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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) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Naturalistic pluralism and the challenge of human enhancement

This is the first draft of my final section of my final chapter of my current study of human enhancement technologies. Given that this is the climax, I've allowed myself to write with a bit more of a rhetorical flourish than usual. I'll be grateful for any reactions that come my way.

Throughout this study I have examined the challenge of human enhancement technologies, both in a broad sense that covers a range of emerging technological possibilities and in a stricter sense that relates to improvements, beyond therapy, of the human body's form or functioning. I've approached these technologies from an entirely naturalistic perspective that identifies a plurality of acceptable sources for our moral ideas. These sources are things that human beings actually do value, disvalue, or fear, or, more accurately, those human values, etc., that survive rational reflection. Such an approach enables us to criticise the genealogy of traditional morals and to subject current moral intuitions to a degree of sceptical scrutiny. While we cannot step entirely out of our own values, we can certainly obtain some reflective distance from our immediate reactions of psychological comfort or discomfort, and from any gut-level urges to shout, "There oughtta be a law …!"

Naturalistic pluralism, as I've called my approach, has a strong sceptical streak, but it can explain and support much of our commonsense morality, insofar as the latter accommodates partial interests, competition, and some inequality of outcomes, and insofar as it rejects the superlative ambitions that often predominate in philosophical moral systems. In this respect, naturalistic pluralism stands opposed to utilitarian theories, whose criterion of moral rightness is maximum pleasure, or happiness, or preference-satisfaction (or whatever else utility might be thought to consist in).

Because naturalistic pluralism emphasises those things that human beings actually do value, it finds common ground with everyday moral ideas in a way that utilitarianism always struggles to do. Insofar as those values include personal autonomy, and everything that this involves, naturalistic pluralism can also find common ground with a range of liberal viewpoints. Insofar as utilitarians emphasise the relief of suffering, naturalistic pluralists can find considerable common ground with them, too - but the ground is not shared when utilitarians go further, pursuing their superlative ambitions. From the viewpoint of naturalistic pluralism, that is an unwarranted moralistic frolic. Nonetheless, there is much scope for naturalistic pluralists to explore the possibilities of consensus, or at least political compromise, with all these positions, and possibly others. Even if naturalistic pluralism does not catch on (under the name I've chosen, or some other) to the extent I hope, those of us who adhere to it, or to similar positions, have good prospects of influencing real-world political outcomes.

Naturalistic pluralists are interested in the full range of human values that survive rational reflection, so we do not look for any single overarching value that provides the key to moral philosophy, and we do not reject such plain, everyday values as people's wishes for longer and healthier lives, or such plain, everyday fears as the fear of age-related decline. Nor need we reject perfectionist values, relating, for example, to the enhancement of our own physical and cognitive capacities, or to the successful pursuit of art and science. Our viewpoint can embrace a mildly Nietzschean element that is conspicuously absent from much contemporary philosophy. On the other hand, we do not rely on anything as metaphysical as the objective "human dignity" or "worth" beloved of Catholics and Kantians. Since morality is based, in part, on our nature as social animals, naturalistic pluralists can support a degree of bias towards others of our own species, without making the vulgar speciesist claim that we Homo sapiens possess a special worth, independent of how we actually respond to each others' interests.

From the viewpoint that I have argued for, and sought to apply, contemporary debates about human enhancement are marred by an element of moralistic overreaching. Many philosophers and bioethicists (not to mention religious and political leaders, media commentators, novelists, filmmakers, and others with a dog in the fight) want to condemn and restrain what appear to be perfectly rational desires for better health, longer life, increased capacities, new reproductive options, and other benefits that human enhancement technologies may bring. The main point of this study is to reject such moralism. To do so, of course, is not to deny that there are some rationally-grounded fears about the consequences of some human enhancement technologies. Most obviously, genetic engineering could be used in ways that are not actually enhancing at all, but detrimental. Moreover, on any account, there are powerful reasons why much of the research into human genetics should be tightly regulated, in order to give reassurance about matters of safety.

Thus, it is justified for some moralised concern to be expressed about some possible uses of human enhancement technologies, and it is likewise justified for the state to assert a degree of control, partly because the ongoing viability of the social order theoretically could be imperilled by some (I think far-fetched) developments. Like others, I am alert to the possible impacts on social justice and social stability, but I also believe that these risks are frequently exaggerated. Most importantly, given the emotive overreactions of some contemporary thinkers - of whom Leon Kass is surely the most egregious example - and the political overreactions of many legislatures that have enacted savage penal statutes, I emphasise that philosophers can dissent.

Whether or not we are heeded in the short term, we can keep alight the candle of reason in what has become a very dark place. We can insist, perhaps politely, perhaps more passionately, on the need for careful, clear thought about the human - and eventually posthuman - future. We can object to the distortion of public debate that comes from feelings of disorientation or repugnance, from irrelevant or genealogically-suspect moral intuitions, from deference to religious hierarchs, with their spurious claims to moral authority, and from the all-too-common impulse to reach for the crude tools of moral condemnation and legal suppression. I trust that reason will ultimately prevail here, and when it finally does we will establish a basis to respond to any genuine dangers from human enhancement technologies. I have offered such a basis in this study, but these are early days, and my proposals will surely be improved upon by the work of others.

It's important, no doubt, that genuine dangers be identified. But whenever we find them lurking, somewhere in the gloomy penumbra of technological progress, there is always another question we should ask. We should ask why we can't avoid this danger, or that one, while also obtaining the benefits that human enhancement promises. Why not? Perhaps we'll find that we can.

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