Ethics of Human Enhancement and its Relevance to Disability Rights


The prospect of biotechnological enhancement has provoked opposing and sometimes ambivalent responses from scholars concerned with the interests and rights of people with disabilities. The divergence is particularly sharp with respect to radical enhancement, which would raise human functions above current species norms. Disability scholars and activists fall on both sides of this debate. Critics regard radical enhancement as a threat to people with disabilities, increasing their comparative disadvantage and exacerbating their stigmatisation. Proponents regard radical enhancement as potentially liberating for people with disabilities, enabling them to dramatically improve their practical functioning and freeing them from the oppressive sway of species norms. Both sides of the debate have legitimate concerns; both may oversimplify the complex and varied effects of biotechnological enhancement on disability interests and rights.

Key Concepts:

  • There is a sharp disagreement about the impact of enhancement, especially radical enhancement, on the rights and interests of people with disabilities.

  • Proponents of radical enhancement argue that it would dramatically increase the opportunities and reduce the stigmatisation of most people with disabilities.

  • Critics of radical enhancement argue that it would worsen the comparative disadvantage of people with disabilities and increase the proportion of people stigmatised as disabled.

  • The claims of proponents may be more plausible with respect to physical disabilities; the claims of critics with respect to intellectual disabilities.

  • Disability scholars and advocates are on both sides of this complex debate.

Keywords: enhancement; disability; transhumanism; radical enhancement; species‐typicality; species norms; stigma; ableism


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Further Reading

Asch A and Block JE (2011–2012) Against the enhancement project: two perspectives. Free Inquiry December, 2011/January, 2012, 25–33.

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Savlescu J, ter Meulen R and Kahane G (eds) (2010) Enhancing Human Capacities. Oxford: Wiley‐Blackwell.

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David, Wasserman(Sep 2012) Ethics of Human Enhancement and its Relevance to Disability Rights. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0024135]