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Social Progress and Human Enhancement

Human Enhancement and Social Progress (HESP) is a three year research project. It aims to analyse the content, direction, and concerns of the debate on human enhancement technologies in order to gain insights useful to the promotion of social justice and socially progressive initiatives which seek to overcome structural injustices through egalitarian strategies.

Project description

The possibility to make healthy human beings ‘better’ by employing emerging biotechnologies to enhance their physical, cognitive or emotional capacities, has proven to be immensely fascinating and has triggered a prolific and important academic debate. Given the extremely large amount of research on the ethics of HETs (human enhancement technologies), however, one cannot but call this topic over-researched. This project hence does not suggest yet another contribution to the debate by directly discussing and evaluating the moral quality of HETs. Instead, it suggests an innovative ‘second-order’ analysis of the debate: We argue that the existing and widely felt appeal of possible HETs can be understood as a diagnostic tool pointing out current social challenges and deficiencies. A widely shared desire for better cognitive performance, for example, can indicate a possibly overly competitive society in which a life perceived as successful depends on one’s superior achievements. A ubiquitous desire to increase one’s mood can point to a widely shared feeling of alienation and lack of purpose in life, for which a cure is sought in HETs. Understanding the appeal of HETs in this way will shed light on an insufficiently addressed dimension of the debate, help identify shortcomings in our societies and can be put to use to identify directions for social progress, understood—in a neo-pragmatic sense inspired by the work of Philip Kitcher—as local and incremental solutions to perceived problems and confinements of human flourishing.

Concretely, we will analyse how the debate on HETs reflects social processes in our dynamic and evolving societies; critical of the often overly individualistic focus of the debate, we will analyse the underlying dimensions of social justice that are affected by the potential use of HETs; additionally, we argue that the proposed second-order analysis has the potential to generate and refine normative, first-order judgements that can be employed to morally evaluate specific HETs; and ultimately, we propose that our analysis can point out ways for social progress by showcasing how the most pressing concerns regarding HETs—those of social justice—stem from real structural failures already present in our social institutions which demand our attention. We do not, therefore, view HETs as a solution to a flawed society. Rather, through aspiring to overcome perceived challenges, they initiate a call-to-arms to improve society through a renewed focus on social justice.

In sum, we understand and use the sheer possibility of HETs as a trigger for a critical analysis of our current societies and as a heuristic for possible ways to promote social progress, which, however, will not necessarily consist in actual biotechnological interventions into human organisms (although it does not necessarily rules them out either) but may instead focus more on ‘classical’ tools of social progress such as legal and social reform and education.

Funded by DFG (HE6864/3-1)

Principle investigator: Jan-Christoph Heilinger

Researcher: Jason Branford

Duration: 2017–2020


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