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The notions of biomedical enhancement and our possible posthuman future are very much, so to speak, topics du jour in the bioethical literature. Over the past few years a number of books have appeared that address the ethical issues that surround our using medical technology not simply to treat disorders, but to increase our capacities beyond their normal range, perhaps even to the point where we no longer can be counted as human. These include landmark works by John Harris (Enhancing Evolution) and Michael Sandel (The Case Against Perfection), along with other excellent and thought-provoking works by the likes of Jürgen Habermas and Francis Fukuyama, as well as a first-rate edited collection (Human Enhancement) produced by Julian Savulescu and Nick Bostrom.
A recent and timely addition to this list is Ruth Chadwick and Bert Gordijn's Medical Enhancement and Posthumanity, the second volume in Springer's International Library of Ethics, Law and Technology series. It appears to be targeted primarily at the academic reader who has some familiarity with the themes addressed, though I see no reason at all why it should not be understood and appreciated by the intelligent general reader. Like Savulescu and Bostrom's book, it consists of a number of papers penned by a range of international experts on the ethics of enhancement, including "big names" such as Dieter Birnbacher, Nick Bostrom, Nicholas Agar, and Chadwick and Gordijn themselves. In all, it contains thirteen pieces, an Introduction, and an Afterword by Michael J. Selgelid, and the chapters are grouped under three headings: "Medical Enhancement," "Posthumanity," and "Current Developments".
As is to be expected with a book of this sort, the contributions, though all eminently worthwhile and thoroughly readable, nonetheless vary a little in quality and originality. Stand-out papers include Chadwick's "Therapy, Enhancement and Improvement," Agar's "How to Defend Genetic Enhancement," Birnbacher's "Posthumanity, Transhumanism and Human Nature," and Walter Glannon's "Decelerating and Arresting Human Aging". I will have a little to say about some of these papers shortly, but first I want to give a special mention to what seem to me to be the two central chapters in the collection: Bostrom's "Why I Want to be Posthuman when I Grow Up," and Charles T. Rubin's "What is the Good of Transhumanism?". Part of what makes these chapters so good is that they constitute a close dialogue between two reactions to the prospect of posthumanity, with each (not by design, it would appear) taking up themes and arguments tackled in the other.
Bostrom's paper is thorough and thought-provoking. Indeed, it seems to me to be an example of paradigmatically good philosophical bioethics. Consequently, it is also a demonstration of precisely how much the techniques of philosophy, conducted in an analytic style, can bring to our thinking about enhancement technologies. That is not to say, of course, that nothing Bostrom says can be disputed: it most definitely can. But that point is by-the-by; the clarity and rigor of the chapter are exemplary. Bostrom starts by arguing in some detail that being posthuman, understood as possessing capacities "greatly exceeding the maximum attainable by any current human being without recourse to technological means" (p. 108) would be desirable. In this first part of the paper, his arguments are presented as able only prima facie to support their conclusions. This is because they largely proceed by considering what we in fact desire, and Bostrom realizes (as, for example, Mill arguably did not) that firm conclusions about what is desirable cannot be drawn from such purely descriptive premises. He then goes on to urge that a state of posthumanity is not simply desirable, but is desirable for us: that it is something that it would be desirable for an unenhanced human to aim for and attain. In making this latter argument, he anticipates a number of possible objections to it that make use of the notions of numerical and narrative personal identity.
Deftly though Bostrom's chapter deals with objections to the transhumanist position (a transhumanist being someone who, amongst other things, affirms the desirability of posthumanity), it does not entirely defuse the challenges set by Charles T. Rubin's contribution to the volume. Rubin's paper is a thoughtful piece of work, and is argued with great sensitivity. It looks primarily at the public face of the transhumanist movement, as presented, for instance, through websites such as that of Humanity+, formerly the World Transhumanist Association, an organization in which Bostrom is a leading light. Rubin is suspicious of the scientism that he sees as inherent in transhumanism, and also questions whether, from our current human perspective, we can formulate a sufficiently clear conception of the supposed goods of posthumanity, and so can coherently aim at them (a similar skeptical note is struck by Chadwick at the end of her paper, as we will see). As Rubin writes:
... justification in terms of achieving some ineffable posthuman condition is not exactly a reasoned defense, and the very incomprehensibility of the posthuman makes it look like allegiance to it is an article of faith. (p. 144)
In highlighting the contributions of Bostrom and Rubin, I do not at all mean to suggest that the other papers in the collection somehow lack their rigor, or their drawing of fine and significant distinctions. For instance, Agar's contribution holds that some measure of pre-natal biomedical enhancement is entirely defensible, but compellingly contends that it is not to be justified as a an exercise of prospective parents' reproductive liberty. Instead, it can be defended on the same grounds as other ways in which parents legitimately shape their children's lives, and condemned when the shaping becomes illegitimate.
Chadwick, in a characteristically precise and carefully argued piece, distinguishes between the concepts of enhancement and improvement. This allows her to reject the belief that our developing our tendency to carry out enhancements is inevitable, due to an in-built human drive towards perfection. She also claims that mere enhancement can never be a duty, while there is reason for uncertainty about whether certain supposed improvements are really worthy of the name. She asks, "How is it possible to set criteria for what enhancements will count as improvements or not without any agreement as to ends or purposes? (p. 35).
This last point might be thought to tie in well with the topic of Birnbacher's chapter. Birnbacher wishes to sidestep the first-order debate between transhumanists and their bioconservative opponents. Instead, he applies himself to second-order questions about the notions of transhumanism and posthumanism, and bioconservative opposition to them. He concludes that because there is no very clear concept of human nature, both the transhumanist and anti-transhumanist positions are misleadingly formulated. It is just not clear, thinks Birnbacher, what would be transcended in reaching a state of supposed posthumanity, and so there can be no genuine reason to label that state "posthuman". By the same token, it is hard to tell precisely what it is that bioconservatives think human beings would be losing in enhancing themselves far beyond their current capacities.
It should be clear from what I have written that there is much to recommend this book. Indeed, despite its hefty price tag, it should definitely sit on the bookshelf of anyone working on or interested in the topics it covers. It is all the more painful, then, to note some rather irritating shortcomings it has, none of which is related to its content. First of all, certain papers are littered with typographical errors, and many linguistic solecisms have found their way into the published version. On occasion, quotations that ought to be indented and surrounded with white space are not. Kevin Fitzgerald SJ is, at the start of his chapter and in its header, mysteriously referred to as SJ Kevin Fitzgerald and SJK Fitzgerald respectively, making him look less like a Jesuit and more like somebody with a surfeit of forenames. A particularly striking example of a lack of care in preparation is found in a sentence from Bostrom's paper:
It is also dubious to assume that a healthy future self several hundred years older than I am now might would be unable remember things from current life stage. (p. 124.)
Secondly, the book has no index. This makes it rather frustrating when one recalls that an important point appears in one of the papers, but cannot remember which (I confess that this happened to me several times in preparing this review!). Thirdly, there are no notes on contributors. This may be fine where the more high-profile writers are concerned, but not in the case of those whose names may (as yet) be less familiar.
© 2009 Peter Herissone-Kelly
Dr Peter Herissone-Kelly, Lecturer in Philosophy, Philosophy Section, International School for Communities, Rights, and Inclusion, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK