Enhancement and the virtues

Human enhancement – roughly: the use of biotechnological means to improve specific human functions beyond the normal healthy level – has in many publications been considered a danger to the character of its users. On the opposite, some authors claim, that human enhancement can support character development. I’m currently reading up on contributions to the literature, which go beyond general references to character or character traits by providing details, which traits exactly are in danger or might be improved.

As of now I have found much less literature than I would have hoped for. There is a detailed article by B. Fröding in Neuroethics and a complementing little book of hers. There are articles focusing on epistemic virtues in particular by Walsh. And then there is an extremely interesting book by Shannon Vallor, which however turns the question upside down: not: which character traits exactly can or should be targeted by enhancement, but which character traits should we develop in order to reasonably engage in enhancement.

Most other authors either concentrate on alleged general means functions such as increased memory or faster information processing if they want to show the valid goals of enhancement (e.g. Bostrom, Harris). Or they refer to such fairly unspecific traits as effort, discipline, refinement, which people might not be motivated to develop once they have the opportunity to enhance (e.g. Kass). Both might be valid points, but I would love to read more on the specific traits to be developed.

One reason, why this bothers me, is the discrepancy between the local ontologies – the ways to individuate traits – used by the different disciplines involved in the whole debate. In particular, many ethical arguments seem to work best, if one talks about potential support or obstacles to normatively relevant character traits, i.e. virtues. It is prima facie plausible that an increase in courage or kindness is a good thing, an obstacle to developing them a bad thing. On the other hand, it has advantages to describe possible targets of enhancement in the terminology of psychology or neurosciences. Not just, because this is the language, people who will (possibly) generate real options for enhancement speak. Also, because it avoids the normative load of the thicker terms, such as ‘virtue’. Nevertheless, this mismatch makes it hard to really put arguments into perspective, which warn against the dangers and those which highlight the potential of human enhancement.

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