Book review: Allen Buchanan’s Beyond Humanity?

635951177300237076392252367_Jensen Gas Wings

Wings, a possible biomedical enhancement? Adam didn’t ask for it.

This is a book review that I’ve written for one of my assignments for a class in the philosophy of technology when I was a freshman. It was the first time I ever needed to read a piece of philosophical work in detail to give it a fair critique. Though some parts of the reading were hard to understand for me because I had to read several chapters three or four times, writing this has been fun and I learned a lot from Buchanan’s arguments and his perspectives towards the traditional enhancement debate.


Is it wrong to change human nature? Could biomedical enhancements result in our being something other than human? Will the pursuit of enhancements become an endless quest for perfection and make us unappreciative of what we already have? These are some questions that are frequently asked as a reaction to the prospects of biomedical enhancement. In this book comprising of eight chapters, Allen Buchanan primarily aims to improve the quality of the enhancement debate by framing the ethical issues more appropriately to gain greater clarity on what the real ethical issues are so that we can best respond to the complex phenomena of enhancement. Each chapter or groups of chapters deal with these ethical issues which pertain to character, human nature and the natural, unintended bad consequences, producing beings with higher moral status than persons, and justice. There are several other important concerns about enhancement that Buchanan raises but he conjectures that the aforementioned ones are more relevant to us now.

Quality of the Enhancement Debate

In Chapter 1, Buchanan gives an overview of the enhancement debate and states that the quality of debate is low mainly because critics of enhancement often use rhetoric reasoning instead of sound arguments for their claims and that it is frustrating to hold either the “pro-enhancement” or “anti-enhancement” stance. Instead, Buchanan insists that one should compare between “anti-enhancement”, where the view is that enhancement as a whole should be rejected, and “anti-anti enhancement”, where some enhancements are permissible or are permissible under some circumstances.

Enhancement and Human Development

Chapter 2 invokes the idea that it is morally permissible to pursue the enhancement enterprise and that enhancement is not new. To have a clearer view of the ethics of enhancement, Buchanan rejects two framing assumptions, the Personal Goods Assumption and the Market Goods Assumption, widely held by the critics enhancement and argues that these assumptions overlook the reason that enhancements can offer “broad social benefits that cannot be reduced to the gains for those who are enhanced”. According to Buchanan, these social benefits are not zero-sum due to positive network effects and the value of enhancement increases with the number of people being enhanced. Furthermore, he mentions that when enhancements are broadly defined, human beings have already historically enhanced themselves by means of literacy, numeracy and agriculture to increase human well-being and productivity. As such, Buchanan claims that “human history is the history of enhancement”. These reasons make it morally permissible for reasonably liberal and democratic societies to pursue the enhancement enterprise.

Character, Human Nature and the Natural

Chapters 3 and 4 grapple with the notions of character and human nature. In Chapter 3, Buchanan evaluates the claim that enhancement is an expression of defective character and a symptom of vice. For instance, there is a worry that pursuing human enhancement as a quest for mastery and perfection might lead to a defective character with respect to people becoming objects for manipulation or turning into inauthentic selves. However, Buchanan dismisses such character concerns by showing that they are essentially consequentialist concerns and for them to be strong arguments against enhancement, much more empirical support is required to make sweeping empirical claims that critics of enhancement often make. Hence, Buchanan argues that character concerns cannot be used as conclusive reasons against pursuing biomedical enhancements. Next, Chapter 4 explores the issues with appeals to human nature against enhancement. Buchanan dismisses such normative essentialist appeals because of the complexity of human nature and he suggests that the critics of enhancement should take evolutionary biology more seriously. He advocates that ethical issues of enhancement can be better framed without recourse to human nature and the natural.

Conservativism and Enhancement

In Chapter 5, Buchanan aims to evaluate whether conservative thought (in the Burkean tradition) can provide better insights about enhancement. Conservative bioethicists are against radical improvement and according to them, humans by nature suffer from serious cognitive and affective limitations that are unalterable and render human beings incompetent to make decisions to make changes to the functioning of themselves. Such limitations are said to have been a consequence of evolution producing “finely balanced” human beings, and improving or removing these limitations would backfire and cause harm. However, such emphasis on human beings’ imperfection, as Buchanan argues, provides a reason in favor of enhancement rather than against it. In addition, Buchanan contends that these Conservative bioethicists are employing a false analogy of evolutionary biology as a “Master Engineer”, who has created human beings to be a complete masterpiece when in fact modern evolutionary biology dictates that evolved organisms are always suboptimal in design and never stable, finished products.

Unintended Bad Consequences

The kinds of risks or harms that enhancements could bring about can be categorized as physical, psychological, social, biological and even moral risks. In Chapter 6, Buchanan addresses the risk of unintended bad consequences as the most serious consideration weighing against the enhancement enterprise and concentrates on the specific biological harms of intentional genetic modification (IGM) – genetic engineering of embryos or gametes. Buchanan contrasts IGM and unintentional genetic modification (UGM) – germline modifications without deliberate human intervention – in relation to evolutionary biology. Buchanan argues that faulty analogies about evolutionary biology such as the Master Engineer obscure important facts about evolution that are necessary to assess the risk of enhancement. According to Buchanan, a more appropriate analogy would be that “UGM is like the work of a morally blind, fickle, and tightly shackled tinkerer”. Briefly, his analogy implies that evolution is blind to the well-being of humans and has no pre-conceived plans as to how to produce such beings. Whilst this a more accurate analogy to evolution, Buchanan admits that analogies have limited value in the enhancement debate. He suggests that our assessment of the risks of biomedical enhancements should be made on the basis of the best scientific information we have before developing risk-reduction strategies for any supposedly beneficial enhancement.

Moral Status and Justice

Chapters 7 and 8 mainly deal with how we should respond, institutionally, to the ethical problems of biomedical enhancement as discussed in the previous chapters. Chapters 7 addresses a cluster of concerns regarding the possibility of creating posthumans that have higher moral status than non-enhanced persons whilst Chapter 8 continues to investigate justice issues and the problem of inadequate diffusion of valuable biomedical enhancements to the world’s poorest people.

Impressions and Criticisms

Buchanan’s approach to the ethics of enhancement relies heavily on having an accurate understanding of modern evolutionary biology and focuses on whether a reasonably liberal and democratic society ought to embark on the enhancement enterprise. When seemingly controversial claims need to be assessed, he first identifies if the claim is empirical or conceptual. If it is the former, he continues to ask whether there is good evidence to support it and if it is the latter, he tries to avoid reliance on unsupported a priori generalizations. From his arguments against anti-enhancement, it could be inferred that Buchanan is “pro-enhancement”. Yet, he claims that this is not the case as he mentions that he would put himself in the “anti-anti-enhancement” category and stresses that enhancement is sometimes permissible. Instead of simply weighing the “pros” and “cons” for enhancement, Buchanan often asks what kinds of benefits we are

Given that biomedical technologies are constantly improving to better treat health and disease, whether an application of such technologies is considered therapeutic or enhancing remains debatable and it seems unlikely that we can stop the pursuit of enhancement. Whilst Buchanan has discussed extensively on how to manage the risks of enhancement and emphasizes that critics of enhancement should provide more empirical evidence for their claims, he does not identify in this book how current enhancement research might be done more ethically (since many of the IGM research require viable embryos for experiments) so as to increase our scientific understanding of enhancements to better cope with any unintended bad consequences of biomedical enhancement.

In summary, Buchanan thinks that how we frame the issue of risk matters equally with our choices for reducing risk. The book has given an alternative perspective on how to better approach the enhancement debate and proposes seemingly practical institutional responses to respond or cope with the future issues that biomedical enhancement can bring.


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