The ethics of discourse in the construction of an ethical action in the manipulation of the species



SANTOS, Miguel da Silva [1], FERRIZ, José Luis Sepúlveda [2]

 SANTOS, Miguel da Silva. FERRIZ, José Luis Sepúlveda. The ethics of discourse in the construction of an ethical action in the manipulation of the species. Revista Científica Multidisciplinar Núcleo do Conhecimento. Year 05, Ed. 01, Vol. 07, pp. 151-173. January 2020. ISSN: 2448-0959, Access Link:


This article presents the arguments that Habermas uses to establish ethical mechanisms with a view to the issues of genetic manipulation, more specifically the problem of eugenics. The communicative reason in the philosophy of language is the basis for the study as well as the discourse and consensus mediated by the argumentation of valid moral propositions between subjects capable of acting and speaking. The self-understanding of existence and ethical self-understanding are situated as elements of intersubjectivity, freedom and human dignity of the person, which are present even from its conception. Kierkegaardian concepts of existence are combined with the post-metaphysical perspective of analytical philosophy, having as its center the ability to become an individual in the face of an ethical self-understanding of the species. It presents the question of the human dignity of the embryo, supporting the beginning of human life and its inclusion in the world of life. In addition, it presents concepts and concepts about genetic biology in order to clarify the technical terminology presented during the development of the work. The methodology to be used is structural, which is presented, in general, in Habermas’ works. The bibliographic research of theoretical references will be used as complementary material.

Keywords: Habermas, Communicative Reason, Eugenics, Ethics, Autonomy.


Philosophy as a discipline of thought is always willing to penetrate the various clashes whose concepts of the ultra obvious of science are positioned in an autonomy limited by natural, cultural, social factors, among others, and, in turn, require answers, sometimes immediate, to the questions that affect the human being in his various anthropologies. Human life is based on moral principles and values that command his conduct, in harmony with his fellow men. For Rousseau (2000), human nature is good and society is the one who corrupts it. This natural goodness would then be gradually destroyed and corrupted by civilization. Therefore, society could be self adjustable morally and politically. On the other hand, Hobbes (2009) brings, in his writings, that in the state of nature human life is in a war of all against all, because all individuals would be allowed to possess anything, through their passions and desires.

In this case, society would need an authority to which everyone should submit their natural freedom. Perhaps not so much for Hobbes, not so much for Rousseau, but it is necessary to establish an array of behavior that gives condition of support and permanence of the individual and his collectivity on the planet. It is in this context that Bioethics comes in, born to give the necessary provisions for ethical procedures that involve determinations about the terrestrial biota, with a great bias in man’s manifestations about nature, which includes man himself. The handling of homo somaticus by homo faber has to enter this discussion under penalty of establishing an ethical chaos. Here is the genetic manipulation of the human species, which, in its most delicate part, contemplates the question of the “well-born”, that is, eugenics.

Eugenics, in its highly relativized form, that is, liberal, becomes, here, an open door to the coisification of the rational soul, ignoring its freedom of decision as an agent in the process of choosing a possibility of “improved life”. The theme has a great relevance because it involves the future of a humanity that will not have the opportunity to reverse decisions made by mediators of a purely one-sided discussion. Philosophy, with its insertion in this discussion, has the important function of generating foundations for the elaboration of moral and legal norms establishing limits of conduct. The purpose of this article is to try to understand how Philosophy is positioned, in relation to ethical action, in the conducts of human genetic interventions, since they have been approached practically in the field of Medicine, Law and Theology.

The question raised here has to do with the freedom of the individual, who is ontological, and therefore intrinsic to the human being, which makes him make his decisions, in our view, from henomas epistemological wills. The study is based on the work The Future of Human Nature, by Jürgen Habermas (2004), one of the great contemporary thinkers, which brings a somewhat innovative approach to the ethical theme in question, in a scenario of predominance of post-metaphysical philosophy, thus adding to the problematic the following question: how can habermasian post-metaphysics collaborate in the study of an ethical action in the manipulation of the human genome? The structural method used in this study is peacefully approved as the method that best suits philosophical texts.  The architecture used is based on the agglutination of various areas of thought, ideas, knowledge, as a whole, coordinated by this whole.

By analyzing the structures and their overlapping dispositions and triggering their intellectual processes, we can make an interpretation closer to the meaning given by the author to the philosophical text, understanding its totality. The article is structured in three main parts that will show the necessary foundations for understanding the development of the author’s ideas, extracting from these our analysis and reflection. As this is a theme that involves knowledge of the field of genetic biology, in the first part a conceptual approach will be made on this subject, especially on genetic manipulation and eugenics, in order to introduce technical knowledge that will be aligned with the philosophical aspects later. In the second part, the themes that involve post-metaphysics will be developed, especially the one on which Habermas relies to develop his theses of communicative action and of himself, the latter having an immersion in Kierkegaardian ethics.

In this chapter will be shown the path of traditional philosophical thought – the philosophy of consciousness – which, through the so-called linguistic-pragmatic turn, reason will be present in language games that include subject, action and speech in an intersubjective relationship. Habermas also brings Kierkegaard, another existentialist, to this context (HABERMAS, 2004). This is the thinker who probes the individual in his ethical stage, involving him in a need for self-knowledge of his intersubjectivity and of his power to be himself in the existence of life. In this chapter will be exposed the formulation of an ethics based on discourse, whose subjectivities of the protagonists will be subjected to the concepts of morality and eticity.

In the third part, recovering all the subjects of the previous chapters and profiling with Habermas’ ideas in the basic work of this study – O Futuro da natureza humana – will be shown the path adopted to understand and establish an ethical posture for the theme proposed in this work and the work will seek to meet the problem that gave rise to it. The study goes through an understanding of the eugenic models, the indefinitions about limits between therapeutic interventions, phenotypic [3] improvement and the ethical responsibilities of the characters of this genetic manipulation when there is the inclusion of a second person, signified by the “you”, in the ontological decision-making questions. It also deals with this chapter of human dignity as a result of the autonomy and authenticity of the individual, a dignity that is inserted in the legal norm – an implicit subject in the author’s work. This confronts the question of the eugenic “manufacture” of the “I” in the instrumentalization of human life.


Genetics is one of the branches that has most contributed to the advancement of biological science. As a science, it is part of a broader and deeper scenario that seeks explanations for the origin of species, prolongation of human life and understanding of phenomena that were previously only completely assumed through common sense. With the advent of powerful tools, such as the improvement of cellular and electronic microscopes, the advancement of molecular biology and biochemistry, as well as the increase in scientific investigations into the human genome in the last two centuries, some paradigms have begun to be unroofed, such as the determination of sex in the embryonic phase, thus leading to the , biology and medicine for postmodernity and, why not, for a plural world?

From a technical point of view, issues involving the use of biological elementary units can be seen mainly in topics such as human reproduction, cloning, development of genetically modified organisms (GMO), transgenics, gene therapies, genetic improvement and research with embryos and stem cells. Genetic manipulation, in turn, is part of all these themes (or areas), and therefore it is necessary to carry out the handling of genes for the conduction of them. The current reading focuses on the so-called genetic engineering that deals mainly with genetic modifications caused or induced. The origin of the discussions lies in the changes caused in the DNA, or parts of it, to achieve a deviation from the natural path of the species from their most remote formant origins.

DNA segments that contain genetic information are called genes. All genetic information of a given individual such as hair color, eye color, physical structure and other hereditary characteristics are present in the person’s DNA. Gene manipulation determines the model of species we want to have and meets certain needs or wills of the individual or collectivity. And it all begins, practically, with the identification of a certain gene of interest in the structure of DNA, its removal, alteration by cutting (using the so-called restrictive enzymes) and then insertion into another structure (by means of the so-called DNA-ligase), as shown in Figure 1. Thus, the era of manipulation of genetic messages contained in fragments of sequences that make up the hereditary code and nucleotides (each DNA forming unit) is established.

It is worth reiterating that it was from this moment that, for example, the sphere of Genetic Engineering began to cut or modify DNA molecules, using, to carry out this process, specific enzymes. It is equally important to mention that the insertion of DNA fragments with information of interest on another chromosome aims to produce so-called new or improved organisms. This is used in the field of Medicine, Pharmacology and Food Production. Another area of application that began to surface in the 20th century and has been intensifying in the present century concerns the manipulation of genes for the improvement of the human species and the prevention and cure of certain pathologies. These lawsuits are called eugenics.

In 1883 the Englishman Francis Galton (GALTON apud GOLDIM, 1998) used this term, which originates from the Greek word Eugénios – “well-born”, to define a process that aimed to select human species between the most capable and less capable, conceptualizing eugenics as the study of agents under social control that can improve or impoverish the racial qualities of future generations, whether physically or mentally. With the advent of genetic manipulation, the intervention in genes with the objective of human improvement came to be defined as positive eugenics and the so-called therapeutic use of genetic alterations, used for cure and anticipation of diagnosis of diseases took the name of negative eugenics.

Figure 1 – Insertion of genetic information

Source:See note[4]
Human heredity is the background to guide ethical discussions, both in their way of conceiving and in how to continue their generated product. It is in it that the ethical conflict situates, since genetic manipulation occurs in an embryo that is collected during its development in the process of human reproduction to evaluate its pathological or phenotypic status through the so-called Genetic Diagnosis of Preimplantation (GDPI). The progress of genetic science leads to reflections on certain ethical issues, such as the uncontrol of humanity in the use and acquisition of human embryos. It is notorious that assisted human reproduction techniques enable couples with conception difficulties to have children, but, on the other hand, they face, most of the time, the decision on the fate of surplus embryos not used in the medical procedure.                             One of the thinkers who addresses the ethical relevance of these contemporary themes is Jürgen Habermas. He will be our lead author throughout this work. In O Futuro da Natureza Humana, Habermas launches the following challenge question: “can philosophy allow itself to allow the same moderation[5] also in questions related to the ethics of the species?” (HABERMAS, 2004, p. 1). Its involvement is part of this and he realizes that dealing with the dilemma of genetic manipulation only in its scientificity means treating the subject in isolation and the study has to be carried out considering the subject in interaction with the world and the subject with subject. It is at this moment that post-metaphysics enters its speech costumes, but having, in essence, language within communicative actions. It will lead to sufficient objectivity of biological sciences for the necessary intersubjectivity of actions and speech, interpreting the being as the person formed in its origin for whatever understanding: normative, sociological or theological.


It can be said that the fundamental universe in which Habermas’ ethical thinking develops is that of the Philosophy of Language. It is in this context that he situates ethics in the field of discourse and communication, not losing sight of rationality, which is the reason why he talks about a communicative rationality. And it is anchored in the prototype of the language that Habermas refuses the return to philosophical-historical assumptions, such as metaphysics. That is, in Habermas, what guideethics is the paradigm of communication. In his argumentative structure he also makes an application of the ethics of being himself of Kierkegaard and the Kantian theory of justice, with the caveat that it makes in its abstraction and for the universal whole. He defends the idea that “post-metaphysical thinking must impose a moderation on itself when it comes to taking definitive positions in relation to substantial questions about good or non-failed life” (HABERMAS, 2004, p. 1).

However, when genome manipulation comes into play, he also questions whether “can philosophy allow the same moderation also in questions related to the ethics of the species?” (idem). Based on these rationales, Jürgen Habermas will include in the formulation of his post-metaphysical thinking an ethics based on discourse, intersubjectivity and freedom. Post-metaphysics was an alternative that, from the 19th century on, sought to conceive the reason from the inclusion of the intersubjective element in the construction of values, based mainly on communicative action. Despite renouncing the ontological concepts about the totality of the person, post-metaphysical thinking recovers from ontology the being as a subject of objective reality and in this reality it is constructed with intersubjectivities.

In the new philosophical construction, the subject is situated in another scenario, moving from an awareness of the subject to the subject of consciousness. Acting by language and commitment in communicative acts in the construction of a rationality are the foundations for trying to solve one of the emblematic issues of philosophy that is individuality. In this context, Habermas says:

The transition from the philosophy of consciousness to the philosophy of language brings objective advantages, as well as methodical. It takes us out of the aporetic circle where metaphysical thinking clashes with the anti-metaphysical, that is, where idealism is opergone to materialism, also offering the possibility of being able to attack a problem that is insoluble in metaphysical terms: that of individuality (HABERMAS, 1990, p. 15)

It replaces the philosophy of the self, of the consciousness of the subject (philosophy of consciousness), with another whose model is based on language. The subject now becomes the articulating subject of phrases, signs, speech, capable of understanding through language and giving meaning to the communication of his thought, of his ideas[6].

Subjects capable of speech and action, who, against the background of a common world of life, understand each other about something in the world, may have in the middle of their language an attitude both dependent and autonomous: they can use the systems of grammatical rules, which make their practice possible, for their own benefit (HABERMAS, 1990, p.52).

In this aspect, it introduces, with some clarity, the Habermasian communicative action, because intersubjectivity is necessary for the movement of a whole shaped by the action of each one, which leads to consequences, that is, to readjustment, in the ethical action of the Kantian categorical imperative that is expressed as this: “act only, according to such a maximum, that you may want at the same time that it becomes universal law” (KANT , 1993, p. 70). Taking as a starting point the subject, now located, not as the being of the philosophy of consciousness or as the being that hangs in the ideal quantum of metaphysics, nor as the person who interacts in the world of heidegger’s nothingness. It is a being that becomes subject with the subject in the world. It is from this that Habermas elaborates his Theory of Communicative Action (TCA), based on discussions about action, language and semantics, with the objective of giving a more pragmatic reference to philosophical and social issues that until now were evides of practically supratheoretical conceptions.

His concern is not to create a revolutionary concept of philosophy and rationality, but rather a theory based on communicative action, directed to the structures of the world of life.  The “world of life”, a concept originated in phenomenology, now expands to encompass not only the horizon of consciousness, but also the context of linguistic communication, the communicative praxis of everyday life, which is accomplished through speech. It consists of three structural components: culture, society and person. When we analyze, later, the questions related to genetic manipulation, the approach of these concepts will have, there, a concrete case scenario of materialization of the historical transformations of humanity – application of the Marxist concept – in which “humanity is practically willing to make its history, which, moreover, it always does, with will and conscience” (HABERMAS, Theorie und Praxis, in PINZANI, 2009, p. 48). In Habermas (2004), discussions were conducted based on the following historical movements of the prima philosophia:

  1. The emergence of the experimental method of nature sciences suspends the judgment about totalizing thinking with a view on the one and the whole.
  2. The emergence of hermeneutics, as science, in the clash with the idealism of transcendentalization.
  3. The change from the philosophy of consciousness to the philosophy of language, directing subjectivist self-understanding to the center of reason.
  4. Communicative action displaces the ancient tradition that gave primacy to theory in the face of praxis.

The discussions that deal with the genetic alterations induced, or provoked, in the human species, go through this set of approaches, but have a strong appeal in the last two, when an ethical discourse of intersubjective construction will be theme from language in communicative action. In the post-metaphysical formatting that Habermas presents in his work O Futuro da Natureza Humana, he brings to light a vision also post-metaphysics of the concept of eticity from the perspective of a contemporary existentialist philosopher, Sören Kierkegaard, exploring the concept of himself (HABERMAS, 2004). Power-to-be-one-yourself only fits in understanding when one captures the reality of the individual within his subjectivity and it is this subjectivity that Kierkegaard (2013) brings as the main element of the subject that exists in the world of facts to achieve his freedom.

It is the world of possibilities that moves through three stages of the subject’s life: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious, which, being a world of possibilities, also means choices. Therefore, subjectivity in Kierkegaard means choosing yourself to become a perfectly free individual, that is to become yourself. Oneself is established in this search for the interiority of being. It is the result of existence that makes us always in transformation from our choices that make up one’s own existence, hence that existence is necessity and possibility and this is the root of the natural anguish of the individual that must be worked by self-knowledge and recognition of its singularity. The individual can be himself when he is able to become into this interiority and when he is part of his own reality through choices.

Only the individual has access to this reality, which is subjective and which is the source of his truths, that is, this subjective reality is the truth. It is in the midst of these possibilities that existence is free, it can be. When the individual harmonizes with the power to be, that is, with possibilities, he manages to choose the scenario of his life that leads to freedom. This scenario that Kierkegaard calls stadiums[7] – aesthetic, ethical and religious (NUNES, 1967) – represents the whole of, and in, the individual without losing his subjectivity and being firm in his existence. Here he chooses his stadium based on his self-awareness and self-understanding[8], knowing that the passage from one to another is given by qualitative leap. Ethics is characterized by intersubjective relationships, without stripping itself of subjectivity. This is where the subject has the horizontal perception of his belonging in the world, because this horizontality is what makes him approach and put himself in otherness with the like.

One’s own is this freedom that comes through individuality to give meaning to existence; and the being himself is something like a power acquired by the individual since his genesis, which gives him free access to his self-understanding and intersubjectivity and that is only in keeping with the self of the other when this freedom is not tainted. The subject then becomes the author of his own existence and capable of constructing an ethical discourse under consensus, based on moral arguments validated by him. When dealing with moral and ethical issues in communicative action on genetic manipulation under study, the philosopher proposes and elaborates the systematization of a communicative ethics, based on his Consciência moral e agir comunicativa (1989). According to Habermas, there is a radical, practically amalgamadation, interpenetrated connection between reality and language in the world of life.

This connection is also associated with action and manifestations in the ways of argumentation of ideas generated by reasoning: arguments that aim to validate a discourse for the construction of an ethics applied to the subjects’ conduct in the real world. Habermas’ ethical compendium is based on the project of this communicative ethics, begun in the 1970s, guided by norms, therefore, deontological, universal, created through procedures (discourses) whose human beings can participate, within their class of interest. In this discourse ethic, moral issues turn to the issues of the world of life and relate to good life, which means that, despite its universality, only the participants of this world, concrete, real, can evaluate whether a norm is acceptable or not. In this wake, it is part of a propositional distinction between the being and the must be, attributing, to the assertoric act (being), a claim of truth and, to the deontological act (must be), a claim of validity.

The must be is part of the argumentative process itself in ethical propositions and, on the other hand, the argumentation guides the being and the duty to be, since assertoric propositions can prove to be true or false and the deontic argument may be valid or not. The concepts developed in the Theory of Communicative Action are in line with this propositional distinction from the two forms of action – strategic action and communicative action. In strategic action, the individual works to make another person act in the way he considers appropriate (assertoric proposition with pretension of truth), and, in communicative action, the subject seeks to convince the other that he should act appropriately, inducing him to his position (deontic proposition with pretense of validity). In the case of the standard, what gives validity to it is the verification of its effectiveness and legitimacy, as it can be effective and illegitimate.

According to Habermas, “we have to distinguish the social fact from intersubjective recognition and the fact that a norm is worthy of recognition” (HABERMAS, 1989, p. 82), thus, intersubjective recognition refers to efficacy and dignity of recognition of legitimacy. The application of these two components of practical morality gives us the possibility of analyzing, from an ethical point of view, the eugenic issues of both the past (HitlerIan Arianism) and the current genetic movements in this sense. The rules considered valid must be recognized, accepted (agreed) by all those “concerned”, because they will deal solely with their common interests. According to Habermas every valid standard must meet the following condition:

that the consequences and collateral achievements, which (predictably) result in the satisfaction of the interests of each of the individuals of the fact that it is universally followed, can be accepted by all those concerned (and preferred to all the consequences of alternative and known possibilities of rule) (HABERMAS, 1989, p. 86).

To make the ethics of discourse a reality, it is necessary that the argument about the validity of the deontic propositions (norms) be realized in the effective exercise of discourse, that is, in the communicative action with a view to consensus and understanding, in which “every valid norm would find the assent of all those concerned, if they could participate in a practical Discourse” (HABERMAS, 1989, p.148).


Being (assertoric) and must be are part of the ontological and deontological structure, therefore philosophical, which make up the ethical-universal study of society since classical antiquity. This study has, in universality, its main axis of support. However, when it comes to the delimitation and confinement of the human being in their spaces of power-to-be-himself, through the manipulation of homo somaticus by homo faber, we may have to rethink what model of ethics we should adopt to face the new moral patterns of consumption of this century. Rethinking Philosophy as a first science has been in the scope of modern thinkers, especially in the field of morals and ethics, such as Hans Jonas, Emanuel Lévinas, Alasdair MacIntyre, among others, since the human being, as a subject of ontology, anthropology and epistemology, besides generating social facts, changes in the time and spatial dimensions.

The question asked by Habermas “What should I do with the time of my life?” (HABERMAS, 2004, p. 3), before an interpretation shaped in human individualization and subjectivation, presents itself as a necessity for the attempt of traditional ethical paradigmatic disruptions without the loss of principles that name humanity as the substance of the human being, because it is also a concern with the maintenance of values made obsolete at this moment in transition. Based on John Rawls’ theory of justice (2000), Habermas brings the conception of a just society as one that “leaves to the discretion of all people what they want to start with the time of their lives” (HABERMAS, 2004, p. 5) and “it guarantees everyone the same freedom to develop an ethical self-understanding in order to form a personal conception of the “good life” according to their own capacities and criteria” (idem).

Thus, the author indicates that there should be a transition from a universalized ethics to an ethical autonomy of the individual who can build his own model of life. In this sense, the question “What should I do with the time of my life” can be answered by the subject who makes it, that is, each one decides how to conduct his life, each human being is responsible for the use of his power to intervene in life, a challenge that appears to be the current model of freedom, already with a look at the self-determined and heterodetermined conducts of genetic manipulation. Ethical self-understanding will serve as a framework for a self-understanding of existence that is a key part for morals, justice and politics to provide answers to the right action. Without it nothing really takes effect because the subject has to be a person and be able to be himself and this intuitive perception of existence will give the clippings that characterize a good or failed life.

With this we arrive at the bases on which Kierkegaard traces his model of conduct to the individual, because existence and “living condition” are part of his post-metaphysical thinking. Kierkegaard’s power to be himself is realized in human existence that navigates a dialectic of “self to himself”, without denial of one for the other. Being able to be oneself involves choice and, thus, Kierkegaard deals with the autonomy of the ratio/will relationship of the individual, who must build, from his own consciousness, the control of his life. The individual who had his life instrumented by genetic manipulation becomes, then, hostage to the reason/will of others and this awareness of historicity, instead of being an attribute of his existence, becomes also a product of social manipulation that began in his prepersonal life.

Ethical awareness, wanting to become, as well as subjective morality, comes from recognition and relationship with “Someone” who is above any limitation, from a power that is not available in us. This transcendental power, located in the Kierkegardian religious stadium, can be designed for a transsubjective understanding in the horizontal recognition of another, which places us as partners in the process of communicative action, as subjects capable of language and action. Thus, a tangentienciation between the post-metaphysics of language and the power to be existential one sie that has a link with transcendentality is established. It is built here, then, a transposition of kierkegaardian post-metaphysics to a post-metaphysics of language, but without losing the connection between them.

Language and action are means of communication between moral subjects, but the logos of the language is linked to something that is beyond the subject (transubjective), who is the one who offers us the conditions for ethical self-understanding. Understanding by communication does not come by simple act and simple language. It is from the logos (of reason) that we build this exchange of messages, from one with one another. This combination of post-metaphysical thoughts leads to the disruption of the moderation (comedition) of post-metaphysics when it comes to the ethics of the species. Philosophy appropriates the discussion of the theme since the subject, now enabled by language and action, begins to have an ethical self-understanding. Having a natural body or building a body then enters into a debate in which objective existence has to be analyzed together with the subjectivity of existence.

In a way, the relationship between “being a body” and “having a body” can have different connotations depending on the subject who sees it and the perception he has of the human species.  Once existential and ethical self-understanding has no relevance in the universalized morals, the individual is held hostage, from its pre-personality, to objectives that satisfy cultural modernity, protected only by the simple duty to be legal. This leads to the liberality of intervention, for example, in the human genome through eugenics practices. Despite such genetic interventions, the personal history of the individual, therefore biography itself, refrains from the contingent process and unpredictability, both intrinsic to the nature of the human “being”, interfering early in his self-understanding of being himself. It is of relevant significance what Habermas says:

With the irreversible decision that one person makes in relation to the “natural” constitution of another, an unknown interpersonal relationship arises to date. This new type of relationship hurts our moral sensitivity, as it forms a foreign body in the relationships of recognition legally institutionalized in modern societies (HABERMAS, 2004, p. 20).

The author goes further on the issue of self-consciousness as a primordial element of subjectivity when it is understood that both in genetic manipulation and in the handling of genes in adults for cloning the question is due to this inner ethical understanding of humanity as a whole. However, even if this is necessary to parameterize understandings and conceptions, what is seen is the speculation of moral and legal norms to give legitimation to axiological orientations, which means that, currently, the human being is conditioned to live practically under these norms. The morals and natural right of the individual and the collectivity cannot be appended and would not survive as long as our mind remains focused on a Hobbesian state.

Since the human condition (as we saw in the previous chapter) is that of the war of one against the other, each governed by its own reason, and there is nothing that man can use to help him preserve his life against his enemies, everyone is entitled to everything, including the body of others” (HOBBES. 2009, 98).

When Francis Galton coined his thesis entitled eugenics in 1883, it is possible that he imagined his social purposes based on the ethical context as well as on the grouping of moral norms of the time, considering, for this purpose, mainly the European continent. On the other hand, Genetic Engineering developed from the 1970s onwards, as a scientific innovation, although the controversial ones were already inserted in its concepts (such as eugenics itself), with the objective of improving the condition of human life in the face of the fragilities that the body has in the face of the weather and degeneration, thus being able to recover the well-being of a collectivity. Having been the purpose, eugenics has followed or is on the same path as other great revelations that of scientific ingenuity have soon turned into uncontrolled bólide.

As we advance in science, the cult that lends itself to the human person in his latent life is emptied to give way, at first, to the desires of healing that later merge with the whims of the improvement of a winning phenotype. The embryo, searchable or not, can be submitted to cure or genetic improvement, and has its manipulation guided by diagnoses, such as the PIGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis). When it comes to therapeutic purposes, self-understanding of the ethical process is tied to self-understanding of existence, and these have the power to overcome regulatory norms. What is sought here is genetic intervention as a form of cure of undoubted and irreversible pathogenesis. Thus, negative eugenics is affirmed as correct ethical conduct.

As for the intervention for genetic improvements, at first, their demands and purposes are clear. But a question has been speculated when trying to establish an ethical study that contemplates the moral norms of eugenic manipulation: there are situations that the concept of healing approaches, in concrete cases, that of improvement, causing a tenuous threshold between them (see Figure 2), which is aggravated by the lack of stricter criteria to define and regulate them. According to Habermas “With the genetic diagnosis of preimplantation, today it is already difficult to respect the boundary between the selection of undesirable[9] hereditary factors and the optimization of desirable factors” (HABERMAS, 2004, p. 29)[10].

Figure 2 – The interface between eugenics.

Source: Author (2020)

This has given room for the establishment of a possibility of intervention in any situation, legitimized by normative doubt. From this, habermas calls liberal eugenics, catalyzed by interests shady to moral principles and ethics. Based on the rationality developed from communicative action (opposite instrumental reason)[11], Habermas exposes Kant’s concept of the categorical imperative that, through one of its derivations, places the person as an end in itself and not as a means, as a moral principle in dealing with other people. This refers to the meta-formulation of the categorical imperative, in which Kant invokes the absolute value of human existence: “it acts in such a way that you can use humanity, both in your person and in the person of any other, always as an end at the same time and never only as a means” (KANT, 1993, p. 79).

Here, the categorical imperative makes an interface between instrumental reason and the reason for communicative action, especially when it places the subject in the formulation of morals, expanding to the universal “we” from the arguments of moral propositions in ethical discourse. The formulation of this imperative must be part of the solution of conflicts whose axiological orientations are not reconciled, when, from the Discourse, the subjects must seek the norm that can be applied, concretely, to him and to all. The saying “no” must be a component of rational discourse, important to create, under consensus, the universal norm that applies to all concerned. The condition of being able to say no, or yes, is part of the power-to-be-yourself structure which is what leads to the understanding of being one’s being in the world. Yes, and they are not in speech and action, besides being part of the ethical stage of the individual that manifests itself in pretensions.

Genetic programming is a threat to being able to be itself because existence has the body as a tribute, that is, only when the cognoscent subject feels in the body does he have the understanding of being himself. This feeling of body in existence comes only by natural development and not by technical imposition. In Hannah Arendt, Habermas draws from her thesis that birth is not a continuity of life history (it is not a historical process, a doing again) but rather something that has become new and this new doing only comes by natural birth, as expressed by philosophy:

The new beginning inherent in each birth can be felt in the world only because the newcomer has the ability to start something new, that is, to act. In this sense of initiative, all human activities have an element of action and, therefore, of birth (ARENDT, 2007, p. 17).

The genetically modified individual does not allow a renewal of self-understanding of his genetic formation, because of the pre-established morale in an alienated way, making him, figuratively, a third person who cannot, from his ethical freedom, include himself naturally in his socialization process and be the one of his or her abilities and deficiencies. According to Habermas, he is someone “resembling a clone” (HABERMAS, 2004, p. 87). The programmer of the genetic intervention imposes a modified character that will irreversibly determine the understanding of the person who had his life book altered, with no chance of revision, because of a unilateral rational decision. The issue is not reduced to simple moral or legal normative prescription that is to protect the pre-person or the “person there” in the world of life.

Rather, it goes through an evaluation of how to deal with the human, to understand them within our ethical self-understanding. It also goes through past inclusion, based on the moral precepts of communicative action, of the future person, in consensus and decision on “what should I do with my life”, because:

we need to ask ourselves whether eventually future generations will conform to the fact that they no longer conceive themselves as unique authors of their lives – and are no longer held accountable as such (HABERMAS, 2004, p. 93).

With regard to a collective weighting of morals we can, for example. to be inclined to absorb liberal eugenic practices, such as those considered to be morally accepted, even putting therapeutic intervention in the background. This possibility of a totally relativistic eugenic future must be moderated and mediated by the ethics of discourse, that is, by communicative action, which still refuses to accept the self-inclusion of the human being in his domination of nature from the processes of self-instrumentalization. Knowing how to discern right from wrong is a phenotypic rational characteristic of “homo sapiens” and it is this virtue that also confronts the self-instrumentalization of the human species and the uncertainty of being able to be yourself in a world in which this self needs to result from an ethical self-understanding.

There is the basis for the inclusion of the second person in the process of socialization, having as matrix of ethical construction, the moral values of “perpetual status” of nature and the communicative action that takes place when the subjective being launches into the world from intersubjectivity and also from otherness. The appropriate model to integrate philosophy into the interdisciplinarity of the bioethical theme of genetic manipulation of the species, had in Habermas’ line of thought the necessary foundation to make a review of the foundations of traditional philosophy. It tries to achieve, for this, an understanding of morals and ethics in the domination of natural becoming, caused by anthropization, which entails changes in the ontological and anthropological scenarios, whose own human being is, therefore, protagonist, both active and passive.

The changes made in the genomes are attitudes that do not find reception in morals universalized by the ethics of discourse or in the freedom to be able to be himself of the individual, especially when it aims exclusively at genetic improvements because it transgresses autonomy and equality of people [12]. That is why he advocates genetic manipulation for therapeutic purposes only and elevates his criticism of positive eugenics:

The body full of prostheses, designed to increase the performance, or the intelligence of angels, engraved on the hard drive, are fantastic images. They erase the border lines and undo the coherences that have so far presented themselves to our daily action as transcendentally necessary. On the one hand, the organic being that grew naturally merges with being produced in a technical way; on the other hand, the productivity of the human intellect is different from the subjectivity experienced (HABERMAS, 2004, p. 58).

It is through this subjectivity experienced that the person dialogues and accesses intersubjectivity and otherness in the ethical world of life. And, overcoming the question of “what to do with the time of my life” (HABERMAS, 2004, p. 3), it articulates itself from a reflexive ethical self-understanding to make a leap to another question of greater moral content, that is: “What should I do, what should we do?” (HABERMAS, ibidem, p. 5). She seeks the answer now with the inclusive “i” and “we” whose identity of the “I” is associated with what I desire for the other, keeping intact the dignity and freedom of each one in his process of historical construction of life. In this context, the questions of genetic manipulation are included, which, as a good scientific providence, converged on one of the most controversial topics of today – eugenics.

The question of the subject in the world of life, in the face of genetic interventions, begins to be treated by Habermas as a need to recognize the self-understanding of existence, whose individual, possessing an ethical self-understanding, becomes the subject of intersubjectivity, elaborating and arguing moral propositions to intervene in ethical discourse. Liberal eugenics, as a probable chapter of history, has to be treated as something deconstructive of human dignity that, associated with the loss of the individual’s authenticity with the alteration of his genetic identity, via chromosomal alteration, imposes new challenges on philosophical ethics.

At this point, Habermas shifts the thought to the reason of language, leaving aside the traditional ethical models based on idealism, abstraction, and begins to formulate an ethical model, or at least its bases, awakening to science, politics and postmodern society the need for reflection on the future of a fragile and potentially instrumentalized humanity. In a way, even if still cautious in the face of such a recent theme, care must be taken when elaborating decisive moral arguments. Thus, Habermas proposes, as we have already pointed out, to treat the subject by contemplating the subject, in a way that is, in the way that the ethical discourse [13]. It is in the language of communicative action, even extimed, that moral values are constructed to be implemented in ethical action, precisely seeking ethical self-understanding before elaborating norms of being, moral or legal, introduced, disseminated and internalized in political decisions.

Such ethical awareness, according to Habermas, must permeate the minds of those who by heterodeterminacy decide to bet on an “improved” phenotype, eugenically modifying the human genome, that is, by imposing a will unrelated to a second person who should be a participant in an intersubjective deliberation. Based on this and according to Habermasian thought on the subject, the decision on eugenics has to be considered (see Figure 3). In this case, negative eugenics can be accepted morally and legally, because then one can try to integrate the individual into a dignity that is under threat. This weighting reaches the definitions of the limits, sometimes tenuous, between negative and positive eugenics, that is, between gene therapy and the search for perfection.

Figure 3 – Matrix of values for weighting of genetic techniques procedures.

Technique Effects attributed to the technique Value
PIGD ·         Chromosomal information for embryo implantation

·         Disposal of unhealthy embryos


Research ·         Disposal of any type of embryo

·         New discoveries for medicine


Intervention ·         Healing that, morally justified, provides the second person with inclusion in the socialization process

·         Genetic improvement, questioned about the loss of autonomy of the individual in the socialization process


Source: Author (2020)


Habermas does not bring a final, definitive prescription to solve the problem presented in this study. However, it makes a design in which it presents the moral mechanisms that can be applied in decisions that involve the self-affirmation of the existence of human life. His great concern is with the direction that eugenic manipulation can take if these mechanisms interfering in people’s action are not taken into account. That is why he bets on communicative reason, intersubjectivity, validation of moral arguments under consensus and ethical self-understanding to try to avoid a fading of identity and autonomy of the individual in the future of human nature. Figure 4 shows, in summary, Habermas’ proposal.

Figure 4 – Synthesis of a proposal for the ethics of eugenics.

Source: Author (2020)

Since rational communication, through philosophical language, becomes the instrument of practical ethics, it can also be expanded to other relational horizons of the human being, such as politics and the family. Platonic ideas and Hegelian models of formatting ethics are left apart because, as we have seen, it can be found in the reality of the world of life, by giving primacy to praxis in place of theory. Science, theology and metaphysics, in our view, should not be denied as means of knowledge, but ethics must be anchored in a reason that permeates the connection between subjects’ thoughts, manifested by action and language, and, therefore, there are subjects with the capacity for speech and action always, which makes it possible to reach consensus on the moral values pertinent to the ethical action of a collective.

Finally, we consider that one’s own should not be just a possibility, but a natural right, in its broad sense, and thus an individual acquires it even in the pre-person, and therefore the human embryo, even in the blastocyte phase, may not be a person yet in its completeness, as Habermas adds, but is subject with all the rights to be a person. Reason assists the author when it refers to the dignity of human life since its conception. We also believe that this is the necessary basis for objecting to the shady interests of science, politics and the market, which today barrier the establishment of legal norms with authentically moral ballasts. It may seem strange or atypical for our society to set up cultural conducts and changes from an understanding driven by self-understanding, but philosophy cannot shiver from this mission


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3. Phenotype: apparent or observable characteristic of an individual, determined by genetic interaction and environmental conditions.

4.htttp:// Access on 03/09/2018. Public Domain (Acess on September/03/2018. Public Domain).

5. It means that post-metaphysics reaches the limit of its epokhé (suspension of judgment) in the treatment of matters related to the right life or the failed life, when the ethical self-understanding of “subjects capable of language and action” comes into play, that is, it is the moment when it can no longer be contained only in the spaces it had been acting so far.

6. In summary, Habermas’ thinking stands out for its criticism of positivism and the reformulation of Marxist theory, and also criticizes what is also called “instrumental reason”, stating that it is through the use of language and the action that people acquire and use knowledge and express their desires and objectives. The communicative action occurs when the subjects of the action agree, willingly, on their targets and give the tone of the rationality employed to reach them. It is highlighted there, then, the criterion of intersubjectivity, the interaction between subjects (human beings) as an alternative to the “instrumental reason” defined as the “faculty that judges, discerns, comcants, relates, orders and coordinates the means with the ends”. It is through this communicative action that the individual manages to create his own spaces, free from the bonds of the world of consciousness.

7. It refers to the different spheres of life, and does not have the meaning of states of evolution; hence being called stadiums.

8. According to the Informal Dictionary of the Portuguese Language is the way the person perceives and interprets himself, which does not always correspond to reality.

9. Reason for therapeutic genetic intervention

10. Reason for genetic intervention of improvement

11. Instrumental reason is focused on the mastery (control) of nature, and of man himself. The subject interprets the world in his own way.

12. Habermas brings from Kant autonomy as the greater principle of morality

13. It is a preview of the individual’s decision, based on the consequences that an intervention has on a projected socialization of the future human person who has the capacity to speak and act.

[1] Postgraduate in Environmental Management, Graduation in Chemical Engineering, Graduation in Philosophy, Special Student of the Master’s Course in Philosophy at UFBA.

[2] PhD in Ethical and Political Philosophy from the Complutense University of Madrid-Spain. Master in Advanced Studies in Philosophy from the Complutense University of Madrid-Spain.

Submitted: October, 2019.

Approved: January, 2020.

Post-graduation in Environmental Management, Graduation in Chemical Engineering, Graduation in Philosophy, Special Student of the Master's Degree in Philosophy at UFBA.


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