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Philosophy Bites Scientists’ Ankles

By Dave Edmonds and Nigel Warburton

Doctors have long been able to heal the body: now scientists are developing radical ways of altering the mind. Governments must determine what practices to permit – and for this they need rational arguments to draw relevant distinctions. Time to call on the philosophers…?

You can’t find your children. You’ve gone to a busy park, there are lots of people around, evening has set in, and you’re in a terrible panic. Wouldn’t it be great if your kids were fluorescent green? That would make it far easier to keep tabs on them.

A decade ago scientists created a rabbit, Alba, which glowed in the dark. One day scientists could do the same for humans. Science is advancing faster than morality can keep up. Scientists have developed, or in the near future will develop, products and techniques that could alter us in fundamental ways.

First, and most familiar, are physical enhancements to approve our appearance or our physical capabilities. We’ve become blasé about chin tucks, and breast implants, and Botox. Athletes use science (often illegally) to improve their performance (steroids and the like).

Second, there are mood altering drugs: Prozac, for example. These can be helpful in calming us down, or picking us up.

Third, there are a variety of cognitive enhancements. Those of us who can’t start the day without a coffee, well-understand that some chemicals can improve concentration or alertness. There’s been a trend among college students, particularly in the US, to take drugs like Ritalin or Adderall: these allow them to spend more time revising for exams, or writing essays. Is that cheating? Scientists have already genetically altered mice to improve their memory: it may not be long before they can do this to humans – boosting our ability to remember long strings of numbers, or pick up a foreign language. Wouldn’t that be great?

Fourth, and most intriguing of all, there are so-called moral enhancements. We’re discovering exactly what chemicals are involved when we decide to trust another person: thus, we can alter how much one person trusts another with the hormone oxytocin. Just imagine what the implications would be if we could disperse oxytocin through air-conditioning systems.

There are risks in legalizing some of these enhancements, but also costs in prohibiting them – for many of these enhancements may make life happier and more fulfilling. But there are other issues at stake: there are very real concerns that these new options will result in growing inequality, between those who can afford to take them and those who can’t.

Philosophers of different stripes are on different sides of this issue. Some like Julian Savulescu are keen that we use scientific breakthroughs to enhance our lives; others such as Michael Sandel are wary of the drive to achieve perfection. He thinks that, for example, the use of genetic enhancements to create superb athletes, even if legalised, would be bad for humanity; it would take away from what he calls the ‘gifted’ nature of our capabilities and is a kind of hubris.

Certainly many of these new advances often elicit a ‘yuk’ reaction from non-scientists – a sense of disgust when we see, say, a human-shaped ear on the back of a mouse. Professor Savulescu believes we shouldn’t put too much stress on these ‘yuk’ reactions. He says it’s important to go one step beyond just acknowledging our feelings and ask: ‘Are there are any good reasons for or against that course of action’?”

With mind-boggling scientific breakthroughs hitting the headlines on a weekly basis, we need to tackle the subject of boundaries: what should and shouldn’t be permitted. This, of course, is a matter for society as a whole. But philosophers, in particular, are scrambling behind the scientists – and they need to catch up.

David Edmonds is an award-winning documentary maker for the BBC World Service, and is the author (with John Eidinow) of  Wittgenstein’s Poker, Bobby Fischer Goes to War, and Rousseau’s Dog. He is currently a Research Associate at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University and a Contributing Editor for Prospect Magazine.

Nigel Warburton is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the Open University and author of bestselling books Philosophy: The Basics and Philosophy: The Classics. He also recently wrote Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction. He regularly teaches courses on aesthetics at Tate Modern and writes a monthly column ‘Everyday Philosophy’ for Prospect Magazine. He runs several blogs including Virtual Philosopher and Art and Allusion.

They are co-authors of Philosophy Bites, which is based on their highly successful series of podcasts. This article is reposted with permission from the BBC Focus Magazine/Oxford University Press microsite.

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