Erik Parens, Shaping Our Selves: On Technology, Flourishing and a Habit of Thinking

Erik Parens, Shaping Our Selves: On Technology, Flourishing and a Habit of Thinking (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2014) 216pp. £16.99 Pb, £23.49 Hb. ISBN: 9780190211745

In Shaping Our Selves, Erik Parens, senior research scholar at The Hastings Center, urges against polarization in bioethics debates and calls for a truly cooperative and constructive endeavour in contemplating and acting for human flourishing. Bioethical questions, Parens argues, are intimately linked to what he calls 'meaning questions,' deep, fundamental questions that necessarily accompany human existence, such as what does it mean to be human, to live, and to thrive, and what should our purpose be? As Parens puts it, 'What is our proper stance toward our selves and the rest of the world?' (13) None of such 'meaning questions', of which there are many more, allow concrete or final answers but require more conversation. Even if they are difficult questions, Parens maintains, they need to be pursued persistently in order for us to think and act properly regarding bioethical issues, the issue of particular concern for Parens being the technological enhancement of human beings. Our effort can be improved through a more 'binocular' way of thinking, Parens suggests, which refers to a willingness and an ability to use at least two conceptual lenses while putting our minds to work.

Belonging to the first generation of bioethics scholars, Parens became a bioethicist when bioethics was coming into being as a career path. While he would be overjoyed to see people engaged in 'all sorts of debates' finding something of use in his book, Parens writes, his primary goal, as well as hope, is that Shaping Our Selves will assist those who are new to bioethics debates to be in a better position than he was when he 'started out' (10, 179). Shaping Our Selves certainly fulfills that purpose. Parens writes with sincerity and clarity, spelling out complex concepts in easily digestible terms.

Bioethics has been experiencing a gradual paradigm shift from what Parens, borrowing from Antonio Damasio, calls a 'high reason' (161) approach, which refers to the impartial application of reason to hard ethical problems. Parens counters this approach in his first chapter, establishing that our ethical stances are bound to be partial owing to the particularity of our positions in life. We are not driven by reason alone in drawing ethical conclusions, he states, but also by our history and feeling. To illustrate this, Parens narrates his personal history and its effect on his own ethical stance regarding technological enhancement, which is a primarily negative one. Realizing, however, that his opponents came to their own ethical conclusions about enhancement through the same process – by the influence of their lived experience – Parens saw, and now tells us, that there is no sense in trying to determine right and wrong. He argues that what our energies ought to be spent on instead is 'actually trying to understand the meaning of whatever is at hand' (28), thinking not for or against but about.

In his second chapter, Parens describes binocularity, which is the conceptual tool and metaphor that he suggests for improving the way we think about matters of importance: by being open to using multiple conceptual lenses. In this chapter he elaborates on the conceptual binary of subject and object; we can see humans either as subjects with freedom of choice or as objects under the sway of biological and social forces. The key to binocularity is oscillation between the lenses, Parens explains, for we are by design unable to see with both lenses at once. The only time when oscillation stops is when it is time for action; an example of such a monocular moment in the binocular process is the achievement of truly informed consent, which Parens will expound in a later chapter.

In the third and fourth chapters, Parens introduces two more pairs of lenses that are related to subject and object: 'creativity and gratitude' and 'technology as value-free and as value-laden'. In the third chapter, Parens discusses how people involved in debates about technological enhancement broadly fall under one of the two categories: those who see humans as creators (aligning with the subject) and those who see humans as creatures (aligning with the object). For the former, humans are being true to their nature when they use technology to transform themselves as they see fit. For the latter, what is important is the way we were naturally brought into this world – 'thrown into' (7), Parens writes – and how we appreciate that. Parens argues that both of these camps are ultimately in pursuit of the ideal of authenticity, and that we need the insights of both sides, instead of rejecting one side or the other, as we think about the true meaning of enhancement. Parens draws the same conclusion regarding technology in the fourth chapter, stating that the role of technology in enhancement can be seen as both laden with and free of value, and that we need to consider both as we think about what enhancement means.

In the fifth chapter, Parens goes on to argue that regardless of what people’s stances are toward enhancement, once they are relieved of the tendency to polarize, no one is against 'true' enhancement. Enthusiasts and critics have more in common than they might realize, which is again why the focus must be placed on talking together about the meaning of true enhancement, instead of arguing over differences.

Then lastly, in the sixth and seventh chapters, Parens transitions from binocular thinking to binocular acting. Parens outlines the procedure of achieving truly informed consent, which involves treating patients first as objects, then as subjects. A patient trying to decide on whether to technologically enhance himself or herself – through appearance-normalizing surgery, for example – will first be informed of the 'forces that bear down upon [him or her] and shape [his or her] choices' (134), but after, his or her subjective decision will be respected and upheld.

'As a reader of Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Dostoyevsky, [as well as] Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud' (161), Parens finds inspiration from across disciplines as he successfully establishes a new foundation in bioethics from which future discussions can proceed, which readers with similarly interdisciplinary tendencies would appreciate. Clearly, the big questions at stake in Shaping Our Selves are not confined to exploration by bioethicists only – Parens does not believe in 'bioethical wizards' (3). Readers who are interested in the relationship between science and literature would be fascinated by the way Parens weaves the two disciplines together in Shaping Our Selves, showing that sometimes, they may be two different ways of pursuing the same questions.

Catherine J W Lee, Duke University