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09/16/2014

How do we talk about enhancement after Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown?

by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.

No other area of philosophy has captured my interests like bioethics. Thinking about the ways that we can use health care to justly distribute opportunities and what those opportunities are is my greatest interest. My specific interest in biomedical enhancement stems from my interests in the relationship between health care and opportunities. As health is essential to living the kind of lives that we want to live, I’m always thinking about how traditional practices and advances in health care can help us lead better lives, even when there is nothing medically abnormal about or minds or bodies. But the recent riots and protests in Ferguson, Missouri surrounding the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teen, by a white Ferguson police officer has forced me to think about enhancement in a different way. The events also have forced me to reevaluate what I do with my academic career and whether I should be thinking about enhancement at all or would my time be better spent as an activist.

Near the time of Michael Brown’s death many other unarmed black Americans were shot to death by white police officers and many Americans were outraged. Most of the people (of all races) who were outraged fell into two parties: 1) those that were unaware that sometimes unarmed blacks are racially profiled and killed by police offers; and 2) those that were always aware that sometimes blacks are racially profiled and killed by police officers but whose normally quiet anger was pushed over the edge by Michael Brown’s death. It seemed like America was finally aware of what the black community already knew—“walking while black” is a real thing. The deaths of Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Ronald Ritchie, Oscar Grant (which was depicted in the major motion film, “Fruitvale Station”), Trayvon Martin, or the Barbour family (including 4 young children) whose minivan was filmed being pulled over by cops and unnecessarily fired upon are just a few of the many cases that blacks have to pull from to support the “walking while black” theory. And these are just the sensationalized stories that made television. Many blacks have personal, everyday stories of being guilty of “walking while black.” Now as a black woman, as a philosopher, as an American, and as a person that has her own stories of “walking while black,” how do I continue to think and write about enhancement when people are still killed for being black?

I’m trying to answer this question for myself by remembering what initially drew me to bioethics and enhancement. Philosophy, like many of the other humanities, still gets the charge of being elitist: The idea that only those that don’t have to worry about where their next paycheck or meal is coming from have the luxury of thinking about philosophical topics. Although I believe that this is somewhat true, I’ve always thought that bioethics is a little less deserving of this characterization of philosophy than other areas in philosophy. But perhaps I feel this way because I believe that the study of bioethics can be an equalizer of opportunities.

I’m drawn to biomedical enhancement because it’s a great form of human ingenuity that allows us to transform our world and sometimes transform ourselves to meet the normative expectations of our world. We’ve used our collective human ingenuity to transform our clothing from animal skins to designer clothing, our homes from huts to mansions, and for chocolate lovers, human ingenuity transformed the cocoa bean to chocolate bars. Human ingenuity changes the quality of lives and sometimes the quantity of lives. Likewise, biomedical enhancement allows us to improve our physical bodies, our minds, and our emotions in ways that either allows us to change the world or change how we fit into the world. So when I think about how to approach bioethics, a subset of a so-called elitist filed of study, I do so with the belief that enhancement is my activism. Studying enhancement is my contribution to our collective human ingenuity.

Ultimately, enhancement is about opportunities and activism is about securing opportunities that some have but others, who are presumably equals, don’t have, but ought to. Ideally social reform would secure opportunities for all. Holding police officers accountable for misdeeds, changing misconceptions about blacks, valuing the lives of blacks, and creating social programs for black children and black families would all be great steps to changing access to opportunities for healthy, safe lives for blacks. But when social reform seems elusive, studying enhancement is even more relevant. Enhancement teaches us how to create new tools and how to use the tools that we already have in new ways to create opportunities. For example, we can use cognitive enhancing drugs and other cognitive enhancing practices to facilitate academic success for a generation of students that have fallen through the cracks of a broken education system. We have a whole generation of students in inadequate schools and if we don’t find new and inventive ways to lift them out of these environments, we will miss out on a whole generation of activists, or doctors, or teachers, a whole generation of people that can contribute to social reform. We have to first create opportunities to create social change. And this is what the study of enhancement is supposed to do for us. So enhancement after Ferguson and the next city with the next black individual that experiences an injustice is using the tools that we have to create something that all individuals, regardless of race, ought to have—a chance at a healthy, thriving life.

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