Geniuses by Enhancement (Part 2)

Discussions of the ethics of human enhancement often invoke a supposed distinction between therapies, which are aimed at fighting disease and overcoming impairments, and enhancements, which are aimed at increasing human capacities. As I observed in my previous post on this topic, nearly everyone acknowledges the difficulty of drawing this distinction in some cases. Some argue the distinction is clear enough, just sometimes difficult to apply; others argue the distinction is ambiguous, and should be abandoned.

It is certainly possible and morally useful to distinguish between therapeutic and non-therapeutic acts; it is also possible to distinguish enhancements from other kinds of acts. There is no reason to suppose, however, that those two distinctions coincide. Indeed, some therapies, like vaccines, fight disease by enhancing ordinary human capacities. There are, in other words, therapeutic enhancers.

If at least some enhancements are therapeutic and permissible, then the ethical question is not about human enhancement as such but which enhancements or what kinds of enhancements are permissible or impermissible and under what conditions.

Artificial (Human) Intelligence?

Among the many dazzling promises enhancement advocates offer is the prospect of a class of drugs (or genetic alterations--setting aside human-technology fusions for a later post) that would enable us to perform at significantly higher cognitive levels than we otherwise would--the ability, if you will, to generate artificial human intelligence by manipulating our human material in some way.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, safe and effective intellectual enhancers can be developed through morally permissible means, uncontroversial uses might include (1a) helping brain-damaged patients recover something approximating their original capacity or (1b) helping Down syndrome children perform at grade level. But what about (2a) a high IQ boy who nevertheless struggles with a learning disability or (2b) a girl-genius who struggles to focus after a traumatic life experience? Or, what about (3a) children with below average IQs, say around 80, who struggle to keep up but have no diagnosable condition? Or, what about (3b) a healthy and brilliant medical researcher working on a cure for cancer or (3c) a government hacker working on code to safely neutralize a rogue state's nuclear program before the desperate days of regime collapse? Then there is the predictable (4a) private school that encourages students to adopt a regiment of these drugs as part of their college prep program or (4b) public university that reacts to the wide availability of such drugs by raising admission standards to levels out of reach to unenhanced students.

Type 1 and 2 cases outlined above would presumably count as permissible therapeutic enhancements since they relate to fighting the effects of disease. Other cases, such as 3a, are more difficult to sort out, especially if we use a "normal" or "species typical" standard for assessing impairment (more on that another time). The rest of type 3 and type 4 cases, however, seem obviously non-therapeutic. Yet, it is not obvious that type 3 cases are morally impermissible. Type 4 cases should give us pause, but we can be sure that many parents will not pause long before subjecting their children to such a regiment of drugs, if such drugs are safe, effective, and legally available.

Life's a Sport?

Even if we are willing to give the medical researcher (3b) or government hacker (3c) a moral pass, as it were, we certainly seem unwilling to do the same for athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) today. Our objection to PED use in sports is interesting and a point worth considering.

Imagine that in 2050 "everyone," except the usual suspects, is subjecting their children to a regiment of safe and effective athletic-type PEDs administered along with their vaccines. Imagine also that, on average, those who complete this regiment have their strength and agility enhanced beyond contemporary levels of professional athletic prowess and that this regiment is so potent that it renders black market PEDs pointless--at least until a new generation of even more potent enhancers can be pioneered. By about 2070 all college athletes and soon after that all professional athletes will have benefitted from PEDs, and be that much quicker and faster and stronger than they would have been, in proportion to their developed natural talents.

While we may be disgusted with PED use in professional sports today, I doubt we would feel the same way in this imaginary future. How we feel about some act has nothing to do with the ethics of it, of course, and just because "everyone" is doing it doesn't make it right. But, just because we are uncomfortable or even disgusted with something in some particular instance does not mean it is impermissible, either. The question is this: Would we still have the same moral objection to PED use in competitive sports in our imaginary 2080 that we have in 2017?

When Enhancing is (not) Cheating

Our primary objection to enhancing today, whether performing on the athletic field for a gaudy clunker of a ring or in the academic arena for, perhaps, admission into an elite college, is that it is cheating. (I am assuming, remember, safe, effective, and morally developed PEDs.) If PED use did not count as cheating, would we still have a moral objection?

Readers inclined to give the researcher or hacker a moral pass probably do so for two reasons: first, because they recognize a worthy end (curing cancer or avoiding nuclear war); second, because they do not view these instances of PED use as cheating. Though the researcher or hacker may be enhancing their intellectual capacity in some way his or her colleagues (or foes) lack, the judgment of charity inclines us to view their PED use as an act of service to humanity far removed from cheating.

The end does not justify the means, of course, but if we already have reasons to believe at least some enhancers (vaccines) are permissible when used to achieve worthy ends (prevent disease), then it is at least plausible that (1) intellectual enhancers may also be permissible when used to pursue worthy ends and (2) that fighting disease in the patient is not the only worthy end enhancers might serve.

When Not to Fight Disease

That being said, there are conditions under which otherwise permissible means ought not to be employed to achieve apparently worthy ends. There are times, for example, when we do not administer chemo or subject a person to another round of radiation or perform the surgery. There are times when fighting disease may do more harm than good or when keeping up the fight represents little more than a desperate refusal to accept one's mortality or even our finitude.

The problem may not be the means (medical treatments) or the apparent end (saving life), but the ulterior motive (perhaps denying mortality) that is aimed at some other end (such as defeating death outside of Christ). Transhumanism is exactly this kind of impermissible quest, pursued via human enhancements. So, while human enhancements, including intellectual enhancements, are permissible under certain conditions, enhancements for the purpose of transcending our humanity or grasping equality with God or glory without Christ's cross, is not. That, at least, is the argument I aim to take up in my next post.