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).

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Are there aliens out there? Don't bet on it yet.

There's been a lot of fuss over the past week or so about the discovery of an Earth-like planet "only" 20.5 light years away - detected by the European Southern Observatory's telescope in La Silla, Chile. Circling the red dwarf Gliese 581, the new planet has been christened "581 c". It is at a distance from its sun that suggests a temperature range compatible with life, and it is conjectured that it may have plenty of liquid water - another precondition for life.

It would be exciting if it turned out that the new planet actually contains life, and even the discovery of such a planet in the galactic neighbourhood is pretty damn sensational: it suggests that life-ready planets may be more common than is usually thought.

Some commentators, including my pal George Dvorsky, have raised the question of what this means for the Fermi paradox (the question of why the aliens aren't seen here if they're out there somewhere). George is worried about whether it means that civilisations are doomed to extinction before they reach the exponential technological take-off point that has frequently been conjectured and dubbed "the Singularity".

I must say that I can't get so worked up about this. I'd love it if 581 c contained life, though my betting is that any life will turn out to be at a very primitive stage, if we find it at all. From the limited evidence we have, it takes a very long time for multicellular life to evolve, even once life gets going, and it may not happen in all cases, or even in typical cases. Furthermore, life of any kind may appear on only a tiny minority of so-called "Earth-like" planets. The degree of fine-tuning necessary for life to appear is likely to be many orders of magnitude rarer, in the universe, than the relatively crude set of indicators that get a planet classified as "Earth-like". Even if Earth-like planets should now be thought a few times more common than we previously believed, this may have little effect on the extraordinarily long odds against life existing in any particular block of space-time. In short, there's no warrant to go from the discovery of a nearby "Earth-like" planet to a conjecture that our galaxy is teeming with life, let alone multi-celled life, or life that's well on the way to evolving intelligence.

Even if fairly complex life forms come into existence on a particular planet, what are the odds of evolution leading to something as smart as us, and then to a technological civilisation capable of expanding into space? Bear in mind that, if things had been a bit different, our own planet might still be ruled by dumb dinosaurs: it's widely accepted that the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction had something to do with the asteroid impact that caused the Chicxulub Crater, perhaps coinciding with other contingencies (by itself, the asteroid may not have been enough). This gave life on Earth a second chance - as it were - to take a path that eventually led to the development of big-brained mammals.

Even when human beings appeared on Earth a couple of hundred thousand years ago, it took us almost all of that time to develop science and an industrial civilisation. There's no reason in principle why we couldn't have stayed with stone-age technology for a few more hundreds of thousands of years. Indeed, it's easy to imagine that the evolution of intelligence could have culminated in creatures like dolphins and orcas, which show no sign of ever inventing a technological civilisation, or of evolving into something that will.

There are so many contingencies involved that I'm led to betting - not that I know how I'm going to pick up my winnings - that we are currently the most technologically-advanced species in our galaxy. There may be worlds out there teeming with something like algae, or with something analogous to dinosaurs - and I'd love to see those worlds. Somewhere in the galaxy, there may be a world whose watery surface is dominated by the equivalent of whales and dolphins, or something even more majestic. But there's every reason to think that few planets ever produce something that resembles us as a technological species.

Of course, the universe is a big place. There's probably a more technologically-advanced species than us out there ... well ... somewhere; I'd be crazy to bet against that. Hey, there's probably lots of them. But the odds are, I reckon, that they're in galaxies far away, so far away that they and we will never come in contact.

I also question the assumption in the Fermi paradox that a species like us, with consciousness and the ability to rebel against its selfish replicators, will end up colonising the universe, or travelling in it en masse. The claim is often made that we are destined, beyond a certain point in technological development, to expand into new volumes of inter-stellar space at an exponential rate, and that intelligent species just do this once they obtain space-travel technology. That scenario sounds most unlikely to me. We are more likely to stay home, consciously matching our population size to the carrying capacity of our own planet and the resources available in the local solar system.

That observation may sound as if I'm against space travel and the colonisation of space, which is certainly not true. I don't doubt that we'll eventually explore the solar system and beyond, and I certainly hope there'll be some off-Earth colonisation in the mix of human civilisations as the decades, centuries, and millennia roll by. That could produce an attractive kind of innovation and diversity.

But the whole exponential-colonisation-of-the-galaxy thing always sounds monstrously improbable to me: I don't understand what would drive it, given that we are conscious beings who can make a decision to limit our own population growth to match the habitat that is easily available to us - which is the Earth, so far, and is not likely to extend beyond the local solar system in the foreseeable future. I can understand why it might be fun to send out probes, and even explorers, to find those planets filled with algae or dinosaurs or dolphins. Sure. But why would we want to interfere with those planets? They will be a wonderful interstellar wilderness that we'll want to preserve.

I can't understand why anyone would ever consider the exponential colonisation of the galaxy to be desirable in itself, or why the species as a whole would decide to go down that path. Maybe I'm wrong about that, and it has some value that I'm blind to; but even if I am, I can see us staying in our home solar system pretty much indefinitely until some unimaginable contingency shakes us out of it. Why would that not be a typical response of those technological species with rationality and consciousness? It may be very rare for such species to advance exponentially into surrounding space, even when they do come into existence.

There's a huge, exciting universe out there, and eventually we'll explore it - but we may never try to remake it in our own image. Furthermore, we may well be the most technologically-advanced species that this galaxy has ever known. That seems to me like a reasonable answer to the Fermi paradox, and nothing about the discovery of planet 581 c makes me change my opinion.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Wikipedia meetup with Jimmy Wales

Well, that was a pleasant breakfast meeting! I was pretty nervous through the whole event, worrying whether everything would fall into place properly, since I'd taken it on myself (well, sort of) to organise this gig. But it all seemed fine. Jimmy Wales was good value - soft-spoken but very friendly and articulate, and very willing to share his knowledge and experience with the group who turned up. There were about twenty of us, none of whom I'd met before, so I'm not sure that I've remembered many of them, but hopefully there'll be other occasions.

The Blue Train worked as an excellent venue for a breakfast meeting. I realised later that I'd underpaid my share of the bill by a couple of dollars (ah yes, I did have a coffee as well as my eggs benedict), so in addition to giving the place this free plug I'll have to leave a generous tip next time I'm there. Thanks to whoever miscalculated in the other direction, because the bill was covered. :)

The photos I took were pretty rushed and didn't come out very well, alas, but this one of Jimbo talking to the group isn't too bad.

Next time Jimbo is in Melbourne, whenever that may be, we must all twist his arm to stay a little longer so we can show him around and demonstrate that Australia is not just a big corporate hotel.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Off to meet Jimbo

It somehow befell me to organise a meetup of Melbourne-based Wikipedia contributors with Jimmy Wales when he's in town tomorrow. As Jimbo is booked heavily all day, it has to be an early breakfast, so I'll need to drag myself up at some unconscionable hour in the morning to meet him at his hotel in the city and kinda escort him to The Blue Train.

Actually, I'm looking forward to it. He seems like a nice guy, and it'll be good to meet him in person. I'll report back after the event.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The future of sex, and God, and everything else

My big project has gradually evolved towards this title: Wrestling with Proteus: A Naturalistic Approach to Morality, Law, and the Prospects of Human Enhancement. It may continue to change, but for now I'm laying claim to it before someone else comes up with anything similar. I also have, for now, a concise summary of what I want to demonstrate: "In developing public policy on human enhancement technologies, we should examine a plurality of natural human interests and avoid any overreaching moralism." That's not really as concise as I'd like, but it will have to do; the idea isn't easy to sloganise.

While taking a short breather from actually working on this, I have a chance to reflect on how it started off with a fairly narrow focus on issues to do with distributive justice in access to enhancement technologies - which will now be just one chapter - and has turned into a much more comprehensive, integrated philosophical statement, grounded in metaphysical naturalism, but ultimately applying it to questions about our human, or posthuman, future.

The immediate aim - still - is to reject or defuse a lot of the standard arguments against enhancement of our physical and cognitive capacities, but the same thinking that underpins the conclusions on that topic could be extended to cover the future of many other things. It's not just the extent to which we should use technology to alter ourselves; there's also the future of love, sex, religion, art and literature, law, and all the other central human institutions and experiences. If we're thinking about the future, we need to bring in the whole box and dice of it.

I have some mixed ideas about how my approach relates to transhumanism. On the one hand, I believe that I can integrate my moderately transhumanist views with a much broader, and (I believe) attractive, philosophical position. We need more work that attempts to do something like this. On the other hand, I'm very conscious that a lot of people whom I consider allies - more or less - on the topic of human enhancement technologies would reject my overall worldview and base their support of transformational technologies on quite different grounds. On the gripping hand, there's no way that I am not going to pursue my broad agenda, so it's largely a matter of just getting on with it.

Perhaps I have a vested interest, as one of the few people I know of who are attempting to develop a comprehensive worldview that includes a position on transformational technologies, and potentially a view about many other issues of how - if at all - we should try to shape our collective future. I'll be fascinated to see more attempts to develop large-scale, transhumanism-friendly philosophical positions. I'm sure that there are other folks out there attempting to do just that, even if I can't yet name them. We'll probably see, as their work starts getting published, that there is no single transhumanist view of the world, but rather a rich diversity of viewpoints that each give support to some aspects of the transhumanist project - as long as they don't somehow cancel out, which is always possible.

Surely more people will take on this task, as human enhancement looms larger on the radar for philosophers and other commentators of various kinds. I'm expecting to see some fascinating books hitting the shelves in the next few years. Intellectually, as in so many other ways, this is an exciting time to be alive.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

I'm still a fly

Anyone know that old Gary Larson cartoon where the fly-headed mad scientist is working at his bench, down in his lab? His wife comes to call him for dinner, and is seen complaining, "You're still a fly?"

Well, I did eventually turn human today, but I think I've been a fly for most of it. Apart from stopping to have a shower and get dressed at one point - and some stray food breaks - I've been pretty solidly at the keyboard for the past 15 hours. I've ventured onto various sites to let off steam, but the main result is that I ripped out 10,000 words from the monster I'm working on (only a hundred thousand to go). I also converted I-don't-know-how-many paras of dubious material into a couple of thousand words of good, solid stuff.

Hey, that's a successful effort for one day, but tomorrow I must return to human society. Looking forward to it.

Friday, April 20, 2007

A thousand words per day

Right now, I'm trying to get the thesis, or at least a readable second draft of it, wrapped up as quickly as possible. The only way I know to make something like this actually happen is to set a wordcount schedule for each day and stick to it ruthlessly. That's how professional writers get so much done.

My current aim is a relatively modest one - every day that I am actually at home at all (i.e. not interstate or otherwise tied up for the whole day and evening), I will write 1000 words of material that is good enough to "stick" without much revision until I've finished the draft and can see how it all fits together.

In a sense, that's not too difficult - a lot of the work is just selecting and polishing existing material.

Fact is, I started off a few weeks ago with what I like to call my "first draft" but is really just a horrible mess - a kind of loose bag in which I threw every thought, etc., that might come in handy, in a very rough order. This document was 220,000 words. The "second draft" is intended to be something like 80,000 words, so my other daily task is to be ruthless about jettisoning material, however good or potentially good I think it is, if it doesn't fit into a very tightly structured thesis. I'm managing to do that - despite having written quite a lot of new stuff, I now have 190,000 words on my screen, a net loss of 30,000. But obviously a lot more has to be rationalised, or simply cut out completely and used in another project. I don't have a daily target for this, but I intend to lose some significant number of words each day, by which I mean hundreds - preferably thousands.

It's nice to be writing hard and purposefully again. For a lot of the time, lately, I've been reading, wrestling with ideas, producing short, relatively exploratory pieces, pursuing various tangents, but not really writing something that feels like it might become a book. I've now regained that feeling, and it's a good one to have.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Improving on nature's design

It is always worth stressing one more time that the human body and mind were not literally designed by anyone — no super-intelligence was involved, with an arcane purpose of its own. Rather, the body, including the neurological system and everything dependent on it, evolved through a long period of natural selection. Insofar as the process has fine-tuned us for anything, it is not for carrying out a higher being's wishes or for pursuing our own happiness (however we understand it). It is, rather, for reproductive success in the environment in which our ancestors evolved: for being able to survive long enough, in that environment, to find one or more mates, and to pass down our genetic code to the next and succeeding generations.

Wonderful though the body's design may be, and however precisely our organs may perform their work, they are not necessarily ideal for any purpose, and certainly not for our conscious goals and desires in the current environments where we actually find ourselves. As Daniel Dennett puts it: "a benefit to human genetic fitness is not the same thing as a benefit to human happiness or human welfare." Some "design flaws" — seen from the viewpoint of our actual goals and desires — may be quite gross in scale. Thus, Richard Dawkins observes that many human ailments "result from the fact that we now walk upright with a body that was shaped over hundreds of millions of years to walk on all fours."

Walters and Palmer's The Ethics of Human Gene Therapy highlights the difference between people who broadly favour changing human nature, and human capacities, and those who stand in opposition. Walters and Palmer discuss some possible objections to "moral enhancement" in the sense of gene-mediated stimulation of friendliness to others. One objection is that such a choice implies dissatisfaction with, or even disrespect for, our evolved human nature, but they state forthrightly that they just are dissatisfied with, for example, violent aggressive characteristics (they add that the goal would merely be to moderate these, not achieve perfection).

Later, they add two related points: first, that they are motivated by a particular perspective on human nature and the human condition, which involves dissatisfaction with such things as disease, disability, and certain kinds of intellectual and moral failing; second, their positive attitude to genetic enhancement is underpinned by a dynamic view of human nature, according to which we are not fated to accept the historical situation that we've experienced, and are free to enter upon a task of providing a better world for ourselves and future generations, including by planned changes in the characteristics of human beings.

It is not at all obvious why we should be content with what the blind processes of biological evolution have bequeathed us, and why we should not, at least in principle, wish to improve on the result — where the idea of improvement is explicable in terms of efficiency in achieving what we want, as a knife may be improved by sharpening. Looked at in this way, a general attitude of openness to human enhancement — in all its possible senses — may seem more called for than contraindicated.

That is not to deny that there are risks in tampering with something that is, let us remind ourselves, complex and vulnerable. Buchanan et al, in their superb study, From Chance to Choice, are correct in warning that enhancement may carry greater risks, and less certain benefits, than therapies, may produce unwanted cumulative effects across a society, may lead to collectively self-defeating or unfair outcomes, and may in some cases tempt parents to act on dubious values. All of these points need to be kept in mind, and I will certainly discuss them elsewhere. Nonetheless, the substance of Walters and Palmer's case is the big-picture claim that we do not have to take human nature as we find it. It has no transcendent value, and is, in principle, a legitimate object for suitably cautious attempts at improvement.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Yikes! It's the Number of the Beast

This is trivial, but I had to laugh at it. I just popped into Second Life for a moment and noticed that I currently have exactly 666 Linden dollars. What are they trying to tell me?

Vale, Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut's novels, up to Jailbird, formed one of the main areas of focus for my original Ph.D, on the supposed return to myth in modern fictional narrative, and I was a fan of Vonnegut from my childhood, back in the 1960s, even before the publication of Slaughterhouse 5, his most famous novel. As a kid, I especially loved The Sirens of Titan and Cat's Cradle, which I still consider masterpieces of science fiction black comedy.

Later on, there was a period when the books in which I was most deeply immersed were Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions and The Joy of Sex by Alex Comfort - though it's not at all obvious to me now what they had in common apart from frequent use of line drawings.

Go figure.

I've kept up with all of Vonnegut's books since then, with the exception of his last volume of essays (which I must get my hands on). Vonnegut was a wise and humane man, a great modern writer - profound, brilliant, and funny - and someone who enormously influenced how I see the world, though I sometimes found myself disagreeing with remarks that he made in his old age, when his understandable bitterness at political directions in the US seemed to cloud his judgment.

It was not exactly a shock to me when he died earlier this week, aged 84 - there had been at least one earlier scare, and Vonnegut was far from a young man. In all the circumstances, the news was hardly surprising. But it was still horribly sad to see the loss of a writer whose life and work meant so much to me. I am tempted, as many people are at the moment, to write "So it goes" - but I don't think the ferocious irony of those recurrent words from Slaughterhouse 5, applied by Vonnegut to the fact of death, is widely-enough appreciated. For clarity, a little more needs to be said. It especially needs to be said here, on this transhumanism-friendly blog.

"So it goes, damn it."

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Back in one piece

Jenny and I just got back to Melbourne after a full day of driving. Our dear friends, Corinne and Peter, who were minding the place, have done a great job - and evidently enjoyed our little luxuries, such as the outdoor spa pool (or jacuzzi, or hot tub, or whatever my American interlocutors call it). The house is still standing; Felix seems happy enough. The accumulation of mail does not appear to be beyond human capacity to deal with. Before getting online, I rang my mum and dad to let them know that we made it home in one piece (yet again!), and Jen has also been talking to her family.

All's right with the world, but I won't offer anything more profound for now.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Easter blog break

Away, away for the next week or so, and I'll not have much chance to blog until 15 April. Good luck with your new blog, Blake; I'll call in when I get a chance. Remember that you promised to meet up for a chat with me in Second Life, Holly, but it'll have to be after I get back. I hope IEET and Monash will survive without me for a few days. Everyone, take care.

Friday, April 06, 2007

No skyhooks

This post is meant to sketch very quickly how I "do" moral philosophy.

To adapt a phrase from Daniel Dennett, I aspire to do work in moral philosophy, and related areas of inquiry, with no reliance on skyhooks. I am committed to philosophical, or metaphysical, naturalism.

Putting it another way, I endeavour to analyse the relevant issues without invoking anything Out There or Up There: no gods to issue divine commands and reward the virtuous; no moral facts, properties, or entities that form part of the fabric of the universe; no spiritual principles, such as that of karma, to which we are somehow constrained to conform; nothing that falls outside a strictly naturalistic perspective.

In my view, morality is an important, virtually inevitable, and in many ways desirable social institution. I.e., some kind of morality can be justified. The justification, however, is of a non-epistemic kind. That is, we cannot provide epistemic justification for claims that assert the existence of objectively prescriptive properties and facts, but we can show how the widespread institution of morality has a point and a place in human social life. The next question is, "What point and place?"

Morality arises in response to our nature and our situation. We are rational and sociable, but in many ways vulnerable, animals; we are neither unreasoning brutes nor invulnerable gods. It is unsurprising that creatures like us find reasons to consider certain things valuable — and to fear certain other things. For us, the institution of morality, and particular moral traditions and norms, can be justified by their ability to promote outcomes that we have reason to value, and their ability to reduce the threat of outcomes that we have reason to fear.

We may not all find ourselves with precisely the same reasons - and different equally rational creatures might have reasons very different from ours. But we are sufficiently similar to find many of the same things "good" (and worth preserving and promoting) or "bad" (and worth trying to prevent or ameliorate). Morality is particularly useful in guiding our actions in ways that tend to avert or ameliorate outcomes that most of us would agree in seeing as "bad".

This leads to further, more specific questions about what, specifically, we have good reason to accept or reject.

This account of morality provides the fundamental basis on which I will defend many controversial technologies and practices, and reject the views of bioconservatives, who tend to rely on irrational fears and values.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

My "other" blog

I've been made a featured blogger on the Betterhumans site, so I'll be posting stuff there. Actually, this, here, will still be my primary blog: what I post over there will likely be largely a sub-set of what is posted here (with most of my brief comments just appearing here, along with all the personal stuff involving friends, family, and so on). So there's no need for my faithful readers to migrate. Still it might be worth a look over at the other blog now and then. I may get more responses, as it's a higher profile site, so feel free to join in over there. Also, I just made my first post, which is quite a detailed self-intro.

That ecstasy poll on the IEET site

What a subversive organisation IEET is! I see the final result was 83 per cent saying that ecstasy should be legalised for adults.

I wonder how such a poll would go if it were conducted scientifically and among the entire population. Enormously lower, I'm sure, though I don't rememember seeing a reputable poll on exactly this. We have a long way to go before we convince people to be serious about individual freedom.

It really is crazy that we allow adults to damage children in all sorts of ways, such as threatening them with hellfire or teaching them to feel guilt about their sexuality, but we don't allow adults to decide what substances they can put into their own bodies.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Why do I feel so swamped?


The answer is that I have enough material here - most of it, admittedly, in a terribly messy form - for three books (or Ph.D theses). I've started trying to wrestle enough of it into shape to produce 80,000 words of good stuff over the next few months, but an awful lot of other good stuff will have to be left out. At the moment, I'm both writing and cutting fairly furiously, bearing in mind that I have a self-appointed deadline to produce a good draft by the end of June, a final draft for submission by August/September, and a version to submit to publishers in the remainder of the year. Looks like I'll then have to survey the wreckage and work out how much I've got towards the next book - but that's getting way ahead of myself, as I don't know how successful I'll be with any parts of the above plan.

It becoming clear that I'm not going to be able - in 80,000 words - to do much more than offer some defence of my overall theory of morality, political organisation, and the law, then apply it to a rather confined set of issues related to emerging technologies. The material that ends up on the cutting room floor may actually be more interesting in some ways. Certainly, it will have some more detailed arguments about particular issues. But anything that doesn't fit the shape of the thesis will have to go somewhere else. There's certainly no way I can deal with more than a fraction of what needs to be said about the life extension issue, for example, so that will have to wait for another day.

On the positive side, now I've started this phase I feel very good about doing the actual work. I'm impatient to get it done, which will mean that I'll be frustrated a lot of the time as I have to deal about other aspects of my life, but in a way that's actually a good thing.

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.