The enhanced man seeks new certainties
Over the course of time it is not only technology that changes but also the way in which people regard each other especially since technology has now become a part of the human body.
“A hundred and fifty years ago it was unthinkable to use anaesthetic to operate on people whereas today it would be immoral not to do that”, Professor Peter-Paul Verbeek exclaims. “The remnants of that reversal can still be seen in the discussions surrounding the lumbar injections given during childbirth. In that way one can prevent pain but it also changes the way in which women experience childbirth and motherhood. Hence the reason that some women consciously decide not to have lumbar anaesthesia. It is a nice example of how people give shape to their own identity by means of technology.”
Verbeek researches the interaction between humans and technology: variables that are drawing ever closer together and are even becoming interwoven. A pacemaker is an implanted piece of technology that literally keeps a person alive. This kind of “healing” technology is seldom controversial but when it comes to preventative measures such as those afforded by vaccination there are whole social groups that have their reservations because they maintain that falling ill is part of the human condition. The number of people with objections then increases when it comes to technologies that are designed to improve people, such as the surgical types of interventions known as plastic surgery.
The border between healing and improving is really quite thin, Verbeek claims: “Take antidepressants. They are really medicines or means of creating better people. You sometimes literally hear people saying that thanks to the pills they feel more human.”
This is why Verbeek contends that any discussions on the ethical borders of technology are doomed to failure. At the same time the two extremes ” either the decision to halt all technological developments or to adopt an anything goes stance ” remain impossible options. Between those two poles people seek a modus and the route followed by that road changes as technology develops.
“Many aspects of life will be changed by technology: mortality, freedom, origins”, Verbeek predicts. “There is already such a thing as a brain implant that can repress Parkinson’s Disease. It sometimes makes users very alert but are they really in such good form or is it simply the effect of the implant? What kind of a self-image do test tube babies have or people who are the result of genetic modification? Children have never been able to choose their genetic composition and so if they are not conceived in a natural way will things fundamentally change for them?”
Much of the existing ethics relating to technology is impractical because it concerns itself with technologies that are far removed from human beings. New medical and biological techniques do, by contrast, have immediate relevance to quality of life matters: what kind of people do we want to be? A problem that is frequently encountered by Verbeek in all the social and political discussions that touch on this area is the fact that frequently it is the legal viewpoint that is chosen. That is rather superficial for developments that can potentially so deeply affect our self-image.