29 October

In Creating a ‘Super Humanity’ We Would Forfeit Liberty

In a recent lecture at Davos Julian Savulescu argued that it is not beyond the reach of modern science to create human beings with considerably greater powers of intelligence, physical strength and even moral rectitude. It was possible, he suggested, to create a ‘super-human’, a person, or kind of person, capable of transcending ordinary biological limitations.

The notion that we might overcome weaknesses is nothing new. Back in the twentieth century scientists considered means of breeding out deformities through the eugenics movement – now no longer discussed openly in polite society, but far from defunct.

While Savalescu may not be not a eugenicist in any precise twentieth-century sense his suggestion has the very same seductive appeal. After all, we now have the technology to improve the lives of those suffering from physical or mental illnesses. Why not use these means to create ‘super-humans’?

The stock arguments against such intervention in the bodies and minds of otherwise healthy people are: a) that an ‘enhanced’ humanity must inevitably lead to a ruthless competition to become the most pumped-up, gene-enhanced ‘ubermensch’ medical science can conceive; and b) that medical technologies are better used to alleviate the suffering of millions of sick people. Neither tackles ‘enhancement’ directly or explains why many feel unease at so ‘playing God’.

There is a crucial difference between medical ‘care’ and ‘enhancement’. Care normally addresses some deficiency in one who is ill when measured against our normative view of human nature. One suffering from Down’s Syndrome is said to be mentally and physically lacking due to divergence from a normative idea of what constitutes the mental and bodily functions of a human person. Imagine if the physical and mental capabilities of most of us were actually on a par with those of a person with Down’s Syndrome. Would we then think it urgent to take action? The enhancement of brain function or physical strength would in fact introduce a disparity in the opposite direction between our normative conception and the capabilities of newly-enhanced individuals.

While we might have created some kind of ‘superman’, the need for medical care would not in fact have disappeared. In the face of an artificially-created disparity, however, we should have to determine what the new ‘norm’ might be by which to judge an individual’s need for medical care. If one with gene-enhanced eyesight suffered vision limited to the level of an un-enhanced person would there be a duty to restore it to the enhanced aptitude? Would those of us who were ‘un-enhanced’ be considered ill on account of incapacity to run as fast or see as well as our enhanced brethren? Should the enhanced have to be afforded special consideration? Might every patient submitting to medical care have to declare to what normative human nature he or she wished to conform – unaltered, enhanced, or a personally-determined cocktail?

Genetic enhancement of the kind envisaged by Savulescu would open the way to a potentially inexhaustible complexity in medical care, and indeed in society at large. Our very conception of the duty of medical care might be severely weakened if not completely subjected to the caprices and whims of varied patients. Human bodies might become regarded simply as instruments of minds – a conception perhaps not far removed from the experiences of drug-addled junkies for whom bodies are no more than sacks of veins providing conduits for opiatic pleasure. By seeking so to control our biological nature we should instrumentalise it and thereby diminish our humanity.

Suvalescu-style enhanced beings might, of course, be given specific tasks or functions within society. The very strong might do jobs requiring that aptitude; those with better moral reasoning might be employed to legislate for us; and so on. If we were to give biological enhancement a ‘social context’ medical care might continue in a manner analogous to that offered now. The complexities of setting ‘norms’ for human nature would less problematic since medical care would be seeking to ensure the well-being of society.

But there is a catch. Genetic enhancement would have to be carried out long before the enhanced subject had decided what he or she wished to do in life. In order to make the very most of genetic enhancements subjects would have to grow up in highly controlled environments wherein their enhanced genes had the best chances of full development and expression. In effect, though better-sighted, stronger, or more intelligent than their peers they would no longer be free and their very humanity would be compromised.

The potential for genetic enhancement presents us with a ‘catch-22’ situation. Any such dramatic change over a short period has a far greater potential for harm than good. In practical terms there may be few limits to what modern science can achieve, but we must remember that it cannot be allowed to limit or curtail our very humanity. To put it most mildly, we must proceed with great care, if we are to proceed at all in this direction.

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