Debating Human Enhancement

Published January 2, 2006

Reason Online

EPPC Fellow and New Atlantis editor Eric Cohen recently particpated in a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. sponsored by Reason magazine on the subject of human enhancement. An excerpt from his opening remarks appears below. To read the entire transcript of the panel discussion click here.

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Eric Cohen: It seems to me that if you take the word enhancement at face value, there simply can’t be anything wrong with it, right? Enhancement means to make things better, so then [all the things fellow panelist Ron Bailey talks about are] great. But the question is whether the things that seem like enhancements really are enhancements. The disquiet that some people have with the biotech revolution is [due to our] worry that in trying to make life better in ways we recognize, we’re going to make it worse in ways we can’t even imagine. That’s the set of problems we face.

I should say most biotech is great. I hope the stocks go up. I hope they cure various diseases or at least develop better treatments for them, but some of the more ambitious and more interesting areas of biotechnology give some of us disquiet.

There are two sides to the disquiet. One has to do with the means that we’re going to use to supposedly enhance ourselves and the other has to do with the ends. The conventional worry about enhancement has to do with the quality [of improvements] that the rich are going [to be able to afford]. The wealthy are going to become gene rich and the poor are going to become gene poor, and this is going to worsen the inequalities of life. I’m enough of a free market person to believe that if something works in wealthy societies, eventually most people are going to be able to afford it.

The worries about means are a little different though. Here the stem cell debate is paradigmatic. Everybody wants to cure these horrible diseases. It’s an end that all sides of the stem cell debate share.

The issue is, should we be destroying human embryos to do it? I think you can make a pretty rigorous, rational, and scientific case that embryos are early human lives and that to use them as mere things would make us a lesser society. The worry here is not about the end we’re pursuing but about the means that are used to pursue it.

And let me spend some time asking about those ends. What is it that we’re trying to enhance? What are the goals here? I think you can break down four different ways of trying to enhance ourselves — and here I follow the definitive discussion in a report by the President’s Council on Bioethics called Beyond Therapy. The four ways are superior performance in the various activities of life, better children, long lives or even ageless lives, and happiness. Those are four basic aspirations that are not new, though biotechnology might give us some new ways to pursue them.

If you think it through, there are reasons to at least wonder whether the biotechnologies we’re talking about are really going to answer these human longings in any serious way. Obviously everybody’s all worked up these days about performance-enhancing drugs in sports, and as Joel tells me, the existing drugs are child’s play compared to what’s coming. But we have to ask ourselves, is the athlete on steroids a better athlete, a better human athlete? Or has he become more an animal bred for the race? And we might create all kinds of drugs that boost the capacity to, say, remember SAT words. But is that really going to make people smarter, or is it going to narrow their minds in a certain way and make them less able to make the kinds of connections that are essential to real human intelligence and real human wisdom?

The same with the desire for better children. I question whether we would ever be able to design a better child. Can we really make a better musician than Mozart or make a better playwright than Shakespeare? We may be able to make everybody in our wildest dreams as talented as those people, though I doubt it. But there’s a deeper issue, which has to do with the nature of the family. It seems to me that parenthood is about not only trying to make your children better but having a welcoming and embracing attitude toward the child that’s given to you to raise and given to you to love. I wonder whether embracing full force a kind of designer attitude is really going to make us better parents and better families.

The same with the desire for longevity. There’s the worry that we may simply extend debility. It may be that we’re going to simply have Alzheimer’s disease for 35 years instead of for 10 in the future. I’m not sure that’s necessarily progress. In a deeper sense, if we really believed or lived as if we were going to live forever, would we really have the urgency and the aspiration and the ambition to do the things that we do in life? Most of the portraits of immortality that we’ve seen, or at least many of them, present a less appealing picture than grandma playing flag football. I’m not sure how appealing that is either.

Nick Gillespie: Especially if you’re not a Kennedy, right?

Eric Cohen: Right. And let me end with the quintessential aspiration: Everybody wants to be happy. On this much, at least, the ancients and the moderns sort of agreed, although they had different notions of happiness. Will the various interventions in our minds and bodies make us happier? I’m no expert on the future, so we’ll have to wait and see, but I think there are real reasons to doubt this. There are reasons to doubt whether our new powers will really make us happy in a genuine human sense. If there were really a pill that simulated love or simulated success or simulated the feeling of playing a great symphony or hitting a great home run, is that really what we aspire to? Simply the simulation? And is there a danger that all these drugs that are supposed to make us happy might just make us more anxious because we’re on all these drugs? Everybody’s on Prozac, everybody puts a little bit in their coffee, but in fact life still has its hardships and people are still genuinely frustrated and trying to muddle through like most of us do. I wonder whether we’ll really be genuinely happy when all the biotech companies promise us happiness in a pill.

These are hard questions. The future’s unpredictable, but I think there are at least serious reasons to wonder whether we’ll genuinely make ourselves better in all the ways that we hope to by turning to biotech.

Click here to read the rest of this panel discussion.

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