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Human Enhancement is undoubtedly the best anthology on the issue of enhancement. In this volume, Julian Savulescu and Nick Bostrom bring together a remarkable set of essays by diverse scholars in bioethics (from Michael Sandel and Eric Parens to Norman Daniels and Peter Singer). The volume is divided into three parts: Part I deals with human enhancement in general, Part II discusses a set of specific enhancements, and Part III briefly addresses 'practical challenges' of enhancement. Altogether, the anthology contains 18 essays; although in a short review it is impossible to do justice to each argument, in what follows I will highlight some features of the collection as a whole.
From the outset, the editors point out that "human enhancement has moved from the realm of science fiction to that of practical ethics" (18). The debate between 'transhumanists' and 'bioconservatives' is not merely speculative: some practices that it reflects upon are either already in use (for instance, in reproductive technology and in sports) or very soon could be made available. This fact makes proper philosophical reflection and discussion quite urgent, and it also adds complexity to this reflection and discussion. When talking about enhancement, philosophers no longer can treat the issue as conceptually clear. As Carl Elliot wrote: "In clinical ethics there are no kidnapped violinists, no fat men in caves, and no South American villagers forcing you into moral dilemmas" (A Philosophical Disease, xxv). In truth, 'real moral experience' is much more complex, and cannot be reduced to neat examples and apparently lucid conceptual analysis. Since enhancement is now a practical issue, philosophical analysis is forced to be sensitive to all of its nuances. Of course, this is not to say that every argument in Human Enhancement is nuanced; in fact, some contributions do invite us to treat enhancement as yet another (relatively simple) issue related to our reproductive rights or essential democratic freedoms. But as a whole Human Enhancement does contain numerous subtle arguments that jointly show the complexity of the issue.
In his contribution to the volume, Eric Parens remarks: "Bioethical debates often seem to feature smart and decent people talking past each other. The debate about the enhancement of human traits and capacities is no exception. Too often we interlocutors seem keener on winning a point than on advancing our shared understanding of the question at hand" (181). Readers familiar with today's discussion surrounding enhancement will have to agree with Parens: well-crafted essays on both side of the philosophical spectrum seem somehow to be missing the opponent's point. In fact, numerous works (especially on the 'transhuman' side) cannot help but reveal a profound frustration with the opponent's view. At times, this frustration is rather explicit, but more often it is revealed in the fact that, for 'transhumanists' the 'bioconservative' view is based on a set of simple mistakes. 'Transhumanists' point out that 'bioconservatives' are guilty of the naturalistic fallacy in deriving normative conclusions from the claims concerning what's 'natural'; they point out that the view that urges us to take humanity seriously is either guilty of equivocation of the term 'human' (that has both descriptive and prescriptive senses), or of 'speciesism' (or both), and that if a position is seriously committed to the value of human nature (as 'bioconservatism' is), then it ought at least to be able to define 'human nature' (which 'bioconservatism' allegedly has not). Human Enhancement has a set of arguments to these conclusions (see, for instance, contributions by Eric Juengst, John Harris, Arthur Caplan, and Peter Singer). On these accounts, 'bioconservative' views are not merely misguided; they are simply fallacious.
The fact that from the 'transhumanist' perspective many 'bioconservative' arguments seem to be so hopelessly weak reveals that some fundamental normative, general philosophical and even meta-philosophical assumptions that the two sides of the debate build upon are at odds with each other. Parens, in calling for a more 'fruitful' debate on enhancement, in fact modestly points out that "in our day-to-day lives we are often more prone to allow ourselves [...] thoughtfulness – and ambivalence – than when we sit down to engage in scholarship" (191). Thus, he argues that when we take our philosophical hats off, we look at enhancement (and at human nature) from both perspectives. On the one hand, we tend to appreciate the giftedness of life and to celebrate it with gratitude, but we also tend to be creative and to be committed to betterment of our condition. Thus, in our day-to-day lives we think as both 'bioconservatives' (when, for instance, we marvel at the personalities of our children that emerge in front of us) and as 'transhumanists' (when we combat debilitating illness or reject that which undermines the goodness of our lives). Both commitments, Parens believes, ultimately celebrate the same ideal – the ideal of authenticity, but they interpret authenticity differently. Since our day-to-day understanding of ourselves is more nuanced than either side of the philosophical debate allows, Parens concludes that we (the philosophers) need to start acknowledging the ambivalence of enhancement, and to explore it from within both frameworks, without reducing it to either one of them.
As a collection of essays, this is precisely what Human Enhancement does. The balance of 'transhumanist' and the 'bioconservative' arguments allows us to see enhancement as a profoundly ambivalent issue. What the anthology shows is that there is no simple answers to the question of moral status of enhancement, and that any account that proposes a simple answer (for instance, in terms of personal reproductive freedoms, or a utilitarian cost-benefit analysis) is likely to miss the significance of what is being discussed. Of course, spelling out this significance involves reflecting on some deep metaphysical questions, such as 'What does it mean to be human?' and 'What does it mean to be a person in a socially and racially stratified society?' (This is what Michael Sandel Christine Overall invites us to acknowledge.)
On a more specific level, it forces us to refine (and perhaps re-define) the value of human projects and pursuits such as sport, art, and education. (Torbjörn Tännsjö in particular looks into the 'ethos' of sport in light of the enhancement debate.) Finally, the very core liberal values (such as autonomy, equality, and reciprocity) are in need of re-examination and re-interpretation in a society that seriously contemplates embracing enhancement of some of its members. (Daniel Wikler explores the implications of enhancement for 'civil liberties.') The 'thin' moral concepts of political philosophy today cannot provide these answers. Human Enhancement shows that, whether we stand on the 'transhumanist' or 'bioconservative' side, it is becoming apparent that the arguments ought to start including more 'thick' concepts than we previously needed.
Although many of the contributions to the volume have appeared elsewhere, as an anthology Human Enhancement is bound to be indispensible for anyone is interested in the subject. This collection of essays could be a beginner's first reference guide to the subject, since all essays are brief, engaging, and focused. At the same time, both advanced students and instructors will find the volume intellectually challenging and rewarding, since the essays reveal the complexity of each angle of enhancement and address these numerous angles in depth. In short, Human Enhancement is a must for anyone who is thinking about the moral status of bioengineering, and bioethics in general.
© 2011 Tatiana Patrone
Tatiana Patrone, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy and Religion, Ithaca College