To Upgrade, Or Not To Upgrade: The Ethics of Human Augmentation
Have you ever thought about what humanity would look like in the future? Would we have flying DeLoreans like in “Back to the Future”, would we be venturing to distant planets, or will our climate and habitat be unrecognisably different? What about our physical bodies, will they stand the test of time or will what we see today as alien and foreign be the human of tomorrow? The topic of human enhancement can be a slippery slope for many, as ethical issues often become embroiled with, or even forgotten by, the interests of mega-corporations. Within this field of science, everything we hold to be integral to our idea of what is human, biological form and organic growth are being inquired into, experimented with and challenged. Will the human of tomorrow not need to care about hereditary diseases, a defect at birth or even poor life expectancy? Or does the possibility of editing our genes for future enhancement compromise our human biological authenticity? (robot arms anyone?) In the mainstream eye, human bodily enhancement can seem like a little bit of a gimmick, with small seemingly superfluous alterations to the body slowly catching on. To a lesser extent, medical professionals already use types of enhancements in the form of 3D printed bone replacements for leg injuries, but these types of alterations tend to be overshadowed by the scientific developments in the world of gene experimentation.
Around the world, there are people who loosely refer to themselves as transhumanists who are attempting to challenge traditional human form and radically alter their bodies in a more futuristic direction. Their hobby or belief asks the question, if science can change the world around us, why can’t our bodies change with it? Some transhumanists have taken to getting small implants placed under their skin that allows them keycard access to their house or job, to transfer NFC data between devices and LED aesthetic implants. This may seem like an unimportant step in human alteration but the prospect of incorporating technology into our own bodies is now on the horizon. The work of the philosopher Jurgen Habermas can shed some light on the ethical issues that comes with messing around with the human genetic makeup. In his book “The Future of Human Nature”, Habermas aims to indicate that such an influential and rapidly developing field of scientific study is far more vulnerable to the sway of mega-corporation investors, governmental bodies and free-market forces of exploitation. For Habermas, as long as scientific developments in this field are medically justified by the prospect of longer lifespans for example, ethical considerations and regulation may be dropped by the wayside.
In trying to imagine a world where the ethical frameworks surrounding human enhancement and gene modification are broken apart, we only have to look to the big screen to see dystopian futures that are a little too close for comfort. Yet in my opinion the possible world envisioned by Habermas really materialises in the video game series Deus Ex, which places you in the not so distant future whereby the buying and selling of human enhancement technology or augmentations (augs) creates what Habermas would term, an asymmetry between those with augs and without augs. Deus Ex present challenges the traditional notions of what defines human and non-human, and provides a scary look into a possible transhuman future on earth, where the imbalance or asymmetry between augmented and non-augmented creates a whole new set of recognition and prejudicial type problems in society. Another example of a transhuman future would be the book “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, whereby large factory-like facilities alter huge numbers of human embryos in order to control population on Earth and instil them with biological traits corresponding to their pre-decided economic class. For instance, builders would have biological traits that would help them be more efficient builders. Huxley’s transhuman future is entirely dictated by the whims of the market and around strict notions of class, but also compromises authenticity of life experience and removes the notion that we’re all naturally “thrown” into the world.
For Habermas, when discussing the ethical implications of genetic alteration is the idea of authentic human experience, and what the current generations want to “enhance” or impose in the next generation. Before a child is born, there is a certain amount of anticipatory socialisation that takes place, the parents have ideals, attitudes and social circles ready to thrust their unborn child into and is integral to how the child experiences the world. However, advanced stages of genetic alteration removes the agency of the child entirely and imposes a set of standards and norms by a different generation. This issue also emphasises the divide between those who have the chance of being altered before birth and those who do not, will it be limited to the rich or forced on society in a more dystopian way? We can already see viable steps into the realm of genetic enhancement in China which has very lax regulation surrounding gene-editing, allowing everything from administering traits that could prevent HIV to splicing human genes with monkey embryos. Only time will tell what the future holds in this field of study, but if we’re to avoid fictional futures we should come to realise the importance of government regulations on gene-editing and the true importance of Habermas’ warning about the unethical direction we’re heading.
Aaron Collier – Philosophy Columnist