Playing God, Playing Adam: The Politics and Ethics of Enhancement


The question of enhancement occupies a prominent place not only in current bioethical debates but also in wider public discussions about our human future. In all of these, the problem of enhancement is usually articulated via two sets of questions: moral questions over its permissibility, extent and direction; and technical questions over the feasibility of different forms of regenerative and synthetic alterations to human bodies and minds. This article argues that none of the dominant positions on enhancement within the field of bioethics is entirely satisfactory due to the limited, monadic, pre-technological and non-cultural conception of the human that is adopted in these models. Critically engaging with both opponents of enhancement (Habermas) and its advocates (Harris, Agar, Bostrom, Dworkin), Zylinska also takes some steps towards outlining a nonnormative ethics of enhancement. The latter sees its human and non-human subjects as always already enhanced, and hence dependent, relational and coevolving with technology.

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  1. 1.

    It is my participation in the RCA workshop on enhancement that provided inspiration for writing this piece. I am grateful to Prof. Sandra Kemp for inviting me to attend it.

  2. 2.

    While my recent book, Bioethics in the Age of New Media (2009), was already an attempt to test the limitations of what I termed “traditional bioethics” in the context of recent transformations to our concepts and bodies facilitated by new media technologies, this article is a continuation of my earlier efforts to think bioethics otherwise, while also attempting to serve as a stand-alone intervention into what seems to be one of the key debates within the established field of bioethics today.

  3. 3.

    The discourse of human enhancement—from Habermas through to Bostrom and Stiegler—displays a curious gender bias. While we have to take into account different conventions of writing in German, French and English with regard to the use or non-use of gender-specific pronouns, and the different translators’ decisions as to their rendering, I cannot help but notice a strange similarity between the gender-specific language of the philosophy of enhancement and the similar bias revealed in the “enhancement emails” that our mailboxes get flooded with on a day-to-day basis. The comic awkwardness, with its intriguing gender and sexual assumptions, of those emails provides an unintended, Dada-like commentary on the enhancement debate. (“Your Husk will be so big that you can use it on submarine like periscope!” or “If your wife became cold, light the fire in her again with female enhancers”—to cite just two of the most recent spam messages found in my inbox.) While I have attempted to avoid replicating here the gender bias of much of traditional bioethical writings, I have sometimes retained the use of “he” when referring to the person of either gender if the context of the work cited clearly made that assumption.

  4. 4.

    Incidentally, variations on the notion of “flourishing”—in the form of “growth”, “emergence” or “creation”—can be found not only in proponents of liberal humanism but also in authors of more interconnected and less monadic models of the world, such as Canguillhem, Bergson, Spinoza and Deleuze. Indeed, in the work of the latter philosophers it can be sometimes difficult to separate the biology-inspired descriptiveness of their concepts from those very concepts’ socio-political normativity, especially if life’s alleged force and inclination for movement, mutation, and growth is being used by various readers of these philosophers to justify all sorts of “developments”—from human enhancement to market growth and globalisation.

  5. 5.

    In an earlier piece titled “Human Genetic Enhancements: A Transhumanist Perspective”, Bostrom’s floral prose reveals a number of seriously unquestioned hypotheses and assumptions regarding the idea and nature of the human. He writes:

    We can imagine beings that reach a much greater level of personal development and maturity than current human beings do, because they have the opportunity to live for hundreds or thousands of years with full bodily and psychic vigor. We can conceive of beings that are much smarter than us, that can read books in seconds, that are much more brilliant philosophers than we are, that can create artworks, which, even if we could understand them only on the most superficial level, would strike us as wonderful masterpieces. We can imagine love that is stronger, purer, and more secure than any human being has yet harbored. Our everyday intuitions about values are constrained by the narrowness of our experience and the limitations of our powers of imagination. We should leave room in our thinking for the possibility that as we develop greater capacities, we shall come to discover values that will strike us as being of a far higher order than those we can realize as un-enhanced biological humans beings (2003).

  6. 6.

    It has to be acknowledged that Stiegler’s work runs against some of the very same “humanist” limitations that we have identified in the writings of Harris et al. This is evident in the way he re-introduces a number of problematic anthropological distinctions such as those between culture and nature, or human and animal, into his argument presented in Technics and Time.

  7. 7.

    “Post-metaphysics” is, of course, not the only philosophical standpoint that shapes debates on bioethics in the West. Even in those societies that are more explicitly secular, such as the British one, religious frameworks and ideas also feature in the bioethical debate, although these frameworks are of less interest to me in this particular article. Fernando Cascais writes that “Whereas in the United States the distinction between ‘bioethics’ in general and ‘religious bioethics’ (‘Christian bioethics’, ‘Jewish bioethics’, etc.) is clear, the latter expressing the distinct positions of various confessional morals, in Europe, especially in the South, the straight and plain impoundment of bioethics by religious morals is notorious … (2003, 29).”

  8. 8.

    Ethics, for Levinas, is not something imposed from outside or above; instead, ethics is inevitable. An ethical event occurs in every encounter with difference, with the “face” and discourse of the other that addresses me and makes me both responsible and accountable (even if I ultimately decide to turn my back on this difference or even annihilate it). I am thus always already a hostage of the other, of his/her ethical demand. As Levinas himself puts it in a poetic but also somewhat menacing way, our subjectivity “does not have time to choose the Good and thus is penetrated with its rays unbeknownst to itself” because the Good “has chosen me before I have chosen it” (1998, 11). It is through this encounter that I become aware of my place in the world, of my corporeal boundaries, of the language that comes to me as a gift. But it is also through this encounter that I may become a murderer, a destroyer of the difference that threatens my “place in the sun” (even if I manage to persuade myself or others that this murder is “only” an act of retaliation, that it is part of a “just war”, or that the other hates me and thus needs to be excluded from my world). For an introduction to Levinas’s philosophy of alterity, see his essay, “The Trace of the Other” (1986).


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Zylinska, J. Playing God, Playing Adam: The Politics and Ethics of Enhancement. Bioethical Inquiry 7, 149–161 (2010).

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  • Bioethics
  • Enhancement
  • Habermas
  • Levinas
  • Stiegler
  • Technology