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Should we pursue drugs that make us 30% smarter or allow us to get less sleep? How about altering inheritable genes to improve certain human traits and capacities for future generations?

These questions may seem to be the purview of science fiction, however, bioethicists are increasingly interested in discovering them as technology makes some of the possibilities raised a reality.

But can we boldly push forward into this frontier? What are the implications surrounding biohacking? Even if it is safe, should we do it? What ethical issues arise in the world of biological technologies?

Before we answer these questions we need to consider the scope of the dilemma, the larger view of human progression from the past, present and to the future. We also need to understand some of the concepts encompassing the human condition.

Understanding Bioethical Nature

What is biohacking? It is all about improving your overall body through science and technology.

What is bioethics? In essence, it looks at the ethical issues that arise in virtue of our biological nature through philosophy, law and medical terms.

What is anthropology? It is the scientific study of humans, human behaviour and societies in the past and present.

How does bioethics apply to biohacking? By challenging the moral issues found in new advancements for improving your body and well-being.

Biohacking and bioethical issues can range from simple natural methods to full sci-fi type elements. Not only does it deal with our future endeavours, but with issues related as old as the human condition itself.

Before exploring the ethical conundrum around human enhancement, we need to understand the issues that face us as a society. To explore what the human condition is in regards to our normal situation, and the rights individual humans have on their own and within society.

Bioethical Human Rights

Your Personal Autonomy: This is the self-governance of oneself, in bioethics, it is the personal rule of yourself through adequate information, the ability to make decisions that are free from influences that control those choices. In principle, it is the capacity to choose for oneself and pursue a course of action in one’s life, often regardless of any particular moral content.

Does one have the right to enhance their body or well-being by any means necessary? This goes beyond the concept of just making yourself look better, but by improving your performance through technology and medicine.

When we look at it from the other perspective, a person has the right to refuse lifesaving treatment on religious or personal beliefs. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, have a religious belief that blood is sacred and ingesting it is prohibited. They will refuse a blood transfusion even in the event of an emergency where it would save their life.

The liberty to live your life as you choose fit, use materials that enhance your bodies ability to function, can come at a cost in some areas, sports athletes have to tread carefully with what they consume, at one-time caffeine was prohibited as it is a cognitive enhancer.

What are the limits of rights of autonomy?

Bioethics human rights multiracial raised fists symbol

Paternalism: Is the attitude or actions in which an authority body makes decisions for another person that are justified by the claim that these actions are in the best interest of that other person.

Should governments, health organisations and authority figures have the freedom to determine what you can and can not use?

Many actions, rules and laws are commonly regarded as justified by a paternalistic belief. They can protect people in cars by enforcing seat belts, pay into retirement accounts for future living, or require wearing helmets when riding bikes.

Now is it justifiable to benefit a person by autonomy-limiting measures, even if the individual disagrees? This paternalism advocates interventions that intend to protect competent adults against their preference.

Beneficence: This term implies acts of mercy, kindness, and charity. Within medicine, this is used to incorporate all forms of action designed to benefit other persons.

Giving relief aiding medicine to someone in pain, aiding in ending the life of a suffering terminal ill patient. Are treatments burdensome and offer no real long-term benefits.

Conscientious Objection: the refusal to do something society asks of you based on the genuine and strongly held belief that it is morally wrong.

An example of this would be a plastic surgeon may have to decide whether to perform procedures that help individual patients feel better about themselves but also serve to reinforce sexist or racial standards of value.

Defining Autonomy Structure

So we describe bioethical autonomy as a person who gets to define and act on their own purposes, plans and projects. They have the right to make decisions and undertake actions that affect themselves without being impeded by others.

We can relate to this aspect as a negative right to autonomy, where the individual is free from intrusion or interference, they have the right to be left alone. But autonomy is more complex than just the right to be free from undesired intrusion, sometimes one will need support to move on their choices. This is where the positive right to autonomy comes in, where an individual has rights that others assist them in some way, to obtain help in a time of necessity.

Though we have to consider if a person is entitled to get assistance from others, for example: if someone has kidney failure and requires a transplant, they have the claim to be helped, however, they don’t have the right to enforce someone to give theirs up.

The mere fact that I want or even need your help to carry out my decisions doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m entitled to your help. My positive right to autonomy to get aid is upstaged by the other persons negative right to decline assistance.

Would you assist someone to experiment with night vision? As a group of biohackers successfully trialled eyedrops that temporarily gave someone the ability to see in the dark. This was achieved by combing a chemical found in some deep-sea fish. 

If you were a tattoo artist would you have performed the procedure of inking someone’s eyeballs? This actually happened and the procedure was botched leaving a woman temporarily blind for three weeks.

The Fate of Biohacking Ethics 

Is it wrong to wish a life better for yourself? Would it be unreasonable to aspire to make a difference? When we advocate that how you want to live is up to you.

Biotechnology issues are not quite straight forward as we would like, and we should keep in mind the following interests when we look into an array of topics about the human condition, human nature, society as a whole and the rights people have over their bodies.

  • Epistemic concerns: How confident are we that we really understand the risks? 
  • Social justice: Would enhancements increase the gap between the haves and have-nots given our current global economy?
  • Human nature and identity: Is the idea of changing human nature itself problematic?

I’ve introduced individual autonomy and the constraints they present to the respect within humankind. 

I’ll build upon this insight by exploring what we consider to be the standard human condition, followed by the methods we can use to get there and the goals we are trying to achieve. 

We will want to recognise those concepts as we examine bioethical elements through the performance enhancements, future generations, altering the human genome and the greater human good.

Bioethics woman with electrodes holding figurine heart

The Science of Existence

The task of science: to discover the observed aspect of the natural world and to ascertain why our world functions as it does – to define the facts. 

After all, facts are just facts and sometimes they are an unfortunate necessity. Nature’s facts can help us realise our goal once we have made our ethical decision on whichever reasons we determine to be valid. 

Since human’s evolved an awareness they have tried to establish their cosmic importance across the years. What is the meaning of life – how we should live or what our lives should mean?

Are we opening up a Pandora’s Box, though it could be claimed that it has already been opened? Technology has already helped us past the survival of the fittest. It’s no longer who fits in best, but how the access to technology helps you best adapt.

What we are trying to do is reconcile what we know with how we see the world. Though the knowledge for some people can be frightening in all of its implications.

Next we take a look at how we can perceive the human body in relation to our environment.

By Johan

6 thought on “Bioethical Principles in Biohacking”
  1. Before reading this article, I knew very little about bioethical principles or biohacking. After reading your article, wow! What incredible information that you have presented here.

    This reminds me of the debates and discussions that occurred when stem cell research was in its infancy, except that biohacking seems to take technology to an entirely new level.

    Thank you for sharing this fantastic information!


    1. Thanks for reading the article, I’ll be exploring more of the themes surrounding bioethics in some upcoming articles.

      Yes, there are certainly some aspects of biohacking that take it to the next level. And as we endeavour to advance technology in the area of biology, there will always be debates about ethical issues.

      You’re welcome and come back for further information.

  2. I have never even heard the term biohacking until today. I think this is really interesting. I am sitting here thinking through some of the questions you pose, and they make for some really deep thoughts. Is the idea of changing human nature problematic itself? This is probably the first question I would have to weigh out before making any choices for myself. What a thought-provoking article. I look forward to more.

    1. Biohacking is the buzzword for improving yourself using technology, as simple as eating the right foods for you to sci-fi type body improvements. Fine-tuning an individuals biology for their optimal living.

      The idea is to get people thinking about the topic from all arguments, in some future articles I will be expanding on these ethical biological issues with the human condition, performance enhancements and more.

      Thanks for checking out the site, hope you come back for the additional thought-provoking material.

  3. This was really interesting. I was not really aware of biohacking and what it meant; and human enhancement through science and technology is something that still seems to come from a science fiction book, but it looks like it could be a reality. How will each individual react to it, based on their beliefs, religion, laws, and the way they were raised, is a good question. This would certainly get lots of debates going, and there will likely be a conscientious objection from some groups of people. I am not sure yet how I feel about this, but I am certainly interested in learning more.

    1. Yes, this can be a very passionate discussion for some people depending on their personal beliefs. There are definitely some sci-fi looking enhancements on the horizon as technology becomes more advanced. One thing people might not understand is that they may be using enhancements already, like caffeine.

      I will be exploring more of these bioethical concepts through a series of upcoming articles, stay tuned.

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