Is a value oriented concept of man anachronistic ?
Sloterdijk´s thoughts on the social function of biotechnology in the light of
current bioethical standards
(Lecture given at the European College of Liberal
Arts in Berlin, July 30, 2000 (http://www.ecla.de)
The background of the debate I am going to analyze in the following lecture
is constituted by a rather traditional question which all of a
sudden moved to the forefront of philosophical interest again. What does it mean to be
a human being ? What´s the essence of this being in contrast to other beings, animals
for instance ? Is there an intrinsic value to this being which constitutes certain rights and
obligations ? This question which the famous 18 th century German philosopher Immanuel
Kant described as being founded in human nature itself received unexpected attention
due to a debate which was triggered by the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk.
In 1999 Sloterdijk gave a lecture which many of the participants- among them quite a number
of influential Jewish philosophers and theologians- described as "horrible".
What had happened that the most important and influential German newspapers and journals like
the SPIEGEL the ZEIT and the SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG started furious attacks against his
arguments. Sloterdiijk was also fiercly criticized by Juergen Habermas, Robert Spaemann and
The incriminated lecture which Sloterdijk gave at the German Castle Elmau in Southern
Bavaria was entitled: "Rules for the Human Zoo" (in German it sounds more gently
"Menschenpark", park for human beings).
The subtitle was: An answer to the letter on humanism (which the German
philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote in the 1950s). Well, this title is at the first glimpse
really astonishing. Rules for a park of human beings, a zoo for human beings ? How should
that be understood ? An animal zoo, yes, we know that, but a zoo for human beings ?
What the heck should that be`? Well, one could suppose that perhaps the human society
should be conceived of in terms of a zoo and described as being that in an analogous
sense. One could think at the first glimpse that the author is convinced that there is no
substantial difference between both, or just one minor difference consisting in the fact that
the rules for an animal zoo are already there whereever it exists while they still have to be
developed for the human zoo. Indeed, it was this kind of vocabulary which alerted
many in the audience as well as his critics outside the arena. He was suspected to
kind of rewrite fascist ideas as if this up to now widely accepted thinker would have
finally started to unveil the secret essence of his theoretical position which he did not
dare to show up to now. Well. unfortunately Sloterdijk provoked such criticism on
the background of some of his previous statements. A few years ago I have pointed out
in the chronicle "Eleusis"(it was exactly in 1995, 2nd vol.) that during the 29 th Baden Baden
Dispute which could be seen on television a prominent participant was telling the audience
that the humanistic idea of man well founded in the age of enlightenment and the
conclusive idea of reason as being able to bring this world into a better shape,
thereby allowing peaceful relations between individuals as well as nations. was
nonsense, man would only be able -and these are the exact words now Sloterdijk
used- man would only be able to state his own idiocy and this idiocy would well
match his biological origin. The prominent participant which I mentioned in my
article was Sloterdijk. Whenever the difference between human beings and
animals is so radically eliminated as is the case in Sloterdijks arguments, whereever
man´s cultural endeavours are conceived of as finally being nonsense, one is really
getting close to dangerous waters. There lies a great danger ahead, the danger
of arrogance concerning humanity, the arrogance of despising humanity.
Many among the audience have understood the Sloterdijk lecture in that sense.
Their understanding was that there is someone outthere called
Sloterdijk that demands that we should think about rules for the future
production of the great mass of people on the basis of the achievements biotechnology
can offer. The rules for this production of course would still have to be discussed.
Unfortunately Sloterdijk has provoked this kind of understanding of his
lecture due to some unclear concepts he used. He made the mistake of
describing with completely inadequate words what the actual intention of inter-
nationally accepted normative elements within the lifesciences is and what has to
be elaborated on internationally in the future due to further developments within
the life sciences.
Yet the problem that is posed by the Slotedijk lecture and which is of great importance
for future normative discussions within the life sciences must be seen in another section
of the arguments which the subtitle of the lecture is pointing to. It reads " Answer
to the letter on Humanism". After World War II the famous German philosopher
Martin Heidegger wrote a letter to one of his admirers, Jean Beaufret in France, and
this letter was later on published as "letter on humanism". In this letter humanism and
its value oriented concept of humanity -generally speaking- is held responsible for all
the historical catastrophees and social evils mankind has experienced the last few
hundred years. According to this argument it allowed mankind to gain power over all beings,
the whole nature we are also part of and such has contributed to forgetting about
the essence of being (in German "Sein", a specific Heideggerian mystical term, which
could perhaps be associated with the Chinese TAO, but is of course something
completely different). "In this perspective - says Sloterdijk interpreting Heidegger-
humanism must appear to be involved in all the cruelties which have been committed in
the name of human welfare. Heidegger goes even so far to say that the tragic
titanomachia, the tragic fight between bolshevim, fascim and americanism in the
middle of last century only showed three variations of the same anthropocentric
strive for power and three candidates for ruling the world all of which gave such a task
a humanistic touch. Fascism was different insofar as it more openly than its rivals
despised values fostering peace and humanistic content in general".
(Sloterdijk, DIE ZEIT, Nr.18, Sept 16 1999)
Sloterdijk seems to support this critique of humanism instead of
repelling it and continues
to elaborate on it. The central problem of Sloterdijk´s lecture lies right here: let me state
already here (I will deepen that argument later) what this rather abstract critique of humanism
means for the life sciences: it is this kind of critique of humanism which as one of its
consequences allows no reasonable values and norms, no normative decision criteria
for future developments in biotechnology that has to do
with nature in general as well as with the human nature specifically. Where should
those values and criteria come from if humanism is declared dead, if there is no
dimension of discourse anymore in which the human being can be conceived of as
being endowed with specific dignity and certain rights, unalienable rights as they
are codified in the constitutions of all democratic countries ? At least here it
becomes very difficult to understand Sloterdijk´s theoretical position.
What kind of humanism is it that it can be accused and repelled as
Sloterdijk does ? Well, there is reason for the suspicion that humanism with all
its historical, political and social consequences has not been adequately understood.
So we have to pose the question whether there is really a lack of understanding in
Sloterdijk´s concept of humanism. The answer to this question is very important.
It really depends on this answer whether it makes sense to take an ethical approach
towards technical and scientific developments in general and especially towards
biotechnology and to try to influence its social acceptance by linking it to ethical
norms and values.
Well, let´s begin with the task whether the concept of humanism that was
developed by Sloterdijk in the wake of Heidegger´s philosophy is adequate
At a first glimpse it is astonishing that Sloterdijk in a first approach defines
humanism in terms of a literary phenomenon. Humanism in this sense is being
reduced to a phenomenon of literacy, of a certain knowledge of texts.
Let me quote Sloterdijk again. He says: "Books, as the German poet Jean Paul
once has stated are more volumenous letters to friends. With this phrase he has
very well defined the essence and function of humanism. It is friendship producing
telecommunication by means of writing. What we call since the days of Cicero
"humanitas" (humanity), is in the narrowest as well as the broadest sense a
consequence of alphabetisation."(Sloterdijk, p.1) And he continues: "So we can
reduce the basic idea of all kinds of humanism to the model of a literary society
the members of which discover their common enthusiasm for inspiring senders
by reading certain texts which are considered canonical. In the center of such
a humanism we can discover a kind of closed shop or club phantasy, the dream
of a solidarity, constituted by fate, of those who had the chance to learn reading."
(Sloterdijk, p.2) "In the first instance, those humanized people are nothing more
but a sect of those that learned how to read and write, and as in many other sects
you can find here also expansionist and universalistic projects. Where this kind
of literary education became phantastic and pretentious there grammatical or
literary mysticism was established, the Kabbala, which is fond of being able
to look into the ways this world was written down by the creator."
Well, that´s all really somehow surprising. In the light of such a broadbased
concept of humanism one really got to ask whether in the end everybody that
can read and write is a humanist. Well, we can already state here that this is
not a way of scholarly handling the concept of humanism. Furtheron to describe
the Kabbala as a result of humanist expansionism and universalism is not acceptable
as well. No wonder that many of the Jewish philosophers and theologians among
the audience shook their heads. Then it is also to be questioned why the Jewish
mystical tradition was brought up as an example. The German mystical tradition
whose most famous representative was Meister Eckhart would have been an
example as well. In the end Sloterdijk could have attacked all philosophies which
tried to give an all comprising explanation of the world. Nevertheless such an attempt
by Sloterdijk wouldn´t have been acceptable either. Anyway, the explanation of
humanism in terms of aphabetisation is inadequate. Nevertheless this explanation
has a certain function within the overall concept of the author. Since nowadays much
less people are reading compared to former times and since they use other
media than books, for instance television, there is no basis for humanism anymore
-Sloterdijk concludes. Again and again Sloterdijk wants to tell us that humanism is
dead. This position becomes quite clear in the following statement: "Since a specific
mass culture was established in the First World from 1918 on (that´s when
radio broadcasting was introduced) and after 1945 through television and moreover
through the actual network revolutions common life in modern societies has been
put on a new basis. It can be described -Sloterdijk says- as being decisively post-
literary, post-epistolographic (which means post-letterwriting) and therefore post-
humanist. (Sloterdijk, l.c.)
Sloterdijk. of course, is right when he speaks of the end of the
humanism of the 19 th century which derived its identity from the knowledge of a
canon of well respected texts. But this is not the one and only humanism we have
experienced in history. Humanism is not at all just a literary phenomenon.
Humanism is also an emancipatoric, sociocritical and political movement. Through
the French Revolution and the Declaration of human and civil rights humanism
has laid the ground for a new era in human history. The famous German 18 th
century philosopher Immanuel Kant has seen it that way, Goethe has seen it
that way, the whole civilized world saw it that way when it accepted human rights
into its constitutions. In the name of humanism people fought for social rights,
for autonomy and self determination, humanism strives for the "exodus of man
out of his self caused disability of selfdetermination" as Immanuel Kant wrote
in his famous essay "An answer to the question: What is enlightenment ?" All this
had been spread among the people by means of literature, of course, and many
suffered in the fight for a better world by trying to realize the high principles
of humanity which led to democratic societies.
Therefore we have to say concerning an adequate concept of humanism that it is
not merely a literary phenomenon. It is not acceptable to simply forget about the
emancipatoric and sociocritical role of humanism in the past of our societies. To reduce
humanism to the tools by which it was spread would be like telling somebody at table who
sits in front of a nice Meissen or KPM china with golden knives and folks and who is
waiting for the dinner to come that these wonderful things are already the eating.
Reading, of course, can have important effects, and these effects are also adressed
by Sloterdijk, but again in a very restrictive way, with they eyes of a literary
humanism so to speak. Sloterdijk says: "The latent topic of humanism is the taming
of human beings, and its latent thesis is: the right literature makes people tame."
(Sloterdijk, l.c., p.4)
Quite formally and without further in depth analysis Sloterdijk describes the specific
goal of humanism as "taming human beings". In Sloterdijk´s conception humanism
by advising on the right literature to be read provides the tools for this taming process.
Thus reducing humanism to a bourgeois phenomenon allows an easy prognosis of
its end. Now, what has been the result of this literary project of taming mankind ?
Sloterdijk refers to the 19th century German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche to
answer this specific question. Sloterdijk quotes from the third part of Nietzsche´s
work "Zarathustra" as follows:
Zarathustra "wanted to know what had happened to mankind in the meantime
whether the human being has become bigger or smaller. And once he saw a
series of new houses. So he was wondering and asked: What do these houses
mean ? Truly not a great soul has put them up as a parable for itself... These
rooms and chambers, can real men go there in and out ? And Zarathustra kept
standing there and continued thinking. Finally he sad sadly: Everything has
become smaller ! Everywhere I see lower doors: He who is of my kind will
finally be able to go through, but he must bend his neck. I walk among these
people and keep my eyes open: these people have become smaller and become
even smaller still. This is caused by their doctrine of happiness and virtue.
Some of them have a will, but most of them are just objects of the will of others.
... they are round, lawful and benign to each other, just as grains of sand are
round, lawful and benign to other grains of sand. To embrace a small form of
happiness in a humble spirit: that´s what they call "dedicating oneself"
They basically want this most in their naive way: that nobody causes them
any pain. Virtue is for them something that makes them contented and tame.
Thus they transformed the wolf to a dog and the human being to man´s best domestic
(quoted from Sloterdijk l.c.)
Sloterdijk comments on this quotation as follows. For the purpose
explaining the entire consequences of Sloterdijk´s position I will read here a
longer passage from Sloterdijk´s lecture.
"Undoubtedly one can find in this rhapsodic sequence of sentences a theoreti-
cal discourse about man being a taming and breeding power. From Zarathustra´s
perspective human beings at present are especially one thing: they are successful
breeders who made it possible to transform the wild human being into (what Zara-
thustra calls) the last human being. It is obvious that this could not only be achieved
by means of taming, training and education. With this position that man is man´s
breeder Nietzsche breaks through the humanistic horizon since humanism is never
allowed to go beyond the taming and educational perspective. The humanist
accepts man as a given entity and then applies to him all his taming, training and
educational tools. He is convinced of a necessary relation between reading, sitting
and taming. Nietzsche on the other hand who has read Darwin as well as St. Paul
is convinced that he has discovered behind the serene horizon of scholarly taming
a second and darker horizon. He foresees historical developments where unavoidable
battles about the direction of human breeding will begin... When Zarathustra walks
through the city in which everything has become smaller he can see the results of an
up to now successful and never questioned breeding politics. Man was successful
-so it looks to him- in breeding himself smaller by means of a skillful link between
ethics and genetics. They have surrendered themselves to domestication and started
breeding themselves in the direction of the handsomeness of domestic animals.
From this idea Zarathustra derives his specific critique of humanism which rejects
the false harmlessness with which modern man surrounds himself.
In fact, it would not be harmless if man breeds man in the direction of harmlessness.
Nietzsche´s suspicion against all humanist culture insists on lifting the secret of
domestication which surrounds mankind. He wants to identify the traditional owners
of the breeding monopoly -the priests and teachers, which presented themselves
as philanthropic- and their hidden function. Thus he wants to initiate a historically
completely new battle between various breeders and on various breeding programs.
Nietzsche postulates this to be the basic conflict for the future: the battle between
those trying to breed mankind smaller and those trying to breed mankind bigger.
We could also say: the battle between humanists and superhumanists, philanthropic
representatives of our species and those who favor breeding a completely new human
being (which Nietzsche calls the "Uebermensch") The emblem "Uebermensch" or
superhuman race in Nietzsche´s sense(as Sloterdijk understands it) does not represent
the dream of quickly getting rid of all ethical restrictions nor does it mean returning
to bestiality - the stubborn Nietzsche-readers in the 30 s of last century understood it
that way. Neither does the notion "superhuman being" ("Uebermensch") mean a status
before the domestic animal and church animal time to which we should return by breeding.
Whenever Nietzsche speaks of the "superhuman being" ("Uebermensch"), he thinks
far beyond our times. He gets his orientation from the developments in the last thousand
years, during which up to now the production of humans was organized due to a close
relationship between breeding, taming and education. It of course was a kind of organization
which was able to cover up itself and which -using school as a mask- served the
domestication of mankind. With these hints - and no more than hints can be given-
Nietzsche opens up a vast field of the future in which the destination of mankind must
be decided on no matter whether the concept of a superhuman being plays a role or not."
(Sloterdijk, l.c.) And Sloterdijk goes on saying: "The discourse on the difference and inter-
connection of taming and breeding and overall the hint Nietzsche gave us to start thinking
about the upcoming production of man and -generally speaking- anthropotechniques - these
are topics which modern thinking should not turn away from. Otherwise it would make this
process look harmless again...."
"But even if we exclude the overshooting and anticlerical elements from Nietzsche´s
arguments -Sloterdijk continues- there remains a sufficient basis in his idea that
can provoke renewed reflection on humanism beyond humanistic harmlessness. The insight
into the fact that domestication was the hidden structure which humanism from
antiquity till today turned its eyes away from makes it possible for us to enter deep waters"
Sloterdijk´s commentary on Nietzsche´s arguments contains
two propositions which I would
like to summarize here again briefly:
1. All kinds of humanism throughout the history of mankind have led to a domestication of
human beings. Man has become the "last man" in Nietzsche´s terms who describes him as
jumping around in his world like a flea, from one point to another, without any goal,
his life makes no sense. "What is love, what is longing, what is star ? the last man says
and twinkles". That´s what we read in Nietzsche´s "Zarathustra". The humanistic domesti-
cation of mankind brought forth weak beings who are unable to live what Nietzsche calls
a "big life". In opposition to this Nietzsche develops his concept of the "superhuman being",
the concept of a strong being, the "blond beast" as he calls it that loves his own power
and doesn´t hesitate to exercise his power over others as he wants to.
He prefers the power of oppression to the democracy of choice.
2. Since traditional humanism has failed a new era of breeding
man will come up that
will influence human life much deeper than the literary humanism did in the past.
The new achievements of the life sciences allow the breeding of a new man. That is
-in Sloterdijk´s conception- at least on the horizon. What this exactly should be - this
world of newly bred man- will be decided on by powerful leaders in the sense of super-
Sloterdijk has manoeuvered himself into a dilemma which finally led
to the well known
public reactions. The dilemma is caused by the fact that Sloterdijk due to his critique
of humanism as a complete failure looses all reasonable ground upon which rational
criteria and rules for a sustainable development of the life sciences can be built
that are acceptable to mankind who they are applied to.
One could conclude from Sloterdijk´s arguments that in the end irrational acts of
power exerted by self declared superhuman beings gain control over the rest of mankind.
The analysis given by Sloterdijk is completely insufficient and onesided insofar as a
completely insufficient concept of humanism is being applied to the history of mankind.
A concept of humanism remains insufficient for as long as it does not include the
emancipatoric and sociocritical function of humanism. Humanism - in the form
which it received in the age of enlightenment- has developed the program of
"the exodus of man out of his self caused disability of selfdetermination" as
Immanuel Kant once put it. This program has led to very concrete historical
results which are still of great use to us and without which Sloterdijk wouldn´t
have been able to write one single line that has been published by him.
Let me briefly summarize these history shaping results which are
presupposition of a rational development of the future of mankind.
1. The principle of legality
The protection of each citizen is considered a public obligation
which the government
has to fulfill, each citizen is equal under law, the power of the government is bound by
In the end we can say it´s a renewed version of the "libertas Romana", of the rights
of ancient Roman citizenship. And these rights had been fought for again from the
beginning of the 17 th century.
2. The freedom of religious belief - religious tolerance
The principle "cuius regio, eius religio" which meant that the ruler
of the country
you lived in could determine what your religious belief should be - this principle
lasting up to the age of reformation- from the 17 th century on gave way to
the idea of tolerance.
The state of the 19th century does not require the same religious belief among all
its citizens anymore. It grants protection and freedom to all forms of religious belief
for as long as they don´t endanger its moral basis. The practical realisation of this
principle remains problematic because religious beliefs and attitudes always touch
on the moral basis of the community of citizens in a state.
3. The freedom of science and academic teaching
The freedom of conscience is closely connected with the freedom
of religious belief.
The freedom of science, research and academic teaching relies on that freedom of
conscience. From the renaissance on and due to the upcoming of the so called natural
sciences the process of research in general follows only its own methodological
norms and subordinates itself only to empirical control. All other influences from outside
are considered interferences and thus will be rejected. The German philosopher
Johann Gottlieb Fichte demands in the year 1793 in a publication from the
ruling princes in Europe "the restitution of free thinking" (by the way, this was also
the title of the publication). The freedom of research was granted to the academic staff of
the newly founded universities in Halle (1690), Goettingen (1736) and Berlin (1810).
In Humboldt´s reform of the university this freedom of research was not only allowed,
it was understood as being a desideratum of the state itself since it would be in the
interest of the citizens´s consensus. Ever since the freedom of science and academic
teaching is a generally accepted principle within democratic states and an essential
presupposition of scientific progress.
4. The freedom of the human person
Another important principle is the freedom of the human person. From
the "Habeas Corpus"
act in the UK in 1679 to the declaration and guarantee of human rights within the
constitutions of modern states mankind made a decisive step towards a better future.
Also here the human person becomes the principle of a development of human existence
that on the one hand allows the free pursue of happiness and on the other hand also
constitutes a moral obligation towards others. Through the UN charta the European idea
of human rights has become an international standard.
5. The emancipation of the Jews
I recall this specific topic here though it would have been possible
to integrate it into what
had been said before. It has been the historical achievement of the humanism of the age of
enlightenment that it helped the Jews to be accepted as equal citizens in the state.
What this meant one can imagine when he has once visited the medieval ghettos in Venice
or in Beziers in Southern France or in Regensburg or many other cities where the Jews
were locked up in ghettos. They could be expelled from their houses whenever a ruler
decided to do so and the mob always readily helped - and tortured andkilled them.
That´s also European history, a very sad part of European history indeed, and from there
you can see how big an achievement for humanity it was that humanism overthrew all these
barriers that violated fundamental human rigths.
6. Inner political freedom
Inner political freedom means that all citizens have the right to
decide on all public matters
in the state. Free elections, free choice of government- these are all principles that can´t
be fully understood without reference to humanism which had made all this possible for all
of us. This inner political freedom has an important correlate in the area of foreign relations
which means that the relations between nations should be based on international law and
that law should always prevail in their relations. They ought to govern themselves, but
should respect each other through treaties that secure justice for all parties involved no
matter whether they are powerful or weak.
The principle of free government implies the duty to solve all internal or external problems
peacefully on the basis of law and to defend the already existing international law by all just
Let me summarize all this again:
It was these various forms of freedom for which so many have
fought in European history -
often giving their lives for these heroic goals. They have made it possible for us to enjoy
freedom. And it is our duty to continue working for the future of a free society so that
this light of hope enkindled in the age of enlightenment will never disappear. Here we also
find the basic principles upon which a humane development of the life sciences can be
grounded. It´s a completely wrong perspective when Sloterdijk wants to tell us that their is
only one alternative: either to become superhumans in Nietzsche´s sense
or to degenerate to "domesticated stubbornness" as Sloterdijk calls it.
This alternative is completely inedaquate and has nothing to do with the current scientific
and social realities. Bioscientific research is not performed in a value free nowhereland,
but within a very complicated network of scientific interests and ethical premises. There
already exists on the basis of the humanist achievements described before a normative
frame of reference which helps to rationally shape the application of sientific research
to human beings.
Let me name a few important regulations which guide scientific progress:
On a world wide basis :
1. World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki. Recommendations
guiding physicians in biomedical research involving human subjects
2.The so called ICH - GCP guidelines, specifically chapters 4 and
GCP stands for "good clinical practice". ICH stands for
INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON HARMONISATION OF TECHNICAL
REQUIREMENTS FOR REGISTRATION OF PHARMACEUTICALS
FOR HUMAN USE. Here government officials as well as experts from the
pharmaceutical industry work together
3.The decisions made by the Food and Drug Administration in the US
These decisions have world wide consequences for scientific research
On a European level :
4.The Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Dignity of
the Human Being
with regard to the Application of Biology and Medicine
5.The guidelines issued by the European Parliament and the European
Council on the
harmonisation of legal and governmental instructions of the memberstates concerning
the application of Good Clinical practice during the performance of Clinical Trials
6. The institution of a Peer Review Board of Experts in Bioethics
and Medical Ethics
at the European Commission in Brussels
On a national level :
7. The AMG (Arzneimittelgesetz. Medicinal Law)
8. The MPG (Medizinproduktegesetz, Medical Product Law)
9. The institution of an Independent Ethics Review Committee
within the Chamber of Medical Doctors (Landesaerztekammer) of each
federal state. These are institutions of public law
Considering these frameworks structuring scientific research normatively
I should like
to finish my lecture on the ethical and legal outcome of humanism
and its importance for biomedical as well as the accompanying bioethical research
with the following statement:
The foundations which humanism has laid for the building of a better society
still are able to bear us. But this is -as everything in life- nothing that just happens
by itself. It depends on us, on the endeavours and courage of each and every
individual whether these foundations hold to create a better future for everyone.
Copyright by Joseph Schmucker-von Koch 2000