About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, February 26, 2007

Ayaan Hirsi Ali - Infidel

I've recently read Infidel, the story of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's life to date. I say "to date", because she's still in her thirties and has many years ahead - unless, of course, an Islamist fanatic gets to her first.

Infidel was published in Dutch a few months ago, and the English translation has just been released. The narrative takes us from Hirsi Ali's birth in Somalia in 1969, through her childhood and young adult life in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopa, and Kenya, her escape to freedom in the Netherlands (via Germany), and her tumultuous career as a critic of Islam, including her involvement in the short film Submission, whose director, Theo van Gogh, was subsequently assassinated - then left with a five-page letter stuck to his chest by the blade of a butcher's knife. The letter was addressed to Hirsi Ali, and its gist was a warning that she would be the next to die.

The book takes us up to Hirsi Ali's most recent relocation, to the United States, in 2006.

Though its author's story is often harrowing - as in the account of her cruel "excision", or genital mutilation, as a little girl - it is still joyous overall. The joy lies in Hirsi Ali's totally unashamed denuciation of the economic, social, and sexual suppression of women in the name of religion and traditional culture, and in her passionate, wholehearted embrace of Enlightenment liberalism and universalism. Many Western intellectuals equivocate about the values of liberty, reason and science. Indeed, they sometimes appear to form a little Taliban in our midst. We would all be better off if they, and the world, would take Infidel's message to heart.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Why we don't need a genetic bill of rights

The point of a bill of rights is to take some issues off the table of everyday law-making, unless the position can be changed by gathering some kind of constitutionally-required super-majority.

For example, Latveria might have a provision in its bill of rights prohibiting the legislature from infringing freedom of speech. If so, this will prevent its legislature from banning, say, speech that criticises religious practices or the monarch's favourite political philosophy. Since legislation to achieve that effect is beyond the power of the legislature to enact, the issue is not a matter for ordinary, day-to-day political deliberation. This has the effect of creating areas of relative safety from the intrusion of government power into Latverians' lives.

Thus, a Latverian statute banning criticism of priestly celibacy could become law only after a referendum, or whatever other mechanism was provided for in the Latverian constitution.

Of course, legislatures are notorious for testing any restrictions placed on them by bills of rights, so the political process does not come to an end in practice. We can be sure that the legislature of Latveria will make attempts, from time to time, to push the constitutional boundaries. These are then likely to be adjudicated in the country's courts, or by its constitutional commission or whatever other body has power to determine the legal issue. However, at the least, a large range of laws - those most clearly offending the relevant "right" - are unlikely to be pursued as part of ordinary politics.

None of the above is meant to deny that a bill of rights can also provide for positive rights. Just as a constitutional provision can protect us from government power, by stipulating that certain things cannot be done by the legislature (hence, a negative right), a constitutional provision can also guarantee citizens certain specific resources. For example, such a provision might require the legislature (and other branches of government if necessary) to take positive steps to ensure that everyone has access to adequate nutrition and basic healthcare.

In practice, some countries' constitutions do provide for positive rights of this kind, but those sorts of provisions are obviously open to interpretation: just what steps must be taken, and how much money spent, before it can be said that such a positive right has been satisfied? What if money is not available? For these sorts of reasons, writing in positive rights is less attractive than creating protections from government action in the form of negative rights. Traditionally, bills of rights are usually confined to negative rights - entrenched restrictions on the ability of the government to interfere with our personal choices.

It is not obvious that any of our rights should be entrenched constitutionally in such a document as a bill of rights - why not leave the resolution of our legal rights to the dynamics of the democratic political process? Many critics of constitutionally entrenched rights see them as anti-democratic.

However, one can believe that it is best for government power to be wielded by democratically-elected representatives of the people while also believing, perhaps even on the same grounds, that its scope should have some limits. If this is "anti-democratic", it is so only in some technical sense. In any event, it is widely believed that there are some things which should not be done by governments - even governments that command majority electoral support - and that it is important to provide citizens with at least some protections from government action and the possible tyranny of the majority. Just what those off-limits things might be is, of course, a matter for debate, and the actual protections can be changed from time to time by constitutional amendment.

Constitutional amendment is a more difficult process than the ordinary process for enacting legislation - sufficiently difficult, in fact, for governments not to embark lightly on the task - but that is the whole point. In practice, a legislature will have to think long and hard before it interferes with a contitutionally-protected negative right, and any attempt to do so will probably be futile.

All of which leads to the question of what a "genetic bill of rights" might contain. Its obvious content would be a set of restrictions on legislative power, designed to protect areas of important and deeply personal choices from government interference. For example, the genetic bill of rights enshrined in the constitution of Genosha might require that the legislature enact no statutes interfering with the morphological freedom of competent adults: their ability to alter themselves genetically (or in other ways) in accordance with their own decisions. I see a good deal of merit in such a proposal, but at the end of the day there are likely to be just too many complications for any jurisdiction that adopts a sweeping provision that curtails the power of its legislature in this area. Are no self-morphing actions by its citizens ever going to be socially dangerous enough to warrant prohibition or regulation?


One way to handle the issue is by having a right that is subject to some kind of override if the government can demonstrate a compelling necessity (the nature of which would have to emerge in the jurisprudence of the courts). However, I suspect that it's better to leave the matter to the normal process of policy formulation, with the legislature enacting appropriate statutes from time to time in the normal way.

That, of course, does not mean that we should simply acquiesce in any abridgment of our morphological freedom, merely because it falls within the legislature's power. It is always open to us to oppose legislative proposals that are within the law-makers' constitutional powers, and one of the grounds might well be that a particular proposal interferes unnecessarily in what competent adults plan to do with their own bodies.

While I see some merit in a constitutionally-entrenched protection of morphological freedom, even if I am slightly sceptical about it, I see no merit at all in the creation of most other kinds of constitutionally-entrenched "rights". That's especially so if the so-called rights have little to do with protecting us from government interference with our personal and important decisions.

In modern democracies, many issues - indeed, the vast majority - are best handled through the ordinary political process. For example, the Latverian legislature can enact laws forbidding human reproductive cloning, just as it can enact laws banning certain drugs, or acts of violence, or theft, or impersonating the monarch, or anything else for which there is some policy justification. Note that, whatever the situation might be in Latveria, most jurisidictions do not need a constitutional requirement that there must be a law enacted against murder. In countries like Australia and the US, we simply rely on the common law and/or the state penal code. Similarly, if there is good policy justification (which I doubt) for a law against human cloning, it can be used to support the case for ordinary laws that are enacted in the ordinary way by the legislature of the relevant jurisdiction.

Yet, we currently see bioconservatives running around talking about a genetic "bill of rights". This is misleading, for most of what they are requesting has nothing to do with establishing protections of citizens' personal choices from intrusive acts of government.

What they really want, presumably, are just ordinary laws against such things as reproductive cloning, genetic engineering, and whatever else is currently registering strongly on their yuck-meters. They are entitled to argue for that, of course, as I am entitled to oppose them, or to argue for something much more nuanced and flexible. However, talk of a genetic bill of rights creates unnecessary confusion.

With the possible exception of a broad protection from government interference in our choices about how we change our own bodies - i.e., a guarantee of morphological freedom - most issues raised in the current debates about biotechnology are totally unsuitable for anything like a genetic bill of rights.

Perhaps some new issues will arise, defining areas where we want to rein in the power of government to abuse genetic technology - taking the issue off the table for ordinary politicking. But for now, there is a fundamental problem with trying to frame policy debates about genetics in terms of the content of a new bill of rights.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Chatting with God

For those who haven't already seen this at Pharyngula or elsewhere, try chatting with God. He's rather evasive, I'm afraid. I asked him about some of you - you can guess who you are - but got no sensible reply.


I just received advice that my graduate scholarship has been extended for six months, until 19 September 2007. That's a relief. Now to take all this work I've been doing (much of which I've been posting in raw draft form right here on this blog), and carve it into something that can actually be submitted in that time.

It's reached the point where I have to draw a line under my reading soon - I see that Michael Sandel has a new book on human enhancement, evidently based on his famous article "The Case Against Perfection", and using the same title. As this won't be published until May, I may not be able to get a copy before I'm finished, and it will certainly be too late for me to give it much consideration.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

First semester upon us

The first semester of the academic year starts next week - my main commitment is to teach a few tutorials in the second-year undergraduate Ethics subject, which should be do-able.

I'm now itching to finish the Ph.D and to turn it into a book to submit to an appropriate publisher, but it's obviously not going to happen in the next few weeks. So, I currently have an application in for a six-month scholarship extension, which looks a lot more realistic right now. Whether I get the extension or not, I plan to submit in August/September, which means I'll soon be looking around and considering the next phase of my career. I have a lot more philosophy in me, and I'm hoping to find a research position - or even a teaching position with a fair emphasis on research - at an institution that's well placed to support my work (with colleagues whose work can create synergies and so on).

Thursday, February 15, 2007

What's so dystopian about the Biotech Age?

The bioconservative handbook, Rights and Liberties in the Biotech Age: Why We Need a Genetic Bill of Rights, is an uneven read. Some of the short articles collected here make good points - about the importance of universal health care, for one example, and, for another, the policy justification for a limited exception to the finality of criminal justice if there is a prospect that DNA testing could provide belated exculpatory evidence. However, many pieces contained here rely on irrational assumptions, such as the idea that it is meaningful to talk about the "rights" of zygotes and embryos (Stuart Newman tries to avoid this, while getting the same conclusions, but the attempt is unconvincing).

One article strikes me as so lacking in any intellectual substance that I hesitate to comment on it, but it is worth notice just to illustrate the mentality and rhetoric that so often accompany opposition to genetic technology. This is the piece by Marcy Darnovsky, entitled "Human Rights in a Post-Human Future".

Darnovsky begins with the usual pathetic attempt to suggest guilt by association, by referring to the evils committed by the Nazis. Having made that smear, she makes a reference to the bioconservatives' proposed "Genetic Bill of Rights", then moves to this remarkable paragraph:

Even twenty-five years ago - before the development of genetic manipulation at the molecular level, legal doctrines that allow governments to grant patents on life, and DNA databases; before the advent and commercialization of in vitro fertilization and the screening of in vitro embryos; before the appearance of advertisements for social sex selection in mainstream U.S. publications - the document [i.e. the Genetic Bill of Rights] would have been widely considered an unwarranted over-reaction based on a dystopian fantasy.

Now there are probably more and less charitable ways to read this. Darnovksy does not literally say that we currently live in a world that resembles a dystopian fantasy. Perhaps the paragraph could be interpreted as merely pointing out some of the powerful (but not necessarily bad) changes arising from genetic technology, all of which make it plausible that other, more dystopian, applications could arise in the future. I doubt, however, that that is how it is meant. In context, the implication seems to be that it would take a dystopian setting to make the Genetic Bill of Rights a realistic proposal ... which it now is. So I can only take it, on consideration, that the picture she is attempting to paint of present-day reality is a dystopian one, not merely one that involves powerful technologies that might have some other, unidentified, applications which we ought to fear.

A careful reading suggests that the para would have been worded differently if its author had wanted to make a more moderate point, but perhaps Darnovsky will clarify her subjective intention some time.

Meanwhile, the paragraph is sitting there, on the first page of her article, with the implication (at least on one obvious reading) that it is sketching a dystopian situation. However she actually meant it, it's worth considering whether what she describes really is so dystopian. Let's take the points one by one:

* "genetic manipulation at the molecular level" - nothing dystopian about that that I can see. This is a new power that we have gained, which could doubtless be used for evil. Like any other power, it has been sought in order to advance what we are capable of doing. On the face of it, this is a gain. However, I'll not score it either way.

* "patents on life" - this one is a mixed bag. I don't see why patents on novel and useful life forms are, in principle, any different from patents on anything else. That said, there really are problems with allowing contrived patents on DNA sequences or on scarcely-modified organisms. The situation is not obviously dystopian, but I would support some reform of patent legislation to restrict the excessive range of DNA patents. Score one to Darnovsky.

* "DNA databases" - hardly dystopian, these have great potential for medical research and many other useful applications. That's not to say that no abuses are possible; of course they are. This makes it necessary to respond with strong privacy protections, but there's nothing necessarily dystopian about it. Score half a point to Darnovsky. Then again, think of all the good that DNA databases can do. Score a point against her as well. That's a net half point against her on this one.

* "advent and commercialization of in vitro fertilization" - I don't see the problem here. There is an argument for providing for IVF entirely from public funds, but until all forms of health care, however expensive, are provided for in that way a degree of commercialization is inevitable and necessary. IVF itself gives new options to infertile couples, which is a welcome development. It gives some people something that they, quite rationally, value. Score a point against Darnovsky.

* "screening of in vitro embryos" - this is a way to help people have healthy children, something that many people want, again quite rationally. Another point against Darnovsky.

* Advertisements for "social sex selection" - the ability of some would-be parents to decide not just "I want a baby" but "I want a boy" or "I want a girl" is another example of people being able to get something they desire, and may desire quite rationally (someone may have two boys already and wish she could now have a girl, or she may simply think that she would be able to be a better mother to a boy than to a girl, for whatever reason). If we are able to use technology to help people satisfy their rational desires, surely that is a good thing. Score yet another point against Darnovsky.

In conclusion, it's true that genetic technology has become more powerful, and will continue to do so. It will bring benefits - a greater ability of people to have healthy children, more certainty in the system of criminal justice (exculpating innocent people and blocking off the defences of guilty ones), new therapies, more individually-tailored drugs, and the prospect of expanding our capacities in ways that meet our rational desires.

That's not to deny that there are, and will be, problems to be addressed, e.g. problems relating to safety, privacy, and our ability to run an economically beneficial patents scheme. But we are by no means living in a dystopian reality or on the path to one. On balance, genetic technology still appears to be a source of benefits, and we should pay no regard to people who want to link it to dystopian visions in pursuit of a conservative agenda to rein in the technology's legitimate uses.

Let's have rational legislative initiatives to ensure such things as safety, privacy, and access - but stop all the irrational fearmongering.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Speaking of YouTube ...

A couple of other good ones.

* This great evolution-based Guinness ad.
* And this old Monty Python sketch - rival Greek and German teams of philosophers clash on the soccer field.


YouTube movie about Uvvy Island

Here's a nice little movie that someone posted on YouTube about Uvvy Island in Second Life.

Monday, February 12, 2007

What is the worst book ever written?

Just quickly, I wonder if anyone is willing to offer a view on this one. (Hint: books by present company, such as Kong Reborn by Russell Blackford, do not count.)

The Future of Human Nature by Jurgen Habermas must go very close. I'm re-reading this, in the wake of recent discussion about Fenton's critique of Habermas - I hadn't read it for a a year or two. In that time I had forgotten what an execrable piece of bio-Luddite rubbish this book really is, committing just about every possible sin: it is repetitive and badly structured (even within the individual pieces from which it has been cobbled together), relies on sonorous rhetoric, rather than careful, rational analysis, is full of bizarre logical non sequiturs, projects an almost mystical view of human nature, and just generally is one book you would not want to give as a token to a favourite smart adolescent (or anyone else).

Any other suggestions?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

You are Magneto

You fear the persecution of those that are different or underprivileged so much that you are willing to fight and hurt others for your cause.

Lex Luthor
Dr. Doom
Green Goblin
The Joker
Dark Phoenix
Poison Ivy
Mr. Freeze

Click here to take the "Which Super Villain are you?" quiz...

Muahahaha! Try it. I was surprised to get the character I was hoping for; though of course, I'm really a pussycat who would never hurt anybody. :)

Friday, February 09, 2007

Monkish virtues

I was just thinking about this famous quote from David Hume for another purpose. I love the way he skewers a lot of self-denying morality. It's worth quoting in full from the Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals:

"Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve no manner of purpose; neither advance a man's fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of the company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper. We justly, therefore, tranfer them to the opposite column, and place them in the catalogue of vices; nor has any superstition force sufficient among men of the world, to pervert entirely these natural sentiments. A gloomy, hair-brained enthusiast, after his death, may have a place in the calendar, but will scarcely ever be admitted, when alive, into intimacy and society, except by those who are as delirious and dismal as himself."

We ought to take this to heart. I dislike arrogance and bragging as much as anyone does - Hume has some bad things to say about them, as well. He's not defending them here. But, as he suggests, we are not morally required to go around with long faces. We can enjoy life, be sociable, sexual creatures, and take a proper pride in what we do.

The worldly moral philosophy of Hume is a high point of the Enlightenment. Sure, I can think of one or two things in it that need updating, but overall it still makes a helluva lot of sense.

A manifesto for moral sceptics

I just dashed off a version of this over at Jason Rosenhouse's EvolutionBlog, which is an excellent site in support of evolutionary theory against the efforts of creationists and Intelligent Design warriors.

The subject matter was the ongoing blogosphere debate between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan, two intellectuals whom I have a lot of time for, about the reasonableness of religious belief. Sullivan has most recently defended his theistic belief on what are, as I understand them, essentially fideist grounds - this belief has been fundamental to his thinking for longer than he can remember, and is (for him) simply not revisable under any circumstances. At the same time, he cannot support it with evidence that he would expect to be convincing to anyone who lacks it.

One person responded to Rosenhouse's commentary on all this with the observation that we apply standards of empirical evidence only to science; we don't, for example, apply them when we make assertions of moral or political principle, such as "I have a right to participate in government."

I think that this is incorrect, and importantly so. It may describe how people actually behave, but such assertions about rights are indeed fair game for sceptical scrutiny. Indeed, if they are understood in a certain popular, "objective" way, they are simply incorrect.

I'll pick up the story from here (somewhat re-edited for a different context and to sneak in some improvements), as I claim that this is not how the atheistic, scientifically-minded folks who tend to hang out at Rosenhouse's site should be thinking.

As a moral sceptic in the mode of John Mackie, Richard Garner, Richard Joyce, etc., etc. - I am certainly going to deny that there is any objective sense in which "people have a right to participate in their government". There may be such a right within some legal system, or even within some moral system - there's nothing spooky about legal rights or about rights that are recognised within a society's positive morality. But the idea that there "just is such and such a right", somehow built into the framework of reality, is as spooky and implausible as the idea that there is an all-powerful supernatural being floating around sustaining our existence.

Lots of people, including lots of atheists, seem to believe in these spooky "rights", and so on, for exactly the same reason that Sullivan believes in God: they were brought up in an environment where they internalised the idea, and it is now so ingrained into them that they treat it as axiomatic, and make the rest of their worldview conform to it (as they form new beliefs or revise existing ones).

That does not mean that there is no such thing as good behaviour or bad behaviour, or good or bad systems of government. There is such a thing, just as a good knife (in many contexts) will be sharp and durable, a good friend will be loyal, etc. We do have standards of goodness and badness, and they are not entirely arbitrary, because they are based on human interests (such as our interest in being able to cut our meat, our interest in all the needs that friendship satisfies, our interest in having stable societies, but not being tyrannised by arbitrary government power, etc.). However, while our standards of goodness and badness are not arbitrary, they are always relative to the framework of what we actually want or need.

To the extent that what "we" ultimately want or need may be contestable - since there is no monolithic "we", but just "me" plus "you", "you", "him", "her", "them", and so on - well, so are standards of goodness and badness. Fortunately (from my framework), most of us actually do want to reduce the suffering in the world, for example, and are more likely to dispute the means of achieving this rather than to to join Nietzsche in contesting the goal itself.

I am not proposing that we should jettison all morality, but we can always subject morality's claims to sceptical scrutiny. We should, indeed, jettison the idea that moral rights, duties, and so on, somehow exist "out there", independent of the social need to establish standards of behaviour that conduce to our interests. At any given time, the prevailing norms about rights, and so on, may have some kind of non-arbitrary grounding, but we should not (if we want to be intellectually informed and honest) think they are objective and absolutely binding, or simply "exist", in the way that is often imagined. They exist - in the restricted sense that they do - to meet serve our interests, and they are always open to rational revision.

The above is what I understand to be a way to think about such things as rights and morality within the scientific worldview, and it does indeed require evidence to support arguments for the retention (or, indeed, the abolition or modification) of particular ideas about rights, and so on. We can analyse what evidence we have about particular interests, etc., and what evidence we have about what standards would conduce to them.

Of course, we can't do this exercise all the way down every time we make any decision with a moral component. Sometimes - perhaps most of the time - we do need to act in accordance with standards of morality that we have internalised, just to save time and energy. For example, some of our political ideas are so well-established and useful that it is better in the heat of political practice to apply them than to be constantly re-examining their usefulness - I'm thinking of such ideas as freedom of speech and the rule of law, and the Millian "harm principle". But even these ideas are always open, in principle, to rational, evidence-based scrutiny, and we should feel free to reconsider them in cooler moments.

This can be a frightening way to think about morality if you love the sense of certainty of "knowing" God's commands. But it is also liberating to realise that our current standards are no more than useful, provisional human inventions that can be altered, or even replaced by something better - i.e., better for actually serving human interests and projects.

I should add (now departing further from what I said in EvolutionBlog) that the more our circumstances change - with changing technology and other changes to our physical and social environments, including our understanding of ourselves - the more pressing becomes the need to apply cool, sceptical scrutiny to our inherited morality. It is not something written in the stars or in the mind of a deity. It is something that human beings invented and can improve upon. We can, and should, adapt it to our changing circumstances and understandings.

CNN's not-very-to-the-point reply

Having looked at some sites where all this is discussed, I'm not surprised at the reply I received. It looks like they assume that any feedback they get must have been about their memorial coverage of Steve Irwin's death.

Irwin's death was, indeed, a tragedy (especially for his family, who have my sympathy).

But maybe CNN ought to work out that there really are some other issues that some people sometimes write to it about. I mean, given it has a feedback page and all ...


Dear I-Reporter,

On behalf of CNN, please accept our sincere thanks for your I-Report submission during our memorial coverage of the tragic death of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin. Thanks to the many submissions from our viewers, our coverage carried the personal touch that came from his vast and personal outreach to his many fans. Our programming effort was a huge success, and you are part of the reason for that.

Again, we sincerely thank you and hope you will continue to send relevant submissions to us at http://www.cnn.com/exchange/ireports/topics/

Best wishes,

CNN Public Information

Thursday, February 08, 2007

CNN atheism debacle

It's not normally like me to send off letters or e-mails complaining to the media about their handling of current issues, but just this once I've joined the bandwagon complaining about the panel discussion in Paula Zahn's recent segment on the social persecution of atheists in the US.

For those three people and a dog in the world who missed it, Zahn presented a segment about the harassment of a couple who were basically driven out of town by religious zealots. In the following panel session, two members of the panel essentially claimed that atheists need to "shut up", because they bring such intolerance on themselves.

The third, and the only one who made any sense, was an ESPN sports analyst who proclaimed that he loves the Lord but also believes in constitutional rights. Good for him. He tried to remind the other two that the US is a country which (supposedly) values freedom of belief and speech. This led to a general shouting match.

There has apparently been a massive flood of mail in response. In my own belated e-mail to Zahn's show, I said the following (typos and all, alas):
Dear Ms Zahn,

I was dismayed by the panel discussion in your recent segment on atheism, particularly by the suggestion that atheists bring hatred on themselves and should simply, as Ms Hunter put it so charmingly, "Shut up." This seems like a rather extreme example of blaming the victim, especially considering that it immediately followed your report on a case of blatant social persecution of a couple of (apparently) good citizens who happen not to believe in the existence of the Christian God.

I understand that the panel may have been chosen for another purpose (to comment on the Superbowl), and that this may explain the ignorance and egregious imbalance that we saw. However, it was most unfortunate that not one member of the panel was actually an atheist, and that the whole framing of the debate assumed atheists to be an "other" to be discussed in absentia as a problem for "us". Stephen Smith did make some commendable efforts to draw attention to the fact that atheists have legal and constitutional rights, like everyone else, but the attitudes of the other two panel members were appalling, and reflected badly on themselves, your segment, and CNN. It would be mild to say that they made fools of themselves, you, and the network.

None of this is to deny them (or you, if it comes to that) the right to express whatever views they wish, however intolerant or bizarre - I well understand the principle of freedom of speech. But I do believe that a major media outlet such as CNN should make an effort to achieve at least some semblance of balance, especially when discussing the possible reasons why a despised minority is actually despised.

In addition, I regret to say that I was surprised that you were unable to test the more outrageous claims and proposals that were being made - I expect any television moderator to hold panel members to account and test their claims, especially when they take the wild form that we saw from Ms Hunter in particular.

More positively - and I do regret that we are required to mark our feedback as either "positive' or "negative", with no more nuanced options available - I understand that Professor Richard Dawkins will now be appearing on your show in the aftermath of this segment. I commend the decision to invite Professor Dawkins as a guest. I hope that this will allow for a more considered and useful discussion of the topic of atheism and the widespread rejection of traditional religious belief. I look forward to seeing his contribution.

Your sincerely,

Russell Blackford

Monday, February 05, 2007

Double your life span: Walker on Singer on extended longevity

Mark Walker has an interesting article responding to an article published by Peter Singer in the 1990s, in which Singer considers the possibility of an anti-aging drug, and concludes that, on the scenario presented: "we should recommend against any further development of the anti-aging drug."

As one might expect, Singer's analysis proceeds along utilitarian lines. The particular scenario developed is not a super-optimistic one: the drug will enable us to live to about 150 - more or less doubling the normal life expectancy - but with an average level of happiness, during the second half of this long life, that is lower than the level experienced during the first half. More precisely, the level of health experienced will be that of someone in her 60s or 70s today. In addition, during the second half of life we will not experience it with the same "freshness" as younger people do. Singer deduces from this that individuals who take the drug will have less average happiness - averaged, that is, over a full (extended) life - than they did during their first 70 or 80 years. However, we may still imagine them as enjoying the extra years. They just don't enjoy the later ones quite as much as the earlier ones.

Walker offers an interesting analysis, in which he defends longevity research against Singer's attack, even on the assumption that it would lead to an additional 70 or 80 years lived in less-than-optimal health. He points out that the available empirical studies do not support the idea that people are less happy in old age than at earlier times, despite inferior health. In fact, the happiness curve seems to be U-shaped: actually at its lowest point when we are in our late 30s or early 40s. (This may seem surprising, since that is exactly when we are at our peak in many ways, but perhaps that itself creates pressures which are not yet experienced when we are younger, and which start to recede as we move deeper into middle age. I'll avoid any further speculation about such issues.)

I want to defend Walker's prolongevist position, though on rather different grounds. But first, here is the strength of Singer's case ...

Assume for the sake of argument that Singer is right about the facts. If we take the anti-aging drug we will typically live to be 150, and we will have happy lives for the second 70 to 80 years, but our lives will be less happy (perhaps not by much) through that period than during the first 70 to 80 years. It seems apparent that, once a society with this technology gets going, the average happiness being experienced per person in the society at any point of time will be less than is currently the case. If the population is kept constant - which might be required for Malthusian reasons, as Singer discusses - the total sum of happiness being experienced at any given point of time will also be less. Moreover, if we take a space-time block of the society's experience, the amount of happiness that exists in it will be less than in a space-time block of equal duration chosen from the history of our current society.

On grounds similar to these, Singer argues that we should not develop a drug with the specified effects.

Yet - and here comes my defence - this seems paradoxical. If I take the drug, I will be able to enjoy many extra years of happy life. It seems that this gives me a good reason to take the drug; those extra years of happy life seem to be something that it is rational for me to want, and taking the drug is a means to achieve that rationally-desired end. So, if I take the drug, no one need feel sorry for me. I have not done something self-destructive. It looks as if I am actually better off.

Nor is this a situation where it is collectively irrational for each person to take the drug. It is not as if a rational choice by each individual in isolation leads to an outcome in which each is worse off than if some other option had been chosen. On the contrary, if we all take the drug, each one of us is better off than she would have been if she had not taken it. This is not a prisoner's dilemma type of problem; it's not a problem of social coordination.

In other words, a society in which each person takes the drug is a society in which each individual is better off than he or she would otherwise have been - and each individual is also better off than otherwise-comparable individuals in our current society!

I think this thought experiment actually dramatises some of the problems underlying utilitarianism, for Singer has clearly (in my view) drawn a paradoxical and wrong conclusion.

First, note that it is rational for me to take the drug if it is available. It is also rational for me to hope that it is developed, so that I can take it. It is also rational for me to fear interference (for example, by the legislature) to stop the development of the drug. Indeed, it is rational for me to agitate against legislative interference.

Might it be that my actions - in agitating for the drug's continued development, and actually taking it if it becomes available - are nonetheless morally impermissible? No.

If I have a moral duty to maximise the average amount (or the maximum amount) of utility in my society, or the universe, at any point of time, or within any space-time block, yes, indeed, I have acted in breach of that duty. But where could any such duty come from? Why should I accept that it exists? It has not been commanded by God, or some other mighty being - and even if I'm wrong about that, why should we obey a mighty being's commands in circumstances wherein it's not in our individual interests to do so? It is not, moreover, written into the metaphysical structure of the universe, whatever that might amount to. We need to locate a naturalistic, human-level grounding for such a duty, and there's none at hand.

A duty like this might seem to make sense as the content of a (non-morally) good moral norm that we have adopted in order to give expression to our sympathies - except that the norm would go too far, since the particular case we're considering is one in which there's nobody to feel sorry for! Every actual person involved is better off, by taking the drug, than he or she would otherwise been. Far from feeling guilty at doing what is in our interests, we can be pleased that we have acted in a way that has not placed any individual in a position where we need look on her with pity. If we ever reach a position in history where we have agitated successfully for the development of the drug, all the other people who will thus have an opportunity to take it will have reason to thank us for our efforts. We will not have frustated their life plans or caused them suffering; we will have helped them achieve something that they (rationally) value.

This thought experiment helps show the difference between utilitarian approaches, which try to maximise happiness (in the sense of pleasure, or preference-satisfaction, or something similar), and my more sceptical and pluralist approach to morality, which regards moral norms as justified to the extent that they protect us from things that we fear, help us to preserve things we value, help us to give expression to our sympathies, and so on. On this approach, a set of moral norms that actually becomes a new thing to fear is given a low or negative rating. This approach treats morality as our servant - it is something that human beings collectively invented to meet a variety of widespread human desires and interests. It is not a set of highly abstract, objective requirements, such as a requirement, from "out there" somewhere, to maximise the total or average utility in the universe, or in some part of it.

(I don't deny that there may sometimes be justification for a moral norm requiring us to do certain things that only "harm" people whose very existence is contingent on the action prohibited by the norm. But I think that, in so far as such norms really can be justified, they need to be grounded in something other than an abstract requirement to maximise overall utility. For example, they might be grounded in a desire for future human societies to flourish in certain ways, or a desire to avoid situations where individuals will experience actual suffering or be stuck with lives that are, in some sense, limited or blighted. The appeal will most likely be to our sympathies and/or to certain perfectionist values.)

If we agitate for the anti-aging drug, and take it once it is available, we thereby act rationally. We also act consistently with any set of positive moral norms that we have good reason to commit ourselves to (or assign a high justification rating), given the sorts of beings we actually are, with the sort of psychology that we actually have. If we develop the drug, every actual person who takes it will be better off, and no one need, as a result of taking the drug, turn into an appropriate object for our compassion. Even on Singer's not-very-optimistic scenario, agitating for the anti-aging drug's development is the rational thing to do, and it is at least morally permissible if not morally required.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

New IEET office space in Second Life

Thanks to Giulio Prisco for creating this.

It just needs a bit of extra decorating, I think. That and a few more people to come along and hang out with the coolest crew of philosophers, futurists, and policy wonks you'll ever find in SL.

I sure do know the Bible

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Wow! You are awesome! You are a true Biblical scholar, not just a hearer but a personal reader! The books, the characters, the events, the verses - you know it all! You are fantastic!

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Huffington Post on enhancement and transhumanism

Over at the Huffington Post, R.J. Eskow blogged earlier this week about enhancement technologies and transhumanism, commenting specifically on my piece about Fenton and Habermas from last weekend.

Eskow's discussion - entitled "Homo Futurus: How Radically Should We Remake Ourselves - Or Our Children?" - is quite sympathetic, and Eskow makes clear his general inclination to side with individual liberty against social restrictions, though he also worries that this is not a simple matter, once children are involved. It's one thing to support individual liberty against the state, but what about when it is the liberty of parents versus the interests of children? He expresses the fear that so-called liberal eugenics could become libertarian eugenics.

I actually agree with the direction of this, though Eskow's discussion seems to be placing me in the "libertarian" category, which would be rather misleading. It's possibly understandable, because this category does, indeed, seem to be where a lot of transhumanist discourse used to belong, and much of it doubtless still does. E.g., when I was signed up to the Extropians mailing list a few years ago, many of the participants were forthright libertarians of the Ayn Randian variety, and saw no role for the state to restrict their proposals to alter themselves or their children, if the technology became available. This was, it seemed, a belief that we should have total freedom to pursue our personal transhumanist aspirations, no matter what the consequences for others or for society as a whole.

To try to avoid a new misunderstanding, I never saw claims that extreme made by the leadership of the Extropians group (I'm not, for example, attributing them to Max More), but they were, and probably still are, quite common at the grass-roots level.

Now to my own case. Whatever credentials I have as a transhumanist are actually rather blurred - I've been willing to accept the label when it's applied to me. In some contexts, I've even been willing to apply it to myself as shorthand, or to express solidarity with my transhumanist friends - whose general attitudes to technology do strike me as more rational than those of their opponents. But there are always caveats, whether or not they are always stated.

I don't actually buy wholesale into some body of theory called "transhumanism"; I'm choosier than that, and I'm unconvinced of the merit of many of the specific proposals that emerge from more clearly self-identified transhumanists. Anyway, even if I do count as a transhumanist, this can only be because the words "transhumanism" and "transhumanist" now signify a much wider range of positions than the Randian techno-libertarianism that I associate with Extropian circles. Indeed, some of the leading figures in the World Transhumanist Association are left-wing political activists, as well as being interested in technologies that could alter human capacities.

I replied to the Huffington Post piece with a few comments to try to clear up any misconceptions about where I stand on all of this. What I say below is an edited/expanded version of what I wrote over there.

For a start, I don't think the choice is necessarily between liberal eugenics and authoritarian genetics (which Eskow seems to have understood me as saying), where the latter refers to the government-mandated genetic programs of the past. While the distinction is an important one to make, there are many positions in between, and even liberal eugenics could take more or less "libertarian" forms.

Also, I'm really not fond of the word "libertarian" without qualifications attached to it. The attitudes that I take to some issues are libertarian in a popular sense, i.e. they put a high value on individual liberty. But I tend to think of myself as an Enlightenment or Millian liberal, rather than as a libertarian. "Libertarianism" sounds too much like the position of Rand, say, or Robert Nozick - positions that I repudiate. I don't belong to their "taxation is theft" camp. In practice, my economic positions tend to be centrist and pragmatic, but in principle I am prepared to support very large redistributions of wealth if needed to meet the kind of social democratic objectives that I favour. (Mill himself did not argue for a minimal state, though he did argue for freedom of speech, in particular, and against the use of the criminal law in the absence of fairly direct harms to others.)

The regulation of enhancement technoloiges that I'd want at the end of the day might not be all that libertarian, even in a popular sense. In the context of genetic engineering of children (the technology that Eskow focuses on), I do worry about micro-managing how kids turn out. In another context, I support Richard Dawkins in deploring religious indoctrination of young children, and I am no believer in absolute parental rights to control how kids turn out - irrespective of the interests of society at large or the kids themselves. I also worry about impacts on democratic equality. Finally, I worry about issues of safety and efficacy.

However, I think it's important to criticise opponents of genetic technologies when their arguments overreach or they start to favour overly broad restrictions. I especially think it's important to keep the heat on arguments that seemingly valorise "the natural". Attempting to improve on our evolved nature would be difficult, and should be approached with caution. We could go badly wrong here. But it is best, I think, if we refrain from arguments that have anything to do with the supposed inviolability of nature, or of a specific human nature. In any event, when poor arguments are put along those lines I'll continue to criticise them.