The rule on enhancement

Thursday, 13 May, 2010

Although I’d probably be described as very liberal, I’m not against rules. There are times when some forms of human enhancement would not be ethical. So, where to draw the lines?

Australian bioethicist Julian Savulescu proposes some rules in a recent blog post titled ‘How to prescribe smart drugs to children ethically‘. Though these rules are for cognitive enhancing drugs, they apply fairly well to any form of enhancement:

1. Safety – the drug should be safe enough and benefits clearly outweigh the harms

2. Harm to others – the drug should not cause the child to harm others, by for example, increasing violent behavior

3. Distributive justice – the delivery of the drug should not use up limited societal resources unfairly, for example, by consuming resources which would do more good if directed towards educational strategies

4. The parent’s choices are based on a plausible conception of well-being and a better life for the child

5. The effects are consistent with development of autonomy in child and a reasonable range of future life plans.

These aren’t bad rules, especially for enhancement of children by their parents, but I think they’re a bit tautological and slightly too strict (see, I’m so liberal, I even find Savulescu oppressive). I think I can simply.

First, rules 1 and 4 seem to be saying the same thing, just in different ways. Is the enhancement actually going to enhance? If it has tiny benefits that don’t outweigh some significant side-effects, it’s hardly an enhancement. Likewise, if you feel the enhancement has been bad for you, it’s not an enhancement. If we’re defining enhancement as something that’s going to make you better in your own opinion, we don’t need rules 1 and 4.

Second, rules 2 and 3 are also saying the same thing – you shouldn’t be enhanced at a cost to somebody else, either during the enhancement, or as a later result of the enhancement. If your enhancement takes resources away from somebody else, or leads to you harming somebody else once you’re enhanced, it’s bad. So, I think we can simplify that to: an enhancement shouldn’t harm anyone else.

And we’re left with rule 5. This is fair enough, an enhancement shouldn’t constrain autonomy, as you must be able to choose whether you’re enhanced or not. If you were born enhanced, you should still be able to choose to remove or modify those enhancements. If you weren’t born enhanced, you should still be able to choose to gain some enhancements. So, in other words, it have to still have a choice (addictive enhancements, where the enhancement influences your choice, are a difficult question and for another post).

Therefore, I think I can distill it all to one simple rule (though, to be honest, this could be said to be two rules in one):

An enhancement must be your choice and must not hurt anyone else.


  1. Key in is the idea that enhancements should be reversible in practice. The idea of creating an enhancement that is also passed on to your descendants, but in such a way that they cannot reverse it, raises ethical red flags to me.

    • I agree, but what do you think would be a good way of preventing people from being born with irreversable enhancements this way? The most obvious answers seem to be: outlawing heritable enhancements that can’t be reversed until a method for reversing them is developed; or prohibiting people with such enhancements from procreating until that time. I would favour prohibiting people with such enhancements from procreating, perhaps by requiring them to get vasectomies or tubal ligations as applicable(I don’t think this really conflicts with the rule of enhancements having to be your choice, since it would still be within a person’s power to not get an enhancement or the safety procedure that comes with it; to me it seems comparable to being able to choose which car you want or if you want a car, but not being able to choose a car without airbags or seatbelts). Which method would you favour, or can you think of other possible ways to prevent this problem?

    • In principle, any modification could be reversed, though inadequate technology might make some reversals difficult. In practice, safeguards should be put in place to ensure easy reversal (which would also allow for easy upgrades, so most people would do that anyway).

      • What kind of safeguards could be used to ensure easy reversal?

      • For genetic enhancements, there are specific DNA sites known as recombination sites that can flank a DNA insert and allow for easy removal of that insert. And there are recombinases that are conditional on certain drugs. So you could have a set of genetic enhancements, and take a drug, and all your enhanced genes would disapear (with a little bit more fiddling, you can have the enhanced gene essentially swap for the normal gene in response to the drug). I’ll make a blog post on this one day soon, I think.

        I don’t know much about cybernetic enhancements, but I imagine they too would similarly be built for easy upgrading or downgrading, much like computers are. So you could easily swap from a really enhanced set of legs back to a set of natural-functioning prosthetics. Swapping from a cyborg limb back to your biological limb, however, could be a harder task.

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