Bioethics Blogs

When is diminishment a form of enhancement? Another twist to the “enhancement” debate in biomedical ethics

By Brian Earp, MSc

Photo by Rob Judges

Brian Earp is a Research Fellow at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford. He is an interdisciplinary researcher with training in cognitive science, experimental (social) psychology, philosophy, and ethics. With Professor Julian Savulescu, Brian is writing a book on the neuroenhancement of love and marriage, to be completed this year.

There is a big debate going on about “enhancement.” For many years now, people have realized that new technologies, along with discoveries in neuroscience and pharmacology, could be used in ways that seem to go beyond mere “medicine” – the treating of deformity or disease. Instead, to use a phrase popularized by Carl Elliot, they could make us “better than well.” Faster, stronger, smarter, happier. Quicker to learn, slower to forget. It has even been suggested that we could use these new technologies to “enhance” our love and relationships, or make ourselves more moral. 

These kinds of prospects are exciting to some. To others, they are frightening, or at least a cause for concern. As a result, there has been a stream of academic papers—alongside more popular discussions—trying to get a handle on some of the ethics. Is it permissible to take “medicine” even if we aren’t “sick”? Should we be worried about “Playing God”? Do some people have an obligation to enhance themselves? And so on.

At least one major problem has been lurking in the background. And that is that, quite simply, “enhancement” could mean almost anything. Definitions are often vague, if they’re attempted at all.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.