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The new enhancement technologies and the place of vulnerability in our lives


What is the place of vulnerability in our lives? The current debate about the ethics of enhancement technologies provides a context in which to think about this question. In my view, the current debate is likely to be fruitless, largely because we bring the wrong ethical resources to bear on its questions. In this article, I recall an important, but currently neglected, role that moral concepts play in our thinking, a role they should especially play in relation to the introduction of new technologies. I call this the ‘contemplative role of moral concepts’. I then contrast two approaches to the contemplative role of moral concepts which are found in the current literature, and show why it is important to keep in mind both of these approaches when thinking about human vulnerability.

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  1. Climate science futuroscopy is a dire activity that should be taken seriously. Something similar could emerge from molecular biology as scientists fiddle around with our genomes. But, right now, we are in the dark on such matters.

  2. The ‘of course’ requires qualification inasmuch as some philosophers demur from the view that there is any role for general moral principles in moral thinking, cf. Jonathon Dancy [2]. The crucial issue from my point of view is how principles are understood and how they contribute to moral judgement. This is a matter too far from my immediate concerns, though my general view on this will become somewhat clearer as this article advances.

  3. I make no claim that there are not other patterns of moral deliberation. In some, we might think through whether to do such and such would be honest, kind, or considerate. That is, we examine the relation of our proposed act to a virtue’s requirements or recommendations. In other patterns of moral reflection, we might even think about whether what we are doing is good, something we have a right to do, or an obligation to do or not do. The variety is significant. All I am claiming is that moral kind terms are a central set of concepts figuring in very ordinary and common patterns of moral thinking. They seem particularly important in thinking about the new kinds of act which new technologies sometimes enable us to do.

  4. One does not have to be a consequentialist to believe that consequences are morally significant in concrete decision making: it does not follow from the fact that bad enough consequences can make an otherwise good thing to do the wrong thing to do (which common sense affirms) that good enough consequences make an otherwise bad thing to do the right thing to do. This latter thesis is the distinctive claim of consequentialism. Consequences do sometimes provide the moral light cast in deliberation on what one is thinking of doing, but not always, and never alone when a moral kind concept is relevant. I am focussing here on the relevance of moral kind concepts in the thought that most of the time, the kind of calculation of consequences called for by consequentialism is a will o’ the wisp.

  5. That sex and reproduction can be used as instruments of terror and genocide emphasises this point. Such evils are not morally ‘about sex’ but are about humiliation, torture, and degradation and the elimination of a kind of person because they are that kind of person (‘elimination of scum’). Similarly, most rape is not ‘about sex’ either but typically is about exerting power over women. The fact that physical sex is involved is not the moral point. Similarly, if sex is morally about reproduction, then at least part of the moral matter of adultery is reproduction and if IVFD is about reproduction (as in the kind of case sketched in the text), then the moral issues raised by IVFD could bring adultery into the picture. Of course, absenting such a background story about an example of IVFD, for us with our effective contraceptives, sex is morally not about reproduction nor was reproduction ever really ‘about sex’ (cf. rape is not about sex). Reproduction is about love, the calling to be a parent, and so on; in a former era, it was morally about family and inheritance and the like. So, the dissociation of sex and reproduction is significant. Thus, for most of us, it is hard to see something like IVFD as introducing the kind of moral concerns which the notion of adultery introduces.

  6. I first encountered this way of thinking about moral outlooks in Gaita [5]. See especially Chapter 12, ‘Ethical Other-Worldliness.’ See also Stephen Mulhall [6].

  7. Note that non-consequentialism (‘right and wrong does not all depend on the consequences’) does not logically imply deontology (‘right and wrong does not depend on the consequences at all’).

  8. Of course, from the Amish point of view, modern post-industrial societies are vulnerable to other developments consequent to their modernity.

  9. The relationship between the ethics of renunciation and Sandel’s ‘ethics of openness to the unbidden’ is an important question worth exploring but beyond the scope of our discussion here. See [10]; cf. [11].


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Correspondence to John G. Quilter.

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Quilter, J.G. The new enhancement technologies and the place of vulnerability in our lives. Theor Med Bioeth 37, 9–27 (2016).

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  • Vulnerability
  • Enhancement
  • Moral concepts
  • Ethics of flourishing
  • Ethics of renunciation