An introduction to the debate “Should Humans Be Enhanced?” by Tomáš Hříbek (Filosofický ústav AV ČR)
In the last few years, more and more philosophers have concerned themselves with a set of questions that are suggested by the new possibilities of biomedicine and technology. So far we have been able to treat, more or less successfully, people whose natural capacities were disturbed or impaired by a disease or handicap. However, it seems that the new era is coming when we shall be able not only to treat people, i.e. either to renew the natural functioning of their capacities, or to enable them to do things they had not been capable of, but which are natural to most of the others. The contemporary medicine and other disciplines promise to enhance people, i.e. to provide them with capacities that no human being has possessed so far. Genetic manipulations, cloning, billions of nanobots flowing through an organism and repairing its failures, a fusion of the human and machine intelligence – some of these things still sound like science-fiction; yet we can already at least in principle imagine how they could work. But crucially, their availability could in time lead to an emergence of beings who would not be quite human anymore. They would be much stronger, faster, incomparably smarter, immeasurably longeval – perhaps, for all practical purposes, immortal. People speak in this regard about transhumanism, as a practical movement as well as a philosophy that aim at such an enhancement of humankind. Some authors speak even of posthumanism, by which they mean that radically enhanced beings will advance so much over ordinary mortals that these posthumans will not be members of our species anymore.
Enhancement, transhumanism and posthumanism are discussed all over the world. I have originally followed the debate in the Anglophone countries, but my colleague Ondřej Švec tells me that a parallel, somewhat different debate about these topics takes place in France. One of the French philosophers who have worked on these issues, Jean-Michel Besnier – author of the book Demain les posthumains? (2009) – is a guest at the first Nuit de la philosophie in Prague. Another French writer who has recently published a book on transhumanism – La révolution transhumaniste (2015) – is Luc Ferry, a philosopher who is rather well-known in the Czech Republic. I’ve got curious how the Francophone and Anglophone debate differ from each other. As far as the Anglophone literature is concerned – from which I especially recommend a collection Human Enhancement (2009) – I am used to expect more or less precise distinctions and definitions. What’s a difference between therapy and enhancement? What different kinds of enhancement – physical? intellectual? moral? – are there? Is the human enhancement morally permissible, or is it even obligatory? What, if anything, is morally problematic about enhancement? Many Anglophone authors believe that enhancement is at least morally permissible and desirable. On the contrary, a cursory look at the above mentioned books by Besnier and Ferry gives me an impression that these authors are not concerned with a precise conceptual analysis, as much as with a more general speculation about a distant future of humankind and with the essence of humanity. Besnier wonders whether transhumanism represents the last phase of the de-centring of man, i.e. the loss of an illusion about the importance of human beings in the universe. This process has begun with Copernicus who removed the Earth from the center of the universe; continued with Darwin who suggested that man is not the peak of creation; with Freud who discovered that motives of our actions are external to us – and it all culminates in transhumanism, which will mean the final overcoming and elimination of the human being. Also, it seems that both Besnier and Ferry are, unlike many Anglo-Americans, much more skeptical with respect to the political consequences of enhancement. Ferry in particular is afraid that enhancement will lead, in the neoliberal world, to a new inequality and social fragmentation.
At any rate, the organizers of the Night of Philosophy are to be thanked for bringing one of the well-known French thinkers of transhumanism to Prague, so he can share with us his thoughts on some of the aforementioned hot topics.
Tomáš Hříbek (Filosofický ústav AV ČR)