LettrineFrom Erik Parens’ edited book, Surgically Shaping Children: Technology, Ethics, and the Pursuit of Normality, comes a piece entitled “Concepts of Technology and Their Role in Moral Reflection” by James C. Edwards. The first section of the essay is spent explaining the key concepts from Heidegger’s “The Question Concern Technology,” useful for me as a reminder, since it’s been a while since I’ve read that text. All of this is in aid of making explicit Heidegger’s claim that however much we might not be aware of it, technology is not merely technology in the common-sense sense, but a way of thinking and approaching the world (I’m ‘translating,’ however problematically that might be, from Heideggerese, for simplicity’s sake). And this particular way of thinking and approaching the world, peculiar to the modern world according to Heidegger, casts all the world as Bestand, that is, as ‘standing reserve:’ as that which we can take hold of and use. Edward’s point, of course, is that techniques of (what I, not he, calls) bodily alteration, from anti-depressants to intersex surgery, all behave as if we—our bodies, minds, lives—are Bestand too.

“But, as I say, most of us do not share Heidegger’s nostalgia for the premodern world, just as we do not share his philosophical anguish at our eagerness to reinvent ourselves in every generation. And so if his critique of technology is to have any resonance or us, it can’t be because of its filiations to a larger project of turning back the clock. At least one feature of modernity has sedimented itself so deeply into out ethical consciousness that we cannot easily imagine ourselves without it: when Judith Shklar said that to be a liberal means to believe that “cruelty is the worst thing we do,” she was speaking not just for liberalism but for what we have come to regard as common decency itself. That human suffering is the final touchstone of evil, and that nothing is worse than to cause or collude in such suffering, strikes us as incontrovertible, especially when that suffering entails not only physical pain but humiliation. And is it not humiliation, or at least the threat of it, that most affects us when we think of the child with the cleft palate, or whose body is in some remediable way significantly different from the ‘norm’? How, we may exclaim, is it possible not to think that surgery is appropriate—assuming that the risks are fully understood and are acceptable to all the parties? Anyone who distrusts or opposes this sort of surgical technology, frankly call it ‘enhancement technology’ if you like, can seem—notice I say “can seem”—a sort of monster.” p. 58

I’ve been wondering something like this myself for a while now (even aloud, occasionally, though with sufficient defensive caveats that people seem unwilling to give me the ‘monster’ title, at least as he means it!). Liberalism and a kind of liberal sensibility seem to come together over suffering and (its supposedly more objective counterpart) harm. Suffering comes to play a key role in so many of the conversations that happen about bodily alteration. Indeed, almost anything can be made justifiable, whatever its insult to mainstream norms, so long as it is claimed as a cure to suffering (though this is often a temporary and uncertain justification, as those seeking medical amputation of healthy limbs have found!) Yet it’s a peculiar notion of suffering that is at play; almost used as a kind of currency, offered up to authority in order to receive the hormone, the pill, the surgery, whatever, in exchange. And here, I think, comes my divergence from Edward’s approach; or perhaps from Heidegger’s. But first:

“And of course Heidegger seems exactly —and quite happily—that sort of monster, not because he would sadistically deny corrective surgery to a child (I have no idea what he’d do in the particular case of, say, achondroplasia), but because he truly doesn’t take human suffering as the final court of appeal for our ethical practice: there is something worse for him than cruelty. It’s nothing something for which he has a transparent name—he usually calls it Seinsvergessenheit (“the forgetfulness of Being”)—but it’s clear that it holds for him a kind of transcendent significance. In his devotion to something larger than our liberal humanism, he resembles the religious believer who says “Human happiness is all very well, of course, but what really matters is the greater glory of God.” And what can one say to that? Here one has reached a kind of impasse; one is making, and responding to, first-order ethical claims that cannot be finessed.” p. 59

To place Levinas in contrast to Heidegger is almost laughable in its obviousness, but on this topic of suffering, I think it could be important. And the hint comes in the idea of suffering as a kind of currency that I raised before. In “Useless Suffering” (found in Entre Nous, if you’re curious), Levinas argues strenuously for understanding suffering as precisely that: useless. To give suffering a use, he claims, is to justify it. This is the case whether this use lies in the proving or disproving of the existence of God, or (perhaps more relevant for this discussion) in the ‘personal growth’ sense of suffering making someone a better/stronger/more resilient person. (Granted, Levinas is in no way talking about the kinds of suffering Edwards is talking about, and I’ll half-promise a post on that later). In this sense, then, Levinas is challenging precisely the technologised idea of suffering, and thus it is the ethical (in Levinas’ fairly specific sense) of the subject’s responsibility for the other that comes to take the position of ‘transcendent significance’ that Edwards feels so uneasy about.

“In hard choices like those [about the surgical shaping of children], the ethical questions aren’t settled merely by fitting the cases into a Heideggerian template of the “essence of technology”… We expect too much of our philosophical ideas, if we expect them to settle first-order ethical quandaries. No parents would be satisfied if, faced with the possibility of limb-lengthening surgery for their child, we ethicists argued against that surgery on grounds that it treats the child as Bestand. In fact, I couldn’t offer them such an argument with a straight face, much as I enjoy kicking these ideas around in class. At a certain point I realise that philosophy, no matter how compelling, can’t be appealed to itself as Bestand, as raw material standing by for us to use in solving ethical problems. We don’t get firm answers to such problems by kicking them upstairs into the airy realm of metaphysics.” p. 60

Parents would of course be unsatisfied with such a refusal of surgery, but I think that this is for two reasons: it offends the liberal sensibility we talked about earlier, but perhaps more tellingly, it also appears to take the child’s body as Bestand for an argument against technology. And it’s deeply questionable whether anyone should be made to suffer in order to further some kind of social education program. What this shows is that the kinds of bioethical arguments that Edwards is trying to make needs to start with asking questions about how we understand suffering. After all, technology for Heidegger is not just machines, but thought and comportment towards the world. In taking Levinas as a way of thinking-otherwise about suffering, perhaps non-technological or even ethical approaches to the use of technologies of bodily alteration might become possible, without the problematic normative ethics of an airy realm of metaphysics.

And more to come… of course…