The Idea of Excellence and Human Enhancement

Reconsidering the Debate on Transhumanism in Light of Moral Philosophy and Science

by Adriana Warmbier (Volume editor)
©2018 Edited Collection 332 Pages


This book analyses recent moves in the debate over human enhancement from two different perspectives: moral philosophy and science. It contains not only the thorough consideration on the promise, limitations, and perils of biotechnological improvement, but also offers a lucid account of a systematic evolution of the idea of excellence from antiquity to the present-day project of the post-human condition. The book examines various approaches to the key anthropological concepts such as agency, autonomy, practical rationality, and normativity pointing out their relevance to the philosophical and biomedical research. All these issues are addressed by scholars representing different fields of study including philosophy, law, biophysics, and cognitive science. They attempt to answer the question of whether biotechnological interventions may result in bringing about a better person.
«The collection of articles is unified by the main idea - human enhancement, the challenge that has been brought about by recent developments in neuroscience, genetics, and biotechnology and that is reflected upon by the authors from different angles of perception and argumentation stemming from different philosophical views. The book is of great educational value as it can be used by students of philosophy, medicine, law, education and all those interested in the field, as the basis for well-grounded arguments and discussions, as well as raising their awareness.»
Prof. Roma Kriaučiūnienė, Vilnius University

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part I The Development of the Concept of Excellence. Toward a Debate on Enhancement
  • Would Greeks and Romans Endorse Moral Enhancement Through Genetic Modification?
  • 1 What could the ancients say on genetics?
  • 2 Greek terms for excellence: the nexus between physical and psychic traits in popular morality
  • 2.1 Anthrōpinē physis (ἀνθρωπίνη φύσις)
  • 2.2 Aristeuein (ἀριστεύειν)
  • 2.3 Kalokagathia (καλοκἀγαθία)
  • 2.4 Aretē (ἀρετή)
  • 2.5 Phyē (φυή), euphyia (εὐφυία), euphyēs (εὐφυής)
  • 3 Greek and Roman practices for reproductive and population control and the attitudes of philosophers to these practices
  • 4 Philosophers on the nexus between physical and psychic traits
  • 5 Philosophers on the possibility of enhancing psychic intellectual and ethical traits by somatic or external factors
  • 6 Philosophers on genetic enhancement of psychic and ethical traits
  • 7 The Greeks and genetic enhancement of human nature
  • Clement of Alexandria: Toward Christian Perfection
  • 1 The origin and goal of man
  • 1.1 Creation
  • 1.2 Fall
  • 1.3 Salvation
  • 2 The way to achieve human perfection
  • 2.1 Vision calling for practice
  • 2.2 Pedagogy of the logos
  • 2.3 Principles of Christian life
  • 3 Conclusion: Clement and his Greek heritage
  • The Idea of Human Enhancement and Arabic Neoplatonism
  • 1 Greek Neoplatonism
  • 2 Arabic Neoplatonism
  • The Perfection of Being and the Perfection of Action. Medieval Understanding of the Various Dimensions and Limits of Human Perfection
  • The Idea of Human Perfection in Modern Philosophy
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Anti-perfectionist currents
  • 2.1 The pessimistic view of human nature
  • 2.2 The fall of the classical picture of the world
  • 2.3 The discovery of the incompatibility and incommensurability of moral values
  • 3 Pro-perfectionist currents
  • 3.1 The new way of understanding human moral perfection
  • 3.2 The perfectibility of man
  • 4 Final remarks
  • Part II Enhancement Methods: The Promise and Limitations of Enhancing Ourselves
  • Moral Philosophy as a Framework for Approaching Human Enhancement
  • 1 Four major kinds of ethical theory
  • 1.1 Virtue ethics
  • 1.2 Kantian ethics
  • 1.3 Utilitarianism
  • 1.4 Common-sense intuitionism
  • 2 Differences and commonalities among the “pure” forms of the theories
  • 3 Can the merits of the leading theories be combined?
  • 4 The notion of enhancement
  • 5 The enhancement case from a broadly utilitarian perspective
  • 6 A wider perspective on the ethics of enhancement
  • 7 Concluding remarks
  • Enhancing Moral Conformity and Enhancing Moral Worth
  • 1 The superficiality concern
  • 2 The scope of the superficiality concern
  • 3 The superficiality concern and moral worth
  • 4 Acting from the right motives
  • 5 Bypassing deliberation
  • 6 Avoiding effort
  • 7 Unreliable moral conformity
  • 8 Conclusions
  • Moral Enhancement. Enhancing Motivational Processes and Agent-Based Ethics
  • 1 Introduction: The ethical question of perfecting ourselves
  • 2 The idea of biomedical moral enhancement
  • 3 The alternative: a Kantian and an Aristotelian response to the idea of moral bioenhancement
  • 3.1 Agency and motivation: what rationality may reasonably demand of our motivational process?
  • 3.2 The cognitive-affective understanding of virtue: in defense of the empirical adequacy of Aristotelian Phronesis
  • 4 Concluding remarks
  • Human Flourishing and the Coherence of Knowledge. An Aristotelian Perspective
  • 1 Eudaimonia and human nature
  • 2 Eudaimonia in postmodern era
  • 3 Human flourishing and transhuman technologies
  • Intrinsic and Instrumental Values in the Assessment of Human Enhancement
  • 1 Transformative change as the boundary for enhancing interventions
  • 2 Balancing instrumental and intrinsic values
  • 3 Ground projects and interpersonal relationships after transformative change
  • 4 Conclusion
  • Excellence and Its Biological Limitations
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Genotype and phenotype
  • 3 Origin of variation
  • 4 Missing heritability and epigenetics
  • 5 Populations and evolution
  • 6 Closing remarks
  • Transhumanism and Cognitive Science
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Transhumanism – Science, philosophy, a worldview, futurology, science fiction, a naturalized religion, or utopia?
  • 3 Cognitive science as a source of inspiration for transhumanism
  • 4 Conclusion
  • Human Enhancement: The Question of Fairness and Virtues in Sport Activities
  • 1 Introduction: The Pistorius Case
  • 2 A definition of enhancement
  • 3 Justice as personal desert and justice as fairness
  • 4 Fair competition and discrimination in sport
  • 5 The teleological perspective: definition of social practice
  • 6 Concluding remarks
  • The Brave New Athlete? The Meaning of Perfection in Contemporary Professional Sport
  • 1 The three levels of reflection on sport
  • 2 Sport as a voluntary choice of imperfect means
  • 3 Sport as the drama of striving for perfection
  • 4 Sport versus human enhancement
  • 5 The meaning of perfection in sport
  • Notes on Contributors


The aim of this book is to present the debate over the enhancement of the human condition in light of the development of the idea of excellence. Recent advances in neuroscience, genetics, and biotechnology have significantly expanded the range of potential uses of biomedical technologies. Human enhancement means increasing our cognitive, mental, and physical capacities beyond the normal human level. Some argue that biotechnological interventions may even improve our character, strengthen our powers of self-control, and consequently have considerable influence on moral decision making. They claim that enhancements are a moral obligation. The Greeks believed that striving for perfection is an integral part of human flourishing. Yet, since the ancients, our approach to the concept of excellence, and our understanding of self-development and self-fulfilment have changed significantly. This book attempts to answer the question whether one should regard biomedical enhancement as an alternative method for bringing about a better person, or perhaps this goal should rather be achieved through traditional means such as education, training, and voluntary effort in shaping one’s own judgments and attitudes. In exploring the origins and the development of the idea of excellence from antiquity to the present-day project of the post-human condition, the book shall afford a lucid account of the practical implications of the ancient and medieval models of human flourishing. No historically influential position in ethics is by itself adequate to serve as the single reliable pattern for self-improvement, and so the most accurate solution is to seek to formulate a view that would capture the best elements of each position. In response to the debate on the promise and perils of bioengineering, which is believed to make the myth of the “self-made man” come true, this book does not only raise the question of whether we should overcome the biological, mental, and social limitations of our condition by biomedical means, but it also attempts to demonstrate the various approaches to the idea of human perfection, each of them based on different assumptions concerning human nature, morality, autonomy, and the nature of human choice. The technical evolution, believed to bring enhanced efficiency, faster speed, and better design, is creating new challenges to our societies in general, and to our ethics in particular, therefore the book does not only discuss the transhumanist project itself, but also presents an alternative model for assessing human development. It does so by turning especially to ancient thought (virtue ethics) and Kantian ethics, attending carefully ←9 | 10→to their key concepts such as agency, practical reason, eudaimonia, moral value, global features and dispositions of character, or the Humanity Formula.

The volume collects fourteen papers, all except one previously unpublished, written by scholars from various countries, representing diverse cultural backgrounds and different fields of research including philosophy, sociology, theology, law, biophysics, and cognitive science. The authors reflect on human enhancement that is both unprejudiced and free of passionate commitment, and present their arguments from a wide range of perspectives.

In Part I, The Development of the Concept of Excellence. Toward a Debate on Enhancement, the authors give an account of the idea of human perfection found in various philosophical traditions, such as ancient pagan thought, Christian Antiquity, Arabic Neoplatonism, scholasticism, and modern philosophy. One of the main assumptions that underlie the transhumanist project concerns the very aim of enhancement, which is regarded as being the same as the aim which constitutes the foundations of every ethical theory. Due to this, some argue that the dispute over human enhancement does not pertain to the concept of perfection itself, but refers only to the means of achieving it. However, the diachronic study of the development of the concept of perfection, and its gradual emancipation within anthropological ideas and theories of action in Western philosophy, demonstrates that we do not share an agreed understanding of what human excellence is.

In Part II, Enhancement Methods: The Promise and Limitations of Enhancing Ourselves, the authors consider the questions related to the most crucial issues regarding the complex subject of human enhancement while referring to the most recent literature in the field. The opening chapter of this part, written by Robert Audi, provides a vivid account of moral philosophy as a framework for approaching the idea of bioenhancement. The considerations presented here start with a review of four major kinds of ethical theory, namely, virtue ethics, Kantian ethics, utilitarianism, and common-sense intuitionism. Audi’s reflections reveal both numerous differences between the four kinds of ethical theory, as well as a certain degree of complementarity between them. Moral philosophy has standardly taken human persons to be its primary concern, and if we are guided by this intuition, then human excellence will be what guides the discussion. Thus, moral philosophy provides an explanation and justification of moral decisions in relation to a framework that takes account of universally respected principles and values. The view put forward by Robert Audi has been thoroughly discussed and developed from different viewpoints presented in four other chapters, which are the fruit of a relevant debate in which most of the contributors to this volume have participated. Since the problem of biomedical enhancement is considered ←10 | 11→here from various perspectives, this section also addresses three important aspects of the practical dimension of the enhancement debate, namely biology, cognitive science, and sports. The authors discuss the problem of defining the scope of what constitutes physical and mental enhancement, as well as consider the question of whether the results of cognitive science support the transhumanist vision of the future of mankind. The section ends with a reflection on the problem of fairness in sport activities, firstly raised by Michael Sandel in his account of “bionic athletes.” The issue calls for a redefinition of the concept of excellence, which requires taking a more balanced view of the roles of individual effort, disciplined training, and enhancement. The present book does not aim to exhaust the complex issue of human enhancement; it rather attempts to offer a profound insight into the assumptions, aims, and consequences connected with transhumanism. Transhumanism is considered here not merely as an interdisciplinary research program, which might entail contentious conception of the human nature and action, but also as a habit of mind which may be of concern to many.

Jagiellonian University
Krakow, Poland

Adriana Warmbier←11 | 12→←12 | 13→

Michał Bizoń

Would Greeks and Romans Endorse Moral Enhancement Through Genetic Modification?1

Abstract: In this paper I consider ancient Greek notions of character perfection. I begin with a scrutiny of Greek terms for perfection. I argue that there was a close nexus between physical, psychic and ethical traits, as regards perfection of one’s nature. Next, I discuss ancient methods of reproductive and population control, and the attitudes of various philosophers to these methods. I focus on the most commonly mentioned method – that of infant exposure. I then discuss four theories of human nature and its perfection: Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Epicureans. Finally, I consider what could be inferred from these theories regarding enhancement of human nature through genetic modification.

Keywords: Greek philosophy, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicurus

1What could the ancients say on genetics?

A consideration of ancient approaches to genetic enhancement of human nature might appear to be blatantly anachronistic. After all, the ancients did not know the double helix. How could they therefore have taken a stance on the possibility of modifying the human genome?

The ancients did, however, have elaborate theories of human nature and conceptions of its perfection, which played a central role in ancient ethical systems. Theories of human nature were predominantly concerned with psychic traits, but they also included – albeit usually secondarily – physical traits. Ancient philosophers also recognized a close nexus between psychic and physical traits. They were keenly aware that the latter were largely hereditary and accordingly developed various theories of heredity. These theories differed in many ways from the present state of knowledge, e.g. in accepting the heredity of acquired traits. Nevertheless, the ancients were well aware of the fundamental importance of hereditary traits for the shaping of human nature. Few ancients would ←15 | 16→be surprised to learn that not only physical, but also psychic traits – including intellectual abilities – are hereditary.

The ancients also acknowledged problems with heredity. If essential human traits are hereditary, what space is left for improvement through education and training? Within the Homeric ēthos, excellence of character was almost completely hereditary. The conception that excellence of character may be acquired by training and education originated in some proximity to the advent of democracy. Concomitantly, there arose the controversy over the proportion and importance of hereditary and acquired traits, which appeared for the first time in the late 5th century BCE as part of what is collectively called the nomos-physis debate. New conceptions of character formation by paideutic instruction broke the fetters of Homeric hereditary stratification, but also engendered a problem: since noble character traits were not transmitted by heredity, one’s offspring could turn out vastly different from the parents. Of course, if acquired traits were inherited, then perfection attained through training would be transmitted as well. Thus, notions of the perfection of nature, on the one hand, and of heredity and training, on the other hand, were closely intertwined.

In this paper I speculate what the views of some ancient philosophers on moral enhancement through genetic modification might have been. Since, by necessity, the discussed philosophers could not hold views on this precise topic, I will adopt the following method of tackling the issue. The point of departure is the question whether, on the ground of the considered ancient theories of human nature, given modern methods of genetic modification of physical and psychic traits, would it have been acceptable and/or advisable to use such methods for the purpose of the enhancement of ethical traits. To answer this question, I discuss four ancient theories of human nature and its perfection, focusing on the nexus between psychic and physical traits. I then suggest to what degree, within these theories of human nature, ethical traits could be enhanced by way of influencing physical and psychic traits. On this basis, I conclude that if within a given theory of human nature ethical traits could be enhanced by means of influencing physical and psychic traits, then it is plausible that on this theory, it would be acceptable and/or advisable to use modern methods of genetic modification for moral enhancement.

I begin with a scrutiny of Greek notions of excellence and argue that they concern simultaneously psychic and physical traits. I then consider ancient attitudes to reproductive and population control, focusing on philosophical arguments for and against certain methods. Next, I turn to physiognomical theories and related philosophical views regarding physical traits with ←16 | 17→ethical ramifications. I then discuss four theories of human nature, focusing on the nexus between psychic and physical traits. I conclude with a speculative consideration of Greek views on moral enhancement through genetic modification.

2Greek terms for excellence: the nexus between physical and psychic traits in popular morality

2.1Anthrōpinē physis (ἀνθρωπίνη φύσις)

The adjective anthrōpinos (ἀνθρώπινος) is a typical Greek term denoting things specifically human. It is commonly used to qualify several substantives, such as life (βίος) or race (γένος). It is also used independently in the neuter plural (τὰ ἀνθρώπινα) to denote things pertaining to human condition. In philosophical sources, the adjective is often used with physis (φύσις) to denote natural traits specific to humans (human nature) and is juxtaposed with divine traits, standardly denoted by the adjective theios (θεῖος).

However, it does not follow from this verbal usage that the Greeks universally accepted the existence of a common and unchangeable human nature clearly distinct from divine nature (nor, for that matter, form the nature of animals, hybrids, and monsters). In fact, the boundaries of human nature were anything but stable. The possibility of humans morphing into other beings is a topos in mythology, and no less than two works devoted precisely to this theme have survived, as indicated by their title, The Metamorphoses. In various myths, some of the best known described by Ovid in one of these extant Metamorphoses, people transform from male to female, from female to male, and from human to god, animal, plant, or monster, usually retaining their personal identity at least to some degree.

In Greek and Roman religion the boundary between human and divine nature was precarious and vague. Although some myths (such as e.g. the one about the birth of Dionysus) suggest that the divide between human and divine nature is great and unsurpassable, it is also common for humans to mingle intimately with the gods and at times become gods, a belief that persisted into Roman times with the occasionally abused institution of deification. Also, Greek and Roman religion explicitly recognized the mixed categories of the demigod (having both divine and mortal attributes) and the hero (descendant of a god and a mortal, who him/herself is mortal), both of whom may have been further promoted to a fully divine status or demoted to the status of a mortal. Plato’s injunction to “become like god” (Teaetetus 176b) might have sounded to his contemporaries as strenuous, but hardly outlandish.←17 | 18→

2.2Aristeuein (ἀριστεύειν)

A basic tenet of the Homeric hero’s moral code was to “always excel and be better than others” (αἰὲν ἀρειστεύειν καὶ ὑπείροχον ἔμμεναι ἄλλων, Iliad 6.208).2 The word rendered as “excel” is aristeuō (ἀριστεύω), a verb cognate to the adjective aristos (ἄριστος), “best,” which is the superlative form of agathos (ἀγαθός), “good.” Literally, aristeuō means “to be best,” or “to perform best.” Heroes are regularly called aristoi (ἄριστοι) – “best” – to signify their superior quality and excellence before others (e.g. Iliad 1.91, 2.82, 2.580, 2.761). Extended epic descriptions of heroic feats were later called aristeia, as in the case of the aristeia of Diomedes, which comprises much of Scroll 5 of the Iliad, or the aristeia of Achilles in Scroll 21.

The term agathos “commends the most admired type of man”3 in the Homeric society in all relevant aspects of physical, psychic, and ethical excellence. A hero is the embodiment of all of these three qualities: he excels physically, he is a leader of men, and he has the moral right to do so. On the other end of the spectrum, physical ugliness and moral baseness were also coupled, as can be seen in the description of Thersites in Scroll 2 of the Iliad. Thersites, described as an ugly hunchback, challenges and rebukes the heroic leaders of the Achaeans in counsel. He is called aischistos (αἴσχιστος), the opposite of aristos. This term denotes equally physical deformity and moral baseness. Thersites is on the lowest end of the Homeric social hierarchy, lacking excellence in all three areas: physical, intellectual, and ethical.

According to the Homeric ethical outlook, moral right – or even moral superiority – is essentially associated with physical and intellectual excellence. This composite quality of being aristos is measured in terms of success. Intention plays little or no role in the Homeric ethical view,4 and moral error is hardly distinguished from mistake. The standard of excellence in the Homeric system of values “is used to commend skills, physical gifts, or inherited social advantages. None of these can be attained merely by good intentions.”5 It is difficult to say whether moral excellence is different from – but concomitant with – physical ←18 | 19→and intellectual prowess, or whether these are rather various aspects of the same quality of heroic excellence. It is clear, however, that moral quality follows upon physical and intellectual excellence as their consequence, and cannot be detached from them; it is enhanced and diminished along with them.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
Human Enhancement and Agent-Based Ethics Moral Enhancement Transhumanism and Cognitive Science Genetic Engineering and Ethics Human Flourishing Modifying Human Nature
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 332 pp., 1 table

Biographical notes

Adriana Warmbier (Volume editor)

Adriana Warmbier is Assistant Professor in the Institute of Philosophy at the Faculty of Philosophy at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow (Poland). Her research interests concentrate mainly on moral philosophy and related areas, ethics, naturalism and normativity, post-humanism. She authored and co-authored numerous articles, chapters and books.


Title: The Idea of Excellence and Human Enhancement