Playing God, Playing Adam: The Politics and Ethics of Enhancement

Zylinska, Joanna. 2010. Playing God, Playing Adam: The Politics and Ethics of Enhancement. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, 7(2), pp. 149-161. ISSN 1176-7529 [Article]

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The question of enhancement occupies a prominent place in current bioethical debates. This is evident not only in the publication of volumes such as Liberal Eugenics: A Defence of Human Enhancement by Nicholas Agar (2004), Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People by John Harris (2007), or Julian Savulescu and Nick Bostrom’s edited collection Enhancing Humans (2009), but also in the setting up of a number of interdisciplinary groups and workshops on the subject: e.g. the Enhancement Technologies Group at McGill University, first led by Carl Elliott and then by Margaret Lock in the late 1990s; or the Arts and Humanities Research Council workshop on Human Enhancement Technologies held at the Royal College of Art in February 2008. The issues of enhancement also feature increasingly in wider public debates about ‘our human future’ and the direction of its transformation. Mobilising, unsurprisingly perhaps, experts and non-experts alike, the problem of enhancement is usually articulated via two sets of questions: moral questions over its permissibility, extent and direction; and technical questions over the feasibility of different forms of regenerative and synthetic alterations to human bodies and minds. My article postulates that none of the dominant positions on enhancement within the field of bioethics is entirely satisfactory due to the limited, monadic, pre-technological and non-cultural conception of the human that is adopted in these models. Enhancement therefore becomes for me an entry point into a broader interrogation of the limitations of liberal moral and political philosophy, with its particular set of assumptions about human and nonhuman subjectivity, capitalism and ‘life itself’, when applied to bioethics.

Critically engaging with both opponents of enhancement (Jürgen Habermas) and its advocates (John Harris, Nicholas Agar, Nick Bostrom, Ronald Dworkin), I also want to take some steps towards outlining a non-normative ethics of enhancement that sees its human and non-human subjects as always already enhanced, and hence dependent, relational and co-evolving with technology. This latter position will not be used to justify the ‘anything goes’ approach to biological or technical intervention into the human or animal body, but rather to outline a more responsible engagement with enhancement. As such this article will constitute a modest attempt to start thinking about bioethics differently, beyond the more established liberal framework which takes a singular and fixed moral entity – a patient, a foetus, a guinea pig – as the object of its enquiry. My focus is thus not on how much we can or should enhance, and by what means. Instead, my argument is guided by the following two questions:
(1) What kind of ethical framework would we need to adopt if we were to concede that enhancement is inherent, rather than external, to human existence?
(2) Even if enhancement as such is inherent to humans, are all kinds of enhancements to our bodies and minds equally desirable from a cultural and political standpoint?

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Media, Communications and Cultural Studies
Research Office > REF2014



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27 Sep 2011 12:29

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27 Jun 2017 15:13

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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