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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).

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Saletan on Sandel and human perfection

The New Tork Times review of Michael Sandel's The Case against Perfection by William Saletan gets things about half right, as Saletan says of Sandel himself. In fact, I'd go a bit further and say that Saletan gets things about two thirds right.

Saletan is generally correct when he comments on the relative weakness of many conventional arguments against human enhancement technologies. These arguments typically rely on such concepts as safety, coercion, exploitation, the nontherapeutic character of enhancements, or their likely unavailability to the poor. As Saletan observes, "Sandel rebuts these objections, pointing out that they’re selectively applied and can be technically resolved."

In fact, this may be rushing things somewhat, as some of the arguments being dismissed here have more power than Saletan acknowledges, and they at least demand of us that we find those technical resolutions, or the closest approximations available. Still, it is true that all such arguments have less force than is commonly acknowledged. With close philosophical scrutiny, we can largely debunk some of them, and with hard technical and political work we may be able to reduce the remaining problems to a point where they are far less threatening than popularly believed. Since there will be some gains, it's hard to be confident that we'll be worse off on balance. I expect that we'll be better off, though that can never be guaranteed, and even hardened transhumanist thinkers (more hardened than I am) need not be entirely optimistic about what will actually happen.

Still, these conventional arguments against enhancement are dubious at best. If some safety isssues, for example, remain intractable, that will close of certain options, but it will not provide a principled basis for us to reject enhancement technologies in toto.

While Saletan handles all this well, albeit briefly, he is actually more impressive when he demolishes Sandel's real arguments against enhancement, particularly the idea that some human practices would be distorted by the use of enhancement technologies. There's a deep problem here, as Saletan highlights.

If certain practices change, so do the expectations of their participants or (in the case of sports and entertainment) their audience. If theatre audiences no longer wish Broadway musicals to have certain features rather than others, or if sports fans no longer want to see American football played in certain ways that belong to a past era, why should we side with the purists, or old fogeys, or want things to happen as they once did? The spectacle of musical entertainment or elite sport changes when innovations such as sound amplification are introduced to the stage, or when it becomes possible to introduce gigantic linemen into the field of play. While Sandel may claim that the latter degrades the game of American football and the dignity of the players, it is not clear what firm foundation of values he has to stand on. New generations of fans, who have been socialised differently, will have different intuitions from Sandel's, and Sandel cannot claim that his just are right, as if he has a mysterious faculty that is tracking objectively prescriptive properties (properties that require us to value this approach to football rather than that one). By analogy, Saletan observes, we now accept coaching in athletics, despite concerns, back in the 1920s, about violating the spirit of amateur competition.

In short, times change, and with them people's socialised values. All this is likely to apply to practices that would change in the wake of enhancement technologies.

That does not mean that no values ever survive interculturally or intertemporally. All human societies need to keep order; all human societies need to give some place to the universal responsiveness of human beings to each other; more controversially, perhaps, all value such things as the acquisition of knowledge and the exercise of creativity. But it is not true that all societies must place the same value on one method of exercising creativity rather than another - one particular set of conventions for Broadway musicals, for example. Not much weight can be placed on intuitions about the value of quite precise practices that vary over time or among contemporaneous societies.

As Saletan reports, Sandel tries to introduce a notion of "giftedness" to ground his intuitions about the value of practices that he wants to preserve. If the element of sheer chance is reduced, we will no longer view our talents as "gifts" in the same way, and this will alter our behaviour. (I actually think this is exaggerated, as there is no serious prospect of eliminating all chance elements that contribute to individuals' talents and realised abilities, but I'll let that issue go for the sake of argument.)

Perhaps a greater control of our own levels of ability, and those of our children, would place a greater responsibility on us to make certain decisions, but it is not clear why that is such a bad thing. Saletan says, interestingly, that, "Given a choice between a world of fate and blamelessness and a world of freedom and responsibility, I’ll take the latter. Such a world may be, as Sandel says, too daunting for the humans of today. But not for the humans of tomorrow." I think he's right about this: times change, and people adapt to new technologies and standards. If the change damaged the functioning of social order or produced misery, there might be a case against it, but the mere addition of a new kind of responsibility does not appear to have either effect, so long as the people concerned are psychologically capable of dealing with it - which, as Saletan suggests, they may well be.

Where Saletan goes wrong, however, is in his sympathy with the idea that we could not know whether enhancement was perfecting us or diminishing us, since the meaning of perfection would, itself, evolve. The latter point is true, of course: there is no timeless, objective standard of "perfection" that we are always getting closer to, and our desires for greater capacities would themselves expand if our capacities expanded. Thus, we may never reach a situation where we are actually satisfied with the capacities that we have obtained. But so what? Saletan puts some weight on this, and suggests that it makes Sandel half right, but I don't see how. It appears to me that Sandel is not half right, and that Saletan himself is worrying unnecessarily. The reason for this is that no technology is ever introduced in an effort to achieve a statically-defined level of perfection. Consider ...

Technologies are generally invented to fulfil much more specific and limited desires, and they sometimes succeed in that respect. Then, notoriously, "the street finds finds its own uses for things" (per William Gibson): new technologies are often co-opted for other desires that their creators might not even have contemplated ... and this co-option may also be successful. It is in our nature to act in this way, attempting to augment our own powers, without having any static, definable, objective ideal of perfection in our sights. We do not judge technological progress by its approach to some such ideal. It is generally sufficient if technological innovations cater to some of the more constricted desires that we actually have.

Current human desires are always confined within certain horizons of what we can imagine, or think of as good for us, while the horizon of future human beings' desires will probably expand. So be it. Things have always been thus.

Of course, we might condemn a technological change if it did not merely alter a current practice that we enjoy, but recognise as ephemeral, such as the particular features looked for in Broadway musicals or in football players. Some technological change might have consequences that go beyond the alteration of particular practices (and, concomitantly, particular values and expectations). What if the change led to social breakdown or to human misery, or what if it (ironically perhaps) brought about a reversion to barbarism and ignorance? But Sandel does not make an argument along those lines, and I doubt that any such argument could be made. (I realise that television is accused of many ill effects, and the creation of a barbaric and ignorant audience may be among them, but I also think that this is wildly exaggerated by people with little sense of history.)

Sandel and Saletan have given us no reason to expect human enhancement to create a social breakdown. Nor is there a reason to feel compassion for the human beings of the future, with their very different socialisation, experience, and values. They are not suitable candidates for our compassion any more than we would be for those folks from the 1920s who did no wish to lose the spirit of amateur competition in athletics.

Nothing said by Sandel or Saletan provides any good argument for the moral condemnation or legal prohibition of postulated technologies such as human genetic engineering. Saletan's argument does succeed in bringing out why we might feel a sense of vertigo if we try to imagine the impossible situation in which literally everything is up for grabs, including our own deepest values. (Greg Egan's story "Reasons to be Cheerful" is a nice fictional representation of a character having the experience of something like this.) However, the feeling of vertigo is induced by contemplating a scenario that is not realistic. Even if we have a reason to avoid gaining such total control, we do not have a reason to avoid gaining the incrementally greater control - and still greater control, and slightly more still - that is likely to be possible. To mangle some words of Martha Nussbaum's, even if there are some races that we do not want to win totally, we may still have reason to run them and to seek whatever kind of victory is genuinely in the offing.

In short, Sandel's book has some useful things to say (about stem cell research for example), but he is nowhere near to being half right in his arguments about enhancement technologies. Times will change, and so will people, and so will what they value and desire (and fear). Meanwhile, there are some deep-seated, considered values of our own that we may not be prepared to think of as merely relative, though they are surely contingent on facts about our biological history. These include the survival of the social order and the relief of misery and suffering - but they are not the values that are stake in debates about human enhancement, certainly not in the debate as framed by Sandel.

Many of the arguments developed by bioconservatives are so wrong-headed that I have to wonder what is really behind them, especially when the arguments are used to support truly comprehensive and passionately-maintained opposition to certain technologies. I remain fascinated by the question of what motivates this kind of poorly-supported, yet clearly heart-felt, opposition, apart from a parochial commitment to how things have happened in the past. That, however, is a subject for more thought and research. Meanwhile, no argument yet produced by the bioconservatives persuades me that we cannot live with human enhancement technologies. Nothing persuades me that we won't benefit.

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