Disability, Enhancement and Flourishing
Jason Eberl, PhD, Professor of Health Care Ethics, Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics, Saint Louis University
A recent debate among bioethicists and other specialists concerns the potential to enhance human beings’ physical or cognitive capacities by means of genetic, pharmacologic, cybernetic, or surgical interventions. Between “transhumanists,” who argue for largely unrestricted enhancement of human capabilities, and “bioconservatives,” who warn against any non- therapeutic manipulation of humanity’s natural condition, lie those who support limited forms of enhancement for the sake of individual and collective human flourishing. Scholars representing these views also share a concern over the plight of human beings with various types of intellectual or physical disabilities, some of which may be ameliorable by enhancement interventions and some of which will remain intractable for the foreseeable future. The question addressed in this paper is how valuing the enhancement of human capabilities may be reconciled with valuing the existence and phenomenological experiences of disabled human beings. In other words, can we value enhanced capabilities without disvaluing those whose capabilities fall below a defined threshold of putative “normal function”? I begin by summarizing a “moderate” view that allows for certain forms of physical and cognitive enhancement that coheres with a classical understanding of human flourishing as formulated by Thomas Aquinas. As both a Christian theologian and a synthesizer of earlier Greco-Roman philosophical traditions, Aquinas continues to be a significant voice in contemporary metaphysical and moral debates regarding the composition of human nature and the proper treatment of human persons. I then delineate a Thomistically-informed view of the ontological status and intrinsic dignity of persons with various types of physical or intellectual disabilities. A central aim will be to distinguish how we ought to value traits – including capacities claimed to be definitive of the shared nature of human persons and the actualization of such capacities – from how we ought to value the bearers of such traits, regardless of the extent to which one is capable of exhibiting them. I conclude that we may consistently promote certain enhancements aimed at facilitating one’s ability to actualize capacities conducive to human flourishing as living, sentient, social, and rational animals, while at the same time valuing the existence and flourishing of disabled persons in their given condition. The valorization of enhanced capacities does not entail that physically or intellectually disabled persons are of diminished value as persons. Nor does it entail that their lived experiences as disabled persons are diminished to such an extent that their quality of life is on the whole more bad than good; for disabled persons may experience a whole range of goods precisely because they are disabled.