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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Towards a better debate on emerging technologies

What I find so annoying, or amusing, depending on my mood, about the bioconservative opposition to emerging technologies, such as genetic enhancement, is the moralistic, self-righteous tone. Much of the opposition to emerging technologies depends on an intellectually unacceptable valorisation of the natural, as if smallpox, starvation, and violent death from the fangs and claws of large predators are good things because they are our aspects of our natural condition. We are repeatedly told that there is some mysterious moral worth attaching to the human genome in its currently-evolved state, or to the biological processes of reproduction as we have known them. The prose that emerges from Leon Kass reads as if it should be intoned through the nose (to borrow a phrase from Ezra Pound that was less apt in its original context). To date, any attempt at sensible debate has been almost useless because it just leads to more expressions of smug self-righteousness.

That doesn't mean that my transhumanist friends should have things all their own way. I agree with them that the best outcome with human enhancement technologies would be universal access. That, however, may not be possible in the short term. It depends on just what technologies emerge, in what timeframes, against what social and economic backdrops. As I can see little practical prospect of producing massively greater social and global equality in the next few decades, desirable as this would be, the reality is that enhancement technologies are likely to become available in an unequal world. That sets off my alarm bells, because it will create a serious risk that we will see new castes of people emerge, with some being subordinated to the interests of others.

There's a dilemma here - we could accept at least some restrictions on the development and marketing of these technologies, which is distasteful for many reasons, or we could run the risk of reverting to hierarchical societies, which is a completely unnacceptable price, at least within my philosophical framework. In the long term, restricting what are, on their face, beneficial technologies may not even possible.

One way of putting all this is to warn that we have only a limited time, maybe a few decades, to clean up our act and create a much more economically equal world ...

Actually, that would be too alarmist, since the technologies that would be most risky - those that would introduce dramatic and inheritable enhancement of human abilities - would also be the among the most difficult to develop, thanks to the multifactorial character of most phenotypical traits in humans. In practice, the urgency may not be as great as I've been suggesting so far. Still, the prospect of human enhancement gives us a powerful new reason to reduce economic inequalities within and between societies, and that is obviously (at least to me) better than restricting scientific inquiry or people's liberties.

It would be nice if opponents of new technologies acknowledged that this dilemma is the real cause for concern. If they did so, we could all have a much better debate. The need for some restrictions on the development of some technologies could be part of the discussion, on the basis that any such restrictions would be regrettable band-aid measures while the real issues of economic inequality were addressed. The issues would then be: What social and economic reforms are needed if we are to minimise the risk that human enhancement technologies will lead us back to hierarchical societies? What can we do now to achieve at least some of the necessary reforms? If those reforms will take time, and meanwhile we need to retard some technologies, what are the narrowest possible restrictions on people's liberty that we can tailor? Is there a way we can ensure that any restrictions are temporary and don't demonise emerging technologies? What are the crucial short-term benefits of emerging technologies that we must try to make sure we don't lose? What are the important benefits that we need to keep as possibilities in the longer term? How can we balance these benefits and problems?

I'd welcome a sensible public debate along the above lines. Meanwhile, the current situation in Australia is simply draconian: we have federal laws imposing long prison sentences for a whole range of activities that may be relatively harmless and have nothing to do with the real problem. The kinds of police-state measures offered by Maxwell Mehlman in Wondergenes can't possibly be the answer, either (I gather that Wondergenes may no longer reflect Mehlman's position, to his credit, but that is a different issue).

A very good start would be recognition by bioconservatives that many of the technologies which have been demonised to date (germline therapy, stem-cell research, therapeutic cloning, reproductive cloning, embryonic sex selection) are not actually all that problematic. If we are going to restrict anything by law, even temporarily, I'd like to find a clear tactical way to signal that this is based solely on concerns about the interaction of enhancement with existing economic inequalities (and of course ordinary ethical concerns that we could agree on).

Here's a modest proposal.

The clearest signal would be if the bioconservatives dropped (or reversed) their efforts to prohibit therapeutic and reproductive cloning as long as the necessary research is carried out within ordinary ethical guidelines (e.g. safety, informed consent, the welfare of children). Any moral objections to cloning, outside those guidelines, are simply not the state's business. If at least some of the well-known bioconservatives took this step, it would create the climate for a genuine debate about what needs to be done.

These are serious issues. Let's finally have a proper, rigorous debate.


AnneC said...

One thing I've learned in recent years is that the people with the greatest power to influence public policy are not necessarily people who operate on principles of reason and (secular) ethics.

Rather, we have the self-righteous folks you describe, and I'm not sure if they're actually under the impression that their religious convictions and "gut feelings" really do translate to fact that ought to be made law, or whether it's a sort of posturing that they deem necessary in order to secure votes and widespread public support.

I definitely think that lack of proper science education is a factor here, but I'm not sure how that could be remedied. Important science these days is more complex, both technically and ethically, than the discoveries and innovations of previous eras. It takes time to learn about it and consider it, and it takes less work to reject something out of hand than it does to try to understand it.

Russell Blackford said...

I've been thinking, this week, about Michael Sandel's essay "The Case Against Perfection", which I am using at the moment in my teaching.

Sandel is not the sort of posturing, self-righteous character that I had in mind - he's a distinguished philsopher, after all, a valued contributor to many debates in the general field of political philosophy. Yet, there is the sense that he wants to impose a kind of quasi-religious sensibility on the rest of us. Much of his argument about the value we supposedly find in "giftedness" (in a very strong sense), and the wrongness or arrogance of seeking mastery over our destinies, just seems so out of place in a secular, pluralist context.

I wonder what my students will make of Sandel. I'll get some feedback from them tomorrow.

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