Military and Democratic Human Enhancement

In a densely packed piece for CSPO’s Soapbox, Clark Miller makes the case that the military is not the proper agency to spearhead human-enhancement research because “soldiers are not just instruments, and the military has a poor record of allowing its personnel to opt out of dangerous experiments,” and because enhanced humans are (potentially) antithetical to achieved merit, the democratic basis of our society. His proposed solution is a civilian oversight board to provide democratic control of human enhancement technology.

I agree with Miller’s main points, but differ on the specifics. He correctly observes that the military needs are irreconcilable with the Helsinki Declaration on ethical human subject research. Secrecy, hierarchy, and mission focus do not align with protecting the health of subjects, informed consent, or the requirement that “in medical research involving human subjects, the well-being of the individual research subject must take precedence over all other interests.” Yet, this argument does not hold up. On a strict reading of the Helsinki Declaration, all research for the purposes of human enhancement is unethical. War is an inherently dangerous endeavor, and different rules apply in combat than in the civilian sphere. Is there a moral difference between undergoing an enhancement trial, and being ordered to take a fortified strongpoint? The dark past of military medical experiments is a cautionary signal, but not one that necessarily demands the radical step of civilian oversight board.

Miller’s second point about the threat to democracy is more interesting. I agree with him that human enhancement technology potentially undermines core assumptions of western democracy. In America, we have been blessed with a strong sense of the citizen-soldier. Military personnel remain apolitical in the spirit that their service will be appreciated in the tradition of George Washington and Cincinnatus. This tradition has sheltered America from military coup and disaster, but it is predicated on the notion that once the soldier leaves the military, he becomes an ordinary civilian, with no special status other than the respect we accord him of our free will. Military human enhancement draws a clear line between the soldier and citizen, a divide which can only prove hazardous to the historically tranquil relationship between the American state and its military. The democratic consequences of military human enhancement are impossible to predict, but we are right to be fearful of them.

Do we need civilian oversight? We obviously need de-militarized human enhancement, as the early subordination of nuclear power to military needs in the United States, and its current sad status, shows. Human enhancement focused only on military needs would be a tragedy, and the time to avert that is now, in the early days of the field. But I also believe that an approach focused solely on regulating the military is doomed to failure. We need “pull” for civilian human enhancement applications, to create an industry and market capable of every type of innovation. But given the consequences, there should be some kind of oversight and regulation on human enhancement. What kind of regulatory agency can move fast enough to keep up with technology, impartial enough not to get bogged down in the grinding issues of day-to-day politics, and yet remain responsive to the will of the people.

Is human enhancement with democratic control possible, or does human enhancement imply a new form of governance?


  1. Considering the longterm implications of the situation, eventual human enhancement may lead to the formation of self governing castes, differing in enhancement level. Assuming that castes at the "top" of this system will not only be at the forefront of technological innovation but also exist in the minority due to a fear of enhancement, democractic control may prove more effective.

  2. Today, I was walking back from lunch, and thinking... that governing structures of enhanced humans need not differ substantially from present governments.

    I'd argue that the range of human abilities is already so great, and it has not brought down society or resulted in rule by the intellectual elite ( sadly ? )

    one thing that enhancement really does exacerbate though is socioeconomic inequalities. today, if I'm wealthy enough to buy a pair of reading glasses and get to a doctor to treat my attention deficite disorder, I can more or less bootstrap my way through the american educational system to a decent paying job. However, we already have problems providing such basic social goods to the economically disadvantaged. The world's poor will inevitably be denied all enhancement tech that is not medically essential, widening the gap between the rich and poor, and creating a caste system which superficially resembles a meritocracy but in fact simply restricts economic mobility via inequal distribution of enhancement tech.

  3. did you see that... I used big words !

  4. ...I think I just got owned...deservingly

  5. I don't think so... I just drank a lot of coffee.

    I guess I can agree that rigorously enforced selective enhancement could stabilize a strong caste system, almost like Plato's republic ? I'm just a little fuzzy on the implementation details, as well as how we'd get there.

    Side note : has anyone tried to contstruct stability proofs for governing systems ? We can prove that a complex system is stable if all deviations create a restoring force ( and you avoid oscillations, etc ). I'm sure some approximate argument can be made for the stability of governments and how they fall.

  6. An enhancement-level caste system is dynamically unstable. If enhancement == capability == power (a reasonable assumption in a situation where the enhanced are making a bid for power), the most powerful will be the most enhanced, but the most enhanced will also be the most rapidly enhancing. Members of that group who are not part of the early adopter curve will perforce exit.

    So what we have is a leadership caste that requires an ever higher rate of technological change to maintain their status, however, as we all know technological change has a splintering effect, especially at the bleeding edge where standards and such haven't settled down. A polity run under these principles would be in a continuous state of schism.

  7. heh... until the top level transcend to immortality and are absolved of the cares of office.