Remarks by David King

Remarks by David King

Beyond progressive liberalism

Debates about human genetics are generally framed as a clash between progressive liberalism and reactionary conservatism, and most leftists and social critics unthinkingly base their politics on progressive liberalism. I would argue that we need a new third way that recognises that progressive liberalism is part of the problem, whilst not falling into the trap of conservative politics.

We live in a society that is best described as scientific capitalism. Since the Scientific Revolution a major source of expansion and modernisation of capitalism has been scientific discovery and technological innovation. The role of science is to expose the secrets of nature and thereby control and rationalise it; this serves mainly to create wealth, improve social control and develop new weaponry. The rationalisation of nature is seen very graphically in industrial farming systems. In the 20th Century scientists and doctors developed a series of technologies for the control of human reproduction with gradually increasing power, starting with surgical sterilisation, contraception and donor insemination, followed by IVF and PGD, and potentially including cloning and genetic modification. As Marx noted in The Communist Manifesto the experience of life in capitalist societies is of continual economic, technological and social change, as "everything solid melts into air". Progressive liberalism is the ideology of the middle class managers and professionals who are responsible for managing this process, and it therefore justifies and valarises this process of capitalist modernisation and defines it as progress.

An example of the problem with progressive liberalism is the support given by many liberals and feminists to the eugenics programmes of the early 20th century. Such people viewed the elimination of disabled people and people with learning difficulties/mental health problems as a form of kindness and humanitarianism. The essence of eugenics is attempt to rationalise and control the randomness of natural human reproduction: eugenisists always argued that we should take no less care in controlling human reproduction than we do in the reading of livestock. In many European countries, eugenics programmes were supported and implemented by social democratic parties, who saw it as part of their ideology of progressive social planning.

The essential problem with progressive liberalism is that it naively believes that more knowledge and technological control of nature is necessarily a good thing. It lacks a critical understanding of the fact that this process is a central part of capitalist development, and thus nearly always serves the needs of capitalism, often with very harmful consequences for society. Progressive liberals, including most scientists and doctors, have so much invested in the idea of themselves as 'nice guys' that they are generally unable to consider whether critics of technology might not have a point. The unquestioning support of liberals for science and medical research, and the climate of emotional blackmail that has been created around these issues make it nearly impossible to have a rational debate about the direction of medical research and to weigh negative social consequences against medical benefits: medical benefit, however minor, seems to automatically trump arguments about social consequences. In the late 20th Century as there was a shift within prrogressive liberalism away from overt managerialism and towards a greater emphasis on individual liberty, this became the ruling value of ethical and political discussion. A more aggressive form of progressive liberalism is the basis of transhumanism and related ideologies. This more aggressive liberalism is also the basis of a series of well funded and highly effective lobby groups working around issues of science policy essentially serve as cheerleaders for medical research and the IVF and biotechnology industries.

At the point at which these technologies are becoming capable of radically re-writing human biology, we need a politics which goes beyond a naïve belief in progress - a politics, which explicitly criticises progressive liberalism, but does not totally abandon it. We need a politics based on the Enlightenment, which is capable of self-criticism, and which has a more sophisticated understanding of the double-edged role of science in our societies. In order to combat the way in which, in the name of medical progress, accepted ethical rules are constantly being rewritten, we need to develop a new bioethics based not on academic philosophy, but on a sociologically and historically-based understanding of society; in short, a social bioethics.

Obviously, we need to avoid language that unnecessarily creates blocks to having people understand the points we are trying to make. However, we need to recognize that a deeper critique is needed. We should be cautious about creating alliances with religious and pro-life groups. Whilst there is much that is useful and can be learnt from religious and even some conservative thinkers, the link between such organisations and the politics of traditional patriarchy etc makes such alliances highly problematic. Just as we need to overcome our acceptance of progressive liberalism, those organisations and individuals need to undergo their own re-evaluation of their basic philosophy, before they can become suitable partners.