Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Robin Hanson on Why We Should “Forget 9/11”

A few days ago, on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attack, George Mason University economics professor Robin Hanson, who is influential among transhumanists, wrote a blog post arguing that we should “Forget 9/11.” Why? Well, partly because of cryonics:

In the decade since 9/11 over half a billion people have died worldwide. A great many choices could have delayed such deaths, including personal choices to smoke less or exercise more, and collective choices like allowing more immigration. And cryonics might have saved most of them.

Yet, to show solidarity with these three thousand victims, we have pissed away three trillion dollars ($1 billion per victim), and trashed long-standing legal principles. And now we’ll waste a day remembering them, instead of thinking seriously about how to save billions of others. I would rather we just forgot 9/11.

Do I sound insensitive? If so, good — 9/11 deaths were less than one part in a hundred thousand of deaths since then, and don’t deserve to be sensed much more than that fraction. If your feelings say otherwise, that just shows how full fricking far your mind has gone.

Hanson’s post may have been “flamebait” — but we should assume that he sincerely means what he has written, and read it as charitably as possible. His concern about matters of public health is admirable (although one wonders how much more public attention could be paid to the importance of exercising and not smoking, and whether paying attention to 9/11 was really a significant blow to those efforts). And many would agree that our government could have better allocated its money to save, lengthen, and improve lives (although one wonders when this is ever not the case, and what is the foolproof way to avoid misallocation).

Still, one has to marvel at Hanson’s insistence that there is no meaningful difference between the ways people die. He implies that all deaths are equally tragic — so there is no difference, apparently, between a peaceful death and a violent one, or between a death in old age and one greatly premature. In a weird version of “blaming the victim,” Hanson implies that many of the people who have died since 9/11 are to blame for their own deaths, because they could have made choices like exercising, not smoking, and undergoing cryonic preservation. But of course, people who are murdered never get the chance to make or have these choices matter at all.

This is part of the larger point Hanson misses: One certainly can doubt the severity of the threat posed by terrorism, and the wisdom of the U.S. response to it. But the September 11th attack was animated by ideas, and Hanson willfully ignores the implications of those ideas: The lives he would have us forget were lost in an attack against the very liberal order that allows Hanson to share his ideas so freely. It’s hard to imagine transhumanist discourse flourishing under the theocratic tyranny of sharia law. And if the planners of that attack had their way, that liberal order would be extinguished, as would the lives of many who now live under it — which would certainly alter even the calculus admitted by Hanson’s myopic utilitarianism.

Thus the true backwardness of Hanson’s argument. While he may think he is making a trenchantly pro-humanist case for how insensitive and outrageous it is that we focus our emotions on some deaths much more than others, one wonders whether dulling our sensitivity to the deaths of the few can really be the best way to make us care about the deaths of the many. If we cannot feel outrage at what is shocking, can we still be moved by what is commonplace? If we do not mourn the loss of those who are close to us, how can we ever mourn the loss of those who are far?

3 comments:

  1. There is one further issue about Hanson's analysis. He accuses those who in his view give too much weight to the deaths of 9/11 of exhibiting "far" thought. He has characterized far thought as follows: "humans think more abstractly, and in less detail, about things far away in time, space, social contact, and probability, and assume that things near or far in some ways are also near or far in other ways." Although we can't do without it, and it is a useful spur for creativity, it inhibits genuine analysis, and as a result, "very bad things are caused more by far thinking" than by near thinking.

    Now, to be honest, I'm not exactly sure what this mode of thought has to do with those who would keep the memory of 9/11 alive, but there seems to be a huge irony in Hanson's negative use of it in this context. For it is his own argument that turns on something very far away indeed, something very creative: the widespread successful use of cryonics. But still, his own essay shows he is correct — because his far thinking indeed inhibits clear analysis.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I did not claim that it never matters how people die. But surely spending a billion per victim is way past any reasonable amount for showing respect for the dead.

    And you could make the same "dulling" argument against overcoming any bias. For example, if I said people tend to eat too much salt, you could claim that if people ate less salt they'd lose their motive to eat, and starve to death.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Professor Hanson: I don’t know who has claimed that the money we’ve spent since 9/11 was a way of “showing respect for the dead.”

    Since you continue to refuse to discuss the importance of the ideological motivations behind the 9/11 attacks, meaning that you effectively will not admit the difference between deaths as acts of nature, murder, and war, I just want to be clear on the logic of your cost analysis: World War II cost the United States about $5 trillion in today’s money, and around 2,500 Americans died at Pearl Harbor. So World War II, as an act of showing respect for the dead at Pearl Harbor at a cost of $2 billion per victim, was precisely twice (within certain error bars) as much a folly as the U.S. response to 9/11 at a cost of $1 billion per victim. Correct?

    As for this salt business... oh, boy. Let me see if I can attempt to take this analogy seriously. The first part of your premise is that caring too much about a small portion of overall deaths is comparable to people eating too much salt. Okay, but then shouldn’t the concern be about people who eat too much salt focusing too much concern on a small portion of their overall salt intake? Or is the analogy that people focus too much concern on one part of their diet at the expense of the rest or the whole of their diet? So then, isn’t it by your analogy that the ultimate goal of telling people to eat less salt is to get them to stop eating food? Or are you saying that since salt and food should be eaten in moderation, then terrorist attacks and death overall are things we should have in moderation? Or aren’t you saying that since eliminating eating is clearly bad and obviously wouldn’t happen just because you ask people to eat less salt, then eliminating death is clearly bad and obviously won’t happen just because you ask people to care less about 9/11? Are you saying the reason that death won’t be eliminated is that we have some felt, biological urge, of the same kind as hunger, to make sure people die? Isn’t your advice that people try to cut down on death overall, and which ones they care about in particular, futile by your own comparison?

    Or could it be that salt consumption is a stunningly worthless analogy for how we think about death?

    ReplyDelete

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field. Comments are moderated for civility and relevance and will not appear until the blog's editors have approved them.]