In the context of enhancement ethics, evolutionary theory has been largely perceived as supporting the liberal view on enhancement, where decisions to enhance are predominantly regulated by individual autonomy (e.g. Harris 2007; Persson and Savulescu 2012; Kahane and Savulescu 2015; Bostrom and Sandberg 2007).
In this paper I critique this perception in light of recent scientific developments. Cultural evolutionary theory suggests a picture where individual interests are entangled with community interests, and this undermines the applicability of the principle of autonomy (Sterelny 2012; Henrich 2016). This is particularly relevant for enhancement ethics, where, as illustrated here, decisions to enhance are often influenced by desires to increase social status. I discuss the empirical literatures on a variety of types of enhancement, including from height enhancement or cognitive enhancement, and show decisions to enhance are often motivated by desires to increase social status – potentially leading to perverse status competition.
The liberal view requires that a clear distinction can be made between the interests and decisions of the individual, and those of the community, and it is just this distinction that is undermined by our status-oriented moral psychology. The “service view on enhancement”, based on principles of service and trust, is proposed as offering better guidance for the challenges of social living. What is prioritized in this view is not the “own” good and wellbeing in the strict sense, but the good and wellbeing of others and that of the community at large.
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Bostrom, Nick, and Anders Sandberg. 2007. “The Wisdom of Nature: An Evolutionary Heuristic for Human Enhancement.” In Philosophical Issues in Pharmaceutics, edited by Dien Ho, 122:189–219. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-024-0979-6_12.
Harris, John. 2007. Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Henrich, Joseph. 2016. The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kahane, Guy, and Julian Savulescu. 2015. “Normal Human Variation: Refocussing the Enhancement Debate.” Bioethics 29 (2): 133–43. https://doi.org/10.1111/bioe.12045.
Persson, Ingmar, and Julian Savulescu. 2012. Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement. OUP Oxford.
Sterelny, Kim. 2012. The Evolved Apprentice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.