What Total Recall can Teach Us About Memory, Virtue, and Justice

The news that an American woman has reportedly decided to pursue plastic surgery to have a third breast installed may itself be a subject for discussion on this blog, and will surely remind some readers of the classic 1990 science fiction movie Total Recall.

As it happens, last Thursday the excellent folks at Future Tense hosted one of their “My Favorite Movie” nights here in Washington D.C., playing that very film and holding a discussion afterwards with one of my favorite academics, Stanford’s Francis Fukuyama. The theme of the discussion was the relationship between memory and personal identity — are we defined by our memories?

A face you can trust

Much to my dismay the discussion of this topic, which is of course the central theme of the movie, strayed quite far from the details of the film. Indeed, in his initial remarks, Professor Fukuyama quoted, only to dismiss, the film’s central teaching on the matter, an assertion made by the wise psychic mutant named Kuato: “You are what you do. A man is defined by his actions, not his memory.”

This teaching has two meanings; the first meaning, which the plot of the movie has already prepared the audience to accept and understand when they first hear it, is that the actions of a human being decisively shape his character by inscribing habits and virtues on the soul.

From the very beginning of the movie, Quaid (the protagonist, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) understands that things are not quite right in his life. His restlessness comes from the disproportion between his character, founded on a lifetime of activity as a secret agent, and the prosaic life he now finds himself in. He is drawn back to Mars, where revolution and political strife present opportunities for the kinds of things that men of his character desire most: victory, glory, and honor.

That Quaid retains the dispositions and character of his former self testifies to how the shaping of the soul by action takes place not by storing up representations and propositions in one’s memory, but by cultivating in a person virtuous habits and dispositions. As Aristotle writes in the Nicomachean Ethics, “in one word, states of character arise out of like activities.”

The second meaning of Kuato’s teaching concerns not the way our actions subconsciously shape our character, but how our capacity to choose actions, especially our capacity to choose just actions, defines who we are at an even deeper level. Near the end of the movie, after we have heard Kuato’s teaching, we learn that Hauser, Quaid’s “original self,” was an unrepentant agent of the oppressive Martian regime, and hence an unjust man. Quaid, however, chooses to side with the just cause of the revolutionaries. Though he retains some degree of identity with his former self — he continues to be a spirited, courageous, and skillful man — he has the ability to redefine himself in light of an impartial evaluation of the revolutionaries’ cause against the Martian regime, an evaluation that is guided by man’s natural partiality toward the just over the unjust.

*   *   *

The movie’s insightful treatment of the meaning and form of human character comes not, however, from a “realistic” or plausible understanding of the kinds of technologies that might exist in the future. It seems quite unlikely that we could ever have technologies that specifically target and precisely manipulate what psychologists would call “declarative memory.” In fact, the idea of reprogramming declarative memory in an extensive and precise way seems far less plausible than manipulating a person’s attitudes, dispositions, and habits — indeed, mood-altering drugs are already available.

Professor Fukuyama also raised the subject of contemporary memory-altering drugs. (This was a topic explored by the President’s Council on Bioethics in its report Beyond Therapy, published in 2003 when Fukuyama was a member of the Council.) These drugs, as Professor Fukuyama described them, manipulate the emotional significance of traumatic memories rather than their representational or declarative content. While Quaid retained some of the emotional characteristics of his former self despite the complete transformation of the representational content of his memory, we seem poised to remove or manipulate our emotional characteristics while retaining the same store of memories.

What lessons then can we draw from Total Recall’s teaching concerning memory, if the technological scenario in the movie is, as it were, the inverse of the projects we are already engaged in? It is first of all worth noting that the movie has a largely happy ending — Quaid chooses justice and was able to successfully “free Mars” (as Kuato directed him to do) through resolute and spirited action made possible by the skills and dispositions he developed during his life as an agent of the oppressive Martian regime.

Quaid’s siding with the revolutionaries over the Martian regime was motivated by the obvious injustice of that regime’s actions, and the natural emotional response of anger that such injustice instills in an impartial observer. But, as was noted in the discussion of memory-altering drugs after the film, realistic memory-altering drugs could disconnect our memories of unjust acts from the natural sense of guilt and anger that ought to accompany them.

Going beyond memory-altering drugs, there are (somewhat) realistic proposals for drugs that could dull the natural sense of spiritedness and courage that might lead a person to stand up to perceived injustice. Taken together, these realistic proposals would render impossible precisely the scenario envisioned in Total Recall, with memory-altering drugs that alter the emotional character of actions dulling our sense of their justice or injustice, and other drugs that dull our capacity to develop those qualities of soul like spiritedness and courage that would enable us to respond to injustice.

What science fiction can teach us about technology and human flourishing does not depend on its technical plausibility, but on how it draws out the connections truths about human nature and politics by putting them in unfamiliar settings. Notwithstanding Professor Fukuyama’s dismissal of the film, the moral seriousness with which Total Recall treats the issues of virtue and justice make it well worth viewing, and re-viewing for thoughtful critics of the project to engineer the human soul.

Setting the Record Straight

Kyle Munkittrick, the transhumanist blogger with whom we
has a newish perch over on one of Discover magazine’s blogs. In a
post today
, Munkittrick tries to zing Peter Lawler, a contributing editor
to The New Atlantis
. For now I won’t comment on the substance of
Munkittrick’s post; I just want to focus on a prefatory paragraph. He mentions
that Professor Lawler served on the President’s Council on Bioethics, then offers
this smorgasbord of smears and demonstrable falsehoods:

For those of you unfamiliar with
Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, they were the brilliant minds behind
halting stem cell research, focusing on it-worked-for-Bristol-Palin
abstinence-only sex education and being generally terrible philosophers and
thinkers. Charles Krauthammer was asked his opinion of ethical issues, I
kid you not
. In short, the PCBE happily rubber-stamped the backwards and
anti-science decrees of Bush and Cheney in an effort to supplicate the deranged
Christian base of the Republican party. I tell you all of this lovely
information so you have a working context for the luminary Big Think has
decided to employ.

Let’s look at these claims one by one.

Was the Council “behind halting stem cell research”?
No. First of all, stem cell research never “halted” — in fact, it received
funding from the federal government for the first time during the Bush
administration, and it flourished in the United States during the Bush years.
Second, President Bush’s stem cell funding policy was
announced on
August 9, 2001, in the same speech in which the president
announced he was going to create the Council. The Council didn’t even have its
first meeting until January
, after the policy was already in place. (The Council did, however,
publish an
extremely useful report in 2004
explaining the state of stem cell research,
as well as a
white paper in 2005
analyzing some proposed means of obtaining pluripotent
stem cells that wouldn’t require the intentional destruction of human embryos.)

Did the Council focus on “abstinence-only sex education”?
No. The Council never addressed that subject. Mr. Munkittrick is either
mistaken or lying. (Go ahead and search the Council’s publications
and meeting
for yourself. In fact, the only mention in all the Council’s
work comes from neuroscientist Patricia Churchland, an avowed secular humanist who,
in contributing a
to one report, criticizes abstinence education in passing.)

Was the Council composed of “generally terrible
philosophers and thinkers”?
I am happy to concede Mr. Munkittrick’s intimate
familiarity with terrible philosophers and thinkers, not to mention terrible
thinking. But this is a grossly unfair characterization of the Council. Among
its members were medical doctors, accomplished scientists, philosophers,
theologians, and lawyers, with a wide range of views. It also solicited
testimony and contributions from many accomplished and esteemed figures, also
with a very wide range of views. The Council’s members were very accomplished
people who often disagreed with one another on the subjects the Council debated
— disagreements that were sometimes very illuminating. (As for Dr. Krauthammer,
Mr. Munkittrick may dislike his views on national security policy, but that has
little bearing on his service on the Council.)

Did the Council “rubber-stamp the backwards and
anti-science decrees of Bush and Cheney in an effort to supplicate the deranged
Christian base of the Republican party”?
The latter part of this statement
is just inflammatory nonsense; the former part shows a plain ignorance of the
Council’s work. The Council was certainly not a rubberstamp, starting with its
first report, on cloning policy, in 2002
. It was such a diverse group of
scholars with such divided views that it couldn’t have been a mere rubberstamp
for any administration’s policies.

But policy wasn’t the Council’s chief concern anyway. As
Council member Gilbert Meilaender wrote
in an excellent essay for The New Atlantis
a year ago, “exploring
and examining competing goals” was the primary task of the Council. “Such
exploration is unlikely to result in a large number of policy recommendations,
but that is not its aim. The aim, rather, is to help the public and its elected
representatives think about the implications of biotechnological advance for
human life.” This is the assessment a reasonable person would have of the
Council’s work after reading any of its reports, all of which were
philosophically deep in their attempts to understand difficult bioethical issues,
but generally went lightly on the policy recommendations — so one gets the sense from this post that
Mr. Munkittrick is wholly unfamiliar with the reports issued by the body he so quickly

Finally, back to Lawler. A respected professor of political
philosophy, Lawler is the author of several wise books about modernity,
postmodernity, technology, and faith. I heartily recommend his latest book, Modern
and American Dignity
, as well as his previous book Stuck
with Virtue
; they both grapple with bioethical questions, and they both
reward careful reading.

Clone Knowns and Unknowns

Ari, your excellent post about cloning ends with a passing reference to the question of safety. I’d like to make two further broad points about the Bryan Caplan-inspired cloning debate, starting off with a few thoughts about safety, and then looking at the overall shape of Kyle Munkittrick’s argument.

In his first post about this cloning kerfuffle, Mr. Munkittrick sidesteps the safety question:

No sane proponent of cloning … advocates the process if it is unsafe. Animal testing must be thorough, rigorous, and successes conclusive and easily repeatable. As with any other process, such as IVF, there will be risks early on, but those risks must first be at or below the level of standard, unassisted pregnancy before experiments on humans are even considered. [Emphases added.]

That sounds very agreeable, but for two problems. First, it ignores the actual history of assisted reproductive technologies — a history of adopting new technologies before their safety is rigorously established. Consider IVF, which Mr. Munkittrick mentions as a precedent. In May 1979, a year and a half after the conception through IVF of Louise Brown, a major federal ethics advisory board noted that there had been “insufficient controlled animal research designed to determine the long-range effects” of IVF; the board called for studies, including “developmental assessments” of the IVF-produced offspring.

In the decades after, of course, the use of IVF to create new human children became enormously widespread — even though today we still have huge pockets of ignorance about its safety, especially regarding the long-term effects of the procedure on the children it is used to conceive. In 2004-05, the Genetics and Public Policy Center (GPPC) undertook a study-of-studies that waded through some 2,500 research papers about IVF, and while it found only a few serious problems among the young children who had been conceived through IVF, it also noted that there wasn’t much information about the health effects over the longer term. To rectify what it called the “gaps in existing knowledge,” the GPPC team called for more research aimed at long-term monitoring of people conceived via IVF. Those knowledge gaps also led the President’s Council on Bioethics in 2004 to recommend a major prospective longitudinal study that would let researchers “observe and consider health impacts that reveal themselves only years after birth.” (No such study has yet been launched.) Researchers are only now discovering some of the potentially harmful long-term effects of IVF.

All of which is to say that we have an established history of widely adopting new reproductive technologies without understanding thoroughly their effects on health and safety (let alone their moral and social implications).

Establishing the Safety of Cloning

The second problem with just waving off the question of safety was neatly explained in the Bioethics Council’s 2002 report on cloning. Put simply: attempting to make human cloning safe is itself an inherently unsafe undertaking. When people talk about cloning, the Council report said, they just sort of assume

that the safety concern is a purely temporary one that can be allayed in the near future, as scientific advances and improvements in technique reduce the risks to an ethically acceptable level. But this impression is mistaken, for considerable safety risks are likely to be enduring, perhaps permanent. If so, there will be abiding ethical difficulties even with efforts aimed at making human cloning safe.

The reason is clear: experiments to develop new reproductive technologies are necessarily intergenerational, undertaken to serve the reproductive desires of prospective parents but practiced also and always upon prospective children. Any such experiment unavoidably involves risks to the child-to-be, a being who is both the product and also the most vulnerable human subject of the research…. If experiments to learn how to clone a child are ever to be ethical, the degree of risk to that child-to-be would have to be extremely low, arguably no greater than for children-to-be who are conceived from union of egg and sperm. It is extremely unlikely that this moral burden can be met, not for decades if at all….

Even a high success rate in animals would not suffice by itself to make human trials morally acceptable. In addition to the usual uncertainties in jumping the gap from animal to human research, cloning is likely to present particularly difficult problems of interspecies difference…. [T]he magnitude of the risks to the child-to-be of the first human cloning experiments would be unknown and potentially large, no matter how much success had been achieved in animals. There can in principle be no direct experimental evidence sufficient for assessing the degree of such risk.

Can a highly reduced risk of deformity, disease, and premature death in animal cloning, coupled with the inherently unpredictable risk of moving from animals to humans, ever be low enough to meet the ethically acceptable standard set by reproduction begun with egg and sperm? The answer, as a matter of necessity, can never be better than “Just possibly.” Given the severity of the possible harms involved in human cloning, and given that those harms fall on the very vulnerable child-to-be, such an answer would seem to be enduringly inadequate. [All italics in original.]

Although cloning and other assisted reproduction technologies raise special ethical questions, it is worth noting that advocates of other enhancement technologies often make the same baseless assumption that the Council criticizes here — that health and safety are “purely temporary” concerns that will someday be overcome, without acknowledging that even the attempts to make certain enhancements safer can be ethically questionable.

You Don’t Hate Children… Do You?

Moving away from the question of cloning’s safety, there is something more sinister afoot in Mr. Munkittrick’s post — an effort to blame not would-be cloners but opponents of cloning for the problems (social, psychological, etc.) that cloned children may someday face. “By and large,” he writes, it is opponents of cloning

who perpetuate the idea that a cloned child is determined by its genetics, suggest that a cloned child would/should be perceived as lesser than a “normal” child, and help fan the very social stigmas about which they worry. I too, worry about the social pressures and normative stigmas against children born via cloning, and so I work to break and uproot the biases and dogmas that nourish them. I do not use stigmas and social pressures as a kind of “it would be too hard for a cloned child, so shouldn’t we ban the creation of the little abominations” argument.

Cloning is a method of reproduction, a cloned child is not determined by its genetics any more or less than an identical twin, and if a social dogma is a problem you remove the dogma not the victim. [Italics in original.]

If the switcheroo that Mr. Munkittrick is trying to pull off here weren’t so risible, it would be a despicable slander. When the critics of biotechnologies, especially new reproductive techniques, try to understand and explain the moral problems involved in those technologies, it is with the aim of preserving human dignity. When the critics of cloning point out the potential harms of producing children via cloning, they are hardly “fanning social stigmas.” Likewise, when IVF was new, its critics neither directly supported nor indirectly “fanned” stigmas against so-called “test-tube babies”; in fact, they explicitly described sharing the joy of the new parents in welcoming these new children into the world, even while worrying about the implications of the technique.

The same goes for critics of techniques that would give parents-to-be greater control over the genetic makeup of their offspring (e.g., sex selection, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, efforts to make “designer babies” or “savior siblings,” etc.). The aim of these critics has been preventing harms, preventing procreation from becoming entirely an act of parental will and manufacture, and protecting human dignity and equality. Despite what Mr. Munkittrick claims, no responsible critics of cloning have ever suggested that cloned children “should be perceived as lesser than a ‘normal’ child.”

Mr. Munkittrick says he wants to “break and uproot the biases and dogmas” that may put social pressures and stigmas on future cloned children. Here he is misappropriating the language of civil rights battles — language used to criticize discrimination against blacks and Jews and women and homosexuals, language that does not suit this discussion. The debate over cloning is not about unjustified stereotypes or irrational beliefs about a minority population. The debate over cloning is about changing the nature of procreation, and about the profound effects of that change. Mr. Munkittrick seems to want to evade that debate, and so he reflexively resorts to accusations of discrimination.

Attack of the Cloners

In a couple of posts last week (here and here), Kyle Munkittrick joined in on the recent blogospherical cloning debate, taking particular aim at our post on the subject.
There’s a good deal of sloppiness in Mr. Munkittrick’s posts to nitpick (e.g., the Bioethics Council’s claim that “genetic uniqueness is an important source of our sense of who we are and how we regard ourselves” is far from “genetic determinism”; people can act like arrogant narcissists without necessarily being arrogant narcissists, just as sometimes good people do bad things; the term “neoconservative” is stretched to the point of meaninglessness; and so forth). But there are also crucial flaws in the central points of his posts, and (you guessed it) they point towards common flaws in transhumanist arguments.
Reproductive Equivalence
First, Mr. Munkittrick seeks to defend cloning by drawing a moral equivalence between it and other means of reproduction (both assisted and unassisted), and arguing in particular that the genetic relationship between parent and child does not matter:

Cloning is a method of reproduction just like IVF and PGD and rutting in the back seat and the rhythm method…. IVF, adoption, surrogate parenting, and egg/sperm donation all also alter the genetic make up of the child from unassisted reproduction and produce no ill effects on parent/child relation.

He argues further that the notion that the genetic relationship does matter was made up by critics of cloning. Twisting (or perhaps misunderstanding) something Adam Keiper quoted, he quips and challenges:

I am almost certain that human beings were endowed with a “sense of life” [as a] “never-before-enacted possibility” before Mendel, Watson, Crick, and Collins, but I might be wrong!… Where is the evidence people identify with their genetics? Anyone?

Well, for starters, try the quote from Bryan Caplan that Mr. Munkittrick’s post is ostensibly defending:

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.

That sure sounds like identifying with your genetics. It’s more than just a little odd that Munkittrick, in trying to defend Caplan’s wish to clone himself, ignores the stated source of that desire.
A Sober Look at Assisted Reproduction
Believing that the nature of the biological relationship between parents and children is essentially irrelevant, Mr. Munkittrick writes that cloning would be similar to other kinds of assisted reproductive technology (ART) in producing “no ill effects on [the] parent/child relation.” But he’s wrong about the track record of existing ART.
Cheryl Miller’s New Atlantis essay “Donated Generation” examines the profound and pronounced social and psychological effects of ART on the children it is used to create. Her essay rebuts the simplistic assumption that there are no moral differences between different means of human reproduction. And it highlights a contradiction similar to the one in Mr. Munkittrick’s post — denying the importance of biological relationships even while defending them:

To [author Elizabeth] Marquardt, donor conception is inherently problematic, no matter how openly or lovingly it’s done, since it intentionally separates children from at least one of their biological parents. Take the often-made comparison to adoption, she says. In both cases, children are separated from their biological parents. Adoption, however, is an extreme situation — one that recognizes the loss to the child. “In adoption, your adoptive parents were not the ones who caused this loss — the people who raised you were not the ones who intentionally divided you from your mother and father,” she explains. “In donor conception, the people raising you are also the ones who decided before you were even conceived that these relationships should not matter to you.” Here Marquardt sees a curious contradiction at the heart of donor conception: Love makes a family, we’re told, but parents choose donor conception because they want a child biologically connected to them. If biology matters to parents, Marquardt asks, why wouldn’t it also matter to children? (Emphasis added.)

The same point applies just as well to the cloning debate, but even more so to an argument like Caplan’s: He advocates cloning specifically because a genetic relationship between himself and the child does matter a great deal. Moreover, he at least implicitly advocates cloning over and above existing methods because of the supposedly profound new possibilities allowed by creating a child with the exact same genes as himself.
If these profound possibilities matter so much to Caplan, why wouldn’t they also matter to his child? And, in (partial) defense of Steve Sailer’s post, why wouldn’t it matter to Caplan’s wife that she would not share that “sublime bond” of genetic identity? If, as Caplan hopes, some stronger relationship between a clone and his or her genetic parent indeed would exist, then, all else being equal, wouldn’t Caplan feel a stronger connection with his own clone than with a clone of his wife, or with a child sharing both their genes? So when Mr. Munkittrick claims, “To somehow assume that a clone of Bryan Caplan would be ‘Bryan’s’ child while the other kids were both [his and his wife’s] is vulgar and preposterous,” doesn’t this mean that the assumption is in large part Caplan’s own?
The Unbearable Lightness of Cloning
What is the source of this tension? If Mr. Caplan thinks this relationship matters enough to motivate the pursuit of cloning, then why does Mr. Munkittrick defend Caplan on the grounds that the relationship doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter at all? Striking as it is, this is a surprisingly common move in transhumanist argument. Consider the prevalence of defenses of enhancement that begin with words like, “But we already do/have x.” For example:

In defense of steroids in sports, the argument that we already enhance through better sporting equipment and training;
In defense of enhancing the brain by implanting computer chips, Ray Kurzweil’s argument, “We already do that now. If you are a Parkinson’s patient you can have a pea-size computer put in to replace the biological.”;
Or even in response to the general question, “[W]hy should public money be spent to produce an eventual race of posthumans?,” Kurzweil’s reply, “We already have people walking around who have computers in their brains”;
In defense of sex with robots: “We already have the ability to have sex with a variety of machines and to have sex in virtual environments”; etc.

The underlying pattern is to describe the potentially novel good of some new enhancement, but then rebuff potential criticism of that good by claiming that the enhancement actually won’t be very different from anything we already have. But this move towards and then back away from the difference and significance of an enhancement also undercuts the original positive arguments for it: In this case, if we have no evidence that cloning is cheaper or safer than other assisted reproductive technologies, and we’re also to believe that it is not morally different from other technologies in either its means or ends, then what reason do we have for pursuing it at all?

Two Brief Notes on the Obama Bioethics Commission

President Obama recently announced the members of his new bioethics commission. We noted a few months ago that the new commission seems likely to focus on a few low-key policy questions, given the focus of its charter and the fact that both its chairman and vice chairman are busy university presidents. Nothing about its announced membership suggests otherwise. It is nice to see Daniel Sulmasy, an occasional New Atlantis contributor, among the appointees, and we look forward to seeing what this new commission decides to discuss and what approach it takes.

There are two minor points about the new commission that perhaps deserve comment. The first is that the new bioethics commission, like the bioethics council that President Bush appointed, has not drawn its members from the mainstream of professional bioethicists. Please notice the names that are absent from the commission — prominent mainstream bioethicists like George Annas, Tom Beauchamp, Dan Brock, Arthur Caplan, Alexander Capron, Alta Charo, James Childress, Ruth Faden, Hank Greely, Patricia King, Ruth Macklin, David Magnus, Glenn McGee, Jonathan Moreno, Thomas Murray, Erik Parens, Robert Veatch, LeRoy Walters, Susan Wolf, and Paul Root Wolpe.

Perhaps some of these bioethicists were invited onto the commission and declined. Perhaps some will participate in its work in other capacities, as staffers or consultants. But it is striking that, with the arguable exception of Anita Allen, the commission will have no members from the bioethics mainstream, and certainly none of its most prominent figures. There has already been some embittered complaining about this cold shoulder on one of the big bioethics blogs:

The most obvious question one must ask when reading the membership list of the commission is, “Where are the bioethicists?”

An excellent question. Professional bioethicists would do well ask themselves why two administrations have now declined to bring aboard the biggest names in mainstream bioethics.

One other minor point is worth mentioning because of what it reveals about politics and the press. Back in 2002, just before the first meeting of the Bush bioethics council, the Washington Post ran an article — not an opinion piece, mind you; a news article — that gratuitously drew a comparison between the Bush council and the Taliban. The article was called “Bush Unveils Bioethics Council”:

In November, researchers announced that they had made the first human embryo clones, giving immediacy to warnings by religious conservatives and others that science is no longer serving the nation’s moral will. At the same time, the United States was fighting a war to free a faraway nation from the grip of religious conservatives who were denounced for imposing their moral code on others.

In the pages of one of the nation’s leading newspapers, this is an indefensible smear — but it would even be an embarrassing analogy if it came from a partisan press-release office. As it happens, the reporter who wrote that article, Rick Weiss, is now working in just such a capacity. Weiss left journalism to join the liberal Center for American Progress and then the Obama administration. Now his name appears atop a White House press release/blog post called “President Announces Choices for New Bioethics Commission.” So eight years ago he was sliming the Bush administration’s bioethics council from within the world of journalism, and today he helps announce the Obama administration’s bioethics commission from within that administration. Draw your own conclusions.

The New Bioethics Commission

Last week, the White House announced the formation of a new Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. It will have a chairman and vice chairman — and at least at first, both will be university administrators: Amy Gutmann, the president of U Penn, and James W. Wagner, the president of Emory.

The executive order formally creating the commission — what you might think of as the charter explaining the commission’s purpose and powers — was published today. It emphasizes policy-relevance: the commission is tasked with “recommend[ing] legal, regulatory, or policy actions” related to bioethics. This stands in contrast to its immediate predecessor, the President’s Council on Bioethics, the charter for which emphasized exploring and discussing over recommending. Since the former council’s website (bioethics.gov) has been taken down, we are pleased to announce that we have archived all of its publications here on the New Atlantis site. (The Council’s impressive website, which included transcripts of all its public meetings, will hopefully be restored somewhere online in its entirety soon; in the meantime, interested parties will have to make do with the incomplete record in the Internet Archive.)

The former council’s report that is most relevant to this blog is Beyond Therapy, a 2003 consideration of human enhancement. Perhaps most striking about that report is its modus operandi: instead of beginning with an analysis of novel and controversial enhancement technologies, the council chose to begin by examining human functions and activities that have been targeted for enhancement. “By structuring the inquiry around the desires and goals of human beings, we adopt the perspective of human experience and human aspiration, rather than the perspective of technique and power. By beginning with long-standing and worthy human desires, we avoid premature adverse judgment on using biotechnologies to help satisfy them.” Beyond Therapy is a powerful document, and it rewards careful attention. (We published a symposium of essays in response to the book.)

We will have more to say about the former council in the months ahead. But for now, one final amusing observation about the new commission: If you look closely at the executive order creating it, you will see that among the issues it is invited to discuss is “the application of neuro- and robotic sciences.” That’s right — President Obama’s new bioethics commission has been explicitly invited to take a look at robotics. Just the latest indication that the administration is worried about the looming robot threat.

The economics of magic pills: Questions for Methuselists

In its 2003 report Beyond Therapy (discussed in a symposium in the Winter 2004 New Atlantis), the President’s Council on Bioethics concludes that “the more fundamental ethical questions about taking biotechnology ‘beyond therapy’ concern not equality of access, but the goodness or badness of the things being offered and the wisdom of pursuing our purposes by such means.” That is certainly right, and it is why this blog chiefly focuses on the deeper questions related to the human meaning of our technological aspirations. That said, the question of equality of access is still worth considering, not least because it is one of the few ethical questions considered legitimate by many transhumanists, and so it might provide some common ground for discussion.

In the New York Times, the economist Greg Mankiw, while discussing health care, offers a fascinating thought experiment that sheds some light on the issue of access:

Imagine that someone invented a pill even better than the one I take. Let’s call it the Dorian Gray pill, after the Oscar Wilde character. Every day that you take the Dorian Gray, you will not die, get sick, or even age. Absolutely guaranteed. The catch? A year’s supply costs $150,000.

Anyone who is able to afford this new treatment can live forever. Certainly, Bill Gates can afford it. Most likely, thousands of upper-income Americans would gladly shell out $150,000 a year for immortality.

Most Americans, however, would not be so lucky. Because the price of these new pills well exceeds average income, it would be impossible to provide them for everyone, even if all the economy’s resources were devoted to producing Dorian Gray tablets.

The standard transhumanist response to this problem is voiced by Ray Kurzweil in The Singularity Is Near: “Drugs are essentially an information technology, and we see the same doubling of price-performance each year as we do with other forms of information technology such as computers, communications, and DNA base-pair sequencing”; because of that exponential growth, “all of these technologies quickly become so inexpensive as to become almost free.”

Though my cell phone bill begs to differ, Kurzweil’s point may well be true. And yet if that were the whole picture, we might expect one of the defining trends of the past half century to have been the steady decline in the cost of health care. Instead, as Mankiw notes:

These questions may seem the stuff of science fiction, but they are not so distant from those lurking in the background of today’s health care debate. Despite all the talk about waste and abuse in our health system (which no doubt exists to some degree), the main driver of increasing health care costs is advances in medical technology. The medical profession is always figuring out new ways to prolong and enhance life, and that is a good thing, but those new technologies do not come cheap. For each new treatment, we have to figure out if it is worth the price, and who is going to get it.

However quickly the costs for a given set of medical technologies falls, the rate at which expensive new technologies are developed grows even faster — as, more significantly, does our demand for them. In the case of medicine, what begins as a miraculous cure comes in time to be expected as routine, and eventually even to be considered a right (think of organ transplantation, for example). What Kurzweil and the like fail to grasp is that, absent some wise guiding principles about the purpose of our biotechnical power, as we gain more of it we paradoxically become less satisfied with it and only demand more still.

But if our biotechnical powers were to grow to the point that “defeat” of death truly seemed imminent, the demand for medicine would only grow with it. The advocates of radical life extension already believe death to be a tragedy that inflicts incalculable misery. That increased demand would only magnify the perceived injustice of death (why must my loved one die, when So-and-So, by surviving one year more, can live forever?), and could create such a sense of urgency that desperate measures — demeaning research, economy-endangering spending — would seem justified.

For believers in the technological convulsion of the Singularity, the question of access and distribution is even more pointed, since the gap between the powers of the post-Singularity “haves” and “have-nots” would dwarf present-day inequality — and the “haves” might well want to keep the upper hand. To paraphrase the Shadow, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of posthumanity?”

(Hat tip: David Clift-Reaves via Marginal Revolution.)

[Photo credit: Flickr user e-magic]