Beyond Arguments for and against Human Enhancement

This article is originally written for WP2201E From Humans To Posthumans.

Despite being published simultaneously within an inaugural volume of a journal – Studies in Ethics, Law and Technology, Volume 1, Issue 1– Sarah Chan and John Harris (2007) do not agree with Michael Selgelid (2007) on the merits of human enhancement, or its lack thereof. The former pair argues for human enhancement while the latter has his reservations. This juxtaposition of opinions – for and against genetic enhancement – highlights the contentious nature of using biotechnology to alter the characteristics of human beings. Proponents of human enhancement, including Chan and Harris, believe in the alluring promises of science and consider that there is a “moral imperative” to use such genetic enhancement technology for “the benefit of future generations” (p. 3), be it to engineer viral immunity oraugment intelligence. The problem, however, arises when critics discuss disadvantages that may be associated with such potential benefits.Selgelid, in his An Argument against Arguments for Enhancement, suggests that the drawbacks of such technology – such as overall social inequality – may overshadow its expected benefits.
According to Selgelid, such technology may not be as beneficial as it promises. Competition for medical research resources between treatment and enhancement may widen social inequality and “one should not act to benefit her own child irrespective of costs entailed for other individuals and society as a whole” (p. 3). He tacitly acknowledges that enhancement technology may benefit individuals and yet, warns of its possible negative influences on social utility and equality; the liberties and benefits of individuals should be subsumed under greater social concerns. This warning contradicts Chan’s and Harris’s call to make use of “all available knowledge and medical technology” to make one’s child “as healthy as possible” (p. 3), an approach centred on an individual’s interests. There is little doubt that safe and effective genetic manipulation – if it exists – may benefit an individual, but questions remain on its wider implications for the society.

Supporters and detractors of human enhancement – Selgelid, Chan and Harris included – agree that current genetic technology is dangerous and grasp of genetic modifications and its effects, tenuous (p.2). However, they adopt different stances when interpreting this observation. Selgelid posits that current genetic engineering techniques are not safe and sardonically notes that they “do not just fall out of the sky and into our labs” (p.3). His reluctance to support human enhancement research contrasts with Chan’s and Harris’s advocacy for it. They contend that medical know–how had always been risky in its infancy stages but can be developed until potential benefits outweigh risks.

Selgelid, Chan and Harris differ in their opinions of pursuing such expensive research too. Selgelid suggests that such enhancement–oriented research and development compete for resources which might otherwise be dedicated to the reduction of suffering “by making the worst–off better off” (p. 3); his focus remains on the greater good of the society. Chan and Harris, on the other hand,propose that the technology can be developed on private funding. Private funding, they claim, will remove “arguments founded on distributive justice” (p. 3), thereby soothing concerns about unfair allocation of public resources for research. However, they fail to explicate the link between private funding and “distributive justice” – why would it be fairer if genetic enhancement research is funded privately and would private funding paradoxically lead to other forms of social inequality? Would it be such that only the wealthy can afford the technology resulting from such expensive private –funded research? Their narrow definition of justice – resting mainly on “distributive justice” – weakens their argument for human enhancement, especially in view of Selgelid’s more encompassing and thorough explanation of social equality.

The authors – Chan, Harris and Selgelid – share common goals of furthering societal good and humanity. Their contrasting stances on genetic enhancement stem from disparities in their beliefs of what constitutes beneficial. Like Chan and Harris, Selgelid believes that development and use of safe enhancement technologies is unobjectionable; however, unlike them, his support comes with a caveat: sweeping changes must be instituted globally before genetic enhancement becomes socially acceptable (p. 4). Human enhancement is a dynamic and controversial science spanning international borders. Frequently, there are technological breakthroughs and correspondingly, quagmires of bioethical concerns. Unlike Chan and Harris, one cannot – and should not – methodologically rationalise away all opposition to bioenhancing. A more measured approach will be to evaluate each technology on a “case by case basis” as suggested by Selgelid. And despite Selgelid’s reservations, genetic technology continues to march ahead before institutional changes could be implemented; there is no easy way to halt the progress of scientific knowledge so that social reformations may occur first and, as a corollary, human enhancements become “morally […] acceptable” (p.4). No decisive judgement as to who – the proponents of human enhancement or their opponents – makes the most convincing argument may be passed for this ethical conundrum is more complex than the sum of factors for and against human enhancement; the interplay of these factors within particular geopolitical contexts must be considered as well. The most apt course of action, for now, will be to let societies respond to and evolve alongside science.

Chan and Harris.(2007). In Support of Human Enhancement.Studies in Ethics, Law and Technology, Volume 1, Issue 1, 2007.
Selgelid. (2007). An Argument against Arguments for Human Enhancement.Studies in Ethics, Law and Technology, Volume 1, Issue 1, 2007.