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For a couple of decades now, we can take seriously the possibility of improving human abilities -- physical, cognitive, emotional, and, some claim, moral - with the help of biotechnology (henceforth 'enhancement'). Philosophers, like many public intellectuals, are deeply divided over the desirability of enhancement, with positions ranging from an overall condemnation of enhancement all the way to the belief that certain enhancements are morally obligatory. In Beyond Humanity?, Allen Buchanan makes an important, and manifold, contribution to the debate. First, he attempts -- and, in my opinion, succeeds -- to debunk superficial, but popular, arguments against enhancement. At the same time, he strives to identify the more plausible worries about enhancement that make these arguments popular. The book also offers a critical analysis of arguments in favor of enhancement; this makes it an ideal introduction to the ethics of enhancement, and a good read for those interested in the current state of the debate . Second, Buchanan defends his own position, favorable to the use of enhancements. Third, he aims to take the discussion to the next level, that is, beyond a mere exchange of pros and cons. He argues that enhancement exists and will continue to exist whether the public endorses it or not and therefore the question of whether we should endorse it or not is as futile as similar questions regarding, for instance, globalization. According to Buchanan, the right question to be asked is, instead, whether or not liberal democracies ought to embark on 'the enhancement enterprise' -- that is, to grant individuals and organizations the freedom to improve enhancement technologies, to devote significant public resources to enhancement-related research and debate and to regulate the process through 'effective and morally sensitive policies and institutions for coping with the challenges of enhancement' (p.16).
Each chapter or cluster of chapters (apart from the introduction) focuses on the five most important concerns about enhancement, as identified by the author. In chapter two, Buchanan explains why the ethics of enhancement is best seen as part of the more general ethics of development. This allows him to argue that enhancements need not always be a zero sum and that it is permissible, and likely even morally obligatory, for liberal democracies to embark on the enhancement project. Chapter three criticizes one of the most frequent arguments against pursuing enhancements, namely that it expresses defective character. Chapter four tackles another widespread ground for opposing enhancements: the arguments from 'human nature', which, according to the author, tend to rely on a poor grasp of evolutionary biology. The fifth chapter is an ingenious attempt to make a case in favor of cognitive enhancements. If these are successful, says Buchanan, then it may be possible to overcome conservative resistance, based on the thought that our cognitive abilities are imperfect, to improving the human condition. Chapter six discusses risks associated to pursuing enhancements. The last two chapters discuss possible societal implications of pursuing enhancements: the alleged threats this poses to moral equality between individuals and to fair distributions.
Unsurprisingly, Beyond Humanity? is clear, carefully argued, persuasive and interesting. Here I only take issue with two general points: first, Buchanan's claim that a discussion of the pros and cons of enhancement is futile and, second, the desirability of embarking on the enhancement project given the limited resources that can be devoted to public policy.
It might be true that, just like globalization, the pursuit of enhancements is a historical development that neither public intellectuals who debate its merits, nor governments, have the power to stop or overturn. (Although, of course, there is no problem to imagine possible future worlds in which these developments were stopped or overturned.) This, however, is not enough to show that continuing to debate their intrinsic desirability is in any way misguided or misguiding. It is not misguided because we may legitimately deplore or welcome developments that we cannot prevent, and it there is value in knowing which of these attitudes is more appropriate. And it is not misguiding because, through public policy, liberal states may be able to slow down the pursuit of enhancements, should this pursuit turn out deplorable. Moreover, there is no reason not to have two meaningful discussions running in parallel: one on the pros and cons of pursuing enhancements and another on how to regulate them best. (The latter would likely attract some of those who believe the pursuit of enhancements is morally wrong, just like some opponents of abortion, or globalization, or universal schooling get engaged in discussing the regulation of these practices.)
The book makes a convincing case that there is nothing wrong with pursuing enhancements as such, and that, in fact, we are unlikely to be able to reverse their pursuit. Is this enough reason to embark on the enhancement project, as the author advocates? We live in a world where inequality has been constantly growing over the past decades, and in which significant numbers of people die from famines, lack of cheap medicine and basic sanitation. Several parts of the world are tarred by ongoing wars, some of which are being waged with the help of weapons sold by liberal democratic states. In many countries, people are still oppressed on the basis of their gender, sexuality, race or other morally irrelevant characteristics. We continue to inflict harm on numberless animals we use for food, research and entertainment, even when alternatives are available. Given the perspective of human-induced climate change we have good reasons to worry about the sustainability of human life -- or at least of civilization as we know it. All these issues could be better tackled by public policy than they currently are, should we collectively decide to spend more time and money on them. It follows that a good reason against embarking on the enhancement project, given how the world is, may have everything to do with relative priorities rather than with its intrinsic desirability. This is a challenge still waiting to be addressed by proponents of the enhancement project.
© 2011 Anca Gheaus
Anca Gheaus is a post-doctoral researcher at the Philosophy Faculty of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. She works on theories of care and justice on which she has published several book chapters and articles in Raisons Politiques, Feminist Theory, Basic Income Studies and Hypatia.