Ted Hand recently linked me to this piece by Steven Pinker, in which Pinker claims that, in contemporary society, the only job of Bioethics—and by, following his argument to its conclusion, technological ethics, as a whole—is to “get out of the way” of progress. You can read the whole exchange between Ted, myself, and others by clicking through that link, if you want, and the Journal Nature also has a pretty good breakdown of some of the arguments against Pinker, if you want to check them out, but I’m going to take some time to break it all down and expound upon it, here.
Because the fact of the matter is we have to find some third path between the likes of Pinker saying “No limits! WOO!” and Hawking saying “Never do anything! BOOOO!”—a Middle Way of Augmented Personhood, if you will. As Deb Chachra said, “It doesn’t have to be a dichotomy.”
But the problem is that, while I want to blend the best and curtail the worst of both both impulses, I have all this vitriol, here. Like, sure, Dr Pinker, it’s not like humans ever met a problem we couldn’t immediately handle, right? We’ll just sort it all out when we get there! We’ve got this global warming thing completely in hand and we know exactly how to regard the status of the now-enhanced humans we previously considered “disabled,” and how to respect the alterity of autistic/neuroatypical minds! Or even just differently-pigmented humans! Yeah, no, that’s all perfectly sorted, and we did it all in situ!
So no need to worry about what it’ll be like as we further immediate and integrate biotechnological advances! SCIENCE’LL FIX THAT FOR US WHEN IT HAPPENS! Why bother figuring out how to get a wider society to think about what “enhancement” means to them, BEFORE they begin to normalize upgrading to the point that other modes of existence are processed out, entirely? Those phenomenological models can’t have anything of VALUE to teach us, otherwise SCIENCE would’ve figured it all out and SHOWN it to us, by now!
Science would’ve told us what benefit blindness may be. Science would’ve TOLD us if we could learn new ways of thinking and understanding by thinking about a thing BEFORE it comes to be! After all, this isn’t some set of biased and human-created Institutions and Modalities, here, folks! It’s SCIENCE!
…And then I flip 37 tables. In a row.
“…Johns Hopkins, syphilis, and Guatemala. Everyone *believes* they are doing right.” —Deb Chachra
As previously noted in “Object Lessons in Freedom,” there is no one in the history of the world who has undertaken a path for anything other than reasons they value. We can get into ideas of meta-valuation and second-order desires, later, but for the sake of having a short hand, right now: Your motivations motivate you, and whatever you do, you do because you are motivated to do it. You believe that you’re either doing the right thing, or the wrong thing for the right reasons, which is ultimately the same thing. This process has not exactly always brought us to the best of outcomes.
From Tuskegee, to Thalidomide (also here) to dozens of other cases, there have always been instances where people who think they know what’s in the public’s best interest loudly lobby (or secretly conspire) to be allowed to do whatever they want, without oversight or restriction. In a sense, the abuse of persons in the name of “progress” is synonymous with the history of the human species, and so a case might be made that we wouldn’t be where and what we are, right now, if we didn’t occasionally (often) disregard ethics and just do what “needed doing.” But let’s put that another way:
We wouldn’t be where and what we are, if we didn’t occasionally (often) disregard ethics and just do what “needed doing.”
As species, we are more often shortsighted than not, and much ink has been spilled, and many more pixels have been formed in the effort to interrogate that fact. We tend to think about a very small group of people connected to ourselves, and we focus our efforts how to make sure that we and they survive. And so competition becomes selected for, in the face of finite resources, and is tied up with a pleasurable sense of “Having More Than.” But this is just a descriptor of what is, not of the way things “have to be.” We’ve seen where we get when we work together, and we’ve seen where we get when we compete, but the evolutionarily- and sociologically-ingrained belief that we can and will “win” keeps us doing he later over the former, even though this competition is clearly fucking us all into the ground.
…And then having the descendants of whatever survives digging up that ground millions of years later in search of the kinds of resources that can only be renewed one way: by time and pressure crushing us all to paste.
Keeping in mind the work we do, here, I think it can be taken as read that I’m not one for a policy of “gently-gently, slowly-slowly,” when it comes to technological advances, but when basic forethought is equated with Luddism—that is, when we’re told that “PROGRESS Is The Only Way!”™—when long-term implications and unintended consequences are no bother ‘t’all, Because Science, and when people place the fonts of this dreck as the public faces of the intersections of Philosophy and Science? Well then, to put it politely, we are All Fucked.
If we had Transmetropolitan-esque Farsight Reservations, then I would 100% support the going to there and doing of that, but do you know what it takes to get to Farsight? It takes planning and (funnily enough) FORESIGHT. We have to do the work of thinking through the problems, implications, dangers, and literal existential risks of what it is we’re trying to make.
And then we have to take all of what we’ve thought through, and decide to figure out a way to do it all anyway. What I’m saying is that some of this shit can’t be Whoopsed through—we won’t survive it to learn a post hoc lesson. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying. This is about saying, “Yeah, let’s DO this, but let’s have thought about it, first.” And to achieve that, we’ll need to be thinking faster and more thoroughly. Many of us have been trying to have this conversation—the basic framework and complete implications of all of this—for over a decade now; the wider conversation’s just now catching up.
But it seems that Steven Pinker wants to drive forward without ever actually learning the principles of driving (though some do propose that we could learn the controls as we go), and Stephen Hawking never wants us to get in the car at all. Neither of these is particularly sustainable, in the long term. Our desires to see a greater field of work done, and for biomedical advancements to be made, for the sake of increasing all of our options, and to the benefit of the long-term health of our species, and the unfucking of our relationship with the planet, all of these possibilities make many of us understandably impatient, and in some cases, near-desperately anxious to get underway. But that doesn’t mean that we have to throw ethical considerations out the window.
Starting from either place of “YES ALWAYS DO ALL THE SCIENCE” or “NO NEVER DO THESE SCIENCES” doesn’t get us to the point of understanding why we’re doing the science we’re doing, and what we hope to achieve by it (“increased knowledge” an acceptable answer, but be prepared to show your work), and what we’ll do if we accidentally start Eugenics-ing all up in this piece, again. Tech and Biotech ethics isn’t about stopping us from exploring. It’s about asking why we want to explore at all, and coming to terms with the real and often unintended consequences that exploration might have on our lives and future generations.
In an ideal timeline, we’ll have already done all of this thinking in advance (again: what do you think this project is?), but even if not, then we can at least stay a few steps ahead of the tumult.
I feel like I spend a lot of time repeating myself, these days, but if it means we’re mindful and aware of our works, before and as we undertake them, rather than flailing-ly reacting to our aftereffects, then it’s ultimately pretty worth it. We can place ourselves into the kind of mindset that seeks to be constantly considering the possibilities inherent in each new instance.
We don’t engage in ethics to prevent us from acting. We do ethics in order to make certain that, when we do act, it’s because we understand what it means to act and we still want to. Not just driving blindly forward because we literally cannot conceive of any other way.