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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.

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.


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