Peer review: Enhancing Human Capacities

The world’s first cyborg, artist Neil Harbission wears an eyeborg as an extension of himself rather than as part of his performance. NeilHarbisson.

Human enhancement is one of the most controversial and exciting areas in bioethics: advances in science promise a future world where we can radically alter our basic capabilities.

This future may include technologies that allow us to make ourselves not only stronger and smarter, but also happier, kinder and morally better.

And this prospect raises a wide range of ethical questions.

Enhancing Human Capacities

Enhancing Human Capacities provides an excellent overview of the latest scientific developments in human enhancement and the ethical and policy issues they raise.

It is a collection of 37 articles on five central forms of enhancement –

  • Cognitive: improvement of mental capacities, such as memory;

  • Mood: improvements in our emotional experiences;

  • Physical: increases in our physical abilities, such us strength;

  • Moral: making our motivations more ethical.

  • Lifespan: interventions slowing or stoping the ageing process.

But enhancement is not something we need only concern ourselves with in the distant future.

Drugs that improve working memory and reduce mental fatigue are already on the market. The book reports that at some US universities 16% of the student body have reported using cognitive enhancers such as the drug modafinil, which improves working memory.

Already available cochlear implants and bionic eyes could mark the beginning of increasingly powerful computer-brain interfaces that improve our senses.

Medications such as antidepressants are beginning to be used by people who are not clinically diagnosed as depressed, but who just want to feel better.

It’s safe to assume then that the range and power of enhancements will increase as technology advances.

The book notes that modifications of certain genes have been shown to improve memory performance in mice. Similar genetic pathways exist in humans, indicating interventions to improve our cognition may soon be possible.

Pharmacological interventions can increase lifespan in a number of organisms. Some of these may soon be developed into lifespan-extending treatments for humans.

Advances in neuroscience may also lead to technologies that influence our sense of morality.

Reorienting enhancement

Enhancing Human Capacities does more than just provide an overview of the latest developments in enhancement – it aims to change the tone of the ethical debate surrounding these issues.

Enhancement has traditionally been defined as any intervention which increases a trait beyond “species-typical normal functioning”.

Under this definition, ethical concerns about enhancement have traditionally centred on whether they will change our identity, disfigure human nature, and go beyond the purpose of therapy.

But it has proved problematic to answer questions such as:

  • how should we define human nature or “human-typical functioning”?

  • where should we draw the line between therapy and enhancement? and

  • how exactly will enhancements change our identity?

By advocating a new definition of enhancement, “Enhancing Human Capacities” seeks to shift the ethical debate away from the above questions.

The welfarist view of enhancement, introduced in the first chapter, provides an alternative definition of enhancement as:

Any change in the biology or psychology of a person which increases the chances of leading a good life in the relevant set of circumstances.

If enhancement is defined as something which makes our lives better, then some of the controversy around the issue dissipates. After all, if something improves our lives, it is difficult to argue that it’s bad for us.

Under this definition, the focus of ethical questions shifts from whether enhancement should been seen as beneficial or harmful generally, to which specific interventions should be viewed as enhancements.

Chapter 13, for instance, examines whether drugs which improve our mood, also improve our lives.

The bigger picture

The book also investigates whether improvements in cognition translate to improvements in wellbeing (Chapter 14); and whether living longer equates to living better (Chapter 26).

A focus on whether enhancement technologies improve our lives, rather than whether they are therapeutic or unnatural, is a step forward in the debate.

But even if we accept this new definition, it doesn’t follow that every enhancement should be considered ethically acceptable.

This is because the welfarist definition of enhancement only considers the effect of interventions on individuals.

The well-being of collectives, such as communities, countries, and ecosystems, are also important ethical considerations. And it’s possible that the widespread use of enhancements may have unintended impacts that negate the benefits for individuals.

Enhancing Human Capacities makes convincing arguments that improving our cognitive skills, our mood and increasing our lifespan will allow us to have better lives.

But the book also draws attention to some of the wider implications of these interventions that will need to be addressed – the provision of enhancements may, for instance, increase existing social inequities and injustices.

Ultimately, it’s still not clear what the long-term consequences of enhancement will be or how to balance these against the immediate benefits for individuals. There’s still much work that needs to be done in the field.

Enhancing Human Capacities by Julian Savulescu (Editor), Ruud ter Meulen (Editor), Guy Kahane (Editor) is now available.

If you’re an academic and have a book coming out that you’d like reviewed, or if you’d like to review a book for us, please send an email to reema.rattan@theconversation.edu.au