December 27, 2011

Bailey makes the case for enhancing people in the New Atlantis

As part of a symposium at the "Stuck with Virtue" conference at Berry College in Georgia earlier this year, Reason's science correspondent Ronald Bailey argued for using biotech, infotech, and nanotech to enhance human intellectual, phyiscal, and emotional capabilities. His essay, along with responses, has now been published in the current issue of The New Atlantis. Here's a taste:
What other features of human life might ethically be altered by enhancements? Almost any, according to the argument of George Washington University philosophy professor David DeGrazia. Writing in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, he systematically examines several core human traits — internal psychological style, personality, general intelligence and memory, sleep, normal aging, gender, and being a member of the species Homo sapiens — that might be considered so fundamental that they cannot be ethically altered, but concludes that “characteristics likely to be targeted or otherwise affected by enhancement technologies are not plausibly regarded as [ethically] inviolable.”

Regarding psychological style, there is no ethical reason to require that a particular person remain worried, suspicious, or downbeat if he wants to change. As DeGrazia points out, psychotherapy already aims at such self-transformation. And what about the impact of education? Many people who come back from college or the military seem unrecognizable to their old friends. If a pill will make a person more confident and upbeat, then there is no reason for him not to use it if he so wishes. Personality is perhaps the external manifestation of one’s internal psychological style, and here, too, it’s hard to think of any ethical basis for requiring someone to remain, for example, cynical or excessively shy.

But what about boosting intelligence and memory? Of course, from childhood on, we are constantly exhorted to improve ourselves by taking more classes, participating in more job training, and reading good books. Opponents of biotech enhancements might counter that all of these methods of improvement manipulate our environments and do not reach to the genetic cores of our beings. But DeGrazia points out that the wiring of our brains is the result of the interaction between our genes and our environment. For example, our intellectual capacities depend on proper nutrition as well as on our genetic endowments. One’s genome is not fundamentally more important than environmental factors, he concludes; rather, “they are equally important, so we should bear in mind that no one objects to deliberately introducing environmental factors [such as schools or diet] that promote intelligence.” It does not matter ethically whether one’s intellectual capacities are boosted by schooling, a pill, or a set of genes.

As for sleep: all vertebrates sleep. Sleep, unlike cynicism, does seem biologically fundamental — but again, so what? Nature is not a reliable source for ethical norms. If a person could safely reduce his need for sleep and enjoy more waking life, that wouldn’t be at all ethically problematic. Our ancestors who lacked artificial light probably got a lot more sleep than we moderns do, yet history doesn’t suggest that they were morally superior to us.

Then, again, there is the argument about normal aging. As everyone knows, the only inevitabilities are death and taxes. Death, however, used to come far more frequently at younger ages, but global average life expectancy has doubled in the past century. DeGrazia asks whether “normal aging” is “an essential part of any recognizable human life,” and falters here, admitting, “frankly, I do not know how to determine whether aging is an inviolable characteristic.” The question, then, is whether someone who does try to “violate” this characteristic by biotechnological means is acting unethically. It is hard to see why the answer would be yes. Such would-be immortals are not forcing other people to live or die, nor are they infringing on the rights or dignities of others. DeGrazia finally recognizes that biotech methods aimed at slowing or delaying aging significantly are not morally different from technologies that would boost intelligence or reduce the need for sleep. He concludes, “even if aging is an inviolable core trait of human beings, living no more than some specified number of years is not.”

Another potentially inviolable trait that DeGrazia considers is gender. But in the age of transgendered people and sex-change surgery, it seems a bit outmoded to ask if one’s biological sex is an inviolable core characteristic. Plenty of people have already eagerly violated it. Yet Beyond Therapy declared, “Every cell of the body ... mark[s] us as either male or female, and it is hard to imagine any more fundamental or essential characteristic of a person.” Clearly, thousands of people’s fundamental sexual identities depend on more than the presence of an X or Y chromosome in their bodies’ cells.

Finally, DeGrazia wonders if even being a member of the species Homo sapiens constitutes an inviolable core trait. He specifically thinks of a plausible future in which parents add an extra pair of artificial chromosomes carrying various beneficial genetic modifications to the genomes of the embryos that will become their children. Such people would have 48 chromosomes, which means that they could not reproduce fertile offspring with anyone who carries the normal 46 chromosomes. “It seems to me, however, that these individuals would still be ‘human’ in any sense that might be normatively important,” concludes DeGrazia. This certainly seems correct. After all, infertile people today are still fully human. Oddly, however, DeGrazia thinks that this “risk to reproductive capacities” might warrant restricting the installation of extra chromosomes to consenting adults only. But couldn’t a person with 48 chromosomes who falls in love with a person with only 46 chromosomes simply use advanced genetic engineering techniques to overcome that problem?

DeGrazia convincingly argues that whatever it is that makes us fundamentally us is not captured by the set of characteristics he considers. The inviolable core of our identities is the narrative of our lives — the sum of our experiences, enhanced or not. If we lose that core (say, through dementia), we truly do lose ourselves. But whoever we are persists and perhaps even flourishes if we choose to use biotech to brighten our moods, improve our personalities, boost our intelligence, sleep less, live longer and healthier lives, change our gender, or even change species.

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