Beyond repugnance: human enhancement and the President's Council on Bioethics

Michael A. Cerullo

in Philosophical Perspectives on Technology and Psychiatry

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print January 2007 | ISBN: 9780199207428
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754494 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Beyond repugnance: human enhancement and the President's Council on Bioethics

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Modern neuroscience has given us more insight into the brain than many ever thought possible. Discoveries in neuroscience will continue to expand. I am interested in the possible applications of these biotechnologies toward human enhancement, particularly for what Peter Kramer has called ‘cosmetic psychopharmacology,’ the ability to alter mood and personality in those without mental illness (Kramer 1993). My interest and enthusiasm for these technologies naturally led me into discussions of their ethical implications. Exploring these issues further, I found that much of the opposition to human enhancement was based on political and religious ideology rather than on scientific evidence or sound ethical argument (Annas and Elias 2004; Blackburn 2004; Danforth 2005; Groopman 2002; Pinker 2002; Turner 2004). My foray into the ethics of human enhancement recently culminated in the reading of Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the pursuit of happiness, a report of the President's Council on Bioethics (2003). This document only increased my concern that serious policy decisions about biotechnology were being dictated, to a significant extent, by a political–religious coalition representing a religious fundamentalist ideology (Annas and Elias 2004; Blackburn 2004; Danforth 2005; Groopman 2002; Pinker 2002).

One goal of this paper is to review the arguments presented in Beyond Therapy and to demonstrate their logical fallacies and foundation in political–religious ideology. A second goal is to present an alternative approach to evaluating controversial biotechnological using the principles approach, the method of applied ethical reasoning adopted by most bioethicists (Beauchamp and Childress 1994; Buchanan et al. 2000; Edge and Groves 1999; Gruenberg 2000). This method requires understanding and application of the basic ethical principles of autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice. The optimal ethical decision is made, in theory, by considering the impact of a given course of action on each of these (sometimes) competing principles (Beauchamp and Childress 1994; Buchanan et al. 2000; Edge and Groves 1999), and there is precedent for this approach regarding the evaluation of biotechnologies (Davis 2004; Edge and Groves 1999; Harris 2004). I do not expect to resolve these complicated ethical issues. Instead, my goal is to demonstrate that sound ethical evaluations of biotechnology can be made, that the positions of those who favor the application of biotechnologies should be represented in any public debate on the issue, and that discourse can and should proceed without recourse to ideology. Although in this chapter I am focusing on the debate provoked in the US by the President's Council on Bioethics, I intend my argument to be applicable to any discussion of the ethics of human enhancement technologies.

As will be demonstrated, the authors of Beyond Therapy did not take the principles approach to ethical analysis in arguing their positions. There is no statement, analysis, or discussion of major ethical principles (nor did the council adopt an alternative method of ethical analysis such as a case, care, or virtue-based approach). Rather, a series of ideological pronouncements is made. This lack of focus on ethical principles makes it difficult to find focused arguments in Beyond Therapy, but certain themes appear repeatedly. Before discussing these specific arguments, it is helpful to review the history behind Beyond Therapy.

Chapter.  6054 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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