Ethics and Human Enhancement

The Ethics of Human Enhancement

While in some circles the expression “human enhancement” is roughly synonymous with human genetic engineering, it is used most often to refer to the general application of the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science (NBIC) to improve human performance. Since the 1990s, several academics (such as some of the fellows of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies) have risen to become advocates of the case for human enhancement while other academics (such as the members of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics) have become outspoken critics.Ethics of Enhancement

Advocacy of the case for human enhancement is increasingly becoming synonymous with “transhumanism”, a controversial ideology and movement which has emerged to support the recognition and protection of the right of citizens to either maintain or modify their own minds and bodies; so as to guarantee them the freedom of choice and informed consent of using human enhancement technologies on themselves and their children.

Neuromarketing consultant Zack Lynch argues that neurotechnologies will have a more immediate effect on society than gene therapy and will face less resistance as a pathway of radical human enhancement. He also argues that the concept of “enablement” needs to be added to the debate over “therapy” versus “enhancement”.

Although many proposals of human enhancement rely on fringe science, the very notion and prospect of human enhancement has sparked public controversy.

Dale Carrico wrote that “human enhancement” is a loaded term which has eugenic overtones because it may imply the improvement of human hereditary traits to attain a universally accepted norm of biological fitness (at the possible expense of human biodiversity and neurodiversity), and therefore can evoke negative reactions far beyond the specific meaning of the term. Furthermore, Carrico wrote that enhancements which are self-evidently good, like “fewer diseases”, are more the exception than the norm and even these may involve ethical tradeoffs, as the controversy about ADHD arguably demonstrates.

However, the most common criticism of human enhancement is that it is or will often be practiced with a reckless and selfish short-term perspective that is ignorant of the long-term consequences on individuals and the rest of society, such as the fear that some enhancements will create unfair physical or mental advantages to those who can and will use them, or unequal access to such enhancements can and will further the gulf between the “haves” and “have-nots”. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has shown some concern that, within the century, humans may be required to merge with this technology in order to compete in the marketplace.

Other critics of human enhancement fear that such capabilities would change, for the worse, the dynamic relations within a family. Given the choices of superior qualities, parents make their child as opposed to merely birthing it, and the newborn becomes a product of their will rather than a gift of nature to be loved unconditionally. This is problematic because it could harm the unconditional love a parent ought give their child, and it could furthermore lead to serious disappointment if the child does not fulfill its engineered role.

Accordingly, some advocates, who want to use more neutral language, and advance the public interest in so-called “human enhancement technologies”, prefer the term “enablement” over “enhancement”; defend and promote rigorous, independent safety testing of enabling technologies; as well as affordable, universal access to these technologies.

Inequality and social disruption

Some believe that the ability to enhance one’s self would reflect the overall goal of human life: to improve fitness and survivability. They claim that it is human nature to want to better ourselves via increasedlife expectancy, strength, and/or intelligence, and to become less fearful and more independent. In today’s world, however, there are stratification among socioeconomic classes that prevent some from accessing these enhancements. The advantage gained by one person’s enhancements implies a disadvantage to an unenhanced person. Human enhancements present a great debate on the equality between the haves and the have-nots. A modern day example of this would be LASIK eye surgery, which only the wealthy can afford.

The enhancement of the human body could have profound changes to everyday situations. Sports, for instance, would change dramatically if enhanced people were allowed to compete; there would be a clear disadvantage for those who are not enhanced. In regards to economic programs, human enhancements would greatly increase life expectancy which would require employers to either adjust their pension programs to compensate for a longer retirement term, or delay retirement age another ten years or so. When considering birth rates into this equation, if there is no decline with increased longevity, this could put more pressure on resources like energy and food availability. A job candidate enhanced with a neural transplant that heightens their ability to compute and retain information, would outcompete someone who is not enhanced. Another scenario might be a person with a hearing or sight enhancement could intrude on privacy laws or expectations in an environment like a classroom or workplace. These enhancements could go undetected and give individuals an overall advantage. Human enhancements have profound ability to benefit fitness and survivability; but at too high of a cost, enhancements could widen the gap between socioeconomic classes.

Geoffrey Miller claims that 21st century Chinese eugenics may allow the Chinese to increase the IQ of each subsequent generation by five to fifteen IQ points, and after a couple generations it “would be game over for Western global competitiveness.” Miller recommends that we put aside our “self-righteous” Euro-American ideological biases and learn from the Chinese.

Enhancements as inherently immoral

Going past the possible bad effects and outcomes that are potentially caused by human enhancements, some argue that those arguments aside, enhancing a human via technology is bad in itself. There are many reasons that one could posit this, from religious doctrines to natural law theory, and each argument requires its own response.


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