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Onwards & Upwards?

by Rick Lewis

“I teach you the overman [Übermensch]. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment…” Friedrich Nietzsche Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885)

A couple of years ago Professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, of Philosophy Now’s US editorial board, got in touch to suggest that we should produce a special issue on the ethics of human enhancement. “Human what?”, I asked, blankly, with my trademark display of Socratic ignorance. Walter sighed and invited me over to meet some of his friends at Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, where he had been spending a sabbatical. They patiently explained to me what human enhancement is and why it has become an urgent concern to moral philosophers, and they also agreed to co-operate on the production of this issue. One of them, Bennett Foddy, became the issue editor, gathering and editing a fascinating bunch of articles on the subject, as you will see.

Anyway, it turns out that human enhancement is the use of medical technology to improve human abilities and overcome human limitations. Prime examples are research to extend lifespans, increase intelligence, reduce our vulnerability to diseases, and improve our capacity for moral behaviour. There are plenty of enhancements which are not yet possible but which may become so in the nearish future. The recent decoding of the human genome and the vast increase in the dissemination of scientific information due to the internet have led many to see medical research as a juggernaut whose wheels are turning faster and faster, bringing secular salvation to a troubled world, or threatening nightmares darker than any ever dreamed, depending on your outlook. We will increasingly see human genetic enhancement, either through new medicines, or else through pre-implantation screening of embryos, or else through the deliberate manipulation of early embryos to produce hybrid humans with chosen characteristics, as is already being done with other species today. We can already clone sheep; breed rabbits that glow in the dark; and rear mice that are cleverer and longer-lived than any hitherto seen. It is reasonable to think that similarly ambitious changes could be made to humans, too, if the law and public opinion allow. Major evolutionary changes usually takes many millennia; there are those who believe that we could become the first species to consciously re-engineer itself, and that this will happen very fast. This might result in such specialisation and fragmentation that we cease to be a single species. But perhaps we could all agree to fix some aspects of the human design which experience has shown to be problematic. Why only one heart, for instance?

You might object that we should be used to human enhancement, because we have already been practicing it for centuries. Where do the kinds of human enhancement discussed in this issue differ from more traditional efforts at self-growth and medical remedies for human ailments? Was Long John Silver being ‘enhanced’ when he was fitted with a wooden leg? Is an African child being enhanced when he or she is vaccinated against polio? But these procedures, like most medicine today, aimed to restore or preserve ‘normal’ human function or lifespan. The new technologies, by contrast, aim to extend those functions past anything previously seen. Some of their advocates envisage our grandchildren living several centuries or more, stronger, more intelligent and more versatile and more moral than people today. How could this be problematic? Some might say it was greedy, but it’s a tough universe, and we’re just using the brains we’ve already got to give ourselves and our children the best possible chances. Some might say it doesn’t respect the integrity of the human organism; that it is just not who we are. Human beings are wonderful but we don’t have four arms or a thousand-year life expectancy and if we gave ourselves these we just wouldn’t be us anymore. Others worry – as you will read in Michael Selgelid’s article – that the benefits of enhancement will mainly go to the rich, increasing social inequality. Selgelid argues that the costs and the opportunities offered by enhancement can only be assessed on a case by case basis with lots of hard work, and that there are no shortcuts available. A fourth objection: suppose the modifications go horribly wrong and have disastrous unforeseen consequences? Again, it is a question of weighing risks against benefits for each proposed kind of human enhancement.

Professors Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson argue compellingly that the artificial enhancement of our moral dispositions, on a massive scale, is now an urgent necessity because otherwise we won’t be altruistic enough to avoid looming disaster as a result of climate change or weapons research. Their claim that we may be doomed unless scientists (perhaps non-consensually?) drug vast populations into becoming less self-centred is likely to excite some controversy, though if they are right the alternative could be even worse. Bennett Foddy suggests a way to reconceptualize the ageing processes to lend support to life-extension medicine and Brian Earp explains how ‘love drugs’ could help to save marriages, but Russell Powell explains the sheer difficulty of genetically manipulating humans. This should be an interesting century.

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