Printed: 2019-09-21

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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#4: On Wrestling with a Pig, or Getting Dirty in a Debate

Patrick Lin

Ethical Technology

December 29, 2010

With some people, you just can’t win. Do you engage them in a debate, or do you hold your tongue and save yourself the frustration from beating your head against a brick wall? That is the dilemma I face.

According to IEET readers, what were the most stimulating stories of 2010? We’re answering that question by posting a countdown of the top 31 articles published this year on our blog (out of more than 600 in all), based on how many total hits each one received - and we’re now down to the Top Four.

The following piece was first published here on September 21, 2010, and is the 4th most viewed of the year.

Yesterday morning, I read a polemic called “An Open Letter to Christian Leaders on Biotechnology and the Future of Man: Time Running Out to Influence Debate on Transhumanism” that prominently featured an ethics report on human enhancement technologies [PDF] that I co-authored. The letter’s call-to-arms touched upon more points than I wish to respond to here, but what’s odd is that it held up our report as both (1) evidence that we represent the growing number of government-backed researchers who are trying to push their transhumanist agendas on the public, but also (2) evidence that human enhancement technologies raise many issues that need to be discussed, as we say as much in the report. This is sometimes called “biting the hand that feeds you,” among more impolitic things.

To reply to the first point, none of the authors of our ethics report, to my knowledge, has ever professed (or confessed to) being a transhumanist. Not that there’s anything wrong with being one, but for a long time we had simply chosen not to commit ourselves to any specific agenda or align with any particular organization, hoping to take a middle path that avoids exactly the bias exhibited in the open letter above, which we find to be unproductive. In fact, the authors of our report fall across the range of political and religious ideologies-we just don’t let that get in the way in what we hope to be a nonpartisan discussion and analysis of the issues.

When I was invited last year to be an IEET fellow, I reminded Mike Treder and James Hughes that some or much of my work is skeptical about the technoprogressive enthusiasm for emerging technologies, and therefore I don’t consider myself to be a transhumanist. But they reaffirmed their gracious invitation and welcomed a potentially dissenting opinion, which they recognize as important to keep everyone honest. This is the same approach my research group has always taken: We like to work with experts with a range of opinions, in order to better ensure we understand as many sides of an argument as possible, from transhumanists to their faithful critics to whatever.

The open letter above calls our advisory board-for The Nanoethics Group and not the Human Enhancement Ethics Group, as erroneously reported, which has no advisory board at the moment-as “a wish list of transhumanist academics and institutions worldwide.” But it was never a criterion that our advisors had to be transhumanists; indeed, some we know to be anti-transhumanists. We had invited others uneasy of and even hostile to transhumanism to join our board, but they declined; so it’s not our fault that those most willing to engage the issues happen to be transhumanists. I even have to admit that I’m not certain which advisors are officially transhumanists and who aren’t-we simply don’t care, beyond arriving at a balanced composition of the advisory board (which needs more work, we admit). And certainly the core members of our various research groups have no such formal affiliation.

If the authors of the open letter had more carefully read our report, they would have seen that we actually give more weight to religious objections of human enhancement than the standard-issue transhumanist might do. Whether or not God or Allah or Whoever really exists, the plain fact is that billions of people worldwide believe in some deity or higher power, and as a big part of the global society, their opinions matter and need to be accounted for. We would say the same about any population with those numbers, no matter what they believed in. In our report, we acknowledge that the question of whether this and other emerging technologies count as “playing God” is important to a lot of people, but we don’t fully explore that question given space limitations and because it makes certain key assumptions (that God exists) that would be relevant only to a subset of readers (those who believe in God). Also those arguments we have seen that support a religious ban on these technologies seem weak at best, but that’s the topic of a different article.

Transhumanism, of course, does not imply atheism or even agnosticism: Many transhumanists are Catholics, Buddhists, and so on. And even non-transhumanist theists can reasonably hold differing opinions on the question of whether human enhancements count as “playing God.” In a nanoethics anthology we edited, we invited a paper from theologian Ted Peters, professor at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, for his opinion on exactly that issue, and his analysis shows (surprisingly to many) that there was not a moral problem.

But we’ve encountered the sort of pundits as the authors of the open letter before: extremists who see moral dangers either in everything or in nothing. And, in our experience, they are unlikely to be persuaded by any facts or logic that do not support their own views-which is, unfortunately, not an uncommon cognitive bias for theists and nontheists alike. The Luddite or anti-technology bent of the open letter covers issues that might make Ted Kaczynski and his “Unabomber’s Manifesto” proud, and those issues deserve a response that I cannot provide here. But it seems forgivable if we assume that no one can really or easily change the minds of such dedicated individuals who are heavily vested in their own beliefs.

For instance, imagine if it were possible to create a device that gave any person a direct communication link with God, such that it’s crystal-clear what God’s will is. You can bet that some theists would continue to object to such technology, and the (formulaic) objection might go something like this: Mere mortals don’t have the wisdom to receive God’s word directly and need to go through a middle-man, and since God didn’t create (most) humans with a direct channel to the Almighty, it must not be God’s will for that to happen; therefore, such a technological device would be a moral abomination and hubris. If the Wright brothers were alive and working today, some zealots might levy similar objections about airplanes and rockets, that they prematurely bring us closer to the heavens, and this is not God’s will. A fatwa might be called on Robert Goddard’s head for daring to invent rockets that take us to unnatural, forbidden places such as the moon.

Our dilemma is that, as educators and free thinkers, part of our belief system is that it is important to talk through controversial issues, such as synthetic biology, cloning, robotics, and so on. Had they been discussed in their time, even airplane and rocket travel raise certain ethical and social issues, such as environmental impact and potential dual-use for terrorist and military purposes. But is there a point in a debate at which you should cut your losses, where no productive conversation is possible or likely?

This brings me to the second point, which is that our ethics report was also and ironically cited in support of the open letter, despite our apparent pedigree and an implication that the government shouldn’t be funding such things. The authors of the letter selectively recite passages and topics in our report which suggest that human enhancement may bring disruption or even disaster. This is true: We do take a cautionary stance in our discussion, far from what you would think a card-carrying transhumanist would do. And we’re happy that the authors of the letter are thinking about the issues we raise, since that was exactly our goal: to spark discussion. But while we’re flattered to be included in the group of “great planners and conditioners” that have so much influence on society, we object to anyone co-opting our discussion-not to mention distributing our copyrighted material on their site without our permission, as opposed to merely pointing a link to our posted report-for their own ends, while at the same time maligning our work.

It’s disingenuous for the authors of the open letter to point to “government-funded” reports and other projects that take “taxpayer’s money” as an implication that both government resources and dollars from the hard-working families of America are being misspent on some nefarious plot to overthrow Judeo-Christian values. Are all state-sponsored projects supposed to be endorsed by every citizen or group? If that’s the case, then roads would never be built, since there will be some crank who objects to urbanization of the area. Public universities would be unable to teach courses in religious studies, since surely there are atheists who object to that program. The Office of the Presidency could never exist, if unanimous consensus among citizens were needed.  

That the letter’s authors misrepresented my group and resorted to such rhetoric doesn’t inspire confidence that they care about facts and reason, nor does previous experience with the same sort of folks. And so, we’re at a loss on how we ought to respond to their charges, if at all. Can a holy war on science be resolved by debate? Must all these discussions start with a proof or disproof of God’s existence? Are there not stronger, nonreligious objections that can be made?

Any advice would be appreciated, but George Bernard Shaw immediately comes to mind here: “Never get into a wrestling match with a pig. You both get dirty, and only the pig likes it.”

Dr. Patrick Lin is a former IEET fellow, an associate philosophy professor at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and director of its Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group. He was previously an ethics fellow at the US Naval Academy and a post-doctoral associate at Dartmouth College.


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