Is there a need to enhance the way bioethicists discuss enhancement?

ConAshkan Atry defended his PhD thesis on doping in 2013temporary ethical debates on human enhancement sometimes resemble bitter political debates in a city council. Implicit or explicit political agendas are expressed as normative claims and are passed as “moral” arguments because they serve “the right cause.”

Consider, for instance, James Watson who said that “we’ve got to go ahead and not worry whether we’re going to offend some fundamentalist from Tulsa, Oklahoma.”

Another example is James Hughes, who almost ridicules moral worries about enhancement by reducing them to some sort of semi-religious “irrational” technophobia.

Liberal proponents of enhancement stress the value of individual autonomy and the freedom too choose one’s lifestyle. In this perspective, any attempt to prohibit enhancement is considered to encroach upon political liberty, hence as being unjust.

Opponents to enhancement, on the other hand, stressing values such as fairness and social justice, argue that without implementing regulations and proper measures, human enhancement will widen the already existing social divide and create a further gap between those who have the means to enhance themselves and those who don’t.

Thus, what drives both parties in the ethical debate on enhancement are more general political conceptions of what social justice is or ought to be.

Human enhancement admittedly raises many important political questions. Concerns about social justice will certainly continue to play a major part in debates on enhancement. Moreover, the political and the ethical spheres admittedly may, to some extent, overlap.

However, here I wish to raise the question whether political concerns fully exhaust what one may call genuine ethical reflection upon the phenomenon of human enhancement, and to what extent political agendas are to be allowed to determine the direction of ethical debates.

What is worrying is a situation where moral philosophical debates on enhancement reach some kind of deadlock position where bioethicists, acting as mouthpieces for rigid political perspectives, simply block their ears and shout at each other as loud as they can.

Arguably, what we may understand as genuine philosophical reflection also includes hearing the other and, more importantly, critically questioning rigid perspectives which limit the ethical horizon.

Indeed, the phenomenon of human enhancement provides a platform for doing so. Human enhancement will not only transform our lives but also necessitate a continuous re-formulation of key philosophical conceptions such as autonomy, freedom, and human nature.

In this regard, the dimension of unpredictability involved in new scientific and technological innovations challenges intellectual habits and requires development of new ways of doing ethics that would enable us to cope with these rapid transformations and perhaps even to foresee upcoming issues.

Reflecting on enhancement beyond the horizon of political ideologies would be a good starting point in this direction.

Ashkan Atry

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