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Professor Jackie Leach Scully
Co-director of Policy Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre
Professor Jackie Leach Scully

'Human enhancement: making better people or making people better?

Authors: Professor Jackie Leach Scully Jackie Leach Scully, Professor of Social Ethics and Bioethics, Newcastle University

11 June 2013

Discussion of enhancements focuses on normal, healthy people who want to improve how they function. Until very recently, the line between enhancement and therapy was clearly marked out in terms of who it applied to. Therapy is about restoring people to the norm (making people better) while enhancement is taking people beyond the norm (making better people). The people in need of therapy are disabled or chronically ill, while those who might want to be enhanced are just…normal people who want to be better than normal. In the debate about the impact of enhancement technologies on the world of work, disabled people don’t really seem to figure.

But things are not that simple, and in many ways disabled people are now key to our thinking about technological self-improvement and its effect on the world of work. Making clear distinctions between therapy and enhancement is becoming increasingly difficult. For one thing, some of the interventions (pharmacological or otherwise) that enhance the abilities of normal people are likely to start life as therapies aimed at people with particular conditions. The cognitive enhancing drugs of the future, for example, may be developed to treat pathological memory loss in people with dementia; but suppose that same drug turned out to improve memory in the unaffected too? Suppose an implant developed for visual impairment could be adapted for normally sighted people to expand the range of what they can see?

This blurring of the boundaries will have implications for access to innovative and sophisticated technologies. Many of these interventions will be expensive. Disabled people on average are less likely to be in employment and more likely to have low incomes than non-disabled people; they are the least able to pay for the technologies that might get them into the workforce. Although the state is legally required to provide some support to disabled people, their claims will become more contested if the restorative technology that a disabled person needs is indistinguishable from an enhancement.

It’s widely noted that, in our competitive society, the availability of performance-enhancing technologies is likely to lead to pressure to use them, particularly in the workplace and in education.  The pressure on disabled people to use them will have damaging knock-on effects for those who can’t, or who simply don’t want to. Why should people not want to use a restorative technology if they could? There are several reasons, but one that is often neglected is that a disability can be a part of someone’s identity. While people who become disabled in later life are likely to want to restore the capacities they had before, many people who have been disabled for all or most of their lives experience that as their normality. They may, quite understandably, be reluctant to adopt technologies that will make them more ‘normal’ by other people’s standards, but which for them would be a shift away from their norm. Yet the combination of social expectations and economic pressures may make it difficult or even impossible to choose not to.

And in this situation, what’s at stake is the readiness of society to welcome a diversity of ways of being, and of working. The current legal obligation of employers and other areas of public life to accommodate disability is based on the idea that society as a whole bears some responsibility to be flexible around the capacities of its citizens. Restorative technologies shift the responsibility of adaptation back onto the disabled person, thereby rolling back the important achievements of the past decades in which disabled people have begun to be accepted, as they are, as full members of society. Ultimately, the same applies to everyone, nondisabled and disabled alike, exposed to the expectation that they will change themselves to keep up with ever-increasing pressures in work and in education.

None of this means that performance-enhancing technologies should be rejected, of course. But disabled people and others are right to be concerned not just about a potential loss of jobs, but about the effect of augmenting technologies on society’s expectations of normality and tolerance of difference.

The Work Foundation 2013 Annual Debate 'Will robots and enhanced humans steal our jobs?' will be held on 11 June. Join the debate on Twitter #stealingourjobs

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