The Race for Enhancement

Oscar Pistorius ran a quarter mile in 45.07 seconds… without feet. His legs were amputated halfway down his calves as an infant, yet twenty-five years later, he is fast enough to compete in the 2012 Olympics against able-bodied athletes. With his Flex-Foot Cheetah carbon fiber crescent blades, Pistorius holds the double amputee world record for the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter dashes.

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Pistorius represents a high profile case in the debate surrounding whether prostheses provide an unfair advantage in athletics. In 2007, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) banned technological devices in sports that unfairly disadvantaged athletes without such aids. In Pistorius’ case, the IAAF claimed that his prosthetic legs provided his ankles with increased springiness that allowed him to run faster with less exertion. Although this decision was eventually overturned, it remains highly contested whether prosthetic limbs provide competitors with a net advantage over able-bodied athletes.

When expanding into the discussion of human enhancement technologies, it is crucial to distinguish therapy, which aims to make people well, from enhancement, which aims to make individuals better then well by raising the performance ability of an individual beyond the level necessary to restore or sustain his or her health. With prostheses, it is assumed that an individual is being provided with a body part they are missing. Yet some instances, such as the Paralympics, exemplify how individuals with prosthetic limbs may be gaining more, in certain ways, than they originally lost. With regard to prostheses in running competitions, it remains unclear whether prosthetic technology has progressed to a point where prosthetic legs may prove advantageous over able-bodied competitors. 

The debate over whether prosthetics should be allowed in sport leads to a wider discussion about the justice and fairness of human enhancement in the rest of life. It is crucial to ask, will enhancement technologies make our lives better? When extending beyond the impact of human enhancement on performance ability to consider how enhancement technologies will affect society’s collective well being and quality of life, the answer is probably no.

The increased diversification of enhancement forms – from strengthening bodies and memories to magnifying intelligence and happiness levels – force us to consider the longer term consequences of altering human nature and capacity. A great concern revolves around the role of human enhancement in transforming how we understand ourselves. The enhancement of human bodies and brains beyond their natural states ultimately questions the current definition of being human and suggests the need for new ways to understand ourselves within the context of enhancement technologies. 

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In addition to altering how we understand ourselves, advances in human enhancement manifest in social and political consequences by shifting the way in which we relate to and organize ourselves amongst each other. In making unenhanced individuals appear ‘disabled’ in the context of a constant need for improvement, human enhancement technologies will change the definition of being ‘impaired.’ Regardless of upstanding medical health, individuals will be considered “limited and defective” when facing new enhancement options that they have yet to partake in. Such a perspective equates healthiness with the successful maximization of an individual’s physical structure and mental capacity, while defining the diseased as those with unenhanced bodies and minds.

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As observed with nearly every technology, new innovations allow for new inequalities to emerge, which are responsible for marginalizing certain groups of people. Human enhancement technologies will prove no different by influencing a widening of economic disparities. With the human body serving as the “newest frontier of commodification,” enhancement options will transition into an enabling technology for the wealthy yet a disabling one for lower income society. Therefore, it becomes pertinent to question, will human enhancement create an unenhanced underclass? Mostly likely, yes. Gregor Wolbring argues that we must transform our approach toward “distributive justice” in order to provide enhancements to those most in need. Recognizing this is as an unlikely course of action, however, he believes the next viable option is to ensure that enhancements fail to provide individuals with any sort of positional advantages in social hierarchy.

We return to the central question: should we be trying to make people better than well through technologies of human enhancement? According the Michael Sandel, a professor at Harvard University, the answer is firmly negatory. In the case of human enhancement, he argues, science is progressing at a faster rate than our moral understanding of the technology. Enhancement technologies present both opportunities to treat and prevent many debilitating diseases yet also difficulties in allowing us to “manipulate our own nature” by genetically engineering our bodies, minds, and moods to make ourselves better than well. Sandel implores the need to acknowledge that it is beyond our power to alter human capacity and ability. Ultimately, great danger lies in our ability reshape nature, specifically human nature, to accommodate our desires. 

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