Appendix Q: Benefits and Dangers of Human Bioenhancement: A Balance-Sheet

Here I take stock of the territory covered throughout Our Grandchildren Redesigned, surveying both the positive and the negative consequences of human bioenhancement.  Some of these consequences are clear-cut and highly likely to become a reality; others are merely potential in nature, and may or may not come about.  Some consequences are manifested primarily at the level of the individual person; others present themselves at the societal or collective level.  Some are direct, following reliably or inherently from the modification in question; others are indirect, following as likely or potential side-effects of a given modification.

In all cases, I have tried to avoid broad and abstract metaphysical pronouncements, such as “genetic manipulation inherently dehumanizes us,” or “enhancement is by definition a modification that makes people better,” or “tampering with the psyche through bioelectronic implants amounts to playing God.”  Instead, every benefit or danger I describe in the lists that follow has been identified as such solely because it supports and augments (or undermines and threatens) one or more of the ten contributing factors for human flourishing (see Chapter 6).  I have striven, in other words, to keep my discussion as concrete as possible, focusing on specific modifications and their likely impacts on well-characterized elements of human well-being.

Here then are two lists, the first surveying six domains in which enhancement seems likely to yield positive outcomes, the second tallying up seven principal areas of risk or peril.

 

Benefits of enhancement

 Embodiment

Resistance to diseases, illnesses

Increased vitality

Longer healthspan

Healthier foods that taste better and are metabolized more efficiently

Good looks (however defined)

Ability to engage in entirely new kinds of physical activity thanks to body modifications

New forms of sexual intercourse and sensual communion

New dimensions of sensation and perception

 

Cognitive

Heightened mental acuity

Augmented memory

Augmented ability to learn, acquire new kinds of knowledge and skills

Greater creativity

Ability to access digital content directly through a brain-machine interface

Access to levels of knowledge and understanding far beyond current limits

Increased accumulated education resulting from longer healthspan

 

Affective

Ability to modulate emotions more effectively

Ability to feel emotions more vividly and intensely

Ability to distinguish more subtly between different emotions

New forms of aesthetic self-expression and artistic communication

 

Identity

Access to new forms of self-knowledge through technologies of facilitated remembering or (if feasible) through recordings of mental activity such as dreams, unconscious thoughts

New stages of life within extended adulthood, resulting from greatly increased healthspan

Expanded sense of professional identity and competence resulting from multiple careers

Greater opportunities for pursuits of self-transcendence resulting from longer healthspan

Greater opportunities for spiritual pursuits relating to existential situatedness, resulting from longer healthspan

New forms of connectedness/identification with other people resulting from virtual-reality immersion in other persons’ life-worlds or (if feasible) from brain-to-brain communications

Heightened importance of family and friends as providers of identity-continuity across longer healthspan

 

Community

Ability (if feasible) to communicate with people directly through a brain-machine interface

Increased empathy resulting from virtual-reality immersion in other persons’ life-worlds or (if feasible) from brain-to-brain communications

Heightened ability for moral judgment resulting from cognitive enhancements and increased empathy

New forms and media of richly-textured communication with other people via bioelectronics, augmented senses, and virtual-reality technologies (ie. aside from hypothetical brain-to-brain linkages)

Heightened ability for longer-lived humans to mentor and assist younger ones

 

Engaging the world

Greater sense of free will, resulting from heightened cognitive ability to project alternative courses of action and make choices

Greater autonomy (pursuit of long-term goals and life-plan) through increased healthspan, heightened physical/affective/cognitive capabilities

Increased accumulated wealth resulting from longer healthspan

Ability to control machines directly by thought

Enlarged sphere of agency; extended boundaries of body, mind, self

Potentially increased sense of trans-generational ecological responsibility through longer healthspan

Greater equality of opportunities for women after advent of artificial wombs

 

Dangers of enhancement

    Societal level

 Inequality

A new kind of radical and insurmountable inequality; a caste system inscribed into biology

Rich families vs. poor families; rich nations vs. poor nations; Mods vs. Nonmods

Radically different performance profiles among the enhanced

Equality of opportunity, a key element of democracy, becomes blatantly unattainable

 

Species fragmentation

Sharpened identity-profiles resulting in societal clustering

Clusters would be based on real differences in performance profile, appearance, machine components, biological constitution

Homogenization within clusters; deepening divergence among clusters

Likely increase in prejudice, stereotyping, resentment, hate, conflict

 

New kinds of suffering

Animals: new types of hybrids, sentient beings capable of novel forms of torment and misery

Defectively enhanced humans: new forms of anguish, isolation, loneliness

 

End of privacy

Searchable, ubiquitous inadvertent information

Hacking your DNA

Forcible mind-reading (if feasible)

 

    Individual level

Commodification

Blurred boundary between person and product

Some people hopelessly ‘outclassed’ by others

Obsolescence; need for upgrades, ‘new models,’ like any other technological product

Commercialization of core human qualities, relationships

Pressures on the family: design choices of parents; sibling tensions

Undermining autonomy: the feeling of being a person some of whose innate traits, capabilities, or character propensities were partially designed by someone else

 

Mechanization of the self

Dehumanization through excessive direct instrumental control over key aspects of subjective personhood

More predictable human behaviors and feelings

Internal locus of control: unlike previous forms of mechanization throughout history, there is no escape from this one because it resides within the individual

Loss of authenticity through excessive direct manipulation of emotions, personality

Possible undermining of individual selfhood through (if feasible) direct brain-to-brain            communication and sharing

 

Disconnection from primary reality

Virtual-reality addiction; devaluation or replacement of primary reality; oversimplification of relationships, experiences

* * *

What we find here, then, is a classic example of a Mixed Bag: terrific benefits ranging over all the domains of human nature; horrific dangers cutting across crucial areas of human flourishing.  Enhancements clearly hold the potential to improve our lives in countless spectacular and profound ways.  Unfortunately, they also have the potential to harm us grievously, undermining many of the qualities we value most highly in our social order, and in our spirit as individual persons.  The question then becomes: can our society find ways to reap the benefits while avoiding or mitigating the dangers?  Or is it the case that the benefits and dangers are inseparable from each other?

The answer is: it depends.  Consider for example a cheap, safe genetic intervention that confers robust resistance to the common cold.  It’s hard to think of any possible reason for rejecting such a splendid breakthrough.  Conversely, imagine a drug that selectively shuts down the brain circuitry responsible for moral and empathetic reasoning, thereby turning the user into a sociopath.  Such a chemical would be an unambiguous abomination.

In the former category – relatively benign modifications – we might include increases in the human healthspan; interventions that boost our ability to communicate with other individuals; technologies that allow us to experience situations from other people’s perspective, thereby heightening our ability to empathize with each other; additions to our sensorium that open new windows into our physical and social surroundings; devices and modifications that offer us new forms of creative exploration and self-expression.  To the extent that these kinds of modifications involve risks or negative consequences, their drawbacks seem relatively mild and manageable in nature.

At the opposite extreme, we have a category of deeply and unavoidably problematic modifications, among which we might include: the direct micro-management of our emotions and moods by chemical or bioelectronic means; major re-engineering or Uplift of animals; an ability to directly stimulate the pleasure centers in our own brains at will; cognitive modifications like the ‘morality pill,’ designed to generate pre-determined behavioral outcomes.  These types of interventions produce results in which the costs (dehumanization, needless cruelty, loss of free will) clearly outweigh the benefits.

The vast majority of enhancement modifications, however, do not fall into these clear-cut polar categories of ‘benign’ vs. ‘toxic.’  In assessing their likely consequences, we find ourselves envisioning devices and interventions that confer complex, subtle benefits while also incurring equally complex and subtle costs.  Our society therefore faces a range of choices in regard to these technologies.  We could decide that, on balance, the drawbacks outweigh the advantages, and seek to ban or postpone entire classes of enhancement interventions.  On the other hand, if our society wishes to proceed with the enhancement enterprise, we will need to find ways to implement these modifications while taking effective action to mitigate their inherent negative effects.