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Beyond Humanity?: The Ethics of Biomedical Enhancement (Uehiro Series in Practical Ethics) Reprint Edition
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An often neglected aspect of enhancement, Buchanan argues, is that people with improved capacities can benefit other people as well as themselves. Since free markets facilitate the division of labor and diffusion of ideas, a world with more people who have the creative capacity of Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs is a world in which many people can be made better off without worsening the lot of others. Moreover, Buchanan argues, some enhancements have network effects, so that as more people acquire them, more people benefit (48).
An example is a well-functioning immune system. People with poorly functioning (but not necessarily diseased) immune systems are not only more likely to be infected with pathogenic microbes, they are also more likely to spread them to others. By contrast, when more people have immunity to a particular pathogen (whether the immunity is produced through vaccination, genetic mutation, or gene therapy) everyone is better off. This is because the probability of contracting a transmissible disease is often related to the number of people infected. When this is true, those with poorly functioning immune systems benefit from other people's immuno-enhancements nearly as much as they themselves do, and the benefits to the unenhanced increase exponentially with the number and quality of others people's enhancements.
Of course, not all enhancements are like this. While many biomedical interventions can benefit both the enhanced and the unenhanced, others present unforeseeable risks to those who undertake them, and to those who decline but who have to suffer the social costs of other people's choices. For example, if some parents genetically enhance their male children to produce higher testosterone than average (with the hope, perhaps, that more assertive sons will be more successful), a predictable side effect is that in the aggregate we will have a more aggressive population, and possibly a higher rate of violence -- costs that are borne both by those who choose to enhance their children, and those who forebear. Such choices are familiar to economists, and they could become common in the absence of proper social and legal constraints.
A more serious problem, perhaps, is that even relatively small physical and cognitive enhancements could exacerbate existing inequalities to the point at which unenhanced people cannot compete with enhanced people for access to social goods and political power. One need only consider that small differences in qualities like height, intelligence, and humor can produce big gains in wealth, opportunities, and access to mates. Sexual selection can produce significant differences in these qualities within a few generations, and rapid advances in biomedical technology could turn out to be like sexual selection on steroids.
The worry about stratification is a common one, and Buchanan has at least a couple of replies. One reply is that biomedical technologies like cognitive enhancement drugs would benefit the less well endowed much more than they benefit the better endowed: the relative gains of people who have a poor memory, for example, will be larger than those whose memory is already adequate to lead a reasonably good life. And when these drugs go off patent, they would be cheap and accessible, thus potentially reducing rather than increasing the gap between people's natural endowments. While this is no doubt true, it is not fully convincing, especially since rapid advancements in biotechnology might allow the wealthy to gain large advantages quickly. Thus, even with the eventual diffusion of drugs to the poor, if biotechnology advances quickly enough, and if the initial starting point is unequal enough, the gap between the enhanced and unenhanced could widen, and disparities in power or well-being may increase accordingly. Buchanan is well aware of this, and he spends a significant part of his book addressing precisely this problem.
Beyond Humanity is a breath of fresh air, and a welcome antidote to the pessimistic pill that many opponents of enhancement continue to prescribe. In place of the misty metaphors and specious arguments that have pervaded the enhancement debate for the last decade, Buchanan draws a clear and nuanced picture of the costs and benefits associated with using biomedical technology to improve ourselves and our children.