Enhancement Book (Chapter 1)
Over the coming weeks I will be making my way through Allen Buchanan's new book Beyond Humanity? I am looking forward to reading this timely book which is written by a first-rate scholar who has made substantive contributions to various debates in practical ethics and political philosophy.
My goal here on the blog is to make a few notes for each chapter, primarily for my own benefit so I can return at a later point to write something more substantive. So on to Chapter 1.
Chapter 1 begins with a very useful characterization of the "anti-enhancement" stance. This characterization resonates with me as I have encountered these kinds of objections for the past decade now when teaching these topics. Buchanan captures the "anti-enhancement" position in the following:
For the first time, human biology and even the human genome itself can be shaped by human action. But the human organism is a finely balanced whole, the product of eons of exacting evolution. It is irresponsible to tamper with the wisdom of nature, the handiwork of the Master Engineer of evolution, in order to be better than well. Our situation at present is not perfect, of course, but it is clearly satisfactory; so it is a mistake to risk it for the sake of improvement. Those who seek biomedical enhancement desire perfection; they crave mastery. But such attitudes are incompatible with a due appreciation of the given, a sense of gratitude for what we have. (1)
Buchanan notes that every single sentence in the above passage is in fact false. Let me break the paragraph down, line by line, to show why this is so (I will add some further details and points, etc. to the case Buchanan makes against this statement).
#1. For the first time, human biology and even the human genome itself can be shaped by human action. WRONG. Human biology is shaped by our environment. Creating cities, vehicles and jobs that limit human mobility helped (when combined with access to cheap, high caloric food) modulate our biology in ways conducive to an epidemic of obesity. The design of human societies and new technologies also changed the human genome. These "human" factors altered who we reproduced with, who lived long enough to reproduce, etc. Culture impacts biology. A scan of the brain of a literate child living today in the developed world, who is exposed to education and ample nourishment, for example, would look very different from the brain scan of a 10 year-old living in a small hunter-gather tribe from 80 000 years ago.
#2. But the human organism is a finely balanced whole, the product of eons of exacting evolution. WRONG. Read this. It is hard to see how an organism susceptible to chronic pain, depression, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, etc. is "finely balanced".
#3. It is irresponsible to tamper with the wisdom of nature, the handiwork of the Master Engineer of evolution, in order to be better than well. WRONG. We tamper with the wisdom of nature every single day. I put a bundle of clothes on my body before braving the deep freeze of the average winter day in Canada. I read, exercise, etc. in order to become "better". Now one might argue that the human brain itself is perhaps part of the "wisdom of nature". But this brain is capable of vice as well as virtue. Surely we don't want to defer to the wisdom of sociopaths, the weak willed, etc. So deferring to the "wisdom of nature" is a vacuous suggestion.
#4. Our situation at present is not perfect, of course, but it is clearly satisfactory; so it is a mistake to risk it for the sake of improvement. WRONG. The chronic diseases of aging will kill an unprecedented number of human beings in the next decade. The WHO estimates the number to be over 200 million people. And death by chronic disease is a slow, painful demise. Hardly a state of affairs that can be called "satisfactory". In my view, the moral imperative to tackle aging is among the greatest of moral imperatives our species has ever faced.
#5. Those who seek biomedical enhancement desire perfection; they crave mastery. WRONG (or, at least, it depends on who the target of criticism is). Wanting to improve cognition or promote healthy aging via biomedical intervention does not presuppose we want "mastery" anymore than pursuing these same aims via education and exercising does.
#6. But such attitudes are incompatible with a due appreciation of the given, a sense of gratitude for what we have. WRONG. Promoting education (an enhancement), for example, is not incompatible with gratitude. A parent that wants their child to receive a better education than what they received growing up is not necessarily ungrateful for the opportunities they received as a child. Rather such an attitude denotes an appreciation of the importance a good education has. It need not express feelings of ingratitude.
OK, back to the book.
Buchanan notes (3) that the enhancement debate, perhaps more than any other academic debate in Practical Ethics, is one largely populated by rhetoric and grandstanding and slogans rather than sound arguments. Appeals to "the given" and "normal species functioning" abound, but there is little understanding of, or engagement with, evolutionary biology. The enhancement literature, he claims, "is one of the last academic strongholds of a priori psychology and sociology. One would think that one was living in the eighteenth century, when serious intellectuals still believed they could formulate interesting and controversial generalizations about human behavior or the workings of human society from the armchair" (9). Love that passage!
A unique move Buchanan makes is the introduction of the "anti-anti-enhancement" stance versus the "pro-enhancement" stance, which helps transcend the debate between the typical "pro vs anti-enhancement" frame. He adopts the "anti-anti-enhancement" stance. Such a stance "more positively commits itself to developing the moral and institutional resources needed to pursue enhancements responsibly" (16). The case in favour of enhancements, argues Buchanan, comes to the fore once we discard the erroneous assumptions that enhancements will be predominately zero-sum, competitive goods, or expressions of bad character. What is needed is thus a re-framing (more on this later) of the ethical issues at stake with biomedical enhancements. And this is the primary goal of the book (19).
Definition of biomedical enhancement: a deliberate intervention, applying biomedical science, which aims to improve an existing capacity that most or all normal human beings typically have, or to create a new capacity, by acting directly on the body or brain. (23)
5 Types of enhancement widely discussed in debates are:
1. improvements in physical characteristics such as speed, strength, and endurance
2. improvements in cognitive capacities, such as various aspects of memory, information - processing and reasoning
3. improvements in affect, emotion, motivation, or temperament
4. improvements in immunity or resistance to disease
5. increased longevity (25)
Stay tuned for overview/outline of chapter 2 in the next few days.