Human Enhancement: Enhancing Health or Harnessing Happiness?

  • Bjørn HofmannEmail author
Original Research


Human enhancement (HE) is ontologically, epistemologically, and ethically challenging and has stirred a wide range of scholarly and public debates. This article focuses on some conceptual issues with HE that have important ethical implications. In particular it scrutinizes how the concept of human enhancement relates to and challenges the concept of health. In order to do so, it addresses three specific questions: Q1. What do conceptions of HE say about health? Q2. Does HE challenge traditional conceptions of health? Q3. Do concepts of health set limits to or direct HE? Addressing Q1 reveals that HE tends to frame and form our conception of health. Thereby it challenges traditional conceptions of health (Q2). Accordingly, health does not provide strong sources for setting limits to HE (Q3). On the contrary HE seems to define and expand the concept of health. Common to the concepts of HE and health is that both depend on vague value concepts, such as happiness, well-being, or goodness. There seems to be a tendency in the HE literature to define the goal of human life in terms of what is bigger, stronger, faster, more intelligent, and more resilient. However, this is confusing “goodness” with “more” and quality with quantity. Until HE more appropriately defines happiness, HE will fail to provide a relevant compass for improving the life of human beings. On the contrary, if we let simplified conceptions of “enhancement” come to define goodness or health, we may do more harm than good. Until doing so, we may well learn from Tithonus, listen to Douglas Adams’ Wowbagger, and pay attention to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Enhanced life may not be better. The same goes for health.


Enhancement Health Concept Well-being Naturalist Normativist 



This article is a result of a talk with the title “Conceptions of health and naturalness in the age of human enhancement” given at a workshop (Plurality of conceptions of health) at the University of Tübingen, October 6, 2016, and I am most thankful to the participants for valuable comments and discussions. I am also thankful to the reviewers for valuable comments.

Compliance with ethical standards


The author has no conflicts of interest to declare. This research does not involve human participants and/or animals, does not require informed consent, and does not require ethical approval.

Part of this research has been funded by the Norwegian Financial Mechanism 2009-2014 and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports under Project Contract no. MSMT-28477/2014, Project no. 7F14236.


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Copyright information

© Journal of Bioethical Inquiry Pty Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for the Health SciencesNorwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) GjøvikGjøvikNorway
  2. 2.The Centre of Medical EthicsUniversity of OsloOsloNorway

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