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Technologies to improve human performance raise ethical concerns

Dr Y. J. Erden and Prof Dr Philip Brey recently published a set of ethical guidelines for human enhancement research and development. Their guidelines were published in the scientific journal Science and included in a guidance document of the European Commission. “It is most important that a person using technologies and treatment to enhance their skills must not limit their ability and freedom to make their own choices”, says Erden.

Human enhancements are a broad range of interventions, drugs, treatments and other technologies that aim to improve human beings beyond what is considered typical. Enhancement seems to fall outside the scope of medical interventions, which aim to restore a person’s condition to ‘healthy’. Prof Dr Philip Brey: “Until now, there have been no systematic means for implementing ethical oversight of research and development directed at human enhancement.”

Types of enhancements

Human enhancements are aimed at improving humans beyond what is considered normal or typical. Below you can find some examples:

Physical enhancements
Interventions that improve physical abilities or introduce new ones, including for performance or endurance

Cognitive enhancements
Interventions that enhance cognitive function, such as intelligence or memory

Affective and emotion enhancements
Interventions that improve and/or provide greater control over a human’s affective states, such as mood or disposition

Moral enhancements
Interventions that modulate or foster attitudes and behaviours that are considered morally or socially acceptable

Cosmetic enhancements
Interventions that improve the appearance or traits of a human being

Longevity enhancements
Interventions that improve durability and that extend the lifespan

Human autonomy

“One of the major ethical concerns we highlighted in our guidelines is the undermining of human autonomy”, says Erden. For example, the drug amphetamine is used in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In a medical context, amphetamine is a treatment that helps people with ADHD to control some symptoms. As a side effect, it could increase mood swings or anxiety, which can impact the user’s decision-making and autonomy.

The benefits might outweigh the risks in a medical context. However, amphetamine can also be used as an enhancement to increase alertness, concentration and self-confidence in healthy humans, though not without side-effects and risks to health. According to the guidelines, researchers should mitigate the undermining of a person’s autonomy with any human enhancements they are researching or developing.

Avoiding risks

Besides autonomy, science- and technology-based interventions in and on the human body  unavoidably include risks for a person’s health and safety. “Such risks need to be carefully weighed against the expected benefits. Human enhancement technologies should prioritise the health, safety and well-being of the recipient of an enhancement”, says Brey. As such, enhancements, especially those that are irreversible, should provide a clear benefit to the individual’s life, with a likelihood that their overall well-being is increased not just in the short term, but over their lifespan.


The value of treating everyone equally, justly and fairly, can be affected by human enhancement in many ways. On the one hand, enhancement could diminish existing inequalities, while on the other it could cause new inequalities. Erden: “Take a competitive situation such as sport, for example. Doping can be used as human enhancement, but this creates an unfair improvement of a user’s chances against individuals and groups that don’t dope.” Therefore any researcher should take mitigation actions to avoid the creation or exacerbation of inequalities.

More information

Dr Y. J. Erden and Prof Dr Philip Brey are assistant professor and full professor in the department of Philosophy (WIJSB; Faculty of BMS). They wrote the ethics guidelines for human enhancement research and development as part of the SIENNA project. Their guidelines were included in a European Commission guidance document for researchers and ethics evaluators. Their work was also published as a paper, titled ‘Ethics guidelines for human enhancement R&D’, in the scientific journal Science.

DOI: 10.1126/science.add9079