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Technological unemployment and human disenhancement


This paper discusses the concept of “human disenhancement”, i.e. the worsening of human individual abilities and expectations through technology. The goal is provoking ethical reflection on technological innovation outside the biomedical realm, in particular the substitution of human work with computer-driven automation. According to some widely accepted economic theories, automatization and computerization are responsible for the disappearance of many middle-class jobs. I argue that, if that is the case, a technological innovation can be a cause of “human disenhancement”, globally, and all things considered, even when the local and immediate effect of that technology is to increase the demand of more sophisticated human skills than the ones they substitute. The conclusion is that current innovations in the ICT sector are objectionable from a moral point of view, because they disenhance more people than they enhance.

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  1. 1.

    This distinction follows closely the one provided by Savulescu, Sandberg and Kahane (2011b), the use of the labels “functional” and “welfarist” also follows closely their reconstruction in that paper.

  2. 2.

    Rousseau can be interpreted as accusing technology and complex society of moral disenhancement. Moral (dis)enhancement refers to the use of technology to influence the moral virtues of individuals (Douglas 2008).

  3. 3.

    For the distinction between welfare and perfectionist value of a life see Sumner (1996).

  4. 4.

    Clearly those explanations of inequality trends do not rule out other, possibly concomitant, causes (Piketty and Saez 2014).

  5. 5.

    Griffin’s informed-desired theory also includes these goods as items in a list of objectively (prudentially) valuable goods. Griffin’s theory defines a desire as informed when it relies on an adequate understanding of the values at stake, so it also ultimately relies on an objective list of prudential values, while allowing substantial individual variability in the optimal balance of such values within each life (Griffin 1986). Griffin’s informed-desire theory has been described as an objective list-theory with an endorsement constraint by Arneson (1999).

  6. 6.

    In spite of Google’s relative success with respect to driverless cars. These cars get stuck when facing unusual situations, such as traffic jams, that require human (i.e. non strictly rule-based) judgment to be solved.


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Correspondence to Michele Loi.

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Loi, M. Technological unemployment and human disenhancement. Ethics Inf Technol 17, 201–210 (2015).

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  • Machine Intelligence
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Technological unemployment
  • Biomedical enhancement
  • Social justice
  • Race between education and technology
  • ICT
  • Information technology