Win Races and Lose Racing The Example of Physical Enhancements

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The type of concern referred to in the above subtitle is nicely illustrated by a short passage in Bill McKibben's 2003 book "Enough". The enhancements McKibben talks about are of a genetic origin, and they refer only to physical abilities. However, he clearly takes the normative problems he wants to elucidate in his paradigm case to be common to all types of artificial enhancement. Thus, his argument would also seem to encompass the problem of mental enhancements that are the topic of the current inquiry:

As we move into this new world of genetic engineering, we won't simply lose races, we'll lose racing: We'll lose the possibility of the test, the challenge, the celebration that athletics represents. [... ] Say you've reached Mile 23, and you're feeling strong. Is it because of your hard training and your character, or because the gene pack inside you is pumping out more red blood cells than your body knows what to do with? Will anyone be impressed with your dedication? More to the point, will you be impressed with your dedication? Will you know what part of it is you, and what part is your upgrade? (McKibben 2003:6)

The basic idea behind this worry seems to be that we view and appreciate ourselves and others not just in the light of what we (or they) are factually able to do, but also in the light of what we (they) deserve praise or reproach for. That is, we usually judge a person in terms of what she has achieved or made of herself. Seen in that light, even interventions into the brain that aim only at eliminating real psychic diseases by using purely medical means may sometimes draw some suspicion. To illustrate the point further, serious emotional suffering, say in the course of a major depression (as an example of a genuine disease) seems to be different in important respects from physical pain. It usually has its roots, or at least some of them, in deep structures of the individual psyche which are often the results of particular features of an individual biography. If psychotherapy takes as its normative ground the idea of maintaining or restoring a personal self, it might be committed not just to abolishing suffering, but to doing this in a way that involves the whole personal background of that suffering, in which the individual is made to understand the roots of his or her suffering, and is helped to work through the problematic issues. Thereby the patient is helped, through reason and understanding to regain a full and adequate picture of herself and her personal history. In short, the condition is alleviated on the grounds of personal autonomy, rather than by giving and taking "aspirin for the mind" (cf. Freed-man 1998:135, 140).

If we try to pursue this line of reasoning on a more general level beyond that of pure treatment or disease, we may perhaps say the following. There seem to be at least some, perhaps even many, human capabilities, which we admire or desire for ourselves, whose achievement is somehow connected with the traditional ways of investing certain amounts of personal endeavour to developing those capabilities. To admire somebody who has reached one of those aims, then, does not simply mean admiration for the final result or product, but encompasses at least en element of admiration for the sacrifices and the efforts that person made on the way to achieving that goal. If we learn that there is a convenient shortcut to reach this aim, enabling in principle anybody to get there without any significant investment in terms of personal endeavour, we might lose our respect for the result itself. Projected onto the horizon of a common societal practice, this might in the long run lead to a profound devaluation of these previously admired goals. Consequently, this might lead to a gradual loss or "thinning out" of the values commonly associated with certain goals and held in esteem by society.

The following example from the field of athletics illustrates this point exactly. Our admiration of a person's ability, say, to run 100 metres in less than ten seconds would practically vanish if we learned that this result was brought about almost entirely by a (physical) medical intervention which could, in principle, enable any healthy young person to run that fast. After all, simply the ability of a living being to run 100 metres in, say, eight seconds or to swim 100 metres in, say, forty seconds is, in itself, nothing to be admired. Many animals are capable of doing either of these activities more quickly and more efficiently. Thus, the effort required for humans to reach that level of performance in the "normal" way seems to be an integral part of the preconditions for our admiration. To the degree that this "normality" can be circumvented by medical interventions, our interest in, and excitement about, the entire event would perhaps vanish. So whatever social or cultural value one wishes to assign to the present enterprise of competitive sports, that value might, at least to a large extent, be corrupted, and thus disappear, if the complete legalisation of all performance enhancing drugs were to take place. We might then, as McKibben puts it, not only lose a race or races of whatever sort, but racing itself. Of course, it is always us, human beings and the societies we form, who invest such things as events and performances with meaning. Thus it is not unlikely that a new form of appreciation for this new type of athletics would evolve, perhaps, in some sense, it would resemble the sensational interests that citizens of ancient Rome took in the circus and gladiatorial games. However, something more profound would be lost. Something that characterises sport in its present form and that many people value in that particular respect.

This perspective on human performance with regard to athletics has been developed eloquently, and at great length, in The President's Council's 2003 Report "Beyond Therapy". The following excerpt summarises succinctly the issues at hand:

What is a human performance and what is an excellent one? And what makes it excellent as a human performance? For it seems that some performance-enhancing agents, from stimulants to blood doping to genetic engineering of muscles, call into question the dignity of the performance of those who use them. The performance seems less real, less one's own, less worthy of our admiration. Not only do such enhancing agents distort or damage other dimensions of human life - for example, by causing early death or sexual impotence - they also seem to distort the athletic activity itself. [...] What is at stake here is the very meaning of human agency, the meaning of being at-work in the world, being at-work as myself, and being at-work in a humanly excellent way. (President's Council on Bioethics 2003:140-141)

The Council expressly confines its analysis to the particular area of "human sport" (ibid.:105). However, the last sentence quoted above demonstrates the Council's unmistakable tendency, manifested in several other parts of the report as well, to generalise its view on athletics over a broad (perhaps even the entire) spectrum of positively valued human activity. The question is whether such a generalisation stands on firm argumentative ground.

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