Human beings are a rope between apes and super-humans. – Nietzsche
When calling for a “preventative eugenics” in Hedonist Manifesto, Onfray brilliantly tackles many people’s apprehensions about the ethics of eugenics–which has become such a bad word–by calling for a compassionate, hedonist transhumanism in service of public health and preventative medicine, including gene therapy.
So the challenge that he accepts is to articulate an Epicurean morality and ethics of transhumanism. Onfray says that a libertarian, Promethean eugenics would “increase the chance of a happy presence in the world”. Consider that: being healthy is always preferable to being sick; being happy is always preferable to being chronically depressed; having all the body parts that we need is always preferable to having to live without our limbs. These are not frivolous enhancements to our bodily composition: any science (like gene therapy), technology (like bionic legs or arms), or other ways of transcending the human condition and body that help a patient to avoid or heal depression, chronic illness, or incapacity is moral if it increases the chance of a happy presence in the world, and/or decreases the chance of a miserable presence in the world.
For an even more concise definition of what is and what isn’t frivolous, we may use the tool of Epicurus’ division of desires as natural and necessary, natural but unnecessary, and neither natural nor necessary, to determine to what extent the goal of a therapy is in line with our nature.
Onfray offers us Prometheus–who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans–as a forward-looking humanist role model in this regard: a type of Nietzschean Over-Man. Although he was punished by the Olympians for his transgression on behalf of mortals, Prometheus was revered as a hero and a god by our classical humanist predecessors. Human genius, technology, and science do indeed represent an affront to the gods of the old morality and of humanity’s infancy. Onfray does not kiss the ground in awe of some ancient taboo, like many among the religious do; neither does he sink his head in the sand when confronted with the very real difficulties tied to eugenics and transhumanism–defined as the efforts by science and technology to help humans transcend their limits. Instead, he celebrates Promethean transgression, and frames the discussion of its inherent dangers within the field of Epicurean ethics.
This has to be understood as part of his broader effort to de-Christianize the flesh on the face of attempts by paternalistic clergies to control our bodies, to make important life decisions on our behalf concerning family planning, and even to impede the advance of stem-cell research and other potentially life-saving science by appealing to baseless, supernatural beliefs that attribute an immortal and immaterial soul to living cells that have yet to even attain sentience.
If we base our ethics on the study of nature and accept the Epicurean doctrine that our own nature seeks to avoid pain and to experience pleasure, then the possibility of a compassionate bioethics emerges that affirms the many gifts of science and puts science to good use for the welfare of humanity. This is not to say that there won’t remain areas of confusion and complexity when it comes to morality, or that our choices and avoidances will always and in every case be made easy by the study of philosophy. Life is complicated, and there will likely be difficult moral choices at some time or another. Epicurean ethics dignify us, and allow us greater clarity and more sober reasoning concerning what leads to a life of pleasure.
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