Justifying Human Enhancement: The Case for Posthumanity


Presentation given for the 'Imagining the (Post-) Human Future: Meaning, Critique, and Consequences.

Along with the manuscript...

This paper argues on behalf of a posthuman future that is intimately tied to the use of human enhancement technology. It presents three principal justifications for enhancement, which focus on functionality, creative expression, and the ritual of re-making the self through biological modification. Collectively, these aspirations articulate the values surrounding posthuman life and the pursuit of biocultural capital. 

When Christopher told me I would have the opening slot for the conference, I thought there was some merit in trying to deliver a polemic that would set the tone for our subsequent discussions. In part, this is why I decided to consider arguing on behalf of a posthuman existence, as it seems to me to be the most crucial dimension of what we need to consider, in order for this debate to have any merit. After all, if we are not prepared to embrace a posthuman life, then we may as well go home. That’s not to say we all need to embrace own inner posthuman for the project of posthumanism to have merit. Rather, if we conclude that posthumanism is a topic of no political or social urgency, then its currency as a contemporary debate is lost. Indeed, within some applied context, this is catastrophic, as it is a way for the professions to dismiss or ignore the long term implications of their work.

I want to present the case for thinking of ourselves as already posthuman and consider that the pursuit of human enhancements are a definingfeature of that life. One of the rather awkward questions one faces upon making such a statement is ‘when exactly did we become posthuman’, either that or, scholars conclude we have always been posthuman, or – even worse – we have never been human.

Other moral philosophers critique the idea of humanness at all as a defining characteristic of our species, utilizing the concept of ‘personhood’ as a non-speciesist, richer interpretation of the sentient condition, even affording similar moral status to animals, when they exhibit such intellectual capacities. Alternatively, some scholars appeal to such ideas as ‘dignity’ or capacities to experience certain second order psychological states, such as shame or embarrassment, as indicative of our uniqueness.

Moral philosophers have each employed these ideas to argue about a number of beginning and end of life issues, such as infanticide or assisted suicide. Indeed, bioethics has broadly been a place where this debate has found considerable traction, as many authors find themselves debating the merits of life and the conditions that give it value.

You might conclude already that, then, the debate about posthumanism need not be about human enhancements at all. Indeed, the literature outlines a much more complex set of relationship and behaviors that interpret the posthuman condition as intimately tied to discussions about our place within the ecosystem, rather than our identity as technological agents. Posthumanism may also be about the way in which human communities recognize the moral status of certain kinds of lives or lifestyles. For example, I think Chris Hables Gray’s appeal to ‘Cyborg Citizenship’ is crucially about the way that societies fail to give legitimacy to certain forms of sexual identity. We live in a world where still society is reticent to acknowledge the value of certain lifestyles and so posthumanism may be seen as a rejection of certain prejudices and be a project principally about the promotion of freedom of lifestyle. Indeed, I had a conversation last week about whether the contraceptive pill was a human enhancement or not. I think it is and we can debate why later, if you like.

I anticipate that many of the papers we hear over the next two days will explain just how much more complex is our relationship with posthumanism than we first imagined. When I think of this relationship, I draw on what Jacques Ellul refers to as la technique – that complex arrangement of technics, techniques and technologies through our humanness is made and remade. In this sense, being posthuman is to operatewithinthis complexity and to navigate through it, for better or worse.

Nevertheless, there seems something crucial to me about the human enhancement debate, as a defining characteristic of posthumanism and I don’t think I’m alone in making this case. Even authors who reject posthumanism as a worthy direction for humanity, recognize that this mau be the long term goal of Western science – Steve Fuller may talk to us more about that later (but that doesn’t mean I consider Steve as someone rejects his inner posthuman. Steve’s on Twitter for goodness sake.).

Recognising the human species as a ‘work in progress’ is inextricable from this project. However, it’s crucial that we understand the many ways in which human enhancement takes place and the broad social and cultural fascinations we may have with it. In this respect, I think we can identify at least three crucial trends that explain the pursuit of HE.

First, we can talk about the functional benefit that arises from human enhancement. Good examples of this are laser eye surgery, cognitive enhancers and gene transfer.

Second, we can discuss enhancements as a form of creative expression, as a way of exploring new aesthetic experiences. For example, we might look to make up as an early form of this, then to cosmetic surgery as a more radical and permanent change.

Third, we can talk about enhancements as rituals, as ways of marking out ourselves from others or as part of a community. Scarification, tattoo, and body piercing may be like this. More recent examples may ‘bagel heads’ in Japan.

There are examples that fit across these three types in different ways. For example, the use of LSD or other lifestyle drugs like ecstasy may be ways of trying to access new kinds of physical or mental experiences that could be seen as engaging all three of these parameters. If you take ecstasy when going to a nightclub, you might be seeking to enhance your capacity to dance all night.

Of course, many of these examples seem quite close to the present day. There is nothing controversial about laser eye surgery or body piercing.

Collectively, I want to talk about these values as indicative of how people pursue the accumulation of biocultural capital throughout their lives. Drawing on Bourdieu, it is apparent that we seek to enrich our lives today by modifying ourselves. We may have done this in the past by education or leisure. Each similarly reconfigures our mental and physical capacities, hopefully improving our lives by providing greater health or making us feel more capable.

Of course, there is no guarantee that they will, but we shouldn’t be too worried this. Those who argue against human enhancement, like Michael Hauskellar, seem to require us to have certainty over whether our choices will lead to an improvement in our circumstances. I can’t guarantee that. I can’t guarantee that your being able to run faster by genetically increasing your proportion of fast twitch muscle fibre count will mean that your life will be better off over all. Similarly, I can’t guarantee that having television, motor cars, or the telephone makes the world a better place or being human any richer. But we shouldn’t place too much stock in the critique from certainty. Most of what we do in life is a risk. We exercise judgment as to whether something will improve our lives in some way, or not and we for it. Sometimes it works out, other times it doesn’t. If you have a tattoo, there’s no guarantee that you won’t regret it when you are 60 years old.

So, why do I think the pursuit of HE is crucial to the case for posthumanity? Going back to the start of my talk, I wanted us to begin this inquiry by asking into the merit of a posthuman life. If we seek to live as posthumans, what ought that entail? How will we justify employing that term, rather than simply conclude that humans have always been on this trajectory – that what defines our species is this endless pursuit of pushing back the limits of biology and nature?

We have always done that, but if you look at the industries that guard against these posthumanist aspirations, they stillendeavor to stay at the top of the slippery slope, claiming that there are such things as biostatistical norms that explain why medicine should be used only for repair or therapy. They don’t.

Furthermore , we live in a world where such things as dwarf corn exist and where 66% of all cotton is genetically modified. Next year, the first commercial space flights will take place, while the ‘bottom billion’ people are still trying to get above the poverty line.

There is no selfless justification for pursuing longer, healthier lives, while millions of people barely have the resources to promote a healthy-ish lifestyle, or any reasonable expectation of living a long life. There is credible no system of justice that can reasonably argue that a broad social system that fails to protect fundamental needs is justified in trying to raise the upper level of human functioning. Indeed, the biggest collective human enhancement would arise from engaging more people in the democratic process, or in society generally. Providing greater chances to perform as citizens in a world where less than 20% of an electoral register turn up to vote would be a major enhancement for society ,the value of which is beyond measure.

But neither should we assume that these systems of human enhancement would be jeopardized or frustrated by their biotechnological counterparts, or vice versa. We should be vigilient over how such systems are used mosrly because of their efficiency, which may lead to us medicalizing certain problems or prioritizing a quick fix, rather than the best fix.

Yet, societies are moving targets. We edge closer to 9 billion people. James Lovelock – of Gaia theory – thought the planet should be able to sustain just 1 billion. So, we can’t look at the increase in people suffering as an explanation for the world having been made worse.

Neither can we assume that enhancements would benefit only the privileged few, as is commonly assumed. Some research that indicates that the larger benefits to enhancing IQ, for instance, are for those at the lower end of the income scale. Quite simply, being smarter improves your life.

But there are no guarantees that human enhancement will bring us happier lives as individuals. Being an ‘unhappy Socrates’ may be the consequence of our pursuit of betterment.

We ought not get too carried away with the idea that human enhancement is a project that seeks to pursue perfection or control. It is more likely to bring us more opportunities to screw up our lives, than greater certainty about it being better! But, I would rather have that opportunity, than to leave things to chance.

We do have to wise up. Last week, I had a conversation with a nutritional scientist and a dedicated body builder. The body builder asked the scientist which supplements he should be using to bulk up. He went through a list of the ones he had tried and, after each one, the scientists said ‘waste of time’ or ‘does nothing at all’.

So, it’s important we are not ignorant about what actually does what it says on the tin. We need to understand the limits of science and technology and the way that enhancement technologies operate within an unregulated commercial system that and may promise things it cannot deliver, yet. Genetic tests for performance genes claim to identify whether you are more likely to be good at one kind of sport over another, but presently they have no predictive value. Laser eye surgery promises High Definition vision, but only if you are lucky. Modafinil may boost your cognitive alertness, but only in certain situations and not necessarily in situations of high demand. In this sense, it may enhance your humanness, but may not be an enhancement of the human species as a whole.

I’m conscious of having just spent 20 minutes explaining the value of HE, but the last 5 telling you that nothing actually works and it may not be worth the bother! That’s not really how it is, but my main point is that we should not conclude that you can just download a mobile app for enhancement. (Although already people with prosthetic limbs are controlling them with mobile apps.)

Rather, any form of body modification operates within a complex system of experiences thatdetermine the value we attribute to it and derive from it. Moreover, we can’t expect enhancements to be universally sought, unless they are broadly pure biological dimensions, such as the pursuit of making our gums and teeth healthier by using fluoride in our tap water. When HE is like this, then it can be justified on the basis of promoting public health – and many examples may eventually be like this. After all, the WHO talks less about health and illness as a distinguishing factor in health care rationing decisions and much more about ‘well being’. Furthermore, doctors and scientists talk now of ageing as a disease. These shifts in belief systems are intimately tied to the human enhancement project. Recognising that life cannot be just about the alleviation of suffering is a crucial part of this.

So, the language of our posthuman future is already embedded into the professions, which previously just made us well, rather than ‘better than well’ as Peter Kramer’s patient put it when describing her state of health when using Prozac. The project of modern medicine has always led us towards human enhancement because of our desire to stave off death and promote freedom throughout life. Freedom from ill health or the debilitating limits of our bodies is, therefore, the principal justification for human enhancement and the most important argument on behalf of posthumanity. The expansion of this commitment to the eradication of all sufferingis a logical step, but we ought not presume to achieve this, or that life would be better if we could remove all of it. I’m not convinced that a life without suffering would be well lived. However, I do think we can shift the kind of suffering we experience away from that associated with biological illness and disease. Unlike Martha Nussbaum, I don’t believe in the goodness of our fragility.

In due course, the twenty first century may be likened to the swinging sixties, not for its sexual liberation, but for its anthropomorphic liberation. However, it’s important to remember, that the conventional explanation for the sexual revolution misleads us. For while many have tied it to the birth of the contraceptive pill, others point out it was the discovery of penicillin bringing about greater freedom from disease that was more crucial.

For the present day, it may not be the radical transhumanist technologies that usher in a posthuman present, not the botox parties, the cosmetic surgery, or the life extension. In other words, it may not be the pursuit of immortality that allows us to live forever

Instead, it might be the least technological innovations, like DNA biobanks for stem cell harvesting, or selecting out disabilities through PGD. It might be granting certain civil rights that gives birth to a posthuman generation, a generation less worried about the ‘yuck factor’ of biotechnological change; more willing to donate their organs to those in need; more likely to give blood.

This is my kind of posthuman future and throughout all of it, there is no loss of humanity one can presume. If anything, we will become more morally conscious agents.

Thank you very much.