Value Lexicality and Human Enhancement

Value Lexicality and Human Enhancement

Tobias Hainz
Copyright: © 2012 |Pages: 12
DOI: 10.4018/jte.2012100105
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One idea discussed in ethical theory is that values can be put in a lexical ordering. One value that ranks higher in a lexical ordering always outweighs a lower-ranked value, regardless of the amount or intensity of both values. An account of value lexicality that focuses on the practical applicability of this concept will be developed and subsequently applied to the debate about life extension technologies and human enhancement in general. Finally, a sketch of a heuristic will be provided that shows how the concept of value lexicality could be of assistance when assessing the quality of arguments in various fields of applied ethics, one of which is the debate about human enhancement.
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Imagine you are presented with the following choice: If you kill a random stranger you have never met before and who nobody cares for, you will be given one million dollars. If you refuse, nothing will happen. As I believe, most people would refuse to kill the stranger, not only because they are afraid of being punished but also because they believe that killing him is deeply immoral. Although they might justify their belief in different ways, for example, with reference to the rule that it is always wrong to kill an innocent person, to the stranger’s dignity as a human being, or to the stranger’s desire to live being frustrated in the case of his death – the belief those people hold is identical. One particular attempt to defend this belief is not to refer to any deontological rule or to the consequences of killing the stranger but to the value of the two dominant phenomena involved in this situation: money and human life. A pretheoretical line of defense could sound like this: “I refuse to kill the stranger because his life is valuable. Yes, money is valuable, as well, but there is no amount of money that can outweigh this stranger’s life. Even if you offered me one billion dollars, I would still refuse to kill him because I am a moral person and taking human life for money is immoral. Human life does not have a price but is priceless.”

A person who gives such an explanation for her refusal to kill the stranger can be conceived of as someone who believes that both money and life are valuable but that there is no amount of money that is more valuable than human life. This belief can be stated in the more general form detached from the initial example that certain values cannot be outweighed by others, regardless of the amount of these other values. There exists an ordering, according to people who hold this belief, such that certain values are located on a higher level than other values which cannot reach this level, not even in principle. This ordering shall be called a lexical ordering, and values that are more valuable than others and cannot be outweighed by them in principle shall be called lexically more valuable with regard to the values they are compared to or having lexical priority to them. A more thorough discussion of these concepts will be the topic of the following section of this article. However, since I do not attempt to develop a complete framework of value lexicality – the phenomenon that certain values are ordered lexically – but only to analyze it in a way that allows for its applicability to practical problems this discussion will be limited. I will provide an outline of value lexicality that should be theoretically acceptable at a first and even a further glance but can still fall prey to sophisticated arguments. As long as this account is not openly self-contradictory or utterly counterintuitive, its relevance for practical problems and its ability to provide guidance to our actions will be more important than its theoretical well-roundedness.

The practical problem the account of value lexicality will be applied to is human enhancement. Before discussing arguments in the debate about human enhancement in general, one specific kind of enhancement technologies, life extension technologies, will be discussed. The result of the general analysis will be that if one assumes that value lexicality is a phenomenon that is of practical importance, a reasonable concept of it can lead to a heuristic that helps to assess arguments advanced in the debate about human enhancement. Translating this result to other fields of applied ethics should not be too difficult.

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