Transhumanist medical ethics? (was:RE: Posthuman mind control)

Nick Bostrom (
Thu, 25 Feb 1999 21:48:56 +0000

Billy Brown wrote:
> Michael S. Lorrey wrote:

>> That we were able

> >to
> > finely control what type of individual came into existence is no
> > more
> against
> > extropy than in controlling what the genetic code of our
> > children will be.
> An interesting, and rather disturbing, point. I think I'll reserve
> judgment on that one for a bit. Does anyone else have an opinion
> about it?

I agree with Michael about that. I don't think leaving these things to chance is morally required. In practice, of course, there can be many complications; but in principle I don't think there is anything wrong with choosing the traits of our offspring or the traits of our machine decendants.

This is *not* to say that we would have the right to choose any traits we want. For example, deliberately creating a being that would suffer greatly with no chance of ending its life would typically be totally unacceptable. I even tend to think that in some cases we have an obligation to intervene to see to that such a being is not created. This has present applications. I think a strong case could be made that it is immoral or misguided to give birth to a baby that is known to have Downs Syndrom. When we get the opportunity to correct this defect on a fetus with genetic engineering, the obligation will become even stronger. But do we want the law to require parents to make such modifications? I think maybe we do (though this is an issue where we might have to compromise). For neglecting to the genetic modifications would amount to depriving the fetus of essential medical care -- like refusing to take your kid to the docter when it is suffering from meningitis.

But now we are getting into tricky issues! For transhumanists tend to deny that there is an essential (and morally relevant) difference between curing diseases and creating new functions. This would seem to imply that genetic augmentations should be mandatory. And this would seem to interfer with the autonomy of parents (and with religious freedom for those who have religious objections to this). Also, there is the difficulty of deciding what counts as augmentation, what is harm, and what is just neutral modification.

To some extent, technology may come to our rescue. If we can make the genetical changes such that they are fully reversible, then that would seem to be a morally and practically preferable option. If the kid gets bullied in school for her leopard spots, she can take a pill that makes them go away. However, such reversibility would probably not always be possible (until we have nanotechnology).

This is one area where we need to do more thinking. We need to develop a transhumanist medical ethics.

Nick Bostrom Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method London School of Economics