Lay summary

The term “perfection” is frequently used in current debates about human enhancement. Often, this notion is employed by those who are skeptical about current and anticipated uses of biotechnology (“bioconservatives”): they regard the pursuit of perfection by biotechnological means as morally problematic and argue for its prohibition. However, the notion of perfection is also alluded to by some “transhumanists”, who optimistically endorse the possibilities of biotechnology to enhance human beings. They explicitly defend a vision of perfection that can, in their view, be realized by biotechnological means, and argue that we should become “better than human”.

         Both bioconservatives and transhumanists draw on the concept of perfection, then, in order to argue for or against (certain) enhancements. They thereby assume that (i) enhancement and perfection are conceptually related, and that (ii) the concept of perfection is important for an ethical evaluation of enhancements. By contrast, “bioliberals” deny the conceptual relation between enhancement and perfection, and they argue against using the notion of perfection in the debate about enhancement: it is regarded by them as a notoriously vague notion that distorts rational discussions and is neither helpful nor needed in order to address the ethical questions that are raised by the new possibilities of biotechnology. Furthermore, bioliberals contend that we should not invoke any considerations that derive from specific conceptions of human perfection, because these are necessarily based upon controversial assumptions that are not shared by the members of liberal and pluralistic societies.

         The proposed research project attempts to enter these discussions in order to clarify what, if any, role the concept of perfection has to play in debates about human enhancement. This question has not received any systematic treatment yet, but it helps to raise from a distinct and new perspective questions about the concept of enhancement, about the relevant normative standards for the evaluation of enhancements, and – in a more general vein – about the scope and limits of bioethics.

         It is conjectured that the bioliberals’ agnostic stance towards perfection can be proven to be untenable, which will constitute an important finding that can without doubt initiate and facilitate further discussions between the three main camps – bioconservatives, transhumanists, and bioliberals – in the debate. At the same time, the project will also contribute to more general discussions about the scope and limits of bioethics, by stressing the importance of debates about ends and ideals that the concept of perfection is supposed to encourage.