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A Transhuman Conundrum: The Retinal Implant

By Erin Biba

This week we’re taking a look at the ethics of enhancing ourselves. We’ll present you with a series of ethical conundrums brought about by entirely possible future transhuman modifications and you can argue the ethics in the comments. We’ll have to face these questions eventually, might as well get started now. Are you pro or con superhumans?

This week we’re taking a look at the ethics of enhancing ourselves. We’ll present you with a series of ethical conundrums brought about by entirely possible future transhuman modifications and you can argue the ethics in the comments. We’ll have to face these questions eventually, might as well get started now. Are you pro or con superhumans?

The scenario: You are going blind. But not to worry, it’s the future, so there’s technology to fix that. While at the doctor’s office discussing your retinal implant options, the doctor mentions that he can grant you with all sorts of visual abilities well beyond simply restoring your sight--all he has to do is add some extra features to the device. Want the ability to see x-rays, ultraviolet light, or infrared? How about a radar display? Even better, what about heat mapping? No problem! You may not actually need any of these extras, but you can have them anyway. All you have to do is ask. What do you do?

Image credit: Paramount Home Video

How Realistic is This?

There are a slew of implantable devices that replicate different functions of the human eye currently in development. The most recent, the Argus II, connects a retinal implant to a pair of glasses, which transmits visual information to the patient's optic nerve and allows them to see (despite their damaged eyeball cells). It’s entirely plausible that in the future retinal implants will evolve to allow for a variety of extras.

The Ethical Conundrum

If you choose to have the extended implant you will now have abilities that you don't need and, when compared to the rest of society, you'll be an "other"--a new version of human with supervision. In fact, if you simply chose the implant without any of the extras you'll already be a little bit superhuman. Either way, people around you won't necessarily know that you can see them in special ways. And they certainly won't know you're standing in front of their house using your brand new heat vision to tell if they're home.

Image credit: Dreamworks Home Entertainment

On your doctor's part, he will have to decide whether or not to offer you these special new abilities. If he decides not to, your doc will have to risk the possibility that you will later discover he had the option to give them to you--and now everybody with your implant can see in ultraviolet but you can't.

So what do ethcists say about this?

What the Ethicists Say

Implant ethics are a long-argued area of thinking. After all, we already have elective plastic surgery--and nobody’s really decided if giving someone giant boobs for no reason other than “because they wanted them” is ethical. According to philosopher Sven Hansson, writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, “...the distinction between disease and health or normality is not as clear as it may first seem. Disease is not a biologically well defined concept but one that depends largely on social values. Some conditions previously regarded as diseases are now thought of as normal states of the mind or body. Others that were previously perceived as variations of normality are now regarded as diseases.”

The question we should be pondering here is: what kinds of humans should there be?

According to the ethicists the question we should be pondering here is: what kinds of humans should there be? In the case of retinal implant extras, do we want humans to replace the machines we use (machines took our jobs and now we’re taking them back)? And do we even have the right to manipulate humanity the extent that we are basically creating a new class of people that have super-human visual abilities?

Hansson continues: “The issue of what kind(s) of persons there should be is one of the most difficult to deal with rationally in moral philosophy. The very basis for the discussion is insecure. What criteria should we use? Should we judge future persons by our own criteria, or by the criteria that we predict (and partly determine) them to have? (Population ethics, which deals with how many people there should be, provides similar difficulties.) Possibly, the best way to tackle issues of enhancement is to deal with them incrementally, judging each case on the basis of our current values without even trying to take future values into account.”

So what say you? Would you get the enhancements to your vision beyond simply restoring your sight? And what would you think about people who have been given visual abilities that you don’t have? Discuss in the comments!