Is Human Enhancement Cheating?

The answer will affect sports, schools, and the battlefield of the future.

Lance Armstrong in 2012
Lance Armstrong in 2012

Photo by Riccardo S. Savi/Getty Images

Were you incensed when Lance Armstrong was finally cornered and stripped of his seven Tour de France titles? Almost everyone seemed to be. While some felt he had been treated unfairly, most appeared to feel betrayed by a cheater in whom they had believed. In 2013, neither Barry Bonds nor Roger Clemens made the Baseball Hall of Fame, even with their clearly superior records, because they used steroids. This was despite the fact that, as a New York Times editorial put it, the Hall of Fame is hardly a Hall of Virtue, filled as it is with “lowlifes, boozers and bigots.” Steroid use is apparently a different level of sin: It is cheating.

In another area, however, the American Society for Plastic Surgeons reported that in 2011 Americans spent $11.4 billion on cosmetic surgery and underwent 13.8 million procedures (figures exclude reconstructive surgery). No allegations of cheating in that arena—or, apparently, even slowing down.

In yet a different domain, campaigners are increasingly concerned by the possibility of enhanced military “superwarriors,” especially as technologists strive to separate the soldier from immediate conflict areas—as, for example, unmanned aircraft systems (commonly called drones) do now. Meanwhile, autonomous robots and human/robot hybrids connected by powerful computer-brain interfaces might conceivably be deployed in the future. Such developments raise cultural adjustment issues within military institutions, and larger questions of where the “human” begins and ends when we’re dealing with cyborgs and integrated techno-human systems. In addition, however, they raise questions of “cheating,” as discussions in some recent workshops and war games illustrated. The argument is that real warriors don’t hide behind remotely controlled machines; it is only fair that soldiers be killed by other soldiers. And many people are indeed frightened by the idea of creating “superwarriors” who, through drugs, genetic engineering, and cyborg technologies, are more weapon system than soldier.

We are deeply conflicted when it comes to human enhancement technologies. It is unclear, for example, precisely whom Armstrong was cheating. Enhancing has been pervasive in cycling for many years, and when he was stripped of his Tour de France titles, they were not awarded to anyone else because … well, everyone else was also under “a cloud of suspicion,”  as the Union Cycliste Internationale put it. So he was not cheating his competitors, or at least not completely. And if just breaking rules—which he, and apparently some of his peers, were doing—is cause for substantial retribution, traffic speeders across the country, and those of you who just “borrowed” that pen from work, are in deep trouble.

Surgical enhancement of various body parts, on the other hand, does not appear to be regarded as cheating. False allure is apparently caveat emptor. (And are you really going to ban cosmetics?)

Questions of the impact of enhancement technologies on the psychology of conflict, especially in counterinsurgency environments, are complex. But arguments that it’s cheating to use technology to distance soldiers from potential harm are weak. War has rules, but it is not a sport, and the idea that an individual should be exposed to maiming or death out of some misplaced demand for “fairness,” as if war were a soccer game, is difficult to defend.

That doesn’t mean we can’t draw some conclusions from this confusion. First, “cheating” does not seem to be an issue of enhancement generally. People seem fine with personal enhancement, especially where the practice is long-standing and they have had time to adapt to it. Vaccines, for example, are an obvious human enhancement—I specifically design a new technology to be embedded in your body with the direct result that your immune system is artificially enhanced in such a way as to provide you with better health and a longer life. Yet few challenge vaccination on enhancement grounds. Surgical interventions to correct failing wetware systems (joint replacement surgery, for example), and to enhance wetware systems perceived to be inadequate (like with breast enhancement technology), appear to be generally acceptable.

People get queasy, however, when human enhancement shifts from the quotidian to the highly symbolic. Major professional sports, for example, have long been dominated by commercial ethics, money, and entertainment dollars, and few indeed are the athletic stars who cannot be lured elsewhere by money. Professional teams and sports heroes, however, are not seen as simply part of the commercial entertainment enterprise. Rather, in an increasingly complex and unstable age, sports events and stars become not just symbols of city and home but a part of personal identity. Look at the visceral outrage that Clevelanders expressed when a local star, LeBron James, left for Miami rather than staying in Cleveland. That’s not about contract or business; that’s something going on at a far deeper level. More poignantly, it is remarkable how the healing of Boston after the recent bombing is entwining the Boston Red Sox, the Celtics, and the Bruins.

Moreover, sports are still iconic for purity, for the simplicity of an idyllic earlier America (which even a fleeting brush with history tells us is illusory). Look, for example, at the frequency with which the myth of the “student-athlete” still pops up in big college sports, and how often that term gets used by announcers for huge entertainment conglomerates that provide the audience of millions that fuels the modern sports machine. Sports, in other words, are often a psychological path back to a mythic Golden Age that becomes ever more appealing during a period of confusion and rapid social change. Messing with that myth through enhancements, no matter what the reason, is simply not done. You may not be cheating your competitors, but you are cheating archetypal myth. And you will lose.

Military human enhancements seem to occupy a middle ground. There is unquestionably some concern about what human enhancements in this domain might come to, especially if one moves beyond temporary enhancements like pharmaceuticals to more permanent enhancements, such as genetic engineering. The concerns here go beyond the operational. If enhanced humans leave the military and return to civilian life, for instance, what will happen? The differences may be subtle—genetic engineering enabling one to see in the dark, or providing maximum muscle development and efficiency, or augmented cognitive and neural performance, for example. Or they may be less so—one might have a set of personal technologies that are accessed by onboard computer-brain interfaces, for example. It’s only a hypothetical, but it is a worrisome one. Would such veterans get an unfair advantage in the workplace, or would they be discriminated against—or would they discriminate? Moreover, the obvious benefits of technologies that help protect soldiers make the primal responses that sports seem to generate less feasible. Various types of enhancements, from vaccines not approved by the FDA to cognitive boosters for various missions, are already used by the U.S. military, and while there has been debate, there hasn’t been the emotive responses seen in sports.

What does all this mean? It means that social responses to human enhancement are more nuanced and complex than is usually recognized. More specifically, it means that the same enhancement will generate different responses depending on the domain in which it is introduced. If one wants to promote an enhancement, making it available and familiar to the public might be an excellent strategy. A military use that doesn’t trigger sci-fi fantasies—“OMG! A killer robot!”—is a secondary path. Don’t even think about sports. And similarly, if one is an activist and wants to stop a technology, make it symbolic if you can. So, for example, using the loaded term killer robot is an excellent start to a campaign against a technology that might otherwise be desirable because it could save soldiers’ lives.

From a social perspective, however, perhaps the most important observation is that to the extent an enhancement technology has symbolic dimensions, it will be very difficult to evaluate rationally and objectively. The risk is that various enhancement technologies are regulated or rejected not based on a realistic assessment of their costs and benefits, but because of how they were introduced, in sports or in doctors’ offices. The challenge, then, is not “cheating” but the far more difficult challenge of developing the ability to interact ethically, rationally, and responsibly with the world of enhancement technologies that is already here.