Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Myth of Libertarian Enhancement

In the previous post here on Futurisms, my co-blogger Charles T. Rubin argues that one can only have a libertarian stance towards transhumanism “if one believes that all ‘lifestyle’ choices are morally incommensurable, that the height of moral wisdom is ‘do your own thing’ (and for as long as possible).” This is certainly right, but I worry that most transhumanists would in fact happily agree with this statement. They would see it not as a condemnation of their moral disarmament, but a celebration of their moral enlightenment through radical self-determination. Charlie concludes that “[w]hat is really at stake here is not whether some people want to boss others around, but whether technological change is worth thinking about at all.” I’d like to expand on this point — that is, to argue that technological change must be thought about, even and especially by libertarians.

While Charlie was discussing just one particular comment thread, it is worth noting that there is a strong, perhaps even dominant, libertarian strain among transhumanists. As Woody Evans noted in H+ Magazine, “Take it as a given that most supporters of transhumanism trend toward advocating for more personal freedom: keep the government out of our bedrooms and biologies please.” This certainly matches my own observations: try exploring with a transhumanist the wisdom of any possible restriction on enhancement and you are very likely to hear a similar refrain.

Strangely, this discussion-ending response is not characteristic just of transhumanists. Ask someone who is skeptical of — or even opposed to — enhancing himself or herself, and you are likely to hear expressions of tolerance similar to those proffered by participants in a recent study on cognitive enhancement in academia: “I see it more as a lifestyle. You are making this choice to find the easy way out and morally I think that that is someone’s lifestyle choice.” And, “I don’t feel comfortable about the word ‘acceptable’ because I don’t think that I am able to judge someone.... I think it is a matter of your own conscience if it is acceptable or not.”

The “to each his own” argument against governmental restrictions of personal freedom is shaky for several reasons, not the least of which is that government is not the only force that restricts personal freedom. The widespread use of enhancement creates tremendous social pressures to compete and conform; these pressures, too, can be said to restrict personal freedom. One need look only to the history of professional baseball over the last ten years to see a clear example. And beyond the world of competitive sports, the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs like Ritalin for nontherapeutic purposes is soaring among working professionals and among high school and college students (as shown in the study cited above, and as discussed in this sobering article by our New Atlantis colleague Matt Crawford). The specific choices — Should I start doping during the off-season? Should I take this pill to help me study? — may have been made by individuals, but they were influenced by others and their impact was collective. There is a sort of prisoner's dilemma at work here, with decisions made for the individual good having a detrimental effect on the larger whole.

(To be sure, much the same point holds for other technological changes that create social pressures. Take cell phones, for example — which some transhumanists consider a primitive form of enhancement: the advantages gained by early adopters of cell phones created pressures that led the rest of us to get cell phones, too.)

The point that technological change is not just a matter of individual concern is made perfectly clear in the transhumanists' own rhetoric, rife with grand talk of ushering in the next phase of human evolution, doing away with antiquated social constructs, and so forth. They promise not just to remake humanity but to thoroughly remake civilization. And yet, when confronted with questions about how societies ought to decide which technologies are good or bad, they often duck behind appeals to personal choice. The only way to reconcile this seeming contradiction is by recognizing that transhumanists do not value unrestricted individual liberty so much as unrestricted individual power.

Those who worry about how tyranny of the government might rob them of their freedom are right to do so. But they would do well also to consider the other ways freedom can be diminished.

[Photo source: Fly Navy (CC)]

10 comments:

  1. You're comparing social pressures to conform with governmental restrictions on liberty in such a way as to suggest they both diminish freedom to the same extent. They do not.

    I am required by law to wear clothes if I am to venture out in public. This is a governmental restriction on freedom. (which I personally think is probably sensible, but then i'm not a hardcore libertarian) I am forced by law to own and use clothes.

    There are certainly social pressures to own a cell phone, however people can and do forego owning a cell phone. That choice is theirs to make.

    The difference is sort of like the difference between a teenager being encouraged to smoke because his friends all smoke, and a teenager being tied down and someone ramming a cigarette in his mouth.

    Also I'd like to point out that government is a central authority, whereas social pressures are inherently decentralised, and are uncontrolable, save perhaps by mass media.

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  2. You're right, governmental restrictions and social pressures restrict freedom in very different ways and to very different extents depending on the specifics. To use your example, take the average teenager whose friends all smoke: which do you think he feels more pressured by, the government that won't let him take his clothes off in public, or the friends who won't accept him if he doesn't smoke?

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  3. Chris is right to make the distinction (which Ari acknowledged in his post) between, on one hand, restrictions imposed by government and backed up by force, and on the other, the softer-seeming social pressures to keep up and conform. It is an important distinction — although made somewhat blurry by the fact that, in democratic regimes, we are the government.

    And it’s worth remembering that social pressures aren’t actually all that soft. I am reminded of an argument about the Amish that I have heard from transhumanists over the years. It goes like this: If you don’t want to partake of all the latest technological and medical advances, you don’t have to — you can simply forgo them, as do the Amish.

    But the Amish didn’t just wake up one day and decide that they wouldn’t embrace new technologies; their lifestyle is the result of a series of wrenching schisms. The Amish example suggests that there can be much pain involved even in just the decision to eschew the trappings of modern technology.

    The Amish example also suggests that people forgoing techno-enhancement will not enjoy anything approaching ordinary social or commercial relations with the vast majority of humanity. So if you reject brain implants, for example, you’ll end up clustering with your fellow rejecters in “isolated, backwards communities,” as one booster puts it.

    Note the implicit claim — a baseless assumption, actually — that posthumanity would be peaceful and pluralistic, and would tolerate the un- and under-enhanced. Some have even suggested that powerful posthumans will care for mere humans like we care now for pets, which hardly reassures.

    But even allowing for the peaceable coexistence of humans and posthumans, we can see in the Amish analogy a vivid illustration of Ari’s main point: the pressure to conform and keep up is very intense — in part because of the temptation of the new powers we would be living without, but mostly because we understand that failing to keep up may mean we are painfully sacrificing full participation and engagement in society.

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  4. First, I really do believe that the highest moral value in the universe is to pursue one's own happiness and love of life. I see no reason to believe in any higher moral value than this and, in fact, consider the notion of a higher moral as simply sophistry for totalitarianism. I consider both organized religion as well as socialism/communism to be inherently totalitarian in nature. I will have nothing to do with them. I am proud to reject both religion and socialism and to be a libertarian tranhumanist.

    I see no reason why tranhumanists and normal people cannot peacefully coexist. Of course, there will be social pressure to enhance. But that social pressure will be driven entirely by the desire to have the benefits of enhancement without getting enhanced. If one does not want the benefits of such, what would be the basis of social pressure to enhance? The Amish get along fine in our world because they lack the desire for the mod-con life that the rest of us have. Thus, they feel no envy and therefor have no desire to be like us. I see no reason why it would be any different in the future between transhumans and baselines.

    Of course, there will be options available to transhumans but not for baselines. Space colonization is likely to be one of them. Certain technical fields where you need a lot of brain power may be another. This simply represents a trade-off one would make in foregoing enhancment. We make these kinds of trade-offs all of the time. The guy who chooses to be a"crunchy con" in his hometown is not going to get a career on Wall Street or Silicon Valley. Here again, the transhumanism of tommorow is no different than what we have today.

    People tend to hang with like-minded people. My wife, who is Japanese, tends to associate with other Japanese people. If we make it to post-mortality, it is likely that my wife and I will hang with other post-mortals. This is the way of the world. How is the transhuman/baseline devide any different than any other divide thorugh out history and today. At least in our case, we do not discriminate. Anyone is welcome to join us and become transhuman.

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  5. "Debates" about enhancement are a lot like debates about abortion. As we all know, there will never, ever be a woman of means for whom "choice" will not be an option. As such, any discussion of government regulation of abortion is really about regulating poor womens access to "choice".

    It will be the same for enhancment. Once the technologies are developed, enhancement will always be an option for those of "means" (means is being able to get on a plane). For example, my wife and I are going to Costa Rica for a month at the end of the year. I just read the other day that Americans are flying to Costa Rica for "stem-cell" treatments. Of course, I have no need for these right now and these current treatments are probably bogus anyways. However, this option is available if we had the need to partake of it. Any political debate about enhancement is really a debate about its availability for those without means.

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  6. In his comments on this post and the previous one, Kurt9 argues for his own brand of live-and-let-live libertarian transhumanism. "The highest moral value in the universe is to pursue one's own happiness and love of life," he writes. Libertarian transhumanists "simply want to be left alone to do our own thing and to pursue our own objectives." If you criticize the libertarian transhumanist position you are not just "clueless," you are starting down "the road to tyranny."

    Among the many elements missing from Kurt9's idealized, individualistic libertarian vision, however, is any place for those among us who cannot, for various reasons "pursue [their] own happiness and love of life" — including especially children, as our New Atlantis colleague Yuval Levin powerfully argued in his essay "Imagining the Future" (now expanded into a book).

    Kurt9 adds that he sees "no reason why transhumanists and normal people cannot peacefully coexist," and, speaking of himself and his wife, says that "at least in our case, we do not discriminate. Anyone is welcome to join us and become transhuman."

    Such tolerance is commendable. But history — even just the history of the last century — is replete with examples of intolerance and persecution of human beings deemed inferior. So while Kurt9 may tolerate today those that he calls "baselines," who is to say whether post-Singularity posthumans will exercise the same tolerance? As Charlie Rubin pointed out six years ago in his essay "Artificial Intelligence and Human Nature." We have "no reason to believe that we can really understand the beings who would live" after the Singularity, since their abilities and experiences will be very different from our own. He continues:

    Why expect them, for example, to “resurrect” dead humans even if they could? One can hardly count on the same love or curiosity that would tempt some of us to “clone” dead ancestors if we could; love and curiosity, after all, are human characteristics. The same is true for compassion, benevolence, amusement, or any other possible motive that we are capable of imagining. Once humanity is overcome, all bets are off and anything we might say about the post-biological future is merely a projection of our own biological nature. A corollary to Arthur C. Clarke’s law that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” seems fitting: any sufficiently advanced benevolence may be indistinguishable from malevolence. If the future that the extinctionists imagine for “us” were to make its appearance tomorrow in the solar system, it is very hard to imagine how it would be good news....

    To embrace the extinctionist vision requires blinding ourselves to why humans might not want to live in a robot world; why robots will likely care little for “us”; and why there is really no “us” that will exist once our embodied lives become obsolete.


    The whole essay — as always with Charlie Rubin — is well worth reading.

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  7. I stand by my point. We have no desire to impose our dreams and choices on other. We seek only the freedom to do our own thing. You, on the other hand, seek to impose your beliefs and your choices on us. By default, that makes us correct and you wrong. Since we have no desire to impose our choices on you and that you are free to make your own choices, by definition, make criticism of our choices and dreams superfulous.

    You know, I really don't understand your animosity towards us. Aging and death suck donkey dicks. How can anyone not be in favor of the biotechnological cure of aging.

    "Political tags - such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth - are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire."
    Robert A Heinlein

    "If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism."
    Ronald Reagan.

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  8. Kurt9, whether or not transhumanists want to impose their “dreams and choices” on others is not what’s at issue in this particular debate. The question is whether — regardless of intent — those choices will be imposed on others. The notions of enhancement and of “doing your own thing” are fundamentally at odds, since many (perhaps most) of the goals of enhancement are social in nature: gaining a competitive edge in sports; increasing one’s productive capabilities to get ahead of the curve; altering one’s sexual capacities; and so forth. Even if these choices to enhance are made by individuals, they are all strongly influenced by and in turn influence other people.

    Let me put it another way. You call yourself a libertarian transhumanist. But there are tensions between libertarianism and transhumanism. For example, there is a tension between the libertarian refrain “everyone should be allowed to do his or her own thing” and the huge pressure that enhancement would put on those who would prefer not to enhance — which, on the libertarian view, must be seen as an equally legitimate choice worthy of equal protection. That is the tension I described in the post above, and the one that Adam expanded on in his comment about the Amish.

    (I could get into some of the other tensions, too — like the ways that transhumanism can be seen as a kind of tyranny on the next generation, imposing your “dreams and choices” on those who might choose very differently — but perhaps that is a discussion for another time.)

    At any rate, we don’t have any animosity toward you. We just think you are wrong.

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  9. At any rate, we don’t have any animosity toward you. We just think you are wrong.

    Well, I think you are wrong. In cases of irreconcilable differences, the only solution is for the parties to go their separate ways.

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  10. You know, we can go on and on about college students taking Ritalin to study or athletes using various compounds to increase their performance. I can see you point about these things. However, I don't do any of this. I want radical life extension (multiple 1000 year life span). I want to cure aging and get free of it. I fail to see why you should have a problem with this.

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