Human enhancements

Written December, 2012

Brain cap (via NSF

Pharmaceutical, surgical, mechanical, and neurological technologies are already available for therapeutic purposes (think of antidepressants and corrective surgeries designed to correct disabilities of some sort). But these same enhancements can be used to magnify human biological function beyond the societal norm. Adderall, for example, is designed to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, but can also be used to enhance the alertness and cognition of those without the disorder. Using performance-enhancing drugs such as stimulants, blood-boosters, and synthetic growth hormone is generally considered unethical by bodies that govern academics and athletics because they either pose some physical risk or create an unlevel playing field. But is enhancement really unethical? And how to do distinguish between ethical and unethical uses of this technology?

Ask yourself:
  • Is human enhancement “cheating”?
  • Does a person have a right to alter their own body in order to achieve greater things?
  • Do companies or employees have a responsibility to encourage or participate in human enhancement so that they can be more productive (or decrease the number of accidents on the job)? If so, who pays for this?
  • Do two equally capable students get the same grade if one is taking Adderall to enhance their attention, memory, and cognition? Should we require learners to disclose any medications they’re taking?
  • Exoskeletons and bionic limbs are developed in order to help disabled people regain function; do we withhold the technology from others who may want to use it in order to walk or run faster or do more physical work?
  • Should we allow people to choose whether or not they would like to take the risk of developing long-term side effects so that they can live an “enhanced” life in their productive years? If so, how is their work valued? What happens to the part of work force that is not willing to enhance their bodies?
  • Where do we draw the line between therapy and enhancement?
  • Is it ethical to create “supersoldiers” with drugs, genetic engineering, and/or cyborg technologies to guarantee military success? How about to reduce injury to soldiers?
  • Where does an “enhanced” person fit into society?
  • How do we justify enhancing human bodies when so many individuals still lack access to basic therapeutic medicine?
  • What are the implications of enhancements for human dignity?

To learn more, see Ethics of Human Enhancement: 25 Questions & Answers (a report prepared for the NSF by Fritz Allhoff, Patrick Lin, James Moor, and John Weckert).

For a comprehensive popular overview of the issues, see’s Superman series.


Ethical dilemmas of human enhancement:

Enhancement in war:

Enhancement in cognition:

Human dignity:’s Superman Series

Durer Proportion of ManIn 2003 and again in 2013, writers for explored the ethical dilemmas of human biological enhancement.

Click here to see all of the stories.

Some examples: