Seminar: Professor Thomas M. Powers, "Kantian humanism and human enhancement"

Past Event

02 December 2009, 4:00pm - 6:00pm

Lecture Theatre, Oxford Martin School
34 Broad Street (corner of Holywell and Catte Streets), Oxford, OX1 3BD

Abstract: The enhancement of human abilities and appearance has a long history and strong and growing demand in the market. Though some contemporary instances in sport and entertainment culture have met with social disapproval, the basis for that judgment is unclear. Moral philosophers have generally accepted at least some cases of human enhancement as permissible, but have foundered in their analyses on distinctions such as ‘natural vs. artificial’ and ‘therapy vs. improvement’. Absent any bright lines to mark out the impermissible cases, the prima facie judgment in favor seems to stand, especially for utilitarians and maybe for some virtue theorists. Opposition to human enhancement seems to be left to those who believe in some kind of (ineffable) “unnaturalness” of the practice, and one suspects here that talk of souls and essences cannot be far away. I will sketch a position of mild opposition to human enhancement on (vaguely) Kantian grounds, and will try to avoid talk of souls, noumena, or spurious distinctions. The focus of my argument will be the second formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative—the prohibition against using people as mere means. This Kantian view has implications for the distributive and inter-generational justice of human enhancement.

Tom Powers is an ethicist who focuses on emerging technologies and the relationship between science and values. He has published on ethical issues in information technology, robotics, medicine, nanotechnology, and the environment. He serves as Director of the Science, Ethics, and Public Policy program at the University of Delaware, and is a faculty research fellow of the Delaware Biotechnology Institute. He is an appointed member of the Committee on Public Philosophy of the American Philosophical Association (2009-12). Prior to coming to Delaware, he was a National Science Foundation research fellow in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Virginia. His Ph.D. in philosophy (University of Texas at Austin) concerned formalism in ethics and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. He completed his dissertation as a DAAD-Fulbright fellow at the University of Munich.