Transhumanism – attempting to “improve” the human being
There was no shortage of controversial questions to discuss. Where does therapy end, and where does human manipulation begin? Or under what conditions is the intentional influencing of the human consciousness desirable, when is it not? What are the consequences for us when every item in our environment is “intelligent” and networked together – that is, when we have created and live in an “internet of objects”? The example of “human improvement” showed the difficulties inherent in the subject. “As long as we talk about medical therapies, then an ethical obligation to heal exists,” opines Hilty. “So far, so good, but often there is only a narrow, ill-defined boundary between therapy and improvement.”
The thrust of the workshop was, however, that although technical progress will create opportunities in future which until a few years ago sounded like ideas from science fiction, many of the associated ethical questions are anything but new. “Attempts to “improve” man are practically as old as mankind itself,” maintained Anders Sandberg of the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University, for example. Sandberg is also a participant in the EU financed ENHANCE project, which deals with the ethical and philosophical questions of so-called transhumanism. The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest novel known to mankind, deals more or less with the subject of immortality, “the ultimate human improvement, so to say” in Sandberg’s opinion. Here too, the boundaries are not as clear cut as one might think. “When we drink coffee, the caffeine enhances our power of concentration. Having said that, very few of us think of having a drink of coffee as an example of human improvement,” says Sandberg. When dealing with cognitive enhancing drugs such as the psychostimulant Modafinil, the case is much clearer. This medication, which was originally developed as a treatment for narcolepsy, is today used – “off-label” and against recommendations, of course – to increase the ability to remember by students prior to taking an examination, for example.