The whole idea that a human “enhancement” can be seen as good or bad just goes to show that the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies has a bit of a difficulty with the “ethics” part of their name.
Yet, it’s true: Newly named Affiliate Scholar at IEET, Richard Eskow, has identified two basic kinds of human enhancements, good and bad. He actually claims there are three (good, bad, and inevitable), but the diagram in his article shows that inevitable is where the good and the bad enhancements overlap. The diagram could have been drawn the other way, with “improbable” enhancements as the overlap between the good and the bad, depending on the point one wants to make. So perhaps there are four kinds of enhancements: Good and bad, and among each kind, improbable and inevitable.
What intrigues me, though, is the notion of “bad enhancements.” Extreme plastic surgery, he says, is a bad enhancement. Whatever else may be said of extreme plastic surgery, if it’s bad, it’s not an enhancement.
He goes on to talk about the advent of personal devices such as cell phones, PDAs, and laptop computers, chaining people to their professions. He said he was at the time “appropriately horrified.” However, what were considered “bad enhancements” became today’s addictions. Now he feels uneasy when he’s parted from his cellphone. And he doesn’t appear to mind. As useful and even necessary a cell phone is, I would hope he would remain “appropriately horrified” at his uneasiness at being parted from it.
So, there are four lines of ethical reasoning at work, none of which are adequately ordered to determining an authentic good or evil in acts that affect human life and health.
First is the outcomes-based ethics revealed in the example of bad plastic surgery. The word “extreme” implies a bad outcome, surgical “enhancements” that disfigure rather than repair defects or refine good but imperfect traits. If only good outcomes are attained, who’s to call it “extreme”? There’s no way to know otherwise what a bad enhancement is, except what happens as a result of it. Authentic bioethics, however, must go beyond mere outcomes, or at least expand the notion of “outcomes” to include more than just the objective result of the act. Take massive cosmetic surgery. We must ask, does it make someone to be a better person, or does it merely make him look better (which might actually make him arrogant and selfish, i.e., worse as a person)?
Second is culture-define acceptability: A thing is acceptable if the society wants it. Accepting the concept that societal and cultural mores change over time, frankly, is just another way of saying we’re on a slippery slope and that’s okay. How long before we connive ourselves again that slavery is good? It’s unthinkable today, but will it be unthinkable when future humans with their technological enhancements see themselves as ontologically superior to natural, unenhanced humans, whom the supermen of tomorrow find morally indistinguishable from pets or livestock? Slavery it will be, but it will be called something else. But it will be slavery. Can’t happen? Ask Dr. Eskow how he became addicted to the very thing that horrified him a few short years earlier.
Third is the absence of a true concept of what a human being is. I do not say, “an inadequate idea of what it means to be human,” but of what a human being is. Eskro says that what it “means” to be human is constantly in flux and defined in the present moment by the prevailing whims of culture and society. Anything is possible if, for instance, the body is seen as a mere possession rather than a constitutive component of a human person. A human being is what he is, however, and societal opinions cannot change the concrete reality of a human being. In this respect, man is an image of God, who also is unchangeable. Human nature is immutable; human beings individually can be altered, the human gene code modified, but in the one case human nature remains and in the other the result is not really human. Yet, if man creates a rational animal, it will be a person, a person manufactured for a purpose defined by the humans that bred it. A slave.
Fourth is the notion that the natural functioning of the human body (in the absence of any defect or disorder) is intrinsically defective. For instance, there is probably a limit as to how fast a human being can run, given the natural development of a person’s muscles and bones. But perhaps if we replace natural leg bones with titanium steel and natural muscles with computer controlled mechanisms, we can break those limits of human speed. We have to ask, though, is it really a human being who attains that speed, or a man-made machine surgically attached to a remnant of a human person? Is it really an enhancement? Is it really a human enhancement, or a mechanical one with some human elements going along for a ride?
That is the kind of distinction that Dr. Eskow appears unable to make. These are the questions that need answering that find no resolution in his article. In a way, it is funny that he calls some enhancements “bad,” since he doesn’t have a concrete way of determining that they are bad. One must truly wonder about IEET’s first E.