Habermas and the Question of Bioethics
In The Future of Human Nature, Jürgen Habermas raises the question of whether the embryonic genetic diagnosis and genetic modification threatens the foundations of the species ethics that underlies current understandings of morality. While morality, in the normative sense, is based on moral interactions enabling communicative action, justification, and reciprocal respect, the reification involved in the new technologies may preclude individuals to uphold a sense of the undisposability (Unverfügbarkeit) of human life and the inviolability (Unantastbarkeit) of human beings that is necessary for their own identity as well as for reciprocal relations. Engaging with liberal bioethics and Catholic approaches to bioethics, the article clarifies how Habermas’ position offers a radical critique of liberal autonomy while maintaining its postmetaphysical stance. The essay argues that Habermas’ approach may guide the question of rights of future generations regarding germline gene editing. But it calls for a different turn in the conversation between philosophy and theology, namely one that emphasizes the necessary attention to rights violations and injustices as a common, postmetaphysical starting point for critical theory and critical theology alike.
In 2001, Jürgen Habermas published a short book on questions of biomedicine that took many by surprise. To some of his students, the turn to a substantive position invoking the need to comment on a species ethics rather than outlining a public moral framework was seen as the departure from the “path of deontological virtue,” and at the same time a departure from postmetaphysical reason. Habermas’ motivation to address the developments in biomedicine had certainly been sparked by the intense debate in Germany, the European Union, and internationally on human cloning, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, embryonic stem cell research, and human enhancement. He turned to a strand of critical theory that had been pushed to the background by the younger Frankfurt School in favor of cultural theory and social critique, even though it had been an important element of its initial working programs. The relationship of instrumental reason and critical theory, examined, among others, by Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse and taken up in Habermas’ own Knowledge and Interest and Theory of Communicative Action became ever-more actual with the development of the life sciences, human genome analysis, and genetic engineering of human offspring. Today, some of the fictional scenarios discussed at the end of the last century as “science fiction” have become reality: in 2018, the first “germline gene-edited” children were born in China. Furthermore, the UK’s permission to create so-called “three-parent” children may create a legal and political pathway to hereditary germline interventions summarized under the name of “gene editing.”
In this article, I want to explore Habermas’ “substantial” argument in the hope that (moral) philosophy and (moral) theology become allies in their struggle against an ever-more reifying lifeworld, which may create a “moral void” that would, at least from today’s perspective, be “unbearable” (73), and for upholding the conditions of human dignity, freedom, and justice. I will contextualize Habermas’ concerns in the broader discourse of bioethics, because only by doing this, his concerns are rescued from some misinterpretations.
 Jürgen Habermas, The Future of Human Nature (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2003).
 Ibid., 125, fn. 58. 8
 Up to the present, no scientific publication of the exact procedure exists, but it is known that the scientist, Jiankui He, circumvented the existing national regulatory framework and may have misled the prospective parents about existing alternatives and the unprecedented nature of his conduct. Yuanwu Ma, Lianfeng Zhang, and Chuan Qin, "The First Genetically Gene‐Edited Babies: It's “Irresponsible and Too Early”," Animal Models and Experimental Medicine (2019); Matthias Braun, Meacham, Darian, "The Trust Game: Crispr for Human Germline Editing Unsettles Scientists and Society," EMBO reports 20, no. 2 (2019).
Árnason, Vilhjálmur. 2014. “From Species Ethics to Social Concerns: Habermas’s Critique of “Liberal Eugenics” Evaluated”. Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 35, no. 5: 353–67.
Bateman, Simone, and Jean Gayon. 2015. “The Concept and Practices of Human Enhancement: What Is at Stake?”. In Inquiring into Human Enhancement, edited by Simone Bateman et al., 19–37. Ber-lin: Springer.
Bateman, Simone, Jean Gayon, Sylvie Allouche, Jérôme Goffette, and Michela Marzano, eds. 2015. Inquiring into Human Enhancement. Berlin: Springer.
Boorse, Christopher. 1975. “On the Distinction between Disease and Illness”. Philosophy & Public Affairs 5, no. 1: 49–68.
—. 1977. “Health as a Theoretical Concept”. Philosophy of Science 44, no. 4: 542–73.
—. 2014. “A Second Rebuttal on Health”. The Journal of medicine and philosophy 39, no. 6: 683–724. doi:10.1093/jmp/jhu035.
Braun, Matthias, and Darian Meacham. 2019. “The Trust Game: Crispr for Human Germline Editing Un-settles Scientists and Society”. EMBO reports 20, no. 2: 1–3.
Buchanan, Allen, Dan Brock, Norman Daniels, and Daniel Wikler. 2001. From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Butler, Judith. 2005. Giving an Account of Oneself. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
Coenen, Christopher. 2015. “The Earth as Our Footstool: Visions of Human Enhancement in 19th and 20th Century Britain”. In Inquiring into Human Enhancement, edited by Simone Bateman et al., 183–204. Berlin: Springer.
Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith. 1987. Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day. (Donum Vitae). Vatican: Roman Cu-riae.
Conrad, Peter. 2005. “The Shifting Engines of Medicine”. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 4, no. 6: 3–14.
—. 2008. The Medicalization of Society: On the Transformation of Human Conditions into Treatable Dis-orders. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.
Daniels-Sykes, Shawnee. 2009. “Code Black: A Black Catholic Liberation Bioethics”. Paper presented at the Journal of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium.
Dominguez, Tyan P. 2011. “Adverse Birth Outcomes in African American Women: The Social Context of Persistent Reproductive Disadvantage”. Social Work in Public Health 26, no. 1: 3–16.
Habermas, Jürgen. 1984. The Theory of Communicative Action. London: Heinemann.
—. 2003. The Future of Human Nature. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.
—. 2008. Between Naturalism and Religion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
—. 2010. An Awareness of What Is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Haker, Hille. 1999. Moralische Identität. Literarische Lebensgeschichten als Medium ethischer Reflexi-on. Mit einer Interpretation der “Jahrestage” von Uwe Johnson. Tübingen: Francke.
—. 2002. Ethik der genetischen Frühdiagnostik. Sozialethische Reflexionen zur Verantwortung am Be-ginn des menschlichen Lebens. Paderborn: Mentis.
—. 2005. “Das Selbst als eine Andere: Zur Konstruktion Moralischer Identität in den Jahrestagen von Uwe Johnson”. In Johnson-Jahrbuch Bd. 12, edited by Michael Hofmann, 157–72. Göttingen: Akademie Verlag.
—. 2011. Hauptsache gesund? Ethische Fragen Der Pränatal- Und Präimplantationsdiagnostik. Mün-chen: Kösel.
—. 2013. “Eine Ethik Der Elternschaft”. In Kinderwunsch und Reproduktionsmedizin: Ethische Heraus-forderungen der technisierten Fortpflanzung, edited by Giovanni Maio, Tobias Eichinger and Claudia Bozzaro, 267–90. München: Alber.
—. 2018. “A Social Bioethics of Genetics”. In Catholic Bioethics and Social Justice: The Praxis of Us Healthcare in a Globalized World, edited by Therese Lysaught and Michael McCarthy, 389–403. Col-legeville, MN: Liturgical Academic Press.
—. 2019. “Vulnerable Agency: A Conceptual and Contextual Analysis”. In Dignity and Con-flict: Contemporary Interfaith Dialogue on the Value and Vulnerability of Human Life, edited by Jonathan Rothschild and Matthew Petrusek, 393–436. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Univ. Press.
Harris, John. 2010. Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.
Holloway, Karla F. C. 2011. Private Bodies, Public Texts: Race, Gender, and a Cultural Bioethics. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.
Junker‐Kenny, Maureen. 2005. “Genetic Enhancement as Care or as Domination? The Ethics of Asym-metrical Relationships in the Upbringing of Children”. Journal of Philosophy of Education 39, no. 1: 1–17.
Kevles, Daniel J. 1986. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press.
Krimsky, Sheldon, and Kathleen Sloan. 2011. Race and the Genetic Revolution: Science, Myth, and Cul-ture. New York, NY: Columbia Univ. Press.
Lane, Sandra. 2015. Why Are Our Babies Dying? Pregnancy, Birth, and Death in America. London: Routledge.
Ma, Yuanwu, Lianfeng Zhang, and Chuan Qin. 2019. “The First Genetically Gene-Edited Babies: It’s “Ir-responsible and too Early””. Animal models and experimental medicine 2, no. 1: 1–4. doi:10.1002/ame2.12052.
Macklin, Ruth. 2003. “Dignity is a Useless Concept: It Means no more than Respect for Persons or Their Autonomy”. British Medical Journal 327: 1419–20.
Massingale, Bryan N. 2010. Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Metz, Johann B. 2016. Im Dialektischen Prozess der Aufklärung: 2. Teilband. Neue Politische Theologie: Versuch eines Korrektivs der Theologie. Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder Verlag.
—. 2017. Gott in Zeit: Gesammelte Schriften Vol. 5. Edited by Johann Reikerstorfer. Freiburg im Breis-gau: Herder Verlag.
—. 2017. “Verzeitlichung von Ontologie und Metaphysik”. In Gott in Zeit: Gesammelte Schriften Vol. 5, edited by Johann Reikerstorfer, 102–6. Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder Verlag.
Metz, Johann B., and Johann Reikerstorfer. 2011. Memoria Passionis: Ein provozierendes Gedächtnis in pluralistischer Gesellschaft. Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder Verlag.
Mullin, Emily. 2017. “The Fertility Doctor Trying to Commercialize Three-Parent Babies”. Last modified June 13, 2017. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/608033/the-fertility-doctor-trying-to-commercialize-three-parent-babies/.
Roberts, Dorothy E. 1997. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Savulescu, Julian. 2016. “Genetic Interventions and the Ethics of Enhancement of Human Beings”. Gazeta de Antropología 32, no. 2.
Wailoo, Keith, Alondra Nelson, and Catherine Lee. 2012. Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History. Collision of DNA, Race, and History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.
Weingart, Peter, Jürgen Kroll, and Kurt Bayertz, eds. 1986. Rasse, Blut und Gene: Geschichte der Euge-nik und Rassenhygiene in Deutschland. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.