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

Friday, October 27, 2006

Putting the (police) boot into freedom of speech

Strictly speaking, there is no right to free speech unless granted by law - talk of moral "rights" is nonsense on stilts, as Jeremy Bentham memorably said. There is, however, a well-recognised principle in modern societies that goverments should be very reluctant to interfere with the speech or other expression of their citizens. In most jurisdictions, this is supported by constitutional provisions that impose severe restrictions on government power to control what citizens may say. Australia is somewhat backward in that regard, but at least the High Court has found an implied constitutional limitation on the ability of the state and federal parliaments to legislate to restrict political speech.

Unfortunately, we still see governments attempting to control what we can say about matters of public importance, as with the religious vilification laws in Victoria that I have to keep in mind every time I blog on matters relating to religion. This legislation needs to be repealed now.

To add insult to injury, the Federal Police Commissioner, Mick Keelty, apparently took the opportunity yesterday to attack the media for reporting on the outrageous claims by a senior Muslim cleric that women are largely responsible when they are raped. As reported in the media, Keelty played down Sheik Hilali's comments, suggesting that "many in the community say offensive things" and apparently took exception to the Australian's reporting of the mufti's views.

For a leading police figure to be attacking the freedom of the press to report (seemingly accurately) on these issues is unforgivable. Of course, Keelty can say whatever he wants - in his role as a private citizen. I have no wish to censor him. In fact, I don't even wish to censor the views of Sheik Hilali; let him say what he likes, as long as the rest of us are free to deplore it in the strongest words we can muster. But Keelty should realise that there is something frightening about a person in his position putting the police boot into freedom of speech.

Keelty has gone too far. If he believes that newspapers should be muzzled in reporting these things, let him say so as a private citizen, not while wearing the mantle of a police commissioner. I'm really struggling here trying to imagine what he was thinking. Let's get it straight: in a society such as Australia's, the police are there to enforce the law - to protect us against violence and criminality - not to express personal opinions about what journalists should write or what citizens should be able to read in the news. If the police commissioner wants to take that role, he ought to find another job.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The "she asked for it" defence

Sydney's Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali is reported this morning as having delivered a Ramadan sermon last month, in which he suggested that the problem of rape begins with women who "sway suggestively" and wear make-up and immodest dress. Judges "without mercy" are likely to impose long sentences, he said, "But the problem, the problem all began with who?" Apparently with the woman who dared appear in public in supposedly immodest apparel.

I have no objection at all to attractive young women publicly displaying their beauty and sexuality. As the Sheik suggested, doing so is a form a power - but if women sometimes revel in that small exercise of sexual power then good for them. Let them strut their stuff, and I hope it brings them pleasure. I have no sympathy at all for the puritanical mind-set that wishes to censure them - and let's be clear, there is no excuse whatsoever for those men who react with violence. The "she asked for it" defence won't wash.

Most men can take some quiet pleasure of their own in women's acts of sexual display, without feeling any impulses to violence. Those few who commit violent acts of rape deserve no mercy at all. Lock them up, and throw away the key.

Danger, irrationalists at work

As I have frequently argued here and elsewhere, there is no rational basis for opposition to research on early embryos or therapeutic cloning. However, the irrationalists have been hard at work organising a campaign of political protest at the possibility of relaxation in Australia's current draconian legislation.

This is the position we now find ourselves in as a society: we seem to be forgetting the useful Millian criterion that people should be prevented from actions only when they will actually cause harm to others (I am prepared to extend "others" to non-human animals for some purposes but not to an insentient blob of cells). Policy makers are paying too much attention to every supposedly "ethical" claim that comes along, however much it may involve infringments of our liberty or harms to our welfare.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Second Life growing fast

Call it a game, call it a communications platform, call it what you will. Whatever you call it, the on-line virtual universe known as Second Life, or SL, is growing fast, supported by intense media interest, including a sympathetic tour-guide-style article by Wired Magazine last week, not to mention coverage in Playboy.

On 18 October, the number of SL "residents" reached one million. As I write less than a week later, it is just touching 1.1 million. This is still a lot less than the biggest massively multiple on-line role-playing games, such as World of Warcraft, but it is rapid growth indeed, and more importantly SL is something quite different: a universe in which you can appear pretty much as yourself, or some kind of idealised or otherwise modified version of yourself, or in any other form you like (of whatever age, sex, species, or planetary origin). You can role-play in a myriad of different ways, or you can simply prowl around the highroads, gardens, beaches, shopping malls, and back alleys of SL like a high-tech tourist, interacting pretty much as the real you (my own modus operandi, though I don't actually advertise my real-life name). It is endlessly adaptable for business and conferencing, as well as for an infinite number of games, or simply as a very fancy chat-room with colour, sound, and motion. In fact, it's whatever you want to make of it.

Actually - and here, I dare say, is a reality check - SL has experienced plenty of problems in sustaining its performance in the face of such a rate of growth plus the attacks of malicious hackers. Also, it is still quite primitive compared to the richly immersive virtual realities imagined in cyberpunk-style science fiction. There's a long way to go.

Nonetheless, SL in its current form is surely the precursor to more convincingly immersive forms of VR that will increasingly become available as computer power continues to grow exponentially, and as modern communications media converge. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that highly convincing interaction in virtual reality universes will become commonplace over the next decade or so, as has already happened with the internet. We, the technologically rich, are likely to experience the impression of continuity between our interactions with others in the network of virtual realities - the emerging "metaverse" if you will - and those in our forreal, flesh-and-blood reality. Again, the ubiquity of e-mail and the World Wide Web provides a model of how quickly and comprehensively things can change.

The opportunities and the problems are endless. This new phase of integration with our technological products won't come without costs, but it is still exciting. All being well, I'll live long enough to see how it all works out through the first half of the twenty-first century, and I'm damn glad to be living at a time of such momentous change.

Tolerating the repressive

I see that this morning's Australian newspaper has a sensible editorial on extremist religious requirements in women's dress. Once again, we must tolerate a great deal in the name of religious freedom. Here, "tolerate" means "put up with" - i.e. decline to invoke the state's power of fire and the sword. "Tolerate" does not mean something like "approve of" or welcome. Traditional religious views that demonise women's sexuality, require extreme kinds of sexual modesty, etc., may well be something we have no choice but to tolerate. At the same time, we can find them deplorable and certainly not grant them our respect. There is no contradiction here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Declining fertility is good news

The world's developed nations, and many of its less developed ones in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, have reached a point where the birthrate is too low to sustain a natural increase in population. Even in the US, which has the highest birthrate among the Western nations, the total fertility rate is marginally too low for full replacement without immigration, though immigration from Mexico and elsewhere will keep the US population increasing for some time to come. In Australasia, Canada, Europe, Japan, and South Korea, the fertility rate is now at well under replacement levels.

Despite the policy panic of the past few years, this is good news, as Paul and Anne Erlich point out in a recent article in New Scientist (30 September 2006). Declining population growth in resource-hungry developed nations - or better still an underlying population shrinkage once the effect of immigration is factored out - is cause for rejoicing, and policies to reverse the trend through such methods as baby bonuses are misguided. The declining birthrate shows that men and women have embraced the freedom to opt out of having large families, or out of having children at all, which is good news in itself: this new-found freedom is not proving illusory. There will also be good consequences for a planet that undoubtedly has a limited carrying capacity for large animals like us, especially when these large animals demand significant resources for the lifestyles that we've all become accustomed to in the West.

For countries that have experienced the demographic transition to much lower birthrates, the outcome will be a significant restructuring of the age profile, with relatively more middle-aged and older people and relatively fewer children, teenagers, and younger adults. That may have some disadvantages, but it will also have advantages. The fear that there will be an inadequate economic base to fund age pensions should be put in perspective by a whole raft of countervailing factors:

* Being older is not what it used to be. Even without dramatic breakthroughs in age retardation technology, people are staying active, robust, and healthy until well into what was once old age. Admittedly, this does suggest that existing policies according to which 65 is "retiring age" need to be rethought. Those policies were never intended to provide us all with a decades-long taxpayer-funded vacation, but were introduced in the nineteenth century at a time when someone aged 65 would have had few years to live after a lifetime of hard work. In the new world of the twenty-first century, many people who live to a ripe old age will still be active and interested enough to work (at least part-time) until well beyond what is currently thought of as retirement age. In fact, here in the privileged West, we need to stop thinking of 65, or even 75, as old.

* It is possible that research such as that being conducted by Jay Olshansky and his colleagues will produce some addition to the maximum and average life spans, but if this involves an absolute, or even relative, compression of morbidity then there will be overall economic benefits rather than costs.

* More speculative and radical life extension proposals would have even greater benefits if they eliminated the ongoing frailty and chronic sickness that many people who live deep into old age have always had to put up with. However, the one thing we must do is avoid policies that are based on extending periods of morbidity. The focus must be on extending robustness and health. Government funding of medical research should reflect this.

* A more top-heavy age profile is likely to produce a continuing decline in acts of crime and violence, with their attendant social costs.

* Any additional costs to healthcare and pensions will be offset at least in part by dramatically reduced costs in the public support that would otherwise have been needed for government programs aimed at children in their dependent years.

* In any event, as productive technology advances there is plenty of economic wealth to go around, some of it to be redistributed into pensions if need be. Think of all those industrial robots we've built, and keep building, as an enthusiastic slave class with none of the obvious moral and prudential downside of keeping real slaves. All that is required here is the political will to redistribute wealth, when necessary to achieve our aims, as well as creating it.

Humanity faces many serious challenges in the coming century and beyond, including the ongoing moral catastrophe of global disease and poverty; the environmental, human, and economic cost of global warming; and the likely proliferation of massively destructive weapons to fanatical regimes, organisations, and individuals. Properly handled, however, the decline in fertility in Western, and many other, nations is not part of the problem. It is part of the solution.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Swallowing camels and straining at gnats

I've reworked the final paragraphs of my blog entry a few days ago about Jack Straw and his comments on the wearing of full-face veils.

The point I really wanted to bring out is the way we seem, these days, to swallow camels and strain at gnats: we accept the need to put up with deplorable practices that have religious support, while every day there are lamentations in the press about other practices (actual or postulated) that are supposedly harmful to our society and must be suppressed.

It seems that a warped concept of religious toleration is doing much of the damage. It is one thing to acknowledge the important principle that the state should be very reluctant indeed to attempt to suppress religious beliefs and practices by exercise of its power of "fire and the sword" - in modern parlance, by use of the criminal law, backed by policemen, pistols, and prisons. It is quite another thing to claim that any particular practice deserves the approval, admiration, or respect of reasonable people.

I can hold a practice in contempt, while still arguing that it should not be suppressed by the coercive power of the state. However, we seem to have reached a point where many intellectuals have lost sight of this distinction. There is a widespread belief, so it seems, that religious practices (or cultural practices that may pre-date any particular religion, but now have religious support) actually deserve veneration. On this view, it is not enough to refrain from attempts to suppress religious practices; we must not even cause offence by uttering criticism.

So we shut up about it, imagining that religious freedom is a freedom even from being caused offence. As has happened in the Australian state of Victorian, where I have lived for the last quarter of a century or so, we actually pass laws making it more difficult to criticise religion.

We spend our time worrying about things that are relatively trivial, whether it be advertising standards, fashion trends, Janet Jackson's exposed right (?) breast, or the supposed downside of every potentially advantageous technology that comes along. As to the latter, we have developed a fetish for scouring the implications of every new technology to identify every possible problem. Where has our confidence gone in the power of technology to ameliorate the human condition?

Now, I'm not suggesting we don't construct critiques of all these things. That's not the point. Yes, the use of ultra-thin models in the fashion industry may do some harm to the self-images of teenage girls. We should feed those models a few chocolates. I'm happy to point that out (there, I've just done it, and I feel much better for it). Yes, some prude somewhere must have had a heart attack last year at the fleeting sight of Janet Jackson's breast covered only by a nipple shield. Yes, there will be problems, as well as benefits, if reproductive cloning ever becomes a safe, readily available, technology.

By all means let's consider and discuss all these problems - but try to keep them in perspective. Our society already puts up with far worse from long-established traditional practices that we seem to be stuck with - such as the indoctrination of young children into religious beliefs, sometimes very damaging ones. Why doesn't anyone criticise that?

Let's get a sense of proportion.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Omaha, Milwaukee ... same difference

Since my last comments on Second Life, I've found this piece, which is about the best thing I've read on the subject.

So much is getting written about the Second Life phenomenon now. It's hard to keep up with all the coverage that's appearing in the press.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Jack Straw got it right

More food for thought about the subject of affective communication among human beings is provided by the recent controversy aroused by Jack Straw, former UK Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, and current Leader of the British House of Commons.

Straw, who is the parliamentary member for an electoral seat with a high Muslim population, created controversy - but received overwhelming public support - for his comments about some Muslim women in the UK wearing a full veil, or niqāb, over their faces. He suggested that this practice can harm inter-community relations. According to reports, Straw stated that he would like the practice to be abandoned, and he has asked women visiting his office to consider uncovering their noses and mouths to improve communication.

It is noteworthy that Straw has at no point suggested that Muslim women are not entitled to wear the niqāb if they so wish. Nor has he proposed that any law be passed prohibiting or restricting wearing of the niqāb. However forthright he has been about the issue, he has not advocated that it be dealt with by the coercive power of the state; he has done no more than make requests.

Straw is totally correct about this issue, though perhaps not for exactly the reasons he seems to have given. The issue is not so much that the niqāb symbolises a cultural difference and so may be divisive - many practices could fall into that category. Nor should the main issue be another important one that he has not raised as far as I've seen: what the custom of requiring women to wear such a garment says about women's sexuality.

The truly dehumanising aspect of a full-face veil is that it prevents a great deal of the most basic communication between human beings that helps to binds us together into communities. It stops one side of the universal communication of emotion through facial expression. Women wearing the niqāb or similar garments are largely cut off from one of the most important ways that people relate to each other in a myriad of informal situations.

Straw is correct not to seek to prohibit the niqāb or to challenge anyone's right to wear it. We know enough from history to realise that this is not an area where the state should use its power of "fire and the sword" in an attempt to control people's actions and beliefs. Except in the most extreme circumstances, the coercive power of the state should not be used to prohibit conduct associated with sincere religious belief. Indeed, it is almost always a mistake to criminalise behaviour that is based on people's deep beliefs and feelings, religious or otherwise. Such beliefs and feelings may be stronger for those concerned than their loyalty to the apparatus of state or to the society that it administers. When the state forgets this and passes coercive laws, it causes great harm in interfering with things that are so important to individuals. Besides, the ramifications of such action are endless and unpredictable. Once you go down the path of making people martyrs for their deep beliefs and feelings, there is no telling where you well end up, or what atrocities will line the path that takes you there. For those reasons, freedom of religious practice is a very strong ethico-legal principle that should only ever be set aside with enormous reluctance.

This does not mean that the state should never interfere with religious practices, under any circumstances at all. A revival of the Aztec religion, complete with attempts at "flowery wars" - capturing enemies for the purpose of human sacrifice - would clearly merit attempts by the state to control it by all possible means, despite the ramifications. Less extreme, but still extreme enough for the state's interference in my view, is the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation.

In the case of the niqāb, the garment is often worn voluntarily, however difficult that may be for many of us to understand. The process of indoctrinating young girls to believe that such extreme "modesty" is a requirement of morality may well be a form of child abuse, but it is one that modern liberal states simply have to put up with; otherwise, where does it end? We could go down the path of banning all forms of religious indoctrination of young children. As Richard Dawkins has argued, such indoctrination may be inherently abusive, but banning it is clearly out of the question. Of course, we don't have to like such forms of indoctrination, especially when they involve the inculcation of deplorable attitudes to sexuality and the social role of women, but that is a different point.

Overall, Jack Straw got it right in criticising the niqāb without initiating any attempts to ban it.

Western societies can and must tolerate many things that we do not have to like, and which we may even object to on strong moral grounds. The niqāb is a paradigm example.

Toleration, let us remind ourselves, does not entail agreement, admiration, or approval. We have many reasons to give consideration to people's feelings, and to respect whatever choices they make about how they will live their lives, but we don't have to agree with them. If some people freely choose to wear the niqāb, we must respect that that is their choice, not ours, even if the choice can ultimately be traced back to indoctrination that they received as children. At the same time, respecting that something is another person's choice to make, and one with which the state should not interfere by criminalisation, does not entail that the choice itself is one that we must agree with, or that the practice someone adopts by choice should itself be held in any high esteem. The requirement for the state to tolerate religious practices, even practices that are themselves intolerant or dehumanising, must not be confused with the false belief that the practices deserve our respect. Often, they simply do not. We can consistently maintain that the state should not attempt to suppress certain practices, while also maintaining that the world would be better without them.

Finally, this episode confirms the robustness of liberal toleration in modern democratic societies. The UK and other modern societies will doubtless survive, despite the need to tolerate such unfortunate components of the modern cultural mix as the niqāb.

This observation sheds light on other issues where it is claimed that tolerating some practice will undermine social solidarity - the sort of argument that communitarians sometimes make about enhancement technologies. Compared to this current, real-world example of women wearing full-face veils, any damage to social solidarity from enhancement technologies is likely to be relatively trivial, and the arguments that it will happen at all are rather speculative. By contrast, the benefits may be great if people can live longer and healthier lives.

When we are confronted by practices that we have little choice but to tolerate, because of their long, thoroughly embedded cultural history and the support given to them by well-established religions, we can learn an important lesson: modern liberal societies can allow a great deal that has some tendency to cause internal division and difficulty. Rather than suppressing anything with those tendencies, whenever we think we can get away with it, we should understand the point that it is best not to treat our societies as if they were frail people with egg-shell skulls. We should be confident about the robustness of modern, liberal societies, of their ability to prosper, even when confronted by problems and challenges. That should be at the front of our minds whenever we are considering the criminal law as a possible tool of public policy.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Yes, I did mean "affective"

One person asked me about this by e-mail. To clarify, my last entry was indeed about "affective communication", i.e. the communication of feelings, not about "effective communication", i.e. communication that is successful in conveying the intended message. Anywhere where I meant the latter, I used that terminology, but my main interest was the former.

A great deal of our communication of emotion is not even conscious. However, we continually give off powerful signals of our feelings, e.g. by way of facial expressions. Contrary to what was once thought, the "language" by which we do this is strongly cross-cultural. Moreover, we are very good at "reading" other people's feelings and we are highly responsive to them. My suggestion is that this kind of communication and responsiveness provides a large part of the glue that enables human beings to bond into societies, and to show some sympathy for others who are not actually part of their society. (Hence, there is no social contract in any narrow sense, just a complex set of factors that glue people into societies and into a larger moral community.) There is a problem whenever we engage in forms of communication that lack these resources.

In some cases, however, the communication of emotion may actually reduce effectiveness (e.g. I can be distracted from the consciously-intended message of someone who is sending off anger signals and so appearing to be a threat). Thus, affective communication and effective communication are definitely not the same thing, and nor is the former merely a part of the latter. The relationships between them may turn out to be quite complicated. My thesis is simply that moment-by-moment affective communication is enormously important to human beings and that any technology which reduces it thereby has a downside.

That is not to deny that such technologies may be good, all things considered. There is just so much valuable communication going on as a result of print, telephones, the internet, etc. I wouldn't be without any of this. However, there could be situations where threats to affective communication could strike at our social bonding with each other or with other intelligent beings (could, as shorthand, strike at the social contract). This seems to me to be a serious problem for many actual and postulated technologies - a much more legitimate problem than most of those that are commonly raised, and one that should be factored into discussions of the ethical development and use of emerging technologies.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Technological threats to affective communication

One of the main conclusions I've been coming to in my research on the moral issues surrounding emerging technologies is the danger that they will be used in ways that undermine affective communication between human beings - something on which our ability to bond into societies and show moment-by-moment sympathy for each other depends. Anthropological and neurological studies have increasingly confirmed that human beings have a repertoire of communication by facial expression, voice tone, and body language that is largely cross-cultural, and which surely evolved as we evolved as social animals.

The importance of this affective repertoire can be seen in the frequent complaints in internet forums that, "I misunderstood because I couldn't hear your tone of voice or see the expression on your face." The internet has evolved emoticons as a partial solution to the problem, but flame wars still break out over observations that would lead to nothing like such violent verbal responses if those involved were discussing the same matters face to face, or even on the telephone. I almost never encounter truly angry exchanges in real life, though I may be a bit sheltered, or course, but I see them on the internet all the time. Partly, it seems to be that people genuinely misunderstand where others are coming from with the restricted affective cues available. Partly, however, it seems that people are more prepared to lash out hurtfully in circumstances where they are not held in check by the angry or shocked looks and the raised voices they would encounter if they acted in the same way in real life.

This is one reason to be sightly wary of the internet. It's not a reason to ban the internet, which produces all sorts of extraordinary utilitarian benefits. Indeed, even the internet's constraint on affective communication may have advantages - it may free up shy people to say things that they would be too afraid to say in real life. Moreover, people who have difficulty "modelling" other's feelings via facial expressions, and so on, may find the more laborious process of using text actually more effective. One way or another, the internet is not only a setting in which people can quickly make enemies; they can also quickly make friends and even virtual-reality lovers, and some of those on-line relationships turn out to be deep and genuine. We all know folks who have ended up getting married (in real life, that is) after meeting in an internet forum of some kind. In practice, many internet users are careful to spell out their feelings more completely than they normally would, to use emoticons creatively, and so on. Some of the communication on the internet is doubtless of higher quality than real-life communication, which is itself plagued by plenty of misunderstandings of how people are feeling.

However, there's still reason to be careful and to be aware of the internet's limitations. We all know that internet forums are rife with misunderstandings, even apart from the ability they provide to people to fake entire personalities. As to the latter ... hey, girls (or gay guys), you do know that that hunky young bloke from Italy you had cybersex with last night just might be a seventy-year-old truck driver from Omaha. Hey, guys (or gay girls), that pretty little Japanese artist you flirted with in Second Life yesterday may be the very same truck driver! At any rate, what you construct of another person and their feelings, from behind your computer terminal, may have little to do with the reality. Whatever is gained - and I repeat that it's a great deal - there's also a downside.

This suggests that there could be both a market for people who like things much as they are and actually find advantages in what I've been discussing (such as that sexually adventurous Omaha truck driver) and a market for those who would want the internet and the evolving metaverse to take on a greater resemblance to the semi-transparency of real life, where you more or less know who you're interacting with and have a whole range of largely unconscious ways of "reading" their emotions and conveying your own.

As virtual reality and real life merge into each other, and relationships of trust become more important in the metaverse, a pressure may build for the development of products that give a greater degree of transparency and mutual emotional intelligibility. Perhaps we'll see zones where a high degree of trust can be maintained routinely, along with other zones where people will still be able to enjoy the particular kinds of advantages that are gained from doing without real-life inhibitions. There may be shades in between: think of a super webcam device that projects an idealised version of your face but faithfully registers its changing expressions. You may appear more like the "you" of twenty years ago, or you may simply have those troublesome zits edited out. At the same time, if you are afraid, angry, bored, sexually excited, or whatever, the system will faithfully convey the facial expressions that give this away.

To sum up at this point, on balance the internet is a very good thing. For me, personally, it's a blessing in innumerable ways. I'm not too worried about our ability to come to terms with the affective communication problem in respect of the internet and the evolving metaverse, or whatever other communication technologies await us. It's sufficient, for now, simply to raise the issue. I don't necessarily believe that any products will have to be banned; however, I do foresee regulation to ensure that various products function as advertised and that we all know exactly what we are dealing with when roaming in the highly-immersive metaverse of tomorrow.

However, technology's possible threat to affective communication arises in other contexts. To date, our bioconservative friends have largely missed the point in their critiques of advanced biotechnology. They are correct to observe that there are various concerns about social stability and distributive justice if certain technologies are differentially available, and this may suggest a need for caution. I'm not sure that these concerns will turn out to be huge issues in practice, but they may, and I do think that policies should be put in place that take account of the potential problem. I have a fairly open mind about how this should be handled, though one obvious policy step is to try harder to reduce existing economic inqualities within and between societies.

The more troubling possibility is that we will create beings who, for one reason or another, do not have the normal means of affective communication with "ordinary" human beings. That could easily lead to their mistreatment as they fail, moment-by-moment to convey to us how they feel inside. Think of Frankenstein's monster: the problem here was not Victor Frankenstein's supposed hubris in creating life, or human-like life. Rather, he managed to create a being so repulsive to the humans it encountered that it found communicating its initially good intentions impossible. Worse still might be a hostile being that is able to fake emotions it does not really have, using our own modes of affective interpretation against us.

This concern leads me to be quite worried about some proposals from my transhumanist friends, such as that we should uplift non-human animals to human levels of intelligence. All very well, but what are the likely consequences? These beings could be very hampered in their attempts to communicate with us and in gaining our moment-by-moment sympathy. Conversely, a superintelligent AI might be all too capable of manipulating us if we gave it the capacities for facial expression and voice tone.

Such issues lie far on the other side of current debates about therapeutic cloning, reproductive cloning, embryonic sex selection, and extension of human life. I have nothing much against any of those actual or possible technologies. None of them seem to me to strike at the social contract - whether via an erosion of affective communication or in some other way. Indeed, their potential benefits seem to be greater than any burdens they will impose. The real issue of how emerging technologies can be used in an ethical way relates to ensuring that these technologies do not strike at social bonds, and it should be widely understood that anything which tends to undermine our capacity for affective communication with each other, or with any other intelligent beings in our midst, has a serious downside (even if it also has benefits).

It's past time to move on and accept that there is not much wrong with the technologies that are currently demonised - although my above reflections suggest that the internet actually has a more fundamental problem than is often thought, despite its great counterbalancing good. Technologies that could lead to new medical treatments or extend the normal human life would be unequivocally beneficial. We need to identify what moral problems could really arise with technologies that might lie "beyond cloning". Possible threats to affective communication should come high on our list of genuine issues to be addressed.