The Debate over Enhancements (Introduction)

Ronald A. Lindsay

Through drugs and implanted medical devices, we can now enhance the capacities of humans. The changes brought about so far are still relatively minor (for example, using Ritalin to increase the ability to concentrate), but it’s highly likely that we will develop the means to modify an increasing variety of human traits within ten to twenty years. Were we able to perfect the techniques for safe, effective, targeted genetic modification, the possibilities for human transformation would be enormous. We could improve our cognitive capacities; increase our immunity to disease; retard the aging process; augment our strength and endurance; and alter our dispositions, moods, and behavior.

The prospect of significant enhancement of human capacities, physical or mental, has sparked an intense debate in the last decade, both in ethics and at the level of public policy. One of the major reports produced by President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics was devoted to the topic. (As one might expect, the 2003 report, titled Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, took a rather dim view of enhancements.) However, it is not just academics, lawyers, and policy makers who have been debating the issues presented by enhancements. A not-insignificant portion of the general population has been captivated by the topic—although, admittedly, some of this interest arises more from science fiction than an objective analysis of advances in biomedical sciences.

There is a transhumanist movement that welcomes, indeed encourages, the development of a wide range of human enhancements and, in general, takes the position that humans should be able to transform themselves in radical ways, such as exponential increases in cognitive capacity or dramatic increases in healthy life spans. On the other hand, there are bioconservatives who adamantly oppose any substantial alteration of our capacities, either because they believe enhancements are intrinsically wrong or that they will have devastating consequences. And, of course, there is a wide array of positions in the middle. One example would be the views of Nicholas Agar, the New Zealand philosopher who has argued for the right of parents to choose to have their children enhanced but who recently wrote a book, Humanity’s End, in which he sets forth a case against radical enhancement.

Two things are indisputable: this is a topic that needs to be addressed, and it needs to be addressed in the context of secular ethics. Religious ethics has nothing to offer on the issue of human enhancements. This is not surprising, as the novel questions posed by human enhancements were not matters of concern two thousand years ago. Only the most morally obtuse dogmatist would try to find guidance in the Bible or Qur’an on this issue.

We are fortunate to have some of today’s leading scholars on the topic of enhancements contribute articles to this special symposium. Their articles present diverse perspectives, highlighting the most important considerations we must take into account when coming to our own conclusions about the wisdom and morality of enhancements. I will introduce each of the authors and articles below, but first, I want to clear away some of the underbrush.

Much of the debate over enhancements has, until recently, been driven by ill-reasoned objections to the use of enhancement technologies in general. Leon Kass (Ageless Bodies, Happy Souls); Michael Sandel (The Case Against Perfection); and Francis Fukuyama (Our Posthuman Future), among others, have argued that, in various ways, biomedical enhancements are intrinsically problematic, immoral, or unwise. In academic circles, at least, these objections have not usually been found to be persuasive. They raise spurious concerns. Nonetheless, it is worth considering them because doing so will accomplish two things. One, it will indicate where the focus of our discussion of enhancements should be located. Two, it will serve as a useful reminder that a number of people have an almost visceral reaction against enhancements. If enhancements are ever to become openly and widely available, the public must be convinced that they are acceptable. This may be more difficult than some academics imagine.

Before proceeding further, let me explain how I will be using the term enhancement. First, unless stated otherwise, I will use enhancement to mean a biomedical enhancement. A biomedical enhancement is one in which the mechanism of enhancement is integrated in some fashion into the human body, such as enhancing one’s capabilities through ingestion of a drug, gene modification, or the insertion or attachment of a device. This does not mean there is a morally relevant difference between biomedical enhancements and what are sometimes referred to as “external enhancements,” such as computers. But even though the distinction may not ultimately carry much normative weight, a rough factual distinction may be made; we may be skewing the discussion from the beginning if we ignore the factual differences between the two types of enhancements.

An enhancement is something that improves some existing human capacity or creates some new capacity that improves the functioning of a human. The improvement may come about through the partial or complete suppression of some existing capacity. Improvement is defined by reference to the statistically normal range of functioning for a human or the actual functioning of a human individual who functions above the statistically normal range. (I emphasize that this is a working definition only.)

Are Enhancements Intrinsically Objectionable?

Several different arguments have been made against enhancements. I will consider three, which I believe are representative.

First, Harvard professor Michael Sandel has argued that the desire for enhancements manifests a profoundly misguided quest for mastery over the circumstances of our existence. Sandel contends it is important to maintain a sense of “giftedness,” which he explains is the sense that who we are “exceeds our control.” Enhancements may destroy an appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievement.

To begin, I do not believe Sandel anywhere provides an explanation for the high value he places on giftedness or, for that matter, the enormous negative normative weight he places on the desire for mastery. But I do not want to spend time debating Sandel’s evaluation of giftedness or the desire for mastery. Even if we assume that the sense of giftedness has significant value, Sandel is mistaken in arguing that enhancements necessarily would deprive us of that sense.

The sense of giftedness, according to Sandel, implies acceptance of the fact that certain aspects of our lives remain outside of our control. So what is the problem with enhancements? No matter how we are enhanced, certain aspects of our lives will remain outside of our control, in part because we are continually being affected by occurrences that we have no hope of controlling, from natural disasters to disease outbreaks to the unpredictable actions of others. Enhancements may help us cope with contingencies better than we do now; they will not eliminate contingencies. The wheel of fortune will continue to turn in an enhanced future.

Indeed, the most radical contingency that any of us experience will continue to be in play in an enhanced future. No human will ever have any control over the genetic endowment she or he is provided with at conception or the environment in which she or he is nurtured and raised. We are, and always will be, thrown into this world. We may seek to improve ourselves later, but our initial conditions have been established either by chance or the decisions of others and will always remain beyond our reach. Our existence will remain “gifted,” whether we like it or not.

A second global objection against enhancements is that another important aspect of human life, namely our sense of achievement, will be undermined or destroyed. This concern is sometimes described as an objection based on loss of authenticity or deformation of our character. For example, Kass has maintained that with enhancements, “the relations between the knowing subject and his activities, and between his activities and their fulfillments and pleasures, are disrupted.” Instead of self-discipline and substantial investments of time and energy as the means for attaining some objective, we will rely on some set of enhancements to provide us with a relatively quick and easy path to our goal. For example, a person’s memory, powers of concentration, hand-eye coordination, and other relevant capacities may be enhanced sufficiently that he or she can become a skilled surgeon in less than a year. According to those opposed to enhancements, the shortcuts provided by enhancements will not only cheapen and trivialize our accomplishments but will also sever the connection between ourselves and our accomplishments. Our accomplishments will be inauthentic.

This argument is unconvincing. Enhancements will not eliminate a sense of achievement by making our objectives more accessible, at least if we can rely on historical evidence. Throughout human history, and especially in the last two centuries, we have developed and utilized numerous techniques and devices for accomplishing a wide range of tasks more rapidly and with less effort. Think of airplanes, microwaves, and computers, to name just three examples. There has been no discernable loss of our sense of achievement or any perceptible dulling of our drive or ambition. A chef who uses a blender still takes pride in preparing a delicious meal, just as the surgeon who uses an array of instruments and machines and a team of assistants in a specialized facility still takes pride in a successful operation.

Of course, the examples I have given deal with external enhancements, but there seems no principled moral distinction between biomedical enhancements and external enhancements with respect to the assistance they provide in accomplishing tasks or the effect they might have on our sense of accomplishment or character. If an implant gave a physician the ability to determine a patient’s vital signs, there would seem to be no relevant difference with respect to authenticity between use of such a biomedical enhancement and use of external equipment that provides the same result. Similarly, there seems to be no relevant difference with respect to authenticity between use of a computer to perform a calculation and use of one’s own enhanced brain to perform the same calculation. If anything, the fact that the task is performed exclusively through one’s own modified body may provide a greater sense of accomplishment.

A key point that Kass and other opponents of enhancements overlook is that even if one has enhanced capacities, one still has to apply the knowledge and skill one has acquired. Changing the means by which we accomplish a goal does not eliminate the goal. Furthermore, increasing our capacities to achieve existing goals will surely—again, if human history is a guide—result in both the opportunity and the desire to achieve other goals, some of which cannot yet be imagined. Whatever benefits an enhancement may provide, there will always be goals that will motivate and prove challenging. Enhancements will not inevitably turn us into disheartened slugs motivated solely by instant gratification.

The favorite catchall objection to enhancements is, of course, that they are “unnatural.” Implicit in this objection are the claims that there is a human nature and that changes to human nature or a human’s nature, at least when done deliberately, are illicit or immoral.

In addressing this objection, first let me note that realistically, in the near term, enhancements will, at most, alter the nature of a number of individuals, not the nature of the human race. The concept of human nature is one that encompasses the entire human population. Billions of humans would have to acquire a significant new capacity before we could claim that human nature had been changed.

With respect to changing the nature of individuals, we must first reach a consensus on the core traits and capacities that make an individual a human being. In doing so, we must distinguish between a capacity and variations in the range of the exercise or manifestation of that capacity. Enough humans have short-term memory, and this capacity supports enough functions that we consider important, that one could argue this capacity is part of human nature. But human individuals already differ widely in their ability to exercise this capacity, so it is implausible to maintain that those with enhanced short-term memory will have ceased to be human. Most enhancements will not implicate any change to the nature of an individual because they will be improving an existing capacity and those improvements will likely be within the range of what we consider a human capability. To change the nature of an individual, we would have to increase, or decrease, a capacity to such an extent that it would no longer be recognizably human; or we would have to endow the individual with an important capacity hitherto not possessed by humans. An increase of 10 percent in the content or accuracy of a person’s short-term memory would be a significant improvement, but it is not going to change the nature of that individual.

But let us assume we can give humans entirely new capacities and that doing so arguably changes their nature. What exactly is wrong with that? It seems to me that to successfully defend the position that a change in a person’s nature is intrinsically immoral, one would have to base one’s argument on the premise that we have an obligation to limit ourselves to the capacities that evolution has provided us. But this premise contains an unjustifiable assumption and is self-contradictory. This premise assumes that evolution has provided us with the optimal mix of capacities. Surely, that is open to question. Second, evolution itself has changed, and presumably will continue to change, our capacities. So this argument is internally inconsistent, or it has to be modified to maintain that change in human nature is permissible so long as we do not deliberately do anything to change our nature but instead leave it subject to random mutations.

However, this modified argument cannot withstand scrutiny either. To begin, of course, there is no justification for this purported moral distinction between guided and unguided evolution. Why is chance so much better than choice that the latter can be deemed immoral? We do not usually consider the spinning of a roulette wheel as the ideal way for determining which of several possibilities will become reality.

Furthermore, this distinction is unworkable, as it ignores the reality that the choices humans make inevitably influence the traits that become part of human nature. Evolution reflects human conduct. Domesticating animals that produced dairy products resulted in the spread of a mutation that allows many humans to digest lactose as adults. There is no indication that the dissemination of this mutation was the direct result of a deliberate choice, but it was caused, in part, by a deliberate choice. Surely, consuming ice cream—as bad as that might be for our waistlines—cannot be condemned as immoral on the ground that it is unnatural because adult humans were never meant to eat dairy.

I believe one of the underlying reasons some oppose enhancements in general is their deep-seated anxiety about the unknown changes that enhancements will bring. This anxiety is expressed as a concern about the nature-altering potential of enhancements.

Admittedly, we do not have much experience with biomedical enhancements, and we cannot really predict with confidence what transformations may result from such enhancements. But we do have some experience, and that experience does provide some assurance that we can deal with sweeping social changes caused in part by enhancements.

Indeed, for fifty years we have lived with the consequences of a remarkable enhancement that has provided many with a new capacity. Opposition to this enhancement was initially fierce in some quarters, and this opposition was based, to some extent, on the claim that this enhancement was unnatural. However, that opposition has now largely, although not entirely, faded. I am referring, of course, to birth control pills, which have given many women substantial control over ovulation.

To say that ovulation is a key bodily function, and that control over this function provided women with a critical new capacity, would be an understatement. Having a reliable means of preventing pregnancy vastly increased the ability of women to control the direction of their lives and enabled them to accomplish much more than they would have been able to do otherwise. Just compare the status of women in the workplace in 1960 with the status of women today. Moreover, although women were the direct beneficiaries of the enhanced control over their bodies that oral contraceptives provided, society as a whole also benefited greatly from this enhancement. The entry of women into careers previously closed to them resulted in significant increases in our intellectual capital and in our economic productivity.

Oral contraceptives demonstrate that a significant alteration in the capacity of a number of individuals is not necessarily accompanied by catastrophic consequences. To the contrary, the beneficial social consequences may be enormous. Of course, this does not imply that all significant enhancements will have beneficial social consequences. Different enhancements will bring about different types of changes. However, in the near term, it is unlikely we will witness an enhancement with such a profound impact as oral contraceptives—and we survived that impact.

To sum up this argument: a fair assessment of the global objections to enhancements is that they fail to establish that all enhancements should be prohibited or even discouraged.

The alternative to wholesale condemnation or wholesale approval of enhancements is evaluation of enhancements on a case-by-case basis. Put simply, we should determine whether the benefits of a particular enhancement outweigh its costs. For example, does a drug that improves short-term memory have unacceptable side effects?

Our Contributors and Their Arguments

Russell Blackford is an Australian philosopher (conjoint lecturer, University of Newcastle) who has written widely on topics in bioethics, including human enhancements. In his essay, Blackford agrees that the notion of condemning or embracing enhancements wholesale makes no sense. As he puts it, there is not a debate about enhancements but rather debates. The value of an enhancement depends on the particular technology being considered. He warns against yielding to instinctive reactions against new technologies, which may result in restricting or prohibiting technologies before we have had an opportunity to consider carefully their benefits as well as their harms. In doing so, he reminds us of the difficulties of predicting with precision the consequences of implementing new technologies, especially ones that may cause radical changes, and of the conservative bias against novel technologies that results from uncertainty.

Adrienne Asch (professor of bioethics at Yeshiva University) and James E. Block (professor of political science at De Paul University) present a powerful combined critique of the “enhancement project.” Asch maintains that enhancement proponents focus excessively on the alleged benefits to individuals without paying sufficient attention to the effects that enhancements will have (or fail to have) on human relationships. Individual capacities may be improved, but how exactly are those enhanced capacities supposed to translate into “genuine human and societal improvement”? In a word, enhancements are overvalued. Block reinforces and expands this point, arguing that enhancements represent a “quick fix” that diverts us from the need for real social transformation. We’ll take pills instead of engaging in politics.

The essay by James Hughes should, if possible, be read in conjunction with the essay by Asch and Block as they join issue on a number of points. Hughes, executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and a lecturer at Trinity College, is a noted transhumanist. Although, as he discusses in his essay, his thinking on some issues has changed, he still embraces the prospect of radical enhancements. He believes, however, that transhumanists should aim for virtue instead of “happiness.” Unlike, Asch and Block, Hughes sees no inconsistency in pursuing enhancements while simultaneously working for social change. As he puts it, “moral enhancement is . . . something that requires conscious changes to both our brains and our social fabric.”

But who decides whether a change in moral behavior actually makes one morally “better”? John Shook, director of education and senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry, notes that while modifications of human brain chemistry that we can regard as therapies (for example, eliminating psychopathic personalities) may be relatively uncontroversial, enhancing moral capacities will result in disagreement over the standard of moral conduct to apply in evaluating enhancements. Is something an enhancement if it provides a person with firmer dispositions to follow his existing moral beliefs—even if his moral beliefs are flawed by some “objective” standard? If we allow the free market to control the availability of moral enhancements, will this not result in the reinforcement of conventional moral beliefs and standards of conduct? Whether this is would be a good or bad development depends on one’s moral perspective, and we come back again to the problem of deciding what’s good and what’s bad.

The prospect of enhancements presents novel questions, and, in part because of their novelty, these questions are both fascinating and troubling. But whether these questions pique one’s interest or make one uneasy, they cannot be avoided. Ultimately, we will be the ones who will determine whether human enhancements remain a fantasy, fulfill our dreams, or make our nightmares a reality.

Ronald A. Lindsay

Ronald A. Lindsay is the former president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. Currently, he is senior research fellow for CFI and adjunct professor of philosophy at Prince George’s Community College.


Through drugs and implanted medical devices, we can now enhance the capacities of humans. The changes brought about so far are still relatively minor (for example, using Ritalin to increase the ability to concentrate), but it’s highly likely that we will develop the means to modify an increasing variety of human traits within ten to …

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