Human enhancement

Biomedical technologies, such as drugs and surgical techniques, can increasingly be used not only to combat disease, but also to augment the capacities of normal, healthy individuals, a practice commonly referred to as biomedical enhancement. The best-established examples of biomedical enhancement are cosmetic surgery and doping in sports. But most recent scientific attention and ethical debate focuses on extending lifespan, lifting mood, and augmenting intellectual capacities. A number of drugs used to treat narcolepsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have already been shown to have small enhancing effects on attention and memory in normal individuals, and there are range of drugs and other biomedical techniques on the horizon that hold out promise for more dramatic effects. One such technique is brain-machine interfacing, which some predict may allow human brains to be connected directly computers to improve our information processing abilities.

Over the last decade, biomedical enhancement has become the focus of one of the liveliest and widest-ranging debates in practical ethics. In 2003, President Bush’s Council on Bioethics published a report which raised a barrage of ethical concerns about biomedical enhancement. Two former members of the council, Michael Sandel and Leon Kass, even argued that biomedical enhancement is always ethically objectionable, and that biomedical technologies should be used only to combat disease. In response to claims such as these, a number of authors have come to the defence of biomedical enhancement, arguing that it would often be ethically permissible, or even desirable. Transhumanists argue that we should pursue certain kinds of biomedical enhancement even to the point that we are no longer recognizably human.

Those who universally object to biomedical enhancement may have public opinion on their side; the few surveys of the general public conducted to date have found considerable reluctance to countenance biomedical enhancement. However, it is unclear whether there are sound arguments to back up these concerns. One challenge is to explain how biomedical enhancement differs, in an ethically important way, from ordinary biomedical treatments, which are normally regarded as by-and-large unproblematic. Suppose two individuals have an IQ of 100, but the first previously had an IQ of 150, but then suffered a serious head injury, whereas the second has always had an average IQ. Increasing the IQ of the first person would conventionally count as a treatment, whereas increasing the IQ of the second would not. Yet it is not clear that there is any ethically significant difference here.

On the other hand, defenders of enhancement must confront the widespread assumption that biomedical enhancements are ‘zero-sum’ goods, conferring some advantages on those who use them, but also offsetting competitive disadvantages on those who remain unenhanced. They have sought to do this in various ways: some point out that widespread cognitive enhancements might increase the rate of scientific progress, thus benefitting almost everyone; others draw parallels with non-biomedical innovations like agriculture and information technology, suggesting that biomedical enhancements will increase overall human productivity, and can thus be seen as part of the story of human economic development; others present biomedical enhancement as a potential solution to human moral limitations like xenophobia and limited altruism; and others still outline how biomedical enhancements could improve the performance surgeons, pilots, jurors and others performing socially critical functions. 


  • Clarke, S., Savulescu, J., Coady, C. A. J., Giubilini, A. and Sanyal, S., Eds. (2016), The Ethics of Human Enhancement: Understanding the Debate. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 
  • Savulescu, J. and Persson, I., (2012). Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement (Oxford: Oxford University Press).  Now also available in Portuguese (translated by Brunello Stancioli)
  • Savulescu, J., (2012) Decisiones peligrosas? Una bioética desafiante. Editorial Tecnos: Madrid (translation by Blanca Rodríguez López & Enrique Bonete Perales)
  • Savulescu, J., Ter Meulen, R., Kahane, G. (2011) eds. Enhancing Human Capacities. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell (published 18/3/11)
  • Knopffler, N. and Savulescu, J., (Eds.) (2009). Der neue Mensch? Enhancement und Genetik, Verlag Karl Aber
  • Savulescu, J., Bostrom, N. (Eds.) (2009). Human Enhancement, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Book Chapters

  • Douglas, T., Earp, B. D. and Savulescu, J., (2017), 'Moral Neuroenhancement'. in K. Rommelfanger and L. Johnson, (Eds.)  Routledge Handbook of Neuroethics. (Routledge, New York) [open access]
  • Giubilini, A. and S. Sanyal, (2016), 'Challenging human enhancement'. in  S. Clarke, J. Savulescu, C. A. J. Coady, A. Giubilini and S. Sanyal, (Eds.) The Ethics of Human Enhancement: Understanding the Debate. (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 1, pp 1-24
  • Maslen, H., (2016), 'Towards an Ethical Framework for Regulating the Market for Cognitive Enhancement Devices'. in F. Jotterand and V.Dubljevic, (Eds.)   Cognitive Enhancement: Ethical and Policy Implications in International Perspectives. (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  • Pugh, J., Kahane, G., and Savulescu, J., (2016), 'Partiality for Humanity and Enhancement' in S. Clarke, J. Savulescu, C. A. J. Coady, A. Giubilini and S. Sanyal, (Eds.)  The Ethics of Human Enhancement: Understanding the Debate (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 
  • Roache, R. and Savulescu, J., (2016), 'Enhancing Conservatism' in S. Clarke, J. Savulescu, C. A. J. Coady, A. Giubilini and S. Sanyal, (Eds.)  The Ethics of Human Enhancement: Understanding the Debate (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  • Santoni De Seo, F., Faber, N., Savulescu, J. and Vincent, N., (2016), 'Why Less Praise for Enhanced Performance? Moving Beyond Responsibility-shifting, Authenticity, and Cheating, towards a Nature-of-Activities Approach'. in F. Jotterand and V.Dubljevic, (Eds.)   Cognitive Enhancement: Ethical and Policy Implications in International Perspectives. (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  • Savulescu, J. and Kahane, G., (2016), 'Understanding Procreative Beneficence: The Nature and Extent of the Moral Obligation to Have the Best Child'. in L. Francis, (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Reproductive Ethics. (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  • Savulescu, J. and Maslen, H., (2015), 'Moral Enhancement and Artificial Intelligence: Moral AI?'. in J. Romportl, E. Zackova and J. Kelemen, (Eds.) Beyond Artificial Intelligence: The Disappearing Human-Machine Divide. (Springer) pp 79-95
  • Savulescu, J. (2014). 'The Nature of the Moral Obligation to Select the Best Children'. in Future of Bioethics: International Dialogues. A. Akabyashi, Ed (Oxford: Oxford University Press): Part 1 Section B (4.5), pp 170-182
  • Douglas, T., (2013), 'Enhancement, Biomedical'. in H. LaFollette, (Ed.) International Encyclopedia of Ethics. (Wiley Blackwell)
  • Sandberg, A., Sinnott-Armstrong, W. and Savulescu, J., (2012), 'The Memory of Jurors: Enhancing Trial Performance'. in L. Nadel and W. Sinnott-Armstrong, (Eds.), Oxford Series in Neuroscience, Law, and Philosophy, (New York: Oxford University Press) pp 213-232.
  • Savulescu, J., (2012), 'Enhancing Equality' in K. Lippert-Rasmussen, M. Rosendahl and J. Wamberg (eds). The Posthuman Condition: Ethics, Aesthetics and Politics of Biotechnological Challenges, (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press): 184- 203
  • Douglas, T., Harding, C., Bourne, H. and Savulescu, J. (forthcoming 2011) ‘Stem Cell Research and Same Sex Reproduction’. In Quigley, M., Chan, S. and Harris, J. (eds) Stem Cells: New Frontiers in Science and Ethics, World Scientific Press
  • Kahane, G., Savulescu, J. and Ter Meulen, R. (2011), 'Preface', in  G. Kahane, J. Savulescu and R. Ter Meulen (Eds) Enhancing Human Capacities, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell)
  • Persson, I. and Savulescu, J. (2011), 'Unfit for the Future?  Human Nature, Scientific Progress, and the Need for Moral Enhancement', in  J. Savulescu, R. ter Meulen and G. Kahane (Eds) Enhancing Human Capacities (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell)
  • Sandberg, A., Sinnott-Armstrong, W. and Savulescu, J. (2011), 'Cognitive Enhancement in Courts', in J. Illes and B. J. Sahakian (Eds) Oxford Handbook of Neuroethics, (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  • Sandberg, A. and Savulescu, J. (2011), 'The Social and Economic Impacts of Cognitive Enhancement', in J. Savulescu, R. Ter Meulen and G. Kahane (Eds) Enhancing Human Capacities, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell) pp. 92-113
  • Savulescu, J. and Foddy, B. (2011) ‘Le Tour and Failure of Zero Tolerance: Time to Relax Doping Controls’. In Savulescu, J., Ter Meulen, R. and Kahane, G. (eds). Enhancing Human Capacities. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Savulescu, J., Sandberg, A. and Kahane, G. (2011) ‘Well-being and Enhancement’. In Savulescu, J., Ter Meulen, R. and Kahane, G (eds.). Enhancing Human Capacities. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Savulescu, J. and Sandberg, A. (2011) ‘The Social and Economic Impacts of Cognitive Enhancement’. In Savulescu, J., Ter Meulen, R. and Kahane, G (eds.). Enhancing Human Capacities. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Savulescu, J., Sandberg, A. and Kahane, G. (2011), 'Reasons to Feel, Reasons to Take Pills', in J. Savulescu, R. ter Meulen and G. Kahane (Eds.) Enhancing Human Capacities,Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell pp. 166-178
  • Bostrom, N., and Savulescu, J. (2009). ‘Introduction’. In Savulescu J, and Bostrom N. eds. Human Enhancement. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp 1 – 24.
  • Foddy, B. and Savulescu, J. (2009), 'Ethik der Leistungssteigerung im Sport: Medikamenten- und Gen-Doping', in B. Schone-Seifert and D. Talbot (Eds.) Enhancement: Die Ethische Debatte,Paderborn: Mentis Verlag
  • Ranisch, R. and Savulescu, J. (2009), 'Ethics and Enhancement', in N. Knoepffler and J. Savulescu (Eds.) The new man? Enhancement and Genetics,Alber Verlag.
  • Savulescu, J. (2009), 'Enhancement and Fairness', in P. Healey and S. Rayner (Eds.) Unnatural Selection: The Challenges of Engineering Tomorrow’s People London: Earthscan pp. 177- 187
  • Savulescu, J. (2009), 'Genetic Enhancement', in H. Kuhse and P. Singer (Eds.) A Companion to Bioethics: Second Edition,Oxford: Wiley- Blackwell
  • Savulescu, J. (2009), 'The Human Prejudice and the Moral Status of Enhanced Beings: What do we Owe the Gods', in J. Savulescu and N. Bostrom (Eds.) Human Enhancement,Oxford: Oxford University Press pp. 211-250
  • Savulescu, J. and Foddy, B. (2009), 'To Gattaca and Beyond', in J. Healey (Ed.) Human Genetics: Ethics & Issues,Thirroul: The Spinney Press pp. 27-28
  • Savulescu, J. and Devolder, K. (2009). ‘Therapeutic Cloning is Moral’. In D. Haugen, Musser, S., and Lovelace, K. (eds). At Issue: The Ethics of Cloning. Greenhaven Press. pp. 57 – 72. Reprinted from: Devolder, K., Savulescu, J. (2006) The Moral Imperative to Conduct Embryonic Stem Cell and Cloning Research Cambridge Quarterly of Health Care Ethics doi:10.1017/S0963180106060026
  • Savulescu, J. (2008), 'Procreative Beneficence: reasons not to have Disabled Children', in J. Thompson and L. Skene (Eds.) The Sorting Society: The Ethics of Genetic Screening and Therapy,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Savulescu, J. (2007), 'Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children', in R. Chadwick, H. Kuhse, W. A. Landman, U. Schuklenk and P. Singer (Eds.) The Bioethics Reader: Editors' Choice Malden: Blackwell Publishing pp. 434 - 446
  • Savulescu, J. (2007). ‘Beneficenza Procreativa e Disabilita’. In M. Ghisleni (ed) Bioetica Rivista Interdisciplinare. Piacenza: Casa Editrice Vicolo del Pavone. 15: pp. 56 – 64.
  • Savulescu, J. and Foddy, B. (2007), 'Ethics of Performance Enhancement in Sport: Drugs and Gene Doping', in R. E. Ashcroft, A. Dawson, H. Draper and J. R. McMillan (Eds.) Principles of Health Care Ethics,2nd, London: John Wiley & Sons Ltd pp. 511-520
  • Savulescu, J. (2007). ‘Autonomy, the Good Life, and Controversial Choices’. In Rhodes, R. Francis, L. P. and Silvers, A. (eds). The Blackwell Guide to Medical Ethics.(Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. Part 1, Chapter 1, pp. 17 – 37.
  • Savulescu, J. (2007). ‘Gene therapy, transgenesis and chimeras: is the radical genetic alteration of human beings a threat to our humanity?’ In Savulescu, J. (ed) In Quest of Ethical Wisdom: How the Practical Ethics of East and West Contribute to Wisdom. Oxford: Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. pp. 3 – 20.
  • Savulescu, J. and Foddy, B. (2006). ‘Good Sport, Bad Sport’ in Smyth, D., Brown, H., Judge, W., McCallum, C., and Pritchard, R., (eds). Live it Up 2: VCE Physical Education Units 3 and 4. 2nd Edition. Milton: John Wiley and Sons.
  • Savulescu, J. (2006). ‘Sex Selection: The Case for’. In Singer, P. and H. Kuhse (eds). Bioethics: An Anthology. Second Edition. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Savulescu, J. (2006), 'Genetic Interventions and the Ethics of Enhancement of Human Beings', in B. Steinbock (Ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Bioethics,Oxford; Oxford University Press pp. 516-535
  • Savulescu, J. (2006), 'Justice, Enhancement and Fairness', in W. Bainbridge and M. Roco (Eds.) Progess in Convergence: Technologies for Human Wellbeing,New York; New York Academy of Sciences pp. 321-338
  • Savulescu, J. (2005), 'Risk and Sport: Genetic testing and Boxing', in C. Tambourrini (Ed.) Genetic Technology in Sport,London and New York: Routledge pp. 136 - 146
  • Savulescu J. (2003). ‘The Public Interest in Embryos’. In Gunning J, Szoke, H (eds). The Regulation of Assisted Reproductive Technology Legislation. Aldershot: Ashgate. pp. 191-2002.

Special Edited Journal Issue


Journal Articles

YOUTUBE: The Practical Ethics Video Series makes the most important and complex debates in practical ethics accessible to a wide audience through brief interviews with high profile philosophers in Oxford.  Video interviews on this and other topics can be found on our YouTube channel.

Savulescu, J., (2017), Podcast for The Conversation, 'Speaking with: Julian Savulescu on the ethics of genetic modification in humans', What if humans are genetically unfit to overcome challenges like climate change and the growing inequality that looks set to define our future? (17 July).  http://theconversation.com/speaking-with-julian-savulescu-on-the-ethics-of-genetic-modification-in-humans-78249

Staicu, L. and Socaciua, E., (2017), 'The rise of postmedicine: some ethical concerns regarding biomedical technology; How Drug Patents Might Lead to Disincentives for Moral Bioenhancement', Erasmus Exchange Public Event: Double Seminar on Biomedical Technology and Moral Bioenhancement (30 May)

Savulescu, J., (2016) 'No pain, no praise: motivational enhancement and the meaning of life'.  MT16 Oxford-Valencia Neuroethics Workshop, Oxford Martin School (14 November) 

Gyngell, C., (2015), ''The case for genetically engineered babies' and accompanying podcast 'Should we genetically engineer humans?'', The Guardian (1 May). Article | Podcast

Savulescu, J., (2014). 'Making nice: Julian Savulescu and the case for moral bioenhancement'.  Philosopher and bioethicist Julian Savulescu joins host Peter Mares for a conversation on the potential for moral bioenhancement through direct brain stimulation, pharmacology or genetics, and the ethical implications of such interventions.  Up Close is an online, audio talk show of research, opinion and analysis, presented in English, from the University of Melbourne, Australia. Audio (MP3) |  Transcript

Erler, A., (2013), Sleep and Opportunity for Well-being (paper co-authored by David Birks and delivered at HT13 Uehiro Seminars in Practical Ethics) http://media.philosophy.ox.ac.uk/uehiro/HT13US_ERL.mp3

Savulescu, J., (2013). Pills that improve morality. TEDxBarcelona. (23 July)

Savulescu, J., (2012), Making Better Babies, Pro and Con. A Debate with Rob Sparrow http://www.arts.monash.edu.au/bioethics/--downloads/better-babies-debate-october-2012.mp3



In November 2018, Chinese researcher Jiankui He of Shenzhen announced that he had gene-edited two healthy embryos using CRISPR-Cas9 technology, which resulted in the birth of twin baby girls.  He claims to have edited a gene to make the babies resistant to HIV, although one of the girls has both copies of the gene modified while the other has only one (making her still susceptible to HIV).  Addressing the ethical concerns surrounding this claim, OUC Researchers have responded in blog posts and media interviews:


TV and radio interviews

Devolder, K., (2018), Interviewed by Julian Worricker for BBC World Service Weekend episode 'The 80th Anniversary of the Kindertransport'. Dr Devolder discusses the ethical concerns surrounding Prof. Jiankui He's controversial gene-editing experiments (the gene-edited embryos resistant to HIV).  Dr Devolder's contribution appears at 39:00 on the clock - available on iPlayer until 30 December.  (2 December).

27 November. Interview with Julian Savulescu, ABC News (Australia) on birth of first gene edited babies.  

28 November 2018. Oxford bioethics expert: Gene editing itself is right, but healthy embryos should not take risks. Interview with Julian Savulescu on the case.  Jiemian News. Savulescu (in Chinese)


Other media

Gyngell, C., Douglas, T. and Savulescu, J., (2015), 'Engineering a Consensus: Edit Embryos for Research, Not Reproduction', Oxford Martin School Blog (2 December). 

Savulescu, J., (2015), 'Five reasons we should embrace gene-editing research on human embryos', The Conversation (2 December).

Gyngell, C., (2015), ''The case for genetically engineered babies' and accompanying podcast 'Should we genetically engineer humans?'', The Guardian (1 May). Article | Podcast

List of site pages