"Better Than Human" - Review and Discussion

Biomedical enhancements are described as anything which improves or increases an existing biological/physical capacity or characteristic, or, that produces a completely new one. With technology rapidly increasing, the prospect of new and monumental biological enhancements is exciting, to say the least.

However, numerous ethical issues arise with regards to these enhancements, and Allen Buchanan discusses these various concerns and his response to their repercussions on society. The expert and author specifically addresses the already significant and ever increasing socioeconomic disparities and systemic inequalities within the United States.

In his book Better than Human, Buchanan makes a number of responses regarding foreseeable ethical concerns of biomedical enhancements and their repercussions on preexisting socioeconomic disparities.

Buchanan is no spring chicken when it comes to authoring on the subject matter of bioethics and has authored a total of eleven books in total on it. His prestigious background includes the Advisory Council for the National Human Genome Research Institute and Staff Philosopher for the President’s Commission on Medical Ethics. He also additionally served as consultant to President Obama’s Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.

Buchanan is very openly in favor of the advancement of biomedical enhancements and while he is very much classified as an enthusiast, he still has the foresight to agree that precaution and sound judgement will be vital in the introduction of these goods into society.

He additionally acknowledges various risks associated with such enhancements. He argues that individuals who are opposed to such enhancements most likely participate in four framing assumptions which he details.

The first assumption that Buchanan lists is the premise that biomedical enhancements will be personal goods and therefore directly advantageous to only the individuals who gain access to them.

Buchanan argues that biomedical enhancements are less personal goods and should be viewed as public goods, as their introduction into society will benefit society on a whole, much like a public park or playground with respect to its surrounding community.

Buchanan also addresses the assumptions that not only with biomedical enhancements be market goods, but they will be expensive market goods and therefore only immediately available to the wealthy or financially advantaged.

He makes the argument that prices in these goods will decrease over time and be more readily available much like all forms of technology (i.e. flat screen televisions and iPhones). He makes the argument of network effects and claims that as goods become available and more people acquire them, they eventually come to availability and benefit of many and so they should not be viewed as a zero sum game.

Finally, Buchanan argues a fourth assumption that the government will undoubtedly result to a peripheral form of control with regards to these biomedical enhancements as market goods and therefore relegated to regulation and unable to effectively participate in the diffusion of such goods.

Buchanan also discusses his views with regards to economic and social disparities and inequalities within society.

He argues that inequality is not necessarily a bad thing, and is only wrong when viewed contextually. He argues that inequality becomes an issue when certain groups of individuals have and are able to exercise domination.

Domination, he details is when inequalities in goods result in certain individuals being able to assert an excessive level of control over other groups of individuals that in turn create opportunities for systemic exploitation and other forms of socioeconomic injustice (i.e. access to healthcare and better/higher education). Domination is an issue in and of itself, which can also lead to exclusion, which, whether active or passive can have significant negative repercussions on the disenfranchised group.

Exclusion he argues is when a group gains control and is able to exercise power to dominate other groups by excluding them from the benefits and goods of society (i.e. voting). He argues that it does not have to be active in order to be harmful and that mere neglect and poverty, a lack of access to resources and ability to effectively participate are of huge hindrance and unjust.

Buchanan makes numerous points regarding access to biomedical enhancements and responses against the ethical concerns of their impact on socioeconomic disparities. However, his views and assumptions with regards to government involvement and their repercussions on preexisting socioeconomic and systemic inequalities, especially in the United States, also tend to be somewhat lacking in contextual foresight.

In theory and ideally, biomedical enhancements should be diffused amongst society, well- distributed and individuals of all classes should have access to them. In theory, and idealistically, their prices will decrease over time and this decrease will even out the disparities. In theory, as more people acquire them, they will be of greater access to many.

However, socialism is a great idea, in theory. Global competition in the job market is a great idea, in theory; and the trickle-down theory of economics is a great idea as well. However, it is the actual implementation of such ideas where problems arise and external situations such as corruption, cronyism, and systemic oppression, inequality and injustice, which run rampant in society, complicate things.

Idealistically we could view biomedical enhancements as public goods, much like literacy in society. However, Buchanan fails to acknowledge the history of strategic oppression of disenfranchised individuals with regards to literacy. For example, African Americans in the United States were systematically forced into continued illiteracy for generations before they were allowed to have access to proper education.

How long did it take for that information, literacy, to properly diffuse and can we ever measure the effects on generations of setback? Even today, literacy in inner city schools is still significantly lower than in other areas of society.

These are just a handful of questions posed with regards to the ideas and concepts in the Allen Buchanan book Better Than Human . Regardless of how one’s opinion stands with Buchanan’s personal views on the subject matter, it would be hard to disagree on the level of insight the text provides into an ever increasingly relevant subject matter.


Perhaps it is for this reason that the thought-provoking text on bioethics received such big reviews for its “richness” from companies such as the Washington Independent Review of Books and the New York Times.

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