Human Enhancement Debate. Arguments of proponents and critics of human enhancement technologies. What is the state of the debate? Incl. opinion citizens!
How do we view human enhancement now? What is the opinion of proponents and opponents? Which theories can help us think about this?
Debate Human Enhancement
In this article I will discuss different parts of the debate on human enhancement technologies.
- Arguments: this part contains a number of proponents;
- Criticism: this part consists of the arguments of opponents and critics;
- Debate: this part is about a discussion among experts about the topic;
- Society: this part is about the opinion of Americans and Dutchmen.
By the way, I have written an extensive article about human enhancement, and also about the definitions, technologies (like genetic modification and drugs), examples, ethics, debate, books and movies.
Human enhancement arguments
Let me start with the common denominator of the proponents. The argument that often comes back is that improvement is something that makes us human. As humanity, we have long made the transition from natural selection and random mutations to unnatural selection and involuntary mutations.
A simple example of this phenomenon is healthcare, where I am not even talking about designer babies or embryo selection. Due to the quality of our healthcare, but also the supply of food and infrastructure such as sewerage and water pipes, we are increasingly exercising control over our development as a species. Babies who would not survive in times of hunter-gatherers or even in the Middle Ages, now do so.
We are already living in an era of human improvementprofessor Nicholas Agar
This is aptly expressed by New Zealand professor Nicholas Agar: “We are already living in an era of human improvement.” Although he acts against radical improvement in his book, he acknowledges that we are actually already doing it [link at the bottom].
I would not immediately classify Professor Peter-Paul Verbeek as a warm advocate of human enhancement. But I find his theory of technological mediation worthwhile to include in this part.
According to Verbeek, we often experience a tension relationship when it comes to people and technology, because all frameworks (ethical, philosophical, legal, financial, demographic, etc.) are challenged by technological developments.
He argues for thinking beyond the so-called opposition of man versus machine. The boundary between man and machine is becoming thinner. We are putting more and more people into technology. We put more technology in people.
What distinguishes us as humanity from animals is that we supplement ourselves through technology. Technology provides mediation between people and the world, such as clothing (against heat or cold), glasses and contact lenses (to see), a car (to visit places) or the internet (to communicate and look up information). According to him, it is therefore an art to continue to see new relationships between man and machine, as they will emerge even more in the coming years, a form of mediation.
Myths and legends
The pursuit of superhuman capacities is something that has intrigued us as humanity for centuries. In ancient times this was reserved for myths, legends and fantasies. A few examples:
- King Gilgamesh who goes in search of immortality [link at the bottom];
- Achilles: the Greek myth of the invulnerable soldier in the Trojan War;
- Icarus and Daedalus: the myth in which humans want to fly;
- Spiderman: a human with the abilities of a spider.
The difference compared to these examples is that scientific and technological progress has made a number of superhuman abilities increasingly realistic.
Julian Savalescu is affiliated with the University of Oxford [link at the bottom]. He is, together with John Harris, one of the best known and most prominent supporters of human enhancement. Savalescu believes that technology is changing our world to such an extent that old morality no longer has any control over it.
He is on the board of the renowned scientific journal Journal of Medical Ethics [link at the bottom]. He has written several books, collections and essays on human enhancement. At the end of 2019 I held a video interview with him [the video is at the bottom].
I describe a few of his most striking ideas below.
- Moral improvement
- Human prejudice
- Procreative Beneficence
- Benefits for society
In the book Unfit for the Future, together with his co-author Ingmar Perrson, he writes about the need for moral improvement [link at the bottom]. Won’t the world be a nicer place if we are all so adjusted that we are a little nicer to each other? A world with fewer wars, fewer psychopaths, more cooperation and more love.
We must dare to face our physical, cognitive, but also moral limitations if we want to deal with the challenges of technological evolution and globalization.Professor Julian Savulescu
He also marks out our current moral deficit in an interview with Bas Heijne for the series The Perfect Man. In that conversation, Savulescu states that people are limited in different ways. “We are not a perfect species that solves every problem. We must dare to face our physical, cognitive, but also moral limitations if we want to deal with the challenges of technological evolution and globalization. “
Julian Savulescu believes that in debates about bioethics the justification to be restrained is often crooked and normative because of the idea of humanity. ‘As humans, we are convinced that it has special meaning to be human, at least for ourselves.’ He calls this the human prejudice.
In his view, human prejudice is an improper and normative argument. He argues that it obscures the real discussion. Because why is this so-called humanity so important?
Savulescu believes that we should improve our species wherever we can, even when it comes to parents’ choices about their offspring. In an interview with De Volkskrant, he says: “I want my children to be intelligent, kind and compassionate. That they can control their impulses, but also that they are spontaneous, attractive and healthy. Those are all things that make for a better life and we have to look for that. “
The moral choice to choose the child with the greatest chance of a good life is known as the principle of Procreative Beneficence.
Intrinsic benefits for the individual
This is somewhat in line with the ideas of philosopher Nick Bostrom. In a contribution to the Small Philosophy of the Perfect Man, he finds that there are intrinsic benefits to improving one’s cognitive or physical abilities. You can then enjoy a good book, enjoy great music or find solutions to difficult questions. A free translation of both visions: if you can improve yourself or your offspring, why would you fail to do so?
Finally, Julian Savulescu believes that human enhancement can not only have benefits for individuals, but also for society as a whole. He hereby refers to the research by Linda Gottfredson from 2001 [link at the bottom].
If society’s IQ increases by 3 points, it predicts the following effects:
- 25% less poverty;
- 25% fewer prisoners;
- 28% fewer school-leavers;
- 20% fewer children without parents;
Not only socially, but also economically speaking, cognitive improvement has a positive effect. Each point increase in the IQ leads to an increase of between $55 and $65 billion in economic growth.
Julian Savulescu Interview
At the end of 2019, I interviewed Professor Julian Savulescu (University of Oxford) about human enhancement and ethics. He is, certainly in the academic world, one of the foremost thinkers in this field.
Interview with professor Julian Savulescu
Within the field of human enhancement, the Brit John Harris is one of the most outspoken advocates. In 2010 he published the book Enhancing Evolution where he examines the benefits of human improvement [link at the bottom].
The essence of his argument is that human enhancement is good in itself and that we are obliged to improve ourselves for our posterity. He puts forward two arguments for this. The first is that he believes that improving yourself fits the freedom of every individual. His second argument, in my opinion even more far-reaching, is that our job is to improve ourselves and to enable others to do so. It is our moral duty.
In Enhancing Evolution he writes, among other things: ‘Improvements are so obviously good for us (if they are not, they are not improvements) that it is strange that the idea of improvement has evoked so much suspicion, fear and open hostility and still evokes.”
Case Study: Private school
Harris believes that we as human beings are already doing everything we can to improve ourselves, such as reading books, going to the gym or attending education. In the book The Makeable Man, his perspective is formulated as follows: “Rich people today have the opportunity to send their children to private schools; they may soon have the opportunity to increase the capacity of their brain.”
Harris sees no difference in this, but as far as I am concerned, that is too simply argued. In the case of education, you still have to do your best as a student or student. If technology becomes available that makes you immediately (and effortlessly) much smarter, it leads to effects that extend beyond the individual.
For example, when that technology is expensive and initially only purchased by the well-to-do. With their intelligent lead they earn even more money, after which they can buy other types of upgrades. This leads to a growing inequality that is almost impossible to catch up with.
This counter argument comes back more often in the Opponent section.
In my opinion, the strongest argument is from author Juan Enriquez. At the same time, the situation of his argumentation only takes effect over a much longer term. A period that we cannot currently imagine. Together with Steve Gullans, Enriquez wrote the previously cited Evolving Ourselves. In the book and later during a lecture at the TED conference, he talked about the importance of human enhancement [link at the bottom].
His proposition is that the earth will eventually become uninhabitable. Astronomers disagree about this, but a rough estimate is that in 1 billion years the sun will be so hot that oceans will evaporate.
If humanity still exists, then we must have left the earth by that time. In order to subsequently survive in space, it is necessary to adapt the human body. Our current bodies have been evaluated for millions of years of evolution according to the conditions on earth. But the lack of gravity and space radiation breaks up our biological life in the universe in no time.
For that reason there is speculation about genetic adaptations to better cope with radiation, or that biological life is untenable. Mankind then lives on virtually in the form of bits and bytes in computers, robots and interstellar space ships.
Criticism of human enhancement
In the scientific and social debate, more opponents of human enhancement can be heard than proponents. Before I zoom in on a number of leading people in this camp, I first describe the arguments that are often put forward. This concerns the efficacy (1), the emphasis on technology and science (2) and the perspective on people (3).
Regarding efficacy, many promises are made about the effect of new products, but the scientific evidence is thin. Due to commercial interests, the effects are presented as more rosy than they are in reality.
Under the heading “technofix” it is expected that science and technology can solve problems. But usually problems are more complex, interconnected and interrelated in a social and cultural context. This is an important argument by Evgeny Mozorov in his book To save everything click here [link at the bottom].
The basic premise of human enhancement implies indirectly that mankind is self-contained and that it must be improved. Many opponents find that a negative basis for looking at people. After all, it can also mean that you see people as a product that can be improved through purchaseable adjustments and expansions.
I continue this part with a description of a number of outspoken opponents of human enhancement, including their main ideas and arguments.
The philosopher Francis Fukuyama is one of the most outspoken opponents of human enhancement. He considers the proposal to raise humans to a new level using biotechnology to be “the most dangerous idea in the world.” He expresses these concerns in his book The New Man [link at the bottom].
After describing the technological developments in the first part and describing people in part two, such as human rights and human nature, in the third part he explains how both come together. He raises questions such as: Who decides on the application of newly developed technologies? Should agreements be made about this at national or international level? Can it only be used in healthcare or does everyone have access to it?
What is a good life?
An interesting argument for me is that he states that it is not at all clear what a “good” life is and how you can achieve that with human enhancement technology. He states that human traits are often closely related to other traits. You do not know in advance what effects the adjustment of one property will have on other parts of your body that are connected to it.
In short, the tone in the book is that we must handle new technology with care. He points in particular to the social risks of human enhancement, such as a growing inequality between people who can afford the technologies and those who cannot.
Professor Michael Sandel is a clear opponent of human enhancement. He focuses on genetics and genetic modification with CRISPR / cas9 and related technologies. He calls these breakthroughs “promising and perilous.” In the series The Perfect Man of the VPRO, he warns of a world in which only super people are tolerated.
The case against perfection
In 2004 he wrote an influential opinion article in The Atlantic entitled “The case against perfection” [link at the bottom]. In this he argues that the essence of life is that we must recognize that we cannot fully control and direct our talents and powers. Despite the efforts we make to develop them. It is also a lesson in humility: accepting that we cannot achieve everything in our lives.
Parents and children
In the case of children, he cites the work of theologian William May. According to May, parents give their children two types of love: acceptance and transformation. Accepting love confirms the nature of the child as it is. Transforming love is about promoting the well-being of the child.
According to Sandell, if we can create future children to our ideal, we run the risk of shifting away from accepting love. While the core of a good life and good upbringing is a balance between both. Being good as you are and at the same time being stimulated to develop as a person.
Inez de Beaufort
Inez de Beaufort is professor of medical ethics at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam [link at the bottom]. She brings forward the theory of social infectivity. What if it becomes the social norm to take supplements to improve your cognition. Do you still have the choice not to do it?
During lectures and presentations I often raise this point with a fictional case. Just like the documentary Take your pills described earlier, individual choices change when everyone around you does or does not do something. People in themselves are social and often also competitive, which makes people more inclined to improve themselves.
Psychologist Marion Donner wrote the Self Destruction Book [link at the bottom]. In an interview with the NRC, she explains what the problem is, the current time, what she calls neoliberalism. “It seems that we constantly have to optimize ourselves, like machines.”
It seems that we constantly have to optimize ourselves, like machinesPsychologist Marion Donner
What makes us human is failure. “Ultimately we fail in everything: you die, you are misunderstood and you make mistakes.” The more malleable mankind seems to become with science and technology, the less room there is for that failure. If failure makes us human, it also means that science and technology make us less human.
David Byrne wrote a controversial column in the MIT Technology Review about the rise of technology and the decline of humanity [link at the bottom]. In that document it was mainly about technological progress in the form of digital services, robots in factories and autonomous vehicles. According to him, all these developments limit our human interaction and our human contact.
His proposition is that as homo sapiens we are by definition a social being. We are somewhat unpredictable and benefit from unexpected surprises, happy accidents and unforeseen intuitions.
From that perspective, certain forms of human improvement can lead to less sociality. If the social norm is on the development of rational intelligence (in the form of IQ) then on sociality (in the form of EQ), then this may have an impact on the character of people. As humans, you can become more and more molded, through genetic modification, pharmaceutical interventions or brain implants.
Magazine Time organized a conversation about this topic in 2016. The session is moderated by Matt Vella, Business Editor by Time Magazine (United States).
The insights I gained from this discussion (including timestamps). In italic are my insights, findings and answers.
- 6:42 How developed and articulated is the ethical framework? Answer: it is well researched, but there is not a lot of consensus in society.
- 8:42 Role of companies: would they give employers cognitive boosting drugs? The consultant from Tata would like the use it as an experiment, but not as a requirement.
- 10:00 Natural mutations in world-class athletes. This is a very interesting point!
- 14:10 Modafinil: what is it and can it make cognitive capabilities more equal? Interesting finding.
- 18:44 Gap between haves and have-nots. An argument that comes up a lot.
- 23:00 Other mechanism to enhance yourself (exercise, nature, good sleep, etc.) These methods seem to have more impact.
- 28:05 Meditation or cognitive enhancement drugs on company calendar. Pretty interesting question, because it highlights a cultural phenomenon about the productivity.
- 39:06 Cognitive enhancement as a symptom of collective breakdown? Very interesting point, is also more about culture than technology.
- 41:25 What is to be done? Who is responsible? Answer: everybody.
- 45:13 Focus on wrong things, like over-medication or washing hands (and also killing good bacteria)? Wow, really question.
- 48:44 Can we end in the scenario of Brave New World? I love references to this amazing book!
- 56:30 Difference between reading for your children or giving them pharmaceuticals? Relates to the previous point about other mechanisms to enhance your cognition, like exercise.
- 57:43 Focus on individual or species? Question is about the diversity of our species.
- 59:30 End
What are some insights, ideas or remarks you have about the discussion (or my summary)? Leave a comment below.
How do people view human enhancement? Debra Witman led a research in 2018 into the opinion of 2,000 Americans on this theme [link at the bottom]. What I found striking was that 76% of the respondents said they had never heard of human enhancement. In addition, less than 10% indicated that they used human enhancement techniques themselves.
I previously wrote about the difference between using technology to help patients and to help people perform better. This is also reflected in the opinion of the respondents in this study:
- 96% is for restoring vision, while 44% is for improving it;
- 95% is for the recovery of physical abilities, while 33% is for improving it;
- 95% is for restoring cognitive abilities with pharmaceuticals, while 35% is for improving them;
- 88% is for restoring cognitive abilities with implants, while 31% is for improving them;
- 83% are for the use of genetic modification to help patients, while 46% are in favor of use for improvement and 31% for determining character traits;
Later in this article I will return to the market opportunities for human enhancement based on Witman’s research. Just like the aforementioned opponents, respondents are most concerned about the social consequences. Around 66% are afraid of this, citing all kinds of potential adverse effects, such as abuse of power, social separation and a decrease in diversity in society.
Progress and fatalism
In a general sense, the respondents experience a mix of optimism about the advances in science and technology, combined with a fatalistic feeling about social change.
Most participants think that it is good to help sick people, but that the use of biomedical technology to improve entails the risk of a “slippery slope”. In other words: where do we, as a society, lay down the boundaries of what we do and do not allow?
The greatest danger lies in the loss of individuality and humanity. One of the participants in the focus groups was afraid “that we would turn into robots.” In the case of the insertion of brain implants in particular, the fear is that we will let go of control over our thinking and leave our emotional state to technology.
What do Dutch people think about improving people? The Rathenau Institute did research into this in 2012. After analyzing a number of focus groups, they came up with 4 types of argumentation:
- individual choice: it is up to each individual to decide on this;
- duty: everyone must use it, which contributes to the common good and happiness;
- hard limits: do not use it, this threatens human dignity;
- equality: prefer not to use it, for example, risk of inequality;
Just as in the study in the United States cited earlier, the Dutch respondents found reducing negative traits less bad than improving a trait that is already good.
Cleft lip case
This now also applies, for example, to plastic surgery: getting rid of a cleft lip is assessed differently than injecting Botox. Although the latter seems to be increasingly accepted. This also shows that acceptance with regard to forms of human improvement can shift over the years.
For example, during a lecture at the Fontys Hogeschool in Eindhoven, I had a discussion about this with professor Munnik (Tilburg University). He did give a fascinating example. In the Middle Ages we had a very different picture of privacy than we have now. Or rather: at that time privacy did not yet exist. This example shows social norms and values shifting over time.
Human enhancement acceptance
The researchers of the Rathenau Institute formulate five criteria in the report that influence the acceptance of a technology for human improvement.
- the extent to which the use has already been established. This is in line with the comparison I made earlier with coffee. It used to be seen as experimental, where it is accepted nowadays.
- how invasive the technology is. For example, respondents are more positive about supplements for improving cognition than a brain implant with the same effect.
- the familiarity with a means of improvement. If they have experience with a substance themselves or in their immediate environment, they are usually more positive about it.
- the information about operations and risks. The safer a substance appears to be, the more positive the respondents are towards their use.
- the social weight of the reason why it is used. An example of this is that respondents judge more positively about a surgeon who can operate more accurately by taking pills than a soldier who can shoot more accurately through the same pills.
It is in our nature to use technology for things that we cannot do ourselves. Yet it is worth a social debate about what we want to use when, why and in what way. Plus: what’s going on and perhaps the problem is not in the human body but outside it?
For example: if it becomes the norm among students to take pills that provide more focus, is the underlying problem not the pressure of performance at colleges and universities?
Do you want to know more about human enhancement?
Please contact me if you have any questions! Like if you want to invite me to give a lecture, presentation or webinar at your company, at your congress, symposium or meeting.
Or if you want to book a session with me as an expert consultant on this area.
I previously wrote these related articles about human enhancement:
- What is human enhancement?
- What is the definition of human enhancement?
- What are human enhancement technologies?
- What are examples of human enhancement?
- What is human genetic enhancement?
- What are human enhancement drugs?
- What is human enhancement research?
- What are the ethics of human enhancement?
- What are the best human enhancement books?
These articles deal with the impact and ethical aspects:
These are the books I mentioned.
These are external links that I used, subdivided by theme.
- Website Agar
- Article about Gilgamesh
- Website Julian Savulescu
- Website Journal of Medical Ethics
- Interview Julian Savulescu with Volkskrant
- Research Gottfredson
- Reading Juan Enriquez
Section – opinion Americans and Dutch
How do you view the change and improvement of us as humans? Leave a comment!