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The Case for PerfectionReview - The Case for Perfection
Ethics in the Age of Human Enhancement
by Johann A. R. Roduit
Peter Lang, 2016
Review by William Simkulet, Ph.D.
Jul 5th 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 27)

Johann A. R. Roduit's The Case for Perfection is an interesting, concise argument in favor of human (bio)enhancement.  Roduit seeks to make two contributions to the debate, the first --  methodological -- arguing that the concept of perfection is necessary for moral debate about human enhancement, and the second -- substantive -- arguing for a capacities-based conception of human perfection.

          Human enhancement, in particular human bioenhancement, has garnered significant attention in recent years, but Roduit argues that this debate suffers because of two problems -- first, there is no consensus on the definition of human enhancement, and second, the principles that bioethicists traditionally appeal to evaluate biological (mostly medical) interventions -- justice, safety, and autonomy -- are insufficient to morally evaluate enhancement.  In chapter 1, Roduit explores three conceptions of human enhancement -- beyond-therapy, quantitative, and qualitative, advocating the qualitative conception. 

According to the beyond-therapy conception, enhancement is outside the scope of medicine because it seeks to improve, rather than restore, normal human functioning.  Roduit criticizes this treatment/enhancement distinction, arguing that it turns on a notion of "normal functioning," about which there is no consensus.  The qualitative conception envisions enhancement as adding new capacities to human beings (imagine a surgically implanted device that would allow a person to send commands wirelessly to electrical devices).  Roduit rejects this account because many interventions we would classify as enhancement improve our existing capacities, rather than give us new ones.  He argues for the qualitative conception of human enhancement, where something counts as enhancement if and only if it enhances an existing capacity.  However, Roduit argues, the concepts of safety, justice, and autonomy do not provide a method to evaluate whether an intervention has brought about a desirable state.  To fill this gap, philosophers have proposed evaluation criteria based on human nature, authenticity, and dignity; however Roduit embraces a perfectionist notion of human enhancement, in which human perfection provides the standard for judging whether an intervention enhances; enhancement brings a subject closer to perfection.  For Roduit, human enhancement is not merely an improvement, but best understood as "leading somewhere" (52) -- towards human perfection, or the "ideal human" (53).

This first chapters serves as a brief, but effective introduction to key issues in the bioenhancement debate.  However, I think there are three deficiencies in this chapter.  First, Roduit's discussion of the beyond-therapy conception of enhancement is quite odd for two reasons -- (1) he dismisses this conception because it turns on the concept of "normal human functioning" about which there is no consensus, yet embraces the qualitative approach that turns on the (arguably more problematic) concept of "human perfection," which is explored in detail in later chapters; (2) the beyond-therapy conception of enhancement is not concerned with the moral permissibility of enhancement, but rather the question of whether enhancement falls under the scope of medicine, which many argue ought to be exclusively concerned with treatment, not enhancement; however enhancement might be fall under the scope of other profession.  In light of this, the treatment/enhancement distinction might have been better addressed in a footnote, rather than as a complete conception of enhancement.

Second, and more substantively, the quantitative and qualitative accounts of enhancement pick out two distinct methods of hypothetically improving something -- the first by giving a subject additional, desirable abilities, and the second by improving the existing abilities; both kinds of interventions might constitute Rawlsian primary goods (or goods that any rational agent would desire).  Roduit notes that the quantitative account fails to describe many interventions we would call "enhancement," but unfortunately doesn't even consider a conception of enhancement that features both qualitative and quantitative types of enhancement. 

Finally, the first chapter fails to offer an analysis of the "human" in "human enhancement."  Early in the chapter Roduit distinguishes between three camps -- bioconservatives against human enhancement, bioliberals in favor of human enhancement, and Transhumanists, for whom human enhancement is a tool to improve humanity that may lead to humans becoming something more than human.  For the last group, the "human" in "human enhancement" refers to the target of the enhancement, whereas for the first two groups, "human" refers to a conceptual limit -- enhancement ceases to be "human enhancement" if the subject ceases to be "human."

In philosophy, the term "human" can be used to refer to a biological category (having human DNA, and/or being a human organism), a psychological category (being a person), a moral category (a being with human rights, and/or a being capable of acting as a moral agent), a capacities-based category (a rational agent, or a moral agent).  In later chapters (notably chapters 4 and 5), Roduit argues for a capacities-based conception of humanity, where to be human is to possess a laundry list of capacities like that Martha Nussbaum advocates -- life, bodily health, bodily integrity, imagination, affiliation, and more.  An ideal human -- the goal of human enhancement, according to Roduit -- has these capacities, and human enhancement is any intervention that promotes one or more of these capacities (without removing others).  By this definition, interventions proposed by transhumanists fail to be genuine "human enhancement" if they would lead to the agent's ceasing to be human.

This notion of "human perfection" is problematic because Roduit uses perfection as a means to evaluate states of being -- one state is better than another, on his view, if and only if it is closer to "human perfection"; however human perfection is not a moral category, but rather an arbitrary one - a thing is human if and only if it possesses a particular set of capacities -- capacities contingently possessed by (most) biological humans, psychological persons, and moral agents, but are not all essential to any of these things.  Although Roduit discusses a series of these capacities throughout the book, there is no argument for why the set of capacities advocated by Nussbaum are desirable, inseparable, or complete.  Roduit fails to argue that being "human" is a morally relevant category, and thus fails to show that interventions are only morally justified if they are constrained to enhancing all and only these ("human") capacities, and excluding interventions that give subjects new abilities, or enhance abilities that are not essentially, or contingently, human.

Conclusion:  This text makes important contributions to the contemporary debate about human enhancement.  The notion of perfection that Roduit discusses is interesting and worth developing, but a more complete account requires two improvements -- (1) a discussion of why any particular list of list if capacities, like those advocated by Nussbaum, are the right set to be described as "human", and (2) an argument for why human perfection, properly construed, is preferable to other kinds of perfection; for example moral perfection or perfection simpliciter.  Unless "human" is understood as a morally relevant category, just because we are, contingently, human doesn't mean that we ought to be.


© 2016 William Simkulet


William Simkulet, Ph.D., University of Wisonsin, Marshfield/Wood County


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