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Ethics of Human Enhancement

An important new report titled Ethics of Human Enhancement: 25 Questions & Answers has just been released.

Authored by Fritz Allhoff, Patrick Lin, James Moor, and John Weckert, and sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the 50-page report is intended as “a convenient and accessible starting point for both public and classroom discussions, such as in bioethics seminars.”

These are the 25 questions addressed in the report:

Definition & Distinctions
1. What is human enhancement?
2. Is the natural/artificial distinction morally significant in this debate?
3. Is the internal/external distinction morally significant in this debate?
4. Is the therapy/enhancement distinction morally significant in this debate?

Contexts & Scenarios
5. Why would contexts matter in the ethics of human enhancement?
6. What are some examples of enhancement for cognitive performance?
7. What are some examples of enhancement for physical performance?
8. Should a non-therapeutic procedure that provides no net benefit be called an “enhancement”?

Freedom & Autonomy
9. Could we justify human enhancement technologies by appealing to our right to be free?
10. Could we justify enhancing humans if it harms no one other than perhaps the individual?

Fairness & Equity
11. Does human enhancement raise issues of fairness, access, and equity?
12. Will it matter if there is an “enhancement divide”?

Societal Disruptions
13. What kind of societal disruptions might arise from human enhancement?
14. Are societal disruptions reason enough to restrict human enhancement?
15. If individuals are enhanced differently, will communication be more difficult or impossible?

Human Dignity & The Good Life
16. Does the notion of human dignity suffer with human enhancements?
17. Will we need to rethink the notion of a “good life”?

Rights & Obligations
18. Is there a right to be enhanced?
19. Could human enhancement give us greater or fewer rights?
20. Is there an obligation in some circumstance to be enhanced?
21. Should children be enhanced?

Policy & Law
22. What are the policy implications of human enhancement?
23. Should there be limits on enhancements allowed, e.g., for military purposes?
24. Might enhanced humans count as someone’s intellectual property?
25. Will we need to rethink ethics itself?

And here is the Introduction, which provides an eloquent overview to the topic of human enhancement:

“Man is the only creature that refuses to be what he is.” - Albert Camus

Homo sapiens has been such a prolific species, simply because we are very good at relentlessly adapting to our environment.  At the most basic level, we have won control over fire and tools to forge a new world around us, we build shelter and weave clothes to repel the brutal elements, and we raise animals and crops for predictability in our meals.  With our intellect and resourcefulness, we are thereby better able to survive this world.

However, it is not just the world around us that we desire to change.  Since the beginning of history, we also have wanted to become more than human, to become Homo superior.  From the godlike command of Gilgamesh, to the lofty ambitions of Icarus, to the preternatural strength of Beowulf, to the mythical skills of Shaolin monks, and to various shamans and shapeshifters throughout the world’s cultural history, we have dreamt—and still dream—of transforming ourselves to overcome our all-too-human limitations.

In practice, this means that we improve our minds through education, disciplined thinking, and meditation; we improve our bodies with a sound diet and physical exercise; and we train with weapons and techniques to defend ourselves from those who would conspire to kill.  But today, something seems to be different.  With ongoing work to unravel the mysteries of our minds and bodies, coupled with the art and science of emerging technologies, we are near the start of the Human Enhancement Revolution.

Now we are not limited to “natural” methods to enhance ourselves or to merely wield tools such as a hammer or binoculars or a calculator.  We are beginning to incorporate technology within our very bodies, which may hold moral significance that we need to consider.  These technologies promise great benefits for humanity—such as increased productivity and creativity, longer lives, more serenity, stronger bodies and minds, and more—though, as we will discuss later, there is a question whether these things translate into happier lives, which many see as the point of it all (President’s Council on Bioethics, 2003; Persaud, 2006).

As examples of emerging technologies in the last year or so, a couple imaginative inventions in particular, among many, are closing the gap even more between science fiction and the real world.  Scientists have conceptualized an electronic-packed contact lens that may provide the wearer with telescopic and night vision or act as an omnipresent digital monitor to receive and relay information (Parviz, et al., 2008).  Another innovation is a touch display designed to be implanted just under the skin that would activate special tattoo ink on one’s arm to form images, such as telephone-number keys to punch or even a video to watch (Mielke, 2008).  Together with ever-shrinking computing devices, we appear to be moving closer to cybernetic organisms (or “cyborgs”), that is, where machines are integrated with our bodies or at least with our clothing in the nearer-term.  Forget about Pocket PCs, mobile phones, GPS devices, and other portable gadgets; we might soon be able to communicate and access those capabilities without having to carry any external device, thus raising our productivity, efficiency, response time, and other desirable measures—in short, enabling us to even better survive our world.

Technology is clearly a game-changing field.  The invention of such things as the printing press, gunpowder, automobiles, computers, vaccines, and so on, has profoundly changed the world, for the better we hope.  But at the same time, they have also led to unforeseen consequences, or perhaps consequences that might have been foreseen and addressed had we bothered to investigate them.  Least of all, they have disrupted the status quo, which is not necessarily a terrible thing in and of itself; but unnecessary and dramatic disruptions, such as mass displacements of workers or industries, have real human costs to them.  As we will discuss, this may well be the case with human enhancement technologies, enabled by advances in nanotechnology, micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS), genetic engineering, robotics, cognitive science, information technology, pharmacology, and other fields (Roco and Bainbridge, 2003).

In this special report, we examine many ethical and social issues surrounding human enhancement technologies.  For instance, on the issue of whether such technologies ought to be regulated or otherwise restricted, one position is that (more than minimal) regulation would hinder personal freedom or autonomy, infringing on some natural or political right to improve our own bodies, minds, and lives as we see fit (Naam, 2005; Bailey, 2005; Harris, 2007; Allhoff et al., forthcoming).  Others, however, advocate strong regulation—and even a research moratorium—to protect against unintended effects on society, such as the presumably-undesirable creation of a new class of enhanced persons who could outwit, outplay, and outlast “normal” or unenhanced persons for jobs, in schools, at sporting contests, and so on, among other reasons (Fukuyama, 2003, 2006; Friends of the Earth, 2006).  Still others seek a sensible middle path between stringent regulation and individual liberty (Hughes, 2004; Greely, 2005).

No matter where one is aligned on this issue, it is clear that the human enhancement debate is a deeply passionate and personal one, striking at the heart of what it means to be human.  Some see it as a way to fulfill or even transcend our potential; others see it as a darker path towards becoming Frankenstein’s monster.

We encourage you to download and read [PDF] the entire report.

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.

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