Reasoning about Human Enhancement: Towards a Folk Psychological Model of Human Nature and Human Identity

Reasoning about Human Enhancement: Towards a Folk Psychological Model of Human Nature and Human Identity

Samuel Wilson (Monash University, Australia) and Nick Haslam (University of Melbourne, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2211-1.ch010
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Advances in bioscience and biotechnology move faster than our conceptual and ethical understanding of them. These advances may ultimately change human nature and our understanding of what it means to be human. Early attempts to understand the consequences of these advances were marred by overly thin conceptions of human nature and human identity. In particular, the precise meaning of these concepts was rarely explicated and arguments about whether enhanced humans would be superhumanized or dehumanized lacked clarity. The development of more complex models of humanness and human identity may facilitate deeper insights into the consequences of enhancement while findings from the emerging science of human nature are incorporated into our understanding of what it means to be human.
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In a recent analysis of the use of the concepts of humanness and human nature in the enhancement debate, Wilson and Haslam (2009) argued that proponents and opponents of enhancement assigned distinct meanings to these concepts and that these meanings evinced strong parallels with folk concepts of humanness. Implicit in this analysis was the idea that folk psychology undergirds the conceptions and schemas of humanness and human identity recruited by proponents and opponents.

Folk psychology, which is also called commonsense psychology, refers to a system of shared meaning that organizes people’s understanding of, experience in, and transactions with the social world (Bruner, 1990). Despite the utility of applying a folk psychological framework to the debate about human enhancement, we caution against any confusion of folk psychological conceptions of humanness and human identity with scientific conceptions. Moreover, in an analogue of the naturalistic fallacy, what is, folk psychologically, should not be regarded as an endorsement of what ought to be. Finally, given that folk psychology is often indistinguishable from cultural history (Bruner, 1990), there is nothing immutable about folk psychology, in general, or folk conceptions of humanness and human identity, in particular.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Human Uniqueness: Human Uniqueness (HU) is a socially learned and culturally-specific sense of humanness involving qualities that distinguish humans from nonhuman animals. HU involves rationality, self-control, civility, and refinement.

Enhancement: The non-therapeutic biotechnological modification of a human being that enhances his or her psychological, emotional, intellectual and physical capacities rather than repairing them.

Personhood: A conception of human identity predicated on the possession by an entity of some sort of psychological continuity over time, whether through the sense of having a past and a future or through the continuation of psychological capacities.

Human Nature: Human Nature (HN) is a sense of humanness that reflects the innate, universal attributes of the human species, some of which may be shared with other animals. HN involves emotionality, warmth, cognitive openness, and individuality.

Folk Psychology: A system of shared meaning within a culture that organises people’s understanding of the social world. Folk psychology describes the elements of our own and others’ minds such as beliefs and desires and it provides normative descriptions about what makes people tick. Also called belief-desire or commonsense psychology.

Humanhood: A conception of human identity predicated on an entity’s biological status as a human. The biological approach to human identity holds that we continue to be properly ascribed human identity as long as we remain biologically alive.

Dehumanization: The psychological process by which people implicitly or explicitly view other individuals or groups as incompletely human. When HN is denied people are likened to automatons and when HU is denied people are likened to animals.

Humanness: A broad term that refers to the quality or state of being human. Given the diversity of beliefs about what it means to be human, the term ‘humanness’ provides little guidance as to what characteristics are implied by it. Conceptual precision is improved when specific senses of humanness are the focal constructs (e.g., HN, HU).

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