Neuro-Enhancement Philosophical Issues – an overview

Many of the controversial issues approached in enhancement debates are (or are closely related to) philosophical questions. Some are moral problems, regarding what we should and should not do, and some are metaphysical ones, concerning our most fundamental nature and that of the world around us – disentangling them is not always easy. Some have been discussed since the days of Ancient Greece till today and some are completely new, arising with enhancement technologies.

Chief among these philosophical issues surrounding enhancement debates are questions about the kind of beings we are, questions about our metaphysical nature. We take ourselves to be humans but we never cease asking: “what does it mean to be human?”. This is one of the oldest philosophical questions and arguably one of the first to come to mind when one thinks of enhancement. What, most of all, makes us humans? We know that to be human is to belong to a certain species, homo sapiens. But is that all? Is biology determinant in defining what we most fundamentally are? Is it biology that defines the characteristics or properties beings like us have and that make us this specific kind of being that we are?

Many believe being human is not only a matter of physical characteristics but also hinges on cultural factors. Nevertheless, is our biological substrate so determinant that no important change to our biology can be made without risk losing our humanity? Or can we make significant changes to what nature gave us and still call ourselves humans? A more general way of framing the question is to ask if there is something we can call “human nature”, something that is grounded in biology, of course, but extends beyond it. If so, what does it consist of? Some may say it consists of cognitive abilities and their underpinning our way of life, to others it is related to our moral and ethical understanding of each other and others still may argue that it lies elsewhere (our aesthetical abilities, for example).

Regardless of what we take ourselves to be, the core of the matter is that enhancement technologies, which have been around since the dawn of ages, are now believed to be able to endow us with the ability to interfere with ourselves and change our “human nature”. Thus, proponents and adversaries of enhancement technologies debate very often about the quintessential philosophical question of “what are we?”, even when the question itself is not formulated and merely lurks on the background of arguments for and against enhancement. Bringing those underlying notions of human nature to light would probably only benefit the debate, one may argue.

Deeper questions, however, can and should be asked regarding enhancement and this philosophical problem. For instance, we have been assuming from the onset that being human is the property (or set of properties) that most fundamentally defines us. Are we right in doing so? Perhaps what we most fundamentally are, our metaphysical nature, is defined not by our biological basis, our belonging to a species, but by our being persons, by our personhood. Is this a concept that can clarify our thinking and promote the debate or, as some argue in other situations, is it only another notion to muddle the discussion?

Taking it one step further: are our moral judgments even limited by our understanding of our metaphysical nature or can we (and should we) separate metaphysical matters from normative ones? In other words: can we decide our morals regardless of the kind of beings we are (or think we are)? Even in cases where the decision to be made is precisely whether to change or not the kind of beings we are?

Image credits: Anabela Nunes