Research Presentation: Anne Cunha

Prosthetic Legs: The Transhumanist Perspective


talent, ambition, satisfaction, athleticism, transhumanism

The ideas of athletic talent, drive (motivation), and satisfaction are unique aspects of the human experience and all serve to differentiate humanity from robots and technology, or so we think. Lately, it has become somewhat commonplace to see people with carbon-fiber prosthetic legs, or less specifically, any prosthetic limbs (carbon-fiber or not), competing in various athletic competitions, many times against able-bodied athletes who have not been enhanced with such prostheses. My research focuses on runners and prosthetic legs and the effects such enhancements have on the competitiveness of the sport itself. I also present my own views on how the human aspects of satisfaction and drive are changed, because in my perspective, artificial legs give athletes a different sort of advantage over the competition. Oscar Pistorius is one such competitive runner who has what some would call an unfair advantage over his competitors who run on their own ankles and joints. Although on a completely different plane than Pistorius, Lance Armstrong has also been enveloped in scandal because of artificial athletic enhancements. In the case of Armstrong, his enhancement (or doping) was completely by choice and there have been more regulations put in place by world organizations to put a stop to gene doping.

Transhumanists view the idea of artificial enhancement as a way to “transcend our current species,” or in other words get rid of the things that make humanity weak (Fukuyama 1). They believe that the idea that “individuals have inherent value, is [what] is at the heart of political liberalism” (Fukuyama 2). Modifying the “essence” that humanity possesses is the core of transhumanism (Fukuyama 2). Transhumanism’s advocates “think that they understand what constitutes a good human being, and they are happy to leave behind the limited, mortal, natural beings they see around them in favor of something better” (Fukuyama 2). Fukuyama brings up a couple of key points that may serve to undermine transhumanist ideas:
“If we weren’t violent and aggressive, we wouldn’t be able to defend ourselves…Modifying any one of our key characteristics inevitably entails modifying a complex, interlinked package of traits, and we will never be able to anticipate the ultimate outcome (Fukuyama 2).

As a long distance runner myself, I have a very strong sense of drive and motivation when it comes to going the distances. I do get intense satisfaction after completely one of my longer runs and it is definitely one of the best feelings. I also know that running is very hard on the joints and your bones, and with prosthetic limbs, people can run longer (in life), farther, and better without destroying their joints. But I feel that in that way people lose their sense of satisfaction, knowing that they pushed their bodies to the limit and achieved something great.

Pistorius is a unique case when it comes to analyzing his abilities to compete against able-bodied athletes. Pistorius was “born with fibular hemimelia (congenital absence of the fibula) in both legs. When he was 11 months old, his legs were amputated halfway between his knees and ankles” ( In this way, it is obvious that Pistorius’ case has nothing to do with transhumanism simply for the purpose of being an elite athlete with unlimited athletic prowess. Pistorius did not make the choice to have prosthetic legs but he did make the choice to enter into athletic competitions even with his prosthetics.
Pistorius' Incredible Story

In the case of elite sport, it is about “excellence within the boundaries of ‘self-chosen’ limitations; disability sport originated from limitations through fate” (2224). It also becomes the case that “elite sport symboli[zes] the athlete as hero; it reproduces elitist ideals about the ‘athletic’ and ‘beautiful’ body, about good sportsmanship and national pride. For many people, in disability sport, the athlete is still a ‘patient combating his limitations,’ instead of an elite athlete with specific and outstanding talents” (2224). Pistorius’ competing in the regular Olympics raises a serious dichotomy in the transhumanist community. His case “holds a dichotomous consequence for the debate on equality and disability rights in sport” (2224).

There are transhumanists who “look upon the case of Pistorius with excited interest, since Pistorius can be used as an icon for technological progress just as easily as for equality rights for the disabled…”

This very idea sums up my hesitations towards prosthetic limbs and their usage in competition with able-bodied athletes. The concept put forth above leads very well into my discussion about the controversy surrounding prosthetic limbs and athletic competition and whether or not such enhancement leads to unfair advantages.
When it comes to my research as it pertains to transhumanism and the implications of Pistorius competing against able-bodied runners with his prosthetics there are many people with extremely strong opinions concerning the future of the sport if people with prosthetics are continued to be allowed to compete among “normal” athletes without such enhancements. Many researchers and experts in the field say that there is a reason why the Paralympics exist and that is in order to give those with disabilities an area in which they can compete on a playing field more in tune with their needs. Dr. Arthur Caplan, Director of Bioethics at The University of Pennsylvania, recently asked:

I tend to agree with the stance that Dr. Caplan takes here.
I feel that, not necessarily Pistorius but others, might jump on the chance to enhance their running ability with prosthetics and then prosthetics will become the norm, not only that but there will no longer be a way to distinguish in sport between natural ability and talent enhanced by machine. One study done by Professor Gert-Peter Brueggemann of Germany’s Institute of Biomechanics and Orthopedics in Cologne, Germany, found that Pistorius’s prosthetic legs allowed him to keep up with other able bodied sprinters, “while expending about 25% less energy,” thus determining that his Cheetah prosthetics were “more efficient than a human ankle (The New York Times, May 17, 2008).
How Pistorius' "Legs" Work

Pistorius’ case raises questions dealing with concepts of “dis-ability, super-ability, enhancement, and a fair competition” (Hilvoorde & Landeweerd 2222). In an article by Ivo Van Hilvoorde and Laurens Landeweerd, they mention, “in daily life, there is little reason to qualify people who integrate their prostheses into their ‘lived bodies’ as impaired.” They seem to say that the same thing should be applied to athletes and that there should not be a distinction between “sport for the ‘normal’ and sport for the ‘abnormal’” because if the distinction is made it “demonstrates aspects of our understanding of what is and what should be considered a ‘normal athletic body’” (2223). I understand where they are coming from when speaking about people who incorporate their prostheses into daily life, but I find that it is a completely different issue when it comes to competing in highly publicized athletic arenas. They mention in the article: “As in the case with other performance enhancing methods, the Olympic competition becomes a mechanism for evaluating athletes with a ‘normal biological body’” (2223). In my opinion, that is exactly what the Olympic games’ purpose is: to evaluate natural athletic ability. Yes, Pistorius did not choose to have prosthetic legs (it was a result of a tragedy), but my fear is that allowing him to compete against able-bodied athletes with his prostheses will give other runners who simply wish to enhance their running ability the idea that they can choose to have prosthetic legs and still compete in regular competition, making running with prostheses the norm and not the exception.

Philosopher John Rawls says in his theoretical framework, “those who are at the same level of talent and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system (2223). In this case, I come back to my fear that other competitive runners will wish to end the possibility of joint deterioration and opt to have prosthetic legs akin to Pistorius’ because his limbs will not deteriorate or fatigue. Prosthetic legs for all competitors would make them again at the same level of talent and ability as Pistorius once again.
The article also brings up the concept of “distributive justice.” With distributive justice, “social and economic benefits should be distributed in such a way that they can reasonably be expected to be advantageous to all those who are the worst off in the first place…The principles of distributive justice therefore demand that we redesign the world around us to make it more accessible for everybody” (2223). There are certain things that have to be taken into consideration when determining which obstacles should be removed for ‘accessibility’, like what things are necessary for “persons with disabilities to become part of other spheres of life”? (2223). An example would be accessibility ramps into buildings. However, “elite sport is, by definition, constructed around notions of differentiation, categorization, and selection, all with the cause of showing ‘virtuosity’, ‘supremacy’, and ‘super-humanness’” (2223).
Pistorius and Olivera Paralympic Games

Men's 200m-T44 Final Paralympic Games

In terms of artificial enhancement in competitive athletics, one name in particular brings up an abundance of controversy and scandal. That name is Lance Armstrong. Armstrong has been accused of enhancing his athleticism and cycling abilities through a technique called gene doping. He reached his peak in cycling after battling testicular cancer and after that became an icon for others struggling with diseases and also for others to pursue their dreams. Even after Armstrong has retired from professional road biking, the USADA (the US Anti-Doping Agency) is now pursuing him with charges of gene doping contributing to his Tour de France wins. He is now being “banned from competing in the Ironman triathlons, which he took up in 2011 after retiring from cycling” (Horovitz, USA Today). From an article written on October 14, 2012: “The USADA has condemned Armstrong as the mastermind behind the most sophisticated doping conspiracy in history (Reed, Schlink). Armstrong’s case is different than that of Pistorius because, unlike Pistorius, his enhancement was completely by choice, purely because he wanted to get better and enhance his athleticism with less effort.
Armstrong Doping Scandal

My worry with prosthetics is that runners will treat artificial limbs the way that Armstrong used gene doping; only as a way for them to run longer, better, and faster. Oscar Pistorius had no choice, and his running shows that he pushed through adversity, but if other runners choose to use prosthetics, my question is: Is it sill fair because they allowed Pistorius to run in the Olympic games with his? Would allowing people to choose to have prosthetic limbs one day be considered the new way to “level the playing field?” I feel that prosthetic limbs will become commonplace as the technology to create such enhancements advances. It could become so common that people who were once considered exceptionally talented will not longer be able to compete in the elite arenas such as the Olympics as they once could. As of now, there is no clear answer as to where the future of using prosthetic limbs for a competitive advantage will go but it has already been shown that it is much less taboo than it once was.


“Cycle of trouble: Lance Armstrong doesn't out-ride doping charges.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 18 June 2012. Print.

Fukuyama, Francis. “Transhumanism.” Foreign Policy. 1 September 2004. Web. 13 October 2012.

Horovitz, Bruce. “Sponsors show support amid new doping scandal.” USA Today. 15 June 2012 late ed.: 1A. Print.

Reed, Ron and Leo Schlink. “Scandal Widens.” Sunday Times SUNTIP. 14 October 2012. Web. 15 October 2012.

Sherrill, Claudine. “The Man on No Legs Versus The Nature of Sport.” Palaestra: Winter 2009, Vol. 24 Issue 3, p57-58, 2p. Web.

VAN HILVOORDE, I. (2010). Enhancing disabilities: transhumanism under the veil of inclusion?. Disability & Rehabilitation, 32(26), 2222-2227.