I've tended to think that bioethics is maybe the most profoundly useless field in mainstream philosophy. I might sum it up by saying that it's superficially similar to machine ethics except that the objects of its warnings and cautions are all unambiguously good things, like cognitive enhancements and life extension. In an era when we should by any reasonable measure be making huge amounts of progress on those problems—and in which one might expect bioethicists to be encouraging such research and helping weigh it against yet another dollar sent to the Susan G. Komen foundation or whatever—one mostly hears bioethicists quoted in the newspaper urging science to slow down. As if doubling human lifespans or giving everyone an extra 15 IQ points would in some way run the risk of "destroying that which makes us human" or something.
Anyway, this has basically been my perspective as a newspaper reader—I don't read specialty publications in bioethics. And perhaps it should come as no surprise that bioethics' usefulness to mainstream discourse would be to reinforce status quo bias, whether that's a true reflection of the field or not. In any case, it was a welcome surprise to see an interview in The Atlantic with Allen Buchanan, who apparently is an eminent bioethicist (Duke professor, President's Council on Bioethics), entirely devoted to refuting common objections to cognitive enhancement.
Some points Buchanan makes, responding to common worries:
- There's no good reason to think the human body and its capabilities are anywhere near their maximum.
- Technologies that make human lives better tend to have egalitarian effects in the long run (he mentions cell phones), even if they're at first available only to the wealthy.
- A much smarter human population will probably be morally, as well as cognitively, enhanced—the "evil genius" problem isn't necessarily a realistic one to worry about.
- Many people worry that the use of cognitive enhancement by people who are willing to self-experiment is unfair to those who don't want to or fear the risks. Buchanan points out that this problem could be largely alleviated by more research into safety and efficacy of drugs with cognitive enhancement potential. The current atmosphere of fear, dubious legal status, and unwillingness to do large-scale testing surrounding cognitive enhancement is counterproductive in this regard.
- As cool as it would be to be a cognitively enhanced person in today's world, it would be so much cooler to be a cognitively enhanced human in a world of other enhanced humans.