Enhancement Anxiety

Russell Blackford

A problem with the current debates about emerging technologies is that they really are debates—plural. Reasonable policy approaches to embryonic sex selection, for example, or to human reproductive cloning, if it were available, might not generalize to more radical technologies that could reverse the aging process, dramatically increase our cognitive capacities, alter the gross morphology of human bodies, or merge our brains with sophisticated cybernetic devices. People of reason should see each of these varied prospects as raising its own specific questions.

Consider reproductive cloning. Over the past fifteen years, Western policy makers have squandered a golden opportunity that came their way in February of 1997, when the birth of Dolly the sheep was announced in the leading science journal Nature. In principle, the somatic cell nuclear transfer technique used to create Dolly could have been applied to human beings, though this has not happened in practice because of technical difficulties. Their attention seized by the entirely hypothetical prospect of human cloning, priests and pundits thundered about playing God or violating the natural order, about the threat of a Brave New World and the alleged wisdom of repugnance. In response, many legal prohibitions were enacted in jurisdictions around the world.

A rational and liberal-minded approach to the prospect of human reproductive cloning would have focused on concerns about safety and efficacy and the possible exploitation of vulnerable people who might want to employ the technique or act as experimental subjects. There was no need for the sweeping, draconian laws that appeared around the planet, calculated to demonize and repudiate the whole idea of reproductive cloning even before the technology was developed. In short, policy makers had an opportunity to reaffirm the value of liberal tolerance, but many of them did precisely the opposite.

The moral panic and subsequent legislative frenzy that followed the Dolly announcement will make it even more difficult to argue for tolerance and legislative restraint the next time some technological or social innovation excites widespread fear and repugnance. A new, publicly conspicuous precedent has been created for enacting directly coercive laws whose primary motivation is essentially illiberal and irrational.

In general, there is little reason for Western democracies to forbid such innovations as reproductive cloning and embryonic sex selection. Whatever problems sex selection might cause in such countries as China and India—where it is the underlying social causes, not the technologies, that need to be addressed—all research to date indicates that sex selection is unlikely to be used in Western nations in ways that would skew sex ratios or undermine the welfare of women. These technologies may seem undesirable from the viewpoint of one or more of the many contestable moralities that people are free to live by within the pluralistic societies of the West, but they are unlikely to cause the sorts of direct harms to people’s ordinary civil interests that provide the least controversial basis for legal bans. What, however, about the more radical and futuristic prospects that I’ve already mentioned—such as age reversal or mergers of brains and machines? Here, the story is different, but again the fears are exaggerated. We need to step back a little and obtain some perspective.

 

Even the most rational people can become anxious when considering extreme scenarios, and that should not be surprising. Over the past few centuries, we have come to expect that future societies will have forms of social and economic organization radically different from our own and underpinned by new kinds of technology. We have become increasingly conscious of ourselves as a species with an unknown future—and the unknown can be a frightening place.

Our current understanding of human history is itself a relatively recent historical development, and we have not developed the capacity to predict exactly what form any future society will take. As a result, we can imagine in rich detail what practices and institutions might be transformed or lost as a result of technological advances and their social uptake—these practices and institutions already exist, after all, and are familiar to us—but we cannot imagine in any detail what might replace them. We do not know, and cannot know, what things might be valued in any future society very different from our own, what might give its inhabitants joy and a sense of connection with each other (or with other aspects of their world), or what activities they might find meaningful. The attempts of science-fiction writers may sometimes be impressive, but they usually appear rather thin and unconvincing in comparison to our lived reality.

Thus, we can elaborate vividly on the things that we stand to lose as a result of technological change, but we can think only in general terms of what we stand to gain—even though the gains might turn out to be greater than the losses, if only we could identify them and judge them by our existing standards of what makes a good society or a good way of life. This asymmetry creates a powerful conservative bias for which I believe we need to correct.

Compare an example offered by Nicholas Agar in his 2004 book Liberal Eugenics: In Defence of Human Enhancement (Blackwell). As Agar notes, technological development over thousands of years has transformed the significance of food and the means used to procure it. In the past crops could fail, and hunting certain animals required teamwork and accepting a risk of death. By contrast, there is little significance, much less risk, for modern Westerners when we buy a jar of pasta sauce in a supermarket. Is this an example of meaning being extinguished? Surely not. Agar adds, correctly, that technology has displaced rather than destroyed the significance of procuring and preparing food. We prepare Beef Wellington for our guests rather than informing them, “I have meat.” We devote time saved from hunting and planting to reading novels, watching movies, reflecting on life’s meaning, or going fishing—which, as Agar observes, “is usually more about spending time with nature than bringing it home for the cooking pot.”

Our distant ancestors were in no position to predict modern work arrangements, modern ideas of leisure, or modern cuisine. Unfortunately, we may not be much better off when we try to predict even the medium-term future or to imagine the thoughts and practices of hypothetical future people socialized in environments very different from our own.

Perhaps surprisingly, given that he clearly understands all this, Agar’s most recent book argues against extreme changes in human capacities, including changes that would make us immortal (or rather, halt or reverse the process of aging). In Humanity’s End: Why We Should Reject Radical Enhancement (MIT Press, 2010), he calls such changes “radical enhancement,” which he defines as follows: “Radical enhancement involves improving significant human attributes and abilities to levels that greatly exceed what is currently possible for human beings.” In fairness, however, Agar thinks that enhancement technologies can be implemented without great problems up to a point: it’s a matter of where to draw a line.

His general argument is not that our lives, or those of our children, would be miserable or lacking in joys and satisfactions if radical enhancement technologies transformed them. He agrees that the joys and satisfactions would be there, although we can’t be sure what form they might take. Rather, he fears that the lives of radically enhanced people would lack elements that are valuable by our current standards, or by what he thinks of as human standards. He claims that radical enhancement would diminish us; alienate us from much that is valuable by these standards; and produce unprecedented forms of conflict or tyranny, since the enhanced and unenhanced could not live together peacefully and equally.

On the final page of his book, commenting specifically on the prospect of greatly increased life spans, Agar states, “We may persist, but only with existences that we properly view as impoverished.” How might that be? Humanity’s End offers numerous examples. For one, we might abandon our current risk-taking approach to life, since our own futures would become greatly more valuable to us if they were of indefinite duration. As a result we might lock ourselves away, avoiding physical activities and social contact. Likewise, we might lose certain kinds of relationships that depend on an increasingly untenable assumption that their importance will last until death, leading us to regard romance and marriage, in particular, very differently from the way we do today.

With all these changes and others that he identifies, Agar thinks that our lives would be impoverished—not by the standards that we or our successors would apply after a great transformation and not by objective standards that are inescapably binding on all rational creatures (we might not be able to justify our “human” standards to intelligent aliens or radically enhanced “posthumans”), but by our current standards as identified and clarified through rational reflection.

What should we make of this? Agar is correct that the radically enhanced people of the future might lead lives very different from ours, though his examples are speculative to say the least. Would my fear of death really increase dramatically if my current life expectancy were suddenly increased? That seems to open up numerous questions about human psychology.

But let’s concede that radical enhancement would produce societies and individual lives that would appear strange to us, as we are now. That granted, how important is it? For a start, it does not mean that we should feel sorry for these people of the future as we contemplate the possibilities. As Agar well realizes and acknowledges, compassionate feelings are out of place, since there is no reason to think that these people would experience lives of pain or hardship. Nor, I must add, need they lack for activities and relationships that they find deeply meaningful and fulfilling. For all we know, they would continue finding personal significance and value in their activities and relationships. Accordingly, there is no reason, at least on these grounds, to fear an impoverished future. Not, at any rate, unless we insist that our successors on planet Earth enjoy and find meaning in the same things that we currently do.

Nor are our current lives ideal, even if all goes as well as can be. Our lives inevitably diminish in many ways as we grow older. Though we may live to eighty or ninety years or even longer, we function near our peak for only a couple of decades, early in adulthood, and at our very best of health and strength for even less. Beyond the middle years of life, we are faced with a constant deterioration of our organs, organ systems, and capacities, which eventually spirals down into increasingly debilitating fragility. This is a kind of routine impoverishment of life that we should acknowledge without guilt or shame, despite propaganda about “aging gracefully” and the like.

In his book Better than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream (Norton, 2003), Carl Elliott discusses a suggestion by David Gems that the problem in growing older is “ontological diminution,” meaning “a flattening of the conditions that sustain our existence.” Though Elliot is no admirer of enhancement technologies, he describes this process of diminution vividly: the dimming of senses and desires; the loss of capacities; the narrowing of perceptions and possibilities as the future grows more and more constricted.

There is something like a taboo against saying so explicitly and openly, but the aging process impoverishes our lives in very basic ways. If we are honest, halting the deterioration of our health, strength, and capacities is something that we have every reason to value, and I do mean right now, before any transformation of our values that new technologies may bring. We cannot, of course, imagine the detail of entire lives without the aging process, but it seems perverse to complain that removing the process, or drastically slowing it down to give us more time at or near our peak, would impoverish us.

Agar may well be correct, however, when he suggests that there is a limit to how much technological change we can absorb if it happens very abruptly. A series of sudden and radical changes in human capacities might well have a psychological downside. It might be shocking and alienating—like the impact of a military invasion by a technologically superior culture. Even so, there would be gains. The overall outcome might not be a bad one when all things are balanced and considered. In any event, any radical enhancements of human capacities are more likely to take place over generations, allowing time for people and cultures to adapt.

 

In the end, we are confronted by a fascinating situation. First, seemingly scary new technologies such as human reproductive cloning may not be so scary after all when we think about their limited effects on individuals and societies. They may require regulation, but there is no good reason for liberal democracies to ban them outright. Second, when we think of more futuristic and radical technologies, the position changes—but not necessarily in a way that justifies draconian legislation. We can imagine scenarios in which radical enhancement technologies change our societies deeply, perhaps undermining practices that we currently value. We can even describe in detail what some of the threatened practices might be, though we can’t be sure of the actual effects on them.

But none of this is a reason to step on the brake. Yes, the development of new technologies can threaten existing practices and attitudes, as has happened in the past with the printing press, railroads, motor vehicles, the contraceptive pill, the Internet, and many other examples. But people generally adapt, and new social practices develop to incorporate the technology. These can then provide new sources of happiness and meaning.

Of course, I have not shown that all radical enhancements would be innocuous, or that they could be implemented with no social dislocation, or with no downside for people who might miss out. I have not tried to argue in a comprehensive way that all emerging technologies whatsoever should be accepted politically, subject only to minimal regulation (such as for safety). Nonetheless, it is important to beware of biases that can skew debate, making clear and rational analysis even more difficult. That is the main point of this essay.

Often, it is assumed that we face a crisis in responding with sufficient urgency to the emergence of Frankensteinian technologies. I see things in a different light. If anything, the debates of the past decade or two show a crisis for liberal tolerance. We should insist—perhaps politely, perhaps more passionately—that policy makers in our modern liberal democracies require compelling reasons before they embark on programs of political coercion. We can object to distortions of public debate arising from feelings of disorientation or repugnance, undue deference to religious leaders and doctrines, fears of what might be lost from technological change, and the all-too-common impulse to reach for the crude tools of the criminal law.

It’s important, no doubt, to identify possible dangers from emerging technologies and particularly proposals for radical human enhancement. But there is always another question we should ask. We should ask why we can’t avoid this danger or that one while also obtaining the benefits that enhancement technologies promise. Why not?

Perhaps we’ll find that we can.

Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford is a conjoint senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and a regular columnist for Free Inquiry. His latest book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism (2019), is published by Bloomsbury Academic.


A problem with the current debates about emerging technologies is that they really are debates—plural. Reasonable policy approaches to embryonic sex selection, for example, or to human reproductive cloning, if it were available, might not generalize to more radical technologies that could reverse the aging process, dramatically increase our cognitive capacities, alter the gross morphology …

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