Human Enhancement

Should we encourage enhancement, or do enhancers deserve less praise?

Human enhancers can enhance our cognitive and physical abilities. Is it okay to enhance humans? Ifso, whom, when and how? This is the main moral question for TU Delft researcher Filippo Santoni, who collaborates with colleagues Nicole Vincent (Georgia State), Nadira Faber (Oxford) and Philip Robichaud (TU Delft) to address this and other moral questions about human enhancements.

Enhancers allow us to have better focus, run harder and longer, stay awake longer, gain and deal with information way more efficiently, and of course, race a bicycle faster.

The Less-Praise Intuition

Many people see something wrong about enhancement, and point to a comparison with the ban of doping in sport. Lance Armstrong had his seven Tour de France titles taken away after it was discovered that he had used enhancing medical substances to achieve his victories, and rightly so. Using enhancers looks like a kind of cheating, as using enhancers and doing well takes less effort than doing well without enhancers. Santoni and colleagues say that the so-called ‘Less Praise Intuition’ might sometimes be grounded, but for other reasons than most people think.

Existing enhancing techniques do not do the work for you, you still have to put in enormous effort in the activity, to train or study hard and most of all, you still have to perform. Existing enhancers don’t turn you in a worse or different person. And cheating by using enhancements is only cheating because some use the enhancements and others do not.

Practice-oriented activities

For Santoni, the real justification of the Less Praise Intuition depends on that in some activities people value not only the result of the activity, but also practicing the activity itself. Sports, but also education, are good examples of such ‘practice-oriented’ activities. Running a marathon is about the running; otherwise a motorcyclist would be much better at a marathon. The point of educational activities is (also) developing specific abilities, not only doing well in a given performance, for example a test. Therefore, by changing the way in which practice-oriented activities are performed, enhancements actually change the nature of these activities, and this is may be a problem when there are legitimate reasons to preserve that nature. There may be nothing wrong in itself for Oscar Pistorius, who has prosthetic limbs, to compete with able bodied runners; but if we value (also) the practice of running with natural legs we should avoid reaching a point in which all runners have to wear prosthetic limbs to be competitive.

Sometimes, only the best is good enough, and in these situations we should use human enhancement.

Goal-oriented activities

However, many activities are also goal-oriented, which really lend themselves well for enhancement: doctors whose mission is mainly to heal people, whatever means possible, or airplane pilots who have to bring people to their destination airports. For those engaged in these kinds of activities it wouldn’t matter much if they were using enhancement or not, and sometimes it would even be better if they did (provided enhancers are safe enough).

What do we value in an activity?

When it comes to enhancements, there is no cookie-cutter answer. Rather, we must look at the specific activities individually and analyze their nature and why (or what) we value in those activities. Santoni and his colleagues state that on the basis of that reflection, we can defend which individual enhancers, considering the specific circumstances, should be allowed and encouraged, and which should be discouraged or banned. And even better, we can design new enhancers in such a way as to promote the values that we find important in different activities.

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