Miah, A. (2009) Human Enhancement: A Reply to Mehlman, Issues in Science and Technology, 5(4), 6-8.
Mehlman (2009) outlines a compelling case for why banning human enhancements would be ineffective and, most likely, more harmful to society than beneficial. He and I share this view. Thus, he highlights the inadequacy of expanding arbitrary enhancement prohibitions that are found in normative practices, such as sport, to the wider world. He also explains why prohibition for the sake of vulnerable people cannot apply to the competent adult, though acknowledges that certain human endeavours often compromise informed consent, such as decisions made within a military environments. He doubts that traditional medical ethics principles would be suitable to govern the expansion of medical technologies to the non-medical domain. In so doing, Mehlman points to the various examples of enhancement that already reveal this, such as the proliferation of dietary supplements. Mehlman also draws attention to the likely ‘enhancement tourism’ that will arise from restrictive policies, rightly arguing that we should avoid this state of affairs.
However, Mehlman’s onslaught on behalf of human enhancement offers the negative case for their acceptance. In response, we might also derive a positive case, which argues that our acceptance of enhancement should not arise just because prohibition would be inadequate or morally indefensible. Rather, we should aspire to finding positive value in their contribution to human existence. The story of how this could arise is equally complex, though Mehlman alludes to the principal point: when it comes to enhancement, one size doesn’t fit all.
One can describe the positive case for human enhancement by appealing to what I call biocultural capital. In a period of economic downturn, the importance of cultural capital, such as expert knowledge or skills, becomes greater and we become more inclined to access such modes of being. In the 21st century, the way we do this is by altering our biology and the opportunities to do this will become greater year after year. In the past, mechanisms of acquiring biocultural capital have included body piercing, tattoo, or even scarification. Today, and increasingly in subsequent years, human enhancements will fill this need and we see their proliferation through such technologies as cosmetic surgery and other examples Mehlman explores.
Making sense of an enhancement culture via this notion is critical, as it presents a future where humanity is not made more homogenous by human enhancements, but where variety becomes extraordinarily visible. Indeed, we might compare such a future to how we perceive the way in which we individualize clothing and other accessories today. Thus, the problem with today’s enhancement culture is not that there are too many ways to alter ourselves, but that there are too few. The analogy to fashion is all the more persuasive, since it takes into account how consumers are constrained by what is available on the market. Consequently, we are compelled to interrogate these conditions to ensure that the market optimizes choice.
In sum, the accumulation of biocultural capital is the principal justification for pursuing human enhancements. Coming to terms with this desire ensures that institutions of scientific and health governance limit their ambitions to temper the pursuit of enhancement on the basis of providing good information, though they are obliged to undertake such work. Instead, science should be concerned with more effectively locating scientific decision-making processes within the public domain, to ensure they are part of the cultural shifts that occur around their industries.
Mehlman, M.J. (2009) Biomedical Enhancements: Entering a New Era, Issues in Science and Technology,