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To be or not to be... transhuman

As we witness significant progress in genetic engineering, reproductive science and nanotechnology, the prospect of improving on the human body is opening up. Kirsty Birkett explores the arguments for and against human enhancement, or, as some call it, transhumanism

Human enhancement: the prospect of longer-lived, disease-immune, perhaps even immortal human beings. People with better memories, stronger muscles, less need for sleep, sharper minds, greater intelligence, the ability to leap tall buildings – imagine what you will.

The fountain of youth has been a dream for centuries, but it is now entering the realm of, if not real science, at least plausible research programmes. Is that good? Well, why not?

That is the response of writers and researchers who are in favour of human enhancement, or as some call it, transhumanism. John Harris, a writer in favour of this programme, could hardly be more positive.

Imagine a school, he says, that could genuinely turn out children who were better educated, healthier, and more intelligent not only than when they arrived, but more so than any other school ever. We would want our children to go to this school. We should want our children to go to this school, Harris says, for that would only be ethical for concerned parents, and we should want other schools to adopt their methods.

What if genetic engineering, medicine, reproductive technology or nanotechnology could achieve healthier, fitter and more intelligent humans? Why would we not go for it, if we could do so safely? If these are legitimate aims of education, why not science?

In Harris’s view, at least, not only is enhancement permissible, but at least in some cases there is a positive moral duty to enhance. This will replace natural selection with deliberate selection. Our descendents may not be human as we recognise it, but that is all right, because they will be better. Humans have a moral responsibility, he says, ‘to make responsible, informed choices about their own fate and the fate of the world in which we live. In the face of threats both the humankind and indeed to the ecosystem which sustains us and all life, this responsibility is nothing short of a clear imperative to make the world a better place.’

Humans have always striven for enhancement. Shelter, learning and teaching, tools, clothing, cooking, and the myriad other technological advances made by humanity are examples of this. Sometimes there are negative side effects but that does not discredit the good (for example, heroin addiction is not a reason to discredit morphine as beneficial).

It sounds, good doesn’t it? Put like that, how could anyone oppose such a sensible idea? Nonetheless, people do oppose this view. ‘It is commonly said that enhancement, cloning, and genetic engineering pose a threat to human dignity’, writes Michael J Sandel, Professor of Government, Harvard University. ‘This is true enough.’

His is not a lone voice: objections to enhancement have come from such noted authors as Leon Kass, George Annas, Francis Fukuyama and Jurgen Habermas. So what are their objections, and why isn’t transhumanism as good as it sounds?

Don’t fix what ain’t broke

Objectors may have various specific arguments, but in general they oppose enhancement on the grounds that humans as they are should be preserved. Many think that the human genome should be kept as it is. They appeal to notions of human dignity and human worth. Francis Fukuyama, for instance, postulates an ‘x-factor’ which is human dignity, or moral status, or whatever it is that makes humans special.

Indeed, humans are special. For Christians, this is not surprising; we know that we have been created in God’s image, alone of all his creatures, and we have been charged with a special responsibility within creation. Yet you don’t need to know the reason to be able to observe the reality; there is something precious about being human, something that we would not want to lose.

Is it worth risking this specialness? After all, no one really knows if any suggested benefit is really achievable. Opposing that, no one really knows what possible dangers there might be, either.

Indeed, the dangers are already enough to discourage trials in gene therapy. Science writer Pete Moore reports that a number of trials since the 1990s have been discontinued because children developed cancer and even died after receiving genetic treatment for an immune disorder.

That alone is enough to cause us to take pause, let alone the possible danger to human nature. How much about a human can be changed and still remain human? Are there important aspects to character and personality that would be damaged if ‘enhancements’ were carried out? We know that brain injuries can cause radical changes in personality; how much risk do we run if we start tampering with brain function? We already have drugs that enhance concentration and wakefulness, but they can also create aggression and paranoia. Opponents of transhumanism ask, what are we risking?

There is also the problem of inequality. It is a problem that arises whenever there are treatments available to the few but not the many. When the treatments are about creating superior humans in some way, the risk of real inequality arises. We would face the prospect of an elite with better minds, memories, athletic ability, longer lives and all that implies: more earning capacity, more likelihood of being dominant. Commentator George Annas has pointed out the risk that posthumans and humans are very likely to hate each other.

John Harris is unimpressed. ‘On the basis of mere speculation about future possible effects,’ he answers, ‘Annas seeks to deny millions of people and eventually the entire population of the planet access to possible lifesaving and life-enhancing therapies.’

It is true that Annas’ supposition is speculative; but any understanding of human sin suggests how likely this is. Ethicist Norm Daniels, another opponent of human enhancement, goes further, claiming that the high safety standards applied to human subject research will often rule out enhancements. Changing the nature of humans has to take into account cost versus benefits, and the possible costs are so great that it would simply be too great a risk, way above the risks of nonintervention.

The enhancement reply: It is broke!

John Harris’ answer to many of these objections comes down to a rejection of any distinction between therapy and enhancement. Virtually all of those who object to enhancement do, nonetheless, accept the validity of therapeutic medicine. It is all right to fix what is broken. Changing humans to something ‘better’, however, is beyond what is acceptable.

Michael Sandel argues that ‘Medicine is governed, or at least guided, by the norm of restoring and preserving the natural human functions that constitute health.’ That is not the same, he says, as attempting to master nature itself, an attitude which he believes characterises the project of enhancement: ‘Although medical treatment intervenes in nature, it does so for the sake of health, and so does not represent a boundless bid for mastery and domination. Even strenuous attempts to treat or cure disease do not constitute a Promethean assault on the given.’

But John Harris rejects this distinction entirely. For instance, he writes, some say spectacles are all right since they only restore normal functioning. But telescopes or binoculars do more than that – they enhance. If you think enhancement is morally problematical in principle, you have to demonstrate that telescope and binoculars are evil.

Norm Daniel’s argument against enhancement, mentioned above, draws upon the idea that enhancement technology may be fine if the potential benefit plausibly outweighs the certainty of catastrophic illness. But when it tries to improve on an otherwise normal trait, then the risks of a bad outcome, even if small, outweigh the acceptable outcome of normality.

But John Harris gives no weight at all to normality. Weakness and death, after all, are normal. In essence, Harris considers humanity as it is, broken; most of what is normal is broken, or at least could be far better. The problem as he sees it is ‘an unjustified assumption that normal traits are acceptable by reason of their normality and that the risks of new “treatments” are justifiable only when the alternative is an inevitable catastrophic disease.’

Another argument commonly raised uses athletic achievement as an example. Michael Sandel, for instance, argues that enhancement diminishes the agency of the person. The achievements of athletes are no longer due to their hard work but to their enhancement. John Harris, however, considers this is a poor distinction. If an athlete trains hard and also chooses enhancement of whatever sort, the athlete is still the agent. Even if we are all enhanced to the point where there is no athletic competition, that is not unethical, even if it is boring. After all, even now some people are more athletically gifted than others. We are responsible for our choices, and the choice to be enhanced is no less our choice than to train hard.

For Michael Sandel, the drive to mastery remains the problem: ‘To appreciate children as gifts is to appreciate them as they come, not as objects of our design or products of our will or instruments of our ambition.’ The problem for him is not so much what parents might do in detail; it is the hubris of them thinking of their children as a commodity to be designed, rather than having the humility to appreciate them as they are given.

John Harris’s reply might be expected. He points out that appreciating children as they are means not being passive in the face of disease. We treat children for illness, so why not continue the treatment to make them ‘better than well’? Harris does not find humility a virtue. It is not in his worldview at all. Indeed, much of this debate reveals a fundamental difference in worldviews; to some extent, participants simply fail to recognise the nature of their opponents’ argument.

Weighing the arguments

We might say, then, that to some extent both viewpoints are right. It is true that there is no hard-and-fast distinction between treating disease and enhancement. If parents want to do well by their children, would they not want to do as much as they can?

Yet opponents to enhancement are also right. There already comes a point where the caring parent becomes the controlling or over-keen parent. We can see it in everyday contexts, when parents push children to be tutored in everything and never have time to play – all in the interests of achieving the best future.

It is no great leap to think that such a parent might have a controlling attitude to enhancement. There is a great danger of hubris, thinking a child is a thing to be ordered to perfection, rather than a gift to be received with humility.

Those who think humanity is precious as it is, and not to be tampered with, have a point; but on the other hand, we have been given dominion over nature. It has always been part of human nature to improve upon the world, to subdue and control it, to use technology to our benefit. That is part of our God-given role in the world.

Advocates of enhancement, then, are also right; but they perhaps do not properly appreciate the fallenness of nature, especially human nature. It is indeed likely that enhancement will bring about inequality and prejudice, because that is what humans do. To think we can solve all the problems ourselves is exactly the hubris warned about by the opponents of enhancement.

There is, perhaps, no in-principle objection to human enhancement. Technology is a good thing, and humans have always used it for human well-being, although often in sporadic and unfair ways. That in itself does not stop it from being good.

Those in favour of enhancement may have good motives, but those against sound a fair warning. We humans have a track record of being much more clever than we are wise. If enhancement research goes ahead, we will be giving ourselves unprecedented scope to be very stupid. Let us pray that some wisdom might go with it.

Further reading

John Harris, Enhancing Evolution: the ethical case for making people better, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2007.

Michael J Sandel, The Case Against Perfection: ethics in the age of genetic engineering, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London, England, 2007.

Pete Moore, Enhancing Me: the hope and the hype of human enhancement, Wiley, Chichester, 2008. This book is an excellent introduction to the issues.
kirtsy birkett  
Kirsty Birkett lectures in Pastoral Counselling and Youth and Children's Ministry at Oak Hill.  
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