The Case for Perfection

Ethics in the Age of Human Enhancement

by Johann Roduit (Author)
©2016 Thesis 130 Pages


The author critically examines what role the notion of perfection should play in the debate regarding the ethics of human enhancement. He argues that the concept of «human perfection» needs to be central when morally assessing human enhancements. This anthropological ideal provides an additional norm to evaluate enhancing interventions, extending the well-established bioethical principles of autonomy, justice, and safety.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface by Nicholas Agar
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contributions
  • Summary
  • Clarifying
  • Introduction
  • Background and evidence of the problem
  • Definitions of human enhancement
  • The ethical debate
  • The anthropological arguments
  • Working definition of human perfection
  • Research question and thesis
  • The concept of perfection is unavoidable
  • Which conception of perfection should we use?
  • Outline
  • Implications
  • Scope and limitations
  • Chapter 1: Living up to the ideal human
  • Summary
  • Introduction
  • The conundrum of defining human enhancement
  • Beyond: the ‘beyond therapy’ approach
  • More: the ‘quantitative’ approach
  • Better: the ‘qualitative’ approach
  • Limitations of ethical tools used to evaluate human enhancement
  • Safety
  • Justice
  • Autonomy
  • Anthropological arguments
  • Living up to the ideal human: evaluating human enhancement
  • Advantages of this approach
  • Conclusion
  • Criticizing
  • Chapter 2: Human enhancement and perfection
  • Summary
  • Introduction
  • Bioconservatives and perfection
  • Skepticism regarding perfection
  • The paradoxical argument against perfection
  • Bioliberals and perfection
  • Can bioliberals do without perfection?
  • Conclusion
  • Conceptualizing
  • Chapter 3: Evaluating human enhancements: the importance of ideals
  • Summary
  • Ideal and non-ideal views about human enhancement
  • Human enhancement as improvement
  • Two ways of looking at improvement: backward and forward
  • Ideal and non-ideal approaches to evaluate human enhancement
  • Limitations of a non-ideal approach
  • Lack of an objective and shortsightedness
  • The appearance of neutrality
  • Defending an ideal approach
  • Insufficient
  • Unnecessary
  • Pluralism and sufficiency
  • Inflexible
  • Conclusion
  • Constructing
  • Chapter 4: Rejecting problematic conceptions of perfection
  • Summary
  • Introduction
  • Content of Perfection
  • Sources of Perfection
  • Problems with a subjective approach
  • Problems with an objective approach
  • Function of Perfection
  • From human perfection to perfectionist notions
  • Perfectionist assumptions in the debate
  • Michael Sandel
  • The President’s Council on Bioethics and Leon Kass
  • Nick Bostrom
  • Nicholas Agar
  • Chapter 5: Defending a particular view of perfection
  • Summary
  • Introduction
  • Defining capabilities
  • Reasons to look at the capabilities approach
  • Make it explicit
  • Being human: objective type-perfection
  • Ideal theory
  • End-state thinking
  • Room for pluralism
  • Holistic approach of the capabilities approach
  • Both constraining and guiding
  • Conclusions
  • Concluding
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Preface by Nicholas Agar

In his work, Johann Roduit makes a fascinating case for a view of human enhancement centered on the concept of perfection, in which he presents perfection as an objective ideal, one informed by the study of actual human characteristics. Roduit offers an illuminating commentary on the apparent aversion to the concept expressed by many participants in the philosophical debate about enhancement. He suggests that the concept of perfection is nonetheless an unacknowledged assumption to the views of many philosophers who explicitly disavow any interest in it.

I must confess that I initially approached Roduit’s project with some skepticism. I first encountered the concept of perfection within the philosophical debate about enhancement in political philosopher Michael Sandel’s article “The Case Against Perfection,” published in the April 2004 issue of U.S. magazine The Atlantic Monthly. As a relatively unknown philosopher myself, I was flattered to be quoted in the piece – admittedly, as one of the “bad” guys. In Sandel’s critique of enhancement, I was cast in the role of the philosophical naïf who thinks that genetic enhancement can extend procreative liberty rather than being used to restrict it. I proposed that parents could think about selecting for their children’s genes in a similar way to how they currently go about selecting their children’s educational influences (see Sandel, 2007). When it comes to educating children in a liberal society, parents do not have an entirely free hand: Minimum standards must be achieved and certain eccentric choices are justly prohibited. I continue to hold this view. The first thing that struck me was how wrongheaded the title of Sandel’s article seemed, given the fact that no philosophically responsible advocate of enhancement actually conceives of perfection as their aim. The concept of perfection seems to me an unwanted and unnecessary transplant from theological debates: Perfection may be available to an omnipotent deity (though religious philosophers suggest that this is not entirely unproblematic, even in this context), but no combination of pedagogical, genetic, or cybernetic techniques or technologies could ever result in human perfection. The parallel between genetic and educational choices suggests to me that the concept of improvement is a far better fit in the enhancement debate. For instance, parents who give their children after-school tutoring in mathematics seek ← 13 | 14 → to improve their children’s mathematical abilities. They are not aiming at achieving mathematical perfection – whatever that might even be. This also applies to those who seek to tweak the genes that influence mathematical ability. Originally, I had imagined the title The Case Against Perfection was forced on Sandel by an editor as a provocative, attention-grabbing headline, but this assumption proved less likely with the publication of his 2007 book under the same title.

Roduit responds to my skepticism, and his work on the concept of perfection is a valuable contribution to the debate. In this study, Roduit goes far beyond using the concept as a not-entirely-accurate label for a position he seeks to reject. Instead, he makes positive and creative use of the concept by exploring issues that are left obscured by other approaches that use enhancement a synonym for improvement. Prospective parents using genetic technologies to select certain characteristics in their children tend to have more immediate and short-range concerns. Some of these are adequately captured by a conception of enhancement as improvement. When parents alter genes that influence intelligence, they are content with the likelihood that their child will be more intelligent than she would otherwise have been. But when we ask questions about enhancement specifically, we also have longer-range concerns, and this is where Roduit’s perfectionist account proves so valuable. An enhancement is not just an improvement; it is “also an improvement leading somewhere.” Roduit’s concept of enhancement thus enables us to ask important questions about “what type of human are we hoping to become.”

You might wonder whether a need a new concept of enhancement is necessary. Indeed, philosophers tend to excel at inventing new concepts, which helps to explain our unfortunate reputation in the wider academe as unhelpful hair-splitters. Scholars active in other disciplines, who prefer dealing with more concrete issues, are told that they need to learn a whole lot of new words to describe phenomena that they credit themselves as already understanding well enough. But we need more words – not fewer – to describe the diverse and unexpected ways in which genetic, cybernetic, and other technologies might alter us. Roduit’s perfectionist account of enhancement is a very welcome conceptual addition to the debate and deserves to be widely read. It should generate a richer, if not perfect, debate on human enhancement.

– Nicholas Agar


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
enhancing technologies ideal theory capability approach perfectionism
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 130 pp.

Biographical notes

Johann Roduit (Author)

Johann A. R. Roduit is Managing Director of the Center for Medical Humanities at the University of Zurich. He is also the co-founder of Neohumanitas, an international think tank fostering discussion about emerging technologies. He is currently leading the science communication project superhumains.ch.


Title: The Case for Perfection
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132 pages