Three Paradigms of Human Enhancement

Everyone is cordially invited to attend a seminar on

“Three Paradigms of Human Enhancement”

by Dr. Laura Cabrera,
Australian National University

Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Room 704, Boromratchakumari Building, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn
10.00 – 12.00 hours

“Three paradigms on human enhancement”

Human enhancement has been a much debated area in the last decade.
Converging technologies such as nanotechnology and neurotechnology
(NNtechnology) have the potential to push the boundaries of the
enhancement debate. On the one hand nanotechnology blurs the
distinction between the organic and inorganic and allows us to
manipulate the world of atoms and molecules. On the other hand
neurotechnology deals with the most important organ we have, the
brain, where all the information we acquire from the outside is
processed. Is it possible that a better understanding of how we
acquire, store, process and use information will give us the answers
about how our human limitations have shaped the path in which we
understand and interact with the world? Could it be possible that by
using our advanced technologies to understand, heal or enhance our
brains, we are changing, as never before, the way in which we
understand the world and ourselves?
Although there are numerous possible applications of nanotechnology in
medicine and enhancement, the focus in this thesis is on neuro-related
developments, because of the issues that understanding and being able
to control our core, that is to say our brains, will bring to the
fore. Other reasons that highlight the importance of understanding the
brain at the molecular level combined with NNtechnology, are the
following: first, it can help us to address neurodegenerative
disorders such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, which are predicted to
increase in the coming decades; second, value the importance that the
brain has for human cognition and understanding of our environment;
and finally, given the role memory plays in our identity, autonomy and
self narrative, understand the risks of enhancing the brain. Even
though other technologies in the past, such as certain
pharmaceuticals, have been considered dangerous in the area of neuro-
enhancement, there is little research on the implications of
NNtechnology since this is a relatively new field.
A large amount of money is now available for research and development
of NNtechnology, and there has been a dramatic increase in
NNtechnology publications in recent years. NNtechnology has great
potential for enhancing the human condition. However, more needs to be
done connected to the ethical, legal and social implications of
choosing one kind of human enhancement (HE) over another, when using
NNtechnology. Issues related to HE have been widely discussed, and
have had increasing attention over the last decade, in many fields
such as genetics and pharmacology and in different contexts from
cosmetic surgery to implant technology. Some claim that it is possible
to draw a line between therapy and enhancement, and that such a line
should be drawn because the distinction is needed to inform ethical
debate. Others, on the other hand, have argued that such a line cannot
be sustained or that it is blurry at best. Furthermore, discussion on
issues about HE has been carried out under certain assumptions of a
unified concept or agreed definitions of disease, health and the goals
of biomedicine. Considering the dynamic and socially constructed
nature of the concepts involved in our understanding of HE, then it
seems plausible to say that any debate on HE has to start under those
assumptions, rather than, as has been the case in the past decade, in
the old therapy/enhancement debate ones.
Therefore, in the quest for advancing the debate on human enhancement,
the aim of my research is to step beyond the current human enhancement
paradigm, namely the therapy vs. enhancement, in order to analyse
alternative human enhancement paradigms and examine whether we have a
moral obligation to prioritize certain NNtechnology applications for
human enhancement, which would imply shifting to a different paradigm.
So, the general question to be answered is:
What are the ethical considerations for choosing one kind of
enhancement paradigm over another when using NNtechnology?
I will argue that in the current human enhancement paradigm, the
distinction made between therapy and enhancement to establish a moral
limit between acceptable and non acceptable human interventions has
not been really helpful. I suggest then, two other possible human
enhancement paradigms: the transhumanist and the social. Each shapes a
different societal view on science, technology and their future;
different social expectations and desires; and different values and
concepts about the meaning of being human. Among the individual and
social ethical considerations that I will examine are: the social
implications of reducing the burden of disease of neuro-related
conditions (mental health and social justice issues); exacerbation or
creation of social divides (communication divide, (cap)ability
divide); favouritism of certain abilities (ableism); issues of power
(biopower); and identity. Therefore there is a need for a paradigm
whose primary focus is not just the individual, but which emphasises
the complex interplay between individual and social needs and
preferences; that takes on board the different perceptions of the
body, behaviour, and well-being of the human; that gives special
attention to the importance of information, public debate and
education regarding human enhancement; and which promotes a different
set of values and views about technology and the human.
After a close examination of the ethical considerations of human
enhancement, the thesis is that within the framework of three distinct
enhancement paradigms, we should prioritize the use of NNtechnology in
the following order: first, the kind of enhancement applications
supported by the social paradigm; then the ones within the biomedical
paradigm; and only after we have covered global health priorities and
society in general have agreed upon them, the ones supported by the
transhumanist paradigm.

Table 1. The different human enhancement paradigms

Target orientation

Ultimate goal

Focus of nano and neuro


Individual/ social

Reduce impact of disease or disability; Health?

Medical solution


Social/ Community  individual

Enhance personal capability by enhancing society;

Environmental solution (physical and social environment)


Individual/ species

Techno posthumanity

Medical solution beyond typical human features

This is an exploratory thesis within an emerging field. As such, I do
not expect to have definite answers, but I hope to provide new
insights, and to provoke more thinking and discussion that may lead to
a deeper understanding of the role NNtechnology and HE can and should
play in society and in the way we go about our daily lives.


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