Mary Varney Rorty






For Love of the Game:
Peter Sloterdijk and Public Controversies in Bioethics


Mary V. Rorty [1]

I: Introduction

In summer of 1999 a prominent German philosopher delivered a commentary on Heidegger's Letter on Humanism to a small international philosophy conference in Elmau, Germany. The audience was limited, the content and tone lofty, the setting remote -- but there was an extensive and outraged discussion in the German press.

This paper briefly discusses Peter Sloterdijk's Rules for the Menschenpark, looks at some obvious differences in national reactions to the same bioethical issues, and raises some questions about the role of bioethics - and bioethicists - in public controversies.

II: The Elmauer Rede

If humanism is the tradition of written "letters to possible friends" that Sloterdijk contends, then, as he also contends, it is dying, or dead, as fewer and fewer people read or care about the classical canon: the books that have constituted one major source of the education of the men of the past. He sees in the incursion of mass media an end to literacy as we have known it. His analogy is a contrast between the books of the philosophers and the games of the ampitheater in the past, and those same books and the violent videogames of the present, one tending toward the √ętaming,' the other the bestialization and barbarization, of the coming generations. What is at stake in humanism is the specification of man with respect to his biological capacities and his moral ambivalence. You become what you read; humanism was a civilizing technique for bringing people together, instead of setting them at each others' throats.

According to Sloterdijk, Heidegger in his "Letter on Humanism" (on which his Elmauer Rede is a commentary) spoke the end of humanism, urging an end to the reliance on external powers, be they theological or ontological. Man is no longer to be thought of in terms of his relationship to anything other than man. But Heidegger does not go far enough. He criticizes Heidegger for making man instead the shepherd and spokesman of Being, subordinating him, Sloterdijk claims, to something very much like the god he has wished to replace, and for separating him sharply from his animal, embodied self. Sloterdijk prefers to substitute instead the metaphor of self-shepherding; man is not the shepherd of being, but is the shepherd and 'tamer'/breeder of man.

If we are now primarily dependent upon ourselves for our pacification and improvement, what can we count on for techniques of self-improvement? What can we teach and how, if books are out of date and the two millenia of humanistic tradition, as recent history suggests, have proved useless?

Turning to Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, Sloterdijk invokes a connection between reading and breeding (Lesen and Auslesen, Lektionen and Selektionen). Zarathustra there claims people have become physically shorter, by virtue of their centuries of exposure to Christian altruism and "slave morality"-- "ihre Lehre von Gluck und Tugend." If you are, or become, what you read, then by careful choice of the canon, people can be improved or damaged. This connection, PS implies, goes both ways. If what happens in the mind influences the body, perhaps what happens in the body influences the mind; in the absence or failure of a widely read literary canon, perhaps we can carry on the humanistic project of reducing barbarism and "taming" man's bestial tendencies by breeding for civility?

While Heidegger distinguished men and other animals categorically by emphasizing that human beings live in (and make) a world of meanings, rather than merely experiencing. Sloterdijk draws the line between men: some can read, some cannot; some breed in order to reproduce themselves, others are bred. Heidegger's species differentiation becomes in this reading an elitist distinction between members of the same species (although it is somewhat unclear whether those who are the "objects, not the subjects, of selection [auslese]" have failed to act, or have been compelled.).

The paragraph which seems, then, to have produced the greatest outrage in the controversy which ensued upon the Elmauer Rede is the following:
It is characteristic of the technical and anthropotechnological age that people tend more and more to the active or subject-side of selection, without willingly having to have been forced into the role of selectors. (As evidence, it can be noted that there is a discomfort with the power of the vote, and it will soon become an option for innocence if people explicitly refuse to exercise the power of choice which they have achieved.) But as soon as definitive knowledge (wissensmacht) has been positively developed in an area, many people are thought less of if - as in earlier more innocent times - they allow a higher power, be it god or chance or any other, to act in their stead. Since simple refusal or omission tends to reveal its sterility, it might well happen that in the future the problem is actively confronted by the forumulation of a codex of anthropotechnology . Such a codex would also retroactively alter the meaning of classical humanism, for thereby it would be made public and official that the content of humanism is not only the alliance of man with man; it would also imply, and make increasingly explicit, that man embodies/represents for man the higher power.,
He continues,
[These considerations] suffice to make it clear that the next long epoch will be decisive for the human period of species-politics. In it will be shown whether humanity (or its larger cultural faction) will be able to bring about the implementation of minimally effective methods of self-taming. Already in present day culture a battle of titans is being waged between the civilizing and the bestializing impulses and their associated media.
The reference to current technologies, the closest Sloterdijk comes to actual practical philosophy, is made explicit in the next paragraph:
But whether this long-range development will also lead to a genetic revision of the characteristics of the species, whether a future antropotechnology will eventuate in an explicit planning for specific traits, whether throughout the entire species humanity will be able to turn birth defects into optimal births and universal prenatal selection - these are questions through which the evolutionary horizon, as always vague and risky, begins to flicker ... [2]
The third historical exegesis which explicates Sloterdijk's point is an interpretation of Plato's Statesman, a discussion designed to develop rational rules for politics - the art of shepherding the polis. In that dialogue, as Sloterdijk points out, it is not only rules by which people would be willing to have themselves governed that are being discussed. There is ample evidence that the principles by which it might be possible to breed compliant subjects, good citizens, is also under consideration. It is in connection with Plato that the "rules for the human zoo" of the title, or more precisely, rules for the management of the menschenpark, replace the "codex of anthropotechnology." In the course of the dialogue, he claims, the "rules of behavior," those by which rational free agents would voluntarily govern themselves, are gradually replaced by a "codex of compliance," characteristics of individuals, for which they can be bred by judicious matchmaking, which make them productive citizens of a well-governed state.
What Plato puts in the mouth of the Stranger is the program of a humanistic society that is embodied in a single High-Humanist, the lord of royal shepherding. The task of this Uber-humanist would be no less than the planning of the characteristics of an elite, each of whom must be nurtured for the good of the whole.[3]
The task of humanism is the "taming" of man, repressing bestiality and encouraging civility; but the end of literary culture leaves only reading's companion, breeding, as the remaining available means of advancing civilization.

III: Interpreting the Message

If that is what he is suggesting, what are we to make of it?

When I first read the Elmauer Rede I thought it a bit of light sensationalism. As I looked more carefully at the texts on which he builds his structure of analogy, I began to appreciate more the extent to which Sloterdijk himself knows and understands the tradition he is heralding the end of. There is no doubt that his interpretations of the three major philosophical texts to which he refers are "strong" (if easily contestable) readings. As a long-time fan of puns and metaphors, I suspected at some points that the thesis of his talk sprang almost completely from an acute linguistic sense of play that decided to capitalize on the etymological similarities of the word pairs lesen/auslesen and lection/selection - punning which can survive in our English pair, reading/breeding. Certainly in the furor that followed the wider distribution of his talk, there was no point of his interpretation that was not scolded by philosophers defending Heidegger, Nietzsche or Plato. The most consistent theme in the responses of his critics, though, was a heartfelt outrage that anyone in post-holocaust Germany could even USE the word "selection," associated as it was with the fascist eugenics projects - much less be seen as recommending it.

There are two ambiguities, at least in my reading of the Elmauer Rede, which fueled the outrage. One was the distinction - or is it really a conflation? - of a descriptive "antropotechnological codex" which is currently in the process of being written by geneticists and biomedical scientists - a book currently far from completion, but already productive of a cascade of predictions and hopes; and the "rules for the human zoo" - the normative stipulations about what kind of genetic experimentation, research and intervention will meet ethical standards for the protection of human subjects and human rights. The first book is in the headlines of every newspaper and magazine in the West. Sloterdijk was surely aware of how precisely the details of his vaguely worded predictions could already be delineated: alter this gene thus, and the phenotypic manifestation of this disease will not appear; substitute this codon for that, and a missing enzyme will be produced. [4] This second book, as observers of the national and international bioethics scene are in a good position to know, is also being written in these decades, in many forms - in the UNESCO Convention on Human Rights and Genetics, the Council of Europe's pronouncements on Biomedicine and Human Rights - and, indeed, even being struggled with in the United States as the various national bioethics commissions wrestle with rules to govern national and international research. Did he really think that knowing what was possible was directly equivalent to determining what could be allowed?

The second ambiguity lies in his attitude toward these new possibilities "flickering on our evolutionary horizon." Is his Rede optimistic, forseeing a better hope for the improvement of man in the new genetics? Is it pessimistic, bewailing the end of the humanistic culture of which he knows (however ambivalently) himself to be a part? Is he, as one of his readers claims, just another disappointed reactionary ivory tower academic, longing for the vanished humanist past? Or is he, rather, as he might prefer to see himself, an adventurous traveler into the modern world, trying to apply his learning to real problems, rather than being consigned to the* *dusty bookshelves of an increasingly irrelevant literary culture?

The two points are probably connected. If he really believes the codex and the rule book are identical - that to see that something is possible is to do it regardless of the consequences, I see this as a deeply pessimistic (and indeed reactionary) message. On the other hand, one can read the Elmauer Rede as suggesting that the new genetics offers some positive possibilities for our human future. But the dark side of that positive reading is that it forces us to wonder if he really believes that those possibilities can only be achieved by leaving the world of meaning for the world of biology, and engineering for a wiser, gentler, friendlier species. Sloterdijk does not explicitly recommend a genetic revision of mankind, although some of his critics, picking up on the ambiguous value tone of his description, accused him of having done so. Nor, however does he explicitly decry it. The absence of a clear message, a suspicion that he wanted to have it both ways, was one of the most frequently repeated criticisms of his talk in the public responses.

IV: Genetics and Public Controversies

Only in Germany would the controversy be as learned as that generated by Sloterdijk. Classicists, philologians, philosophers, geneticists, and intellectuals from every corner of German learning responded. Sloterdijk was bashed for his interpretation of Heidegger, his interpretation of Nietzsche, his interpretation of Plato, and his use of all three; he was accused of being ignorant of humanism, history, morality, genetics and philology, as well as bad taste and being a publicity hound. But not only intellectuals were involved; talk show hosts, letters to the editor and journalists from various media also entered the fray. Der Speigel, Germany's extraordinarily erudite answer to Time Magazine, gave a talk at an obscure philosophy conference a 17 page cover story.[5] The doings of a philosopher were front-page news. Those of us pursuing the same discipline in countries where it has less prestige and visibility could only marvel.[6] In the United States, the only magazine to have taken note of the Sloterdijk controversy was Lingua Franca, a now-defunct magazine with a great insider-reputation as a gossip-sheet of the intelligensia but a relatively small circulation.[7]

Only in Germany, too, would the use of the terms "selektion" arouse such outrage. Granted, Sloterdijk's Rede was full of potentially inflamatory word-choices: Menschenzuckt, Selektion, Anthropotechnik. A country with a big conscience provoked by a bad history, Germany is among the most scrupulous nations in the world in avoiding anything that smacks of eugenics. In the United States, by contrast, I read an opinion piece in the New York Times Magazine section, hardly the worst journalism in America, where the medical marvel of prevention of a hereditary disease by IVF and selective implantation of an embryo free of the disease was hailed as "eugenics" - and the term was used positively, as a term of praise.[8] Admittedly, this positive connotation of the term is still uncommon, but the reader of the science news in the United States, and indeed, in much of the anglophone press, cannot easily avoid wondering if the message of the miracles that lie in the future through genetic science does not forshadow the transformation once again of the term eugenics to occupy the same positive place, play the same positive role, it carried in the early part of this century. (Until 1946, eugenics was not only an acceptable term, but it was an honored and widely acknowledged scientific project.) In light of this possibility, it can only be hoped that the public reaction will be as vehement as it was in Germany. There seems to have been no public outcry at Meg Greenberg's use of the term in the New York Times, however - and this despite the fact that US history is not free of its own compelling instances of negative eugenics.

There are public controversies surrounding the new genetics in the United States as well, but they differ from the recent German controversy in several ways. First, they are seldom so learned and cannot be directed to so integrated an audience. The public discussion bifurcates into the tentative and often conciliatory pro-and-con discussions of the learned, carried on in small print in esoteric professional journals, and the extremism of the mass media, where banner headlines promising future genetic miracles alternate with equally unrealistic scare headlines of imminent cyborgs and chimeras. Philosophy professors seldom merit op-ed pieces in US newspapers.

Second, our controversies seem strangely ahistorical by comparison. There sometimes seems in US public controversies an equal obliviousness to the past and to the future. We ignore our scary past, which could suggest caution to dampen our enthusiasm for following science wherever it might lead. We imagine only the brightest of possible futures, and if there is a good to be found there, we want it, now, whatever the cost in possible misues or unforseen side effects. Since American private and public capital is driving much of the contemporary bio-genetic research, these failings are of considerable practical importance.[9]

V: Bioethics and the politics of morality

An interesting aspect of the controversy (explicitly labeled a "philosopher's battle") was the distinction that was drawn in the public press between philosophers and bioethicists, and the difference it underlined in the German versus the anglophone attitudes toward genetics and ethics - at least as seen by the Germans. The major German newsmagazine, Der Spiegel, commented:
The natural scientists are bringing about a transformation in the picture of what it is to be human. The question is whether this is simply to be accepted, or whether there is anything to counter it. In order to avoid being burdened by philosophical considerations, the biologists in the United States are creating their own philosophers: in the last 25 years a discipline of bioethics has been developed, whose explicit task it is to give recommendations about how to deal with the new technologies coming out of the biology labs ... Few have noticed that with the introduction of bioethics, the relationship between ethics and science has been turned upside down. The ethics rooted in German philosophy begins with an understanding of human nature, and derives from that, criteria for action. It is very different with the bioethics coming from the English speaking countries. This difference was most clearly expressed by [the British physician Edwards,] the medical father of the first test tube baby, Louise Brown: "Ethics must accommodate itself to science, not the reverse." [10]
If Peter Sloterdijk was ambivalent toward the future of genetic control he was forseeing, the German press was ambivalent toward the fact that he mentioned it. It is the job, they seemed to feel, of REAL philosophers to think about such things and say what should be done about them.[11] In this they distinguish themselves from bioethicists, tamed (or barbarized) philosophers, who are merely morally complicit, not morally prescriptive.[12] The public controversy then shines the light of public opinion on bioethics and its proper role, as seen by the various constituencies.

I do not share der Spiegel's poor opinion of "anglo-saxon bioethics," nor do I consider that learned, multidisciplinary and varied group of thoughtful practitioners any one interest group's "house philosophers." But it is important for bioethicists to figure out what the public perception is, and to take that into consideration in exercising our various social roles.

VI: Conclusion

Peter Sloterdijk is right about the eugenic possibilities inherent in the new genetics. And the German public controversy is right, too, in my opinion, in its sensitivity to the possible danger that can present. The voice of Germany is thus a useful one in the deliberations now going on about the second of the two anthropological codices - the international bioethics declarations relating to genetics. We need a counterbalance to the commerce-driven optimism of the multinational biotech industry.

But he is wrong about the end of humanism; reading remains a weapon in the armamentorium against barbarism, and breeding is no less dangerous, no more optimistic, as a successor to it. The battle goes on, moving with humanity into new areas of knowledge. His suggestion that anthropotechnologies are appropriate methods for self-taming are seriously deceptive. If (and as) genetic engineering does become a human possibility, I will not engineer myself. It will be the technocratic "us" engineering the subject "them." The liberal emphasis on individualism and informed consent as a proxy for individual decision making cannot conceal that fact, nor avoid that danger. Another German, Berthold Brecht, saw the difference between agent and patient subject-positions clearly and expressed it bitterly in the middle of the last century:

... Und wenn nur einer fresst, dann bin Ich es,
Und wenn einer wird gefressen, bist es Du!

[1] This paper was delivered at the International Association of Bioethics meeting in London, September 22, 2000, and profited from collaborative work with Norbert Paul at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics.

[2] Peter Sloterdijk, Regeln fuer den Menschenpark, Die Zeit 38/99, reprinted in the Zeit-Hefte Der Streit um den Menschen, p. 12 (my translation).

[3] Ibid., p.14 (my translation).

[4] For an excellent summary of the possibilities of current research in the descriptive codex, see [whatever that article was that norbert assigned for the book discussion...]

[5] Gen-Project Uebermensch: Hitler, Nietzsche, Dolly und der neue Philosophen-Streit. Der Spiegel, 29/9/99.

[6] The comparison with Time magazine is unfair; actually, Spiegel is a much better and more informative magazine, although written with some of the linguistic flair and cleverness that marked Time at its best.

[7] Andrew Piper: Project Ubermensch: German Intellectuals Confront Genetic Engineering. Lingua Franca, Dec/January 2000.

[8] [find the meg greenberg article in the nyt magazine section from last spring]

[9] This has been changing, to some extent, in the last few years, and we are developing a relatively sophisticated bunch of science reporters in US newspapers. Not only the NYTimes or Washington Post, but even the San Jose Mercury News reporters are mining Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine for front page stories.

[10] Der Spiegel 39/27.9.99: Gen-Project Ubermensch: Hitler, Nietzsche, Dolly und der neue Philosophen-Streit, my translation.

[11] Germany's most eminent political philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, has published a discussion of genetic engineering that meets Speigel's criteria in Die Zukunft der menschlichen Natur: /Auf dem Weg zu einer liberalen Eugenik? (/Suhrkamp Verlag 2001). It appeared in English this spring as The Future of Human Nature (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003).

[12] When Arthur Caplan, bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, was named in a legal suit on behalf of Jesse Gelsinger, some wondered whether the public also has, or is beginning to have, similar expectations of philosophers in the U.S.