Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 12, Issue 2, pp 157–167 | Cite as

The hermeneutic challenge of genetic engineering: Habermas and the transhumanists

Scientific Contribution


The purpose of this paper is to explore the impact that developments in transhumanist technologies may have upon human cultures (and thus upon the lifeworld), and to do so by exploring a potential debate between Habermas and the transhumanists. Transhumanists, such as Nick Bostrom, typically see the potential in genetic and other technologies for positively expanding and transcending human nature. In contrast, Habermas is a representative of those who are fearful of this technology, suggesting that it will compound the deleterious effects of the colonisation of the lifeworld, further constraining human autonomy and undermining the meaningfulness of the lifeworld by expanding the technological control and manipulation of humanity. It will be argued that these opposed positions are grounded in fundamentally different understandings of the consequences of scientific and technological advance. On one level, the transhumanists remain confident that the lifeworld has within it the resources necessary to find meaning and purpose in a society deeply infused by genetic technology. Habermas disagrees. On another level, the difference is articulated by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment, primarily by challenging what may be understood as a Baconian faith in science as a project for the domination of nature (where nature is an infinitely malleable material, to be dominated and shaped, without adverse consequences, purely for the purposes of human survival). While the transhumanists broadly embrace this faith, Habermas returns to something akin to Horkheimer and Adorno’s pessimistic scepticism.


Transhumanism Genetic engineering Genomics Dialectic of enlightenment Colonisation of the lifeworld 


  1. Badmingtom, N. 2000. Posthumanism. Basingstoke: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  2. Bostrom, N. 2002. Existential risks: Analyzing human extinction scenarios and related hazards. Journal of Evolution and Technology 9: 1–37.Google Scholar
  3. Bostrom, N. 2005a. A history of transhumanist thought. Journal of Evolution and Technology 14(1): 1–25.Google Scholar
  4. Bostrom, N. 2005b. In defense of posthuman dignity. Bioethics 19(3): 202–214.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Habermas, J. 1970. On systematically distorted communication. Inquiry 13: 360–375.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Habermas, J. 1972. Knowledge and human interests. London: Heinemann.Google Scholar
  7. Habermas, J. 1976a. Theory and practice. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  8. Habermas, J. 1976b. Legitimation crisis. London: Heinemann.Google Scholar
  9. Habermas, J. 1979. Communication and the evolution of society. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  10. Habermas, J. 1984. The theory of communicative action, vol. 1, reason and the rationalisation of society. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  11. Habermas, J. 1987. The Theory of communicative action, vol. 2, lifeworld and system: A critique of functionalist reason. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  12. Habermas, J. 1992. Postmetaphysical thinking: Philosophical essays. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  13. Habermas, J. 2001. The postnational constellation: Political essays. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  14. Habermas, J. 2003. The future of human nature. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  15. Haraway, D. 1991. Simians, cyborgs and women: The reinvention of nature. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  16. Horkheimer, M., and T.W. Adorno. 2002. Dialectic of enlightenment: Philosophical fragments. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Hughes, J. 2004. Citizen cyborg: Why democratic societies must respond to the redesigned human of the future. Cambridge, MA: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  18. Kaku, M. 2007. Perspectives: Are we becoming gods? New Scientist, issue 2628, (3rd November): 58–59.Google Scholar
  19. Kant, I. 1933. The critique of pure reason. Trans. N. Kemp-Smith. Basingstoke: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  20. Ovid. 1955. Metamorphoses. Trans. Mary M. Innes. Harmondsworth, Penguin.Google Scholar
  21. Pickstock, C. 2000. Liturgy, art and politics. Modern Theology 16(2): 159–180.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Rehg, W. 1996. Translator’s introduction. In Between facts and norms: Contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy, ed. J. Habermas. Cambridge, MA: MIT.Google Scholar
  23. Svenaeus, F. 2009. The ethics of self change: Becoming oneself by way of antidepressants or psychotherapy. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy. doi:10.1007/s11019-009-9190-2.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Applied EthicsCardiff UniversityCardiffWales, UK

Personalised recommendations