About Me

My photo
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, September 27, 2007

It's okay to change your mind

(For various reasons, I'm a bit squeezed on blogging time at the moment, so I've decided to republish some highlights from the past few years, among other entries. This piece first appeared in my old irregular column Eye of the Storm, on the Betterhumans website, back in March 2004, and has previously been republished on the IEET site. I still subscribe to the views expressed here, or most of them (I might not be so clearly opposed to designing the personalities of children by genetic means, though it's still a kind of enhancement that I'm not so comfortable with). Accordingly, I offer them to a new audience with only very slight modification to keep it from being dated.)

Almost everyone these days undertakes some sort of psychological self-improvement. From New Age to neuroscience, do-it-yourself books on mind modification weigh down bookstore shelves around the world. But in an age when genetic engineering and pharmaceuticals promise to allow mental reshaping far beyond anything possible with Seven Habits, we're being forced to confront the question of just how far we should go. It's one thing to increase our physical and mental capabilities, such as using genetic enhancement to extend our lifespan or drugs to increase our cognitive powers. It's another to make genetic or brain changes that alter our desires and emotions, changing what we want to use those enhanced capabilities for.

Arguably, the latter is a deeper change, one that could have an even greater impact on our nature. This thought is strengthened by bioethicist Erik Parens' description, in his introduction to an anthology of essays entitled Enhancing Human Traits: Ethical and Social Implications. The essays were the product of a seminar held at the Hastings Center in 1992. At the Hastings seminar, four scenarios for human enhancement were discussed, the last attracting the most heated opposition. The scenarios were as follows:

1. Our ability to resist disease is increased (most participants thought this was ethically acceptable, as long as "we assume that all persons will have equal access to such a new form of prevention").
2. Our ability to stay alert and get by without sleep is enhanced.
3. Our long-term memory is enhanced.
4. A reduction is made in our more ferocious psychological tendencies, with a corresponding increase in our generosity.

The fourth of these does seem to be the most challenging to our ethical thinking. It is not surprising that it received the most resistance. But are our desires and emotions sacrosanct?

Altered states

Human systems of morality are based, at least in part, on the social reconciliation of species-wide (though individually variable) desires and emotional responses, inherited from our evolutionary ancestry. If those desires and emotions changed, the conditions under which we interact and cooperate in societies would change as well. So would our various moral systems.

In his monumental study of the possible convergence of scientific and humanistic knowledge, Consilience, Edward O. Wilson predicts that future generations will actually recoil from redesigning human emotions and the epigenic rules (or genetically-inherited regularities) of human mental development, since these elements, he says, "compose the physical soul of the species."

"Alter the emotions and epigenic rules enough," Wilson continues, "and people might in some sense be 'better,' but they would no longer be human. Neutralize the elements of human nature in favor of pure rationality, and the result would be badly-constructed, protein-based computers. Why should a species give up the defining core of its existence, built by millions of years of biological trial and error?"

Two initial points can be made in response to this. First, it is not obvious why Wilson portrays the choices as being between our current range of desires and emotions and none at all—the life of a rational, but emotionless, computer. It is certainly difficult to see why we would want to turn ourselves into totally emotionless beings, but this does not rule out changing certain aspects of our emotions. The way Wilson formulates this part of his argument, he is attacking a straw man.

Second — and this is a deeper issue — it is not clear what work the concept of "ceasing to be human" is doing in the argument. Our nature could change considerably without the outcome being that we were no longer human at all. Alternatively, even if we thought it was no longer appropriate to apply the word "human" to ourselves (or our descendants), where does that point lead us? Would we (or they) somehow have lost moral worth?

Not necessarily. We should concede that some imaginable changes would be for the worse. Perhaps there is something especially valuable about having the capacity for a wide range of emotions, including grief as well as joy. As I have discussed, we might well be horrified at a society that found ways to flatten our range of emotional responses. We don't want to turn ourselves into beings of shallow experience, or (as in Wilson's talk of "protein-based computers") without subjective experience at all.

But what if we encountered a "lost race" of beings almost like ourselves, yet with a slightly different range of typical desires and emotional responses, stemming from a different evolutionary history? Imagine, for the sake of argument, that this species turned out to be as keenly sentient and self-conscious as we are, and slightly more intelligent. Imagine that it communicated in complex languages, as we do, and had built up a rich tradition of art and culture. Imagine also that it was less disposed, by nature, to be aggressive or to experience some forms of jealousy.

It is far from clear that we would be these beings' moral superiors, or that a world which contained them, rather than us, would thereby be worse than our own. To make such judgments, we would need to know much more detail. Even then, the value of the two worlds might defy comparison.

If this is correct, there may be scope for considerable changes in human nature (and culture) without any diminution of our moral status, or any loss of value in the world — even if the changes meant that we could be considered, in a sense, nonhuman. Accordingly, consideration of our moral status does not in itself rule out even quite drastic steps to redesign human nature. It is all a matter of what, exactly, would be lost, and of what might be gained.

But why make changes?

Why seek to do any of this? Well, as individuals, we might have good reasons to try to free ourselves from at least some psychological traits that we have inherited from our evolutionary past. They might not suit our rational ideals of ourselves; or they might just be inconvenient for life in our modern environment. As a species, we might one day redesign ourselves on a wide scale if some consensus could be reached on desirable changes.

Take, for example, the fear of death. It is reasonable enough to have projects, relationships, commitments and interests that attach us to life, and thus to wish to go on living. The mechanism of fear might be useful to us in helping us stay alive, and a genetic predisposition to fear death may well have increased our evolutionary ancestors' inclusive fitness (their capacity to pass on their genes to succeeding generations). Granting all that, however, does the degree to which we sometimes fear death—the sense of nagging anxiety or even panic that the thought of death can cause—actually contribute to individual or social happiness? If we could reach into ourselves and rewrite our own emotional code, in order to harmonize our personalities with our rationally considered ideas of what constitutes a happy life, might we not reduce our fear of death in the abstract, while retaining fear responses to situations of immediate physical danger?

More generally, the particular range of desires and emotions that human beings currently have may not be the optimum for our happiness as individuals, or for useful social cooperation in modern environments. It was never designed for those purposes.

When I refer to our happiness as individuals I do not mean simply superficial feelings of pleasure. We might want far more than this. For example, as many philosophers have suggested, we might want to live in touch with reality, have deep feelings, create beauty, achieve remarkable things, exercise or challenge our physical and cognitive abilities, and so on. But there is no reason to think that our current range of desires and emotions is the most effective possible for helping us to achieve happy lives in this sense.

After all, to the extent that we have a species-wide repertoire of desires and emotions it has an evolutionary explanation. Presumably this repertoire promoted our ancestors' inclusive fitness in the environment of evolutionary adaptation. However, what we most care about, whether as individuals or at the social level, is not the passing on of our genes. Some people have even made conscious decisions not to have children. We all have plans and projects that are far more important to us than maximizing our inclusive fitness, which is quite simply not a conscious goal for most people. Surely this is not what consciously motivates people to have children.

To take another example, it seems clear that human beings as a species are inclined to be largely, but not entirely, monogamous. We are more monogamous than chimpanzees or bonobos, but it is a cliché of evolutionary biology that men are genetically programmed, at least to some extent, to stray into polygamous ventures. In his provocative book The Red Queen, Matt Ridley argues that women are also predisposed, to some extent, to extramarital liaisons. But at the same time, men and women are predisposed to sexual jealousy.

All of this causes much strife for individuals and our society. Might we not be better off if people were more perfectly monogamous? Alternatively, in a world of fairly reliable contraception, childless-by-choice couples, and greater intellectual sophistication about these things (from reading books by Matt Ridley, for example), might we not be even better off if people were less predisposed to sexual jealousy? Either way, our current mix of propensities does not seem optimal for our happiness, much as it may be explicable in Darwinian terms.

A more prosaic example is our love of sugar-rich foods. This was doubtless of benefit to our evolutionary ancestors, and helped them to pass on their genes, in an environment where sugar was relatively scarce. It is now positively damaging to our health, in a dramatically different environment where sugar is easy to produce and available in abundance. Perhaps we should change our psychology so that we have a greater desire for fibrous, vitamin-rich foods, and a lesser desire for sugar.

Alternatives and implications

Of course, we have many alternatives. We could cooperate socially to reduce the availability of sugary foods, or to make them less of a temptation by imposing advertising restrictions. As individuals, we can make conscious decisions not to act on our desire for sugar, or to do so only as an occasional treat. Still, the problem would be easier to solve if we had less desire for sugar in the first place.

In short, there is nothing fundamentally wrong about changing our psychology. The inherited repertoire of human desires and emotions is not inviolable. Perhaps the desires and emotions that should be preserved are those which we would endorse if we fully understood our own psychology and its evolutionary genealogy. There is no Archimedean point to which we can step, somewhere entirely out of our own desires and emotions, but we can at least look at what we really want in the environment that we now find ourselves in, and try to bring some elements of our desires and emotions into line with our rationally endorsed values and goals.

The difficulty is that we lack both the scientific knowledge and—let us face it—the wisdom to start all over again. In that light, some methods of changing ourselves would surely be more trouble than they are worth, and are not currently justifiable. If, for example, we tried to make inheritable changes to human psychological nature through germline genetic modification, we would be running monstrous risks. Genes typically have many effects (are pleiotropic), while even far simpler phenotypical characteristics than our psychological predispositions are affected by the cooperation of many genes (such characteristics are said to be polygenic). For the foreseeable future, the complex interactions of genes and human psychology may rule out the genetic redesign of the latter.

This also suggests that designing the custom-made personalities of individual children may never be feasible, and may to be too risky to be attempted. That, in turn, may limit the other kinds of enhancements that we should make to children, since there is the risk in any individual case of a mismatch of alterable capabilities and practically unalterable psychological dispositions (Nicholas Agar is one philosopher who has discussed similar issues). When we are thinking about genetic modification, it seems rational to focus on increasing our resistance to aging and disease—and perhaps on increasing our general cognitive abilities—before we start tampering with our desires and emotions themselves, or giving our children individual, custom-made talents.

However, if our happiness as individuals is impeded by desires and emotions that we want to disown, there are more everyday ways to try to change ourselves than using genetic modification. Perhaps we are best off if we can make the changes we desire through individual self-examination and insight, associating with people who already seem to have the kind of species-atypical psychological makeup that we aspire to, reading books about the experiences of such people, and so on.

Yet some of the desires and emotions that we want to disown might be too deep for us to reach by these methods. In this case, I see nothing wrong in principle with more direct physical changes to ourselves, such as if we can design safe, effective drugs that help reduce our craving for sugar (or our fear of death, and so on).

The point of this debate, then, should not be that there is a general moral rule against tampering with our inherited nature. Indeed, such tampering might be justified. Rather, we need to acknowledge that it would necessarily be a piecemeal, iterative process. It would begin with efforts by individuals to change those aspects of themselves that they rationally disapprove of. At one end of the spectrum of possibilities, a program of genetic alteration of the personalities of our children would be undesirable. All that said, there is no overriding objection to using technological means to modify our own personalities, and ultimately to reshape human nature. After all, self-help books are a type of technology too.


Anonymous said...

Alternatively, even if we thought it was no longer appropriate to apply the word "human" to ourselves (or our descendants), where does that point lead us? Would we (or they) somehow have lost moral worth?

Unlikely that we would have lost our moral worth, true. But I can't help but feel that there is something intrinsically desirable to stay 'human'. Most people's intuitions say that there is, while it is worth examining otherwise, I tend to lean towards the majority.

If you imagine the last patch of wilderness in the USA. This 20km x 20km piece of land is the last part of country that hasn't been disrupted. Now I propose we change it. Get rid of those weeds, with more plant life we will have more animal life. Add some Australian trees that are drought resistant. I propose some changes that will make the land thrive with many more species, as well as the species that exist.

I think that most people would find this wrong - there just seems to be something wrong with losing what was 'originally' conceived. Of course my example is probably riddled with flaws (ie. not measuring humans are part of the ecosystem) but I think the point remains in bioethics.

There has to be some reason why we would want to keep an aspect of our humanity. Some reason why, biologically speaking, we don't want to remove ourselves from our ancestors. Some reason why increases in happiness (which at some point must be only marginal) isn't the counter argument for changing ourselves.

It was a very interesting article - makes me even more annoyed that you can't do honours in bioethics!


Russell Blackford said...

^I wonder whether there aren't extraneous issues feeding into that intuition about a value in preserving humanness itself. We may have some kind of sentimental attachment to our historical selves. I'm not even going to say that there's anything wrong with a degree of sentimentality about such things, but it can't be determinative ... otherwise why not worry that there are no Spartan warriors anymore?

Or we may have difficulty really imagining a scenario where we'd be able to retain characteristics such as self-consciousness, capacity for self-reflection, sense of ourselves in time, and so on, while at the same time ceasing (by some standard to be human).

Similarly, there may be extraneous factors shaping the intuition about that last piece of wild ground in the US. We may value diversity itself to an extent, and feel something was lost if a particular kind of wilderness disappeared entirely, making one less in the world. Or we may have a sentimental attachment to that particular kind of wilderness (for historical reasons and cultural reasons perhaps). Or we may feel sympathy for other people who'd have such an attachment. I would in fact feel uncomfortable doing what you say with that thought experiment, but I find it hard to believe that it's because I'm concerned at some level about what was "originally conceived".

Anonymous said...

I think that you and I are arguing from subtly different interpretations of what it means to "lose our humanity". I was thinking more along the lines that when the differences are so notable that we are literally talking about subspecies. I was also assuming that all humans went down this path. I also feel that, if you consider all of humankind moving into a subspecies as a result of transhumanism, the arguments that you mentioned for the original wilderness may also apply, particularly the sentimental attachment.

I suppose a better thought experiment might be to 'breed out' dingo's everywhere and turn them into domestic dogs. If they leave a much happier life...

I know this is quite off topic, but the argument I am most interested in at the moment (and what I was originally planning on doing my honours about) was Francis Fukuyama's argument that you addressed:


At first I was convinced that you were correct, but now I am not so sure. I think that point 7. is an enormously complicated one. In the form you have written, I tend to agree, but the problem with bioethics is that the party that ends up disadvantaged is the children. Therefore if religious people refuse to participate, the people who are suffering are those unluckily enough to be randomly born to religious parents.

This reminds me a lot of the Nozick/Cohen debate I am doing at studying at the moment with Rob Sparrow. If A and B perform a transaction between consenting adults, but it negatively affects C, does C have right of complaint? This is further complicated by the fact that, say, B has the authority to make sure C is not negatively affected, which is rational to do so, yet refuses.

What responsibility does A have? It doesn't seem obvious to me to answer "none". Of course, it certainly doesn't seem right to me to answer "complete responsibility".

Russell Blackford said...

Stuart, there's too much there for me to address it all right now, but I'll just look at your last question. A and B perform a consenting act that negatively affects C. You ask whether C has a right to complain.

It seems to me that whether C has a right to complain, relative to a moral system, depends on whether the rules of that moral system say that C has been wronged by the act of A and B. Whether the moral system's answer is the correct one will depend on your standards for moral systems - e.g. you may think that there is only one correct moral system, to be assessed by some standard or other, in which case, you need to know this: does the correct moral system tell us that C has been wronged?

It appears clear enough that there are cases where the consenting behaviour of A and B negatively affects C, but it is plausible A and B have not wronged C.

Here's an example. C applies for a job and she will be a strong candidate - indeed, she is likely to get the job. A encourages B to apply for the job and helps B write her application. As a result of A's actions in assisting B, C misses out on the job. C has been negatively affected by the consensual actions of A and B, but it looks to me as if C has no basis to complain. One way of expressing this is to say that A and B were within their rights to act as they did.

I'm not committed to a rights theory of morality, or necessarily to any particular kind of moral theory. But it does seem to me that this is a case where most moral theories or systems will say that C has no basis for complaint.

Of course, there are other cases where C clearly does have a basis for complain. E.g. A and B may get together (consensually) to murder or rob or swindle C.

Am I missing something, or misunderstanding something? The answer seems to be that it depends.

With the bit about the possibility that A has the power to ensure that C is not negatively affected, again it will depend. Even if, in my example, A were rich enough to pay C enough money to ensure that C was just as happy as if she got the job, we don't tend to think that she's morally obligated to do so. Morality doesn't extend that far in requiring that we be soliticitous the interests of others whom our actions affect, or so we tend to believe unless perhaps we are radical utilitarians.

Again, what am I missing?

Anonymous said...

I guess you aren't really missing anything - my statement wasn't very well laid out.

I also agree with your examples and what you've said, but I think in the case of transhumanism perhaps A and B do owe C some form of responsbility.

So - A decides to enhance their children so they will be happier and more sucessful

B decides, because of religious reasons, not to use any transhumanism.

C is the children of B, who had no say in the orginal agreement. C has no right to complain that A's children are happier, but it seems to me that C does have a right to complain if they are more sucessful - since success in our society has a limit (ie. We can't all be upper class having other people working for us)

If C has a right to complain that A's children are now more sucessful than he (his kind?) can be, through a transaction that occured of which he had no say it just made me think. Your original point was was that you disagreed with

We should not act so as to create a situation where people who have the religious worldview come under social pressure to act in ways that are contrary to their worldview.

Now I am not saying that you are wrong and Fukuyama is correct, but it seems to me that more is going on than meets the eye.

If B felt social pressure for something relating to themselves, it would be a different story.

But that is not the case - they are feeling social pressure to act for an exchange that they shouldn't be fundamentally responsible for.

Anyway, I have been thinking about it a great deal, as I would like to write my honours thesis on it, but that depends on a great variable of things such as whether or not you can even do honours in bioethics n the first place.

Anonymous said...


If your argument is just based on their being a limit to success in a capitalist society I don't see how you can draw the conclusion that A is doing anything wrong. It seems to me that overall utility is unlikely to be reduced as a result of A enhancing her children, she just allows her children some of the utility B's children would have had if A had not enhanced her children. But why should an action that changes the distribution of wealth from what it would have been inherently unjust?

Maybe it's the inegalitarian nature of the outcome, but in this case there are so many other aspects of our society that are inegalitarian that it's hard to see why this one would be any worse. I mean why not criticise universities because people who do not go to university end up with worse jobs? Even if the universities didn't accept full-fee paying students and there were no private schools, still some people would get into university and some would not so we would have an inegalitarian outcome. Indeed maybe some religions have problems with people being educated in secular environments so religious children are disadvantaged. I'd be interested to know if you see any significant points of disanalogy between human enhancement and university education.

Thomas Hendrey

Anonymous said...

I'd be interested to know if you see any significant points of disanalogy between human enhancement and university education.

I suppose the main difference is why the 'person who benefits' benefits.

In the case of human enhancement the person who gets enhanced because their complete luck to be born to rich parents - it is random.

In the case of university education, the person who gets the education does so because they got the highest grade, so they would be more suited (overall) to the higher paid job.

(you might say this is a simplistic answer, and in a way you are correct, but there are many ‘unfair’ aspects of university education – ie. Poor families being under represented – which colours the analogy you draw.)

Anonymous said...

"In the case of university education, the person who gets the education does so because they got the highest grade, so they would be more suited (overall) to the higher paid job."

But ultimately isn't it a matter of 'luck' that a person has what it takes to get the highest grade?

I agree that there is unfairness in our university system but I don't see how it can harm my case. In any case we can make the analogy more abstract and closer to your argument. Suppose we have some educational institution, open to every one, and provides extremely valuable careers based education. It develops exactly the skills employers want so having such an education is a serious advantage to getting. Suppose further this is the only institution to provide such training. Now there is a sect which sees education as unnatural and therefore children born into this sect never get this education. Those children, however, are just as capable before training as others, the training is not necessary for any job, though it is useful, and the people of the religious sect aspire to all the areas of employment that the training is useful for. Is there anything wrong with sending one's children to such an institution? It seems to me no. Is there anything wrong with having the institution? Certainly if it is possible to cater for the concerns of the sect that would be desirable, but even if this is impossible it seems to me fairly clear that there is nothing wrong with having the institution. What do you think? Does it matter what the size of the sect is, or the nature or usefulenss of the training? Or is there still some disanalogy between this and genetic enhancement?

Anonymous said...

But ultimately isn't it a matter of 'luck' that a person has what it takes to get the highest grade?

Yes, but it is luck that we cannot control, as well as "someone has to do it". Besides, I can claim that that you are using our current society to proove wrong an abstract example (perhaps in my ideal society anyone who wants to go to university can)

However, the analogy you draw at the end is very clever: a sect that refuses to send its children to university. I have to admit you have swung me over quite a bit with that one.

My intuition might be a little different compared to most others, but I would claim that the sect does not have the right to deny their children this education. (This is further pronouced if we use an example like "the sect believes that all girls cannot attend")

Is the solution for society to force the kids into the education (or transhumanism)?

Is the solution to allow their parents to do what they will, pass on to their children a massive disadvantage?

Like I said - I am not conviced of either side, but it seems to be that doing nothing is not a clean answer.

Imagine in the future it is common practise to take 100 intelligent apes, lock them up so they can't move and kill them and harvest their organs every year. This drasically improves mental and physical properties. Now you think this is wrong, but the-world-philosophical-body has deemed it acceptable practise.

If you had the choice for doing this for yourself, and you decided not to, I believe this is a "free choice".

If you had the choice for doing this for your child, I don't believe we can see this as a free choice in the same context. If you don't do it it will negatively impact your child. Thus society is forcing you to choose between you morals and someone elses happiness.

The reason I use this analogy is to try to get an insight as to why religious people might see it as an unfair choice that they have to make.

Now, the flaw that I can see my argument is the lack of options. While I might not like forcing Religious people to make that choice, that might be the lesser of two evils.

Like I said from the start, I am not overally convinced by my argument, but it seems that there is more going on than meets the idea: To force someone to choose between their ideals and someone else's happiness.

Russell Blackford said...

Aaaarrggghhh, more problems about these (perhaps hypothetical) sects that refuse to act in what seem like the best interests of their children. I was just replying, in an unsatisfactory (or at least unsatisfying) way, to an issue about this that came up in comments on an earlier post.

I suppose my gut feeling - which isn't necessarily a good way to do philosophy but let's get it on the table anyway - is that if it were my kid I wouldn't want it to be held back by the fact that someone else refuses, based on their private or religious morality, to do the same for their kid. I mean, wasn't this the original example, rather than it being differential wealth that led to one kid not getting enhanced? I guess I'm siding with Thomas here, or maybe just showing my transhumanist prejudices.

The analogy is to the Amish, who won't let their kids go to school beyond about the age of 14. Surely we wouldn't think it incumbent on us to make sure our kids don't have the benefits, positional and otherwise, of extended education, out of solicitude for the Amish falling behind.

But there's a problem of course. What do we, then, do about the Amish and their educational practices? The US Supreme Court allowed them to keep the kids out of school - they argued, and the court accepted, that it was necessary to save the Amish culture. You could google to find the judgment.

But does something like a culture have a "right" to continue to exist if education causes people to leave it voluntarily? There's some controversy about that USSC decision, but on the other hand, in a liberal society, how heavy-handed are we going to be? Conversely, is a liberal answer good enough if the welfare of kids is involved? It looks to me as if there just is a tragic clash of genuine values here. Whatever we do, we won't entirely solve it, but the one thing we certainly won't do is let the Amish hold back everybody else.

Would it be different if the Amish were the majority, while a minority wanted to give their kids much longer educations? I don't see how it would be.

Stuart, I led a graduate seminar program about transhumanism this semester for the honours philosophy students, and a couple of them are now writing essays - though not theses. There's no honours year for bioethics, but it might be worth your while to have a talk to Justin Oakley or Rob Sparrow about what possibilities there might be to look at this stuff when you do honours.