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Home arrow Health arrow Cognitive enhancement : ethical and policy implications in international perspectives



Some discourses against human enhancement are based on the technology’s modifying human nature. However, there are a variety of definitions of human nature. Some argued that human nature represents the traits exhibited by all and only human beings.26 But this is too strong a definition because many recognized human beings may not have the traits so defined. Machery argued that human nature is a collection of characteristics formed as a result of evolution and shared by most humans.27 The definition has two problems. First, the criterion of “shared by most humans” is too strong because many characteristics that could be deemed “human nature” are not shared by both males and females. Also, the focus on evolution is too narrow because many human characteristics are the result of gene-environment interactions, in which culture and socialization may play important roles. Daniels proposed that human nature has three components: a population concept that must be examined by aggregating traits at the population level; a disposition concept, meaning that traits may vary among different situations; and a selective theory-laden concept based on which traits chosen as part of human nature actually depend on what we count as important to us for explaining what humans are and do.28 To make the traits more operationalized, Ramsey defined human nature as a “life- history trait cluster,” the aggregated patterns of individual life history traits.29 Thus, manifestations due to genetic and cultural/environmental interactions are included in human nature.

With this understanding and in contrast to the definition given by Fukuyama,30 human nature is also a diachronic concept and not limited to genetic endowment only. That is, as time passes, human nature develops during its mutually embedded interactions with the environment. Human nature thus is a representation of both accumulated and here-and-now practical human characteristics, but nothing essential and eternal. “Human nature, then, is a generalization regarding the aggregating, purposeful yet open- ended disposition of human beings over time, and is nothing more or less than an ongoing attainment of relational virtuosity within our inherited natural and cultural legacy.”31:129 However, recognizing that human nature has intrinsic value as given24- 30 and that it is the presupposition of many discourses on morality (such as responsibility),32 those against human enhancement argue that human enhancement will alter or destroy human nature and is, therefore, not permissible. Daniels worries that we are far from knowing how to manipulate some known traits to make super-human capabilities. Even when we do know, he doubts that it is easy to get from here (the current technology achievement) to there (modifying human nature) because the technology has to be implemented on the whole population with their agreement on what selected core traits (e.g., virtuous instead of cunning) will be acted upon.28 On the other hand, Buchanan deems human nature a useless concept in the debate on human enhancement. According to him, human nature has good and bad aspects and thus we are justified in altering human nature by getting rid of the bad. In addition, if enhanced humans preserve the ability to judge what good is, they still can direct and evaluate the modification of human nature without the faults depicted by those who are against human enhance- ment.33 Obviously, Buchanan is against the usefulness of the essentialist conception of human nature. The dynamic characteristics of the diachronic conception of human nature could be compatible with his formulation of how to enhance people and at the same time preserve their good moral sense. Also, the diachronic conception of human nature could partly ease Daniels’s worry because we only need to project our enhanced near-future based on our current understanding of what constitutes human nature and its anticipated good. Thus, based on the diachronic conception of human nature, we could develop an incremental human enhancement policy in which incremental cognitive enhancement will not dramatically change human nature over a short period of time. Because people’s moral inclinations are preserved, they can always pause and think before adopting a more adventurous cognitive enhancement policy. Thus, human nature still can play a role in the arguments about cognitive enhancement. In Confucianism, human nature is an important part in the theoretical construction of self-cultivation; as such, it is worthwhile to explore how Confucianism may contribute to the discourses about cognitive enhancement.

To summarize, there have been abundant discourses on the pros and cons of cognitive enhancement. However, these are mainly Western points of view. This brief review also hints at the potential contribution of Confucianism to the debate. In the following section, I will first review some of the arguments about enhancement (genetic enhancement as the majority) from an Asian perspective and then explore how Confucianism may contribute an alternative discourse that addresses the permissibility of cognitive enhancement.

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