To what extent will medicine turn us into « Super-Humans »?
Coffee to wake us up in the morning, drugs to improve our cognitive performances, surgery to rejuvenate our physical appearance or embryos selected for their sought after characteristics, all of these interventions aim at enhancement, a quest humans have always pursued. Indeed, humans have always sought for new means to become stronger or more intelligent.
Education, physical or intellectual training and more recently surgeries are but a few examples of this quest. Recently however, with the development of new technologies and the rapid progress of medicine, the possibilities for human enhancement have been multiplied and no longer belong to futuristic visions. As a society, should we worry or rejoice about these new opportunities?
What is human enhancement?
According to the Science and Technology Options Assessment Unit of the European Parliament, human enhancement may be defined as any “modification aimed at improving individual human performance and brought about by science-based or technology-based interventions in the human body” (European Parliament, 2009: 8). They make a distinction between enhancement and therapy since the latter aims at fixing something that went wrong by curing specific diseases or injuries. At the opposite, “(…) enhancement interventions aim to improve the state of an organism beyond its normal healthy state.” (Bostrom & Roache, 2007: 1).
Several types of interventions can be regarded as ways to enhance humans (plastic surgery, assistive devices for handicapped people, etc), but the majority of researchers interested in this topic examine questions related to physical, cognitive or mood improvements, prenatal interventions (selection of embryos) and extension of lifespan.
A well-known example of human enhancement is “doping” which allows athletes to increase significantly their physical performance through the intake of various types of drugs. Doping may also be used to improve the cognitive capacities of individuals. It seems that the use of certain drugs such as Ritalin® – first design to address the needs of people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorders – by healthy people would have positive effect on their concentration (Elliot, 1997).
But what is normal anyway?
The notion of human enhancement begs the question of what is a “normal” state. Without getting into deep philosophical explanations, the concept of “normality” is quite subjective and may differ from one person to the other and from one culture to the other. In the case of cognitive enhancement, drinking coffee to wake up or to stay alert is a socially accepted “normal practice”. At the opposite, taking drugs to improve one’s academic results is not yet regarded as the norm.
Are all human enhancers bad?
To address this question, some ethicists suggest examining the impact a given enhancement would have on society as a whole. If improving individual cognitive performances would translate into an increase in the level of education of the entire population, there would be no reason to deprive ourselves from this means. But if such progress can be reached through the simple intake of a small pill, what will become of the notion of “effort”? Moreover, how can we be sure that these drugs, used on healthy people, will not have negative side effects on the long run?
What are the consequences of human enhancement on society? Should we worry? Where should we draw the line between what is acceptable or not? What do you think about this? The Hinnovic team invites you to share your thoughts on this fascinating topic.
|Author:||Pauline Boinot, M.Sc.|
J. Ryberg, T.S. Petersen, C. Wolf, eds, 2007, New Waves in Applied Ethics, Palgrave MacMillan.
R. Elliott, et. al., “Effects of Methylphenidate on Spatial Working Memory and Planning in Healthy Young Adults”, Psychopharmacology 131/2 (1997): 196-206.
European Parliament (2009), Science and Technology Options Assessment, Human Enhancement, Study