The importance of ethics in human enhancement research

Two philosophers on the pages of Science explain what are the principles to consider in conducting research that can improve human performance

Last year, perhaps a little on the sly, the first ethical guidelines were published by the European Commission on human enhancement . Today, two of the main authors, Yasemin J. Erden and Philip AE Brey of the University of Twente (Netherlands), relaunch the topic by talking about it in an article in Science . Because, they write, if discussing human enhancement today may seem too futuristic, that is the direction that medical and technological developments are taking. And it is necessary, in addition to a regulation on the subject, to have an ethical reference frameworkto handle such a critical field of research with care. Starting from tailor-made guidelines, because the existing ones for medicine and research – such as the Declaration of Helsinki or the Oviedo convention – are not enough, they are not appropriate. And because it is undeniable that human enhancement is a divisive field, both scientifically and socially. How and why might some people be gifted with superpowers ? With what risks for the person and society ?


Empowerment as a tool to improve human performance

Erden and Brey’s discussions start from considering what is meant above all human enhancement , first of all distinguishing the purpose with which an intervention is pursued . Here then we speak of human enhancement when we have: “a modification aimed at improving human performance with respect (only, nda) to restore it – brought about by scientific or technological interventions in or on the human body” . On the one hand, therefore, it is clear that “improvement” is placed on a different level from any therapeutic interventionthat seeks to counteract a problem, or to prevent it. On the other hand, however, saying this is not enough, because we are navigating on slippery and not well-defined ground, as the philosophy experts themselves clearly say, because everything depends on what is taken as a reference, what is considered normal . Having said this, the idea is valid that strengthening means a general “going further”, with the ability to acquire or improve a certain performance or ability: whether it is to see, to remember, to live longer, to become stronger to resist fatigue. It is therefore a theme that concerns several areas, as you can imagine, at least if you want to classify human enhancementaccording to the field of intervention. Here then it is possible to intervene in the physical, cognitive, affective and emotional, cosmetic, moral and longevity fields.

The fields of application

To understand what type of research could be affected by these guidelines – developed within the Sienna project (Stakeholder-informed ethics for new technologies with high socio-economic and human rights impact) and currently addressed to the research carried out within the program Horizon Europe – the authors offer examples. The common idea is this: all research activity that aims at human enhancement, or that can lead to the development of products (of any kind) that can be used to improve human performance . Directly or indirectly. So that’s what it might bebe it a substance developed to improve memory and concentration in a healthy person, or an exoskeleton to increase physical strength, or a cochlear implant that can be used to increase a person’s hearing spectrum.


They all sound like futuristic research, superpowers for supermen , but not so much to look around: exoskeletons to lift heavy loads capable of increasing strength have already been developed. And wanting to remind us of a much more problematic example, not only for ethical but also scientific reasons, the case of crispr babies (to make two girls more resistant to HIV) could also be counted as an attempt at human enanchement . It is no coincidence that genetic modifications , both somatic, but even more so those of the germ line, with the risk of creating designer babies, are cited by the authors as perhaps one of the most problematic examples ofhuman enanchement.

The key values ​​of the guidelines

If these are the premises that help to understand which type of research, in which field and with which purposes is susceptible to an ethical evaluation in the field of enhancement , what are the concrete guidelines on the subject? What should a research have to comply with the relevant guidelines ? It should develop around six key values .

If some of these values ​​are already the cornerstone of clinical research – such as informed consent – others seem more to embrace the particular character of human enhancement. Perhaps not so much with regard to the concept of well -being – an intervention must tend to produce a benefit for a person – as with the aspects of autonomy, justice, equality and social responsibility . It is important, write Erden and Brey – to guarantee freedom of choice, avoiding interventions that could influence one’s identity and personality. Not because these do not change over time, the philosophers remind us, but in fact they must be considered today as the product of something else, such as experiences and introspection. Finally, the invitation is to emphasize aimore social risks than human empowerment interventions, which by definition, by empowering and improving , can increase the risk of inequality , giving some the benefits and leaving others behind.



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