Geniuses by Enhancement

Medical procedures for healthy people are nothing new. Surgeries to augment or "enhance" this or that physical feature for "cosmetic" purposes are rather common. According to widely cited statistics supplied by The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, one out of every twenty American women and one out of every five South Korean women have had some form of invasive cosmetic surgery. (This excludes Botox and filler injections, which are considered non-invasive, and reconstructive surgeries, which are not considered cosmetic.)

As cosmetic surgery became a middle class commodity, the ethics of human enhancement flitted across the public mind. But in an era when sex-reassignment surgeries to treat gender dysphoria are covered by standard medical plans, ethical questions about cosmetic enhancements, though not trivial, seem quaint.

An Enhancement Revolution?

New developments in science, medicine, and technology, however, are poised to dramatically raise the ethical ante--and are attracting both popular and academic attention. In a National Science Foundation funded report published in Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology, Allhoff, Lin, Moor, and Weckert note that "since the beginning of history, we . . . have wanted to become more than human, to become Homo superior. . . . We have dreamt--and still dream--of transforming ourselves to overcome our all-too-human limitations." Indeed, the opportunity to grasp an illusion of equality with God, in terms of knowing good and evil, was the seductive suggestion of the tempter in Eden (Gen. 3:4-7).

The ability to fundamentally alter our humanity, however, has long been the domain of myth, fiction, and lies.

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 (Allhoff et al., "Ethics of Human Enhancement," 2010).

The quest to transform humanity by significantly enhancing (or otherwise transcending) our finite capacities--sometimes called transhumanism--is, for some, a quasi-religious obsession complete with its own eschatological moment called "the singularity." For these folks, and many others, the dawning human enhancement revolution is about realizing the dazzling (and vaguely utopian) potential to become something greater than the tragically flawed and finite shades of our future selves we presently are.

This Century's Industrial Warfare?

Revolutions always seem like good ideas to drifters drunk on exaggerated promises the night before. Many spoke giddily of the wonders to be ushered in with the industrial revolution of the late nineteenth century, never imagining the unearthly horrors of industrial warfare.

There will be no escaping human nature this time either--neither the wonder of being creatures in God's image nor the tragedy of our fallen condition. We may cure more diseases or find ways to make ourselves much smarter or we may irreparably damage all future generations and bring even greater misery into the world--and we may do all this at the same time and by the same means.

No matter, the revolution is apparently upon us. In some cases, "we are beginning to incorporate technology within our very bodies" to give us superhuman abilities. "These technologies promise great benefits for humanity--such as increased productivity and creativity, longer lives, more serenity, stronger bodies and minds, and more," (Allhoff, et al.). In other cases, we are seeking "to develop more effective 'smart pills' which target the molecular basis of specific brain functions" (William Cheshire, "Bioethics and a Better Life" in Why the Church Needs Bioethics, 2011. p. 166). And in yet other cases, we are pursuing genetic modifications of various kinds, including changes to human germ cells that would be carried forward in every future generation.

There is no good reason to think any of this will make us happier because it cannot make us morally better, much less spiritually alive.

Therapy vs. Enhancement?

A central question in the current ethical debate is whether a distinction between therapy and enhancement can be sustained, and if so of what use it may be. As ethicists on all sides admit, the boundary between morally permissible therapy and morally contested enhancement is far from clear.

Enhancement advocates often argue the distinction fails and that it makes no sense to continue using it. Distinction defenders acknowledge "this line may sometimes be difficult to draw in practice" but argue "that means only that it is difficult to draw, not that it does not exist or is unimportant." There is, Gilbert Meilaender contends, "an important difference between treating what everyone acknowledges to be a disease and seeking to enhance intellectual capacities" (Bioethics, p. 43).

To see the difficulty, consider vaccinations. Unlike most other kinds of therapies, vaccines do not obviously restore a patient's damaged or impaired capacities to a normal or "species-typical" level. They do, however, enhance the immune system's ability to fight off diseases healthy unvaccinated people ordinarily can't.

If it were impermissible to enhance the human immune system beyond species-typical capacity--however that is assessed--then vaccinating our children against small pox and polio would be immoral; but if vaccines are permissible in principle, as most everyone agrees (including fringy folks who decline vaccinations for safety or political reasons), then at least some human enhancements appear to be permissible.

The Ethical Question

Even if vaccines are permissible enhancers, this does not mean that every kind of enhancement is therefore permissible. Perhaps we can adapt Meilaender's criterion of opposing disease to distinguish between enhancements aimed at fighting "what everyone acknowledges to be disease"--therapeutic enhancers, if you will--and those aimed at other ends such as enlarging one's intellectual capacity. Since vaccines are aimed at fighting disease (via prevention) they are morally permissible enhancers, all other things being equal, while enhancers aimed at making us smarter, sexier, able to see like eagles, or hear like owls, remain morally suspect.

If so, the ethical question is no longer about human enhancements as such, but whether non-therapeutic human enhancers are permissible. That is the question I hope to take up in my next post.