Thursday, April 23

Human Enhancement: Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride

This started as a response to Alex’s post from a few days ago, but I think it’s grown long enough to become its very own thread.

While I'm sympathetic to Alex's view that human enhancement (particularly genetic) holds many tempting opportunities for improvement of the human condition, I have serious reservations about it. For me, morality of the pursuit of knowledge always comes down to motive and intent. Personally, I'm not against human enhancement for what it is, another technology to augment our reality. I have two primary issues with it, one stemming from personal belief and one from my concern for social justice.

To be fair, I will disclose upfront that my personal belief stems partly from the Buddhist teachings of attachment, desire, and no-self as they relate to human suffering. From my personal perspective, I am skeptical of the motives people may have for wanting to "improve" themselves in the first place. Are we really doing it to improve our health and well-being, or is it because it would be "cool" to have the latest and greatest super-human capabilities? Does this desire arise out of a general dissatisfaction with our present state? I think this is, as Kristian eluded to, psychological more than anything else. A lot of proponents talk about "improving well-being" and this "moral obligation to future generations to enhance," but I really believe these arguments are trying to hide a deeper, self-centered motivations of wanting to change who or what we are now. I guess in this way I agree with Kass somewhat when he says we should ‘let healthy bodies be,’ but this doesn’t mean I’m completely opposed to people wanting to ‘augment’ themselves either. We’re all at different stages of acceptance of our present condition, so I think it’s natural to have these motives. I think that in any case (and Dave, I’m also a fan of casuistry, case-based reasoning), the individual needs to truly reflect on what it is she values about both her present state and the improvements that enhancement supposedly will bring.

From the social justice perspective, this is where I hit a wall with human enhancement technology. Again, I think that self-centeredness is part of the problem here, because it seems to me that enhancement is often pursued out of personal fantasy and greed. Aside from that, however, I think we do have a moral obligation to the worse-off, and I don’t see how enhancement research is going to help them in the near future. Thomas Pogge, Norman Daniels, Dan Brock, James Flory, and Philip Kitcher (all those papers we had for the discussion on justice in research) all argue that we have an obligation to devote scientific research and resources to other people and other nations worse off than ourselves, especially when we have a direct involvement in their economic or social affairs. These resources are limited, and the more we devote to enhancement tech, the less we devote to AIDS, malaria, TB, water/food crises, etc. I don’t buy the proponents’ argument for one second that enhancement tech will eventually help these people someday. If we have a problem now distributing resources appropriately, how can we expect this to change in the future? I know Bostrom argues that future people will be smarter and maybe even more caring than we are, but I’d rather not chance the survival of our modern population on the enlightenment of future generations.

I also wanted to add that I agree with Dave that human enhancement is already happening, and I think we’re wandering through fog along the edge of a cliff. The technological capabilities to select for certain traits in embryos are mostly a reality, and it’s already being performed to some extent when we select ‘healthy’ embryos for IVF or choose to abort others when found to carry some dangerous disease. Our society obviously has a fascination with mood- and physical-enhancement drugs, which are highly advertised and made widely available. Cosmetic plastic surgery, whether the proponents want to call it enhancement or not, is probably one of the worst yet most widespread fads of our modern times, in my opinion. Maybe there’s no stopping the train, but I hope that individuals think carefully before they jump on board because, in the words of Hunter S. Thompson, “buy the ticket, take the ride.”

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