If the events of recent weeks and months—last week’s bombing in Boston; the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas; and the Newtown massacre, to name a few—remind us of anything, it is that life is fragile. Death, suffering, pain, and struggle can come to us unbidden, at any time, and can forever alter the trajectory of our lives. Experiences such as these undermine our well-established and carefully fortified illusions of control, of mastery over our lives. There is, in the end, so little that we can directly control. We would do well to heed these much-needed reminders of our mortality and vulnerability.
Unfortunately, our culture largely proceeds on the basis of unexamined assumptions about the nature of our lives, of what it means to be “truly human.” To a large extent, it seems we have bought into the notion that the core of what it means to be human has to do with “selfhood” and “agency”—that we are, in the end, makers of our own meaning; controllers of our own destinies; independent, rational, agents of choice whose “rights” to “freedom,” “individuality,” and “self-expression” are of paramount importance. To be sure, freedom, self-expression, and the like are not illegitimate in and of themselves. Yet we lose something crucial when we give in to the temptation to think of ourselves exclusively or even primarily as fully-autonomous, atomistic “selves” rather than as members of larger communities, with whom we exist in relationships of interdependence rather than pure self-reliance.
The dialectic between these various ideas is of relevance to many issues in contemporary bioethics, including questions surrounding enhancement. To what extent does the “enhancement enterprise,” for example, reflect our illusion of control, of self-mastery—we will be the masters of our own destinies; we will assert our own visions of the “good life”; we will, perhaps, even “cheat” death (at least temporarily) by radically extending the length of our lives?
The events of the recent past helpfully remind us, once again, that even our best-laid plans, the ambitions “of mice and of men,” frequently come to naught.
The question, in light of that reality, is: how then shall we live now – today – in the present?