Geniuses by Enhancement (Part 2)

The problem may not be the means (medical treatments) or the apparent end (saving life), but the ulterior motive (perhaps denying mortality) that is aimed at some other end (such as defeating death outside of Christ).

It is certainly possible and morally useful to distinguish between therapeutic and non-therapeutic acts; it is also possible to distinguish enhancements from other kinds of acts. There is no reason to suppose, however, that those two distinctions coincide. Indeed, some therapies, like vaccines, fight disease by enhancing ordinary human capacities. There are, in other words, therapeutic enhancers. 

 

Discussions of the ethics of human enhancement often invoke a supposed distinction between therapies, which are aimed at fighting disease and overcoming impairments, and enhancements, which are aimed at increasing human capacities. As I observed in my previous post on this topic, nearly everyone acknowledges the difficulty of drawing this distinction in some cases. Some argue the distinction is clear enough, just sometimes difficult to apply; others argue the distinction is ambiguous, and should be abandoned.

It is certainly possible and morally useful to distinguish between therapeutic and non-therapeutic acts; it is also possible to distinguish enhancements from other kinds of acts. There is no reason to suppose, however, that those two distinctions coincide. Indeed, some therapies, like vaccines, fight disease by enhancing ordinary human capacities. There are, in other words, therapeutic enhancers.

If at least some enhancements are therapeutic and permissible, then the ethical question is not about human enhancement as such but which enhancements or what kinds of enhancements are permissible or impermissible and under what conditions.

Artificial (Human) Intelligence?

Among the many dazzling promises enhancement advocates offer is the prospect of a class of drugs (or genetic alterations–setting aside human-technology fusions for a later post) that would enable us to perform at significantly higher cognitive levels than we otherwise would–the ability, if you will, to generate artificial human intelligence by manipulating our human material in some way.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, safe and effective intellectual enhancers can be developed through morally permissible means, uncontroversial uses might include (1a) helping brain-damaged patients recover something approximating their original capacity or (1b) helping Down syndrome children perform at grade level. But what about (2a) a high IQ boy who nevertheless struggles with a learning disability or (2b) a girl-genius who struggles to focus after a traumatic life experience? Or, what about (3a) children with below average IQs, say around 80, who struggle to keep up but have no diagnosable condition? Or, what about (3b) a healthy and brilliant medical researcher working on a cure for cancer or (3c) a government hacker working on code to safely neutralize a rogue state’s nuclear program before the desperate days of regime collapse? Then there is the predictable (4a) private school that encourages students to adopt a regiment of these drugs as part of their college prep program or (4b) public university that reacts to the wide availability of such drugs by raising admission standards to levels out of reach to unenhanced students.

Type 1 and 2 cases outlined above would presumably count as permissible therapeutic enhancements since they relate to fighting the effects of disease. Other cases, such as 3a, are more difficult to sort out, especially if we use a “normal” or “species typical” standard for assessing impairment (more on that another time). The rest of type 3 and type 4 cases, however, seem obviously non-therapeutic. Yet, it is not obvious that type 3 cases are morally impermissible. Type 4 cases should give us pause, but we can be sure that many parents will not pause long before subjecting their children to such a regiment of drugs, if such drugs are safe, effective, and legally available.

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