, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp 263–266

A polemic for human enhancement

John Harris: Enhancing evolution: the ethical case for making better people. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2007, xvi + 242 pp, US$27.95 HC


    • School of Public PolicyGeorgia Institute of Technology
Book Review

DOI: 10.1007/s11016-010-9361-z

Cite this article as:
Berry, R.M. Metascience (2010) 19: 263. doi:10.1007/s11016-010-9361-z

John Harris’s Enhancing Evolution is a book with many virtues. The book presents an extended polemic for human enhancement punctuated by critiques of opposing views. Harris’s argument is smart, relentless, well formulated, and well informed. The author does not hide behind abstraction or equivocation; the style is direct, clear, and spirited—and, in taking on the arguments of others, sometimes barbed. The book’s origin in a series of lectures is discernible in its organisation, but the author has taken some care to connect the themes and arguments to create a coherent whole.

Harris’s argument for the permissibility of enhancement—and, in some cases, the moral duty to enhance—is primarily consequentialist, boosted by a “democratic presumption,” which places the burden on opponents to justify governmental restrictions on the liberty to choose enhancements for oneself and one’s children. In sum, he argues that moral agents are responsible for making the world a better place, whether by changing the world or changing ourselves. We cannot evade or limit the scope of that responsibility by invoking a baseline of what is “normal” or by failure to treat benefits foregone as equivalent to illness or disability untreated. Our ambitions now can extend to making “better people”—longer lived, healthier, more intelligent, stronger, less fearful, less dependent—enjoying more bountifully the goods of life. As with any interventions in the world or ourselves, we must assess the likelihood and magnitude of potential risks and benefits before proceeding. If the risk-benefit calculus justifies enhancements, including enhancements that 1 day yield “posthumans,” so be it.

In Chaps. 1 through 3, Harris notes that we routinely employ enhancements, from corrective eyeglasses to vaccinations, and for good moral reasons: to realize benefits for ourselves and others. If the benefits outweigh the risks, we should choose to enhance and government should not only permit but support our choices. Future progress toward better lives for all may now require that we embrace “deliberate selection” and “enhancement evolution” (p. 11).

Chapters 2 and 3 are devoted to refutations of arguments developed by Daniels, Fukuyama, and Buchanan, among others. There is no moral difference, Harris argues, between restoring species-typical functioning and enhancing capacities, between, for example, using reading glasses and opera glasses (p. 20). Any claimed distinction between therapy and enhancement is both unsustainable and morally irrelevant. Nor are interventions justified only if they are motivated by the goal of equalizing opportunities; enhancements are amply justified by the motivation to benefit people. We should not fear the loss of our essential humanity by enhancement; we can preserve and enhance whatever we value most. Nature is “morally inert”; we should not privilege the status quo by refraining from enhancements because they are unnatural (pp. 34–35).

In these two chapters, by swift and bold strokes, Harris rejects the claims of several scholars who have examined and defended the distinction between therapy and enhancement, extended the work of Rawls to arrive at a theoretical justification for certain interventions, and explored the basis for a normative commitment to the preservation of human nature. Given the nature of Harris’s project, his recounting of their work is necessarily brief; to give this work its due, readers will want to consult the sources. Harris also does not and—given the constraints of his project—could not hope to address fully the implications of the ways in which our social institutions and practices are built around the claims he rejects. For example, we distinguish between medically “necessary” and non-necessary interventions in determining coverage under private and social schemes of insurance, however contested and changeable the dividing line might be. We invoke our commitment to equal opportunity in mandating and funding universal education. Our science fiction dramas thrill us by holding out the prospect that we might be rendered “posthuman”; they rely for their effect on an abiding commitment to the preservation of our species, however imperfect. While Harris might view all of these as instances of irrational commitments, their deep insinuation into our social life might be reason to give them greater consideration in his framework of analysis—or reason to question whether that framework can adequately accommodate what we value most.

In Chap. 4, Harris advances and defends a strong claim: we are morally obligated to save, by life-extending interventions, the lives of all those whose quality of life is acceptable. By this claim, Harris rejects ethical distinctions, embedded in many of our laws and social policies, about the limits of our obligations to others: distinctions between killing versus letting die, exercising reasonable care to avoid harming others versus rescuing them. On Harris’s view, it is the consequences of our choices, whether we make the world a better place when we reasonably could act to do so, that should guide our ethical assessment. Harris notes and rejects arguments that might mute the benefits of life extension: we can address concerns about unequal access to life-extending interventions by policy measures; those who fear boredom in immortality can opt out; even if extended lives lead to loss of memory and personal identity, we might rationally desire the continued life of each successive self; overpopulation is unlikely given our vulnerability to accident and disease; life extension likely would reduce overall health care costs because these costs are concentrated at the end of life.

Those not persuaded by Harris’s argument about the ethical acceptability of enhancement nonetheless will want to attend to his argument in Chap. 5 for political tolerance for those who are so persuaded, and who wish to act on their beliefs. In liberal democracies, Harris argues, the “democratic presumption” ensures that individual liberty cannot be limited in the absence of non-speculative risk of harm; reproductive choice, in particular, is a fundamental liberty right (pp. 72–78).

In Chap. 6, Harris turns to claims that selection and enhancement interventions might constitute or cause discrimination against the disabled—claims that he acknowledges would be very troublesome if correct and, hence, is very concerned to refute. People rationally prefer that their children not be disabled because disability is a harmed condition; in fact, parents harm their children, Harris argues, if they deliberately and unreasonably fail to avoid having disabled children. Nor is disability relative to species-typical functioning; if a child were born to live only a species-typical life span when she could have been enhanced to live longer, she also would be harmed by the failure to enhance. Avoiding disability in one’s children does not disvalue the disabled just as treating curable illness does not disvalue those with incurable illness, and we are not obligated to safeguard against irrational feelings of the disabled to the contrary. And if parental choices to avoid disability contribute to discrimination against the disabled, this should be addressed by legislation.

Harris’s treatment of these issues is unflinching in following the logic of his framework of analysis: greater capacities are key to better lives and we are obligated to make the world a better place by selecting against disability or by enhancing. Harris is also clear in his own commitment to the full dignity and equality of those who are disabled. Here again, a fuller discussion, not to be expected in this book, might address the evidence of history regarding the treacherous terrain between meliorism and perfectionism: the great improvements in our lives accomplished through meliorist efforts and the profound miseries inflicted by perfectionist impulses manifested in eugenic and totalitarian programs. Modern democracies have resoundingly rejected past abuses fueled by the perfectionist impulse and have memorialized in law their enduring commitments to equality and liberty, effectively ruling out relapse into past extremes. But, if we embrace a robust commitment to radical enhancement, might this fuel attitudes and acts of impatience, intolerance, disapproval, or worse directed toward those who fall short of a non-disabled social ideal, pervading the social space occupied by the disabled in ways that defy regulation by the blunt instrument of law? If reflection on past history and an imagined future of “enhancement evolution” suggests that it might, the risk of this high-magnitude harm would deserve greater consideration in Harris’s analysis. Also, this reflection combined with the reports of those who are disabled and of their loved ones about the ways in which this disability or that one does or does not figure in quality of life might lead us to question once again whether Harris’s framework of analysis adequately captures the values at stake.

In Chaps. 7 and 8, Harris addresses arguments of Sandel, Kass and Habermas. Enhancements do not undermine achievement by reducing or eliminating effort, Harris argues; we deserve credit as the agents responsible for cultivation of our talents by our choices, including our enhancement choices. We should strive to avoid rather than accept the “unbidden” in our children if the unbidden is harmful, and we should strive to improve upon the natural. Concerns that genetic enhancement constitutes overweening assertion of parental control and that cloning deprives children of their right to an “open future” are inapt; our current child-rearing practices entail similar exercises of control and parents currently impose expectations on their children. Preserving what is good in the “given” is insufficient reason to reject what might be improved; increased longevity will not prevent us from realizing what is best in human life; it will expand our opportunity to do so.

Chapters 9, 10, and 11 address a set of issues related to enhancement. In Chap. 9, Harris asserts that gender selection is “morally neutral” since there is nothing better or worse in being male or female; if, as he argues, gender selection is ethically permissible, then surely beneficial enhancements must be. In Chap. 10, Harris addresses the moral status of the embryo, an important issue in regenerative medicine involving the use of embryonic stem cells. And in Chap. 11, Harris argues that, because of our moral obligation to enhance, we also have a moral duty to engage in, support, and participate as human subjects in research toward the development of enhancement technologies.

Whether or not readers accept Harris’s framework of analysis or are persuaded by every argument he presents, all will benefit from engagement with this well-argued, honest, wide-ranging, and provocative treatment of enhancement.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010