Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Impairment and Enhancement

Everyone approves of curing disease and disability, but many disapprove of what they consider 'enhancement'. Is there really any principled distinction here? It seems to me a kind of naturalistic fallacy: people assuming that there's something morally relevant about the statistical norm. After all, if most people throughout history were as smart as Einstein, the rest of us would be considered 'retards' -- mentally deficient in comparison. There's no reason to think that our actual condition is a metaphysically privileged baseline for such assessments. Really, any imperfection is an impairment. It's just that some are rarer and greater than others -- that's no reason to refuse (on principle) to remedy the rest.

Or am I missing something?


  1. "...there's something morally relevant about the statistical norm."

    The only moral relevance I can see is compassion for the norm while using the fact of a norm to rise above it...

    ~ Alex from Our Evolution

  2. I'm not necessarily agreeing with the distinction, but I'll try to offer a plausible explanation:

    The difference between curing and enhancing, I take it, is that you cure a person in order to enable her to "compete" on the same terms as the majority of others - it doesn't seem fair that some people, through no fault of their own, should be deprived of what is considered "normal" in their surrounding, and what enables others around them to lead the "good life".

    Enhancing, on the other hand, takes you *above* the rest, the majority. It gives you an advantage over the rest, and that is sometimes considered unfair, especially if that advantage was too easy to come by for you, but would be very difficult, if not impossible, for the rest.

    Ralws would say, of course, that those who were born very athletic or intelligent or beautiful were given an unfair advantage as well... But I'm not sure exactly what that entails for this distinction.

  3. Education, vitamins and physical fitness training could be considered forms of enhancement. Can we truly imagine banning these forms of enhancement?

    Of course, if someone merely wishes to refrain from enhancing themselves, that would be okay. Though, it is hard to imagine that this would be considered particularly virtuous.

  4. Until:
    1. Even the poorest people in the world have $1 million of purposing power (sans inflation)
    2. We are no longer debilitated by disease,
    3. And our collective eco footprint is down to "1 earth" WITHOUT reducing standard of living,

    Then there is still much work to be done. Those who're against enhancements fail to see the big picture. We don't have to settle for the status quo. Now, if they're against the consequences of enhancements (arrogance, entitlement etc), that's a different story. It's a practical rather than theoretical concern.

  5. I'm not sure you can so easily question the distinction between curing and enhancing while retaining the distinction between benefitting and not harming, which is a central component of common-sense morality, as well as deontology and liberalism. Sure, this simply shows that we should bite the bullet and reject both distinctions, but I wonder how many of those who so easily ridicule the former are really willing to embrace a morality that also rejects the latter. To give just one example, almost everyone thinks that consequentialism is "too demanding", yet that objection presupposes a morally relevant difference between harms and benefits, and assumes that the high cost of procuring a benefit, but not of abstaining from harming, is sufficient reason to reject a morality that demands either.


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