India Future Society

About Better Humans. Enhancement as Education?

by Thomas Damberger

PGDI. The term “human enhancement“ refers to the improvement of humans. Unfortunately, it is unclear how human enhancement is defined. In the medical context, a distinction is made between therapeutic and compensatory measures on the one hand and human enhancement on the other hand. Therapeutic measures aim to cure a disease or to relieve the suffering. In the case of a compensatory measure, a lack will be compensated. For example, a missing leg will be replaced by a prosthesis. In contrast, human enhancement aims to improve the constitution of healthy people. At first glance, this distinction seems evident. Therapy means to heal the sick and enhancement aims to make healthy people better. However, if you look closer, this distinction is problematic. Indeed we must clearly distinguish between illness and health. Such a distinction is hardly possible in many cases.

If someone is in bed with a cold and fever, hardly anyone will doubt that this person is sick. In the case of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), there are certainly doubts on whether it is in fact a disease. Some say ADHD is a disease in the sense of a biological dysfunction (Gawrilow, 2012). The American Francis Fukuyama sees ADHD as a social constructed disease (Fukuyama, 2002). Christoph Türcke sees ADHD as a cultural-indexed disorder (Türcke, 2012). In his opinion, televisions, computers and games consoles have the consequence that attention deficit is specifically trained in children. Because the human brain is plastic, it is constantly changing, this change can be the basis for the diagnosis of ADHD (in addition to the criteria that are specified in the ICD-10 or DSM V).

In the context of the expanding opportunities of biotechnology, it becomes increasingly difficult to define what exactly is a disease. In 2006, the journal “Nature“ published the almost 100% accurate sequencing of the human genome. Since that time, the primary goal is no longer the decoding of the human genome, but the clarification of the function of genetic information. Numerous functional DNA segments have since been associated with diseases. The so-called predictive medicine deals with these diseases. The aim of predictive medicine is to identify and heal diseases at the genetic level – ideally even before the symptoms of the disease express. What is referred to in this context as a disease, is actually only an error in the functional DNA sequence. Functional DNA sequences are commonly referred to as genes. Genes are the blueprints for the amino acids that make up proteins. Proteins are essential for the cells of an organism. A defective gene can lead to a defective protein production and the associated consequences. This raises the following question: Is an error in the genes already a disease or is such an error only the condition of a disease resulting?

The uncertainty that prevails in relation to the concept of disease is exploited by some prominent scientists. James D. Watson, Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the double helix structure of DNA, has made a connection between illness and poor academic performance ​​in the London Times. He claims: there are genetic causes for why some students in elementary school have great difficulty in understanding the subject matter. He concludes: “If you’re really stupid, I would call that a disease” (Watson in Sandel, 2008, p. 92). The solution to this problem, or better: the cure for this disease, Watson sees in genetic engineering: ”No one really has the guts to say it, but if we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn´t we?“ (Watson in Stock, 2003, p. 12).

Sharon Duchesneau and Candy McCullough point to another interesting dimension of the problem. Duchesneau and McCullough are a lesbian couple. They are both deaf, nevertheless they feel the fact that they are deaf not as a disadvantage, but as a special value. This particular feature they wanted to share with their future child. For this reason, the two were looking for a sperm donor, who has a genetic condition to deafness. In fact, the child who was begotten in this way, was born deaf. (Sandel, 2008, p. 23).

Most people will probably argue to be deaf is clearly a form of disability. For Duchesneau and  McCullough this is not the case. It seems abnormal to have the conviction that to be deaf is such a great value, that someone wants to pass on this “feature” to his children, but this does not apply to the two women. Here is something obvious, what may be called in accordance with Lyotard as a conflict between two notions of normality (Lyotard calls this conflict “le différend“). It means, that both notions of normality claim equal validity.

II. The previous discussion has already been shown that it is far from easy to define what counts as healthy or as sick. Consequently, it is very difficult to determine what exactly is human enhancement and what is not. For the average person it may be a form of therapy, if his lack or non-existing hearing is prepared technically by a cochlear implant. In contrast, for Duchesneau and McCullough, such an implant would be a form of enhancement, because the two women does not perceive their deafness as a disability.

The British bioethicist John Harris makes clear the relativity which is associated with the term human enhancement: „In the context of interventions which impact on human functioning, an enhancement is cleary anything that makes a change, a difference for the better.“ (Harris, 2007, p. 36). Harris further argues, the change for the better can not be considered in relation to normality or normal functions of the human body. Rather, the improvement applies to the individual subject. Thus, Harris also opposes the distinction between therapy and enhancement (Harris, 2007, p. 44).

Nick Bostrom and Rebecca Roache (University of Oxford) understand human enhancement to mean the extension of life, the increasing of physical and cognitive abilities, brightening of the mood, improvement of personality traits and the selection of the genetically best offspring (Bostrom & Roache, 2007, p. 3-5.). All aspects mentioned here refer to an extension of previous limits. Looking at this extension there are four main positions in the philosophical discourse recognizable. Andreas Woyke worked out these positions, he referred to them as transhumanist position, liberal position, conservative position and skeptical position (Woyke, 2010, p. 24-26).

Following Woyke, transhumanists, such as Max More, Natasha Vita-More and Ray Kurzweil, represents a dogmatic point of view. They interpret human enhancement as legitimate and necessary. Legitimate, because human carries the potential for self-transcendence in itself. Necessary, because human is being separated from himself. This separation is characterized e.g. by the fact that on the one hand human has an enormous imagination and creativity, but on the other hand, his physical abilities are extremely limited. This results in an distress, of which Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes 1762 in his novel of education, Emilé, the following: ”All wickedness comes from weakness. The child is wicked only because he is weak. Make him strong; he will be good. He who could do everything would never do harm.“ (Rousseau, 1762/ 2006, p. 166).

It is the discrepancy between desire and ability, which threatens to tear apart not only the child, but the people at all. Human wants what he can not do. But this non-ability does not apply to all the time. Enlightenment, rationality and the permanent progress of science make it possible that we shape and design ourselves and the world around us according to our will. If the risks seems foreseeable and controllable, from a transhumanist perspective Human Enhancement is not only permissible, but obligatory, because enhancement makes it possible to alleviate the suffering of the people and contributes to a more human life. It’s not inherently wrong to characterize the transhumanist position in this way, but it is also a simplification that does not take into account the many variations that exist within transhumanism (More, 2013, p 12-14).

In contrast to transhumanism, representatives of the liberal ethics, for example Julian Savulescu, Gregory Stock and Eric Juengst, not argue dogmatically but individualistic respectively utilitarian. Prevailing images of human are considered as variable, which is also true for the human constitution. The human being is seen as a natural being, which is overformed culturally. Technology is a part of the culture and also part of human nature. This also applies to the pursuit of optimization. It seems to be human, if you want to improve. The representatives of liberal ethics see the role of government in regulatory action to prevent social constraints for optimization.

Michael Sandel and Francis Fukuyama may be designated as representatives of conservative ethics. They are dismissive of both transhumanism and a liberal position and they pledge to relate human creativity to things which are naturally given and grown culturally. Individual freedoms are generally defended but the freedoms are always relative to the overall social welfare and on the welfare of future generations. They trust in a metaphysical superstructure and argue often with reference to religion (Woyke, 2010, p. 30). The latter point distinguishes the conservative ethicists from skeptics. The skeptic is always at a distance from metaphysical reasons.

III. Not only Buchanan, but also Savulescu delimits the selection of genetically best offspring of other forms of enhancement. The increase in physical and mental capabilities, or the extension of lifetime applies only to each individual. However, the selection of genetically best humans aims to improve the overall gene pool of humanity (Ranisch & Savulescu, 2009, p. 28). It is a form of eugenics. The term eugenics was invented by Francis Galton (1822 – 1911) in 1883 (Galton, 1883/1907, p. 17). Galton was a cousin of Charles Darwin. The term ”eugenics” can be translated into good hereditary factors or good genes and means not just a statement or description, but rather a program.

In 1910, the Harvard professor Charles B. Davenport founded at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, the Eugenics Record Office (ERO). The stated objective of this research was to collect data on the genetic origin of the inmates of prisons, hospitals, almshouses and mental hospitals by using field studies. Since the 1920s, many universities throughout the United States have offered eugenics courses, which should give the country’s elite informations about which partner choice is right from an eugenic point of view (Sandel, 2008, p. 87). Pedagogy has also taken these considerations.

In 1900, the main work of the Swedish pedagogue Ellen Key was published. The book was entitled “The Century of the Child“ and was themed “to create the new man in the new century.“ Key was referred, inter alia, on Galton’s ideas and has formulated the requirement that pedagogy must be taken seriously the results of research in biology and incorporate them into education. The aim of education is to improve humanity, and that can only succeed if people mate with such, who have good, healthy genetic material (Key, 1902/1992, p. 39).

Ellen Key pleaded to introduce a special law. According to this law, those who want to get married must submit before marriage a medical certificate which informs about the genetic health. The spouses would then still have the option to marry (and to beget children), but they have the advantage of being informed, both about their own hereditary factors as well as on the heredity of their partner.

So Key advocates a form of enlightenment, what should be obligatory. This requirement for an obligatory enlightenment is very liberal compared to that which was introduced a few years later, first in the U.S., and later in Europe. In the U.S. state of Indiana, the first law was passed in 1907, which allowed it to sterilize mental patients, prisoners and beggars. Similar laws followed in a total of 29 U.S. states (Sandel, 2008, p. 89). In Germany, the “Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses“ was enacted in 1934. Similar laws were adopted at the same time in Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, and later in Finland and in Estonia (Reyer, 2003, p. 18).

Today, we have the possibility of selection of embryos using the preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). It is also already technically possible to manipulate individual genes of an unborn child. One of the major problems associated with the selection of genetically best offspring is that we design other people. This also applies to people who are not yet born, people who are thus possible, but yet not really. There is a difference if I change my own genes according to my will or if I design the genes of my child according to my ideas. In this context, Habermas points out that if the genes of a child were manipulated by the parents will, a child can no longer refer to a nature, which is equally unavailable for all people (Habermas, 2005, p. 95).

This means the following: Human is always in the situation, that he must behave both to himself and to the world. The fact that human is confronted with the world and its requirements, causes that he also discovers something about himself. If he e.g. listening to music, he becomes aware that he is interested in music. Or if he meet a certain person, it will clear to him that he likes this person. In other words, the person experiences himself through the world. It is a movement of reflection.

The task of the human now is to experience himself and to discover what are the own abilities, desires and interests. At the same time, each individual must realize himself in the world, that means, he has to project himself (in the sence of Heideggers term „sich entwerfen“). This projection („Entwurf“) always involves a mediation between one’s own abilities and needs on the one hand and the requirements of the world on the other hand. In this way, the human becomes the author of his life, he designs his life according to his ideas within his possibilities.

If the human was, however, genetically modified before birth, the scope of his possibilities has already been specified in a certain respect. Of course, one could argue at this point that it does not make much difference, who has given the frame: the nature, the random or the conscious action of the geneticist. In both cases, the conditions with which human has to live, were not created by himself.

Nevertheless, it is something different, whether it was the parents who have let manipulate the genes of their child according to their ideas or whether it was the lottery of nature, which has determined the genes. For lottery of nature, namely neither the parents nor the child is responsible. (However, if the genetic manipulation of embryos is possible, parents are responsible for their decision, to have used the possibility of genetic manipulation or not.)

GeneticEngineering_040913-617x416IV. Enhancement in the sense of the genetic improvement of the offspring is undoubtedly an act of heteronomy. The pedagogy is familiar with similar forms of heteronomy. In addition to socialization and “Bildung“, education is an essential part of pedagogy. It is a significant feature of education that it is based on heteronomy. Parents, teachers and educators make decisions, and the children have to follow those decisions. From this perspective, education could be understood as an act of domination.

Similarly, the genetic engineer has dominion over the genes that he designs. Fortunately, education is more than simply heteronomy, because its goal is the autonomous, mature person who can self-determined live his life. So educational heteronomy aims at freedom. Hence it becomes obvious that education can not be domination, because the one who rules over others does not want to lose his dominion, but preserve it.

Not to rule over the child, but to lead it to freedom means to preserve his dignity. The writings of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre display different facets of human dignity. If we combine these facets, we can say that man is a dual creature in two ways: He has a body and a mind and he is both a physical and a metaphysical creature. Metaphysical means in this context, that human has not only a consciousness which allows him to think. It means something is expressed through his actions and what is expressed, man has not even made ​​it nor he has power over it.

If we understand the human being in this sense as a double creature, it results three main tasks for the pedagogues: 1. The particular human must be empowered to be an independent, literate member of society. 2. Human must be encouraged to discover himself. 3. Human must be able to distinguish to learn what is feasible in principle and what is principle denied of human design. In particular, the last point is crucial and therefore I will place increasing emphasis this point in a special way during my lecture.

Currently, we are already able to manipulate our emotions by neuropharmaceuticals. Maybe in the near future, we will be able to extend our lifetime significantly. It is also not unlikely that we can clone humans and produce biological copies of us in the foreseeable future. Maybe in the distant future we will save memories from the human brain to external media and perhaps we will transfer this externalized memories in the brain of our biological copy. All this may be possible in a fews decates.

But the fact remains, that we will constantly have feelings, whose meaning we can not divide. In this respect, we will always be lonely in a certain existential way and therefore we always have to learn to deal with this loneliness. There will always prevail a force in us that wants to express itself. This force, which we are, will strive incessantly for resonance; it wants to be seen, heard, to be perceived. Especially at a time, in which human enhancement takes place, it is and remains the task of education to permit people to self-experience, to help them to become able to express themselves in a world that already exists.


Bostrom, N. & Roache, R. (2007). Ethical Issues in Human Enhancement. [20.01.2014].

Buchanan, A. (2011). Beyond Humanity? The Ethics of Biomedical Enhancement. Oxford: University Press.

Damberger, T. (2012). Menschen verbessern! Zur Symptomatk einer Pädagogik der ontologischen Heimatlosigkeit. [20.01.2014].

Fukuyama, F. (2002). Das Ende des Menschen. Stuttgart, München: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt.

Galton, F. (1883/1907). Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development. London, New York: J. M. Dent.

Gawrilow, C. (2012). Lehrbuch ADHS. Modelle, Ursachen, Diagnose, Therapie. München, Basel: Ernst Reinhardt.

Gesang, B. (2007). Perfektionierung des Menschen. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Habermas, J. (2005). Die Zukunft der menschlichen Natur. Auf dem Weg zu einer liberalen Eugenik? Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Harris, J. (2007). Enhancing Evolution. The Ethical Case for Making Better People. Princeton: University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1946/2001): Brief über den ‚Humanismus‘. In G. Seubold (ed.), Die Freiheit vom Menschen. Die philosophische Humanismusdebatte der Nachkriegszeit. Darstellung – Analyse – Dokumentation (p. 181-198). Alfter/Bonn: DenkMal.

Heydorn, H.-J. (1970). Über den Widerspruch von Bildung und Herrschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt.

Humboldt, W. v. (1797/2006). Das achtzehnte Jahrhundert. Schriften zur Anthropologie und Geschichte. New York: Elibron Classics.

Irrgang, B. (2005). Einführung in die Bioethik. München: Wilhelm Fink.

Juengst, E. T. (2009). Was bedeutet Enhancement. In B. Schöne-Seifert & D. Talbot (ed.), Enhancement. Die ethische Debatte (p. 25-46). Paderborn: Mentis.

Kant, I. (1977). Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Key, E. (1902/1992). Das Jahrhundert des Kindes. Weinheim, Basel: Beltz.

Krieck, E. (1932). Nationalpolitische Erziehung. Leipzig: Armanen.

Lenk, C. (2002). Therapie und Enhancement. Ziele und Grenzen der modernen Medizin. Münster, Hamburg, London: LIT.

Lenz, F. (1927). Über die biologischen Grundlagen der Erziehung. München: J. F. Lehmanns.

Malthus, T. R. (1798/1998). An Essay on the Principle of Population. Electronic Scholarly Publishing Project.

More, M. (2013). The Philosophy of Transhumanism. In M. More & N. Vita-More (ed.), The Transhumanist Reader (p. 3-17). West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Obermann-Jeschke, D. (2008). Eugenik im Wandel. Kontinuitäten, Brüche und Transformationen. Eine diskursgeschichtliche Analyse. Münster: Unrast.

Pico della Mirandola, G. (1496/1988). Über die Würde des Menschen. Zürich: Manesse Verlag.

Ranisch, R. & Savulescu, J. (2009). Ethik und Enhancement. In N. Knoepffler & J. Savulescu (ed.), Der neue Mensch? Enhancement und Genetik (p. 21-53). München: Karl Alber.

Reyer, Jürgen: Designer-Pädagogik im Zeitalter der „liberalen Eugenik“ – Blicke in eine halb offene Zukunft. In: Neue Sammlung, 43. Jg., J. 1, 2004, p. 1-27

Rousseau, J.-J. (1762/2006). Émile oder Über die Erziehung. Stuttgart: Reclam.

Sandel, M. J. (2008). Plädoyer gegen die Perfektion. Ethik im Zeitalter der genetischen Technik. Berlin: University Press.

Sartre, J.-P. (1943/2007). Das Sein und das Nichts. Versuch einer phänomenologischen Ontologie. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt.

Sartre, J.-P. (1946/1994). Der Existenzialismus ist ein Humanismus. In ders., Gesammelte Werke. Philosophische Schriften I. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt.

Steinke, V. & Rahner, N. (2009). Medizinisch-naturwissenschaftliche Aspekte der Präimplantationsdiagnostik. In V. Steinke. N. Rahner, A. Middel & A. Schräer (ed.), Präimplantationsdiagnostik (p. 13-51). Freiburg, München: Karl Alber.

Stock, G. (2003). Redesigning Humans. Choosing our Genes, Changing our Future. New York: Mariner Book.

Türcke, C. (2012). Hyperaktiv! Kritik der Aufmerksamkeitsdefizitkultur. München: C. H. Beck.

Winfield, A. G. (2007). Eugenics – Education – America. Institutionalized Racism and the Implications of History. Ideology, and Memory. New York: Peter Lang.

Woyke, A. (2010). Human Enhancement uns seine Bewertung. Eine kleine Skizze. In C. Coenen, S. Gammel, R. Heil & A. Woyke (ed.), Die Debatte über „Human Enhancement“. Historische, philosophische und ethische Aspekte der technologischen Verbesserung des Menschen (p. 21-38). Bielefeld: Transcript.

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Read previous post:
Focus on Biology of Ageing and Healthy Longevity at the IFA Global Conference on Aging, Hyderabad, 10th – 13th June 2014

The 12th International Federation on Ageing Global Conference will be held in Hyderabad International Convention Centre, Hyderabad from the 10th –...