Friday, September 17, 2004

The Intersection of Frontier and Justice Ethics

Cambridge-based philosopher Amartya Sen brought together a group last year to discuss bioethics and global health. Since he was then the Master of Cambridge's Trinity College, the papers that Lancet has just published (18 September 2004 ) out of that seminar are called the "Trinity Papers." All but one are free with registration.

"Global health and moral values "
- Sabina Alkire, Lincoln Chen

"Health and social justice"
- Jennifer Prah Ruger

"Rediscovering human dignity"
- Richard Horton

"Bioethics, health, and inequality"
- Giovanni Berlinguer

"Ethics of the social determinants of health"
- Jennifer Prah Ruger

Berlinguer's paper, for instance, argues that more attention is given to "frontier bioethics", including transhumanist issues, than to the "everyday ethics" of health inequities and the social determinants of health. He focuses on three issues on the frontier - sex selection of embryos by pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), organ sales, and human cloning - to show that they have equity dimensions. His argument:
Both frontier and everyday areas of bioethics deserve equal attention and are closely inter-related. Their intersection could give rise to stimulating philosophical debates, to a better understanding of moral principles, and to coordinated actions...
which is precisely what left transhumanism is all about. Unfortunately his brief discussion of these three issues only raises questions, and the rest of the piece rambles on about the need for bioethics to join the fight against globalization and in defense of universal health care.

On sex selection Berlinguer notes that prenatal sex selection is a reflection rather than a cause of patriarchy, but then asserts that the bioethics debate over the permissibility of sex selection in developed countries "can hinder any effort to reduce any kind of sex selection in any part of the world."

Huh? You think families in India or China are going to be more likely to pursue prenatal sex selection because they heard it was legal in the U.S. or Europe, where it is overwhelmingly used for family balancing? Or that Indian policy makers are hanging on the latest missive from the Hastings Center before passing laws? And if there was such a legitimation of prenatal sex selection by Western bioethics don't the principles of reproductive rights and procreative liberty that we use to argue for Western parents' rights to select their baby's sex also then have to be discouraging patriarchal violation of women's rights in the developing world?

Discussing the debate over whether financial incentives should be permitted to encourage organ donation, Berlinguer basically suggests that it will encourage and legitimate organ markets and slavery in the developing world. On cloning, Berlinguer is similarly obtuse, parroting the notion that use of an reproducive technology somehow robs the child of autonomy: "use of science in favour of genetic arrogance would deny or discourage the daily efforts of any person to build autonomously his or her own future."

So the interweaving he is pursuing is simply to tell Western liberal bioethicists who are trying to defend bodily autonomy and procreative liberty in debates over emerging technologies to shut up because they will somehow contribute to fascism and slavery in the developing world.

In her retort to the Berlinguer screed, Melissa Lane agrees that "Bioethics for the individual cannot be severed from bioethics for the collective." But then she points out that:
To ban PGD (prenatal genetic diagnosis) altogether, solely to avoid sex selection, would be futile in terms of the broader problem of sex selection, and would be foregoing the help that PGD can offer to the infertile patient undergoing in-vitro fertilisation. A better approach would be to regulate the uses of the technique (and of amniocentesis and abortion) to make certain uses impermissible, while investing heavily in education to change the underlying factors that drive sex selection.
I don't agree that any restrictions on the use of PGD for germinal choice is warranted actually, but regulated germinal choice is better than none at all.

As to organ sales Lane notes that the real issue is whether the sale of one's organs impairs one's capabilities in life (alluding to JS Mill and the "capabilities" approach pioneered by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum). Selling sperm doesn't harm capabilities, selling one kidney does a little bit, and selling your liver does a lot. Unless you are already dead.

Ruger's "Health and Social Justice" summarizes the "capabilities approach" to health policy, and illustrates why this approach has left transhumanist implications:
health has special moral importance because of its status as an end of political and societal activity. According to Aristotle, society's obligation to maintain and improve health rests on the ethical principle of "human flourishing" --the ability to live a flourishing, and thus healthy, life. Flourishing and health are inherent to the human condition. Indeed, certain aspects of health sustain all other aspects of human flourishing because, without being alive, no other human functionings are possible, including agency, the ability to lead a life one has reason to value. It can be argued, therefore, that public policy should focus on the ability to function, and that health policy should aim to maintain and improve this ability by meeting health needs. This view values health intrinsically and more directly than solely "instrumental" social goods, such as income or health care. It gives special moral importance to health capability: an individual's opportunity to achieve good health and thus to be free from escapable morbidity and preventable mortality.
Ensuring universal access to the technologies that facilitate humans reaching their full "flourishing" and capabilities is the core of the left transhumanist project. Since
a capability view of health does not specify which type of health care (eg, a list or basic benefits package) should be guaranteed and to what level. Rather, it recognises the need for further specification through a democratic process
the challenge is to ensure that indefensible distinctions between enhancement and therapy don't keep safe, cost-effective enhancement treatments out of the package of basic guaranteed benefits.

Mark Walker: Where did Marx go wrong?

Where did Marx go wrong?

by Mark Walker

At the risk of simplifying: Marx erred in his view of human nature. Marx saw humans as having a nature that is social and productive. Various forms of impoverished economic and social life could corrupt this nature, with capitalism being the latest and the greatest of the corrupters. For instance, capitalism has the power to turn naturally productive humans into unproductive proletarians who are productive only through coercion (e.g.. through the threat of unemployment). Capitalism also has the power to turn naturally sociable humans anti-social, which is expressed in a variety of forms of conflict and violence.

In a post-capitalist society Marx thought that for the first time humans would realize their true natures, specifically, for the first time everyone would be fully productive and sociable. Of course many today smile at Marx's vision, particularly the idea that the state would wither away with the death of capitalism. Given his view of human nature, the vision is not as naive as it might first appear. If everyone were to realize their nature to be productive then at least one very common justification for capitalism--that it curbs the natural tendency of humans to be unproductive free-riders in the absence of coercion--is decisively answered. So too is one very common justification for the state--that it curbs the natural tendency of humans to be anti-social in the absence of coercion. So while Marx's vision of a post-capitalist society might look more plausible given this view of human nature, this hardly seems to matter, since his view of human nature is dead wrong.

How did Max get his view of humanity so wrong?

In part, the answer must be that like his master, Friedrich Hegel, his historical analysis of humanity was somewhat temporally circumscribed. Hegel and Marx analyzed humanity basically in terms of the transition to civilization and the development of civilization--a few tens of thousands of years on the outside. A complete history of humanity requires going back further in time: about 4.5 billions years further back. When we look at the development of the biological aspects of our being, as opposed to merely the development of human culture and civilization as Hegel and Marx concentrated on, we see how implausible this view of human nature is. Indeed, any Marxian today would be remiss not to account for the evolutionary history of the biological aspects of our being.

Of course, taking an evolutionary perspective might seem to favor capitalism. After all, how many times have we heard that capitalism is in effect sublimated natural selection? Nature is "red in tooth and claw" says Darwin; the Smithian defender might say that capitalism is "green in tooth and claw". Capitalism, then, and not Marxism, is better in tune with our natures. Right? Hardly. One phenomena evolutionary theorists of humanity have had to struggle with is the incredibly cooperative, that is, social nature of human beings. And capitalism cannot take credit for sublimating our less social instincts, since humans have a history of social behavior that predates capitalism, and indeed, many of our primate relatives are also incredibly social. People also appear to be productive by nature: any view that says that people are idle by nature and are only productive with coercion is flat out wrong.

But, given that I said Marx had the wrong view of human nature, and claim that people are social and productive by nature, haven't I just contradicted myself? No. The reason there is no contradiction here is that we must realize that people are also anti-social and unproductive by nature as well.

These "contradictions" in our nature can also been seen in our closest living relative the chimpanzee. Chimps are incredibly social beings but they are also at time anti-social. Jane Goodall reports how Chimps will form raiding parties to kill neighboring troops. (As she notes, such behavior looks like a precursor to the warfare so characteristic of human populations). A mere passing acquaintance with humans and chimps informs us that unproductive free-rider behavior is also part of our biological nature.

Given this "contradictory" nature, it might seem that we have to cede the victory to capitalism. The argument here might be that capitalism and the state work on the lowest common denominator: to the extent that we are productive fine, to the extent that we are not productive capitalism will force us to be; to the extent that we are social fine, to the extent that we are not social the state will for us to be. However, to accept this argument is to ignore Marx's penetrating indictment of capitalism: capitalism brutalizes the human spirit.

This seems to leave us in a tragic dilemma: if we accept the system that best suits the lowest common denominator of our nature, then we must accept capitalism with all its flaws; on the other hand, if we hope to build a system that serves the higher aspects of our nature--our social and productive aspects--then we seem like we are invoking yet another unworkable utopia.

The way beyond this impasse is to accept Marx's view of human nature as a normative rather than a descriptive theory. That is, we ought to remake the biological aspects of ourselves to be the non-contradictory beings that Marx envisioned: as beings who are more predisposed to being productive and social. Recent studies in motivation have shown how we might make some initial attempts to make people more predisposed to being productive (Richmond, 2004). The experiment in question made monkeys that did not distinguish themselves in terms of productivity to become highly productive.

Marx gives little content to the idea of being social but one way to make humans more social would be to make them more virtuous. I have described elsewhere (Walker 2003a) how we might remake human nature to be more virtuous but the outlines of the idea are easy enough to grasp: using genetic technologies we could engineer ourselves to be more just, to be braver, more truthful, and more caring for others. Finally, we don't have to confine our attempts at re-engineering humans to our biology. I have also described elsewhere (2003b) how it would be possible to make people more altruistic by utilizing the natural tendency of humans to seek social recognition for altruistic behavior. The idea is to use technology to track the altruistic behavior of others, to create an Angelic Hierarchy. In this way our social lives might be less dominant by the competitive rewards offered by capitalism.

As I have said, Marx's indictment of capitalism stands: capitalism alienates us from our true potential. With the use of technologies to remake our natures and our social world, Marx's vision may yet succeed.


Richmond, Zheng Liu, Edward Ginns, et al., August 17, 2004 "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences"

Walker, M. 2003a “Genetic Virtue”. Unpublished paper

Walker, M. 2003b “The Angelic Hierarchy”. Unpublished paper.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Nature summaries Bush v. Kerry on science policies

Nature magzine summarizes science policy differences of the two candidates.

Its clear that most scientists detest the Bush administration and its ham-handed approach to science policy, and there is a nice summary of the Bush-ovite approach to scientific epistemology. As to science funding, the Bushies have been generous with the NIH and nano, anti-terror and military tech, but are otherwise short-changing the NSF and basic science. As to Bush's vaporware Moon-Mars thought-bubble, Kerry notes:
there is little to be gained from a space initiative that throws out lofty goals but fails to support these goals with realistic funding."
And of course on the issue closest to transhumanist concerns, embryonic stem cell research, the differences are stark.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Transcending the Nation-State

There are three basic positions among progressives on global governance and the nation-state: A. Build on the existing infrastructure, UN etc., toward world government. B. Forget the existing infrastructure as hopelessly compromised, and work towards a real democratic transnational order. C. Forget global institutions - they'll never be democratic. Smash the nation-state and the UN, and build local power.

I'm in camp A. But whichever camp you are in the erosion of the sacrosanct nature of the idea of national sovereignty is generally a good thing. A nice article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (requires subscription) points out that in many debates
sovereignty propels international armies and costs untold lives. As a historical concept within political philosophy -- roughly defined by one scholar as "supreme authority within a territory"...(sovereignty is a conceptual) a mongrel: born in "divine right" theology and circumstance, barely coherent at best, terminally ambiguous at worst, preternaturally dangerous.
(Carlin Romano "Violating 'Sovereignty': Questioning a Concept's Long Reign" Chronicle of Higher Education, September 10, 2004)

Kofi Annan's 2000 speech on the need to transcend national sovereignity in order to move on to UN-sanctioned(!) inteventionism to protect human rights and enforce world law, stands out as a landmark in this debate for me.

Also note transhumanist Nigel Jett's recent comments on globalization and sovereignty
The contemporary system of Nation-States prefigured by the concept of sovereignty does not seem to be in "decline" so much as it seems to be transforming into something different. A new system of global governance is evolving, one in which the simplicity of discrete territorial units is but a one aspect of something more complex and interwoven.

They are scared

I must confess that I am very fond of Fukuyama's "The World's Most Dangerous Ideas - Transhumanism", appeared on Foreign Policy a few weeks ago. Of course I don't agree with Fukuyama: I completely agree with the replies of Ron Bailey and Nick Bostrom.
Despite "dismiss transhumanists as some sort of odd cult, nothing more than science fiction taken too seriously", which used to be the mainstream attitude, Fukuyama now respects transhumanism as a dangerous enemy and acknowledges that "the new procedures and technologies emerging from research laboratories and hospitals-whether mood-altering drugs, substances to boost muscle mass or selectively erase memory, prenatal genetic screening, or gene therapy-can as easily be used to "enhance" the species as to ease or ameliorate illness". And we should thank him for "as transhumanists see it, humans must wrest their biological destiny from evolution's blind process of random variation and adaptation and move to the next stage as a species", a very good compact description of our worldview.
Why do I like this paper? Because it shows how technophobes and bioluddites are beginning to realize that transhumanism makes sense, perhaps much more sense than their pointless appeals to ill-conceived and nebulous notions of "human dignity", "humility" (what a stupid word), and "reverence", and that more and more people may see things our way in the near future.
They see that a powerful storm is coming and are scared to death. They still have all the advantages: they represent the mainstream, have well funded think tanks with paid skilled staff, and are listened to by policy makers, while transhumanists are often still perceived as a fringe group of volunteer activists with a half-baked philosophy. But they are probably realizing that sooner or later, sooner if we make the right moves, transhumanists may well have the same resources, maturity and status. At that point we will be very close to winning the battle because, all other factors being equal, we will have the advantage that our ideas make much more sense.
Reading Fukuyama's paper really boosted my morale and motivation, so difficult to keep for volunteer activists: I can see that we are beginning to hurt them.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

MIT Catapults Third World School Into 21st Century

From SciScoop: "According to an African proverb, it takes a village to raise a child into an adult. According to a National Science Foundation press release chock full of you-should-check-them-out photos, it takes not just online MIT course notes but an onsite MIT portable computer lab to raise a African village into the twenty-first century. Just goes to show that whether or not race has a genetic basis, curiosity and intelligence are a universal human trait.
Fluorescent pink key chains may not immediately call to mind 'high-tech,' but for students in Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana, key chains designed and manufactured by their own hands on modern fabrication tools represent the first link from the high-tech world to the world they live in.
In July and August, a team from MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) deployed its sixth field 'fab lab,' based on the campus of the Takoradi Technical Institute in the sister cities of Sekondi and Takoradi in Ghana's southwest corner. Members included CBA program manager Sherry Lassiter, CBA's director, Neil Gershenfeld, and graduate students Amy Sun and Aisha Walcott.
With about $20,000 worth of equipment, a fab lab is a hands-on laboratory that provides the technology to let people build just about anything from inexpensive and readily available materials. The goal of the fab lab is to help people use advanced information technologies to develop and produce solutions to local problems."

Monday, September 13, 2004

Capitalists fight socialized Net access

"Public Fiber Tough to Swallow"in Wired News:
Kutztown was the first community in Pennsylvania to offer fiber to the home for its residents, and a bill in the Pennsylvania House could make it the last. The aim of the Government Competition Against Private Enterprise Act (HB298) is to "protect economic opportunities for private enterprise against unfair competition by government agencies" in services "beyond their government function."

The bill, which was drafted a few months after Kutztown began providing fiber to the home, is a direct result of the threat of competition to cable TV and telecommunications providers, according to Nicholas Giordano, a telecommunications strategist at consulting firm Affinity Group.

Giordano, who previously worked for Pennsylvania's telecommunications department, said that data and video services providers have made it known to state legislators that they do not want to battle with municipalities for market share. "It shows how threatened they are by that activity (in Kutztown)," he said. Giordano ...believes communities that are not receiving adequate broadband and cable service from the private sector should be able to fill the void themselves.

"Bandwidth is a necessity for the public good like water or electricity," he said. "You are not going to get a creative society (which) will be the engine of job growth in places where they can't have access to information."

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Annalee's "critique" of extropianism needs fine-tuning

Since we've linked to Annalee Newitz' writings since we set up Cyborg Democracy, and since I interviewed her for Changesurfer Radio, her latest column, an anti-extropian hate rant for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, is pretty disappointing. She makes no distinction between extropianism and transhumanism, and sillily asserts that extropianism is a combination of "Christianity, transactional analysis, and (perhaps worst of all) the science fiction of Robert Heinlein."

Its too bad Annalee thinks her brand of "cultural criticism" frees her from the normal expectation that a journalist actually talk to people about a subject before she writes about it or her piece could have been a lot more focused and on target. She writes for instance:
Extropians, for all their future worship, are part of the same cultural bent toward superstition that has led George W. Bush and other right-wingers to proclaim that stem cells are full of little souls, abortion is murder, global warming isn't a threat, and peer-to-peer networks are used primarily to disseminate child pornography. The only difference between a Bush conservative and a transhumanist is that conservatives project their fears onto technologies they don't understand, while transhumanists project their hopes. Either way, you've got a magical interpretation of science being advanced as a creepy political agenda.

And let there be no doubt about it: the extropian agenda is creepy. Who wants to live forever in a world where only the richest people in developed countries will become immortal? It's not as if there's going to be a special cryogenics fund for everybody in Kenya and Chile.

In order for people to live forever in the transhumanist future, some people will still have to live like trash.
I agree of course that libertarian transhumanism has a lot of annoying blindnesses to the dangers of technology and the need for the amelioration of inequality. Her quip that extropianism is "precisely the kind of pseudo-religion that would appeal to people whose lifelong devotion to high-tech capitalism leaves them with no value system other than personal accumulation" is over-stated, but has some truth. But then again many non-libertarian transhumanists are aware of the need for technology to be safe and univerdally accessible, a fact that Newitz makes clear she is completely unaware of when she uses transhumanism and extropianism interchangeably.