Responsibility and Human Enhancement

Concepts, implications and assessments

Dr Simone Arnaldi
Jacques Maritain Institute

The Research Idea

Human enhancement can be defined as the intentional improvement of individuals’ capacities with the help of technical or biomedical interventions in or on the human body[1]. Enhancement has become prominent in policy[2], ethics[3], and everyday life, like in the case of doping in sport or of stimulants used as study aids[4]. Conceptual refinement and methodological development is needed for the social sciences and humanities to contribute to its responsible governance. This project addresses both dimensions, connecting the literature on enhancement with the scholarship on responsible science and innovation. This perspective emphasises the aligning of STI with societal goals, as in EU Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) approach[5].

The project applies a responsibility perspective to enhancement governance. To do so, it gathers an interdisciplinary group of social scientists and humanities scholars to achieve the following objectives:

  1. organize a workshop on responsibility and human enhancement;
  2. retool techno-moral scenarios method for exploring human enhancement governance;
  3. start a longer-term research network on responsibility and enhancement.


(1) Sauter, A. & Gerlinger, K. The pharmacologically improved human.(TAB, 2013).

(2) Roco, MC., & Bainbridge, WS. Converging technologies for improving human performance. (National Science Foundation, 2002).

(3) European Group of Ethics. Ethical aspects of ICT implants in the human body. (European Commission, 2005).

(4) Coveney, C., Gabe, J. & Williams, S. The sociology of cognitive enhancement: Medicalisation and beyond. Health Sociol. Rev. 20, 381–393 (2011).

(5) Owen, R. et al. in Responsible Innovation (eds. Owen, R., Heintz, M. & Bessant, J.) 27–50 (Wiley, 2013).


The scientific debate on human enhancement is lively, even fierce, but one might fairly say that it stalled over conflicting characterizations of enhancement in axiological and cognitive terms. Arguments based on naturalness or distributive justice, versus human freedom and the moral duty to seek self-fulfillment collide on assessing whether enhancing humans is desirable or not[6]. Pro-enhancement arguments have been accused of technological determinism, as they often take for granted technologies and consequences that are far from certain, while enhancement advocates maintain that uncertainty does not justify a preference for precaution[7].
The recent debate on responsibility in science, technology and innovation (STI) has emphasised aligning STI with societal goals, defining the normative requirements that make them “responsible” [5]. This work is mostly either normative or inductive in nature, while less attention has been paid to the variable meanings of responsibility concepts and their historical evolution, for instance in terms of fault, risk, safety[8] and, more recently, “responsibilisation”[9].
These two bodies of literature have virtually no connections. The project addresses this missing link and resorts to responsibility to overcome the stalemate in the enhancement debate.


(6) Harris, J. Moral Enhancement and Freedom. Bioethics 25, 102–111 (2011).

(7) Bostrom, N. & Ord, T. The Reversal Test: Eliminating Status Quo Bias in Applied Ethics. Ethics 116, 656–679 (2006).

(8) Ewald, F. in Dictionnaire encyclopédique de théorie et de sociologie du droit (ed. Arnaud, A.-J.) 530–531 (Lgdj, 1993).

(9) Shamir, R. The age of responsibilization: on market-embedded morality. Econ. Soc. 37, 1–9 (2008).

The Focus

Despite the fact that much popular discussion of enhancement can look like science fiction or, at best, like something that is far away from real world problems and everyday life, facts contradict this assessment.
Firstly, enhancement applications have already entered many different spheres of life, like sports (doping), the military, the labour market and education (off-label pharmaceuticals to improve cognitive performance) (for this latter aspect, see for instance [10]). Secondly, enhancement forcefully legitimates a new biomedical paradigm based on “transformatio ad optimum” rather than “restitutio ad integrum” [11]. Thirdly, the technological determinism of many pro-enhancement arguments fails to meaningfully bridge current possibilities and problems and visionary future developments (for instance see [12]).
Instead of either altogether refusing the very idea of human enhancement or normatively assessing enhancement practices and possibilities against a set of criteria, the project will explore the implications of alternative paradigms and understandings of responsibility for the construction of different human enhancement governance frameworks.


(10) Coveney, CM. in Sociological Reflections on the Neurosciences (eds. Pickersgill, M. & Van Keulen, I.) 13, 203–228 (Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2011).

(11) Bárd, I. Troubles with Posthumanism. (University of Vienna, 2010).

(12) Nordmann, A. & Rip, A. Mind the gap revisited. Nat. Nanotechnol. 4, 273–274 (2009).

Theoretical Novelty

The novelty of the project stems from the encounter between two separated literatures on responsibility and enhancement, in sociology, philosophy and law. Their encounter will:

  • develop a more sophisticated understanding of responsibility beyond the current approaches, in particular of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). Beyond the ethics of care and responsiveness that are typical of RRI, the project explores alternative understandings of responsibility (e.g. liability and fault, safety and precaution) and assesses their implications for the governance of enhancement;
  • examine the current (and possible) evolutions of human enhancement and its responsible governance as social formations, by referring to the tripartite perspective of structure, culture and agency proposed by Critical Realism [14];
  • shift the debate on enhancement from the desirability and plausibility of present and prospected enhancements to the different governance solutions that originate from different understandings of responsibility;
  • innovate the techno-moral scenarios method, which was proposed to explore the coevolution of technologies, society and morality, and their mutual influences[13], to include responsibility paradigms, and enrich such method by adopting this tripartite lens to build and analyse the thought experiments the method develops and relies upon.


(13) Boenink, M., Swierstra, T. & Stemerding, D. Anticipating the Interaction between Technology and Morality: A Scenario Study of Experimenting with Humans in Bionanotechnology. Stud. Ethics Law Technol. 4, (2010).

(14) Archer MS. Introduction: Other Conceptions of Generative Mechanisms and Ours. In: Archer MS, editor. Generative Mechanisms Transforming the Social Order. Cham: Springer International Publishing; 2015. p. 1–24.


The project mainly focuses on the theoretical and methodological levels. Conceptual clarification and methodological innovation will be the platform for the interdisciplinary dialogue and learning the project aims at in exploring human enhancement governance. In particular:

– the concepts of agency and responsibility are in itself complex notions, whose meanings span across social sciences, philosophy and law. Their definition requires therefore the collaboration of these three disciplinary domains, which are represented in the research group. According to the work plan, these theoretical aspects will be addressed in a collection of papers.
– the techno-moral scenarios method translates methodologically this collaboration between disciplines. By using fictive cases as stimuli for collective reflection and discussion, the method is designed to invite audiences to imagine and appraise ways in which technologies can change ideas, values and ideals, shifting the attention to their ‘soft’ impacts.

The theoretical analysis will feed the revision of techno-moral scenarios. Selecting different enhancement applications as case studies in cognitive, physical and mood enhancement, three fictive stories will be developed as thought experiments for exploring and clarifying the underlying implications of the different responsibility paradigms that can be adopted in governing human enhancement technologies. The stories will be completed with guidelines for running scenario workshops, thus renewing this participatory research method[15] for social science researchers and public engagement professionals.


(15) Bergold, J. & Thomas, S. Participatory Research Methods: A Methodological Approach in Motion [110 paragraphs]. Forum Qual. Sozialforschung Forum Qual. Soc. Res. 13, 30 (2012).

Work Plan

The research group will be coordinated by way of two face-to-face meetings (an initial kick-off meeting and a research workshop) and continuous exchange of information through email, telephone and video conferencing. The collaboration is facilitated by the experience of all the researchers involved in studying human enhancement and its policy implications, as well as issues of responsibility in STI policies and practices. Moreover, most of the partners have collaborated in previous projects.
A 1-day kick-off meeting (Feb. 2016) will detail the research plan, prepare an outline of the research workshop, and specify the structure and contents of the papers to be discussed in that occasion. The latter will be shared online immediately after the kick-off meeting, in order to foster researchers collaboration and the integration of their different disciplinary perspectives (Mar. 2016-August 2016). A 1-day workshop (Sept. 2016) will be convened to: (1) further foster collective learning by discussing the draft papers; (2) develop the papers to a publishable standard; (3) revisit the techno-moral scenarios method to integrate the insights on human enhancement and responsibility in S&T that will be generated during the project.
The final papers will be submitted to a multidisciplinary journal in science, technology and society by the planned end of the project (Dec. 2016). A website and a blog will be created to publish contents tailored to a non-academic audience and as a platform for interaction and communication that can be sustainably managed beyond the conclusion of the project.


Four longer-term steps are envisaged:

  • conceptually, the multidisciplinary exploration of responsibility, agency and human enhancement and their connections will improve the capacity of social scientists to examine, assess and design responsible governance frameworks for enhancement technologies;
  • theoretically, the project adopts a threefold (agency, structure and culture) understanding of the emergence of specific patterns in human enhancement, its societal implications and its governance, thus interrogating Critical Realism as a possible analytical lens. By inscribing itself in the broader framework of the “Morphogenic Society” as proposed by Margaret Archer, the project is also well placed to offer a pertinent theoretical contribution to the future continuation of this reflection.
  • methodologically, the revision of techno-moral scenarios will create a transferable tool (a ‘toolkit’) for doing participatory social research on this topic, that can be used by academics and professionals to involve citizens in scrutinizing and deliberating about human enhancement technologies, their implications, and the possible configurations of their governance;
  • organizationally, these two dimensions will be reinforced by the creation of a network of scholars studying human enhancement and its responsible governance, whose core will be formed by the participants of this project.

The published papers, the project website and blog, and the techno-moral scenarios ‘toolkit’ will be the instruments through which these longer-term impacts will be delivered.