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Human enhancement is not possible

I will argue that human enhancement is not possible because the concept lacks a coherent meaning. I will explain why I accept that human capacities can be enhanced, that individual humans can be enhanced to flourish within a particular context and that the welfare of humans at a group level can be enhanced. However, the term ‘human enhancement’ suggests that some quality or collection of qualities that define ‘what it is to human’ can be enhanced. Firstly, I will question that there is such a quality or group of qualities. Secondly, I will look at three ways of considering human enhancement which, I will argue, are all premised on and justified by their own particular view of ‘what it is to be human’ and claim that in none of these cases is ‘human enhancement’ conceptually possible.

I

As a first point of clarification, I am taking enhancements to refer to ‘biomedical interventions to improve human capacities, performances, dispositions, and well-being beyond the traditional scope of therapeutic medicine.’ (Giubilini & Sanyal, 2015) In my view, enhancements could lead to an improvement within the range that is found already among humans or beyond that range.

History demonstrates that human capacities and the state of humanity have both been enhanced considerably since the first human picked up a stone and worked out how to throw it, thus transitioning from a limited hunter, highly vulnerable to predation, into a being capable of killing creatures larger and stronger than herself. In passing on that skill, and many others, through social learning, co-operative effort and cumulative culture (Christakis, 2019; Damasio, 2018; Henrich, 2017), a quite smart, but not especially strong or fast species came to dominate the planet (Bostrom & Sandberg, 2009). Further amelioration through advances in science, medicine, technology – and indeed through education, political structures and social institutions – is both likely and desirable (Powell & Buchanan, 2011; J Savulescu et al., 2011).

However, ‘human enhancement’ suggests the amelioration of some specific ‘human essence’, a quality or set of qualities that all humans and only humans possess. A species is not a rigidly defined category (Bostrom, 2004; Wilkins, n.d.), and the argument from species overlap strongly suggests that there is no such essence (Horta, 2014).

It could be claimed that a particular set of traits is responsible for the expansive development of Homo sapiens from just one species of primates to a species that dominates the earth. Assuming that it’s not just throwing and sweating that mark humans as different but instead a population of attitudes and tendencies - for example, a preference for weak hierarchies, inclinations toward both conflict and co-operation, cultural minds and social learning (Boehm, 2012; Bregman, 2020; Christakis, 2019; Henrich, 2017) – perhaps these could be the seeds of ‘human nature’. But, if these qualities, or, more correctly, those of them deemed valuable or ‘good’ were enhanced, while those deemed ‘bad’ were dis-enhanced, human nature would be transformed rather than simply enhanced, and thus the end result would be the evolution of a new type. In which case, ‘human enhancement’ is not possible, but human transformation may well be.

Further, as I will argue in more detail later, different ages and cultures have a different conception of human nature. Any enhancement according to fit a specific cultural ideal could be a dis-enhancement for a different culture or indeed for future generations, where preferences, needs and conditions are likely to be very different.

Nonetheless, the term is frequently used in the literature, suggesting that those who use it have a concept of human nature which can be clearly defined and, in theory, enhanced. I will consider three perspectives on human enhancement: one largely positive to the prospect of enhancement, one antagonist and the last very strongly in favour. I will categorise these camps as the Pragmatists, Preservers and Prophets respectively. I will argue that rather than having a concept of human nature that they consider as an ideal, all three groups have a bias toward or against enhancement and develop a limited conception of human nature to validate their position.

II

II.i

I am taking the Pragmatist view to encompass those who are generally positive about the use of enhancement technologies. This group sees enhancements as largely permissible and at times obligatory (Julian Savulescu, 2009).

For Savulescu and his colleagues, human enhancement is ‘any change in the biology of psychology of a person which increases the chances of leading a good life in the relevant set of circumstances.’ (J Savulescu et al., 2011) However, I will argue that while capacity enhancements may benefit an individual, this does not lead to an all things considered enhancement of ‘what it is to be human’.

What the Pragmatists largely seem to be arguing for is a Millian ideal that the rational individual should be free to make ‘experiments in living’ (Mill, 1859), where such experiments do not harm others. Further, it takes the view that via such experiments, others will see different options for flourishing and be granted greater choice and freedom to experiment for themselves A kind of invisible hand will ensure that overall the self-interested and individualistic motivations of those who explore enhancement technologies will ultimately lead to the greater good. The Pragmatists ‘do not …[market] any particular view of human excellence. Rather they defend institutions that allow individuals to make their own choices about how to live.’ (Agar, 2007)

There remain important issues related to risk, equality, distributive justice and the balance between the good of the individual and the good of the collective (Almeida & Diogo, 2019; Eberl, 2014; ter Meulen, 2019), all of which could assist or damage the chances of individual enhancements aggregating toward a general increase in the welfare of humanity. But even if all these concerns were adequately addressed, I am not convinced that the enhancement of specific capacities in any given cultural context would lead to ‘human enhancement’ per se.

The assumptions taken in debates over enhancement technologies are socially and culturally specific, and primarily founded on ‘WEIRD’ values: Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic (Schulz et al., 2018). In a technocratic society, abstract thinking is prized; in an individualistic and meritocratic culture, positional goods are desirable (Ferrari et al., 2012) and it would be rational to enhance them. To enhance individuals to perform better in this social environment is not the same as enhancing ‘human nature’ nor is it necessarily an enhancement all things considered.

The UK and the USA, for example, are already very unequal societies, fuelled by status anxiety, increasing rates of mental illness, decreased life-satisfaction, decreasing health outcomes as well as psychological, emotional and cognitive development and decreasing trust in institutions (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2018). Again, it would be rational to enhance traits that increase the chances of individuals flourishing, but the traits that promote success in these societies would be likely to increase dominance behaviour and decrease empathy (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2018). If inequality increases, then the enhancement of privileged individuals, instead of being a process toward a better future for all, might fracture already fragile social structures beyond repair.

Cognitive enhancement on its own might, counter-intuitively, lead to even greater polarisation and stratification within society. The smarter people are and the more reason they can bring to bear on a subject, the better able they are to justify their existing beliefs and social benefits. Reason, counter-intuitively, can make agents less rational. Research by Taber & Lodge suggests that where a subject has invested considerable thought in developing a thesis, she will be motivated to disvalue information that counters her view and, the smarter she is, the more able she will be to skew contradictory information to fit her priors (Taber & Lodge, 2006). As the somewhat pessimistic John Grey puts it, ‘Human beings use reason to bolster whatever they want to believe, seldom to find out if what they believe is true.’ (Gray, 2020)

Indeed, Savulescu and Persson recognise this in one area. To counter the danger posed by cognitively enhanced immoral actors, they advise foregoing the liberal stance and making moral enhancement compulsory: ‘[i]f safe moral enhancements are ever developed, there are strong reasons to believe that their use should be obligatory… since those who should take them are least likely to be inclined to use them.’ (Persson & Savulescu, 2008).

While this may reflect a less complimentary view of human nature, incorporating as it does the urge toward aggression and destruction, Savulescu nonetheless offers a sunnier conception of the ‘human spirit’:

If… manipulations improve our capacity to make rational and normative judgements, they further improve what is fundamentally human. Far from being against the human spirit, such improvements express the human spirit. To be human is to be better.(Julian Savulescu, 2009)

There are two possible descriptions of the human essence here, both of which could be categorised as Enlightenment ideals -‘man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity’ (Kant, n.d.): the ability ‘to make rational and normative judgments’ and a drive ‘to be better’.

I’ll begin with the latter. Such a perspective does fit the evidence: over the course of human history, there has been substantial progress, as referenced above. But the reason for such progress could be not the desire to be better but, as Ernest Beker (1924-74) suggested, the fear of death. It could be related to a variant of a gene called DRD4 which some have called the wanderlust gene (but also seems to correlate with ADHD and other less beneficial traits) (Chen et al., 1999); or perhaps to humans’ longer childhoods where there is greater opportunity to develop habits of exploration and imagination (Gopnik, 2020). To state as a defence of enhancement that the human spirit is a spirit that seeks enhancement – ‘to be better’ - seems a little convenient.

The ability of individuals to make rational and normative judgments does seem plausible as an account of one aspect of human nature. But these albeit valuable Enlightenment ideals omit much that has as strong a case for inclusion. Humans are social, emotional and embodied animals. Without co-operation and collaboration, without relational bonds, humans would still be rather like gibbons, though able to sweat and throw. The traits that led to the development of co-operative big-game hunting and egalitarian tribes were critical (Boehm, 2012) in human progress. And while individual autonomy is prioritised in many cultures, it is not universally pre-eminent. More collectivist societies place relatively greater value upon interdependence and interrelatedness (Sakamoto, 2005). The Xhosa word ubuntu, which Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained as meaning that ‘a person is a person through other people’, relates to a very different view of ‘what it is to be human’ (Le Roux, 2000).

That modern-day humans in highly individualistic capitalist liberal democracies value autonomous rational thinking and moral decision-making does not make these the core capacities that define what it is to be human. Thus, enhancing these capacities would qualify as capacity enhancement or individual enhancement but not as ‘human enhancement’. Moreover, the choice of these characteristics as a definition of human nature implicitly affirms the liberal stance toward the individual’s freedom to choose how and what to enhance.

This use of a view of human nature to support an existing stance held toward enhancement is also seen among opponents to enhancement.

It is to their concerns that I now turn.


...in Part 2!


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