Is enhancement problematic?

Dear friends,

I’m in a bit of a conundrum at the moment. Here’s why:

Yesterday, everyone in my cohort gave presentations on our respective dissertations. This presentation was solely meant for our benefit, so we could share the ideas that we had so far in hopes of getting feedback and new ideas for where we could take our work. I was excited to share my ideas, as well as listen to what my coursemates had to say about their work. Needless to say, everyone is working on topics that are astoundingly in-depth, varied, and important.

However, once I got up to speak on my topic, which was titled “The Justice of Transhumanism: Who does Enhancement Help?”, I started to think to myself, “What is it really that I’m trying to write about?” Perhaps I was thinking more critically about my own topic after hearing so many great presentations on other projects, but at the same time, I didn’t realise how profound an effect talking about one’s own work would allow for introspection.

Here’s what we see as what I believe to be the “old debate” in enhancement… Enhancement as an issue of morality:

As we delve deeper into research, medicine, and genomics, we are only going to keep discovering and improving new technologies that can further improve the human body. Many don’t have a problem with augmenting the human body with, say, a prosthetic arm if someone has lost their arm. However, this is a situation where the human is returning to a condition that they once held (e.g. to have an arm again). The same goes for a knee replacement or a pacemaker. What about technologies that catapult a human into a condition that surpasses that which they once held? One could argue that a bike, rollerblades, or a skateboard are all technologies that allow us to travel faster in order to reach our destination.

It seems that we only accept technologies that augment the human body “from the inside” (e.g. pacemakers, a new heart valve, a knee replacement, a new arm) if we are returning the body to a point of “normalcy” (defined by what that person believed to be normal). Once we want to augment our bodies past a point of normalcy, there seems to be a hesitation in changing things biologically (e.g. engineering an embryo that will grow into a human with incredible smartness or athletic prowess, replacing a healthy arm with a robotic arm, creating a more efficient mechanical heart) as opposed to being okay with temporary external changes (e.g. rollerblades, sunglasses, etc.). It seems that any internal, biological changes that are made in order to push the human past a point of normalcy experience backlash because they mess with something that is ‘innately human.’

Many remain hesitant with the idea of augmenting our bodies in such a way that will redefine what it means to be human, that enhancement (or more specifically, bioengineering, as this technology is quickly becoming (and has become) reality) risks changing the moral status of personhood between the enhanced and the unenhanced. However, I might argue that anything we believe to be ‘innately human’ is simply based on what we’ve known to be human in our own past experience, which is only a small window of time and hence a small dataset for reference and assumption into who we are as a species. We’re still evolving, and who we are today would most likely seem incredibly different and non-human to our ancestors. Yet our ancestors might still have considered their fellow humans as persons who were worthy of respect for their moral status just as much as we ought to consider our neighbours today. (This is not to say that all humans have been treated fairly and their moral status has been respected throughout history, as such a statement would be incredibly false.)

The definition of what it means to be human changes so widely not only historically but also cross-culturally. If we imagine today how many different cultures still exist on the face of the earth, we can see that (and there are anthropological studies to back me up here – inquire if you want them) even the concept of personhood changes drastically from culture to culture. If the concept of ‘humanity’ has varied so widely between peoples, cultures, and times, then why is it such a bad thing to let something change this concept again? What is it about our own distinct humanity that is so special that it cannot be tampered with? Despite the variation, we still classify ourselves as uniquely ‘human’, and I think that classification lies in our sense that all other humans should (note the absence of the more sure word, “are”) be considered as moral equals despite how they define their personhood.

Moving to the “new debate” in enhancement… Enhancement as an issue of justice:

If there is no special nature about ‘being human’, then it may be (and some philosophers have proved this point pretty well) that there would be no moral difference between the enhanced and the unenhanced. In fact, it is quite problematic to believe that enhancing humans now would create a super-race of humans that would prevail over all that don’t have access to the means of enhancement (presumably what bioengineering would turn into). This is assuming that there is something so special with the (predominantly white, Western) human being that they shouldn’t be tampered with biologically. The existence of this kind of superiority complex, I might think, is very dangerous to all those who do not ascribe to the enthusiasm that is so obviously exhibited by those who call themselves transhumanists.

What I’m thinking is that those who believe in a transhumanist world, or in the time when the “singularity” (when technological growth takes off and drastically changes humanity) comes, are so incredibly unaware of the vast inequality and suffering that exists outside of the technological and virtual world in which transhumanists can imagine for themselves. Transhumanists believe in an ideal world where posthumans have the capacity to be hyper-empathetic, incredibly well-knowing of any information we could dream of accessing, or hyper-healthy, living into thousands of years. Yet, as ideal as this world may be, I think this sort of will that is expressed by the transhumanists carries such a strong underlying tone (imagine a river the size of the Amazon running underneath a bustling metropolitan centre) of a worry and fear for the inequity, suffering, and demise that exists in the societies that surround the Western, high-income settings in which these transhumanist thinkers live.

I see it as no coincidence that most transhumanists live in highly gentrified, well-off, “hip” places like the Bay Area of California, where they don’t have to confront the perils of inequity and exploitation on which much of the tech industry thrives. The Alcor Life Extension Facility, a place where people can go to get their bodies cryogenically frozen in hopes of being reincarnated into the transhumanist world, is located in Scottsdale, Arizona, one of the whitest and most affluent towns in the United States, not to mention how expensive it is to have one’s body cryogenically frozen (membership fees cost, at minimum, $200,000). Perhaps all of this points towards not a hope to “better the human condition” as transhumanists claim, but to “better the human condition of people with social status and money.”

All ranting aside, the idea of enhancement carries with it, I think, highly potent issues of justice that need to be considered when these technologies are being implemented within societies. I simply worry that the problems of justice that I’m talking about have the potential to be needed in the future, but as of yet, the problem of justice in transhumanism may not be that existent because the technology just isn’t at a point where we need to start worrying about the implications of global justice that transhumanism would have on the world’s population. In a paper of his, James Wilson mentioned that despite the fact that no moral difference would exist between enhanced and unenhanced humans, we cannot be assured that this moral equality will be respected. In other words, enhancement carries not a moral issue, but an issue of justice. However, justice is instrumental by nature, where we have to wait for the actions of humans to take place to determine whether these actions are just or unjust.

This is causing me to think that perhaps I should shift my focus to more current issues such as migration and health, as these issues involve current, bona-fide people who should be defended by any means necessary. To be fair, there has been much happening in the face of justice that genetic testing has allowed for (see the fact that less females are being born in India than males due to the ability to learn the gender of one’s child before birth). This can be seen as a loose form of genetic engineering, or a precursor to genetic engineering, but I’m having a hard time thinking that there’s anything more than the obvious “this is wrong” nature of this sort of issue with bioengineering, and therefore cannot see the worth of writing a dissertation on the matter.

We’ll see what comes of more thinking, but these are my thoughts as of now!

I wish you all well.

~Jeffrey

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