Better Humans? Understanding the Enhancement Project, by Michael Hauskeller

Andy Miah on the pros and cons of humanity 2.0

September 12, 2013

If you could enhance one aspect of your biology, what would it be? Would you use cosmetic surgery to make yourself more beautiful? How about cognitive enhancers to improve your memory or wit? What if you and your partner could take love pills to iron out any problems in your relationship? What if you just want to live a longer and healthier life? What would you be prepared to do?

These questions are discussed in Michael Hauskeller’s new book, a philosophical exploration of the arguments surrounding human enhancement. Hauskeller is sceptical about the value of such aspirations. We know this even before Better Humans? begins, as his acknowledgements thank, among others, Carl Elliott, Walter Glannon and Erik Parens – all well-known critics of human enhancement.

He goes on to build up each example of enhancement only to knock it down, broadly rejecting the claim that there is any uncontested value to human enhancement. Instead, he sees pro-enhancement arguments as failing to grasp fundamental aspects of the human condition. Cognitive improvements and artificial brain implants will leave us devoid of any authenticity or sense of self, he argues; defeating ageing will lead us to devalue life, or deny ourselves crucial mental maturation. Improving beauty, moreover, he sees as impossible, since “our standards of beauty are so much tied to the human form”. Cue the current “bagel head” fashion in Japan, which involves injecting saline solution into the forehead to create a bagel-shaped lump.

Hauskeller’s analysis often stops short of absolute rejection, more frequently calling into question the legitimacy of arguments favouring enhancement. Its advocates – sometimes referred to as transhumanists – have not fully understood humanity’s place in the world or realised that the benefits that arise from enhancements are dubious, he contends. Hauskeller also draws heavily on the “trade-off” argument, which asserts that enhancements may improve one dimension of our abilities while limiting others.

In short, Hauskeller does not recognise that the journey towards human enhancement has already begun

Many key names associated with this field of study are cited, including John Harris, Nick Bostrom, Julian Savulescu and Michael Sandel. Yet there is a startling lack of authors from outside analytic philosophy and bioethics – writers such as Elaine Graham, Donna Haraway, Neil Badmington and Chris Hables Gray are noticeably absent. In choosing to exclude the latter group, Hauskeller doesn’t acknowledge that there are different perspectives on enhancement advocacy. For example, posthumanists consider that humanity should revisit its place within the ecosystem, pay more attention to the well-being of other species and use technology to help nature flourish. Transhumanists, in contrast, have been principally associated with a more relentless pursuit of self-improvement via technology, for the good of the species and its members.

Hauskeller’s analysis hinges on the balance of probabilities, and he comes down firmly on the side of the doubters. Being grateful for our biological gifts, rather than continually seeking to improve on them, he argues, is more likely to ensure a richer life. Furthermore, he says that if we are able to change everything about ourselves, we may lose some sense of the value of those gifts.

Readers of Better Humans? will gain a comprehensive insight into the current state of the technologies associated with human enhancement, but an understanding of what “better humans” would look like proves elusive. Hauskeller writes in an accessible, lively manner and his rejection of human enhancement is compelling, but a careful reading of its broad benefits is lacking, along with a failure to recognise the way in which human enhancement marries with Western medicine’s broader project to permit longer, healthier lives.

In short, he does not recognise that the journey towards human enhancement has already begun. Society broadly accepts the principle of using technology to support the lives we seek to live. We already use technology such as laser eye surgery – even ending up with better than perfect “high definition” sight. We are also comfortable with drinking coffee each day to make us more alert, or putting fluoride in our tap water to improve our oral health. The examples are endless.

Nevertheless, Better Humans? points to the maturity of current debates about human enhancement ethics. Not so long ago, proponents of enhancement were seen as the outliers, the minority; people writing and speaking about pie in the sky. Hauskeller’s reaction to the now well-established body of work that advocates transhumanist lifestyles confirms that those arguing on its behalf have become a force to be reckoned with.

In closing, Hauskeller remains extremely doubtful that enhancement will deliver its promise and genuinely enhance humanity. He considers that advocates of enhancement have fundamental misconceptions about our human condition that must be examined more carefully before we decide to undergo such procedures or not. After all, once we start, we may not know when to stop.

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