Bioethics Blogs

Prometheus and the Drive to Mastery

Writers who express caution about the over-enthusiastic embrace of new technologies, such as Michael Sandel, who worries about human enhancement and genetic engineering, and Clive Hamilton, who worries about geoengineering, sometimes warn us about the ‘Promethean attitude’, or ‘the Promethean urge’. According to Sandel, human enhancement and genetic engineering ‘… represent a kind of hyperagency – a Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including human nature, to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires. The problem is not the drift to mechanism but the drive to mastery. And what the drive to mastery misses and many even destroy is an appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements’ (‘The Case against Perfection’, in J. Savulescu and N. Bostrom (eds.) Human Enhancement, OUP 2012, p. 78). Hamilton worries about geoengineers who desire ‘total domination of the planet’. He describes this desire as a ‘Promethean urge named after the Greek titan who gave to humans the tools of technological mastery’ (Earthmasters, Yale 2013, p. 18).

Many proponents of genetic engineering, human enhancement and geoengineering would protest at these descriptions. They might seek to alter certain aspects of human nature, or prevent deleterious changes to the Earth’s climate, however they do not usually think of themselves as seeking total control. But perhaps they are possessed by urges that they do not acknowledge, or that they are unaware of? Perhaps Sandel and Hamilton are pointing to the myth of Prometheus as a warning about such hidden urges?

There are various different myths about Prometheus. He is credited with providing human with architecture, astronomy, mathematics, the art of writing, the treatment of domestic animals, navigation, medicine and metallurgy.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.