Therapy vs. Enhancement

An important distinction that needs to be kept in mind when thinking about Faking Life issues is between therapy and enhancement. This distinction can help in many cases to begin to discern licit and illicit uses of various biotechnologies. Therapy involves fixing a problem—making something right, correcting something that is wrong—whereas enhancement involves changing something that is not a problem or improving something to a state that we might call better than well. Here is how The President’s Council on Bioethics defined “therapy” and “enhancement” in their report Beyond Therapy:

“Therapy,” on this view as in common understanding, is the use of biotechnical power to treat individuals with known diseases, disabilities, or impairments, in an attempt to restore them to a normal state of health and fitness. “Enhancement,” by contrast, is the directed use of biotechnical power to alter, by direct intervention, not disease processes but the “normal” workings of the human body and psyche, to augment or improve their native capacities and performances.

While most technologies are presently developed for and have therapeutic purposes, many also have the possibility to be used for enhancement. And increasingly we see individuals and groups, transhumanists, for example, advocating enhancement uses.

The transition from therapy to enhancement in medicine and technology is significant, and raises enormous ethical questions about the ends of medicine, the meaning of “natural,” human dignity, and myriad other core assumptions about technological advancement as well as about what it means to be human. We must be careful not to simply accept the move from therapy to enhancement as the next logical step of progress. Instead, this is an area that requires us to examine the assumptions that underlie this move, in addition to examining each innovation on its own.