Skip to Content


Tech policy

The Ethics of Human Enhancement

Recent scientific advancements increasingly allow humans to improve everything from memory to appearance. But those capabilities come with questions about how they should be used, and who should make those decisions.
September 8, 2016

Provided byBBVA

These sciences suggest ways in which technology could allow people to make themselves “better than well” by using enhancements such as brain modifications to increase memory or reasoning capabilities, alterations to biochemistry to increase resilience to the environment, or the creation of new capacities. Benefits might also include living for much longer or alterations to people's appearances to make them more attractive or more aesthetically distinct.

Humanity is entering a "trans-human" era, where biology is treated as something to be manipulated at will, depending on one’s lifestyle interests rather than health needs. But questions remain about how far society is prepared to accept these kinds of applications and what ethical issues they create.

There are good reasons for why human beings seek to enhance themselves throughout their lives. Indeed, humans have always sought to improve themselves; some of the more familiar methods for doing so include education, exercise, or a good diet. So what, if anything, distinguishes these accepted methods of enhancement from those that cause moral concern, such as using drugs or genetic modification?

One argument commonly used to challenge the value of human enhancement is this: The means by which people achieve their goals in life matter. In other words, if a person uses a technological shortcut to achieve a goal, that choice may decrease the accomplishment's value. For instance, if a mountaineer reaches a summit using a helicopter rather than by physically climbing the mountain, that undermines the achievement's value.

Closely related is the ethical question raised about certain psychopharmacological substances, such as antidepressant medications. This argument holds that some uses may be morally undesirable forms of enhancement because, essentially, they transform the patient into someone else. 

A further reason for caution regarding human enhancement is that it may narrow a person's prospects, violating the principle of preserving an “open future.” Some enhancements might promote success early in life, but lead to serious disability later. A typical example would be the use of drugs that provide short-term gain—such as increasing physical strength or stimulating creativity—but which may also come with long-term health risks.

Among the biggest ethical issues surrounding human enhancements is the question of governance. Making numerous enhancements available will require having a range of decision makers charged with developing policies for their use and implies the need for social systems ensuring that everyone has affordable access to them.

A further societal concern is that enhancements might undermine some essential quality of our human identity that we would rather preserve. Other moral concerns are often folded into the fear of biotechnological change, notably the view that initiating such changes is akin to "playing God."

It's crucial to establish some general principles that govern the ethical conduct of human enhancement at all levels. This effort should include widespread independent consultation and investment into research principles.

Finally, perhaps the most pressing issue is the degree to which the use of human enhancements requires a global response, rather than just domestic policy. While such work has led to research leadership in multiple countries, there's much more to do before we can achieve a clear sense of the global implications of human enhancement and formulate a reasonable strategy for managing it.


Read the full article here.

Deep Dive

Tech policy

wet market selling fish
wet market selling fish

This scientist now believes covid started in Wuhan’s wet market. Here’s why.

How a veteran virologist found fresh evidence to back up the theory that covid jumped from animals to humans in a notorious Chinese market—rather than emerged from a lab leak.

Conceptual illustration showing a file folder with the China flag and various papers flying out of it
Conceptual illustration showing a file folder with the China flag and various papers flying out of it

The US crackdown on Chinese economic espionage is a mess. We have the data to show it.

The US government’s China Initiative sought to protect national security. In the most comprehensive analysis of cases to date, MIT Technology Review reveals how far it has strayed from its goals.

Professor Gang Chen of MIT
Professor Gang Chen of MIT

All charges against China Initiative defendant Gang Chen have been dismissed

MIT professor Gang Chen was one of the most prominent scientists charged under the China Initiative, a Justice Department effort meant to counter economic espionage and national security threats.

Harvard University professor Charles Lieber leaves federal court, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021
Harvard University professor Charles Lieber leaves federal court, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021

The China Initiative’s first academic guilty verdict raises more questions than it answers

Observers hoped that the trial of the prominent Harvard professor Charles Lieber would provide some clues into the future of the Department of Justice’s campaign against Chinese economic espionage.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.