Sunday, October 5, 2008

Harris' "What Enhancements Are and Why They Matter"

Harris, John (2007). “What Enhancements Are and Why They Matter" in Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 36-58.

Harris attempts to argue that the overwhelming moral imperative for both therapy and enhancement is to prevent harm and confer benefit. He suggests that it is unimportant whether the protection of benefit conferred is classified as enhancement or improvement, protection or therapy. He rejects the notion that enhancements can be defined relative to normalcy or to normal species functioning. It is in this chapter that he addresses objections made in terms of motivation or objectives to be achieved along with tests that enhancements have to meet, primarily by Daniels and Buchanan et al. in From Chance to Choice. It is interesting that he finds the question surrounding the debate of change in human nature or evolution ethically uninteresting. Self-evolution, post-humanism, transhumanism, or the sciences of new breeds are not moral issues to Harris.

He starts by claiming that the abnormality of a characteristic relative to other humans does not affect its value unless the abnormality itself has other consequences such as the ostracizing that may take place because of green skin. If, however, the green skin turned into a benefit, then not even the ostracizing would decrease its value. He sees no problem with the creation of new species or a “different” human line if that meant a bettering of life because our current existence is due to a change that bettered us in the past creating our current form of human.

Harris points out that Daniels human subject research would rule out most enhancements while Buchanan et al. suggests that the lack equal opportunity related to enhancement technology would be the biggest moral drawback to enhancement technology. Harris seems to be attacking their idea of normalcy and the medical boundary line. I will be reviewing Daniels and Buchanan et al. later so I will not go into their arguments as much as his responses. Harris argues that the fact that we cannot cure everything has never been an argument for failing to cure something, especially when it is something that causes pain, misery, or premature death. Most of what passes for therapy is an enhancement for the individual relative to a state prior to therapy so the therapy-enhancement line is problematic. The moral imperative comes from the value of minimizing harm, not on conceptions or normality. He also argues that we should strive for equality of opportunity but that it is not the necessary moral condition for treatment or enhancement. Intervening on the natural lottery to simply promote equality of opportunity or ability to compete is not sufficient. Harris also does not think that the notion of normal species functioning or successful social cooperation are key ideas that license interference in the natural lottery as well because many things like aging and disease are part of normal species functioning. It would not be immoral to start vaccinating for HIV/AIDS or cancer even if was initially only available in scarcity. We save lives not to secure equal opportunity or secure access to “normal competition”. We save lives, postpone death, and enhance human functioning to better lives … no further moral justification is needed.

Harris argues against Daniels’ imperative not go above the medical boundary line viz. “normal claiming that his definition is too narrow and does not include benefit to society and population. He argues that we should take the viewpoint of possible functioning, not normal functioning because “normal” is problematic. For Harris, the moral imperative is safety and the duty to compare risks with benefits not on equality of opportunity, not on an ambiguous concept of normality, but rather on the probability of magnitude and probability that the proposed treatment or enhancement saves lives, postpones death, and decreases suffering. Save lives now with a perspective towards justice and equality along the way. The distinction between treatment and enhancement becomes more a matter of semantics, not morality. He concludes with a brief commentary on the nature of the human condition. He seems to think that to object to enhancement based on the grounds that it changes human nature or the human condition does not take into consideration where we have come as a species and how enhancement is everywhere. If we cured heart disease and cancer, we would change human nature and the human condition, which may not be a bad thing.

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