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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Currently reading: Beyond Humanity? (Oxford, 2011) by Allen Buchanan

This is the new book by Allen Buchanan - of Buchanan, et al, From Chance to Choice (2001), widely regarded as the most sophisticated philosophical study of the ethical and political questions relating to genetic engineering and related technologies.

Beyond Humanity? is a much shorter work, but it contains more than its share of detailed philosophical analysis. I didn't quite know what to expect, thinking this might contain a lot of the same old arguments back and forth that I've read many times by now. But it surprised me - pleasantly. It seems very fresh throughout, even when Buchanan is giving well-deserved stick to the usual bioconservative suspects (Leon Kass, Michael Sandel, Frances Fukuyama, and so on).

In particular, Buchanan rolls out a lot of expertise in genetics, evolutionary biology, and philosophy of biology to attack science-based bioconservative arguments. He also tries a new take on the distributive justice issues relating to biotechnology, which have been done to death in the past with no one ever managing to say something even remotely conclusive. He asks how the problem looks if we avoid getting tied up in highly abstract debate about theories of justice and look at the distribution of new technologies as a practical issue in much the same way as we might look at getting drugs and vaccines to people who need them (e.g. in the developing world).

Buchanan ends with a set of practical proposals for regulation of biomedical enhancement technologies. Would his proposals work? To be honest, I need to read those pages again just to get a better sense of how it's all supposed to operate. It involves a new international regulatory agency and new developments in international intellectual property law. You need to know more than I do about international regulation of intellectual property research, and much else, before the final chapter is really transparent. I know something about this, but nowhere near enough to take in, from one reading, exactly what Buchanan is proposing ... let alone whether it would work or what problems it would have. I'm happy to learn from any commenters who have also read the book and have a better understanding than mine.

But anyway, I think it's a good thing to see a philosophical bioethicist rolling his sleeves and trying to develop practical governance proposals, working with other people who have expertise (he worked on the last chapter and related research with a political scientist and an international lawyer).

My own approach to philosophical bioethics tends to be more abstract and markedly, well, "philosophical" than this, although it's also backed up by some solid knowledge of legal principles. I doubt that I can get as nitty-gritty in making recommendations as Buchanan does, but I'm very glad to see someone of his calibre doing it. We do need to move on to the detail of what regulatory regime we want, on the assumption that it's not one of the draconian ones that have tended to proliferate in Western Countries over the past 15 or so years. Buchanan is opening up possibilities for discussion here, and Beyond Humanity? is a book that I can recommend to anyone who is interested in the subject.

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