Talking Philosophy in The New York Times

One of my recent posts at Talking Philosophy, “What is this thing called called enhancement?”, is among a number discussed in a New York Times “Opinionator” article on newsworthy items by philosophers. My piece is one of a number that touch on the tricky subject of human enhancement technologies.

I should say, though, that the author has slightly misunderstood a point that I make. The Opinionator article says:

While sympathetic to the idea [that there is no meaningful difference between therapy and enhancement] as far as it goes, Blackford points out that the question of “enhancement” ultimately refers us back to the classic problem of “the good life.” And when conflicts arise between rival conceptions of the good life in liberal societies, where there is no agreement on such a standard, and the good life is typically seen as a purely individual matter, it’s “not so obvious that the state can be neutral.”

That’s not quite my view, and the difference is important. My general view is that the state can, at least to a large extent, be neutral about conceptions of the good life. There may be grey areas where the state is more or less forced to take a stand on values, but even if so it can usually do so in a way that leaves considerable scope for individuals to disagree and live their lives in defiance of whatever values the state might be endorsing (explicitly or tacitly). I talk about this in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. Thus, I favour liberalism in the broad Millian sense of non-interference by the state in individuals’ experiments in living.

My point in the Talking Philosophy piece was simply that it’s not so clear when children are involved. Adults may have conceptions of the good life that appear self-restricting or even self-destructive, and perhaps the state should butt out (my general view is that it should, though doubtless some limits and caveats are needed). What is not so clear is that the state can allow these conceptions of the good to be imposed by parents on children. Thus, what I actually said was:

Savulescu and his colleagues are political liberals, and they think that the state should defer to individuals’ conceptions of their own good, or well-being. Generally speaking, I agree. But it looks like there might be limits to this, and in any event decisions are often made by parents about children. It’s not so obvious that the state can be neutral, or anything like it, when these sorts of decisions are involved.

Not a biggie, but worth clarifying I think.

  1. This has probably been pointed out in earlier threads:

    The liberal state has a conception of the good life that it in effect imposes, namely that all should be free to explore their conception of the good life. Such freedom is, on some conceptions of the good life, anathema, so some of those who “live their lives in defiance of whatever values the state might be endorsing” will work to end the existence of the liberal state. Such is the possibly fatal dilemma of liberalism, http://www.naturalism.org/relativi.htm#insecurity

  2. Well, I wouldn’t call that “a conception of the good life”. After all, some of those people will be living very different lives indeed. Some may spend their lives devoted to making as much money as possible. Some will spend it in religious devotion. Some will concentrate on sport, or nurturing their families, or pursuing or appreciating some form of art, and on and on. I don’t think you can say that they are all leading the same kind of “good life”.

    I think the liberal state has a conception of how political power should be used – namely, for relatively narrow secular purposes, as opposed to imposing a comprehensive worldview or lifeplan on its citizens.

    It’s true, though, there are people who devote their lives to opposing this conception of how political power should be used, and that might be their conception of a good life. In some cases, they wish to impose very narrow limits on everyone else, by capturing political power and using it in a totalitarian way.

    Which raises the question as to whether a liberal state can be tolerant of every conception of the good life or the defiance of every set of values endorsed by the state. That is a dilemma of liberalism, but seen this way it doesn’t seem to me to be a fatal one. I think there can be various responses to people with intolerant or totalitarian impulses.

    That said, I haven’t looked at your link – will have a look. The analysis above is broadly consistent with what’s in my book if anyone wants to look into it more deeply.

  3. Thanks Russell. I agree that the liberal state doesn’t specify a good life in terms of its values and activities. But doesn’t it hold that freedom to pursue one’s conception of a good life a necessary condition of having one (hence its limitation on the uses of political power)? If one weren’t free to have pursued even the most exemplary life, according to some standard, but had been coerced into following it, would we want to say it was a good life? But maybe all this is better captured simply in terms of conceptions of political power, as you recommend.

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