The Ethics of Human Enhancement: Background information when reading Livewired

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Read-Alikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio


The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain

by David Eagleman

Livewired by David Eagleman X
Livewired by David Eagleman
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Aug 2020, 320 pages

    May 2021, 320 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Bintrim
Buy This Book

About this Book

The Ethics of Human Enhancement

This article relates to Livewired

Print Review

Infant with cochlear implant In Livewired, David Eagleman is bullish on the prospects for human enhancement. He's not alone. In a 2016 Pew research report, David Masci notes that "humanity may be on the cusp of an enhancement revolution." Those in favor of human enhancement, generally known as transhumanists, believe, according to Masci, that "science will allow us to take control of our species' development, making ourselves and future generations stronger, smarter, healthier and happier."

Not everyone is on board with human enhancement, though. A Pew survey referenced in Masci's report found that around two-thirds of adults would not want to get a brain chip implanted in order to improve cognitive functioning. Moreover, philosophers, ethicists, religious leaders and others have raised concerns about the ethics of the practice.

Possibly the biggest ethical concern about human enhancement is that it would widen the gap between the haves and have-nots. Although therapeutic uses of enhancements may reduce some forms of inequality — for example, by reducing barriers for those with physical disabilities — unequal distribution of enhancements could exacerbate social tensions between those who have access (generally, the rich and the privileged) and those who do not. And while Eagleman notes that at least some enhancements would be inexpensive to produce, that doesn't mean that they would be made available at a low cost. Those with easy access to enhancements could erect barriers to others getting the same advantage, just as with access to private schools, "good" neighborhoods or elite country clubs.

Thus, another ethical concern is over who gets to decide how human enhancements will be used and who gets access to them. For example, will enhancements be covered by medical insurance or will they be considered "elective" procedures? Will there be global rules for enhancements, or will each nation decide on its own?

Closely connected to the issue of governance is the idea of "normality," that is, what do we consider to be normal functioning for an individual versus a malady or disease? As philosopher S.O. Hansson states, "Disease is not a biologically well defined concept but one that depends largely on social values." For example, homosexuality used to be considered a disease in many places where it is now considered to be part of the normal range of sexualities.

Some groups disagree with current social and cultural perceptions of themselves. The Deaf community views being Deaf as a cultural difference rather than a disability. Thus, many in the community oppose cochlear implants and see them as an unnecessarily invasive procedure. Similarly, many autistic people view autism as a neurological difference, and advocate for greater acceptance of those who are neurologically atypical.

Hansson raises the concern that "enhancement may change our views of normality, so that some unenhanced people may come to be seen as 'subnormal.'" This concern is also raised by social philosopher Francis Fukuyama, who believes that human enhancement could undermine our common concept of humanity.

Yet another concern about enhancements is their effect on one's sense of self. Some may improve function at the cost of altering the personality or self-identity of the individual. Hansson poses the question, "Should the cognitive abilities of patients with dementia be improved at the price of changing their personality to such an extent that they are not perceived as the same people any more?"

Related to one's sense of self is the issue of happiness. Researchers have discovered that one of the primary ways we find happiness is through striving for and achieving a goal. Andy Miah, Chair of Science Communication and Future Media at the University of Salford, notes that the means by which we achieve our goals matter. Will we still gain satisfaction and happiness from our achievements if we accomplish them through a technological "short cut"?

Finally, there is the issue of consent. As Eagleman points out in Livewired, many enhancements work best if they are used with very young children, usually before the age of seven. Some children already receive cochlear implants at an early age. An autistic child or a child with ADHD could conceivably receive a brain chip to make them neurotypical before they are able to decide whether they want to embrace their "atypical" brains. We also don't know yet what the long-term effects of certain enhancements would be. Should parents have the right to "enhance" their child in ways that could be irreversible?

Transhumanists generally disagree with many of the ethical concerns around human enhancement. They argue that inequality is a political problem and not a consequence of enhancement itself, and believe that the concept of humanity will expand along with technology. Further, they argue that historically we have become more empathetic toward others as we have gained more control over our lives. Some also contend that the limits and challenges that make achievement meaningful will still exist — the goal posts might get moved, but they will still be there in some form. Many see human enhancement as a means of finding happiness by overcoming unnecessary limits and achieving one's true potential.

Infant with cochlear implant, by Bjorn Knetsch (CC BY 2.0)

Filed under Society and Politics

Article by Lisa Bintrim

This "beyond the book article" relates to Livewired. It originally ran in September 2020 and has been updated for the May 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Become a Member

Join BookBrowse today to start discovering exceptional books!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: Daughter in Exile
    Daughter in Exile
    by Bisi Adjapon
    In Bisi Adjapon's Daughter in Exile, main character Lola is a Ghanaian who lands in New York City in...
  • Book Jacket
    The Correspondents
    by Judith Mackrell
    In the introduction to The Correspondents, author Judith Mackrell points out that although there had...
  • Book Jacket: Exiles
    by Jane Harper
    Our First Impressions readers were thrilled to return to the world of Jane Harper's protagonist ...
  • Book Jacket: Spice Road
    Spice Road
    by Maiya Ibrahim
    Imani is a Shield, a warrior who is renowned for her fighting abilities and for her iron dagger, ...

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
The Nurse's Secret
by Amanda Skenandore
A fascinating historical novel based on the little-known story of America's first nursing school.

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Once We Were Home
    by Jennifer Rosner

    From the author of The Yellow Bird Sings, a novel based on the true stories of children stolen in the wake of World War II.

  • Book Jacket

    The Last Russian Doll
    by Kristen Loesch

    A haunting epic of betrayal, revenge, and redemption following three generations of Russian women.

Win This Book
Win Last House Before the Mountain

Last House Before the Mountain by Monika Helfer

A spellbinding, internationally bestselling family saga set in a fractured rural village in WWI Austria.



Solve this clue:

R Peter T P P

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.