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Surprising Science

Human Revolution: The Ethical Obligation to Technologically Improve Ourselves

We don’t know what the future will bring in terms of enhancement. But to be fundamentally opposed to it is to fundamentally opposed to the future of medical science. 

In Voltaire’s book Zadig, Or Fate, the titular character says that time “consigns to oblivion whatever is unworthy of being transmitted to posterity, and it immortalises such actions as are truly great.” In Midnight’s Children, time is central as the title itself indicates. Salman Rushdie describes the hands of the clock “joined palms in respectful greeting” as the main character begins his life. Of course, pulled out, the clock-hands could also be blades severing another’s. Time is our enemy from our first breath. However, humans have found remarkable ways of extending time within their own lives, making the long journey more pleasant, filled with less suffering, than before. Part of that process will and must and should involve the use of technology that will fundamentally change our bodies. This is not some aesthetic triviality, but an ethical obligation that follows through from an already established moral base. Time will continue to be opposed.

What kind of ‘enhancement’ do we mean, though?  This is where things become murky. Do we consider obvious, headline-making examples such as robotic limbs or metal eyes? Or do we (also) include specific drugs and procedures that guarantee a healthier body and immunise us against debilitating diseases? Or what about simple lifestyle choices that could have similar effects, such as quitting smoking and cutting down on red meat? The continuum from robot arms that extend five metres to simply refusing to eat cow seems ludicrous but when put into the template of ‘enhancement’ doesn’t appear to be that dramatic. After all, each is an attempt to better life, manage health, and employ smart strategies to protect ourselves against an environment all too capable of destroying us. But what seems to make some of us react with, at the very least, ambivalence to robotic limbs and half-synthetic brains, is that we believe something ‘fundamental’ has been undermined or changed. The question then is whether this is (1) true and (2) matters.

In the fantastic 2011 video-game, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the main character has no choice for receiving enhancements. It is set in a future where many people have, at the very least, minor built-in technological enhancements – nanobots and augmentations that improve sight, hearing, memory and so on – but it’s a future not so far ahead there aren’t protests from zealots on both sides: those who wish to ‘preserve and protect’ humanity and those who believe that we must take charge of ‘our evolution’. Practically dead after being shot point-blank, the protagonist Adam Jensen finds himself with enhancement due to his contract, stipulating just such a measure if he is on death’s door. During the game, the character, despite his own augmentations and upgrades – such as robotic arms, a chest that release mini-nukes and, most importantly, stylish sunglasses – manages to be placed in the middle of the debate because it was not his choice to have the upgrades.

One can be victim or prophet, regretting so-called unnatural materials sewn to your very self or rejoicing in an improved, enhanced existence. All of it however indicates improvements, but that does not diminish arguments claiming that something essential has been lost because of enhancement.

The most crass of cases ask us to defend something “essential” that make us human, though there are few such sound constructions on what exactly is unique about humans that is worth preserving to the point of undermining biotech progress. Our attempt to free ourselves from the limitations of our mortality and physicality, through enhancement, is merely the next phase in our expanding medical endeavour. Michael Sandel, however, disagrees: “That vision of freedom is flawed. It threatens to banish our appreciation of life as a gift, and to leave us with nothing to affirm or behold outside our own will.”

Throughout the game, Jensen is confronted by those, like Sandel, who would protect humanity from this technology. If we can control our evolution, as is the goal of Jensen’s employer, what impact will that have on ourselves and on the world? Evolution, before a “blind watchmaker”, can now be guided deliberately: intelligent design, as seen in cows and dogs, would now focus very strongly on us and from a base level.

However, supporting human enhancement does not mean supporting open-ended, freely given enhancement. There are reasons to be concerned: black markets, concealed weapons, and so on. Yet, this is not an argument against enhancing our bodies or controlling our evolution: it’s an argument about letting such things go unchecked. Even arguments of unfairness, as seen with arguments in sports ethics, does not hold water: that because some will be so much faster, smarter, stronger because of enhancements the rest of us couldn’t afford, we won’t get the job, placement, and so on that we want. As bioethicist John Harris highlights: “We have always enhanced ourselves and our environment in ways that are not immediately available to all: education and medicine are obvious examples, but synthetic sunshine is perhaps closest to synthetic biology.”

We don’t know what the future will bring in terms of enhancement. But to be fundamentally opposed to it is to fundamentally opposed to the future of medical science. We should all be weary and indeed be scrutinising every step, just as we do with every other scientific advancement. But there is no good reason to be fundamentally against “undermining” (or, rather, improving) our biological basis. To be against it is to defend something arbitrarily essential to being human. The only thing that seems essential to me is to have as much of existing life as possible, without suffering and maximum joy: if we can do that, we ought to (which reminds me of Nozick’s experience machines). All arguments against human enhancement either (1) are just arguments against unchecked scientific research or (2) defend some vague, teleological idea of what constitutes being human. Even if it’s true that we locate some aspect of ourselves worth defending thoroughly, it is still worth asking if this essence is worth defending to the detriment of making life better for all and overall. John Kennedy said that time should be used as a tool, not a crutch. Nowhere is that more true than in our need to make our time itself better through the use of enhancement technology.

Further reading:

Anders Sandberg, ‘Humane Revolution’, Oxford Practical Ethics Blog:

Charles T. Rubin, ‘Beyond Mankid’, The New Atlantis:

Russell Blackford, ‘Prolegomena to any defence of human enhancement’ Metamagician and the Hellfire Club:

John Harris, Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People


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