Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Five Features of the Enhancement Debate

I’ve recently developed a bit of an interest in the enhancement debate. You know the one: should we allow human beings to enhance themselves? Is enhancement, perhaps, obligatory/impermissible? Would it lead to the creation of desirable/undesirable posthumans? Would it lead to increased social inequality and stratification? What are the appropriate legal regulations of enhancement technologies? And so on.

I’m specifically interested in cognitive enhancement. This kind of enhancement would try to improve how the human mind acquires, processes, stores and retrieves information. (More generally, we can speak of “neural enhancement” which would also target emotional and motivational capacities. Drawing a dividing line between cognitive capacities and these other capacities is difficult and, perhaps, pointless since the same basic philosophical issues arise in relation to enhancing both and, indeed, to enhancing any human capacity).

As a result of my interest, I’m currently reading two books on enhancement. One is, roughly speaking, a pro-enhancement book called Beyond Humanity? and it’s written by Allen Buchanan. The other is, roughly speaking, an anti-enhancement book called Humanity’s End and it’s written by Nicholas Agar. I say “roughly speaking” about each of these because, as we shall see, the pro- and anti- labels can be misleading.

Anyway, I decided I might do some occasional posts (I’m not promising anything too serious) on each of these books as I work my way through them. I literally only started this morning, but already I find myself wanting to share part of the first chapter of Buchanan’s book.

The part in question outlines five (negative) features of the contemporary debate on enhancement. I’ll summarise them as best I can below. Just note at the outset that Buchanan promises to provide more extensive argumentation on most of these issues in subsequent chapters. So if they feel insufficiently justified, it might be worth giving him the benefit of the doubt.

1. Murky Rhetoric
The first problem with the contemporary debate is the tendency for opponents of enhancement to rely on murky and overblown rhetoric to mask their (presumably feeble) arguments.

One of the examples Buchanan uses to illustrate this point is Michael Sandel’s talk of the need for “gratitude towards the given” (not a direct quote). Sandel argues that permitting enhancement would force us to take an attitude of excessive responsibility over the kinds of beings that we are. This would result in us ignoring the fact that much of what is good in our lives is not attributable to our own efforts but is instead a bequeathment of a complex cultural and biological history.

Buchanan notes several problems with this language. First, and most obviously, it involves a kind of category mistake. One cannot be grateful towards a mindless and undirected series of historical events (this assumes a non-theistic worldview, which is consistent with Sandel’s arguments).

Second, and more importantly, the rhetoric ignores the fact that our historical bequeathment is not all good. There are many bad aspects to the accidents of history. Should we display gratitude towards all of them? Many authors seem to think that the “natural” range of human functioning is somehow sacrosanct. They forget that evolutionary biology reveals that organisms never evolve toward an absolute optimal or ideal state; instead, they evolve toward an equilibrium state relative to a contingent set of constraints.

Buchanan goes on to provide other examples of the rhetoric problem, but this will suffice for present purposes.

2. Ignoring Evolutionary Biology
The second problem with the enhancement debate is that many authors within it display a profound ignorance of contemporary evolutionary biology. This problem was signposted above, but it goes much further than we might initially suspect.

For one thing, there is an excessive willingness to sacralise “human nature”. This is presumably taken to refer to our biological nature and to stand in contrast to cultural or environmental influences. But anyone who is familiar with contemporary behavioural biology will know that the simplistic nature/nurture distinction is discredited. We now know that our phenotype is the product of a set of causal feedback loops between genes and environment. Discussions of enhancement that ignore this new understanding are seriously deficient.

There is a further problem here. It is that opponents of enhancement move far too quickly from claims about what is natural for human beings to claims about what ought to be the case for human beings. Anyone who is familiar with ethics and metaethics will know that moves of this sort are dubious.

3. Empirical claims without Evidence
The third problem with the enhancement debate is the tendency for opponents of enhancement to advance sweeping empirical claims without evidence. This is a serious methodological error.

Sandel provides the post upon which Buchanan sharpens his claws. Sandel is guilty of making two sweeping empirical claims. The first relates to the motivations behind people’s desire for enhancement. As Sandel puts it, people are driven by a lust for total self mastery. The second relates to the social consequences of enhancement. Sandel maintains that enhancement will lead to extreme social stratification, and will undermine the commitment to distributive justice.

As Buchanan argues, both claims are open to doubt. But what is truly remarkable is that Sandel advances them as if they were self-evidently true. He provides no further evidence for them. This makes the enhancement debate one of the last places where a priori psychology and sociology are taken seriously.

4. Unclarity about the Bottom Line
A fourth problem with the enhancement debate is that opponents of enhancement equivocate about their bottom line. Are they opposed to all forms of enhancement or just some?

At this point in his discussion, Buchanan has developed a certain pattern. So it will come as no surprise to learn that Sandel is once again the whipping boy. Buchanan points out that despite claiming to offer an argument against enhancement (in toto), towards the end of his book Sandel makes the following statement:

“Nor do I claim that people who bioengineer their children or themselves are necessarily motivated by a desire for mastery, and that this motive is a sin no good result could possibly outweigh. I am suggesting instead that the moral stakes in the enhancement debate are not fully captured by the familiar categories of autonomy and rights, on the one hand, and the calculation of costs and benefits, on the other.” (The Case Against Perfection, p. 96)

Buchanan says that this passage is anachronistic in the context of Sandel’s book. Sandel retreats to a modest position here: he is merely offering further considerations that must be taken into account in the enhancement debate; he is not, despite all appearances to the contrary, offering a complete dismissal of enhancement. Having not read Sandel’s book, I’ll have to take Buchanan’s word for it.

5. Stuck at the “Pros and Cons” Stage
The final problem with the enhancement debate is that, despite the endless streams of ink that have been spilled in its pursuit, it is still stuck at the pro-enhancement vs. anti-enhancement stage. This is unfortunate for a couple of reasons.

Foremost among them is the fact that the labels “pro” and “anti” are misleading. While there are people who are anti-enhancement, there are very few (if any) people who are unqualifiedly pro-enhancement. Instead, there are people who are anti-anti-enhancement, i.e. who believe enhancement is permissible, or sometimes okay. Continuing with the absolutist “pro” and “anti” labelling leads to a perpetual slaying of straw men.

Another deficiency associated with the pro- and anti- posturing is that it prevents people from putting forward serious proposals for the regulation of enhancement technologies. Most participants are content to defend their position and leave it at that. But since developments in enhancement technologies continue apace, it’s necessary to engage with the reality of enhancement, in all its complexity, and to put in place a regulatory framework for guiding the “enhancement enterprise” (as Buchanan describes it).

Okay, that’s it for now. I might look at other parts of Buchanan’s book on another occasion.


  1. Hi John. Other thinkers in this space (extropians / transhumanists) would be Kurzweil (the age of spiritual machines) and Vinge (who I think was the first to predict an upcoming technological singularity).

    Some of my thoughts are around the rates at which biology, society and technology are changing. Evolution requires deep time, society requires much less and technology is the fastest and getting faster. Clearly there will be friction at the interface of all three.

    Personally I can see great benefit in divorcing us from 'nature red in tooth and claw', but I suspect a lot of who we are and what we do comes from our shared evolutionary narrative.

  2. And a note to add - I'm not so much a fan of fine tuning our biology as getting out of the wetware business all together. Non-organic substrates.

  3. I would add a third point under "Murky rhetoric."

    If "much of what is good in our lives" is bequeathed from history, there is still the fact that some of it isn't and we are capable of appreciating the stuff that isn't. So the principle is conceded from the get-go.

    This makes the language murky in an additional sense: there is a lack of clarity with respect to what it takes to be right in such an argument.