The "Human Enhancement" Debate

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic
An academic article outlining the negative implications of human enhancement and the potential detrimental impact on society. The question of human enhancement technologies is hugely topical as modern society continues to make extraordinary scientific developments and civilisation progresses at an unimaginably rapid rate.

Submitted: December 28, 2011

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Submitted: December 28, 2011



“Human enhancement, making people better or making better people?”




In the following article, I will discuss briefly the negative social impact of unregulated human enhancement technologies under several headings. These are:

  1. Loss of cooperation
  2. The superfluity of personal achievement
  3. Diminishment of self esteem and moral equality
  4. Erosion of civic responsibility
  5. The revival of eugenics

Human Enhancement Reduces Interdependency and Advocates Self-centred Competition

Advocates of human enhancement may ask the question: “Why should we want inter-dependency?” Inter-dependency is the essential foundation of cooperative human enterprise, politics and collaborative government. Cooperation is not a weakness but rather a mechanism for achieving evolutionary fitness through direct and indirect reciprocity, two key evolutionary characteristics which ensure that natural selection vies more toward cooperation than competition. Human enhancement is individual improvement which is distinguishable from the collective improvement of society for the common good. Current human enhancement technologies, such as steroid use in sport, are used on an individual, highly competitive basis for self gain and outstanding achievement.

Absolute Self-Sufficiency Leads to Isolation

We as fallible human beings are forced to cooperate with others to compensate for our own natural shortcomings and deficits. While interdependency may be ostensibly undesirable, the alternative of absolute self-sufficiency is in fact self-destructive. But isn’t that a contradiction? How can we view self-enhancement as self-destruction? If future human enhancement technologies endow us with absolute self-sufficiency, we will lose the drive for socialisation; this will result in the creation of a lonely, highly isolated society. Unlimited self-enhancement means that we no longer depend upon or require our neighbour to make up our own shortcomings. Instead there is a temptation to lead a self-absorbed, almost solipsistic existence. In fact, the ideals of transhumanists (or advocates of HE) are distorted in that self enhancement can lead to narcissism and self sufficiency can lead to isolation. In medical terms, the transhumanists are trying to prescribe us a miraculous drug which appears desirable, but which would actually lead to dangerous iatrogenic side effects.

Human Enhancement Makes Personal Achievements Disposable

What defines the transcendent quality embodied in human greatness? This ineffable quality is the capacity to meet and struggle against our human limitations. For example, Nelson Mandela’s battle for civil rights was one fraught with obstacles and natural constraints yoked to the human condition. The greatness of this battle was the achievement of something apparently unattainable by an unenhanced, fragile human being, who is susceptible to our own intrinsic limitations. Mandela’s achievement would not have had the same momentum had he received artificial physical enhancement; had his endurance been magnified, his cognitive capacity amplified and his mood enhanced.

Human enhancement is likely to cause a devaluation of achievement due to the disposability of effort. In fact, one of the primary incentives for human enhancement, the gaining of advantage, is nullified as certain desirable traits lose their advantage. This is due to a decrease in their relative social value. These traits deliver what are known as positional goods – the good of the trait is dependent upon the relative prevalence or lack of the trait. Being tall and thin is desirable now owing to the large demographic which lacks this quality; future human enhancement will diminish the social value of possessing these qualities due to the relative abundance of enhanced people who are all tall and thin.

Human Enhancement Reduces Self-Esteem and Moral Equality

Human enhancement would have a significant impact upon self esteem, one of the pre-requisites of good mental health and psychological wellbeing. It impinges upon self esteem in three main ways:

  1. It undercuts moral equality
  2. It creates numerous inferiority statuses
  3. It deprives us of the gratification and self-affirmation tied to personal achievement. 

Well, what is moral equality and how does human enhancement detract from it? Moral equality is the tacit social consensus that all human beings are entitled to equal citizenship, equal liberties and opportunities and equal moral statuses; moral equality has a social basis in that the justice system publically affirms or asserts these entitlements. Human enhancement interferes with this social foundation of moral equality, by introducing a subset of superhuman entities, whose allegiance to the contract is questioned by their deviant non-human status.

Human Enhancement Technologies Create Social Divisions and Loss of Civic Responsibility

The existence of enhanced superhumans leads to huge social divisions as the wealthiest portion of society will purchase the most advanced technologies. Social divides would not simply be limited to financial and class differences, but also divides between ethnicities. For example, eastern European immigrants in Ireland tend to be poorer than the average native Irish. If advanced human enhancement technologies became available in Ireland, these poorer ethnic groups would be deprived access to these technologies.

These superhumans may assume superiority and self-sufficiency, qualities which increase the temptation for abandonment of civic responsibility. It is quite likely that an enhanced society, whether it exists as a separate elite faction or usurps the entire of society, would lead to a more violent society. Cooperation is lost due to self-sufficiency, and this in turn motivates lack of civic responsibility for our fellows. Enhanced physical capacities means the loss of our sense of self-limitations. All of these factors unite to result in a less constrained, more volatile and unstable society where crime and violence are more likely to breed. Without regulation, human enhancement endows us with greater freedom but less responsibility. Laws become effectively impotent as we are no longer bound to one another; authorities and courts become overwhelmed as a result.

Modern Eugenics Seeks to Disable and Eradicate Diversity.

One of the most controversial social implications of human enhancement is the revival of eugenics through genetic counselling and “superficial genetic engineering”. By superficial, I allude to genetic modifications which influence personality traits and what society deems to be minor “disabilities”. Sarah discussed the imminent risks of the genetic engineering of embryos, including the dangers associated with categorising minor defects as “undesirable” and therefore worthy of complete eradication or weeding out from the human race. This idea of creating a superior race devoid of the most trivial imperfections is reminiscent of the Nazi’s vision of an Aryan race. While modern eugenics is not as extreme as that of 19th century eugenics, the basic goal remains the same: the creation of “better” people. Unregulated human enhancement poses a huge threat to society’s definition of “better”; better people cannot be determined by their degree of conformity to a flawed notion of superiority. This not only promotes narrow-mindedness, xenophobia and discrimination, but also vitiates our society of its beautiful diversity.

In conclusion, the following arguments may be made against unregulated human enhancement:

  1. Human enhancement reduces interdependency and advocates self-centred competition.
  2. Absolute self-sufficiency leads to lonely isolation.
  3. Human enhancement makes personal achievements and goals disposable.
  4. Human enhancement reduces self-esteem and moral equality.
  5. Human enhancement technologies create social divisions and loss of civic responsibility.
  6. Revival of modern eugenics seeks to disable and eradicate diversity.

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