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

Erik Parens

(Oxford University Press, 2014)

When bioethicists debate the use of technologies like surgery and pharmacology to shape our selves, they are, ultimately, debating what it means for human beings to flourish. They are debating what makes animals like us truly happy, and whether the technologies at issue will bring us closer to or farther from such happiness.

The positions that participants adopt in debates regarding such ancient and fundamental questions are often polarized, and cannot help but be deeply personal. It is no wonder that the debates are sometimes acrimonious. How, then, should critics of and enthusiasts about technological self-transformation move forward?

Based on his experience at the oldest free-standing bioethics research institute in the world, Erik Parens proposes a habit of thinking, which he calls “binocular.” As our brains integrate slightly different information from our two eyes to achieve depth of visual perception, we need to try to integrate greatly different insights on the two sides of the debates about technologically shaping our selves–if depth of intellectual understanding is what we are after. Binocular thinking lets us benefit from the insights that are visible from the stance of the enthusiast, who emphasizes that using technology to creatively transform our selves will make us happier, and to benefit from the insights that are visible from the stance of the critic, who emphasizes that learning to let our selves be will make us happier.

Finally, Parens celebrates that bioethics doesn’t aspire only to deeper thinking, but also to better acting. He embraces the intellectual aspiration to think deeply about meaning questions that don’t admit of final answers, as well as the ethical demand to give clear answers to practical questions. To show how to respect both that aspiration and that demand, the book culminates in the description of a process of truly informed consent, in the context of one specific form of using technology to shape our selves: families making decisions about appearance normalizing surgeries for children with atypical bodies.

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