Nogal & Price - Who Owns Life?

Additional Information

Category Lecture
Speakers Nogal, Agnieszka & Price, Jonathan
Year 2018

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Agnieszka Nogal University of Warsaw with Jonathan Price J

PII Centre, Warsaw 

“Who Owns Life?”

The past fifty years have been a period of intense development of biological sciences, with the mapping of the human genome and great advances both in treatment of human disease and in augmentation of human capacities. Posthumanists postulate that the human body may be, or should be, improved up to the limits of what is technologically possible. It is generally thought, however, that the decision whether to use such therapies should be an individual matter. Some question the first postulate about the use of technology. But the second postulate, of individual competence to ‘improve’ one’s own body, might also usefully be called into question.

Classical interpretations always said life belongs to God. The liberal philosophy of John Locke (1632-1704) begins the ‘privatisation’ of the individual life, and of the body. But treating either body or life as individual property open to any kind of intervention and ‘improvement’ also creates many risks. Contemporary Political philosophers such as Francis Fukuyama, Jürgen Habermas, and Michael Sandel, point out (as part of bioethical considerations) risks associated with technological interference in the shape of our own species; they also warn against treating humans as a product. They look for the political consequences of individual choices and point out that: (1) biotechnologies may reduce equality between persons because of the improvement of only some (select) individuals; (2) biotechnologies may affect personal autonomy of some individuals because of decisions to enhance or not enhance made by their parents, before they (as children) could choose for themselves; and (3) biotechnologies treat human life as a product in the market economy, rather than as a source of dignity.

In classical Greek philosophy there was no single word to describe all of life. Zoê meant animal life, and occurs only in the singular; whereas bios meant human life, also a certain way of life. Zoê meant the fact of belonging to a set of animated entities, and it was immortal and eternal, or ever-recurring. Bios pointed to a specific form of life, of an individual or group. It took various forms. Its change through time led to the making of an individual biography. In antiquity, this human form of existence was associated with politics.

In modern times, biography has become the domain of the active individual subject. Freedom to shape one’s own biography is now rarely called into the question. However, the interference in the sphere of zoê is more and more questionable. Biological sciences show that we all participate in a sort of naturalized zoê. In this way, it may be described as a common good, and the protection of it has the deepest ecological character. I defend the position that participation in zoê exceeds the individual’s freedom, and thus requires some constraints. As a common heritage it must be protected from abuse. The contemporary corollary is environmental protection.

AGNIESZKA NOGAL is Professor of the Philosophy of Politics at the University of Warsaw.

JONATHAN PRICE is Fellow of the Center for the Thought of John Paul II (Warsaw) and Editor of the journal Politics & Poetics.