Ethics of Human Enhancement: 25 Questions & Answers

I read a lot of science-related blogs and news sources, and I saw this linked on one of them just the other day:

NSF-Funded Ethics Report on Human Enhancement Released Today

SAN LUIS OBISPO, CA – August 31, 2009 – The Human Enhancement Ethics Group today released a new report funded by the US National Science Foundation, addressing such topics as: definitions, possible scenarios, freedom & autonomy, fairness & equity, societal disruptions, human dignity, rights & obligations, and policy & law.

Entitled “Ethics of Human Enhancement: 25 Questions & Answers,” the 50-page report serves as a convenient and accessible starting point for both public and classroom discussions, such as in bioethics seminars.

You can read the whole thing for free here: Ethics of Human Enhancement: 25 Questions & Answers (PDF, 50 pages)

The report is fascinating on many levels, at least if you’re a nerd, and it’s worth a read by everyone just for a look at some moral/ethical issues you may not have ever considered. If you didn’t gather from the title, it deals with the concept of human enhancement, which is to say the use of technology to improve our abilities above and beyond the “species-normal” level.

Relevant to us, it touches deeply on a subject that’s already sensitive to athletes – a group that already spends who-knows-how-much on nutritional supplements, and yes, drugs, in order to improve their performance. The dichotomy between the demand for improved performance and the shaming of athletes that do what it takes to achieve it is something that’s always bothered me, because there’s very little in the way of rational thought involved.

In the coming decades – or years – we’re going to be looking at wide-spread access to technologies that make anabolic steroids look like the equivalent of stone tools.You’ve probably already heard all the buzz about gene therapy and myostatin blockers. These are looming in the future without a doubt, but so are many other things that will re-define what it means to be a “natural human”.

What I like about this report is that it’s not really a laundry-list of futurist guesswork. It’s actually dealing with the ethical ramifications, which sorely need tackling. As it stands, our collective response to any form of enhancement has been to appeal to our religions or our belief that Man is perfection (viewpoints which are connected more often than not), point our fingers and cry foul.

That simply won’t cut it.

I haven’t finished reading the whole report just yet, but they already raise some excellent points about the arbitrary line between “tool” and “user”, “natural” and “artificial”, and the very blurry distinction between therapy for medical purposes and deliberate enhancement.

As far as athletics, the public consciousness (naively) chooses to look at people using steroids as cheaters, but that’s an entirely arbitrary judgment; why are drugs bad, but the use of entire spectra of equipment, coaching methods, and even weight training and dietary modalities is considered OK? These latter elements are arguably just as artificial – meaning they wouldn’t exist without man’s intervention.

Yet we’ll still spend a significant amount of time demonizing the steroid users, blaming them for killing our children, and even wasting the time of the Federal government with witch-hunt investigations. For what?

These ethical issues are something for everyone in the athletic community – from the IOC and WADA right on down to you recreational types – to consider in their decision-making process. So far they’ve handled the matter with a large helping of ineptitude.

This is only going to get worse as technology advances, too, so you conservative types are right to be worried. I don’t base my ethics off any theological or biological-supremacist forms of morality, so I really see little to worry about. From my outlook, the sooner, the better, but I know this topic is cause for alarm in many folks.

In any case, it’s worth a read. It’s about time we had a more honest and informed discussion on this topic.