Human enhancement ethics. Is human enhancement ethical? How can you asses the impact of human augmentation technologies? Incl. current debate on this topic!

Is human enhancement ethical?

What are the moral and ethical dilemmas that may occur in the advancement in human enhancement technology? For example, is it ethical to be enhanced like soldiers in the movie Elysium (picture above)?

When I give lectures and presentations about human enhancement, I can hardly ignore it. What is ethically and morally responsible when it comes to improving people? Ethics goes beyond laws and regulations. It has more to do with how we behave as citizens, consumers, patients and users (among themselves).

In an opinion piece, Andy Miah of the University of Salford, England, distinguishes three categories:

  • Individual;
  • Professional;
  • Society.

Individual considerations are about the effectiveness of an improvement technology, the idea of ​​an authentic life, caution, the promotion of an open future and morphological freedom.

Professional considerations relate to ethical codes that apply to medical practice and other professional groups that are or will be involved in human enhancement technologies. This can concern both research into a technology and its application.

Social considerations include questions about fairness, justice and equality. This is further elaborated in a large-scale study by Allhof [link at the bottom]. They explore the consequences of human enhancement for honesty, fairness, social structures, law, politics and policy.

The most important conclusion of Allhof and his colleagues is that the context is essential. “It seems premature to say that all improvements are morally worrying, regardless of context; but it is also premature to declare them all problem-free.”


Case study of bionic hands

For example, a fictional example of how Miah’s ethical framework can help are bionic limbs, such as an artificial hand.

From an individual perspective you would like to have this, because you can play the piano better. At the same time, according to you, that does not affect your identity or authenticity.

The doctor who fits the hand for you looks at your question from her professional role. “Are you actually willing to give up your natural hand? Do you realize what the consequences are?” In addition, she does a number of physiological tests to investigate whether you will not suffer any adverse physical consequences from the operation. If you ask if she can mount a bionic hand with a built-in gun, she will refuse and report this to the police.

For social reasons, the government decided a few years earlier that bionic hands should be available to everyone. A government institute inspects specimens on the basis of a number of criteria, such as patient safety and the patient’s environment. It is also the policy that you can only decide on this after you turn 18 and that residents with little money can make use of a subsidy fund.


Sandel: nature’s moral status

In the part about Opponents I wrote about the work of Michael Sandel. In addition to his arguments that I described in that section, he has a few other interesting ideas about the ethics of human improvement.

For example, in a contribution in the book A Small Philosophy of the Perfect Man, he states that “such issues are about the moral status of nature and the correct attitude of man to the given world.” These questions to theology, which he says “contemporary philosophers and political scientists have a tendency to shrink from.”

Talent and humility

This issue, our attitude of man to nature, also touches on another intriguing comment from him. He calls this our concept of giftedness and humility. Giftedness means that our talents and abilities are not entirely our own merit, no matter how much effort we have made to develop and practice them.

This also affects the relationship between self-effort and artificial improvement. From my own life, running is an example. Apart from rowing at a national level for a year, I would hardly call myself an athlete. Nowadays I train 2 or 3 times a week and I regularly participate in running competitions.

My personal record on the 10 kilometers is 43 minutes and 30 seconds. But if I can walk that distance in 15 minutes with a combination of synthetic blood, bionic legs and genetic doping. Without effort. That probably gives me less satisfaction than if I trained hard for it and had to push myself to the limit during the competition.

Appreciation

Sandel’s arguments about talent, humility and effort are also reflected in the aforementioned research with focus groups from the Rathenau Institute. There, “the corruption of meaningful elements in someone’s life” was brought up as a concern. The participants in the study indicate that the effort it takes to deliver a performance also ensures satisfaction and appreciation.

The participants indicate that passing an exam with help feels like cheating. Or that a feeling of happiness caused by technology is not really felt. This also means that for the appreciation of happiness you also need experience with bad times.

Less appreciation argument

Scientist Filippo Santoni of TU Delft calls this the “less appreciation” argument [link at the bottom]. According to him, that is not entirely justified, certainly with regard to current improvement technologies. You can take a pill for better concentration, but you still have to study. You can take doping for more red blood cells, but you still have to climb a mountain on your racing bike.

Ultimately it is all about the approach of the activity. Santoni distinguishes two types: goal and process orientation. If the goal is to climb a mountain as quickly as possible, then it is better to ride a motorcycle than go on a bike. But for many activities, such as sports or studying, the activity itself is central.

Again, I return to a number of previous comments: the context is essential. From the context we can only look closely at ethics. Is it good to use a certain technology? When and when not?

Next generations

Regardless of philosophical and political views, it is difficult to reach an agreement as to how far we want to go as humans, both nationally and internationally. Even more difficult is that not everyone can participate in this conversation. This argument is put forward by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas in his book The Future of Human Nature [link at the bottom].

He is a fierce opponent of interventions in human nature, because we would make decisions about future people without them being able to talk about it.

On the other hand, I can argue against this argument that we have always done so as human beings. Previous generations have made choices that we now benefit and suffer from. Consider the installation of sewers and an effect such as the climate crisis.

Case study: DNA editing child

I also explained the choice for future generations during a lecture that I was allowed to give at the Annual Health Law Congress organized by Kerkebosch. Imagine that your parents can not only know the DNA of your future child, but can also intervene. Would you do that? When it comes to a certain disorder, but also when it concerns matters such as height or intelligence?

Or take this fictional case: if your parents have optimized your genome through musicality. As a child, do you still have autonomy and an open future if you are not interested in playing a musical instrument? How does this technology change the dynamics in families and society?


Role of designers

An essential point that I want to mention in this section on ethics is the morality of technology. In 1995 philosopher Hans Achterhuis introduced this concept [link at the bottom]. The essence is that we as human beings are inclined to outsource moral choices to technology. If we agree that we can take a shorter shower, why don’t we delegate our responsibility to a water-saving shower head?


Case: unborn child

The same applies to ultrasound in an unborn child. Professor Peter-Paul Verbeek told in the podcast series Bionic Man from BNR and the Financial Times, in which I was a guest with him

The technique of ultrasound scans translates an unborn child into a potential patient, congenital diseases into forms of suffering (which can be prevented), our parents into decision makers about the child’s life.


Technology is never neutral

For that reason, technology is never neutral, although it often seems that way. Techies, scientists, subjects and manufacturers make explicit and implicit choices for us. Take an extreme example: inserting a brain implant to improve your mood. There are a number of moral questions in the design of the implant:

  • Can others see that you have turned on the device?
  • How much freedom do you have to control?
  • Can you always switch on the device fully?
  • Can someone else operate the device?

For that reason, I think that ethical and philosophical questions about human enhancement are becoming increasingly important. How do we want to connect ourselves with technology as a human being? What is the extent to which we want to become dependent on technology? To what extent do we want to merge with technology?

Never finished

Yet it does not take away, as Bert-Jan Koops writes in The Makeable Man that “the dividing line between beautiful and ordinary, between illness and personal trait, between healing and improvement is paper thin and changeable.”

That the boundaries change over time and cultural, social and institutional factors also ensures that the ethics of human enhancement remain variable. This is the case every time ethicists, but also we as individuals and as society, think about allowing new applications in the field of human enhancement.

Marli Huijer, a professor of public philosophy, has expressed this nicely in an essay in Trouw [link at the bottom]: “People and technology are constantly changing each other, they are looking together for what is a good or pleasant life, making use of moral, political and social notions that are present in the culture.”

Ethics is never finished.

Putting in a performance without technological aids is very satisfying. Here I am doing a running trip in the Italian Dolomites.

Hire me!

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.


Reading list

I previously wrote these related articles about human enhancement:

These articles deal with the impact and ethical aspects:

Ethics section


What do you think about the ethics of human enhancement? Leave a comment!