Sloterdijk recommended–albeit in a vague way–a program of selective breeding for human beings in order to cultivate the best human traits. This led, as you might imagine, to wild accusations of fascism being leveled by both sides of the argument. Spaemann’s response here is fairly short, but it contains some nice formulations about how what we are biologically (our “first nature”) relates to what we become through inculturation (our “second nature”).

As for whether this is relevant to the present American situation, while “breeding programs” admittedly sound a bit far-fetched, I will point out that sperm banks right here in America already like to advertise the “quality” of their donors, meaning that said donors have been tested for both infectious and genetic diseases–and sometimes even undergone IQ testing. And aside from that, the related ethical question of technological intervention into the human genetic code is likely to grow more pressing in the years to come. Rising health care costs, coupled with new technological developments, with make it tempting to try prevent disease by genetic intervention–i.e. “fixing” the human being.

“What’s the cost? Sloterdijk does not know.”

A translation of Robert Spaemann’s article “Wozu der Aufwand? Sloterdijk fehlt das Rüstzeug.” This article originally appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung on July 10, 1999. It is reprinted in Grenzen: Zur ethischen Dimension des Handelns. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2001.

English: German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk r...

Peter Sloterdijk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Question: Should it be permissible for the state to intervene in the genetic code of human beings? If so, should limits be placed on these interventions concerning their power and concerning their purpose? And if so, who should decide about these purposes and limits? These questions have been publically discussed for years. Scientists, philosophers, and theologians have introduced important arguments into the debate. The sensation which Sloterdijk has aroused with his remarks on this theme stands in no relation to the weight and stringency of his arguments. Above all, one does not know why one should discuss the proposals of an author who, for his part, does not hold it necessary to take notice of the debate up to now. Instead, he makes the impression that he has discovered this theme and as a result can render it himself, and be allowed to leave it, for the time being, with a pair of poorly thought-out sketches. If Sloterdijk wants to dismiss the willingness to take notice of arguments and to understand them as adequately as possible, to listen to each humanistic tradition—the highpoint of this culture was, incidentally, the 13th century—then he must still say what he proposes as an alternative. If he complains that people his statements meet with denunciation rather than argument, one can only shrug: That is the alternative.

What does Sloterdijk propose? Based on the fact that human beings always take on a “second nature” from the influences of their youth—namely through education, through the structure of marriage, and through the privileging of certain characteristics, he proposes make up for this dwindling influence by the direct manipulation of the human gene pool and thus systematically direct the evolution of the “first nature.” This design is to be subject to a democratically controlled elite of human scientists, who would assemble in a world council (which is somewhat like Küng’s in form) and decide upon the rules for breeding. In another spot, Sloterdijk then explains that what he aims at is not at all “biopolitics for groups.” It is only a matter of “medical optimization for individuals.” This is essentially a summons to resignation. To what end would be ideological expenditure, to what end would be the efforts of Plato, Nietzsche, and Hiedegger, if it is only a medical matter, diseases that may be treated by intervention in the germline? But above all: “medical optimization for the individual” surely could not be deemed the equivalent to the achievement of educational systems, forms of socialization, styles of culture, and structures of marriage. So long as Sloterdijk does not clearly signify what he is advocating, it is difficult to determine what he wants, beyond what I have already mentioned.

Incidentally, there are serious reasons for the interdiction on interventions into the germline for therapeutic purposes. I do not know in which obscure book he has read that one may dabble in making repairs to the handwork of the loving God. Other arguments that have been propounded for years in philosophical bioethics and have obviously convinced the lawmakers appear to be unknown to him–above all the argument that since the isolation and elimination of genes which dispose to severe illness is not undoubtedly possible without affecting overarching structures, such interventions should be suspended for the sake of future generations. The counterargument concerning this that authors such as Dworkin have propounded (and one would like to know whether Sloterdijk himself joins in it) is this: we should test everything that we know. Just as natural evolution is without a target and full of risk for established species, so also is the continuation of evolution in human history. We know the progress cannot be suspended even if we do not know where we will be led in the end. It is a fatalistic argument.

The argument does not trust the human being, at a certain moment of history, to overcome the compulsion of requirements. And perhaps this is indeed not possible. But it still belongs to the dignity of philosophers to be free from any obligation to “find the good” in that which is, perhaps even in spite of resistance, inevitable; perhaps the inevitable may be delayed. But Sloterdijk considers this resistance to be wrong. He appears to be on the side of those who believe they should, at this moment, wrest natural growth from evolution and instead consciously steer it. He draws a ridiculous caricature of the critics of this theory. He fails to mention that it is above all natural scientists who consider such schemes to be completely fantastical. Critics are for him essentially pious people who still understand nothing of evolution and who understand the modern human being to be an untouched Adam proceeding immediately from the hand of God.

Sloterdijk does not mention that the actual present-day human being, in regard to the genetic code, is scarcely distinguishable from a “black Eve” who lived around 200,000 years ago. It pertains to that which he would now like to be free to change. The human being must be “improved” in his “first nature,” rather than by his postnatal formation. If in the future, actual nature shall achieve that which has been up until now achieved by the “second nature,” and also through speech, education, environment, and culture, then the human being has been replaced by a new animal, even if this new animal is called the “Superman” (Übermensch). Sloterdijk indeed depicts the nature of the human being, his “first nature” as he puts it, as something to overcome, as an “animality” that must be humanized and which will not be more adequately humanized by our cultural traditions. But this is not the case. The human being is, as modern anthropologists from Herder to Gehlen show, “by nature” a cultural being. That is to say: his “first nature” initially arrives through the second. The human being will arrive at that which he naturally is only because of language, which is not natural. He discovers what his brain allows—self-awareness—only through the self-awareness of other beings who speak with him.

If the second nature were simply opposed to the first, then all socialization would be equivalent to alienation, and it would give no measure in relation to which we could distinguish a good society from a bad society, or a good upbringing from a bad upbringing. And this second nature would initially give no correct measure for the evaluation of eugenics fantasies that intend to subject the first nature of future generations to the ideas worked out by the human scientists of our dubious era. It belongs to the first nature of the human being to develop a second nature. But it is a dangerous fantasy to want the second to make the first.

The retort is always this: Why should it be bad to substitute human planning for the happenstance which rules the natural conception of the human being? Why should that be considered an impairment of human freedom? I will mention only two answers. The first is closely related to the argument for the free market against the planned economy. The countless small, individual operations in the free market govern production and distribution better than a finite directing will. Evolution consisted of just such countless small, unplanned steps by which an “invisible hand” brought forth the human being. In contrast to this, it is an absurd idea to think that entrusting the further evolution of the species to one particular generation of scientists (with their ideas about what constitutes a more “preferable” human being) could lead to something good.

The second answer is this: the fundamental equality of the human being on which the universal solidarity of mankind relies would be impaired were one of the other people the “planner.” In the retort mentioned above, the production of human beings oversteps a boundary, the boundary between begetting and making. The conceived human being owes his existence to the same nature to which his parents owe theirs. Were a father asked by an unhappy child why he and his wife had brought him into being, he could answer with Gottfried Benn: “Do not believe that I thought of you while I was with your mother. Her eyes were so beautiful during our love.” By contrast, whoever has made a child “by hand” must justify himself. But who can give a justification for the death or the life of another human being? And who can give a justification for the essence of a human who has been designed in keeping with one’s own private taste? Fortunately, we concern ourselves here, as one must repeatedly recall, with the realm of science-fiction. But even in this realm what someone finds to be beautiful and what he finds to be repulsive is not an indifferent matter. Only the common natural growth of the human being implies that all humans are of the same origin. Only for the “man from nature” are the other human beings “his equals.” The “man from a man” is forever a second-class human being, and the more “optimized” he is, the more this holds true.

Is this also valid for the “clone”? Sloterdijk: “Sometime ask identical twins whether nature has overstepped a moral boundary in them.” This sentence is demagogic in two ways. First of all, nature never exceeds moral boundaries. What Sloterdijk means, therefore, is that we may all do what “nature” does—so may we, for example, bring about the collapse of a house with living residents? That is, after all, what happens in earthquakes. But above all else: Sloterdijk obviously does not know the crucial arguments against the cloning of human beings. Nobody claims that the duplication of an individual genetic code would be repugnant to human dignity. The problem is the temporal transfer of the twins. The important openness of the future would be impaired for the cloned by the view and the expectation that he will, in thirty years, be someone like the older clone who now stands before his eyes. And if he consciously tries to be different, then he remains negatively fixated on his “twin.”  In each case his freedom, which is always closely linked with the openness of the future, is severely impaired. Besides: his maker wants the likeness. This never comes into being naturally, because the relevance of the qualities of a human being always results from the coincidence of a certain genetic endowment, certain living conditions, and a certain historical moment. Great saints often had everything that would have been required for being great criminals.

Since Peter Sloterdijk has just brought about a public debate in which he obviously wants to participate further, I suggest that he should belatedly procure, as quickly as possible, the necessary biological knowledge and that he should make himself familiar with the status of the bioethical debate. Then it will be more profitable to listen to him.

Translated by Alexander Schimpf

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2 Responses to Fixing the human being: Robert Spaemann vs. Peter Sloterdijk

  1. Greg Ward says:

    Interesting article even if most of the philosophical jargon is well above my pay grade. I read Sloterdijk’s Wikipedia article and was completely at a loss with “God thus becomes the location of a transcendent repository of suspended human rage-savings and frozen plans of revenge.” Now that will take me a few years to digest.

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      Philosophical jargon is indeed the right term for that. He’s probably just trotting out the old canard that human beings have invented God to indulge their own evil desires. But I guess it sounds better if you say “transcendent repository.” Sigh.

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