Technological augmentation of human physical and mental capabilities is and always has been ubiquitous—e.g. through computational devices, pharmaceuticals, communication systems, weapons, and optical lenses. Emerging enhancement technologies, such as genetic modification, brain-machine interfacing, tissue regeneration and nootropics, promise to significantly increase the magnitude and novelty of augmentation that is possible, as well as the extent to which it is accomplished by modification of (or technological integration with) our physiology. Already people are controlling computers with their brain states and have bionic arms that are spontaneously integrating with their nervous system. Researchers are growing functional organs in vitro from stem cells, successfully combining human and non-human genomic material, and significantly augmenting the capacities of non-human animals. For example, genetically modified mice have been engineered with physical capabilities (e.g. strength and endurance), cognitive capabilities (e.g. memory, learning, and problem solving), perceptual capabilities (e.g. trichromatism) and longevity (up to 65% longer lifespan) well beyond those of non-genetically modified mice.
The trajectory of the development of these technologies suggests that it is not premature to begin considering ethical issues associated with robust human enhancement—i.e. creation of people with highly augmented or highly novel capacities through technological modification of (or integration with) their biological systems. Robust human enhancement raises justice, equity and access issues; parental rights and child welfare issues; naturalness and species boundary issues; individual and social benefit and risk issues; personal choice and liberty issues; and public policy issues related to regulation and research funding, for example. Here I focus on only one issue, whether it is possible to enhance (human and non-human) moral status through technological augmentation, and, if so, what the implications are for the ethics of robust enhancement. Addressing this issue requires providing an account of moral status, so that is where I start.
Something is morally considerable if it needs to be taken into account in deliberations regarding actions, practices, or policies that might affect it. There are quite a lot of ways that something can be considered—e.g. as having rights that cannot be violated, as having a welfare (or interests) that needs to be counted, or as deserving of appreciation or gratitude. Moral status concerns how something is to be considered. An entity might be due respect, but not compassion, because it is not sentient (e.g. a tree or ecosystem). Or something might be due compassion, because it is sentient, but lack rights, because it does not have the requisite autonomy (e.g. chickens and trout). Or something might, owing to its particular history, be due gratitude and loyalty, whereas a like entity with a different history is not due these. Thus, morally considerable entities can have different (and multiple) types of moral status.
On this conception of moral status, individuals have the moral status that they do in virtue of their capacities and relationships, rather than in virtue of being a member of a particular species (e.g. Homo sapiens). An individual’s moral status is based on what she is capable of, the sorts of things that are good for her (and so the ways in which she can be benefitted and harmed), her past and present relationships, and the types of value she possesses.
Something’s moral status underdetermines appropriate treatment of it. Dolphins and dogs might both be considerable in and of themselves and, because they are sentient, be due compassion. However, what constitutes compassionate treatment is sensitive to factual differences about their forms of life. It is not compassionate to take dolphins for walks and allow dogs to swim freely out at sea. Like moral status does not imply same treatment.
Given this account of moral status, a technological augmentation does not result in moral status enhancement merely in virtue of altering how an entity ought to be treated. For example, imagine that some mice are genetically engineered for cognitive capacities such that certain handling practices that do not cause stress in non-engineered mice do so in the engineered mice. As a result, compassionate treatment of the engineered mice differs from that of non-engineered mice. However, the mice do not differ in moral status, since both the engineered and non-engineered mice are due compassion (and this explains the difference in appropriate treatment). Moral status enhancement only occurs when an entity is due a type of consideration that it previously was not.
Here is an example of moral status enhancement. Imagine that a series of technological interventions are performed on some chimpanzees such that they come to have comparable capacities for autonomy and practical rationality to that of adult human beings. If these capacities are the basis for “human” rights, as they often are taken to be, then the enhanced chimpanzees will have those rights, a variety of moral status that they previously lacked. This example involves non-human animals, but given that on the capacities-oriented account of moral status there is nothing special about human beings qua human beings, moral status enhancement should be possible for us as well. It is not obvious (to me, at least) what sorts of capacity modifications or additions would result in novel moral statuses for humans—perhaps radically increased capacity for empathy or elimination of physical dependencies and vulnerabilities. Nevertheless, human moral status enhancement seems in principle possible.
Is there anything ethically problematic with moral status enhancement? There is if the enhancement is done in a way that violates the subject’s pre-enhancement status (e.g. is forcibly performed in a way that violates rights) or if it has terrible consequences for the subject or for others. But is there anything problematic with enhancing moral status simpliciter or in itself? It is difficult to see why it would be problematic for the enhanced individuals, since moral status enhancement increases the ways in which they need to be considered. Some ethicists have argued that robust human enhancement is problematic on the grounds that it would diminish or undermine the moral status of non-enhanced humans. However, on a capacities view of moral status, creating robustly enhanced humans does not itself undermine the moral status (e.g. rights or dignity) of non-enhanced humans, since, so long as they have the same capacities and types of relationships they have always had, they will have the same moral status. Thus, there does not appear to be anything in principle objectionable about enhancing human moral status (or, more precisely, technologically augmenting the capacities of human beings so that they come to have novel moral status). What is crucial in every case is that individuals (enhanced or not) are considered in accordance with the moral statuses appropriate to them.
The same is true of technological enhancement of nonhumans. For example, before robust cognitive enhancement technologies are made widely available to humans, they are likely to be extensively tested on closely related non-human animals—i.e. other primates. If the tests are successful, they might (as suggested in the imagined scenario above) result in changes in the moral status of the research subjects. The subjects could come to have capacities comparable to those of human persons and so possess the associated rights. Among the rights that persons have is the right to not have experiments performed on them without their consent. So it may be that robust cognitive enhancement research will result in moral status enhancement of research subjects such that they will have a right to informed consent for continuation of the research (a right that they did not have prior to the experiment). Moreover, it might be very difficult for researchers to determine whether status enhancement occurs and (if they can determine it) to secure informed consent from the subjects for continued participation in the experiment and post-experiment monitoring, particularly since informed consent requires subjects to understand what they are consenting to. At a minimum, procedures need to be put into place so that changes in moral status can be identified (if possible) and to ensure that research subjects are considered in accordance with their (possibly dynamic) moral status throughout the research process. If adequate safeguards cannot be put into place, it may be that certain types of cognitive enhancement research cannot be performed ethically. This does not suppose or suggest that there is anything in principle wrong with enhancing an individual’s moral status. It is, rather, that when moral status alteration occurs individuals need to be considered in accordance with their new moral status, and in some cases this may be so difficult to do that it is better to not perform the enhancement.
So, to sum up, here are the claims that I have tried to motivate: (1) Moral status enhancement through technology is possible; (2) There is nothing in principle problematic with moral status enhancement of either humans or non-humans; (3) Individuals that undergo enhancement must be considered in ways appropriate to their altered status; (4) In some cases, doing so might be sufficiently difficult that it is better not to engage in practices that could result in status enhancement.
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