Ethics Of Enhancement: A Debate Of “Western” Philosophy

Gonçalo Jorge Morais da Costa, Tiago Filipe Rodrigues da Fonseca and Nuno Sotero Alves da Silva


Already massive change is happening due to emerging technologies. In fact, some of this convergence is happening organically, as the evolution of interdisciplinary science, a systems-approach and the necessity of sharing tools and knowledge is bringing separate disciplines together (Canton, 2002).

The dictatorship of reductionist perception, too long the unwritten law of modern science, is changing dramatically. An example of this fast innovation, inter-science coordination and action is through the deployment of convergent technologies that allow human enhancement.

However, an important question arises: which are the technologies that allow human enhancement? Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technologies and Cognitive Science (NBIC) represent a truly interdisciplinary environment to allow human enhancement (Roco and Bainbridge, 2002), being an example implantable microchips which due to nano know how, can communicate with the body’s cells and transmit data on to a computer. So, transhumanism can be considered an international intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of science and technology, which imposes the following levels of discussion: the concept of enhancement and, the ethics of enhancement.

Enhancement is in its essence improving or adds new capacities to the human body. In spite of its concise definition, it is defined as an ambiguous concept which can mean better and more, but also something that most people may think to be less desirable and that should be avoided (Bood, 2003). The negative evaluation of enhancement appears in the first half of last century due to the appearance of eugenics. However, the difference seems to rely on the “old” eugenics versus the “new” eugenics on free choice and autonomy (liberal eugenics) (Agar 2004). Nonetheless, the basic idea is the same, namely the wielding out of undesirable physical and psychological traits.

So, enhancement dimensions can be understood in terms of four distinctions or tensions, namely (Bruce, 2007):

  • enhancement as a change of state or a change of degree;
  • permanent or reversible enhancements;
  • external or internal enhancement technologies;
  • enhancement as opposed to therapy.

In order to get a better understanding of the moral value of enhancement, we need to discuss also the concept of therapy. Therapy concerning enhancement technology is often seen as something “good”, while enhancement is frequently something negative. Such answer is related to the medical paradigm, and even if drawing a sharp line between therapy and enhancement was possible, we would still face the problem of knowing what counts as an enhancement. In order to diminish the lack of uncertainty, we plead three arguments that describe an enhancement in spite of the potential critics that possibly will arise due to the individual notion of human limits or limitations (see for example, Nordmann, 2007):

  • certainty- the pyshical, psychological and cognitive characteristics of the human body are enhanced;
  • consistency- the outcome of such “biological manipulation” is similar to an “environmental manipulation”. There is no relevant moral difference between them;
  • similarity- if we accept treatment and disease prevention, we should accept enhancement. The goodness of health is what drives a moral obligation to treat or prevent disease.

Moreover, a transhumanist discussion must take off from where religion stops, because it is only an axiom (Nooteboom, 2009). Transhumanism should facilitate, rather than disintegrate, the deeper meanings of religion and spirituality. In that sense, to promote a debate concerning the ethics of enhancement we need to focus our attention into two levels of arguing:

  • western and eastern religious systems (Lustig, 2008; Zoloth, 2008; LaFluer, 2008; Kirkland, 2008);
  • and, western and eastern philosophical systems (Leon and Kass, 2001; Sandel, 2002; Fukayama, 2002; Habermas, 2003).

In conclusion, the answers to obtain in this manuscript are: what is NBIC? Which are its applications in human enhancement and ethical dilemmas that arise? And, if is possible to achieve a global or “weastern” spiritual/ethics concerning transhumanist society?


Agar, N. (2004). Liberal eugenics: In defence of human enhancement. Oxford, Oxfordshire: Blackwell.

Bood, A. (2003). Human enhancement. The Hague: Health Council of the Netherlands.

Bruce, D. (2007). Human enhancement? Ethical reflections on emerging nanobio-technologies. Edinburgh: Edinethics, Ltd.

Canton, J. (2002). The impact of convergent technologies and the future of business and the economy. In M. C. Rocco and W. S. Bainbridge (Eds). Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science (pp. 71-78). Arlington: National Science Foundation.

Fukuyama, Y. F. (2002). Our post-human future: consequences of the biotechnology. New York: Picador.

Habermas, J. (2003). The future of human nature. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Kirkland, R. (2008). Enhancing life? Perspectives from traditional Chinese value-systems, Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 36, 1, 26-40.

LaFluer, W. R. (2008). Enhancement and desire: Japanese qualms about where biotechnology is taking us, Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 36, 1, 26-40.

Leon, R., & Kass, L. R. (2001). Why we should ban human cloning now: preventing a brave new world, The New Republic, 224, 21, 30-39.

Lustig, A. (2008). Enhancement technologies and the person: Christian perspectives, Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 36, 1, 41-50.

Nooteboom, B. (2009). Transhumanism: how to affirm life and be a good person without help from God: a reply to Nietzsche. Online at: (accessed 20 May 2009).

Nordmann, A. (2007). If and then: A critique of speculative nanoethics, Nanoethics, 1, 1, 31-46.

Rocco, M. C. and Bainbridge, W. S. (Eds). Converging technologies for improving human performance: nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science. Arlington: National Science Foundation.

Sandel, M. (2002). What’s wrong with enhancement. Online at: (accessed 01 May 2009).

Zoloth, L. (2008). Go and tend the earth: a Jewish view on an enhanced world, Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 36, 1, 10-25.