Human Enhancements Technologies (HET)

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Capurro, Rafael
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information ethics
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Thomas Fröstl (January 2020, contribution elaborated within the Seminar "A Journey through Philosophy and Information" facilitated by J.M.Díaz at the Hochschule München)


This entry outlines different types of Human Enhancement and the definition of the phrase. The different methods are divided into bodily enhancement and neuro enhancement. Treatments that are specifically covered include cosmetic surgery, prolongation of life, doping in sports, emotional and cognitive enhancement. The aim of this entry is to familiarize readers with the concept and differentiation to therapy and to inform about different methods and their potential ethical consequences and concerns.


Though the history of humanity is marked by rising and falling levels of civilization, quality of life and security for the individual, it seems that the goal of most humans remained the same: The enhancement of living conditions for yourself, your family and friends. This historically manifests in adaptation to and manipulation of the external environment, something that humans are exceptionally good at. With the amazing technological progress achieved in the last few hundred years, the scale of human interference into the environment has now reached unprecedented levels. Usually, this is seen as positive. Life without security from harsh weather conditions, predators, hunger and sickness, achieved through changing the world around us and ourselves, is now unimaginable.

But nowadays, it is clear to most how our shaping of the environment can result in dangerous and unintended consequences, like global climate change, extinction of species and actually worse living conditions due to pollution.

With progress in the understanding of the human body and mind and the associated technologies, another ancient desire seems close to reality. Dreamt of in culture spanning tales, from Icarus to Beowulf, the evolution of homo sapiens into homo superior (Allhoff et al., 2010)through Self Enhancement and Self Enhancement Technologies is within reach.

Like our intervention into the environment, it seems prudent to consider the possible unintended consequences this enhancement of humans could have. But unlike changing the environment, what it means to change ourselves is not clearly and easily defined and connected to fundamental ethical questions of the self.


The broadest definition of human enhancement, used by transhumanists “includes any activity by which we improve our bodies, minds, or abilities - things we do to enhance our well-being. So reading a book, eating vegetables, doing homework, and exercising may count as enhancing ourselves.” (Allhoff et al., 2010, p. 3). As used in Bioethics, the term enhancement generally and biomedical enhancement specifically, stands for all improvements of human properties/attributes or abilities by technological/biomedical interventions, that do not serve as treatment of sickness/disease, but rather exceed a measure of “normalcy” or “normal function”. (Fenner, 2019)

This exceeding of “normal function” is the main difference of human enhancement to “therapy” and can lead to a broad discussion of a new kind of “wish fulfilling medicine” as opposed to the classical understanding of medicine as purely curative.

With this narrower definition of human enhancement, as improvements of humans by technological and biomedical means beyond normal function Fenner (2019) now further divides this concept into bodily enhancement such as cosmetic surgery, life extension or doping; and neuro enhancement such as emotional or cognitive enhancement.

Bodily Enhancement

Although all forms of human enhancement by technological or biomedical interventions target the body in some form, the subcategory of bodily enhancement deals with the body as the part of the organism that constitutes the appearance of the human. (Fenner, 2019)

Because forms of enhancement like dieting, meditation, breathing exercises and sports are seen as unproblematic in ethical circles, they will not be discussed in this entry.

Cosmetic Surgery is one aspect of human enhancement beyond normal function that has been part of mainstream society since the 1970s and 1980s. Once only the domain of famous movie stars, advances in minimally invasive techniques could become part of everyday life, like hair dying or visiting the gym (Borkenhagen et al., 2012). Of note should be that the distinction between cosmetic surgery and reconstructive surgery is similar to the difference between human enhancement and therapy and can be similarly argued. Borkenhagen and Brähler talk about the example of facial transplantation, which once was only used on patients whose face was disfigured through traumatic injury. After the first use of a facial transport from a dead person to a patient with disfigurement due to genetic disease, could the transplant of a face only because of cosmetic reasons be not that far away? This trend to more and more extreme forms of cosmetic surgery is seen as problematic by experts. For one, suggestions by modern society, media and fashion industry, that outer beauty is necessary to a happy and fulfilled life can lead to psychological problems, like low self esteem and body dysmorphic disorders. (Fenner, 2019)

Another problem is the definition of beauty ideals that could lead to a person being discriminated against if they do not fit this ideal. This is especially problematic in the case of racially coded beauty ideals. One type of discrimination called colorism can already be observed in several societies, such as in India, where “fairness” creams are marketed to individuals with darker skin, with the message that they could get farther ahead in life with lighter skin. Other forms of colorism include discrimination within the Black community in the United States based on shade of skin.

The extension of human life or indeed immortality is a well covered subject in mythical stories from all kinds of cultures. In the modern world, this ancient dream could take many forms. So called “cybernetic immortality”, where the personality of a human could be preserved for all eternity through “mind uploading” is a newer idea among trans- and post humanists (Fenner, 2019). The main question and concern with this theoretical method concerns deals with questions of what actually constitutes the human mind. Is divorcing the mind from the body possible or indeed desirable? Would the uploaded intelligence be the same as the offline? Because of these unanswered and maybe unanswerable concerns, most enhancement advocates talk about bodily immortality in the form of a longer lifespan. It should be stressed that the goal of bodily immortality is not just the extension of the state of being that people find themselves in at the end of their natural lifespan. Diseases of old age, like cancer, dementia, Alzheimer's or incontinence lead to rapid loss of quality of life and to just keep existing in a perpetual state of old age as we know it is desirable to no one.

Rather, the goal of efforts to achieve immortality should be to eliminate the consequences of natural aging.

Different fields of study that are being worked on in order to prolong the natural human lifespan of today, about 120 years, include genetic manipulation, substances that demonstrably lengthen an organism's lifespan such as antioxidants and research into so called telomeres. These are located at the ends of chromosomes and get shortened with every cell division, leading to eventual cell death (Fenner, 2019). 

Doping in sports can be categorised in a few ways. What is usually understood under this term is the forbidden ingestion of performance enhancing substances to gain an advantage in a competitive sports setting. These substances can range from Human Growth Hormones, Testosterone or Steroids to more oxygen rich blood of the competitor themselves. Through these means training is shortened or the abilities of the athlete are enhanced above what is naturally possible. The distinction between what is natural and what is synthetic in this context is up for debate and most anti-doping agencies today just enumerate all banned substances in a list (Fenner, 2019). The usage of performance enhancing substances in a casual sport setting with no apparent competitive advantage imbued in the individual, is usually just called prescription substance abuse.

Because top-ranking athletes seem to be already performing inhuman feats of strength, endurance or dexterity, there is the notion of why not let them use all available modern forms of enhancement to achieve even greater heights. This gets to the heart of what is usually understood as the point of sport namely to achieve the greatest possible accomplishment with just conditioning and training. But because many forms of sport already use external, “synthetic” assistants, for example running shoes or skis, this argument against the usage of doping is difficult to make.

Another argument against letting athletes just use whichever substance they please is fairness in competition. For an equal playing field, everyone should start from the same place. But when everyone is allowed to use and abuse whatever drug that they think helps them, everyone is technically again in the same playing field. Besides, some say the game was rigged from the start. Some of the most decorated athletes in history are abnormal from their competitors in ways that give them a physical edge . The legendary swimmer Michael Phelps for example, uses his double-jointed elbows and ankles to generate more speed than his opponents. He also produces only about half the lactic acid than an average human, making him fatigue slower (Siebert, 2014). 

Neuro Enhancement

The term Neuro Enhancement describes the improvement of psychological health or the enhancement of cognitive, emotional or moral capabilities in healthy humans through pharmacological substances or technical means (Riel et al., 2015). Further subfields of neuro enhancement include sensory enhancement, improvement of sensory perceptions, and motor enhancement, improvements in the agility of existing limbs or addition of new limbs. Because public and academic interest in these subfields are less pronounced and they don't seem to affect human personality as much as the other fields described, they are not going to be discussed in this entry. As stated in the chapter on bodily enhancement, techniques such as learning a language, enhancement of cognitive functions, through for example Yoga, are not considered human enhancement.

There are two main methods of achieving neuro enhancement as described in Fenner (2019, pp 168-173). The more common one is enhancement by pharmacological means, where medicinal products normally used for therapeutic goals are ingested in order to change the way the brain transmits information in the central nervous system. These drugs, usually some form of stimulant, are often acquired through friends or the black market and are used to enhance cognitive abilities while studying, working or to improve the mood of the user.

The other method is neurophysiological enhancement, where the way the brain processes signals is changed through invasive or non-invasive technical procedures. Non-invasive methods could be stimulation using magnetism while invasive methods usually describe the implantation of electronic devices directly into the brain, such as the “Brain-Machine-Interface”. While implantation of working electronics into the brain in order to communicate with computers seems like an idea for the future, sensory neuroprosthetics, such as cochlear implants have been implanted into 25.000 to 30.000 germans as of 2013 (Ärzteblatt, 2013). Because of the highly complex nature of operating on the brain, this method is at this point only used in a therapeutic context by trained medical teams.

Perception of neuro enhancement and its prominence in the medical discourse has risen in recent years, with advances in IT and -->Artificial Intelligence usually credited with this rise in popularity (Fenner, 2019).

Emotional enhancement or mood enhancement is a type of neuro enhancement that tries to make patients happier or more content. Antidepressant agents of the Serotonin–norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) class, such as Prozac, were once marketed as cure all, not just for clinically depressed people, but for everyone feeling down or under the weather. These pharmacological ways of mood enhancement are the most common, but neurophysical procedures could also be used in the future. The main ethical concern with emotional enhancement is the question of authenticity and personality. If happiness is induced artificially through drugs, is it still real happiness or only an illusion? And if the patient changes their personality through “indirect emotional enhancement” (Fenner, 2019, p. 174), to achieve happiness, is the authenticity or even the personality of the person in danger?

The attempt to enhance cognitive abilities, such as heightened concentration, better memory or faster thinking has grown in popularity since the 1990s (Fenner, 2019, p. 212). This enhancement seems unproblematic at first as the rising cognitive abilities of humanity contributed in a major way to prosperity and happiness throughout history. But to define what actually constitutes intelligence and how different cognitive qualities contribute to it is a hotly debated topic. Several types of intelligence, such as emotional and verbal intelligence are not currently targeted by drugs and neurophysiological methods of enhancement. There are also concerns that increased classical intelligence is actually detrimental to perceived happiness and therefore maybe not desirable (Fenner, 2019, p. 216ff). Drugs used in cognitive enhancement aside from therapy include methylphenidate, sold under the name Ritalin, or Modafinil which has the main benefit of not being chemically similar to amphetamine and therefore avoiding many of its unwanted effects. So called Nootropics are a loosely defined class of drugs that are supposed to enhance cognitive abilities without being toxic or harmful to the user. There has been a trend of advertising drugs with rather mundane ingredients, such as Omega-3 fatty acids or ginseng roots as nootropics. The effectiveness of these natural ingredients is disputed and the name nootropics originally refers to anti-dementia drugs in a pharmaceutical sense. 


Due to the rapidly advancing technology and further understanding of the mechanisms of the human mind and body, human enhancement technologies could achieve mainstream recognition and adoption. With the enthusiasm around artificial intelligence, combining it with natural intelligence seems like a step some ambitious scientist could soon take. The ethical concerns and societal consequences this kind of intervention into the core of the human being could entail will undoubtedly be immense. Even today, bodily and pharmacological enhancements are used often without care, when they could already be changing our ethics and society as humans in a major way. It doesn’t seem likely that humans will soon stop trying to enhance themselves and get an edge in whatever way they can. Dealing with this constant race to the top is what will be important in the future and the present.


Allhoff, F., Lin, P., Moor, J., & Weckert, J. (2010). Ethics of Human Enhancement: 25 Questions & Answers. Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology, 4.

Ärzteblatt, D. Ä. G., Redaktion Deutsches. (2013, April 5). Cochlea-Implantate: Wenn Hörgeräte nicht mehr helfen . . . Deutsches Ärzteblatt.

Borkenhagen, A., Brähler, E., & Ach, J. S. (Eds.). (2012). Die Selbstverbesserung des Menschen: Wunschmedizin und Enhancement aus medizinpsychologischer Perspektive (Originalausgabe). Psychosozial-Verlag.

Fenner, D. (2019). Selbstoptimierung und Enhancement. Narr Francke Attempto Verlag.

Riel, R. van, Di Nucci, E., & Schildmann, J. (Eds.). (2015). Enhancement der Moral. Mentis.

Siebert, V. (2014, April 25). Michael Phelps: The man who was built to be a swimmer.

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