Julian Savulescu on Why We Should Play God

Australian bioethicist Julian Savulescu has a knack for provocation. Take human cloning. He says most of us would readily accept it if it benefited us. As for eugenics—creating smarter, stronger, more beautiful babies—he believes we have an ethical obligation to use advanced technology to select the best possible children.

So the idea that we could play god and tamper with the laws of nature, creating things that wouldn’t otherwise exist, is a red herring?

We’re playing god every day. As the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes said, the natural state for human beings is a life that’s nasty, brutish, and short. We play god when we vaccinate. We play god when we give women pain relief during labor. The challenge is to decide how to change the course of nature, not whether to change it. Our whole life is entirely unnatural. The correction of infertility is interfering in nature. Contraception is interfering in the most fundamental aspect of nature.

But using condoms has nowhere near the ethical complications of altering the genetic makeup of your future baby.

You alter the genetic makeup of your future baby when you smoke or drink alcohol. Viruses alter the human genome. So why would you single out one intentional act aimed at producing a beneficial outcome from all these other events that have far less beneficial outcomes? In my view, we should not only use tests to look for genes so a child is not disposed to a major genetic disorder, like Thalassemia or Cystic Fibrosis or Down syndrome, but also to look at genes correlated with greater advantages in life. My argument is we ought to select children who have opportunities for better lives. Most people say that’s fine when it comes to diseases, but we shouldn’t interfere in nature once you get into the healthy range.

This raises the specter of tinkering with our genes. You could create smarter, stronger, more beautiful children.

Indeed, you could. In my view, we should choose genes if those characteristics affect a person’s happiness. A rising percentage of kids today are on Ritalin for Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. But that’s not because there’s suddenly been some epidemic of ADHD. It’s because you’re crippled as a human being if you have poor impulse control and can’t concentrate long enough, if you can’t defer small rewards now for larger rewards in the future. Having self-control is extremely important to strategic planning, and Ritalin enhances that characteristic in children at the low end of impulse control. Now, if you were able to test for poor impulse control in embryos, I believe we should select ones with a better chance of having more choices in life, whether you want to be a plumber, a taxi driver, a lawyer, or the president.

It’s one thing to talk about impulse control and quite another to enhance the intelligence of a baby. Doesn’t this raise a whole new level of ethical concerns?

It does raise another level of ethical concerns, but we already aim to enhance intelligence through education. Computers and the Internet are also cognitive enhancers. We give children food supplements and better diets to enhance cognitive ability. So why should we treat a genetic mechanism differently than a dietary supplement or some external technology like the Internet? The only difference is gene therapy is really risky, and that’s why we don’t do it. But if it becomes safe, there’s no difference in ethical terms between gene therapy and any other sort of biological or social intervention. If science gives us the opportunity of improving people’s lives, we should use it.

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Julian Savulescu is an Australian philosopher and bioethicist.

Hannah Arendt on Why It’s Urgent to Break Your Bubble

In the current political climate of populism and xenophobia, it is tempting to simply close the door and withdraw from public affairs. Indeed, there is a pervading sense that there is no alternative to our polarised politics, neoliberal capitalism and corruption. Pleas for solidarity among nation-states seem to be easily overshadowed by resentment towards foreigners and nostalgia for lost national glory. And yet, it is precisely such retreat into the private realm that Hannah Arendt warned against during the 20th century. It is during moments of political crisis that individual potential for new beginnings matters most; it is in times of political division that we are faced with the task of cooperating and finding a way to share our fragile world.

Withdrawal from public affairs is more than a sign of cynical escapism and alienation; for Arendt, it denotes the situation of ‘worldlessness,’ whereby the sense of shared reality begins to disintegrate. Worldlessness is like a desert that dries up the space between people. By resigning ourselves to the belief that political engagement is futile, we remove ourselves from the world and from one another. As Arendt argues in Crises in the Republic (1972) and her posthumously published The Promise of Politics (1993), when we lose touch with the world, we experience a dangerous ‘remoteness from reality.’ Worldlessness, as the loss of a shared common space, typifies the post-truth age of alternative facts and conspiracy theories. In reducing the boundaries of the world to ourselves and our digital bubbles, we foreclose connections with a larger shared reality full of people with conflicting beliefs. By retreating to the inner citadel, we limit chances to find common ground with those holding different political opinions. Remoteness and withdrawal leads to tribalism and the inability to listen to the other person’s point of view.

Politics is ontologically rooted in natality, which means that politics is not only concerned with conflict and death, but even more so, with birth, new beginnings and action. In contrast to her professor and lover, Martin Heidegger, who insisted on the pivotal importance of death, Arendt argues for the centrality of birth: ‘Since action is the political activity par excellence, natality, and not mortality, may be the central category of political, as distinguished from metaphysical thought.’ In The Human Condition (1958), she shifts the discussion of politics from the existential threat of friend versus foe to that of action, new beginnings, spontaneity and freedom. The fact that individuals are born into the world means that individual and generational change is possible. Influenced by St Augustine, she wrote that each person is a ‘beginner’ and an ‘initium’ with the capacity to learn from his or her mistakes. Arguing against the grain of philosophical retreat from the world of appearances, Arendt underscores the power that individuals have to act together for political change. Since action is rooted in the power to begin anew, the outcomes of new beginnings, while unpredictable, offer hope for a shared future.

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Johanna “Hannah” Cohn Arendt was an American philosopher and political theorist.

Siobhan Kattago is a senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Tartu, Estonia, specialising in political philosophy

Isaiah Berlin’s two concepts of freedom – Maria Kasmirli

‘Freedom’ is a powerful word. We all respond positively to it, and under its banner revolutions have been started, wars have been fought, and political campaigns are continually being waged. But what exactly do we mean by ‘freedom’? The fact that politicians of all parties claim to believe in freedom suggests that people don’t always have the same thing in mind when they talk about it. Might there be different kinds of freedom and, if so, could the different kinds conflict with each other? Could the promotion of one kind of freedom limit another kind? Could people even be coerced in the name of freedom?

The 20th-century political philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) thought that the answer to both these questions was ‘Yes’, and in his essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958) he distinguished two kinds of freedom (or liberty; Berlin used the words interchangeably), which he called negative freedom and positive freedom.

Negative freedom is freedom from interference. You are negatively free to the extent that other people do not restrict what you can do. If other people prevent you from doing something, either directly by what they do, or indirectly by supporting social and economic arrangements that disadvantage you, then to that extent they restrict your negative freedom. Berlin stresses that it is only restrictions imposed by other people that count as limitations of one’s freedom. Restrictions due to natural causes do not count. The fact that I cannot levitate is a physical limitation but not a limitation of my freedom.

Virtually everyone agrees that we must accept some restrictions on our negative freedom if we are to avoid chaos. All states require their citizens to follow laws and regulations designed to help them live together and make society function smoothly. We accept these restrictions on our freedom as a trade-off for other benefits, such as peace, security and prosperity. At the same time, most of us would insist that there are some areas of life that should not be regulated, and where individuals should have considerable, if not complete, freedom. A major debate in political philosophy concerns the boundaries of this area of personal negative freedom. For example, should the state place restrictions on what we may say or read, or on what sexual activities we may engage in?

Whereas negative freedom is freedom from control by others, positive freedom is freedom to control oneself. To be positively free is to be one’s own master, acting rationally and choosing responsibly in line with one’s interests. This might seem to be simply the counterpart of negative freedom; I control myself to the extent that no one else controls me. However, a gap can open between positive and negative freedom, since a person might be lacking in self-control even when he is not restrained by others. Think, for example, of a drug addict who cannot kick the habit that is killing him. He is not positively free (that is, acting rationally in his own best interests) even though his negative freedom is not being limited (no one is forcing him to take the drug).

In such cases, Berlin notes, it is natural to talk of something like two selves: a lower self, which is irrational and impulsive, and a higher self, which is rational and far-sighted. And the suggestion is that a person is positively free only if his higher self is dominant. If this is right, then we might be able to make a person more free by coercing him. If we prevent the addict from taking the drug, we might help his higher self to gain control. By limiting his negative freedom, we would increase his positive freedom. It is easy to see how this view could be abused to justify interventions that are misguided or malign.

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Sir Isaiah Berlin OM CBE FBA (1909–1997) was a Russian-British social and political theorist, philosopher and historian of ideas

Maria Kasmirli is a philosopher and teacher. She is currently a research associate at the University of Sheffield and a teacher at the School of European Education in Heraklion, Crete. 

The Discovery of Oneself: An Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn

In Time Regained, Proust writes, “In reality every reader is, when he reads, the reader of his own self. The work of the writer is just a kind of optical instrument that is offered to the reader to permit him to discern that which, without the book in question, he could not have seen within himself.” You read Proust for the first time when you were a Classics student at the University of Virginia. What did you feel then?

Discovering Proust was a real shock—the shock of recognition. I was twenty, and my encounter with this novel gave me a shock that, I believe, is felt by every gay person reading Proust for the first time. It was remarkable to understand that the unsatisfied desires and the erotic frustrations I harbored had not only been felt by someone else—much bigger news in 1980 than today, it’s worth remembering—but, even more extraordinarily, had been made the subject of a great book. And yet, interestingly, when I read Swann’s Way, it wasn’t any specific description of homosexual desire that touched me—that theme is treated much more fully in a later volume, as we know—but something much more general, the novel’s description of unreciprocated desire and, above all, the astounding revelation, or perhaps confirmation, for me, that desire can’t endure its own satisfaction. We see that exemplified in Swann in Love. When Swann succeeds in physically possessing Odette, when she ceases to escape him, his desire for her vanishes. For me, yes, that was a revelation as well as a recognition of something I was feeling in my own early erotic encounters.And then I had another kind of shock. Thanks to Proust, I found a certain consolation in thinking that all artistic creation is a substitute for erotic frustration and disappointment. That art feeds on our failures. Back then, I remember thinking to myself, I can’t get what I want anyway—by which, at the time, I meant that it didn’t seem possible to have a fulfilled “romantic” life—so I may as well become a writer.

Some readers feel the need to dive straight back into In Search of Lost Timeas soon as they’ve finished reading the seven volumes of the book. Was that the case for you?

No. On the contrary, when I read it that first time, and in fact every time I’ve read it since, I need time to absorb it, to let it resonate, or perhaps percolate. After a sentence, a moment, as magnificent as the ones that end Time Regained¹, I find it difficult to return to any reading at all. You feel everything has been said. On the other hand, I’ve reread In Search of Lost Time about every ten years since I was twenty. I’m a little over fifty now, and so I suppose it’s high time I start my fourth reading.

Have these successive readings brought you closer to Proust’s work?

No, I don’t think it’s a question of proximity to the text. Rather, I think that something different can be found in the text each time. To use the Proustian metaphor that you evoked, each reading of Proust is a bit like a visit to the optician—depending on which pair of lenses you’re given to try, you’re either capable or incapable of distinguishing a pattern or a letter projected onto a screen in the dark. Successive readings of Proust are like those different sets of lenses—with each one, you see something different. For instance, when I was twenty, so much of French culture escaped me. I was inexperienced, I had never left the U.S. The whole Proustian world of Faubourg Saint-Germain and of Combray went straight over my head. I was incapable, for example, of understanding the type of person that Françoise represented in French heritage—the earthy peasant type that comes with the social territory, so to speak. Today, I’m not the same person I was when I was twenty. I have all the experience of a life. I’m also well traveled and I know France well, I have many friends living there, and so I understand French culture much better than I did thirty years ago and can appreciate aspects of Proust’s novel I couldn’t before. On the other hand, it must be said that I will never again feel the amazement I felt on my first reading of In Search of Lost Time. It’s an aesthetic experience that you only have once in your life.

The richness of the book is such that it seems impossible to be aware, in just a single reading, of the layers of meaning, the themes that unfold—

There’s a parallel with The Odyssey, about which I’m writing a book at the moment. Like The OdysseyIn Search of Lost Time is a complete work, a text that doesn’t reveal its full meaning in a single reading. To my mind, that is the definition of a true work of art. If you manage to get everything out of a book in a single go, the author can’t have said that much. But Homer, like Proust, is an author who can accompany us through the entire length of a life. Everything is in Homer. Everything is in Proust.

Is there a particular character that stands out for you?

Odette de Crécy, without question. Not because she would be my “favorite,” and certainly not because she’s the most interesting or admirable or complex, but because she represents, to me, a completely realized character. It’s as though Odette emerges from the text in a three-dimensional form. I can imagine her existence beyond the context of In Search of Lost Time. She is a whole entity, she functions so remarkably, which is something that can’t be said for all Proustian characters. Take Oriane de Guermantes, for example—I can’t imagine her outside the book. In my opinion, she doesn’t represent much more than an assemblage of traits that characterize the aristocracy. I feel the same about Albertine, whose relationship to the Narrator, with its obsessisive possessiveness and deep frustrations, is clearly meant to reflect the relationship between Swann and Odette. To me, Albertine is an abstraction, a “notion,” her sole purpose is to crystallize the obsessive thoughts of the narrator. She is a coat hook on which Proust has hung his ideas, next to the young lady’s Fortuny tea gowns. Even much earlier than The Prisoner, for instance in the second volume when Albertine appears in the midst of the little gang of girls at Balbec, I don’t find her credible. (But then, very little of the Narrator’s alleged passion for girls is persuasive.) By contrast, Odette feels real to me. I understand Swann’s feelings for Odette, I feel his desire and his frustration. You know, it’s so difficult for a writer to create a “living” character. And with the “lady in pink,” who appears in the first novel and has such immense consequences for the whole work, although she herself is “minor” in a way, Proust has created a complete character, a truly marvelous creation.

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Daniel Mendelsohn, an American memoirist, essayist, critic, columnist, and translator, is the Editor at Large of the New York Review of Books. 

Playlist of the Week

The Zombies   —   Care of Cell 44
Led Zeppelin   —   Fool in the Rain
The Rolling Stones   —   Beast of Burden
Jimi Hendrix   —   All Along the Watchtower
Blue Öyster Cult   —   (Don’t Fear) The Reaper
The Doors   —   Riders on the Storm
Jethro Tull   —   The Poet and the Painter
Steppenwolf   —   Born To Be Wild
Electric Light Orchestra   —   Hold on Tight
Depeche Mode   —   Personal Jesus

This week’s playlist is available on iTunes and Spotify. I hope you enjoy it.

Self Portrait by David Whyte

It doesn’t interest me if there is one God
or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know
if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eyes
saying this is where I stand. I want to know
if you know
how to melt into that fierce heat of living
falling toward
the center of your longing. I want to know
if you are willing
to live, day by day, with the consequence of love
and the bitter
unwanted passion of your sure defeat.

I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even
the gods speak of God.

  — David Whyte
  from Fire in the Earth
  ©1992 Many Rivers Press


Most creatures take the world outside as they find it and instinctively become partners with the environment. Man is the one creature who can alter himself and his surroundings, as the geologist John Hodgdon has wisely observed, yet he is perhaps the most seriously maladjusted of all living creatures. He is the one creature who is able to accumulate verifiable knowledge about himself and his environment, and yet he is the one who is habitually deluded. No other animal produces verbal monsters in his head and projects them on the world outside his head. Language is apparently a sword which cuts both ways. With its help man can conquer the unknown; with it he can grievously wound himself.

— Stuart Chase

Stuart Chase was an American economist, social theorist, and writer. His writings covered topics as diverse as general semantics and physical economy.

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World Reconstructed with GIFs

Finally technology is being put to good use! The 7 Wonders of the Ancient World was a list of must-see sites for Ancient Greek tourists. Compiled by Antipater of Sidon, a poet in 2nd-century-BCE Greece, with later contributions by figures such as the mathematician Philon of Byzantium, the list remains an important piece of intangible heritage today.Sadly, only one of those ancient wonders is still standing. Fortunately technology has come to the rescue so that modern classics-lovers can have the chance to visit the structures that Antipater first recommended.Check out the reconstructed the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, so you can see how the ruins originally looked:

1.  The Colossus of Rhodes A feat of ingenuity and engineering and served as a Rhodian symbol of victory. The Colossus of Rhodes was erected in 280 BCE but was toppled by an earthquake in 226 BCE.

2. The Great Pyramid of Giza The oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the Giza pyramid complex bordering present-day El Giza, Egypt. It is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the only one to remain largely intact.

3. Hanging Gardens of Babylon An ascending series of tiered gardens containing a wide variety of trees, shrubs, and vines, resembling a large green mountain constructed of mud bricks, and said to have been built in the ancient city of Babylon, near present-day Hillah, Babil province, in Iraq.

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