Here's something really neat but possibly scary to the uninitiated. The article, "Happiness is a Warm Electrode" in Popular Science details a new treatment for depression that involves, as you might expect, implanting electrodes in certain parts of the brain.
Called "Deep Brain Stimulation" (DBS), it does exactly that, and has been effective for about 2/3 of the couple dozen who have undergone it, and apparently a larger trial involving 100 patients is in the works. Most notably, the patients who are undergoing the surgery are ones who have not responded well to drugs or even ECT (electro-convulsive therapy). (Incidentally, DBS was first used on patients with Parkinson's disease, and has proven to be an effective treatment there.)
Of course, the usual suspects are comparing this to the lobotomy and other sense nonsense. I think such an assessment evinces a crass misunderstanding of what depression is and what treatment of it entails. An effective therapeutic intervention for depression should produce what Spinoza calls "joy" (laetitia), that is, not merely happiness but an increase in an individual's power to act.
And in the case study examined in the article, DBS does precisely that. A woman who could not even muster the energy to get off of her sofa and clean her house has her life turned around by the procedure. She finds herself able to communicate more effectively with friends, family, and even strangers and is able to get out and exercise more. The transformation is rather extraordinary.
When I think of human enhancement, this is precisely the sort of thing I have in mind. This woman has changed who she is, but what she was before was essentially a defective human being. People are afraid to make value judgments like that, and they try to skirt around the issue, but it's the truth. This is a good that technology can allow: HE as an enhancement of our humanness.
Of course, it can move us above the human level as well (and this is what is typically distinguished as "enhancement" in contrast to "treatment", although I obviously question such a distinction). But isn't becoming something greater than what one is "naturally" a distinctive part of what it means to be human? To me, that's the part that matters, not the biological substrate.
I'm beginning to get a clearer sense of what I want to write my dissertation on. I want to challenge the simplistic, sometimes positivistic value judgments that proponents--and in a different way, opponents--of HE implicitly or explicitly make. However, instead of merely criticizing the notion of HE, I want to put forth an alternative formulation that draws on ethical thinkers like Aristotle, Spinoza, and Nietzsche (my philosophical triumvirate, as it so happens).
In other words, I want to develop a richer conception of what it would mean to improve humanity through the use of technology, one that is responsive to the criticisms coming from, for instance, Adorno and Horkheimer, certain strains of feminism and environmentalism, and so forth.
(The criticisms coming from the religious are of little philosophical interest to me; they are based on a fundamental disagreement not simply in premises but, as Wittgenstein reminds us, in ways of life. In other words, there's no point in arguing against them. Religion will have to be defeated by other means. [I'm thinking robots. :-) ])
I have many details to work out, but I think this project is quite workable and certainly worthwhile from my standpoint. It's unpopular and perhaps even offensive to many academics in the humanities, but as far as I'm concerned that's a plus. (Haven't all great ideas been initially regarded as distasteful, foolish, crazy, and downright dangerous?)