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

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Prolegomena to any defence of human enhancement

Any full-scale defence of human enhancement technologies first needs to clear away a lot of misunderstandings. Here's an attempt to do so.


As a species, we have reached a point in our history where we've developed sophisticated, and increasingly powerful, forms of technological intervention in the functioning of our own bodies. Existing possibilities include not only the array of modern techniques for combating disability and disease, but also cosmetic surgery, performance-enhancing or consciousness-altering drugs, the contraceptive pill, and genetically-based methods for the sex selection of children. That list is obviously not exhaustive, and nor does it represent an end point of human inventiveness: for example, there is the much-discussed prospect that we might develop radical new reproductive technologies, such as the asexual creation of embryos through somatic cell nuclear transfer (i.e. reproductive cloning).

Future technologies may go much further than anything available today in enabling transformation, and even the redesign, of human minds and bodies. It may, for example, become possible to make extensive, purposeful modifications to our DNA, our body tissues, or our overall morphology. We may be able to change our organic functioning, including that of our complex neurophysiology — with its associated, or supervenient, mental states. Alternatively, we may be able to merge our bodies with advanced cybernetic devices. One way or another, it may become possible to use direct means of technological intervention to produce far-reaching alterations in the physical and cognitive capacities of human beings.

Among the more dramatic possibilities are extension of the maximum human life span, reconfigurations of the human body structure in an effort to obtain greater functional efficiency, and the reshaping of psychological dispositions to help achieve individual or social goals. Enthusiasts for such technological innovations might want to enhance their own athletic, perceptual, or cognitive capacities — or perhaps those of their children — to a point beyond any historical level of human functioning. Indeed, some might want to obtain entirely new abilities for themselves or their children: abilities, perhaps, that we can imagine from the outside, while the inner experience of having may be something we cannot truly imagine. In this last respect, the creators of science fiction movies sometimes make an effort on our behalf. Though no one has established what it is like to be a bat, Hollywood special effects can at least offer an impressionistic representation of what it might be like to have, say, a batlike echolocation sense — as in Daredevil (2003).

All of this might move us to speculate about a future in which humanity changes in countless ways—perhaps taking many forms as time unfolds. In the extreme, as described by Edward O. Wilson in his book Consilience, Homo sapiens might be superseded by a self-designing, self-directed, bafflingly varied form of life: Homo proteus.

The existing and imagined technologies sketched above raise issues for morality, and for the development of public policy and the law. Should we really be doing all this — or any of it? What technologies should stand morally condemned, perhaps even in advance of their development? Which should be prohibited, or in some way regulated, by law? Or should we relax and allow it all to happen, or even take steps to encourage it? These questions are already with us, in a relatively small way, as we consider the contraceptive pill, pre-implantation embryonic sex selection, the use by atheletes of steroids and other banned substances, and the ongoing debate about various possible uses for somatic call nuclear transfer. The questions will become even more urgent as more technological possibilities open up, especially if these introduce effective methods to increase human capacities, whether within or beyond the current species-normal range.

Might the embrace of such technologies prove disastrous? Might it cause the loss of something deeply valued about being human? Might it lead to diminished individual autonomy, increased economic and social inequality, or group conflict? As one example of these concerns, Mehlman and Botkin have lamented that unequal access to enhancement technologies could "threaten the fundamental principles upon which Western democratic societies are based." They conclude their book, Access to the Genome, with a note of warning: "We are raftsmen approaching a social and evolutionary maelstrom. Whether we will emerge safely will depend on how well prepared we are, not to mention a great deal of luck."


When I commenced my study of human enhancement technologies, I expected to develop a forthright defence of the present and imagined technologies that I have in mind, and have attempted to evoke in these opening paragraphs. That is, I expected to be able to reject criticisms of these technologies quite unequivocally. However, it now appears to me that some of the fears that have been expressed cannot simply be dismissed out of hand as irrational or unreasonable. Public policy will need to grapple with these legitimate fears, whether by the enactment of legal prohibitions or by other means. At the same time, I remain convinced that we should view the technological prospects with at least a guarded optimism. Even if we resist the changes that are underway, and those to come — resist some of them, or all — it might be with a degree of regret and a hope that the need for resistance will be only temporary.

While my work expresses some hostility to legal prohibitions, and some other forms of government intervention, I do not rely on arguments of a vulgar kind. In any event, they are not based on any vulgar sort of moral subjectivism or cultural relativism. This merits some elaboration, because I actually do reject objectivism as a meta-ethical position (if objectivism is the idea that there are moral propositions which are objectively and inescapably true). I also reject absolutism (if this is the idea of an absolute standard by which all moral claims can be measured). It is worthwhile, then, making clear at the outset, that the following argument from relativity is one that I do not rely upon. It is adapted from an article by Heidi Hurd, who correctly repudiates it:

Argument from relativity
P1. Moral truth is relative to individual moral beliefs.
C1. (Therefore) all people's individual moral beliefs are (equally) worthy of respect.

Main argument
P2.(C1.) All people's individual moral beliefs are (equally) worthy of respect.
C. (Therefore) the state should respect all people's individual moral beliefs by allowing them the liberty to act on their beliefs.

The difficulty with this argument from relativity is that the sub-argument is simply a non sequitur. If my individual moral belief is that tolerating others' beliefs and practices is morally wrong, then I will not have a subjective basis to give respect to those others' individual beliefs (or their practices). The argument to this point does not establish that any belief is worthy of respect by some mid-air, neutral standard (as Bernard Williams might put it). After all, no individual moral belief is true from that perspective, but only from the perspective of the person who holds it. Viewed from the mid-air position, all individual moral beliefs are unworthy of any particular respect (or, it seems, any particular disrespect). On consideration then, it appears that I may on my own individual moral beliefs, whatever they are, without making any mistake in doing so — and even if these include the belief that the beliefs of others ought to be treated with contempt. From my viewpoint, that will be true, which is surely what matters when I choose how to act.

If it could be established that individual moral beliefs are all (objectively and equally) worthy of respect, an interesting question might arise. How should we handle the obvious paradox that some systems of belief consider beliefs, and accompanying practices, from other systems to be contemptible? However, I do not need to reach that point of the argument. What has been said so far should establish Hurd's important claim. The argument from relativity, with its idea that moral truth is relative to individual beliefs, leaves it open to those individuals who control the apparatus of the state to act in accordance with their moral truth — and that might be something quite intolerant. The argument could actually license unlimited intervention by the state in the lives of others.

Something very similar obtains if the standard is not the beliefs of individuals, but those of a cultural group: if those in power belong to such a group, they have a licence to impose its beliefs on others. Such vulgar approaches, then, can actually vindicate totalitarianism. It does not follow that this must be the case with any subjectivist or relativist theory of morality, no matter how sophisticated, but arguments based on forms of moral subjectivism or relativism need to be handled with great care.

I also wish to establish at the outset that none of my reasoning in this study is based on libertarian foundations, if this refers to political philosophies developed by the likes of Ayn Rand or Robert Nozick. Actually, I am somewhat resigned to having my views classified as "libertarian", but it is a label that I find unhelpful and even irritating. If I accept it, as perhaps I must, it is only with suitable qualifications and an explanation. Most importantly, the account developed herein does not rely on anything like the near-absolute individual rights that underpin canonically libertarian positions, such as that elaborated by Nozick in his formidable contribution to political philosophy, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Nozick makes some powerful criticisms of John Rawls's theory of distributive justice, and his work contains useful materials to draw on to criticise other liberal egalitarian theories. I am happy to help myself to all this, and I am particularly impressed by Nozick's observation that something which is deserved need not be deserved all the way down. Indeed, as I shall argue in the full study, similar observations can be made in response to other philosophical questions, such as whether we possess free will or autonomy "all the way down", whether certain situations or outcomes can be described accurately as "bad all the way down", and even whether we can ever be rational "all the way down" - and so on. However, I am not at all attracted to Nozick's overall theory of justice, with its emphasis on property rights, its severely limited role for government, and its repudiation of mandatory economic redistributions to those in need.

While I defend individual liberty, and treat government interference with suspicion, I do not believe for a moment that there are any such things as Nozick-style libertarian rights. Indeed, my entire approach is as corrosive of claims about the existence of those rights as it is of other grand normative claims that can be found in the work of moral and political philosophers. While avoiding vulgar forms of subjectivism and relativism, I will develop a rather sceptical approach to all such claims, very much in the tradition of J.L. Mackie and other meta-ethical error theorists. Although I owe some explanation of the word "good", I do believe that there are good reasons for governments to pursue ambitious programmes to redistribute wealth, provide publicly-funded education, healthcare, and other valuable services, and, in particular, to attempt to reduce the global burden of misery and disease. Our existing moral norms - those actually followed within Western societies — appear to me to demand too little of us in addressing that global burden, and I am impatient with the snail's pace of action by the international community. This is scarcely a political position that could be extracted from the pages of Anarchy, State, and Utopia.


With all that said, I must now emphasise that my study of human enhancement technologies has left my basic position intact, if not altogether unchanged. This still strikes me as an area of moralistic overreach. My general view is that morality is an institution invented by human beings, and one that ultimately exists to serve our interests, and particularly to help us avert outcomes that most of us will recognise as "bad". Not only does the institution of morality exist to serve us — not the other way around — it is something that we can improve. Perhaps it should be more demanding in some ways, and less so in others. My approach will be to subject the claims of moralists — professional or amateur — to searching sceptical scrutiny, because I believe that I am working in an area where the moral ideas in use are typically too demanding. Thus, my project involves a counterattack on much existing moral discourse: it will be a case, here, of the enhancer strikes back. Rather than work within some established system of moral or political philosophy — whether it be preference utilitarianism, some kind of neo-Kantian or neo-Aristotelian ethics, Nozick-style libertarianism, or some sort of liberal or communitarian theory — I will cast doubt on all those theories.

In their place, I will ask us to consider carefully what we most deeply value and fear, and I'll suggest that the answers to that question will provide us with a more rationally defensible approach to moral judgment and public policy. If the answers are vague or indeterminate, in some way, or if they are not unanimous, that will, itself, need to be taken into account. As for unanimity, one of the things that I believe we (all) should be sceptical about is, actually, the propriety of using the word "we". In many cases, use of this word may be harmless; but in others, slipping into its use may erase a vast range of individual differences in interests and values.

In my view, morality is an important, virtually inevitable, and in many ways desirable institution. We — it will be awkward if I always avoid that word — might well say that some kind of morality can be "justified". However, any such justification is likely to be of a non-epistemic kind, e.g. we cannot provide epistemic justification for any moral claims that assert the existence of objectively prescriptive properties and facts, but the widespread institution of morality might still have a point and a place in human lives. The question, then, is "What point and place?", and then there is the further question of whether understanding these will justify rejection, regulation, or general acceptance of the controversial technologies with which this study is concerned.

With no more ado, then, it's time to get a clearer idea of what is at stake when we consider the range of new and imagined technologies - stay tuned for more.

1 comment:

Blake Stacey said...

Morals were made for man, I guess, not the other way round.

I'm looking forward to the next installment.