Toward a Wider Index


  • Gregory E. Kaebnick

We all know that Hastings likes enhancement.” So said Ruth Macklin at last year's meeting of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, in a talk about the evolution of bioethics and on the occasion of receiving ASBH's Lifetime Achievement Award. Professor Macklin had chosen to use the Report's annual subject index as a way of gaining some insight into the topics that have been front and center in bioethics at various times. Several articles on enhancement were listed in one index she discussed, which she took as an indication of the field's level of interest in enhancement that year—though with the caveat that, as we know, Hastings likes to discuss human enhancement.

She seems to be right. The Report regularly publishes articles about enhancement, and the Center has run a number of research projects that touch on questions about enhancement. I am tempted to write, “Alas, she seems to be right.” One does not like to be pigeonholed. Yet perhaps we could be pigeonholed even more precisely, since many of the articles develop criticisms of enhancement, and many of the projects, although they are not chiefly aimed at criticizing enhancement, are at least very careful to listen to critical voices. Of course, particularly with articles, we are to some degree at the mercy of the field, since we select our articles from the manuscripts submitted for review (which is why the Report's annual index is a plausible starting place for finding out what people in the field are interested in). Also, the enhancement supporter's position is fairly easy to articulate, as proponents of enhancement themselves often point out: given the nature of enhancements, it often looks a lot like asking why more of a good thing isn't even better.

We should be on the lookout for other kinds of manuscripts, but with the second article in this issue, I guess we conform to our pattern. The British philosopher Michael Hauskeller engages in this article in a little literary criticism, calling attention to the links between the long history of utopian literature and the current scholarly and scientific movement known as transhumanism, which clamors for enhancements that would let humans transcend their mortal coil, rather than just shuffle it off. Understanding the thematic connections, Hauskeller argues, is important for understanding how the transhumanist movement builds its case.

Elsewhere in the issue, enhancements are balanced with other matters. The lead article reviews the horrifying STD inoculation studies that U.S. researchers ran in Guatemala in the 1940 s but argues that what drove the research to Guatemala was not tough U.S. standards for protecting research subjects, but some comparatively benign considerations. And a set of essays on public deliberation brings attention to an issue larger than bioethics. There is a lot of fine-sounding talk about the need for public deliberation on a range of issues, from biotechnologies to health insurance to economic policy, but this talk will be meaningless unless public deliberation has a realistic chance of generating policy. It's hard to see how public deliberation could legitimately generate policy, however, unless it has some real structure. It cannot just consist of gathering people, listening to them respectfully, and thanking everybody for sharing their insights. This set, written by scholars of public deliberation, tries to begin firming up the structure by laying out the state of the scholarly debate about public deliberation. Some of the questions at play here point to a topic–namely, the interface between morality and public policy–that I believe is itself of growing prominence in the Report, although it does not show up in an index. —GEK