Saturday, September 17, 2005

Happiness, capability and the welfare state

Swedish libertarian Johann Norberg has written a very interesting critique of the use of happiness research to support the welfare state. Norberg argues that "subjective well-being"/happiness research supports a more libertarian interpretation, that economic growth and personal economic responsibility make people happier than the welfare state.

Here's why I think its an important argument:

1) I use some of Ruut Veenhoven's earlier research that this article critiques as part of my utilitarian justification for the welfare state in Citizen Cyborg. I haven't read Richard Layard's new Happiness: Lessons from a New Science yet, but it also sounds fascinating.

2) The conclusion that people are happier when they have a subjective sense of self-determination is just as congenial for the libertarian leftist as it is for the libertarian rightist. There is a libertarian left argument for increased choice through vouchers, for instance, and a lib-left critique of the welfare state. Clearly personal empowerment is as central to transhumanist values as access to enhancement tech. The sense of empowerment through labor is one of the principal critiques of basic income guarantees and in favor of full employment.

3) I think its important for technoprogs and dem-trannies to explore the Sen/Nussbaum "capabilities approach" as a measure of social utility as opposed to simple subjective well-being. It may be, in other words, that increased choice and intelligence may make people anxious and unhappy even while their objective health, longevity and abilities increase. Of course, eventually we will have direct control of our subjective well-being, and the anxieties that choice, dependency and so on engender, which will raise other questions.

4) Given the research on the happiness set-point, a simple utilitarian approach to social policy would seem to lead more in the direction of an Hedonic Imperative pharmaceutical approach, rather than these indirect and marginal effects achievable through social policy. In other words, give them soma and not individual empowerment. Not an attractive conclusion, and one that we can avoid by developing a more sophisticated argument for what we consider a "Good Life" to be, and how social policy can encourage it.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Suicide bombing as a social movement?

If suicide bombers are ready to lose their lives to achieve their ends, their profile and their motivations are somewhat the same as those terrorists who do not commit suicide while committing the same crimes, says Dr. Marc Sageman, who has published a psychological and sociological analysis of 175 Muslim terrorists.

"People are fascinated by the idea of the kamikaze but I don’t find that there is an enormous difference between terrorists and kamikaze terrorists", he says. Globally, they are in general young men that feel alienated. They then hang out together around a mosque, either physically or on the Internet, and they radicalize themselves.

Preventing suicide bombings, in western societies, goes back to proposing a new vision of the future. "Ultimately, these people are acting out of altruism," claims the expert. "Its paradoxical but they want to sacrifice themselves for the community, a bit like the anarchists of the 19th century or the leftists of the 20th century. We must therefore offer them a different dream, a different utopia for which they sacrifice themselves without killing people."

SciFi Weekly Editor's TechnoProgressive Appeal

Scott Edelman, editor-in-chief at Science Fiction Weekly and SCI FI, the SCI-FI Channel's magazine, writes this week that he has long been disappointed that the future he wants has taken so long to arrive. But Katrina's aftermath has made clear to him that it is even more important that we make sure the future is equally distributed.
With even today's promises so unevenly distributed, when tomorrow's finally come true—which of us will they be coming true for? William Gibson once wrote that 'the future is already here—it's just unevenly distributed.' But there are more serious consequences to that aphorism than the fact that some of us have broadband while others are stuck with dial-up. Implicit in Gibson's statement is that the present is also unevenly distributed.

Forget the spaceships and nuclear-powered communicators. Remember that there are far simpler technologies, ones that many of us take for granted, that might as well be sci-fi to others. What the despair dredged up last week showed was that those with access to cars and credit cards (all 20th-century inventions) could at least make an attempt to escape, while those without could not. These disparities seem certain to continue. Free-market advocates have long trumpeted that a rising tide lifts all boats (a watery metaphor that is a bit uncomfortable today, considering the circumstances). When the Singularity comes, how will we be able to live with ourselves if we leave those metaphorically boatless behind?

I still believe in the future. But we must engineer its approach so that its fruits will be shared by all. Humanity has always been separated into the haves and the have-nots. We have just been reminded of the consequences of that. As the promises of science fiction continue to come true, the gap between those two groups will grow even larger. Isn't it about time we spent as much time and energy solving that problem as we're doing on creating cell phones that will download clips from American Idol even faster for those who can afford them?

Because when I finally am flitting through the skies strapped to my personal jetpack, I don't want to be looking down at those living in poverty below.

I want all of us to be flying high together.
Rock on Scott! Your technoliberator lapel pin is in the mail!

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Naam on Berkeley Groks, Wasserman on Control of Emotion

Cyborg democrat Ramez Naam appeared on the June 1, 2005 Berkeley Groks radio program "Breakthroughs in biomedical research will soon allow us to live longer, grow stronger, and think smarter. But, will these advances come at a price? On this program, Ramez Naam discussed the promise of biological enhancement." (Download and listen here.)

Also, this week's Changesurfer Radio, produced by cyborg democrat J. Hughes, carries a fascinating talk by philosopher David Wasserman on the chemical control of emotion (Download MP3).