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August 24, 2006

Returning to The Future of Human Nature

Appropriations posting

Truth isn’t a matter of opinion, obviously (despite the "Wikiality" factor), but in democracies the sovereignty of the public causes strong tendencies in public opinion to strongly affect, if not dictate, public policy. Inasmuch as a “wisdom of crowds” is at work, that affect is good. Of course, often on controversial issues, opinion may tend toward competing pluralities—and relationships between positions and good arguments will be tenuous. Or rather, the sense of what a good argument is will tend to be that which supports the compellingness of a view that arose somehow in one’s life history—what might be called the ontogenic genealogy of conviction.

The education process that truly advances or, if you will, sophisticates one’s views begs the question of its own sense of advance and process and concept of “education”. One might think that philosophy of education is a postmetaphysicalist candidate for First Philosophy (except that professional philosophers have always marginalized the metatheoretical work of professional schools, while the professions themselves are quite happy to find their metatheoretical work dependent on professional philosophy, if only because that gives, say, the educational metatheorists stature). “First” in esteem would then be relatized to the academic<–>applied interface, rather than to the theocentrically endowed legacy of longing for metaphysical self-confidence (if not will to power).

Perhaps the future home of Habermas’ work is schools of education in universities that make the school of education anchor the college of arts and sciences.

Of course, that won’t happen—and I’m not seriously proposing that it should. But a practicality about the nature of “truth” is dramatized. Those who do have the really better views aren’t likely to find the views thereby persuasive (even if usually persuasive, by some luck), because it takes two to tango in that “unforced force” of the effective appeal (which is what the field of rhetoric is partly about).

You have the views you have, no matter your openness to learning. How many times have you changed your views due to the other not finding its justification convincing? No matter how open you are to being convinced, I bet you don’t change your views very often based on a lack of being convincing. In any case, a study of belief formation is different than doing epistemology, and a study of change in belief is probably not largely a sociology of argumentation.

In “the” abortion issue, the interminable road from “Right to Life” to “Choice” (interminable because so many who are born continue to grow up with “Right to Life” views) might be a road showing an evolutionary process in the changes of public opinion. Its historiography might be a great example of how aggregate belief increases in rationality (stipulating, of course, that “Choice” is more rational than “Right to Life”). Today, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved the “morning after pill” for over-the-counter sales (if you’re 18 or older). The evolution of administration policy toward that momentous permission would be interesting (if only as a field study in why Europeans are still justified in thinking of Americans as less than fully civilized).

Impartiality in arbitration between competing views can be a matter of the comparative degree of rationality—but only if you accept a theory of degrees (which itself undermines the credibility of many competing views calling for arbitration—or animately not calling for arbitration, due to portended exposure to such impartiality, which could only look like alleged “impartiality,” as subjectivism is an absolutist’s best friend).

But the abortion battle continues (in the U.S.), giving dramatic weight to the Rortyean relativists who counterpoint solidarity vs. objectivity. You’d have to have a similar feeling for your own academic self-confidence: that it’s a matter of solidarity among those who happen to share your ethos. An ethic is married to an ethos. (Maybe we should understand “ethics” as derivative from an ethoic. But, since an ethos is commingled with ethnicity, maybe the fundamental discursive formation is an ethnoic. Language is a flexible commingling.) Especially within academia, solidarities can be small scale, as the biological people gang against the cultural people in struggles for positions, funds, and students, let alone “schools” of opinion—excuse me: scholarship—that don’t speak to each other.

All the world’s a stage on which the best of reasons play. And, in the twlight, the dramaturgical type of activity may harbor all the rest.

But it’s not all shape shifting, since policies may have real effects.

Anyway, though Habermas may be right (or, at least, I agree) that the moral issues of human genomic work can’t be sufficiently analogized with abortion debates such that the latter may guide thinking about the former, it’s undeniable that claims about fundamental moral meaning are just as important for the one as for the other, and an evolution of opinion (or potential for evolution of opinion) applies to both, which entails that the better arguments relative to human genomic work may evolve, too—or be currently unrecognizable as better arguments, not that I’m about to proffer an argument for permitting genetic enhancement.

But the best possible arguments can’t exist unless one explores their possibility, which makes taking the stance of optimism toward tenability necessary, in order to see how far one can go before the case falls apart—debate club becomes moot court becomes discursive inquiry in scary waters.

This love of the game ought to be considered typical for philosophy: You take a stance to see what may become of it, and make the best argument you can, like the attorney devoted to making the best available case, as the “truth” is that which results from the best available case (which only has universalistic methodological correlates for the mode of empirical evidence, not for a constitution of juries—which, by the way, are hardly ever made of one’s genuine peers).

The issue at hand is, proximally speaking: discerning/constructing the boundaries of relevance on “moral" meaning in social formation of policies (or norms).

The importance of Habermas’s reservations about human genome work can’t be overstated. But his analysis in the main part of The Future of Human Nature (FHN) raises many issues that aren’t, for me, resolved there. However, it’s a virtue of discursive inquiry that it opens directions of inquiry without resolving them. I suppose that all of my concerns of five years ago (when his English discussion was a paper for a New York University School of Law symposium) remain for the book version, which amends his earlier discussion. Nonetheless, I’d like to go through his main discussion in its final English version more carefully than I went through the earlier discussion (which carefully attended to selected passages, rather than his entire discussion)—soon, not today.

Since the earlier discussion, the literature on “enhancement culture” and related matters has continued to grow. Habermas’ discussion should be considered in light of material available since 2001. Even if one were to consider his discussion relative to the materials he addressed (e.g., Buchanan et al.), something nearly monographic could result. What, then, is a useful boundary for consideration?

I think that the manageable boundary relates to those parts of his work that overtly consider the notion of an “ethic of the species.” Unfortunately, there is no Index to FHN.

The key point and questions of two earlier postings today (one, two) are:

  • To find moral meaning in genetic processes begs the question of what is “moral” about nature apart from the history of humanity formulating moral theories.
  • Do chance results of chromosomal combination in natural reproductive processes have overriding importance for moral sensibility with regard to human genomic work?
  • What is the “moral” of chromosomal comingling that is supposedly overriding for, say, genetic enhancement of that comingling which causes intelligence (neural density and netweave efficiency)?
  • Is personhood somehow a matter of that chromosomal process, as if personhood is genetically innate, thus undermined by pre-embryonic modification?

I’ll stop here—after suggesting the miasma ahead: Is there a “strong naturalism” at work in the moral meaning given to natural reproductive processes by Habermas? How does his apparent ethical strong naturalism relate to his “weak naturalism” about human being itself (first chapter of Truth & Justification), which would relate to the status of moral meaning? Is there a moral realism implied by FHN that undermines his defense in “Rightness vs. Truth” (T&J) against Cristina Lafont’s earlier claim (discussed by Habermas there) that he’s a moral realist? In short, is Habermas a moral realist after all?

Could it be that he’s tacitly pursuing an evolutionary ethics? I am.