What do we talk about when we talk about making “better” humans? It sounds like a Raymond Carver story, but it’s just one of the questions that the philosopher Michael Hauskeller addresses in his book, Better Humans? Understanding the Enhancement Project.
The human enhancement-discussion is full of conflicting normative views. This is valid for the “bio-conservatives” (the skeptics) as well as the “transhumanists” (the optimists). Both positions choose a set of values and norms that serve their respective project, for example, when both claim that, “the natural assumes a normative role” (p. 63). The only difference is that natural functions either as a sacred gift (i.e. bio-conservative), or as a natural human desire to become better (i.e. transhumanists).
Hauskeller unfolds many of these ethical dilemmas. Additionally, he illustrates some of the more desperate postulates, for instance, that happiness and authenticity goes hand in hand. “The unhappy life is therefore ipso facto inauthentic” (p. 69). If authenticity refers to a natural or honest state of mind, then most people would be quite unauthentic if they were happy all the time.
Making better humans, Hauskeller argues, requires a purpose within a specific context. “Thus a tennis player who wins most of her matches, even against strong opponents, will certainly be seen as a good tennis player, but that does mean that she will be seen as a good human” (p. 8).
Unlike most books dealing with human enhancement, this one doesn’t try to frame the project within a set of moral categories. Instead, it remains within the project of becoming “better humans.” It is a difficult, but commendable task. The approach alone makes the book a needed contribution. It opens up the project and brings new energy to the debate.
The attractive thought that guides Hauskeller, as I see it, is that each human life is a multiplicity. For this reason it is difficult to judge morally, what we should or ought to do. The fact is that we still don´t know what the human being is capable of – with or without enhancement. For example, he shows that a smarter, stronger or more beautiful human being is not an indicator of moral goodness. Beautiful people are also cheating. It makes sense. Yet, when it comes to what actually makes us human, the author appears to be somewhat indecisive, at times romantic. At one point, he even becomes unnecessary polemical.
In the chapter “Getting stronger,” Hauskeller he solely views sport as a stupid activity without any purpose. “There does not seem to be any real point in winning athletic competitions, or at least not more points than there would be, say, in a hamster’s decision to become the fastest wheel-runner” (p. 157). He claims that the athlete, seen from the perspective of human enhancement, no longer is the object, but only a means for technology. This assumption, though, requires a romantic view of what is natural. Isn’t culture the only nature? Also, I guess that practicing a tennis serve over and over doesn’t tell Hauskeller anything about concentration or discipline as means of enhancement, although these strengths might help the person outside the sport. Roger Federer is just a hamster with a racket!
Hauskeller doesn’t know what to do with the human body, even though he refers to thinkers for whom the body is furnished with sensors (e.g. Alva Noë). To give an example: if we listen, the body tells us not only when to eat, sleep and drink, but also when we have reached our limits. Why is it that many people who suffer from stress or burnout find it useful to train their capacities to listen to their bodies, for instance, through meditation?
Another concept that is present throughout the book, but only treated vaguely is experience. At one point, he treats it as something relative. “[R]eading and being able to understand and appreciate Proust is better than reading Tom Clancy. But why and in what sense would it be better?” (p. 88). How can a preference be justified? For Hauskeller such justification rests on a certain idea about what it means to be a human. “Human enhancement,” he writes, “is thus proposed as a way of eventually turning us into what we are meant to be” (p. 86).
However, “better” doesn’t necessarily refer to what is canonized by science (or the cultural elite), but whether a writer explores new nuances of the human experience. To be a human being is not, per definition, to appreciate Proust. But, Proust might enhance humans. Proust probably violates more people´s habitual way of thinking, than Clancy. Is that good? Yes, because it creates a fictional space where different experiences can emerge. The funny thing is that Hauskeller apparently agrees with my intervention, because 100 pages later he writes, “can we really believe that what makes Mozart great is entirely comparative, that there is nothing of intrinsic value in his music?” (p. 177). It is both implausible, Hauskeller says, and it contradicts the whole human enhancement project, if all values are relative. Still, athletic competitions are like hamster races; Proust is like Clancy; the body may be strong or look good, but not be trained to achieve a better balance in life.
The inconsistencies are worth mentioning, because they touch upon Hauskeller’s own premise that the idea of better humans depends on our human experiences (or our present human form). So, does Proust interfere with Hauskeller’s final words, when he says that a “lively appreciation of giftedness” may well serve as a precondition for the good life (p. 181)?
Does the human enhancement project expand our space of experiences, or not? Is that the question?
Readers will find much to agree and disagree upon, however, Hauskeller´s book is without doubt a good example of how philosophy fruitfully can contribute to a discussion that involves all of us.