The Future of Human Nature?

Jurgen Habermas’ The Future of Human Nature (2003) explores what it means to change ourselves.

For reasons that will become clear, while reading I found myself reflecting on the differences between genetic intervention (by parents, into the genetic makeup of their offspring), and another form of human enhancement, psychedelic therapy.

I feel that the ethical implications Habermas outlines to counter gene therapy actually support the case for psychedelic therapy. Genetic intervention is decided by the current generation but acts on future generations. The autonomy of the (future) person whose genetic makeup is affected is not and cannot be taken into account. Another major issue with gene therapy is that genotype will always remain exactly that; it may determine the phenotype of the individual in some cases (gender, for example), but by no means all. Genes express themselves differently in accordance with a complex range of factors, both internal and environmental.

In contrast, psychedelic therapy is by its nature personalized to the individual undergoing treatment. It is autonomy-enhancing in that it increases the capacity of individuals to recognise their issues and overcome influences that limit their autonomy, such as trauma, guilt, shame or fear. The common metaphor for its mode of action is a ‘journey’ or ‘path’ (hence the experience itself is described as a ‘trip’). High-dose psychedelic experience is rarely wholly pleasant. It can be quite an ordeal, and hence requires determination and courage from the subject; a clear engagement of their autonomy, and the enactment of their desire to live their best life and to be themselves.

I was reading Habermas on my travels to and from a retreat in the Netherlands, which included a (fully legal) psilocybin ceremony. In terms of personal growth, it must surely be the most profound thing I’ve ever done. It was also, for a few hours at least, one of the most desperately unpleasant, but – unlike when I had my wisdom teeth out – what followed more than made up for it. The experience has cemented in my mind the notion that it is insufficient simply for the law to turn a blind eye to those who wish to grow and use these substances for themselves for personal development. I know many people who self-medicate with similarly high doses of psilocybin, preparing with care and following clinical protocol as far as possible, and they get a lot out of it, but this legal retreat was a very different experience. The careful preparation and integration, the particular benefits of learning in and from a group and the supplementary activities (breath and bodywork, meditation, intention-setting) meant that we all came away with a lot more than glowing cheeks and a few insights. This is powerful therapeutic education.

In philosophising about gene therapy, Habermas observes that, of course, parents also have a strong environmental influence on their offspring, but he never concedes that this too may be ethically questionable. On the terms he has outlined, it certainly is. Parents often restrict their children’s autonomy in ways that are 1) obvious to the child, 2) cause them pain and distress, 3) prevent them from feeling able to ‘be themselves’, and 4) have a knock-on or even a cumulative effect on future generations. The difference, for Habermas, is that such environmental interventions are, to an extent, reversible (through ‘analysis’), but I would challenge this. I think he is vastly overestimating the power of psychiatry. I could also suggest, given that Habermas is imagining a time when we have the technology to accurately tweak genotypes, they could presumably be reverse-tweaked for the next generation. I don’t wish to sound flippant, I just find it odd that the possibility doesn’t feature in his arguments.

Another major point that Habermas leaves out about genetic intervention is that it would entail parents’ hopes and desires being made explicit and addressed from the start. Conflicting desires between parents would be surfaced early, and unrealistic or unfair expectations could be moderated or challenged. I am not suggesting this would justify saving genetic intervention from the ethical garbage heap. What I am arguing is that it is somewhat short-sighted for us to condemn genetic intervention on one hand, while condoning authoritarian discipline on the other, particularly as the latter often manifests with conflict between parents, and confusion from hopes and fears that are not openly discussed or, worse, presented inauthentically. To do so is to tip the balance of opinion firmly towards nature over nurture, when we know that it is not an ‘or’ but an ‘and’.

Essentially, I find it strange that today’s moral philosophers continue to debate eugenics and technology-brain interfaces when they could be discussing psychedelic therapy. It may not be as philosophically tortuous, but that’s because it’s not an imaginary technology. It’s a real-life practice that is becoming well-established in the clinical and self-development arenas, and it needs to be talked about.

N.B. The retreat I attended was run by the Psychedelic Society, which organises regular legal experiences in the Netherlands. You can find out more and apply here.

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