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Animal Rights, Gene Technology, and Human Breeding:  A Conversation with Peter Sloterdijk*

Conducted by
Heik Afheldt and Bernd Ulrich


“I don’t believe in a God that created harelips” - Peter Sloterdijk 

The human genome has shown how close we are to animals. Could this not lead to greater kindness to animals?

The deeper insight into the genetic similarity between animals and humans and between humans and plants leads us to a situation which many people can understand and that was formulated in German Idealism and in natural philosophy around 1800. Think about Schelling who revolted against with “the complete death blow to all of nature” Fichtes moral idealism. Much of what we encounter anew in the labs was philosophically present  two hundred years ago. What was then presented in a frock coat comes to us again in the language of the white smock. The broad population has the right idea that must be publicly explained about what occurs in the technicians’ laboratory.  It is there that developments are dangled that concern the entire human condition.

Who can control these laboratories?

Obviously there is a type of a Council among those involved. Since a couple of years ago crowds of people have been gathering around the laboratories of the gene cardinals —a desire that manifests itself like type of bio-political church following of sorts. And a second ring is forming around this nucleus of anthropologically-engaged that is coming together among the lawyers of the remaining creatures. These assume a new a type of legal representation or trust toward the steps of animal evolution. These themselves have no voice and represent a vulnerable life and have a say among the full collection of living  creatures that are coming in to being because we perceive them as vulnerable lives and as having a delicate ecological connection.    

The animals will soon be sitting with us at the table.

Do we need, in addition to a code of anthropological technologies also a code of animal technologies?

Absolutely. I think that a new branch of occupation will come into existence, a new category of legal competence. In one way or another there will be animal lawyers and animal trusts. The traditional animal agencies affiliated with veterinarians, agricultural ministers and animal protection groups do not suffice in order to create an enforceable set of ethics that corresponds to the knowledge of the similarities between humans and animals. One can clearly detect this tendency from the creative unrest  that has touched upon all of Europe for weeks with regard to the BSE scandals and other animal-related catastrophes. At last, people are talking about animals again and about farmers again too. Up until now farmers were the unrewarded agents of the animal world in our society. Their tasks must be newly defined and compensated.

At present millions of animals are being burned to death because of BSE and foot and mouth disease. How can one reconcile this with respect for animals?

Animals are allowing themselves to be remembered through catastrophes and I am certain that this will lead to lasting effects for their diet and the ethos toward animals. But unlike before one cannot delegate the question of guilt onto society as in the times in which a left wing radical agitation movement existed which held that “society” was an address on which all of the blames could be pinned. Today we’ve learned that it doesn’t make sense to project vague moral ills onto society. Everyone who is able to function is accountable. Society does not operate as a whole. At the center of the BSE debate is not “society” but the meat market. We cannot achieve anything today with abstract free-floating rhetoric.

Can there be any type of justification for killing millions of animals?

I don’t think there’s any justification for it. One can give reasons as to why one does it. But it can’t be justified. One has to be careful not to not to confuse explanations with justification. It’s important to keep the gaping wound open. Crimes against animals cannot be glossed over.

Does the injustice lie in the fact that animals are deprived of their right to be eaten and instead get burned to death?

This is a sophistic argument. No, the injustice toward animals begins much sooner. When animals, in Hegelian terms, are a priori produced merely as beings in the service of beings other that themselves and when their purpose of existence is determined by a restless, reckless, empty consumption. There is something fundamentally wrong with this. It raises fundamental questions about intensive livestock farming. Intensive livestock farming does not belong to the farming tradition; rather it is an evil synthesis of nomadic animal breeding customs and modern meat-capitalism.

Do you believe that there will be the possibility of practicing the genetic altering of animals thoughtlessly in the future? Will it be possible to speak of animals á la carte? This would contradict your vision of animal emancipation.

We’re moving toward a medically-dominated society. A medical-pharmaceutical-biotechnical complex is taking shape which wrestles with the greatest illusions of vitality. Health myths, illusions about immunity and life-extension are coming to take the place of religion. Already today, life-extension is a widespread option. Modern people do not want keep too much guess work in life. Otherwise it will drive them to a metaphysical superstructure. Life-extension that has been developed by present day medicine removes a great deal of the metaphysical pressures from our lives in that it eliminates the need for the many subsequent demands of an unfulfilled life as in the Middle Ages. The modern individual wants to die like Job once did: old and satisfied with life. This is the basis for the medically-dominated complex.

Will there be human beings á la carte, conforming to the most bizarre wishes?

No, the ideal of human formation will not be purposefully damaged. Just as before, we will experience monster shapes and hybrid forms as something horrible and shutting out horror remains an effective means. Once again we will understand the concept of monster from its origin. The word, as etymologists explain, comes not from the Late Latin, monstrare, to show; rather from the Classical Latin monere, to admonish. They surface among people as signs from the hereafter. Monsters were the envoys of the gods. They carried a mandate of evil. Through them, we once held, the gods wanted to impart admonitions and signs. This perception of the monstrous will probably come back again soon under a different omen. Because by nature there will be some anomaly stemming from the general human biotechnological level-headedness and even when some attempts will possibly succeed, it is foreseeable that many of them lead to the formation of monsters. Because we stand before man-made catastrophes of human formation and we will speak about these admonitions. This pushes us to a new level of monologues. Monsters are mirrors of ourselves.

Can it not be seen in the inverse: If genetic modification will make people more and more perfect, then aren’t we the monsters, we who remain from the time before the biotechnical age and were created in the archaic fashion?

 I take horror novels and horror theories for that what they are, as entertainment. Targeted biotechnical human creation will not, according to the knowledge we now have, be realistically attainable for a long time. What is currently being discussed by the human improvement party seems very, very speculative to me.

Have we made ourselves?

Yes, human beings are genetically cultural beings that have changed their biological structure through extended stays in the house of cultural inclinations. Neoteny plays a decisive role in the special biological development of humans. The retention of youth forms and even of fetal formations up into adulthood speaks for this. I have met molecular biologists and sociologists who never even heard of the term. For example the fact that human faces have no snouts is a cultural effect.

Does the euphoria over the deciphering of the human genome relativize the fact that certain human dimensions are still unknown?

We still are not able to decipher nearly as much as is often claimed. According to what we hear, biologists are still only able to understand only one or three percent of the genome. The German Nobel prize winner Nüsselein-Vollhart is of the opinion that we don’t even really understand a single gene that is we are not able to grasp it in its full functioning. To understand the genome is the work of a century. I think that geneticists will soon need the help of cultural philosophers in order to ask more intelligent questions on genes. The way in which the material is currently questioned is medically-coded and exclusively medically-oriented. This is too narrow of a perspective. We are looking for dispositions for disease. This is a one way street for research.

Recently you had a conversation with the genetic researcher Craig Venter, which left us feeling a bit puzzled. Are not the questions that we are currently discussing more interesting than Venter’s motivation for his research?

This is what Venter and the American ambassador who was also there in Lyon also thought. But in that case it was a misunderstanding. For me the point was not Venter’s motivation. I wanted to place him within the Cultural Revolution that stems from the American Revolution, as Harold Bloom has referred to the phenomenon. We are experiencing the formation of a hyper-ideology for the networked world: the fusion of stock market illusions and bio-illusions. The two greatest systems of illusions are growing together that have appeared in human history up until now: the religiously vital and the economic dynamic. The first has to do with spiritual life success, with choosing and blessing with a sort of metaphysical immunity. The second is about an economic success, the I-forming satisfaction over growing accounts and status gains. This situation presents us with a new intellectual task: to grasp what happens when these two illusionary- and immunizing systems merge with one another.

Do you mean a bio-Calvinism of sorts?

Perhaps that is the right expression. Because it’s high time to describe this American religion or the resulting bio-religion more precisely. For this reason I have used the opportunity to make a few suggestions to Craig Venter, as to how he can position himself as a proponent of this movement. He did not accept these suggestions in the Lyon situation. Instead he has served us with a skeptical version of his own interpretation, which in no way means that a more enthusiastic version does not exist.  I know two speeches by him in which this comes through very clearly. One from June 26, 2000 as he stood next to Clinton, allowing his to gaze wander beyond the end of the millennium and then revealed his great vision; and another one which he held before Vietnam veterans and traces his work back to this time stating that he had survived the war and wanted to do something big and important with his rescued lie. This shows that Venter has the ability of tapping into more than one inventory of vocabularies and experiences. He can take on mournful or agnostic tones at will. In my opinion this is proof of extraordinary intelligence.

Venter has practiced an appropriate rejection of metaphysics with regard to you, up until the statement that he allegedly researched the genome because he wanted to buy himself a bigger sailboat. Did you demand too much from him?

Probably. But even if the temptation for cooperative philosophizing did not work, at least he has reacted in a way that demonstrated that he was thoroughly and exceptionally intellectually present. I was only not able to move him to theoretical acrobatics.

Does this lie in the fact that a deep-seeking, worry-ridden European asked a happy researching American? Was there an intersection of two cultures?

That’s how it can be seen. One should however not underestimate the European advantage in this confrontation. In the last one hundred years, Europeans have learned how to withdraw from imperial overstretching. The Americans, in contrast, still have the missionary, naïvely expansive view that belongs to the assumption of leadership through neophytes. When it is stated that the Europeans have forfeited their position of leadership, one mus also add to that that it was perhaps the best thing that could happen to them. Economically, they were able to keep a leading position and cede the disadvantages of political dominance. There is now a volunteer that disencumbers Europe. Actually, Europeans feel a lot more comfortable in their mild skepticism toward progress than they are willing to admit. The widespread enthusiasm for America does not run deep in Germany and in Europe. They applaud Americans but do not want to be like them. They lean back a bit and unsurprisingly it is an armchair on which they are leaning and it is an expensive, well-made director’s armchair. They lean back only lightly in order to feel more relaxed and to make more leve-headed decisions. The European style of exercising power has become more discreet. This could mean that it possesses more control and sustainability and can prove itself more capable of enduring in the long run than any naïve surge ahead and take charge kind of attitude with projects in which one can virtually not know where they will lead.

For this reason retroactive appeals function so poorly here.

Roman Herzog experienced this and future appeals politicians will experience this in the future. The Europeans no longer participate in volunteer mobilizations/ Is this not a great advantage?

Is this also valid for the gene technology revolution? Sometime we perceive politics shying away from this topic.

Europeans await the monsters just as they once did for the barbarians. We are looking out for incidents in which the gene technology euphoria will break. But we know that it can continue even without the euphoria. Everything that can be incorporated into solid success stories will here also become part of the culture. The Europeans and the Germans as well, will not deny themselves the tiny steps of progress in gene technology. Just that the Europeans have practiced this hang-gliding over the abyss too often in the last century.

The new cultural minister Julian, Nida, Rümelin claims that embryos have no human worth. What do you think? As of when is a person worthy of having human worth?

When one asks these questions, one is already on the wrong track. One must simply know that the concept of human worth is thoroughly shaped by old European substance metaphysics. If one is going to use these terms then one should do it consistently and grasp it in its entirety. The tiniest part of a substance is still only a substance. The question as to when a human life should really begin to be honored as such is nothing more than the Catholic way of talking about human worth because they see the early cells of humans as being just as sacred as the grown imago. Unfortunately, those who hold this position don’t express themselves clearly in most cases because they are too cowardly to avow themselves to a decisive metaphysical position. Cowardice generates confusion and the confusion produces pseudo-debates. The discussion of human worth is a metaphysical semantic game that only makes sense under its own premises. As soon as one transfers this debate into secular, legal and philosophical language it falls into an existential crisis out of which it comes defeated.

How should one then discuss when human life begins?

I would prefer to use the concept of guardianship. Legally and psychologically, this concept is sufficiently clear and expresses the idea that there are relationships among people, that are also binding and to a high degree especially when one end of the relationship is not able to exercise its self-assertion. This applies directly to children. A successful human life stems from a stage of guardianship. This is reminiscent of the insurmountable necessity of guardianship s the highest form of solidarity even when one has to come to terms with the fact that this concept will attract a bunch of neurotic and autistic prejudices against the power of the guardians. I am convinced that a generous and thoroughly thought out theory of guardianship will preserve us from many of the absurd side effects of an overreaching discourse on human worth.

Are you only thinking of guardianship for children that are already here?

Not only as such. There is, as I stated earlier, a guardianship for the unborn and the never born. A type of immigration takes place in every society. By this I don’t mean those from the outside but those from the inside, the biological immigrants of every new generation. These immigrants don’t make their entry through external borders, but through mothers. And even here a politics of immigration has always existed. Never have societies welcomed all of their immigrants indiscriminately: neither the ones that wanted to come in from the outside, nor the ones that sought to come in from the inside. In the case of biological immigration the role of the border control has always lain with the mothers; they play the roles of the immigration officers. They are the ones that decide who will be let in and who will not; this has been a woman’s right since time immemorial. One has to come to a consensus over this fact in order to begin discussing principles.

In the case of “surplus” embryos the immigration officers are not mothers but doctors.

Here one can reasonably apply the rule of the graded protection services. You interpret the margin for the earliest forms of potential human life as undefined and that is located on the lowest step of protection. Of course the embryo that is only a few days old has a right to provision. But there are a series of exceptions and evasions that go with that. This lies in the nature of this question, as one already knows with natural events. Every third or fourth menstruation cycle is a spontaneous rejection due to a refusal to allow an organism to nest in one’s body. Yet women in most cases have no idea about this. As soon as the maternal organism has allowed the nesting to take place, one will agree to a higher level of protection worthiness.

What does this speak for?

That the concept of a graded protection worthiness we come closer to real life circumstances and the moral intuitions of human being than with an abstract general concept of person that one can only implement at the expense of the implausibility of embryos in the four-cell stage. Most of them factually operate with a three-step plan, that has been preserved: from the beginning the fertilized egg and the invisible embryo are under the protection of their natural and legal guardians, who could both use greater leeway in making determinations; in the next step the implanted embryo enjoys a higher level of immunity because of its manifest presence and its intimate welcome through its mother. The immunization goes even further when toward the middle of the pregnancy a soul in the traditional sense, enters the picture. At this point a ring of protection fully encloses the new life; from that point onward we are dealing with a human being whose rights may be denied by no one, under any pretexts whatsoever.

What lies before human worth? Integrity?

Many overextended ideas circulate over integrity. One speaks of the integrity of a disabled life, of the right to incompletion, of the right to be conceived and not made. In such formulations lie some pleasant ideas in part, but they are tied to a problematic tendency to capitulate to discoveries. With all due respect to theology: nature is a already a single improvement process and at the same time an innumerable gene copy error. I reject the theological transfiguration of hereditary diseases. I don’t believe in the God that created hare-lips. Of course, I can understand that many find it scandalous that very soon therapeutic improvements will be attempted on embryos or even on the blastocyst. But to have malformed children come out of evolution is at least just as scandalous.

But won’t it get to the point where everything that does not correspond to an ever increasing demand of perfection become a disability?

There is a danger in this. But it does not stem from gene technology per se but from an infantile model of thinking of narcissistic people. The perfectionism of dimwits is dreadful. How can this be prohibited? As a matter of fact ideas of breeding of a superman, a sturdy human or a talented mutant are surfacing above all in the United States at present. But this is laughable both from a moral standpoint and from an anthropological one as much as the idea of a retro-breeding of humans to the fighting apes of the Darwin era was ridiculous. On the other hand, one must be careful not to allow genetic crackpots to practice applied science fiction in isolated laboratories. But in this condensed world such developments are to be feared less than many believe. Even anomalies will sooner or later be resocialized by the technological community. Only serious gene technicians have an authentic cultural mandate.

In most cases there is no chance of curing disabled embryos because diagnostic medicine is far more advanced than therapeutic medicine. Consequently the therapy consists in killing the embryo. Doesn’t the right to be cured transform itself into the right of not having to have to exist?

Many styles of parenting will be developed from this. Many people will want to keep procreation under the veil of ignorance; others will intensively occupy themselves with the possibility of genetic precautions. The theory and practice of biological guardianship gains more territory. This is a trend in our culture since the introduction of contraceptives. The provision will extend to an area that has not been reachable because the technical premises were not present. It will be ever more difficult to engage in naïve parenting.

The way in which a human being should become should be decided in conversations between medical hegemonists, as you refer to them, and the worried or overly worried parents. These then lead to a rational debate over the biological prerequisites for a successful life. Isn’t this terrible since something which cannot be decided through reason is being decided rationally?

Yes, this is an accurate insight. Decisions don’t not usually forced by reasons. Decisions always require the risk of a leap. Reason for anxiety sets in if one were able to create future generations optionally and produce complex characteristics intentionally. This remains a fable for the foreseeable time. The prevention of hereditary diseases of the severest type is, as soon as this becomes possible, not an unholy machination but an expression of responsibility. There are borderline situations in which the parents must decide for a demand for life as informed guardians. There is no way of getting around this.

Can one or should one set fixed policy as to which disabilities should be aborted?

Politics can, may, and must do whatever is in its reach, but it can never do this alone again. It will have to be surrounded by a circle of consultants. All decisions must be an outcome of discussions and must be embedded in checks and balances. Our society has gotten so complex and so rich in inhibitory and compensatory mechanisms that really big idiocies succeed in having a long life.

Our situation is more determined by the fact that no one is ready any longer to formulate norms that are not already relativized in the act of expressing them. There is the danger related to this that we will sink into discursive goo.  Absolute idiocies can be committed in this type of scenario over which one can be artfully deceived. Doesn’t one need a group like the Catholic Church, which is naïve, yet clever enough to set clear boundaries?

As far as naiveté goes, I see no danger that could escape us. There is always enough ignorance and there will be no want for advancing decisiveness. What is important is to have a mechanism in place that will balance the naiveties and the fundamentalisms.

The position of naiveté is much trickier today because it is, at least in the case of the Church, in a way, an enlightened naiveté.  It is aware of the contours it gives the debate. The Church however secretly doubts itself as it pronounces its position.

For this reason I am looking for a more encompassing term for naiveté. It has to capture the readiness on the part of people to make decisions. The ability to make decisions presupposes leaving certain aspects unconsidered and not thinking certain thoughts through. This naiveté is indestructible.  

The state surrounds itself with consultants. The Federal Chancellor wants to have a national Council on Ethics. Would you participate in it?

My answer depends on whether it is you who is asking me this or the Federal Chancellor.

* This interview was translated from the original German and re-published with the permission of Dr. Heik Afheldt.

Peter Sloterdijk is the most commercially successful contemporary philosopher in Germany. His bestseller Critique of Cynical Reason is the best sold philosophical book in Europe. Recently, in an interview he did with the “FAZ” he spoke with the genetic scientist Craig Venter on the motivations behind his research and the consequences of the new knowledge on the biology of human beings. Sloterdijk triggered a controversy two years ago with his thesis on human breeding and is now refining it with a political debate on pre-implantation diagnosis and therapeutic cloning. Peter Sloterdijk teaches in Karlsruhe and Vienna.


Logos 6.3 - summer 2007
© Logosonline 2007