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Live-blogging from the Transforming Humanity Conference: The Left Bio-Cons Open Fire
J. Hughes   Dec 4, 2010   Ethical Technology  

This morning of the second day of the conference on the ethics of human enhancement, we’re getting a full double barrel blast of bioconservatism from Adrienne Asch as our opening talk. You can follow George’s thoughts over at Sentient Developments, and mine are below.

Part 1 and Part 2 of the first day of the conference.

Read George’s notes on the Asch/Block paper/talk here.

Adrienne Asch is presenting with Edward Block, The Mechanization of Politics: Rethinking Human Transformation.  Their paper is a militant criticism of both moderate enhancers “like Nicholas Agar” and radical enhancers “like Hughes and Kurzweil,” to point to the way that enhancement will likely just optimize people for performing their academic and economic roles, and not contribute to improving the quality of life. They start by reiterating Michael Sandel et al.‘s idea that “designer babies” won’t be loved as much by their parents because more will be expected of them, and repro tech will change the parental role from unconditional love to exacting engineer. Genetic selection will inevitably make parents expect more from their kids. It is naive to expect that they will love an unselected child as much as one they paid for and expect characteristics from. (Unfortunately for this argument, all the research on children born through artificial reproductive techniques are in fact as or more loved and psychologically healthy than kids produced by the “oops I did it again” method.)

Enhancers expect everyone to be near the top of health, longevity and mental ability. Besides being guilty of genetic determinism, they also have reduced the range of possible satisfying lives and attributes to a few dimensions. “But we aren’t getting into the debate about disability and quality of life.” (Although I would if I had the time, since the enhancers are also alleged to be closet eugenicists.) Improving your memory would suck since you would never forget bad things. Maximizing individual traits would not improve the quality of life. The enahncers imagine that a high productivity life is a high quality. But society needs people with many traits and we need to respect, nurture and honor that variety.

What is problem that enhancers want to solve? Some enhancers argue for making enhancement more widely available, but the enhancement project just focuses on individuals not on solving social problems. Removing the need for sleep won’t make people more likely to solve the problems of the world. Humans will never control everything about their lives. But if we solved social problems people might not want or need enhancement so much. Science might provide more material abundance but it won’t changed the distribution of wealth.

There has been less attention to moral enhancement. But even if we could change moral traits it wouldn’t necessarily lead to social change. Empathy alone without the will and means to act on it is useless. Feeling others pain is useless and immobilizing if you can’t act on it.

We don’t understand how James Hughes can see transhumanism as part of a progressive agenda when there are so many libertarian transhumanists. He hasn’t made the case that a left-wing transhumanism is possible. (Damn girl, bring it! I’m twenty feet away!)

Ed Block takes over at this point. Human beings use only a fraction of their abilities, because we don’t teach kids to use them. We cultivate ignorance by “protecting innocence.” Information processing capacities are systematically crippled. ADD is just a rebellion against the authoritarian education system.  The dream of rich internal desire imagined by Rousseau should eb the starting point of education. Education should nurture kids without comparing them, and forcing them into a meritocratic treadmill. But if all are Beethoven who is the real Beethoven. The posthumanist claim of solidarity with humans and higher mammals is just noblesse oblige.

We need to encourage independent moral and intellectual development separate from consumer psychology of more-more-more, every limitation seen as a threat. The proposed of perfect children will only exist if people accept the existing social and political frames, citizens who don’t know how to say no.

The question is how we came to imagine we could improve anything through technical innovation instead of social reform. Because of growing pessimism about social change since the 60s there has been a conservative pessimistic turn to an individualistic and depoliticized idea of social improvement. Linking social change to a technological imperative is a mesmerizing vision in the face of the challenges of social change. Scientific change is sought as a substitute for politics. Scientific intervention can only have a role if it is democratically accountable. Technological makeovers and techno-magical thinking is an easy fall-back replacement for social utopianism. In the 20th century this linking of techno- and social reform led to eugenics and fascism. The failure to master and democratize technology in the 20th century led to despair (cites Carl Becker). We ended emotionally dead.  We couldn’t integrate the technological changes of the 20th century with democracy, but now we want to “fly through that door.” We would need radical democratic participation and humanistic education and sustainable economics and listening to others’ narratives to be able to integrate new technologies.

Enhancement goals are a reflection of this narrative of self-mastery. Libertarian individualism is the utopian vision offered by consumer capitalism. Why we are so talented at feeling inadequate? What is hindering our advance is not the lack of enhancement but the failure to demand a new form of self-development and self-actualization. Kids need to protected from demands that they measure up to a high bar.

Could we handle truly enhanced, morally enhanced individuals, who would tell us and show us how naked we are, who would demand a more democratic world.

Questions Allen Buchanan points out that cognitive enhancements have network effects - the benefit of cognitive enhancement is not just for the individual but for others as well. No one is advocating a society of extraverts and speed demons. Normal human cognition is deficient. Seventy five thousand years ago we had a cognitive enhancement that benefited us, and then literacy added more benefit. And now we may need further enhancement to see more benefit. (Buchanan notes that he shares this opinion with Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg.) You accuse the enhancers of being individualists, but it is you who ignore the social benefits of enhancement and focus only on their individual effects. Regarding the treadmill achievement-oriented society most academics are quite success at resisting it.

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)


“Improving your memory would suck since you would never forget bad things.”

Sufficiently bad things tend not to be forgotten already. And normally with good reason. (“Damn, I’ll try to keep that situation from happening to me or anyone else again, when I recognize it developing…”)

Besides, would that assertion not also apply to memories we consider desirable and good?

If clear memory of pain is the price of clear memory of pleasure, I’ll take it. The above seems to show a desire to make everyone ‘normal’ (whatever that is), but a fear that anyone might make themselves (as opposed to going with the historic genetic dice roll, which does not always have a positive outcome) ‘better than normal.’

“Unfortunately for this argument, all the research on children born through artificial reproductive techniques are in fact as or more loved and psychologically healthy than kids produced by the “oops I did it again” method.)”

What is the relevance of this data to children who will be born using genetic enhancement? Asch and Block were not arguing against the use of ART, but of selective enhancement technologies.

The significance of ART to their argument is that they claim that parents who make decisions about the kind of children they will have will then not love their kids as unconditionally as parents who make no decisions about the characteristics of their children. Parents who use IVF are making decisions about the kinds of children they want to have - or rather they are making more intentional and effective decisions than the decision about what kind of gamete donor to have a child with usually entails - and parents who exercise that intentionality appear to love their children just as much or more, and their children appear psychologically healthier.

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