The Cases For and Against Enhancing People

A recent issue of The New Atlantis features several essays on transhumanism which may be of interest to readers of this blog. I’ll describe them briefly in this post and the next.The first essay is “The Case for Enhancing People,” by Ronald Bailey, the science correspondent for Reason magazine. Ron is well known for supporting transhumanism and enhancement technologies; he makes the case for them in his book Liberation Biology: The Moral and Scientific Case for the Biotech Revolution. Here’s a snippet of his essay for us:

Contrary to oft-expressed concerns, we will find, first, that enhancements will better enable people to flourish; second, that enhancements will not dissolve whatever existential worries people have; third, that enhancements will enable people to become more virtuous; fourth, that people who don’t want enhancement for themselves should allow those of us who do to go forward without hindrance; fifth, that concerns over an “enhancement divide” are largely illusory; and sixth, that we already have at hand the social “technology,” in the form of protective social and political institutions, that will enable the enhanced and the unenhanced to dwell together in peace.

In response to Ron Bailey’s piece, we’ve published an essay by Benjamin Storey, an associate professor of political science at Furman University. The essay challenges Ron’s particularly libertarian strain of transhumanism, but also speaks to some of the fundamental questions raised by human enhancement. Here’s a taste:

“The Case for Enhancing People” is obviously the work of a sharp and curious mind, but Bailey’s libertarian commitment blinds him to the moral difficulties of our biotechnological moment, and condemns him to endlessly exploring what Chesterton called “the clean and well-lit prison of one idea.” When we step outside that prison, we find ourselves confronting a complex political, historical, and moral-existential landscape in which there are no easy answers. Politically, we face both the difficult task of attempting to responsibly shape mainstream moral life without going overboard in “childproofing our culture,” as Yuval Levin has put it, and the sobering reality that technology and individual liberty do not always exist in harmony. Historically, we stand before an uncertain future, in which there is no reason to believe that all technological change issues in genuine human progress.

This is a bracing and carefully wrought exchange; I believe readers will find it well worth their time.

Tea Partying Transhumanists?

The New York Times published last month an intriguing exploration by New School professor J. M. Bernstein of the philosophical underpinnings of the Tea Party movement. Does this analysis remind you of any other movement?:

Where do such anger and such passionate attachment to wildly fantastic beliefs come from?…

Tea Party anger is, at bottom, metaphysical, not political: what has been undone by the economic crisis is the belief that each individual is metaphysically self-sufficient, that one’s very standing and being as a rational agent owes nothing to other individuals or institutions. The opposing metaphysical claim, the one I take to be true, is that the very idea of the autonomous subject is an institution, an artifact created by the practices of modern life: the intimate family, the market economy, the liberal state.

…[H]uman subjectivity only emerges through intersubjective relations, and hence how practices of independence, of freedom and autonomy, are held in place and made possible by complementary structures of dependence….

All the rhetoric of self-sufficiency, all the grand talk of wanting to be left alone is just the hollow insistence of the bereft lover that she can and will survive without her beloved….

The Tea Party rhetoric of taking back the country is no accident: since they repudiate the conditions of dependency that have made their and our lives possible, they can only imagine freedom as a new beginning, starting from scratch.

The whole post is fascinating and, even if it’s overwrought, it’s worth reading at the level it was intended. But try reading it too as about a certain other movement.

The Other Paradox of Choice

Should we regulate?
In a recent post here on Futurisms responding to a CNN interview about the pending “gamepocalypse,” I described some common moves that futurists make, including a kind of predictive overreach. But the CNN interview demonstrates another futurist trope. The basic formula of “this new thing will come, and it’ll change everything” must be followed by “but there will be some inevitable downsides,” which must in turn be followed by … well, in the case of the CNN interview, this exchange follows:
CNN: Should we create regulations to keep [those downsides] from happening?

[Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell:] That’s hard for me to imagine. These things are going to creep up on us one by one, and it’s going to be up to what can people take, and what can people tolerate?
Schell also notes that “We all have choices to make about what aspects of our privacy we want to give away.”
Its use in the context of gaming shows just how inadequate (even silly) is the rights-versus-regulation framework into which so many people want to force many of our most important public ethical discussions. We’re talking about computer games, folks. Blood or money would have to be flowing in the streets before any sensible defenders of liberal democracy would call for governmental regulation (and predictions of such dire consequences are usually bandied about when people do call for regulation). But once the question of regulation has been raised and dismissed, that’s pretty much the end of the discussion. Thereafter, the assumption is libertarian: If government isn’t the way to go, everything else is just a matter of unrestrained personal preference.
The Other Paradox of Choice
What’s missing from this picture is what the next step should really be. Once we’ve all agreed that some particular activity is basically within the realm of individual rights and beyond the realm of governmental regulation, the debate should shift away from the legal and turn to the good and bad of the activity itself. This is a blessing of liberal democracy: we’re free to decide what choices we want to make, and so discussing which ones are good or bad for us becomes our privilege and our responsibility.
And yet the self-avowed defenders of choices, rights, and freedom all too often ignore (or even shout down) any serious discussion about how we should make those choices and exercise those freedoms. They tend to pooh-pooh moral considerations.
There’s a well-known “paradox of choice” in which the more we have to choose from, the harder it is to make a choice or be satisfied with it. But there seems to be another odd paradox of choice: the more vigorously someone preaches about rights and choices, the more tyrannical that person will consider any public conversation about how best to exercise those rights and make those choices.
Yeah, Well, You Know, That’s Just Like, Uh, Your Opinion, Man
Perhaps another example is in order. In a recent post here, Adam Keiper noted the shallowness of some recent discussion about the issue of cloning. In particular, he noted the question posed by libertarian blogger Tyler Cowen to his readers: “If you don’t like [Bryan Caplan’s] proposal for a cloned son, I will ask why you think your preferred degree of genetic similarity — between you and your next kid — is right and Bryan’s is wrong.” As Adam noted, this quantitative distillation is preposterously reductive. But it isn’t just that.
The phrase “preferred degree” here is derogative, even sneering: pity (maybe fear) the fool who thinks his choices are right. Such choices, as mere preferences, come to seem completely arbitrary and weightless. The paradox lies in the libertarian’s simultaneous belief that choice is of utmost importance — even that it is constitutive of our identities as free agents.
Just at the level of attitude, this dismissiveness comes across as a less easygoing version of The Dude. But in the realm of serious discussion, it reveals a tension about the natures of agency, individuality, freedom, and choice that is inherent to libertarianism, and unfortunately present in too many of our public debates about matters of great ethical import.

The Life of the Clone (and the Narcissism of the Cloner)

Bryan Caplan is an economics professor at George Mason University and a contributor to a group blog about economics. He and his co-bloggers are intelligent libertarian economists, and their blog is often clarifying on important questions of policy and economic theory. It is deservedly popular for its erudition and wit.

On moral matters, though, Mr. Caplan sometimes muddles things. Like a few other prominent libertarian econobloggers, Mr. Caplan is interested in futuristic technologies, and he has written several posts about bioethical questions, including a handful in the past few months that misunderstand and misrepresent essays by Leon Kass. (I may revisit those in a future post here.) Mr. Caplan was apparently reading those Kass essays to bone up on arguments about cloning, a subject he addresses in a forthcoming book called Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. Yesterday, Mr. Caplan invited his readers to tell him whether or not he should include the following passage in the book:

I confess that I take anti-cloning arguments personally. Not only do they insult the identical twin sons I already have; they insult a son I hope I live to meet. Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son. Seriously. I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share. I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me. I’m not pushing others to clone themselves. I’m not asking anyone else to pay for my dream. I just want government to leave me and the cloning business alone. Is that too much to ask?

Before examining Mr. Caplan’s confession directly, let’s look at some of the reactions it provoked. Below his post are some six dozen responses; a few say that the paragraph makes Mr. Caplan sound “crazy,” but several defend and even praise it. (There’s also an amusing comment from Will Wilkinson.) Tyler Cowen, the libertarian über-econoblogger (and another George Mason prof), invited his own readers to comment, and introduced his own spin:

If you don’t like [Mr. Caplan’s] proposal for a cloned son, I will ask why you think your preferred degree of genetic similarity — between you and your next kid — is right and Bryan’s is wrong.

In a follow-up today, Cowen chastised his own readers for the content of their comments about Caplan, and Mr. Caplan briefly responded. Meanwhile, Brad DeLong charged Mr. Caplan with misogyny (a frivolous accusation that Mr. DeLong’s own commenters shot down), and Steve Sailer chimed in with some provocative questions in his inimitable way.

Let’s examine what Mr. Caplan wrote. He begins by saying that he takes “anti-cloning arguments personally,” in part because “they insult the identical twin sons I already have.”

Without having seen the rest of Mr. Caplan’s book, we cannot know just what “anti-cloning arguments” he is referring to. But from context, we can infer that he has in mind an argument that human clones would somehow be lesser beings simply because their genetic duplicates exist. Certainly no one responsible or thoughtful has made so crude an argument. I invite Mr. Caplan to state plainly whose arguments he has in mind — specifically which “anti-cloning arguments” insult his twin sons — but until he does, I suggest he’s invoking a straw man.

Perhaps Mr. Caplan simply misunderstands some of the arguments that opponents of cloning actually make, like this objection that appeared in a thorough and balanced report on cloning from the President’s Council on Bioethics eight years ago:

Of course, our genetic makeup does not by itself determine our identities. But our genetic uniqueness is an important source of our sense of who we are and how we regard ourselves. It is an emblem of independence and individuality. It endows us with a sense of life as a never-before-enacted possibility. Knowing and feeling that nobody has previously possessed our particular gift of natural characteristics, we go forward as genetically unique individuals into relatively indeterminate futures.

These new and unique genetic identities are rooted in the natural procreative process. A cloned child, by contrast, is at risk of living out a life overshadowed in important ways by the life of the “original” — general appearance being only the most obvious. Indeed, one of the reasons some people are interested in cloning is that the technique promises to produce in each case a particular individual whose traits and characteristics are already known. And however much or little one’s genotype actually shapes one’s natural capacities, it could mean a great deal to an individual’s experience of life and the expectations that those who cloned him or her might have. The cloned child may be constantly compared to “the original,” and may consciously or unconsciously hold himself or herself up to the genetic twin that came before. If the two individuals turned out to lead similar lives, the cloned person’s achievements may be seen as derivative. If, as is perhaps more likely, the cloned person departed from the life of his or her progenitor, this very fact could be a source of constant scrutiny, especially in circumstances in which parents produced their cloned child to become something in particular. Living up to parental hopes and expectations is frequently a burden for children; it could be a far greater burden for a cloned individual. The shadow of the cloned child’s “original” might be hard for the child to escape, as would parental attitudes that sought in the child’s very existence to replicate, imitate, or replace the “original.”

The Council’s report then specifically addresses the question of twins. The following points are pretty obvious, but Mr. Caplan seems to think that opponents of cloning don’t understand them (while it is not clear that he appreciates them himself):

It may reasonably be argued that genetic individuality is not an indispensable human good, since identical twins share a common genotype and seem not to be harmed by it. But this argument misses the context and environment into which even a single human clone would be born. Identical twins have as progenitors two biological parents and are born together, before either one has developed and shown what his or her potential — natural or otherwise — may be. Each is largely free of the burden of measuring up to or even knowing in advance the genetic traits of the other, because both begin life together and neither is yet known to the world. But a clone is a genetic near-copy of a person who is already living or has already lived. This might constrain the clone’s sense of self in ways that differ in kind from the experience of identical twins. Everything about the predecessor — from physical height and facial appearance, balding patterns and inherited diseases, to temperament and native talents, to shape of life and length of days, and even cause of death — will appear before the expectant eyes of the cloned person, always with at least the nagging concern that there, notwithstanding the grace of God, go I. The crucial matter, again, is not simply the truth regarding the extent to which genetic identity actually shapes us — though it surely does shape us to some extent. What matters is the cloned individual’s perception of the significance of the “precedent life” and the way that perception cramps and limits a sense of self and independence.

Those passages also offer a fairly firm reply to Tyler Cowen’s challenge. Mr. Cowen asks why one “degree of genetic similarity” is preferable to another. But that reductive abstraction — thinking about this question in terms of percentages of genes — is downright bizarre. As the Council passages makes clear, the debate over cloning isn’t fundamentally about genes; it is about human beings, about complicated family and generational relationships, about selfhood, identity, and social contexts.

What, in the end, are we to make of Mr. Caplan’s desire? He says that he has two reasons for wishing “to clone myself and raise the baby as my son.” The first is selfish: “I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share.” His certitude that the bond would be “sublime” is nothing more than an assumption elevated to faith.

His second reason for wanting to clone himself poses as a kind of generosity:

I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me.

That sentence is a gem. Its logic is dubious (just because today’s Mr. Caplan says he would wish to have himself as a parent doesn’t mean that a clone born decades later would enjoy the professor’s parenting) and it reveals tremendous self-regard (Mr. Caplan considers his parenting talents so excellent that he knows he would enjoy being on the receiving end of them if it were but possible).

And there you have it. The staunchest public advocates of cloning-to-produce-children have argued that it might someday help infertile couples produce biologically related children. But Mr. Caplan’s example shows us that there are people who desire to clone themselves for the shallowest of reasons — the sheer pleasure of interacting with a duplicate, and the somewhat paradoxical belief that a person could have raised himself better than his parents did. It is hard to know which is more breathtaking: the callous disregard for the independently lived life of the cloned child, or the extreme narcissism so unabashedly on display.

Our Doppelgängered Future?

David Foster Wallace → Russell Crowe?

The gentle Facebooking reader will likely have noticed the news-feed trend of last week. No, it’s not posting the color of your bra in ostensible support of breast-cancer awareness (older readers will remember that one). I first noticed it myself when the faces on my news feed seemed both more familiar and more attractive. It turns out that it was all due to the latest Facebook fad: updating your profile picture to match your “celebrity doppelgänger.”

One friend’s doppelgängered profile picture was accompanied by a comment that she suspected the trend to be a product of “wishful thinking.” And how. David Foster Wallace’s words from the dawn of the 1990s seem truer than ever:

Because of the way human beings relate to narrative, we tend to identify with those characters we find appealing…. When everybody we seek to identify with for six hours a day [of TV watching] is pretty, it naturally becomes more important to us to be pretty, to be viewed as pretty. Because prettiness becomes a priority for us, the pretty people on TV become all the more attractive, a cycle which is obviously great for TV. But it’s less great for us civilians, who tend to own mirrors, and who also tend not to be anywhere near as pretty as the TV-images we want to identify with…. This very personal anxiety about our prettiness has become a national phenomenon with national consequences…. The boom in diet aids, health and fitness clubs, neighborhood tanning parlors, cosmetic surgery, anorexia, bulimia, steroid-use among boys, girls throwing acid at each other because one girl’s hair looks more like Farrah Fawcett’s than another … are these supposed to be unrelated to each other? to the apotheosis of prettiness in a televisual culture?

One wonders how the transhumanist is to contend with such a problem. The libertarian transhumanist, especially, admits into his moral vocabulary little beyond the individual will. It is the locus of all human action; any collective action is only properly constituted contractually.

What then of the influence of popular culture — whether in average people’s everyday anxiety over the gulf between their looks and the looks of the pretty people they almost could be but are not, or in their actual efforts to bridge that gulf? The libertarian can deny such anxiety by proudly affirming that the individual will exercises itself autonomously, but as Wallace indicates, this is a woefully inadequate account of the way people think and make choices about their appearances (see: Nadya Suleman/Angelina Jolie).
The only other option is to affirm the supreme rights of the individual will in exercising its personal choices of expression, irrespective of whether those choices are truly autonomous. Every person can and should make himself — including his body — into whatever he freely chooses to be. This is the mantra behind morphological freedom. The numbers of people who go to drastic measures, starving themselves, going under the knife, etc., are surely then by virtue of their expressiveness the freest of all, and cosmetic technology a force for their liberation. Jocelyn Wildenstein is to be heralded as the Frederick Douglass of the morphological emancipators.
Because the libertarian transhumanist view admits of no normativity, neither can it admit of pathology. Libertarian transhumanists must claim to celebrate all morphological choices equally. In practice, of course, they do not celebrate them equally, for their ideology has its own qualitative distinction in the virtue of choice: It favors those “expressions” that seem to be freer — that is, those that have departed more from the given. Libertarian transhumanists seem vaguely aware of and mostly fine with this internal contradiction. But there is a deep irony in the fact that their embrace of morphological autonomy as liberation from cultural conformity commits them to celebrating choices that are so transparently made by unhealthy wills succumbing to the grip of cultural norms.

(See also this wonderfully-titled post by blogger Miss Self-Important: Your radicalism bores me and your liberation weighs me down.)

Arma virumque cano

Beneath Adam’s post “On Lizardman and Liberalism,” commenter Will throws down the gauntlet: “[F]ind one transhumanist who thinks we should be allowed to embed nuclear weapons in our bodies.” I for one am ready concede that I know of no such case. But I’m moved to wonder, why not? Why should a libertarian transhumanist like Anders Sandberg — who believes that “No matter what the social circumstances are, it is never acceptable to overrule someone’s right to … morphological freedom” — be unwilling to defend the right of an individual to embed a nuclear weapon? Assuming Sandberg would not be so willing, two alternatives occur to me. Either, like many people, he is more decent than his principles would lead one to believe, and/or he has not explored the real implications of his principles.

To some, this case may seem absurd — why would anyone want to turn himself into a bomb? Why indeed? But turning oneself into a bomb is already a reality in our world. And the underlying moral relativism of Mr. Sandberg’s absolute prohibition is of a piece with the progressive moral “wisdom” that asserts “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” So if indeed Mr. Sandberg would flinch at the implantation of a bomb of any sort, it might be because he is living off moral capital that his own principle is busy degrading. He may be more decent than his principles, but his decency may not survive his principles.

Painting by Charles Bittinger of an atomic test at Bikini Atoll; courtesy U.S. NavyThe commenter Will steps into the breach with his own guiding idea: “Most transhumanists would probably advocate something along the lines of ‘complete morphological freedom as long as it doesn’t violate the rights of other conscious entities’” (emphasis added). But I don’t see how from this libertarian perspective the implantation of a bomb (properly shielded, if nuclear) violates the rights of any conscious entities any more than would carrying about a phial of poison. Will and I can agree that the use of that bomb in a public space would be a Bad Thing. But nothing in Will’s principle (other than a little fallout, perhaps) would prohibit some transhuman of the future from implanting the bomb, hopping into a boat, sailing to the mid-Atlantic outside of the shipping lanes, making sure there are no cetaceans nearby, calling in his coordinates to the by-then doubtless ubiquitous surveillance satellites, and going out in a blaze of glory on whatever will be the equivalents of Facebook or YouTube. Sounds potentially viral to me. Surely the right to blow oneself up under carefully controlled circumstances does not represent the aspirations of any large number of transhumanists, but surely their principles would require them to defend even this minority taste.

The Myth of Libertarian Enhancement, Cont’d

Our recent post about libertarian enhancement has received some pushback. For example, commenter Kurt9 says he believes that “the highest moral value in the universe is to pursue one’s own happiness and love of life.” (He says that anyone who disagrees with him is engaging in “sophistry for totalitarianism” — his attempt at peremptorily ending all debate.) For Kurt9, a libertarian, pursuing happiness and love-of-life means super-longevity: “I want radical life extension (multiple 1000 year life span). I want to cure aging and get free of it. I fail to see why you should have a problem with this.”
This gives us another opportunity to discuss libertarianism and transhumanism. Consider: If he were to pursue radical life extension in strict accordance with libertarian principles, he would have to do so free from restrictions imposed by others and without in turn restricting the choices of others. This might be possible if he were a brilliant scientist living out in a solitary shack in the woods without contact with human civilization.
“A Hunstman and Dogs” by Winslow Homer. Courtesy WorldVisitGuide.But living alone in a shack isn’t usually conducive to major medical advances. The actual realization of our commenter Kurt9’s dream would require a society in which thousand-year lifespans were not just attainable but available to guys like him. That would be a society very different from our own. To put it simply, consider all the social, cultural, and economic changes that accompanied the doubling of human life expectancy over the last century and a half, and imagine the turmoil that would be involved in suddenly adding another nine centuries to the lifespan. The changes involved would be radical, complex, far from uniformly good or bad, and extremely difficult to predict beforehand.
This actually hints at a deeper truth connected to how we think about the future. All human beings live in a particular time and place. Moreover, all our choices and our ways of life presuppose a particular society, culture, and set of institutions in which they can be realized. However much fun it might be for fiction or for a thought experiment, in real life it makes no sense to talk about how “the world as it is now” will be different from “the world as it is now with the single modification that one individual can choose to live for a thousand years.” It is a meaningless proposition, as much a practical absurdity as it would be for an ancient Roman to insist that it concerns no one else if he wants to invent and drive an automobile.
The commenter Kurt9 also says that “We have no desire to impose our dreams and choices on other[s]. We seek only the freedom to do our own thing.”
This libertarian “freedom to do our own thing” implies that each individual should be equally free to pursue his or her chosen way of life no matter what that choice is, so long as no one else is harmed. Yet as much as you might not want to impose your own choices on others, it is an inescapable fact of life that our choices do impinge and often impose on others. Consider the old saw about liberty — that your freedom to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose. But in real life, a guy flailing around with clenched fists is going to alter the behavior of everyone in sight. Or, to pick a different example, my neighbor’s choice to mine coal in his backyard obtrudes upon my freedom to choose to live in a quiet neighborhood with unpolluted groundwater and high property values. Or, to offer an example more relevant to some of our readers, your personal choice to develop an artificial intelligence that can write useful computer programs will impinge on my freedom to choose to enjoy a fulfilling and lucrative career as a computer programmer.
Libertarian transhumanists don’t really seem to be interested in protecting each individual’s equal freedom to do and be what he wants. Rather, they are interested in defending their own prerogatives to pursue their particular choices to enhance themselves without any cumbrance or criticism. But even this narrower and more solipsistic version of libertarianism will ultimately have to contend with the fact that as any given individuals gain powers — particularly powers of the sort that would be available to hypothetical posthumans — they will gain also the ability to exercise those powers in spite of and over others individuals in ways that will be far more difficult to prevent, stop, or even detect.
Liberty, rightly understood, does need to be defended. But we must also recognize that the image of liberty that some libertarians hold — epitomized by the iconic rugged frontiersman — depends on a self-reliance and self-constitution that are quite alien to today’s world. We are now more socially, politically, and technologically enmeshed than ever before. And while government tyranny remains a serious concern, there are other kinds of tyranny — including freely-chosen technological tyranny — that we should remain vigilant against.

The Myth of Libertarian Enhancement

In the previous post here on Futurisms, my co-blogger Charles T. Rubin argues that one can only have a libertarian stance towards transhumanism “if one believes that all ‘lifestyle’ choices are morally incommensurable, that the height of moral wisdom is ‘do your own thing’ (and for as long as possible).” This is certainly right, but I worry that most transhumanists would in fact happily agree with this statement. They would see it not as a condemnation of their moral disarmament, but a celebration of their moral enlightenment through radical self-determination. Charlie concludes that “[w]hat is really at stake here is not whether some people want to boss others around, but whether technological change is worth thinking about at all.” I’d like to expand on this point — that is, to argue that technological change must be thought about, even and especially by libertarians.
While Charlie was discussing just one particular comment thread, it is worth noting that there is a strong, perhaps even dominant, libertarian strain among transhumanists. As Woody Evans noted in H+ Magazine, “Take it as a given that most supporters of transhumanism trend toward advocating for more personal freedom: keep the government out of our bedrooms and biologies please.” This certainly matches my own observations: try exploring with a transhumanist the wisdom of any possible restriction on enhancement and you are very likely to hear a similar refrain.
Strangely, this discussion-ending response is not characteristic just of transhumanists. Ask someone who is skeptical of — or even opposed to — enhancing himself or herself, and you are likely to hear expressions of tolerance similar to those proffered by participants in a recent study on cognitive enhancement in academia: “I see it more as a lifestyle. You are making this choice to find the easy way out and morally I think that that is someone’s lifestyle choice.” And, “I don’t feel comfortable about the word ‘acceptable’ because I don’t think that I am able to judge someone…. I think it is a matter of your own conscience if it is acceptable or not.”
The “to each his own” argument against governmental restrictions of personal freedom is shaky for several reasons, not the least of which is that government is not the only force that restricts personal freedom. The widespread use of enhancement creates tremendous social pressures to compete and conform; these pressures, too, can be said to restrict personal freedom. One need look only to the history of professional baseball over the last ten years to see a clear example. And beyond the world of competitive sports, the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs like Ritalin for nontherapeutic purposes is soaring among working professionals and among high school and college students (as shown in the study cited above, and as discussed in this sobering article by our New Atlantis colleague Matt Crawford). The specific choices — Should I start doping during the off-season? Should I take this pill to help me study? — may have been made by individuals, but they were influenced by others and their impact was collective. There is a sort of prisoner’s dilemma at work here, with decisions made for the individual good having a detrimental effect on the larger whole.
(To be sure, much the same point holds for other technological changes that create social pressures. Take cell phones, for example — which some transhumanists consider a primitive form of enhancement: the advantages gained by early adopters of cell phones created pressures that led the rest of us to get cell phones, too.)
The point that technological change is not just a matter of individual concern is made perfectly clear in the transhumanists’ own rhetoric, rife with grand talk of ushering in the next phase of human evolution, doing away with antiquated social constructs, and so forth. They promise not just to remake humanity but to thoroughly remake civilization. And yet, when confronted with questions about how societies ought to decide which technologies are good or bad, they often duck behind appeals to personal choice. The only way to reconcile this seeming contradiction is by recognizing that transhumanists do not value unrestricted individual liberty so much as unrestricted individual power.
Those who worry about how tyranny of the government might rob them of their freedom are right to do so. But they would do well also to consider the other ways freedom can be diminished.

[Photo source: Fly Navy (CC)]

Moral relativism and the future of technology

There are aspects of the arguments of advocates of human re-engineering that, for what it’s worth, I agree with. One is that nanotechnology, or more specifically molecular manufacturing, holds the potential (if it is possible at all) to alter a great many things that we currently take for granted about the shape of human life. It may not yet be clear how exactly we might find ourselves in a world where something like the replicators from Star Trek are possible, but a fair amount of research and development is currently pointed directly or indirectly in that direction, and I would not want to bet against it. I’m not sure whether this belief makes me a technological optimist or a technological pessimist, which is one reason why I don’t find those terms very helpful when we try to think seriously about the future of technology.
A while back I did a phone interview with a reporter from the Miami Herald about the nano-future, and recently I found his story online. The comments that follow the story are worth noting, because they are common responses to the point I tried to make to the reporter — that not all the potential of nanotechnology is for the good, and that some of the things that sound good may not really, on reflection, be good.
At first glance, the criticisms in the comments section sound contradictory. One writer notes that all technologies have good uses and bad uses, and that since there is nothing new about that the Herald, as a newspaper, should not bother to feature stories that make this point. But a second commenter notes in effect that since molecular manufacturing could put an end to scarcity, it will have the very good effect of putting an end to all conflict and the only bad left will be those (like me, apparently) who want to tell other people what they should or should not do. So from the first point of view we should just go ahead with nanotechnology because it doesn’t really change anything, and from the second point of view we should go ahead because it will change (nearly) everything.
The link between these two arguments is moral relativism. The second author speaks in quasi-nonrelativistic terms of a “fundamental right” to life, but he or she seems to mean by that a right not to die or a right to do whatever one wants with one’s life. That is quite a distance from the meaning of those who articulated a natural right to life. What is so attractive about libertarian utopianism except if one believes that all “lifestyle” choices are morally incommensurable, that the height of moral wisdom is “do your own thing” (and for as long as possible)?
On the other hand, the truism that all technology has good and bad uses is only trite if one believes that being able to judge between them is uninteresting — that such judgments are nothing more than matters of subjective opinion. Otherwise one might think it very important indeed to find ways to maximize the good and minimize the bad.
What is really at stake here is not whether some people want to boss others around, but whether technological change is worth thinking about at all. Moral relativism makes it easy to not think about it, to just sit back and let things happen while reserving the right to protest when some arbitrary personal line is crossed. I’m skeptical that disarming our moral judgment is the best way to deal with the challenges of our ever increasing powers over nature.