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"Enhancement": An Essay by John Danaher (Keywords: Enlightenment; Limits; Death; Technology; Brain)

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").

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Humans are imperfect. We are biological beings subject to disease, decay, and death. We succumb to temptations of the flesh, weakness of the will, and jealousies of the heart. Our brains are limited. We can only see and hear within narrow visual and auditory ranges. We can only manipulate a few variables in our minds at any given time. This limits our appreciation of complexity, which is a shame as our world is highly complex.

Given our imperfections, it is little surprise that the desire to transcend the human condition has deep roots. Many religious traditions are premised on it. Take the story of Adam and Eve. It tells us of a once perfect state of innocence and abundance, corrupted by sin and the desire for knowledge. As a result, humans are a fallen species that need to be redeemed. If we play our cards right, redemption is possible. We can transcend this state of sin and corruption, but only in the afterlife. Once there, we will be the perfect beings we once were.

Implicit in this religious model is the idea that enhancement is something that is beyond the human capacity to achieve. We need help. Furthermore, we are going to have to wait to achieve it. It’s not possible in the here and now, only in the hereafter.

In more recent times, a number of leading thinkers have argued that enhancement is within our grasp here on earth.

In more recent times, a number of leading thinkers have adopted an alternative view. They have argued that enhancement is within our grasp here on earth. When, exactly, this secular shift in thinking took place is unclear. We see inklings of it in the writings of Enlightenment thinkers. In his recent history of the Enlightenment, The Enlightenment: the Pursuit of Happiness, Ritchie Robertson argues that the distinctive trait of Enlightenment intellectuals is their commitment to achieving human flourishing within their own lifetimes and not in some hoped for afterlife. They were optimistic about the power of human ingenuity and technology to enhance the human condition.

But it is a stretch to say that Enlightenment thinkers endorsed the idea of enhancement in its modern form. That idea originates primarily in the late 20th century and can be found in the work of scientists and philosophers such as Julian Huxley, Max More, David Pearce, John Harris, Natasha Vita-More, and Julian Savulescu. These figures are (or were), in their own idiosyncratic ways, enthused by the prospect of using modern technologies, such as pharmaceuticals, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and brain implants to overcome our natural limitations. Their work has given rise to a rich philosophical debate about the wisdom of using technology to enhance humanity.


To get to grips with this debate, we need a clearer sense of what it is that these thinkers refer to when they use the term “enhancement”. There are two definitions with which to contend. The first is what we might call the functionalist definition. This definition focuses on particular human attributes (e.g. longevity, memory, IQ) and considers the average or normal distribution of those attributes across the human population. Enhancement is then defined relative to this normal distribution. To enhance a human being is to use technology to move them beyond this norm. If the normal human IQ is around 100 IQ points, enhancement would be something that takes us well beyond that norm, e.g. to over 170 IQ points. Exactly how far beyond the norm we must go in order to count as enhanced is a matter of some dispute. In principle, any lift above the norm would count, but some authors prefer to focus on “radical” or dramatic enhancements.

The functionalist definition has been criticised. Since humans vary widely across key attributes, figuring out exactly what the norm is can be challenging. Furthermore, defining an enhancement as improvement relative to a norm can seem somewhat arbitrary if the range of variation is quite large and we each have our own unique complement of attributes. This has led some authors, such as Julian Savulescu and Guy Kahane, to prefer a welfarist definition of enhancement. According to this, an enhancement is simply any modification of human biology or psychology that improves your well-being relative to what it previously was. If taking a mood-enhancing drug makes you better off than you once were, this counts as an enhancement. This definition has the advantage of being tailored to the individual but it too faces some difficulties. For one thing, it seems to blur the boundary between treatment and enhancement. Giving a depressed person antidepressants could count as enhancement on the welfarist definition, but many people would argue that there is an important conceptual and ethical distinction between restoring a person to some type of “normal” functioning, and pushing them beyond the norm. Furthermore, the welfarist account may be overinclusive, counting virtually anything that makes us marginally better off as an enhancement.

The functionalist account, for all its flaws, has more merit – at least from my perspective. While the concept of a normal or average level of functioning might be contested, there are some forms of improvement that would push us so far beyond what is within the normal range that to call them anything other than enhancements would be inappropriate. Allowing us to work at a high level of cognitive ability, without sleeping, for several days, for example, or giving us the strength of ten people and enabling us to live for more than 120 years in good health, would count as enhancements. The question is whether we should welcome such deviations from the norm.

Many people argue that we shouldn’t. If you wish to immerse yourself in the available literature, a veritable smorgasbord of fears, complaints, and objections awaits. On the one hand, it is hard to understand whence this opposition stems. After all, who wouldn’t want to be smarter, more attractive, and longer lived? “If that’s what enhancement is all about,” I hear some of you say, “then sign me up!” But perhaps the critics have some valid concerns? A brief survey of some typical objections is in order.

We may not like limits. They may frustrate us. But it is, arguably, only through embracing them that we can eke meaning out of existence.

First, consider the value of limits in human life. We may not like them. They may frustrate us. But it is, arguably, only through embracing limits that we can eke meaning out of existence. The philosopher Samuel Sheffler, for instance, in his book Death and the Afterlife, argues that the temporal limits of our lives gives shape and meaning to what we do. It is only because time is short that it is precious. If I could spend an infinite amount of time doing whatever I liked, I would have no sense of achievement, no sense of loss or gain. This logic applies to other kinds of limitation too. We could argue that it is only because there is a limit to how fast we can run on human legs that running 100m in less than 10 seconds is an achievement; it is only because human cognition is limited that it is impressive that we can gain any insight into our predicament.

There is merit to this line of objection. A life with no limits would be devoid of stakes and, hence, devoid of value. But it would be wrong to suppose that advocates of enhancement desire such a life. No matter how advanced our technology becomes, there will always be limits to what we can do. For example, extending the human lifespan by an additional 40 years would be an impressive achievement, but it would not eliminate the possibility of death and destruction. Time would still be finite and precious, not infinite and trivial. Similarly, the objection reduces to the absurd if we apply it to our historical victories over limits. In the past couple of centuries, we have loosened the grip of famine, infectious disease, and infant mortality on human life. These disenhancing phenomena haven’t gone away but their impact has been blunted. These were major constraints on what the typical human could do. It would be hard to argue that eliminating those constraints was a bad thing or that their presence gave greater meaning to our lives.

Second, consider the possibility that enhancements give some people an unfair advantage and encourage cheating. Lance Armstrong won* the Tour de France seven times but had the titles taken away from him when the truth about his use of a performance-enhancing drug (erythropoietin) became undeniable. For many, his use of this drug tainted and undermined his achievements. He was cheater, not a winner. Some people feel the same way about the idea of students using performance-enhancing drugs to do well in tests. There is a sense that the use of the enhancers will allow some people to succeed in an unfair or illegitimate way.

But real life is not like sport. Sport is about imposing arbitrary constraints on how we do things to make them competitively engaging. The fastest way to get from A to B is not to cycle but to use a car or an aircraft. But you wouldn’t be participating in a cycling race if you used a jumbo jet. If you do not abide by the constraints of the sport, then you are cheating and not playing fair. If one of those constraints stipulates that you should not use performance-enhancing drugs, then so be it. But imposing such constraints on other, non-sporting activities seems misguided. For instance, if a surgeon could perform surgery better with the use of enhancement drugs (and this posed no serious health risks to themselves), then it would be silly to suggest that this amounts to cheating. We might even justifiably demand that they use the drug because it improves surgical outcomes.

Think about it this way. If we worry about some people having an unfair advantage, then there are two ways of addressing this problem. We can level up (give everyone access to the same advantage) or level down (take the advantage away from everyone). There may be reasons to favour levelling down in the sporting context. But in real life levelling up is often preferable. This is not to suggest that the creation of enhancement technologies poses no challenges to fairness or social equality. There is every reason to worry that such technologies will be unfairly distributed and that some people (the rich or famous) will have preferential access to them. We should take this distributional challenge seriously. But, by itself, it is not a reason to object to enhancement. If we can enhance everyone, then perhaps we should.

Third, consider the possibility that many enhancement technologies could lead to unanticipated harms. The mythical story of King Midas is instructive here. He wished to have the power to turn anything he touched into gold. When he got this power, he was delighted. His delight soon turned into a nightmare, however, as he learned that he could not touch anyone or anything he loved lest they too turn to gold. Perhaps the widespread use of enhancement technologies will land us in a similar predicament? We might wish for more intelligence and concentration but this could have undesirable consequences. It may raise expectations. We may be asked to work for longer hours and become more anxious and frustrated as a result.

This is a legitimate worry. We should certainly proceed with caution when it comes to enhancement technologies. Not only may they have unwelcome physical and mental side effects, they may also have unwelcome social effects, changing behaviours and expectations in unpleasant and unexpected ways. We will never be able to head off all potentially unpleasant effects. This is true of all technologies. But robust regulation and experimentation with enhancement technologies could help to mitigate some of the potential problems.

Finally, consider the fact that, for all the debate and bluster this topic has generated, we do not seem to have impressive enhancement technologies at our fingertips. There has been a lot of hype for the past 50 years. In the 70s and 80s we were told that genetic engineering was right around the corner. In the 90s and 00s the debate shifted to pharmaceuticals that could enhance brain power. More recently, there has been much talk about psychedelics, brain implants, and neurostimulation devices. But most empirical studies of these enhancement technologies suggest that their effect is quite modest and often ambiguous. They may make a marginal difference, to some people, some of the time, but the gains are minimal. This is not to say that there are no interesting developments in the field of enhancement technologies. For instance, recent work on the potential role of psychedelics in building empathy and moral awareness is tantalizing. Still, it seems safe to say that none of these technologies are going to make us superhuman anytime soon.

For all the debate and bluster this topic has generated, we do not seem to have impressive enhancement technologies at our fingertips.

This is the objection that I find most persuasive. It’s not an ethical or philosophical one; it’s a practical one. It is true that there is more hype than reality to the debate about enhancement. Philosophers and ethicists have been excited about the latest wonder drug or breakthrough technology in the past, only to be let down once the empirical reality becomes known.


That said, this objection may be guilty of myopia when it comes to the understanding of what counts as an enhancement. There are two basic types of enhancement technology: internal ones and external ones. Internal enhancements try to directly augment or change biological systems within the human body. A mood-enhancing drug that alters the flow of brain chemicals would be a classic example. External enhancements try to augment human capacities from the outside, working with existing biological systems, not trying to alter them. Virtually all major technologies could be seen as external enhancements: a car enhances our ability to travel, a book enhances our ability to think.

If we include external technologies within the terms of this debate, then it is not all hype. There have indeed been impressive technological achievements in the recent past. But if we include such technologies we encounter another, important, objection to the enhancement project. Many, but not all, of these external technologies are not under our control or authority. We rely on others to maintain and repair them. Many times – particularly with smart internet-connected technologies – these others maintain ongoing surveillance and control of how we use these technologies. This encroaches upon our autonomy and freedom of choice.

It is perhaps this issue – who gets to own and control the means of enhancement – that is the greatest ethical challenge of our time.

John Danaher is Senior Lecturer at the School of Law, University of Galway, Ireland. He is the author of Automation and Utopia (Harvard University Press 2019) and the co-author of A Citizen’s Guide to Artificial Intelligence (MIT Press, 2021). He maintains the popular philosophy blog Philosophical Disquisitions and hosts a podcast with the same name.

Twitter: @johndanaher


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


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