Cohen’s Conservatism and Human Enhancement
G. A. Cohen
J. Pugh (&) G. Kahane J. Savulescu Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics
, Suite 8, Littlegate House, St Ebbes Street, Oxford OX1 1PT,
In an intriguing essay, G. A. Cohen has defended a conservative bias in favour of existing value. In this paper, we consider whether Cohen's conservatism raises a new challenge to the use of human enhancement technologies. We develop some of Cohen's suggestive remarks into a new line of argument against human enhancement that, we believe, is in several ways superior to existing objections. However, we shall argue that on closer inspection, Cohen's conservatism fails to offer grounds for a strong sweeping objection to enhancement, and may even offer positive support for forms of enhancement that preserve valuable features of human beings. Nevertheless, we concede that Cohen's arguments may suggest some plausible and important constraints on the modality of legitimate and desirable enhancements.
It has become apparent that we may soon be able to use pharmacological and
genetic technologies to enhance human traits, when that is understood to refer to the
improvement of human form or functioning beyond what is necessary to sustain
or restore good health (Juengst 1998, p. 29). The use of these technologies for the
purposes of human enhancement has met with a wide variety of moral objections
(The Presidents Council on Bioethics 2003; Elliott 2003; Kass 2003; Sandel 2007).
In this paper, we investigate a potentially powerful new objection to human
enhancement suggested by the late G. A. Cohen shortly before his death in his
defence of the conservative attitude of having a bias in favour of retaining what
is of value, even in the face of replacing it by something of greater value (Cohen
2011, p. 203). Following Cohen, we shall henceforth refer to this attitude as the
We shall consider five different types of human enhancement as examples to
which Cohens objection might apply. First, we might seek to cognitively enhance
agents with even an above average IQ by providing them with certain drugs (such as
Modafinil) that increase cognitive abilities. Second, we might seek to morally
enhance agents by providing them with drugs that enhance moral attitudes such as
altruism and empathy. Third, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors offer the
possibility of mood enhancement insofar as they can improve even a healthy
persons general mood and ability to interact socially. Fourthly, we might soon be
able to use new technologies to extend a persons lifespan well beyond the current
norm. Finally, we may be able to modify the 3 phases of human lovelust,
attraction and attachmentenhancing love itself (Savulescu and Sandberg 2008)
and even reducing loving feelings in abusive relationships (Earp et al. 2012).
The thrust of Cohens argument in defence of the conservative bias is that we ought to
preserve extant valuable things, even in favour of possible replacements which would
possess more of the same value. As we shall show, Cohen himself recognised and
highlighted the possibility of an objection to human enhancement based on his general
defence of the conservative bias. The conservative nature of the objection that can be drawn
from Cohens thought here is of particular interest when we acknowledge the otherwise
progressive nature of his canon of work (Cohen 1978, 2009); it shows that opposition to
human enhancement technologies is not merely the preserve of right wing
bioconservatives who have so far spearheaded the opposition to the use of these technologies.
We shall show that Cohens striking claims about value do suggest an interesting
new line of argument against enhancement that is in several ways clearer and superior
to existing objections. However, we shall argue that on closer inspection, this
argument fails to offer valid grounds for a strong sweeping objection to enhancement.
We shall further suggest that Cohens defence of conservatism with respect to existing
value may actually amount to the recognition of the role of history in generating
current value. In view of this, we shall claim that although Cohens arguments suggest
some plausible and important new constraints on the modality of legitimate and
desirable enhancements, they do not rule out the moral permissibility of all human
enhancements, and may even offer positive support for some forms of enhancement.
Before we proceed, let us note that although we shall focus on the question of
enhancement, much of what we say should also apply to attempts to apply Cohens
conservatism in other domains.
We shall begin the paper by briefly delineating Cohens thesis concerning
conservatism with respect to value, before going on to explain how this thesis might
pertain to the use of enhancement technologies. We shall then consider how an objection
to the use of enhancement technologies may be developed from Cohens thesis.
1 Conserving the Valuable, Conserving the Valued and the Conservative Bias
In defending the conservative bias, Cohen draws a distinction between two types of
valuing that the conservative endorses, namely valuing the valuable, and valuing the
valued. We shall first delineate Cohens understanding of these two types of valuing
before explaining how he uses them in his defence of the conservative bias
It is perhaps instructive to begin by first considering the overall approach to
valuing that the conservative (in Cohens sense) opposes. The approach to valuing
that the conservative opposes according to Cohen is that which adopts an attitude
towards bearers of value whereby they.
do not count as such, but matter only because of the value that they bear,
and are therefore, in a deep sense dispensible. (Cohen 2011, p. 212).
Such an approach is most familiarly a salient feature of maximizing, monistic value
theories such as classical utilitarianism, although it is also often assumed by
nonmaximizing and pluralistic value theories (Cohen 2011, p. 212). The central thought
underlying this approach is that the only thing that matters with regards to extant
bearers of value is the value that they bear; their being a particular existing entity is
of no consequence with respect to their value. As such, if it is possible to bring
about more of the value that the extant entity bears by replacing it with something
else, then on this approach to valuing, we should do so.1 In view of some of the
other terminology that Cohen goes on to use, we will call this approach valuing
In contrast to this approach, Cohen claims, in a conservative vein, that we ought
to value extant bearers of value over and above the value that they bear, on the basis
that they already exist and bear value. Cohen identifies two ways in which we can
adopt this approach to valuing. The first he terms valuing the valuable. In this type
of valuing, the object of ones evaluation is a particular existing entity which is
intrinsically valuable. The value of such an object is not contingent upon the
evaluators attitudes, or their specific relation to that object; rather, the particular
object is valuable, qua particular, in and of itself (Cohen 2011, pp. 206207 and
210211). For example, we might say that a beautiful piece of art such as
Michelangelos sculpture of David instantiates this sort of value.
In addition, and in contrast to valuing the valuable, Cohen also discusses what he
terms valuing the valued. Here, the object of the agents evaluation need not have
any intrinsic value; rather the main source of the objects value lies in its particular
relation to the evaluator. For example, it might be claimed that the reason that brides
often retain their wedding dresses after their wedding day is that they instantiate this
sort of personal value. On Cohens interpretation, even if the dress can be said to
bear a degree of intrinsic value, the main reason that the bride will value the dress is
because of her specific relationship to that dress.2
1 This aspect of utilitarianism has been famously criticized by Rawls (1974), Williams (1973) and
2 Notice that while the brides relation to that dress may be thought to literally confer (extrinsic) value on
that dresswhat Cohen calls personal valueit is less plausible to think of particular value as some
extra value that something of intrinsic value possesses simply in virtue of actually existing. Cohen is
better understood as making a claim about how it is appropriate to value existing things that bear intrinsic
value, not about some further kind of value. However, to simplify presentation, we will follow Cohen in
writing about particular value.
In contrast to what we have termed valuing value, Cohen claims that the
conservative approaches of valuing the valued and valuing the valuable share in
the fact that they involve valuing something other than solely on account of the
amount and type of value that resides in that thing (Cohen 2011, p. 207). However,
there is an important difference between valuing the valuable and valuing the
valued, which allows Cohen to appeal to these different modes of valuing in order
to defend the conservative bias in two different ways. As such, we shall now
highlight the difference between these two types of conservative modes of valuing
before explaining how Cohen goes on to defend the conservative bias by appealing
to each activity.
The difference between these two types of valuing lies in the fact that the claim
that both types of valuing involve valuing something other than solely on account
of the value that resides in that thing is true with regards to each type of valuing for
different reasons. On the one hand, the preceding claim is true of valuing the
valuable because even though the object of this type of valuing has intrinsic value,
our valuing that object is not (according to Cohen) merely our valuing the intrinsic
value which that object instantiates; rather, we also value the particular object itself
that instantiates the value qua particular (Cohen 2011, p. 207). To illustrate, on
Cohens view, although we may say that Michelangelos David bears a certain
intrinsic value, we should also value the particular extant physical entity that bears
that intrinsic value. In view of this, he comes to term the value involved in valuing
the valuable which is not merely the intrinsic value that the object bears, as
The claim that valuing the valued involves valuing something other than solely
on account of the amount and type of value that resides in that thing is perhaps more
obviously true. After all, the object of such valuing may have either very little
intrinsic value or even no intrinsic value at all; as we saw in the example of the
wedding dress, the value of the object lies not in the object itself, at least not mainly;
rather the dresss value lies in its specific relation to the evaluator. In view of this,
Cohen comes to term the sort of value involved in valuing the valued as personal
value. We might also highlight here that, although Cohen himself does not point
this out, it seems plausible to claim that the relationship of the evaluator to the
valued item is based in part upon a shared personal history with that item.3
There may be other ways to understand the special relation of the bride to her
wedding dress. For example, rather than appealing to the concept of personal value,
rights-based accounts might explain the wedding dress example by focusing on the
rights that agents have to what belongs to them (grounded perhaps in the value of
self-ownership), and on our reasons to respect the desires of other autonomous
3 Understood in this way, the reasons generated by personal value are primarily agent-relative. This
means that some object may possess opposing personal value to different people. For example, another
woman who was in love with the brides husband may personally disvalue the wedding dress. In such
cases, it may not be possible to determine the appropriate course of action only by appealing to the
concept of personal value. Other considerations, such as the considerations relating to right we mention
below, will be needed to resolve such conflicts. We are grateful here to an anonymous reviewer for The
Journal of Ethics for pressing this point.
agents.4 For example, it might be claimed that the moral reason that we have to
honour a brides keeping her wedding dress is not that the dress has some special
conservative sort of personal value, but simply because it is the brides dress, and
it is therefore something that she has the right to.5
The rights based approach is an interesting alternative way of explaining aspects
of this case. However, it is not clear that this alternative is preferable to Cohens
interpretation. Indeed, Cohen himself provided objections to the self-ownership
principle that underlies prominent rights-based accounts of the sort just outlined.6
As such, whilst the rights based approach will serve as a useful comparison for some
of the cases that we shall come to consider, our focus in this paper is on the
distinctive claims made by Cohens conservative axiology. However, the contrast
with a rights-based approach highlights one interesting feature of Cohens view: it
purports to give us reasons to refrain from acting in ways that would maximise
value, not by appealing to rights or other deontological constraints, but by asking us
to rethink our understanding of value itself.
To return to Cohens account, with the distinction between particular and
personal value in mind, we can understand how Cohen defends the conservative bias
by appealing to these two types of value. Consider first the case of particular value.
Cohen argues that if we hold the attitude that we should always replace an existing
object which bears less intrinsic value with an object which bears more of the same
intrinsic value, we in fact devalue the particular existent things that bear intrinsic
value; that is to say, we fail to recognise the particular value of extant value bearers.
To illustrate, consider the following example. Suppose that Michelangelos
David had been made of an extremely rare material which afforded the artist a
completely unique opportunity for artistic expression through sculpture. Suppose,
quite fantastically, that Michelangelo had completed David but later realised that he
could have made an even more beautiful sculpture, say of Eve, if he had used that
material. And assume that at some later point, Michelangelo was actually in a
position to destroy David and use the material to create the even better Eve.
Moreover, we could be absolutely certain that he was right; Eve would be better.
Finally, we may assume that he would not fail to produce the new sculpture, and
that everybody agreed that the promised sculpture would bear more of the same
intrinsic value that Michelangelos David bears. The question then is should we
destroy Michelangelos David in order to bring about a sculpture which bears more
According to Cohens thesis, the answer should be no. Agreeing to destroy
Michelangelos David in order to bring about more intrinsic value in Eve is to fail to
4 For a classic account of this sort of perspective, see Nozick (1974).
5 We are grateful to an anonymous reviewer for The Journal of Ethics for suggesting this alternative
approach. We note, however, that such an approach may not explain the brides reasons for treating that
dress differently from other things she ownson such a view, her partiality to that dress is merely a
subjective relational state. And there are other relevant forms of apparent extrinsic value that will not be
easily accommodated by this approach, such as Shelly Kagans claim that the pen that Lincoln used to sign
the Emancipation Proclamation is of value in itself, because of its distinctive historical role (Kagan 1998).
6 Cohen (1995). Notice, moreover, that some prominent Kantians have defended broadly related claims
about extrinsic value. See Korsgaard (1983).
recognise the particular value of Michelangelos existing sculpture of David. We
should, according to Cohen, hold a bias towards extant particulars which bear
intrinsic value, even in the face of replacement particulars which would bear more
of the same intrinsic value.7 Accordingly, on Cohens view, rather than prioritising
the maximization value per se (as per the non-conservative approach of valuing
value), we ought to have a bias in favour of conserving the things that already exist
and bear value.
To take a more mundane example, a family may have an old dog, Jessie, who
they value as a member of the family, but who is now slow and labouring due to
arthritis. They are offered a new puppy by a friend, Sally. The new dog would be
friendlier, cuter and more active, being able to play with the younger children more.
They could put Jessie down and accept Sally. However, even if Sally would make a
better family pet, accepting her would be to fail to value the valued, and perhaps
even to fail to value the valuable. To extend the point, a similar thought could be
said to apply to the value of present over future generations, or to the choice
between extending the life of existing persons versus replacing them with a new
generation. In both these cases, there are reasons based on particular and personal
value to give priority to extant holders of value.
Having stated this, Cohen does acknowledge that the conservative bias is
defeasible.8 If the value of the new objects which replace the old is of a sufficient
magnitude, Cohen suggests that it may still be correct to bring them about. For
example, the dog, Jessie, might be blind, deaf and very ill now, perhaps in pain.
However, the important caveat in such a case is that we still ought to lament the
existent value that we have lost in doing so. In this latter case, Cohens view does
not alter the moral outcome, but rather our moral understanding of that outcome;
although we may rejoice the greater value that has been created, this attitude should
also involve a lamentation of the value we have also lost in doing so.
The conservative bias can also be defended by appealing to the nature of personal
value. Again, the way in which personal value can be used to defend the
conservative bias is perhaps more obvious. It is a common feature of our experience
to become attached to certain objects which might have no real intrinsic value, but
which we would still claim to be irreplaceable; we often claim that such objects
have sentimental value. Consider again the woman who keeps her wedding dress
after her wedding. Even if she could replace it with a far more expensive and
beautiful dress, this would not be a good reason to do so; the replacement would
lack the relation of the old wedding dress to the woman and her personal history
with it.9 Accordingly, it seems that we have a reason to hold a conservative bias in
7 This conservative bias is of course relative to a point in time. If Michelangelo did destroy David, and
created Eve, then Eve would now possess particular value, and it could be similarly wrong for
Michelangelo to destroy Eve in order to create an even better third statue.
8 As Cohen also points out, his argument does not entail that the conservative ought to be biased against
all new things; after all, it is possible that new values can be brought into existence without destroying the
old, and it is the latter which the conservative bias laments. (Cohen 2011, p. 213).
9 Notice that Cohens point here is not merely that the dress has extrinsic rather than intrinsic value; it
also lies in its value as a particular entityit would be awry to destroy the wedding dress if it could be
replaced with another thing of similar sentimental value.
favour of those things which instantiate personal value over those which instantiate
greater value in other ways but lack personal value.10
One difference between personal and particular value that Cohen does not stress
is that the relationships between agents and certain extant objects which undergird
the concept of personal value often seems to be grounded in the shared personal
history with the extant valued object that ties us to that thing.11 When we place
personal value on something, it seems more accurate to say that it is our shared
heritage with the object that matters, and not the mere fact that the object exists.12
Moreover, it seems that our intuitions about (or reasons associated with) personal
value involving shared history are far stronger than those provided by particular
value. To bring this thought out, recall the hypothetical example of Michelangelo
creating a sculpture of Eve. This time, suppose that his creation of the even better
Eve would not require the destruction of David; there is just enough material left for
one more beautiful sculpture, which Michelangelo then uses to create Eve.
However, immediately afterwards, Michelangelo announces that he has a better idea
for creating an even better sculpture than Eve. But its creation would require the
destruction of the newly-created sculpture, Eve.
Here, there intuitively seems to be a much better case for replacing the recently
created sculpture than there was in the case of David above. Part of the reason seems
to be that the Eve lacks the unique heritage of Michelangelos David as we know
him, which has long been in view and the object of admiration. In the case of Eve
and her superior successor, both sculptures would have the same history, apart from
the fact that the successor would be made shortly afterwards, and involve destroying
the Eve. The reason that we believe that Michelangelos David ought to be
preserved in similar circumstances is that we place personal value on the existing
sculpture by virtue of its unique heritage, and its unique relation to human artistic
endeavour. The fact that we believe it to be irreplaceable does not seem to be an
upshot of the intrinsic value it instantiates, nor the fact that it merely exists and
instantiates particular value; rather, we believe that the existing sculpture is
irreplaceable because we personally value it by virtue of its unique history.
Accordingly, it seems that the reasons to conserve provided by personal value are
10 The point that Cohen is making here seems to be an extension of the influential view that in loving
relationships it is the particular person herself who is loved and not the persons characteristics per se. See
Nozick (1974, pp. 167168) for an early formulation of this point. We consider Cohens own discussion
of love, below.
11 When Cohen writes about valuing the valued, this suggests that certain things possess (personal)
value because we value them. It is implausible, however, that Cohen means that anything that anyone
values thereby acquires personal value. As his examples suggest, some objective relationship to the object
is needed to ground that valuingperhaps a shared history, as we suggest. Might such an objective
relationship confer personal value on something even if one does not value it? This is less clear. We shall
largely assume that both (objective) relationship and (subjective) valuing is required for personal value,
but we shall also consider cases where the two come apart.
12 Interpreted in this way, Cohens claims about personal value can again be seen as an extension of the
more familiar view that our relationship with family and friends justify our partiality towards them, where
such relationships are at least partly constituted by a shared history. See e.g. Kolodny (2003). This would
explain what would be wrong about replacing the dog Jessie with the puppy Sally.
typically stronger than reasons provided by particular value, due in part to the role
that history plays in tying us to the valued entity.
These striking claims about value have great intuitive force. However, as Cohen
himself acknowledged, they also face some difficulties (Cohen 2011,
pp. 214221).13 In what follows, we will not press such worries. Instead, we want
to explore whether Cohens claims about particular and personal value can be used
to mount a forceful new objection to the project of enhancement. If such an
objection can be mounted, it would be superior in important ways to more familiar
bio-conservative worries, which have attracted significant response (Harris 2007;
Buchanans 2011; Kamm 2005; Savulescu 2009). These more familiar
bioconservative worries either explicitly draw on religion, or rely on notions that often have
their source in religion. Cohens claims about value do not have this problematic
baggage. Moreover, these claims are not based in an attempt to spell out (or
rationalize) ones repugnance or gut rejection of enhancement. They are rather a
general account of value that was motivated independently and is only later applied
to the enhancement case. Moreover, as we shall see, Cohens conservatism may
suggest reasons to preserve our human nature that do not require appeal to the
implausible and obscure idea that some things are wrong simply because they are
2 The Conservative Bias and Human Enhancement
On the face of it, Cohens views seem to supply powerful ammunition to opponents
of enhancement. They would supply such ammunition even if Cohen never
discussed the question of enhancement. However, Cohen himself clearly thought of
enhancement as a paradigmatic example of the kind of threat to value that he
highlights. But Cohens remarks on this are rather brief and sketchy. In this section,
we shall try to flesh out the objection that can be drawn from Cohens remarks.
The first suggestive comment that Cohen makes with regards to enhancement
technologies is his claim that most peoples intuitive response to one example of
what would qualify as an enhancement shows that, in practice, everybody is
conservative to some degree (Cohen 2011, p.208). He sets out the example as
there sits a man who is surveying his own fleshy parts, that is, those of his
parts which are still made of flesh, which includes some of his brain-flesh
parts, and he is replacing defective bits of his flesh by perfect artificial
substitutes The man has been doing this for some time, and a lot of him is
already artificial. That is surely a ghastly scenario. (Cohen 2011, p. 208)
Whilst it is open to question whether this is really a ghastly scenario, one reason
that explains why some might find it to be so (according to Cohen) is that we accept
13 One particular worry here is that the conservative bias seems suspiciously similar to status quo bias.
Cohen does briefly attempt to address this worry (on p. 225), but his arguments here are not wholly
persuasive. It seems that this worry applies with greater strength to particular value than to personal
the broad conservative claim that certain things are to be taken as they come;
they are not to be shaped or controlled (Cohen 2011, p. 208). This claim is similar
to that which underlies a prominent objection to human enhancement technologies,
voiced most famously by Michael Sandel, namely the objection that we ought to
accept some things as given and that the main problem with enhancement is a
Promethean drive to mastery (Sandel 2007). Cohen in fact also distinguishes the
activity of valuing the given from the two types of conservative value presented
here (Cohen 2011, p. 207). Although Cohen appears to endorse this additional mode
of valuing, we shall not consider it directly here because, as we have already
mentioned, it is already associated with a prominent objection to human
enhancement which has been discussed extensively (Kamm 2005). However, our
consideration of the other types of valuing that Cohen identifies will also have some
application to such appeals to the value of the given.
Cohen goes on to consider a further example of enhancement. He writes:
If I want us to continue as we are, do I want us to retain our negative features?
What if a genetic manipulation could, for example, eliminate envy? I would
not want to eliminate all of our bad features. I conjecture that that is partly
because the negative traits are part of the package that makes human beings
the particular valuable creatures that we personally cherish, and are therefore
worth preserving as part of that package (Cohen 2011, p. 209)14
On the basis of these reflections, Cohen suggests that the distinction he draws
between particular value and personal value may be used to distinguish,
the reason to preserve human beings (as they are)that they are creatures
that exhibit a certain form of value, and our (additional) reason to do so, which
is that they are us. (Cohen 2011, p. 209)15
As the above quotes from Cohen intimate, he seems to believe that there are two
separate reasons to refrain from carrying out human enhancements, reasons which
correspond to the two types of value he distinguishes. First, he claims that we have a
reason to preserve human beings as they are insofar as they instantiate a certain
form of value. Cohen does not explicitly cash out what he means by this claim;
however, what seems to be underlying the argument here is an appeal to something
like the value of human nature, or of our shared human characteristics. On this
interpretation, insofar as human beings can be said to share in a common nature, that
nature possesses intrinsic value, or at least partly explains why human beings are
14 As an anonymous reviewer for The Journal of Ethics pointed out, we need not rely on the conservative
bias in order to object to an attempt to eliminate envy. We could also do so on the basis that envy is
closely related to other desirable conative states such as competiveness, and it might be impossible to
eliminate one without eliminating the other.
15 This claim again echoes the late Bernard Williams attempts to justify speciesism and the human
prejudice over according equal value and consideration to other life forms and species. As Williams
writes, Told that there are human beings trapped in a burning building, on the strength of that fact alone
we mobilise as many resources as we can to rescue them (Williams 2008, p.142).
valuable.16 Accordingly, the view that seems to be implicit in Cohens comments
here is that even if our shared human nature could be improved in a manner which
would increase the intrinsic value of human beings, we should refrain from doing so
because human nature as it is also has particular value in abstraction from its
intrinsic value (in the same way that Michelangelos David does).17 Call this the
argument from particular value.18
Interestingly, if this interpretation of Cohen is correct, then it may offer
bioconservatives an attractive way of seeing human nature as having a distinctive value
that does not face the standard problem of explaining why the relatively contingent
and arbitrary features of the human species, selected by a blind evolutionary
process, should be taken to have special value as many bio-conservatives seem to
think. On the Cohen view, this contingency is not a problem. If we had been very
different, it is that other nature that would have been valuable. Ours is valuable
simply because it is the nature that actually exists, not because it is inherently
special, or because there is some morally authoritative natural order that we are
forbidden to trespass.
However, one problem with this interpretation of the argument is that what
actually exists are us, that is to say particular extant humans who may be said to
instantiate human nature, and not some abstract notion of humanity. This might be
deemed problematic on one ground for the scope of the argument from particular
value, since future humans do not actually exist to instantiate human nature (and
thus particular value), and it is therefore not clear how the argument can extend to
them. Unless we can make sense of humanity as an existing entity, then this line of
argument would only apply to changes we make to ourselves. However, the general
point remains that, on this interpretation of Cohen, the conservative has grounds for
objecting to the project of human enhancement, insofar as that project seeks only to
enhance what is intrinsically valuable about human nature, whilst ignoring the
particular value of human nature as it now is.19
The second objection to human enhancement suggested by Cohen is that to
change our nature is to change something that possesses personal value; our
additional reason not to improve human beings is that they are us. How can we
16 On another interpretation, we humans possess intrinsic value because of more generic features, such as
self-consciousness, rationality and moral capacities. Other aspects of human nature (such as being made
of flesh) are endowed with particular value not because they themselves possess intrinsic value, but
simply because they are the contingent features of the particular beings that we happen to be. We could
still be rational even if we completely transformed our nature, but in doing so we would be failing to
respect this particular value.
17 Whilst an entitys having particular value depends on its bearing intrinsic value, the entitys particular
value is to be conceived of in abstraction from the intrinsic value that it bears.
18 This would also appear to ground Williams human prejudice. See Williams (2008).
19 Of course, a person would still exist following an enhancement, and their enhanced nature would
presumably have some particular value on the basis that it now exists. This is compatible with Cohens
view. Whilst such an enhancement would involve the creation of something with new particular value, it
would necessarily involve the destruction of that which previously existed and instantiated particular
value. Reasons generated by particular value are relative to time. At any given point in time, we have
reason not to replace something of particular value with some new entity of greater intrinsic value. But if
we ignore this reason, then the replacement would itself come to possess particular value, and we would
now have reason not to replace it with something even better. There is no inconsistency here.
make sense of the idea that humans beings are valuable because they are us? At
the individual level, it seems relatively easy to cash this thought out; we clearly
have a relationship to our own individual features that may be understood as a basis
for each of us placing personal value on ourselves. However, it is not so simple to
explain this claim at a collective level. One way of cashing out Cohens claim in this
way would be to say that as well as sharing a common human nature, humans as a
species have also developed that nature over the course of a shared biological
history.20 It might then be argued that to seek to change ourselves by using
enhancement technologies would be to fail to recognise the significance of our
collective relationship to our own shared history, and the personal value that we, as
a collective, place on it; on this interpretation of Cohen, we can collectively place
personal value on ourselves as we are in view of this shared history that has made us
the way we are21 Call this the argument from personal value.
As the above description intimates, there are two possible readings of the
argument from personal value; the relevant reading of the argument will depend
upon whether we understand the concept of personal value at the individual or
collective level. In his brief remarks concerning enhancement, Cohen seems to have
in mind primarily the enhancement of unborn children, since he refers only to the
dangers of germline genetic manipulation (and not somatic interventions). However,
consider first the argument as it pertains solely to the somatic enhancement of adult
humans. Understood this way, the thrust of the argument from personal value seems
to be that individuals may place personal value on their own features, so that even if
it were possible to improve an individuals nature through the use of, say, coercive
pharmacological interventions, this would be to ignore the personal value that
individuals may place on their own, flawed, natures.
This reading of the argument is somewhat narrow; understood this way, the
objection relies on the thought that the individual herself places personal value on
her own features as they are, and that an external agency is seeking to coercively
impose an enhancement that would be insufficient to overrule this personal value.
However, these are not the sorts of cases of enhancement that liberals in the
enhancement debate normally aim to defend. Such liberals primarily seek to defend
against governments coercively preventing agents who have chosen to enhance
themselves from doing so, when that choice arises from their recognising what they
perceive to be a flawed or unsatisfactory feature which they desire to improve.
20 In questioning the existence of any cosmic point of view, Williams remarks, There is certainly one
point of view from which they are important, namely ours: unsurprisingly so, since the we in question,
the we who raise this question and discuss with others who we hope will listen and reply, are indeed
human beings. It is just as unsurprising that this we often shows up within the content of our values.
Whether a creature is a human being or not makes a large difference, a lot of the time, to the ways in
which we treat that creature or at least think that we should treat it.
21 We are aware that there are some problems with this interpretation of Cohens claims here; first and
foremost, it is not clear that all aspects of our shared history have value, because our shared history has
also led us to develop undesirable traits. However, what is crucial for the point that we are making here is
that our current nature is valuable, and we can describe ourselves as placing personal (as well as
particular) value on it by virtue of the fact that it developed, warts and all, over the process of a shared
Nevertheless, this individualistic reading of the argument from personal value
could still be used to object to governments coercively imposing certain
enhancementscases in which the enhancements were carried out on individuals
despite the personal value that they place on their own features. However, this is
clearly a limited sort of objection to enhancement technologies.22 Moreover, as well
as being inapplicable to individuals who do not personally value certain aspects of
their own natures,23 the above reading of the argument from personal value is also
not applicable to the use of germ-line enhancements, since the unborn recipients of
germ-line enhancements cannot personally value their own features in the way that
this reading requires; after all, they do not yet exist in the sense that would be
required for valuing their features.
However, Cohen seems to believe that what we have termed the argument from
personal value is also applicable to the use of germ-line enhancements. This
suggests an alternative, broader reading of the argument pertaining to personal value
at the collective level. On this broader reading, the thrust of the argument does not
lie in the fact that the recipient of the enhancement herself personally values her
own features; rather, we collectively place personal value on human nature insofar
as it is the outcome of our shared biological history, warts and all. On this reading,
the way humans actually are has a certain long history which is our history, and thus
confers special personal value on how we biologically are. Those who seek to
enhance themselves (or future people) could be accused of failing to see that they
have this relation to their own nature.24 This seems to be part of what Cohen has in
mind in his remarks on envy; his thought seems to be that we should place personal
value on all aspects of our nature, the good and the bad, just because we are human
and it is our nature under consideration.
To conclude this section, the intuitive force underlying the conservative
objections to enhancement that Cohen suggests is the following: even if the
technology to improve certain of our capacities becomes available, and even if
proponents of enhancement are correct to claim that the changes that enhancements
could bring about would lead to a better outcome, to carry out such enhancements
would be to fail to appreciate the fact that human nature as it is not only bears a
certain value, but is also valuable (in a particular and personal sense) by virtue of
22 However, as an anonymous reviewer for The Journal of Ethics pointed out, it might be the case that
initial uses of enhancement technologies might be coercive in institutional and political domains (such as
the military). As such, whilst the argument above is limited in scope, it is nonetheless important. Thanks
to the anonymous reviewer for making this point.
23 As we noted in note 11, Cohens claims about personal value can also be understood in a more
objective manner. On this reading, our relationship to our particular nature endows that nature with
personal value for us even if we do not in fact place value on it. Understood in this more demanding way,
personal value could generate reasons against enhancement even for individuals who are keen to radically
transform their own nature.
24 There are some interesting differences here between collectively placing personal value and an
individual placing personal value on something. Whilst it is unclear how an agent could fail to see their
own specific relation to some object without undermining the thought that the relationship itself is of
importance (though see note 23), it is easy to see how a minority of a collective could fail to see the
importance of the collectives relationship to a shared history without undermining the actual importance
of the shared history to the collective as a whole.
the fact that it is a value that exists and which we have a special sort of relation to
(understood either at the individual or collective level). Accordingly, the
conservative might argue that human enhancements should be avoided, whether
they are coerced or freely chosen, in so far as they would serve to replace these
special extant values.
The previous section delineated the theoretical basis for the way in which the
conservative might object to the use of human enhancement technologies. In view
of this, it might seem, prima facie at least, that the conservative ought to oppose all
forms of human enhancement technologies. However, closer inspection of the
matter suggests that this is not the case. In the remainder of this paper, we shall
show that if the objection to human enhancement based on Cohens conservatism is
to have real plausibility, its scope must be limited in important ways.
By Cohens own lights, one limitation to the conservative objection arises from his
caveat that the conservative bias is defeasible. Even if it may be important to
preserve human nature as it is on the grounds of both personal and particular value,
there may be other values which outweigh this bias. If so, then all that the objection
shows is that we have reason to avoid enhancements whose benefits are not
significant enough to outweigh these other values.
One candidate for a value which could overrule the particular and personal value
of human nature, and one which is central to Cohens work elsewhere, is the value
of social justice (Cohen 2000). Indeed, in his discussion of the conservative bias,
Cohen himself states that justice always trumps it (Cohen 2011, p. 224). To
illustrate, if it were the case that social justice could be more effectively achieved if
certain members of society were enhanced (perhaps so that they had equal access to
opportunities afforded to those with higher capacities), then it might again be a
requirement to enhance them in the interest of justice. Indeed, in view of the fact
that Cohen defended luck egalitarianism, it may be possible to go even further than
this. In a paper on egalitarian justice, Cohen states that the primary egalitarian
impulse is to extinguish the influence on distribution of both exploitation and brute
luck (Cohen 1989, p. 908). Genetic injustice seems a paradigm instance of just
that; clearly, having less innate talents than others is obviously outside of our
control. So it seems to follows that luck egalitarianism should support very strong
forms of genetic enhancement which seek to mitigate these genetic injustices.25
Coupled with his claim that injustice always trumps the conservative bias, it seems
that we get a very powerful argument for certain forms of genetic enhancement.26
25 Dworkin (2003) also seems to essentially endorse this conclusion.
26 Of course this would be compatible only with enhancement that is enjoyed by everyone; it would
strongly count against letting rich people enhancing their children if poorer people cannot.
A further candidate for a value which might outweigh the conservative bias is the
value of preserving human existence itself. Savulescu and Persson have argued that
we have a moral imperative to morally enhance members of society in order to
reduce the ever increasing probability of the human race being destroyed by a small
group of individuals (Savulescu and Persson 2012). Accordingly, if the only way in
which we can preserve the human species is by changing human nature in order to
enhance certain characteristics which will make the preservation of the species more
likely, it seems incumbent upon us to do so, even if it means overriding the personal
and particular value possessed by our flawed natures.27
It might be argued that rather than overriding the conservative bias, the above
case of preserving human existence is an example where we have more reason to
conserve one extant value (i.e., the survival of the human species) than we do to
preserve another extant value which is mutually exclusive (i.e. the value of our
current characteristics). This thought leads us to another possible limitation of
Cohens objection to enhancement technologies; namely, it does not seem to be
effective against those enhancement technologies which serve to conserve extant
valuable aspects of human characteristics. It is to this issue that we now turn.
3.2 Enhancements that Conserve
The second thing to acknowledge is that, again by the conservatives own lights, not
all enhancements will necessarily be susceptible to the conservative objections
delineated above. The main thrust underlying both of these objections is Cohens
thesis that we have a reason to conserve what has value, whether it is particular or
personal value at stake. Accordingly, if an enhancement can be regarded as merely
conserving what is valuable about human beings, it seems that Cohens arguments
could in fact be used to support the use of certain enhancements.
To use one of Cohens own examples (which is not related to his comments on
enhancement), Cohen refers to the value of All Souls College in Oxford as an
institution with a particular identity, and claims that the college should not be
changed so as to bring about more value (say by being changed to make it capable
of promoting research better) if bringing about such a change destroys the very
identity of the college. The notion of identity at work here is not the purely
metaphysical sense of identity that is often at work in questions of personal identity
in the philosophical literature. Rather, Cohen points out that he uses the notion of
identity in a vaguer but very important socio-cultural sense (Cohen 2011,
For our purposes, the crucial part of Cohens discussion of this example is his
claim that his concern in this case is that All Souls remains what (but not therefore
27 This raises the interesting point of whether the conservative bias could also be overruled in order to
prevent non-human animals and/or existing human cultures from becoming extinct. Presuming that we
valued the existence of these cultures and species, it seems that there would be a good case in favour of
this. We are grateful here to an anonymous reviewer for The Journal of Ethics.
28 When referring Cohens conception of identity to human agents, the sense of identity he uses seems to
have more in common with DeGrazias conception of narrative identity than that of personal identity. See
exactly as) it is (Cohen 2012, p. 169); Cohen here is conceding that it is possible to
change an entity without changing what it is in the manner that would threaten its
socio-cultural identity. In view of this, it seems plausible to suggest that Cohen
would surely embrace restorations to All Souls whose purpose is to preserve the
College, presuming that these changes do not threaten its unique and valuable
identity; such changes may be said to change the college from being as it is, without
changing what it is.
We can apply a similar thought to the enhancement of certain features which do
not seem to threaten to alter what seems valuable about human nature. As we stated
above, Cohen himself is not explicit about what it is that is supposed to be valuable
about human beings. However, even without a detailed discussion, it seems
plausible to claim that at least one sort of enhancement that may be viewed as
conserving what is valuable about human beings, rather than replacing something
which has particular or personal valuablenamely, life-extension technologies.
Consider the following example:
Edwards father has just died, at the age of 72. Although he had enjoyed his life,
in his final years Edwards father often told him how he regretted the many things
that he had not done. This prompts Edward to take a course of drugs that will extend
his life by 30 years. Moreover, these drugs will also stop the aging process, ensuring
that Edwards cognitive and physical traits will not diminish over the extra time that
he will now live.
If human life has value, then surely extending Edwards life in this way would
conserve existing value. Moreover, normal ageing brings about the loss of many
valuable and valued human capacities, such as the loss of cognitive, sensory,
emotional and motor capacities; the preservation of these would require human
enhancement. Protecting against normal cognitive decline, normal loss of hearing
and sexual potency, normal physical infirmity requires that we enhance human
capacities just as we would have to enhance and replace stone work that ages on a
Similarly, we might also acknowledge that it is a painful, familiar truth that love
withers and dies. Nearly 50 % of marriages end in divorce and there may biological
as well as sociological reasons for this (Savulescu and Sandberg 2008; Earp et al.
2012). Such relationship break-up can have bad effects for all concerned. The
prospect of biologically maintaining attachment and enhancing pair bonding for
promoting long term relationship stability might be welcomed by some. Coupled
with environmental enrichment and a vigorous love exercise programme, it is
hard to see a conservative objection to such love drugs. Indeed, enhancing the
stability of marriage is one of the central goals of many conservatives.
If this is right, then life-extension and love-enhancing technologies may again be
regarded not as replacing something that is valuable about human beings; rather,
this sort of enhancement may be regarded as conserving something that is valuable
about human life, but which we often lose in natural circumstances.
One possible objection to this alleged limitation to the scope of Cohens
argument, and one that would not apply to the analogous case of preserving All
Souls College, would be if there was something inherently valuable about the
current human life-span (Kass 2003), or the current life span of loving relationships.
But this objection is implausible; why should we think that there is anything special
about the proverbial threescore and ten average life expectancy in the developed
world? After all, a life expectancy of this length is a very recent development in
human history; life expectancy has dramatically increased even over the last century
due, in part, to unprecedented developments in medical technologies.29 Even
without the use of enhancement technologies, we can expect life expectancy to
increase on the basis that medical technology and science is likely to improve.30
Through most of human history, most people lived substantially less than 40 years.
And we doubt bioconservatives would wish to maintain the current life span of
relationships, which has a median of 710 years (Savulescu and Sandberg 2008).
It thus seems that there are other cases in which an enhancement could be used to
conserve something of value. Consider the following example, closer to Cohens
Charles has been married to Charlotte for a number of years, but their
relationship is under strain. Although Charles and Charlotte both love each other,
Charlotte finds it difficult to deal with Charles pathological envy. Charles loves
Charlotte and wants to change his ways, but neither anger management classes nor
psychotherapy have reduced his envious tendencies. Charles therefore decides to
take certain drugs which have been shown to reduce envy.
In this example, although it is possible to regard Charles attempts to rid himself
of envy as an attempt to destroy an existing feature that has personal value, it seems
plausible to claim that Charless motive in undergoing the enhancements is that he
wants to conserve the particular and personal value instantiated by his marriage to
Charlotte; it seems that this latter value is far greater for Charles than the (supposed)
personal value of his envy.
In this case, it is also noteworthy that the couple are not engaged in a general
project of removing envy from humanity but in reducing it in a particular case, in
order to preserve something of particular value. Since it would be good for them to
do this using non-biomedical means, for example in couples therapy, it is hard to
see how it could be wrong to use biomedical means if these are more effective, or
these supplement environmental manipulations.
As we have suggested in these two sub-sections, the conservative bias cannot
ground a sweeping objection to all forms of human enhancement, even if it still
serves to highlight the fact that changes to our existing nature, while sometimes
justified, should still be a source of some regret, a point that proponents of
enhancement often overlook. It might still be thought, however, that enhancements
that conserve existing value are a special case, and that there will be enough cases
29 See UK house of Commons research paper (1999) on this matter.
30 A conservative of Cohens ilk might respond to this point by claiming that the Cohens view protects
value as it actually exists now. Accordingly, it might be claimed that the conservative does not need to
show there is anything special about our current lifespan; its enough that it is what exists. However, this
reply has limited force. After all, it follows from it that there was something slightly regrettable in moving
from our past shorter lifespan to the current one. Yet this badness seems to have no moral weight against
the measures that were taken to previously increase our lifespan. Mutatis mutandis, this form of value
cannot weigh against extending lifespan even further.
3.3 Organic Change
As we pointed out in considering Cohens discussion of the All Souls example,
Cohens conservative concern is to preserve what exists, but not necessarily as it is.
What this seems to imply is that the conservative should find certain changes
permissible so long as those changes are respectful to the value that currently exists.
To return to the example of All Souls, the college has undeniably changed in
important ways over the centuries; for instance, new buildings have been built, and
plumbing and electricity have been installed. These changes have surely made the
college better in numerous ways. Crucially though, these changes do not amount to
changing what All Souls is with regards to the sense of identity that Cohen has in
mind. It seems plausible to claim that part of the reason why they have not is that
these changes were brought about in a manner that respects existing value. In
contrast, we can easily think of other changes to All Souls that would be genuinely
compromising; for instance, suppose that a beautiful but incongruous modern glass
tower was built in the middle of the main quad. The conservative would
understandably lament this rude intervention, but that does not mean that he must
lament all changes to the college that go beyond those essential for its strict
preservation; there is no good reason for him to lament those changes that improve
things while still respecting existing value.
In a similar vein, something that may strike us when we consider how Cohens
defence of the conservative bias relates to the enhancement debate is the fact that
humans have improved themselves in several ways throughout history, and in ways
which do not cause us concern. One clear example of a way in which humans have
changed over the course of their history is the improvement in their cognitive
capacities. Clearly, we are far more cognitively advanced than our early ancestors.
Yet one need not even go this far back to witness our cognitive improvement;
according to the well documented Flynn effect, average IQ scores have been
steadily increasing over the past few generations (Flynn 1987). In a similar vein,
Steven Pinker has documented how humanitys tendency towards violent behaviour
has gradually, but significantly reduced over the course of our history (Pinker 2012).
Few, if any, would deny that both of these changes have been for the better.
Presumably, Cohen would not mean his conservatism to extend to these changes in
human nature31; there is nothing wrong in these changes, nor should we lament
them. It seems to us that these changes seem less threatening because, like the
changes that All Souls has undergone over the years, they do not seem to disrespect
This raises the question of why these sorts of change are compatible with
respecting existing value. One salient difference between the natural changes listed
31 It might be claimed that Cohen would want to extend his conservatism in this way, but allow that the
benefits are large enough to outweigh our reason to conserve our e.g. aggression. If so, then the reply to
this is again that this should also apply to further enhancements.
above and the sorts of enhancements that Cohen seems to find worrying is the length
of time over which the changes would take place. Consider first the case of cognitive
enhancement. Rather than human IQ gradually increasing over generations, the
prospect of enhancement promises an almost immediate and radical change to a
particular individual. Similarly, whilst our violent tendencies may be decreasing
over generations, this seems to be different from someone immediately eradicating
violence, envy, or a gloomy outlook by taking a pill.32
However, the fact that a change is merely gradual is neither necessary nor
sufficient for its being respectful to existing value. To return to the All Souls
example, if one built the beautiful but incongruous modern glass tower in All Souls,
but built it very slowly, one would still fail to respect the value of All Souls
identity. On the other hand, installing electricity in a way that is unobtrusive seems
compatible with respecting All Souls identity, even if it is done in a week.
As such, rather than claiming that a change respects existing value if it is gradual,
we shall use the term organic to denote those changes that seem to be compatible
with respecting existing value. It is not easy to spell out precisely the exact contours
of what makes a change organic in the sense that we are employing here. However,
we can begin to elucidate this somewhat opaque concept by recalling the
importance of history to personal value. We argued above that the thrust underlying
our placing personal value on some entity is our shared history with that thing; as
such, we may say that a change to some entity will fail to be organic if it somehow
ruptures our sense of heritage with that entity.
In many cases, it is fairly easy to classify some change to a thing as organic or
not. All Souls identity is not threatened by the move from quills to typewriters and
from typewriters to computers. But it will be threatened if, say, the chapel was
turned into a gym. Similarly, adding a new quad to the college would be a
significant change, but it might still be organic if the quad preserved the existing
architectural style of the college; it will not be if its look is entirely modern. The
operative idea seems to be that of continuity in form and functionthis is obviously
a matter of degree, and there will be plenty of borderline cases. The weight given to
different aspects of an entitys current form and function depends on their role in its
social-cultural identity, and that, we suggest, depends at least in part on its shared
Although the reflections on the All Souls case suggest that a changes being
gradual is neither necessary nor always sufficient for its being organic, it might be
the case that the immediate nature of some changes will be sufficient for its being
32 It should be acknowledged that Cohen explicitly denies that his view implies that the longer some
valuable thing exists, the more particular value it has. However, this is compatible with the point we are
making here about gradual change. The point we are making is that gradually changing something is
compatible with respecting the value that currently exists; this does not imply that the longer a particular
entity exists the more particular value it has.
33 Michael Stocker also appeals to organic wholes. He uses several examples of mixes of different
goods to show that the value of any good is dependent on determining whether the organic whole to
which it belongs is better than another whole to which same good might belong. His conclusion is that we
do not sum the good to find the better, but often must evaluate the better before we can determine the
good. In this sense, maximization is parasitic on other views of the better for its definition of the good
to be maximized (Stocker 1990, p. 295).
inorganic and thereby disrespectful of existing value. There is an interesting issue
here of when change needs to be gradual to respect existing value. Perhaps some
significant or radical changes (bearing on core features or form) cannot be done in
an organic way if done quickly. We shall not pursue this point here. However, the
discussion of this section suggests that the conservative objection is most easily
aimed at those enhancements which radically alter some aspect of our natures in a
manner which we may intuitively describe as inorganic, in the sense that it
ruptures our sense of heritage with the extant object. Clearly then, one aspect of a
change that can sometimes serve to render it inorganic is if it takes place over a very
short period of time. As such, we may say that Cohens conservatism give us a
reason, to be wary of immediate, radical enhancement, since the immediacy of
certain radical changes can render them inorganic and thereby disrespectful of
At this point though, we might recall that Cohens thoughts concerning his plastic
man case suggest that even gradual enhancements ought to be avoided if they are
sufficiently radical. In the next section, we shall consider what might constitute a
As we have already seen in Cohens discussion of the All Souls example, it seems
that an integral part to a changes being organic (and thereby compatible with
respecting extant value) is that the change does not alter those essential features of
the entity which undergird its socio-cultural identity. Just as Cohen pointed out that
All Souls has an identity which ought to be preserved in view of its particular and
personal value, one might claim that we would not be the individual persons we are
if it had not been for what we take to be our defects; they, as well as what we take to
be our strengths are essential features that constitute who we are. The argument,
then, might be that we should not seek to change ourselves too much for the better
for fear that we may in fact change who we actually are.
This thought bears some similarity to Robert Adams arguments concerning the
value we place on our own lives. Adams argues that we have reason to prefer our
own actual life, if that life is good, rather than lives which could have been better.
That is, we should prefer our actual life if those different lives would have been too
thoroughly different (Adams 1979, p. 60) in terms of the projects, friendships and
attachments that characterise them, and that we now actually care about. And given
that what matters to us now are certain projects, friendships and goals, we should
not regret the fact that we have our actual lives, and not better but different lives in
which these things did not matter, just as we can be happy that we exist, and not that
other happier individuals instead of us. For example, Adams argues that one can
have reason to choose freedom over happiness or some other objective value,
without claiming that the free society is better: It is enough that the type of society
for which one strives is good, and worth loving (Adams 1979, p. 63).
It might thus be claimed that radical changes that undermine (or otherwise
compromise) our socio-cultural identity fail to respect the existing value of our
current human nature. However, the objection as it has this far been stated is not
convincing. Once again, it seems clear that individuals often seek to improve
themselves during their lives without threatening their sense of identity. Indeed, as
we pointed out in our discussion of the All Souls example, we often improve things
in order to conserve their identity; presumably improvements do occur in All Souls
College that do not undermine the particular and personal value of its socio-cultural
Is there any way in which enhancement technologies might be disanalogous?
Consider first the case of life extension enhancements. Here it seems that the
enhancement would serve to preserve the recipients identity in the sense that Cohen
is concerned with rather than to threaten it; after all, one does not have an identity in
the sense that Cohen alludes to after one has ceased to exist.34 Moreover, it seems
plausible to claim that Edwards socio-cultural identity is at least partly associated
with certain psychological components such as his memories, and his beliefs. It
seems plausible to claim that life extension could serve to conserve these identity
constituting psychological components, which often fade in the later years of life.
Most strikingly, in some cases of intervening in dying or fading love, enhancement
may seek to promote what both parties cherished, their shared history, against
factors which may be partly outside of their full control.
Having stated this, it seems that other enhancements do not merely conserve
certain capacities which are linked to the agents identity, but seek to improve upon
them. Might this be more problematic? It is difficult to see why. After all, we often
seek to improve ourselves through natural means such as education without fear of
threatening our socio-cultural identity.
It might be argued that the conservative objection against enhancements has
more force on the collective understanding of the argument from personal value,
where enhancements are understood as threatening some species identity or
human nature that needs to be preserved. We believe that this is a more problematic
proposal, given the difficulties associated with these notions (Nielsen 2011), and it
is not entirely clear what Cohen has in mind when he writes about the package [of
features] that makes human beings the particular valuable creatures that we
personally cherish. However, that is not to say that this objection is completely
lacking in content. It seems plausible that some enhancements might pose a threat to
certain agreed central features of humankind. For instance, Robert Sparrow has
suggested that we could alter the human race to ensure that all new-borns were
female, and that this could qualify as an enhancement (Sparrow 2010).35 It seems
that we could plausibly regard such an enhancement as undesirable not because
such a change would be against nature, but because it would represent a
fundamental and radical disjunct between the human species (or even the human
form of life) as it existed prior to the intervention and as it would exist following it.
The conservative bias can give us reasons to reject such radical transformations of
human nature even if (as Sparrow assumes) they promise to lead to a better
outcome. It gives us, one might also say, reasons to be partial to aspects of human
nature as it currently isbut only within limits.36
Another aspect of an enhancement that the conservative might claim is morally
relevant is the manner of the enhancement. For example, Cohens repulsion in the
face of the plastic man example suggests that he regards the change here as
inorganic despite the fact that it is gradual. There is some intuitive pull to this idea;
it seems that physically replacing naturally developed parts of ones body with
synthetic substitutes represents an inorganic change, not only literally, but also in
the sense that we employ here. Whilst it would be interesting to explore the
theoretical basis for why such a change seems to be inorganic, space does not allow
for a full investigation of this matter here. Needless to say, however, this is a rather
extreme form of enhancement. By contrast, although, say, mood enhancing pills
might not be natural, it seems more plausible to claim that the change they bring
about is more compatible with respecting existing value, since such pills serve only
to modulate existing neural substances. Perhaps what this suggests is that if we
accept the conservative bias then we have some reason to prefer enhancements
which do not involve synthetic substitutes, even if they would lead to a greater
benefit. This strikes us as the most interesting implication that Cohens conservatism
has for the enhancement debate, but its significance will depend on whether the
intuitive but opaque notion of organic change can be fleshed out in a persuasive
mannera question that lies beyond the scope of this paper.
3.5 The Problem of Disloyalty
A related worry which can be read into Cohens thought here, and which Bernard
Williams explicitly pressed, is the worry that enhancements might endanger what
Williams calls our ethical identity as a species (Williams 2008, p. 152).37 The
idea here is that in seeking to enhance ourselves, we are seeking to distance
ourselves from humanity as it now exists, expressing a self-hatred, or hatred of
humanity in its current state.38 Similarly, Cohen might claim that seeking to
enhance humanity represents a disloyalty to the particular and personal value that
human kind currently instantiates.
Sometimes, seeking to improve upon something of value does express a form of
disloyalty. Cohen makes this point by discussing the lyrics of two love songs; he
points out that the sort of loving attitude that we seek is one in which I am loved
not as a good bearer of my virtues, but as the bearer of them that I am (Cohen
2012, p. 154). This seems right in part. When we truly love someone, that person
becomes irreplaceable to us; finding someone else who is more beautiful, charming,
36 Many authors have argued that we can be justified in being partial to our family and friends, and give
them some priority over complete strangers (see e.g. Cottingham 1986). What we are suggesting now is
that, seen in this way, this application of Cohens conservatism amounts to an extension of this partiality
to human nature itself. But again such species partiality will be outweighed when the benefits are very
significant, on when it is trumped by weightier moral considerations. In Williams terms, the justification
for the human prejudice has limits.
37 Emphasis added.
38 A related argument is found in the disability debate. See McMahan (2005) for discussion.
and intelligent than them should not lead us to abandon our beloved in their favour.
Such a person would be, as Adams puts it, too thoroughly different. Indeed, it
seems plausible to claim that one of the reasons that adultery is so painful for the
betrayed party is that the adulterous act suggests that one is replaceable; the
adulterous act indicates that one was only ever loved in virtue of bearing certain
values (which others may bear more of), rather than by virtue of the unique person
that one is.
However, although the fact that something is irreplaceable might entail that we
cannot improve our lot by replacing it, this does not entail that the irreplaceable
entity cannot itself be improved, or that seeking to improve it must express a
detrimental attitude towards that object. For instance, consider the practice of child
rearing. As Sandel points out, following May, parental love involves loving and
accepting the child unconditionally as they are, whilst also seeking to transform and
improve the child for the sake of the childs well-being (Sandel 2007, pp. 4950).39
It seems, then, that there is an important difference between replacing something
of value in order to improve ones lot, and improving something of value that one
already hasnot to mention improving it for its own sake. Indeed, it seems that
whilst the former often does seem to express a form of disloyalty, the latter can even
be an expression of loyalty to something of value. Compare the case of adultery
with the case of Charles and Charlotte. The case of adultery clearly involves
disloyalty; the adulterer simply replaces the value her spouse bears with value borne
by another. However, in seeking to change Charles by reducing his envious
tendencies, or in consensual love enhancements in general, it is not at all clear that
Charlotte is being disloyal to the particular and personal value that Charles
instantiates. Indeed, if her motive for doing so is to safeguard her marriage to
Charles, then this is surely an expression of her loyalty to, and love of Charles. A
loving attitude is surely compatible with a hope for change, even if it is
incompatible with a desire to replace. Although seeking to replace a valuable
existent might be contrary to the conservative bias, it is not at all clear that
improving the value of the same existent must be.40
More generally, in seeking to change certain aspects of human nature through the
use of enhancement technologies, it seems more accurate to say that we are seeking
to improve human nature rather than to simply replace it wholesale; and it is not
clear why merely seeking to improve ourselves must indicate a hatred of what we
now are, or something ghastly. Indeed, it seems plausible to claim that part of
what is so valuable about human nature is our capacity and readiness to improve
ourselves. The enhancement project then may be regarded not as an expression of
self-hatred, but rather of self-realisation.
39 Interestingly, it might be claimed that good parenting might require parents to rid themselves of
desires to hyperparent and mould the child to ones expectations. This would surely be an enhancement
acceptable to bio-conservatives.
40 We concede, however, that there must be a limit to such a desire to change, since loving someone as a
particular, yet at the same desiring ardently that they be completely different, seems awry.
In this paper, we have argued that Cohens views on value suggest a new line of
argument against enhancement that is in several ways clearer and superior to
existing objections. However, we have argued that this argument fails to offer a
basis for a strong sweeping objection to enhancement. First, Cohens conservatism
can positively support some forms of enhancement that aim to preserve existing/
personal value. Cohens arguments about particular and personal value serve to
highlight the importance of an extant valuable entitys history to its current value;
however, we can often preserve history while embracing enhancement. And
enhancement can be a part of creating history. Importantly, Cohens view might
have quite radical implications for debates relating to future generations. It appears
to support giving priority to enhancement and extension of existing lives, rather than
bringing into existence new generations. And it appears to prioritise the interests of
existing individuals over possible future individuals.
Moreover, it is not clear that Cohens arguments are sufficient to render those
enhancements which do not simply preserve existing values morally impermissible.
Rather, they suggest some possible constraints on the modality of legitimate (or
desirable) enhancements. As we highlighted above, Cohen himself claims that the
conservative bias is defeasible; we have suggested that the values of social justice
and the value of preserving human existence can override the conservative bias.
Finally, we have suggested that the conservative need not object to those
enhancements which bring about change in a manner which respects values that
currently exist; as such they have no reason to resist enhancements which are
organic, and do not alter the essential features which undergird our particular human
Acknowledgments We are grateful to three anonymous referees for useful comments. The research for
this article was supported by grants from the Wellcome Trust (WT087208MF and WT086041/Z/08/Z).
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License
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