The Reading Room: Erik Parens’ ‘Shaping Our Selves…’ reviewed


Shaping Our Selves: On Technology, Flourishing and a Habit of Thinking by Erik Parens. Oxford University Press. 2014. xi+200 pages. Hbk. ISBN: 9780190211745.

Reviewed by Nathan Emmerich, Visiting Research Fellow, Queen’s University Belfast.


On the face of it Shaping Our Selves is about the way biomedical technologies, such as neurochemical enhancements and reconstructive surgeries, can be sued to alter and mould the human body and mind. However, the author has previously addressed both of these topics. What is on offer here is, first, a consideration of the way the ethical analysis of these technologies are characterised by polarised positions and, second, an account of binocularity. This latter is a metaphor and names a habit of thinking that, if adopted more generally, purports to promote a greater degree of mutual understanding between different sides in these debates.

Parens’ strategy is to demonstrate that participants in these debates do not simply disagree but have differing intellectual orientations, or lenses, through which they consider the matters at hand. Such disagreements are, therefore, a result of a fundamental incompatibility, even incommensurability, that lies at the heart of opposed ethical perspectives. Parens proposes that if we wish to increase our understanding of the matters at hand we should attempt to consider them by thinking in a binocular, as opposed to monocular, manner. Whilst he thinks that in the final analysis, and when deciding to act, we must lapse into monocularity (p.158), he maintains that when trying to fully understand the issues we can and must oscillate between different ‘lenses’ if we want to fully comprehend the issues at hand.

The binocular metaphor works because Parens is able to divide bioethics – or, at least, the literature on the topics he discusses – into two opposing and mutually incompatible camps each of which adopts different stances on a variety of matters. The camps are those of the enthusiasts and the critics. Those who inhabit these camps have, he says, two different kinds of ethical stances, each of which is associated with two different sets of conceptual ‘lenses.’ When he suggests binocularity involves oscillating between different perspectives it is these conceptual lenses he has in mind. This endeavour can be compared to the way our vision flips between seeing a duck and a rabbit in Wittgenstein’s famous example (p.39).

Thus, the purpose of binocularity is not to help us to see further and with greater clarity or to see in greater depth, at least not insofar as seeing in greater depth means developing a more detailed appreciation for the dimensions of a ‘monocular,’ ‘singular’ or ‘unified’ ethical picture. Rather it names a habit of thinking about different, mutually incompatible approaches to ethical arguments. The aim is not to adjudicate the arguments, to effect some kind of reconciliation or to uncover some sort of ‘third way’ compromise – although, particularly when one begins to think about substantive policy, this latter may in fact result. The avowed aim is, instead, to sensitise us to our own ethical partiality and, in so doing, to encourage us to become less combative and more bipartisan in our thinking. It is Parens’ hope that we will become less rigid in maintaining our ethical stances and, in so doing, become less concerned with winning ethical arguments and more concerned with developing a greater understanding of the issues.

It is a laudable aim and Parens’ discussion contains a great deal of insight into and appreciation for the essentially political problem of engaging in contemporary ethical debate in a mutually respectful manner. Nevertheless, there are some questions to be answered. For example, Parens divides bioethicists into enthusiasts and critics, roughly those who embrace emerging biotechnologies and those who are more cautious and critical of its potential impact. The characteristic perspectives of these two groups is fleshed out by a series of conceptual binaries, one of which is the idea that enthusiasts see biotechnology as ‘value-free’ whilst critics see it as ‘value laden’ (Chap. 4). Whilst this might be true of bioethicists like Julian Savulescu and John Harris, it is not clear that this applies to others who are positioned in this camp, such as James Hughes (p.60 & 95), Andy Clark (p. 81) and Donna Haraway (p.81). Indeed it is also not clear that these latter techno-enthusiasts – and other comparable figures such as, for example, Steve Fuller – would have much sympathy for the relative simplicity of utilitarian accounts. Equally, one could suggest that utilitarian bioethicists would no doubt find Haraway’s or Fuller’s thinking needlessly complex.

One can make a similar point about those who adopt a more critical stance. In Parens view the inhabitants of this camp include outright bio-conservatives such as Leon Kass (p.51), as well as more moderate conservatives such as Dan Callahan (p.15), Michael Sandel (p.60), and Hans Jonas (p.67). However, it also includes many if not most, sociologically inclined bioethicists such as Illina Singh (p.58), Jackie Leach Scully (p.136), and Tom Shakespeare (p.136), none of whom could really be considered anything but liberal in their general outlook. Whilst one might take this as suggesting there is a distinct problem with Parens binary nomenclature, it is important to note that he rejects the idea that the enthusiasts and the critics map onto standard political divisions of progressive liberals and traditional bio-conservatives (p.52).

Given the evident and significant differences between the perspectives held by those Parens groups into enthusiast and critic, we might consider Steve Fuller’s recent suggestion that the notions of left wing and right wing are undergoing an ‘axial rotation.’ Fuller’s thinking indicates that we should reframe these basic political differences in terms of ‘up wing’ and ‘down wing.’ The latter is associated with the ‘precautionary principle,’ something often espoused by those Parens has termed critics. In contrast the ‘up wingers’ are associated with the ‘proactionary principle’ or ‘imperative,’ an idea that stems from the enthusiasts’ reaction to the precautionary principle. Whilst they come from very different perspectives, Parens (the critic) and Fuller (the enthusiast) have, it seems, independently divided the world in very similar manners, indicating that their ideas have some degree of validity.

Whilst Parens’ division of bioethicists, and those who labour in associated fields, into enthusiasts and critics stands up to scrutiny, some of the associated binaries seem less robust. For example, he holds that enthusiasts see technology as value-free whilst critics hold that it is inherently value-laden (chap. 4). However, even if these individuals are not bioethicists per se, this division can be supported when we consider enthusiasts like Haraway, Clark and Fuller. Furthermore, given the scope of this division, what might it mean to propose that we oscillate between the view that our techno-scientific achievements are value-free and the view that they are value-laden? Parens asserts that “no thoughtful person would want to choose between thinking that technology is value-free and thinking it is value-laden” (p.93). Whilst I am not a true Scotsman, I certainly aim to be a thoughtful person and, as such, I fail to see why one should not ‘choose’ or, rather, conclude that all human technology is value-laden. In my view the alternative position is fundamentally flawed.

This is not to say that I cannot appreciate the arguments, the motivations and, to a degree, the value of arguments that presume that technology is value-free. Nevertheless, I cannot take them as seriously as work conducted from what I consider to be the more defensible perspective. Given that Parens is not proposing binocularity as a ‘grand, meta-lens’ (p.9), ‘cure or solution’ (p.10), or ‘panacea’ (p.172) perhaps this is all that is required when oscillating between competing, contradictory and incommensurable points of view. If so, one could think that what Parens is proposing is a mode or style of interaction between those with differing ethical stances and perspectives. Whilst he is not suggesting we abandon the pursuit of singular or monocular ethical perspectives, arguments and accounts, he is questioning how we ought to conduct ourselves when speaking across such divisions. One might, then, take him to be offering an ethics of the public square or, to put it another way, attempting to find a common socio-political space from which we can give proper consideration to divergent but genuinely held ethical perspectives. As such ‘binocularity’ is a kind of political stance, built upon the recognition that the neutrality of liberalism is not the same as liberalism being value free (p.49).

Whilst it is not discussed, at least not in any detail, Parens’ approach can be seen as insisting on the value-laden nature of the public square, our political debates and, for that matter, our ethical discourse. One can, I think, see this as predicated on the assumption that applied or practical (bio)ethics is, in essence, a contemporary political technology, one that bolsters the apparent neutrality of liberalism. As such it would seem that binocularity is predicated on the assumption that human technologies are not value-free, but inherently value-laden. Binocularity is, then, something that conforms to the worldview of the critics. However, it is not clear how well it might sit with those enthusiasts who cleave to the notion that technology is, or can be, value-free and that ethics is, or can be, considered in an ‘objective’ matter to be pursued through adopting an ‘impartial’ stance (p.23). If my analysis is well-founded, it is not clear to me why Parens’ putative opponents, the enthusiasts, would think the binocular approach worth considering; it seems to be founded on a set of values that seem anathema to their favoured approach.

In the chapter ‘Closing Thoughts’ Parens details how, when he embarked on his first major project at the Hastings Centre, he adopted a ‘high reason’ approach to (bio)ethical analysis of enhancement and did so against his own academic training and intellectual inclinations (p.161). Given that Parens identifies with the critics’ camp, one can see this as an attempt to adopt the stance of his opponents, the enthusiasts. Whether this was done to prove them wrong on their own terms or, as is more likely, something that naturally resulted from the process of entering a new field, of being a newcomer who naturally tries to fit in and find his feet by conforming to the rules of the disciplinary game, is not relevant. What matters is that the approach adopted by Parens belonged to his opponents. Whilst one cannot fault him for it – it was through doing so that Parens was able to fully develop his own ethical stance – it is nevertheless illuminating. In this light one might consider if Parens’ metaphor of binocularity fails to fully challenge his opponents; if, despite his intentions, it cedes too much ground to the enthusiasts thereby allowing their style of monocular ethics to flourish and, ultimately, maintain its position of dominance.

Against this one can, I think, point to an underdeveloped aspect of Parens’ account. On the one hand he claims binocularity runs against the grain of “the first law of thinking dynamics” (p.40), as conducting intellectual enquiries using more than one lens requires more effort than monocular thinking. However, towards the end of the book, Parens discusses a couple of cases that reveal the way in which ordinary individuals often appear to be thinking in a binocular manner and, furthermore, seem to be doing so with relative ease (p.149-151). If this is the case it seems to belie the notion that “we can’t actually think with any two lenses at once” (p.39). As the notion of lens is, here, a metaphor for ‘conceptual framework’ we should, I think, acknowledge that monocularity is a product of thinking from within specific disciplinary perspectives and may not be something that troubles everyday human reflection, at least not to the same degree.

To be clear, monocular disciplinarily has served us well. Nevertheless, given that the notion of ethical expertise or, at least, moral authority is widely rejected, then we should consider the positive and negative consequences that disciplinary rigour in the field of ethics has had for the way we understand our ordinary or everyday ethical thinking. Read as a plea to further reconnect academic ethics, and the study of meaning questions more generally (p.4), with lived experience as – for example, those working in feminist and disability ethics have done – and a broader, humanities based, understanding of human being, Parens’ argument takes on greater significance; it indicates that further reflexive development of this field of enquiry is possible. Indeed, consistent with this thought, Parens suggests that we are at the beginning of a ‘second wave’ in enhancement debates, one that exhibits a greater degree of binocularity (p.9 & 175). If what Parens calls the second wave is, as I suspect, marked by a relatively sophisticated and interdisciplinary approach to bioethical analysis, then his binocular habit of thinking may offer a much needed guide as to how such scholarship might be collectively understood and, ultimately, pursued in such a way as to contribute to and participate in the common good or, in Parens terms, human flourishing in the broadest sense.






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