Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Future Gets In Your Eyes

The Interwebs is all atwitter over yesterday’s report in the New York Times that by the end of the year, Google will be selling “a pair of Google-made glasses that will be able to stream information to the wearer’s eyeballs in real time.” And just imagine if all those a-tweets could be beamed right into your eyeballs!

Speaking of the future, Nevada has become the first state to legalize and regulate self-driving cars. These are two fronts in the same technological push to fundamentally (or impactfully, as transhumanists say) transform the way we are present in the physical world — a push we can already see underway with the rise of GPS and location-awareness technologies.

For interested readers, I meditated on this transformation in an essay for The New Atlantis last year called “GPS and the End of the Road.” Here’s a relevant snippet:

The highest-end smartphones come enabled not only with GPS, but with video cameras, and with sensors that enable the phone to know where it is pointing. Combining these abilities, augmented-reality applications allow you to hold up your smartphone to, say, an unfamiliar city street, of which it will show you a live video feed, with hovering information boxes over points of interest showing you customer reviews, historical data, photographs, coupons, advertisements, and the like. One such augmented-reality app is called Layar because it allows you to see reality “layered” over, either with fanciful images or with helpful bubbles of information telling you what to see and why. Proposals are in the works to display such information on glasses or contact lenses, eliminating even the burden of holding up one’s arm.

The great and simple promise of these technologies is to deliver to us the goods of finding things in the world in the most efficient way possible. After Brad Templeton: their feature is to find the most interesting things in the world, and to explain why they are interesting, while eliminating the apparent bug that most of the things we encounter seem pretty boring. Moreover, location awareness and augmented reality, paired with GPS navigation, transmit us to these interesting places with the minimum possible requirement of effort and attention paid to the boring places that intervene. We can get where we’re going, and see what we want to see, without having to look....

Augmented reality image via Google via NYT

Monday, February 13, 2012

Ray Kurzweil for Leader of Antiquated Tribal Political Council (a.k.a. Kurzweil for President)

Even transhumanists shudder to hear Ray Kurzweil described as their leader. But he’s running for president!

Well — not really. As my friend Aaron Saenz reports at the Singularity Hub, Kurzweil has been nominated for Americans Elect, an online organization attempting to draft a third-party candidate for the 2012 presidential election. He looks to be one of maybe a couple hundred candidates listed, and currently has 25 supporters (their top listed candidate is, shockingly, Ron Paul, with 1,746 supporters).

Saenz’s post has the details, among which is that apparently the Singularity Hub itself was involved in nominating Kurzweil, and Kurzweil may not even know about it himself yet. Looks like Internet-Kurzweil just became self-aware.

Of course, it’s a little strange for either Kurzweil or his followers to be getting involved in such an arbitrary, outmoded human institution as the American electoral process. After all, as Kurzweil wrote in The Singularity Is Near, “A charismatic leader is part of the old model. That’s something we want to get away from.” But I guess you’ve got to join the system to beat it.

Speaking of selling out going mainstream, where else did Ray Kurzweil appear recently but in the Best Buy Super Bowl ad:

Marilynne Robinson on Alasdair MacIntyre: Where’s the Decline?

[Note: I am very belatedly posting two final entries about the Alasdair MacIntyre conference, which I attended and blogged this past July.]

My final post on last year’s Alasdair MacIntyre conference is about what was effectively the keynote address, delivered by Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist, and author, most recently, of Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2010), a bracing critique of scientism. (Her novels Housekeeping and Gilead, incidentally, are among the best I’ve ever read.)

Her conference talk was titled “Metaphysics and Value Statements,” and was part explication of the work of John Calvin, part unabashed challenge to MacIntyre’s claims. The former was fascinating, but rather far afield for this blog, and I couldn’t possibly do justice to it in any event; the latter I’ll discuss for those who are interested in a critical voice on MacIntyre’s relevance to questions of modernity.

Robinson established her talk as adversarial from the start, declaring herself as a liberal and an individualist — each of which, in a certain sense of those terms, are what MacIntyrean theory is set out to demolish. Her attacks against his work were roaming, but here are some of the major points as I understood them, with some attempt on my part to roughly organize them:

Methodological Flaws and Illiberalism

• MacIntyre’s work is excessively polemical. His language distorts his arguments out of any proportion or moderation.

• MacIntyre’s work is rife with nostalgia for social settings like classical Athens in which there supposedly existed unified moral traditions, but it does not account for the fact that in all of these settings, that ideal life was available only to a privileged few people, usually all men. Conversely, he offers no account of the myriad positive sociological changes that have led to what he sees as a philosophically fractured society.

• The notion of “virtue” that is so central to MacIntyre’s work is a cipher, and seems to just mean acting in a way consistent with fulfilling social roles. But there are countless examples of people acting in a way that would so qualify as “virtuous” but that are obviously morally wrong — particularly since so many social roles have been defined by their subjugation of less privileged people.

Distortive Notions of Ourselves and Others

• MacIntyre’s work posits that we are living in the midst of a great disaster. But where is the great disaster? Most people (Robinson herself included) seem to be able to live without much sustained incoherence or anomie.

• Consequent to the notion of disaster, and fueled by MacIntyre’s polemicism, there is a streak of victimhood running through MacIntyre’s work, and especially through the attitudes of his adherents — “we poor moderns” and such. (Robinson especially criticized many of the Marxists whose talks she attended, whose abstract language and sense of victimhood, she said, seem entirely out of touch with the real suffering of hundreds of millions of laborers worldwide today.)

• The polemicism of MacIntyre’s work, combined with its argument about the will to power behind modern moral inquiry, leads us to picture all modern arguments as inherently manipulative. It thus leads us to assume that the arguments of others are insidious, and to avoid engaging in the hard work of trying to understand their arguments or to appreciate them either as rational agents or as human beings. In short, it makes worse the problem of irresolvable moral arguments between people.

Missing the Full Nature of Reason and Truth

• MacIntyre’s picture of the fractured nature of moral argument also leads us to believe we have no faculties for understanding except our current ideas and our reason. But this is doubly wrong:

• First, placing so much faith in reason offers us no account of the fallibility of the mind or the mystery of the soul. By contrast, John Calvin says we should strive for virtue but never assume that we have attained it. “This,” she says, “makes life very interesting.”

• We do not have only our current ideas. Take the Biblical parables, which hold up values that, she says, might be called aesthetic, that seem to fly in the face of reason. These represent enduring truths about human nature, and so the radical philosophical break MacIntyre speaks of can only be a relative break, because these aspects of existence do not change.

Clarifying MacIntyre’s Relationship to Liberalism

Robinson has offered here a strident critique of MacIntyre’s work, and the first thing to note is that there are many places where she gets it wrong. Some of these are essentially factual: For example, consider her claim that MacIntyre dons rose-colored glasses when looking at such classical settings as ancient Athens. But the subjugation of slaves in Athens is explored in After Virtue, and MacIntyre notes that we are today “rightly” “affront[ed]” by slavery.

Similarly, contra Robinson, MacIntyre does in fact deal with the question of exercising virtue in the service of evil ends. He argues that his account of the virtues is not simply a matter of fulfilling social roles, but must always bear a relation to human nature as such; this allows us to understand certain social structures as oppressive in that they deny striving for the good life to some people. Likewise, though I may have misunderstood her, Robinson’s argument that MacIntyre says we have only our current ideas seems to be backwards: he’s saying we shouldn’t trust our current ideas as sufficient in themselves, and must work much harder than we do now to understand their philosophical and historical origins.

However, while a few of Robinson’s other criticisms are also problematic, in general, they are right on the money — real foundational problems for which MacIntyre and his followers ought to offer better answers than they have so far.

First, although Robinson mischaracterizes some of the details of MacIntyre’s argument, on the substance she is right to argue that he simply gives short shrift to liberalism and the accomplishments of modernity. Perhaps we suffer under a malaise in which human flourishing seems inaccessible or impossible — as so many writers since the existentialists (and a few before) have argued — but what of the fact that, thanks in no small part to liberalism and the Enlightenment, we’re living many times longer, have ended slavery and have granted at least the legal ability to pursue human flourishing to women and minority groups, and no longer have a state that, say, hangs, draws, and quarters people? Robinson’s point resonated with me: even if you basically agree with the argument of After Virtue, it still seems that on balance we’re remarkably lucky to be alive today, and that most people today are still able to live good lives — and these are points that must be at least acknowledged, and then accounted for, before MacIntyre’s work can be considered.

Robinson has also hit on another key point, which she expanded on in the Q&A session: For all MacIntyre’s hostility to liberalism, what better exemplar is there of a community of people free to inquire about the good, to explore the rival claims of disparate traditions, than the modern liberal state? One qualification to this argument is that the crucial social components of traditions, without which the rational components lose their coherence, are vulnerable in the mixing-pot of liberal society.

But Robinson is still right to note that MacIntyre’s work can easily support two totally opposite attitudes toward the modern liberal state: that it represents the fracture and decline of all coherent philosophical-social contexts (clearly his position), and that it represents a near-ideal setting for the meeting of traditions, and consequently the advancement of rational inquiry and the pursuit of the good life. As Robinson has pointed out, MacIntyre’s work points to a similar dichotomy in how we should treat other people — at least, as long as we’re living in our fractured modern condition. MacIntyre’s work does pose a real danger of leading us to view other people, and other ideas, as insidious, Nietzschean exercises of the will (which is part of what was happening in the talk I attended called “Against Medical Ethics,” which could be seen as counseling a sort of ideological entrenchment).

Reason and Beyond Reason

This brings us to another point of Robinson’s: the relative constancy of the human condition. This provides stability against, on the one hand, what she sees as MacIntyre’s tyranny of reason, and, on the other, MacIntyre’s apparent implicit claim that we have nothing but our current ideas.

On the first point, it’s not entirely clear to me to what extent MacIntyre takes human goods and human nature to be a subject beyond reason. Certainly there seems to be no explicit space made in After Virtue for encounters with the transcendent, the mysterious, or other goods that derive their value for us in no small part because they seem to be beyond or contrary to reason.

And it certainly seems that MacIntyre doesn’t account for Yuval Levin’s argument in the pages of The New Atlantis — that the process of drawing out the goods of a tradition and offering reasons for them is prone to drain the significance that those goods hold for us, and so to weaken the force of those reasons. (Indeed, MacIntyre avowedly holds that defending aspects of a tradition by appeal to mystery or other things beyond reason is characteristic of a tradition in decay. In fact, he says, it is what characterizes the modern conservative use of the word “tradition” as contrasted with reason — whereas MacIntyre’s notion of a tradition is closer to the modern notion of a discipline.) In other words, MacIntyre seems to believe that all human goods can be laid bare to reason, without remainder or loss.

However, I suspect that that is not quite correct; after all, MacIntyre is a practicing Catholic, and so presumably is not squeamish about the ineffable. And indeed, Robinson’s critique on the limits of reason is arguably compatible with MacIntyre’s thesis, as her idea that we should strive for virtue but never assume we have attained it is itself easily articulated as the virtue of humility. And while MacIntyre doesn’t actually use the word “humility,” he takes pains to emphasize that we can never have complete certainty about our traditions, and that flourishing traditions must be in a continual process of formulation, articulation, revision, and self-criticism.

Relatedly, in offering her account of enduring human truths that seem to be beyond or contrary to reason, Robinson’s criticism seems to rely on impoverished modern notions of “reason” rather than the richer one that MacIntyre uses. When she speaks of the “reason” that MacIntyre thinks can offer a full account of human good, she seems to mean the kind of reason favored by rigidly analytical Enlightenment philosophers: something contrasted to emotion, which is capable of being stated in terms of a few premises and conclusions, and which is equally subject to agreement or disagreement by any rational agent, regardless of his or her history, personality, perspective, and so forth. So when Robinson speaks of Biblical parables that teach us truths about human nature, she notes that many of them seem to “fly in the face of reason.” Yet the fact that we can examine, understand, and discuss these parables shows that their wisdom is not beyond reason — just beyond reason of a certain sort. By discussing such stories, we are already engaging in rational inquiry. Such discussions need not yield axioms or proofs, and ought not to be uncomfortable with initial appearances of contradiction, to be considered rational.

Nonetheless, there remains an essential truth in Robinson’s criticism. Even if we can yield to a more human form of reason in discussing human nature, there does seem something rather dry in MacIntyre’s rhetoric of virtue. It seems to fail to account for that basic aspect of human psychology that in part motivates Yuval Levin’s argument: the fabric of our experience may become parched when exposed to too harsh a glare. Some philosophical account of human life may be true, and clarifying, yet leave a large gap between itself and what our experience feels like. (Bridging that gap is a task, as Robinson hints and shows in her own work, that is much better left to art.) But this leaves us with uncomfortable questions that MacIntyre’s work raises but does not address: Can any rational account adequately articulate human nature and the human good? Is the life well lived to some extent antithetical to the attempt to understand it?

The Takeaway from Marilynne Robinson

Robinson’s talk was trenchant, important, and intimidatingly learned. She managed to hit on many of the major weaknesses in MacIntyre’s work, and she impressively conveyed them, along with her own alternative picture, to an audience that needed to hear these challenges. That audience was basically appreciative, though there was a long Q&A session with several hostile questions, which she handled with aplomb. Above all else, it was invigorating to hear her speak, and a treat to get to watch her parry with the audience. I’ll conclude with a few out-of-context but striking quotes from her off-the-cuff responses to audience questions:

• “We know nothing about time or causality, as looking at any issue of Scientific American will confirm.” (Read Robinson’s book Absence of Mind if you want to know what she’s talking about. And you do.)

• “If academia is not attended to, it is in large part because it is not attending to the world.”

• “It is the fault of religion that it has become such a bitter pill for people to swallow. Religion is an instinct and it has taken a lot of effort to squelch it.”

When asked why the ending of her first novel, Housekeeping, is so sad: “In cultures of the American West, the word ‘lonesome’ has a strong positive valence.”

On why she doesn’t take account of the biographical backgrounds of students in her creative writing courses when evaluating their work: “We don’t know what people are until we see what they do. And then we don’t know what they are.”


Related 1: If you’re interested in reading After Virtue (which, even with all of these criticisms taken into account, I still consider tremendously important), I put together a chapter summary of the book some years ago, intended as a reference to aid in reading the book.

Related 2: Also for interested readers, be sure to check out this review of the new collection Virtue and Politics: Alasdair MacIntyre’s Revolutionary Aristotelianism, which offers some incisive commentary on why MacIntyre and Marx are up to fundamentally different things, despite some apparent similarities. (Hat tip: Peter Lawler.)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Does Evolution Create Harmonious Balance or Messy Patchwork?

Along the same lines as my previous post, Allen Buchanan, professor of philosophy at Duke University, recently did an interview with the Atlantic about the ethics and significance of cognitive enhancement technologies.

Buchanan, though pro-enhancement, is a lot more wary of the potential ethical and social problems than a lot of the people discussed on this blog, so I won’t quarrel right now with his arguments about the ethics of employing enhancement techniques. I wish to draw attention instead to Buchanan’s recurring argument, in this interview and elsewhere, that evolution serves as something of a justification for tinkering with nature.

Opponents of enhancement technologies or genetic engineering, Buchanan says, have a

rosy pre-Darwinian view about human nature and about nature generally. They tend to think that an individual organism, a human being, is like the work of a master engineer — a delicately balanced, harmonious whole that’s the product of eons of exacting evolution.

Moreover, he says, such opponents assume that “somehow we’re at the summit of perfection and that we’re stable” (his emphasis). Based on this misguided view of nature, which he has elsewhere called “the master engineer analogy,” we are “almost bound to conclude that anything we try to do to improve ourselves is bound to be a disaster.”

Contrasting to this pre-scientific heathenism is the gospel of Darwin, whose opinion on nature Buchanan often quotes, as when Darwin writes, “What a book a Devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horridly cruel works of nature.” Indeed, we ourselves are just such clumsy works of nature, Buchanan tells us, as “cobbled together beings, products of mutation and selection and the crude development of ways to cope with short term problems in the environment.”

To his credit, he does not go so far as to call his opponents creationists or Intelligent Designers, and in a recent paper on the topic he made some excellent points rebutting the neo-Darwinian assumptions of transhumanist philosophers Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg.


But Buchanan overstates the case for evolution’s cobbling things together haphazardly. And it is far from obvious that the idea that we are made from “crude developments of ways to cope with short term problems with the environment” is a superior interpretation of our scientific understanding of evolution to the idea that we are “a delicately balanced, harmonious whole that’s the product of eons of exacting evolution.” Modern biology actually shows that there is some truth to both views.

While natural selection often operates in the short term to select for particular traits, one of the surprising findings of molecular genetics over the last few decades has been just how much has remained stable over the “eons of exacting evolution.” Novel traits, such as the traits that define human nature, tend to arise not from a short term cobbling together of genes (nor from the design of a “master engineer”) but from surprisingly small mutations that elegantly change the way relatively otherwise stable genes interact with one another.

As Stephen L. Talbott has argued in The New Atlantis, these elegant biological processes do indeed constitute the “delicately balanced, harmonious whole” that Buchanan dismisses. And of course, this is to say nothing of the complex way our biological nature develops through interactions with the environment, or how that biological nature contributes to and interacts with the psychological, social, and spiritual aspects of our nature.


It is strange that Buchanan thinks that opponents of genetic engineering who find something worth preserving in our nature must believe that evolution is analogous to some sort of “master engineer.” Considering that evolution is a slow process by which biological order spontaneously emerges from highly complex networks of highly conserved genes, there would seem to be an obvious analogy for it in the conservative view of society.

Conservatives tend to be opposed to social engineering — clearly not because they think that society was perfectly designed by some “master engineer,” but rather because they see society as embodying the wisdom of the ages: the slowly accumulated knowledge, customs and practices that constitute the social fabric. Moreover, the historical record of social engineering ranges from abysmal to atrocious. It seems dubious that we could do much better with the incomparably more complex system of biology.

Neither biology or society is ever perfect, but each is profoundly complex in ways that we do not understand. More importantly, human life is deeply embedded in these embodiments of the wisdom passed down through the ages. Living well with the imperfections in our nature is not about “breaking evolution’s chains” through crude exercises of biotechnological power, but is rather the task of ethical reflection and action.

[Images: 2001: A Space Odyssey; Jellyfish © Hans Hillewaert (CC)]

“Liberal Education Deserves a Whole Lifetime”

Speaking of liberalism and the Socratic method — and the Singularity, for that matter — here’s New Atlantis contributing editor Peter Lawler:

The “Socratic method,” so to speak, was conversational, and its results hugely time-consuming and inconclusive. The conversation in the Republic takes 14 hours, and when it’s over it’s unclear anyone knows what justice is. One thing the guys do end up agreeing on is that conversations of that importance deserve a whole lifetime. Who has that kind of time these days? (Well, things may change if the singularity really comes.) But the truth remains that liberal education does deserve a whole lifetime, and anyone who doesn’t have it is missing out.

Also, speaking of drugging people out of their psychological ills:

A good clue at what you miss is described by the philosopher-novelist Walker Percy. He contrasts the old method of conversational psychiatry (often Freudian), which involved a huge number of expensive, talky sessions and got unreliable results, with the new drug-based psychiatry which often gets fast and reliable results. The alleviation of symptoms, however, isn’t the same as really knowing what’s wrong with you. That’s why Percy said you have a right to your anxiety as an indispensable clue to who you are. Anxiety, of course, can be prelude to wonder and the joy of shared discovery. You have the right not to be diverted in one way or another from knowing the truth about who you are. The old-fashioned doctor of the soul was far less about cure than about understanding.

Against Medical Ethics?

[Note: I am very belatedly posting two final entries about the Alasdair MacIntyre conference, which I attended and blogged this past July.]

The talk I was perhaps most looking forward to at the Alasdair MacIntyre conference was the provocatively titled “Against Medical Ethics” by Daniel Sportiello of Notre Dame University.

Sportiello spends the better part of his talk essentially giving a summary of MacIntyre’s argument in After Virtue.* What happens in philosophy courses, Sportiello contends, is that instructors “objectively” present students with all alternate sides of an argument, believing and acting as if, because all sides have been presented, the students will use reason to pick the best one. Because this procedure, as MacIntyre shows, is so clearly based on a moral fiction, Sportiello contends (and this is where the talk starts to get interesting, to put it mildly) that by teaching students medical ethics we are teaching them not how to ascertain which arguments are the most right and good, but only how to manipulate each other. (It’s not clear to me why he is singling out medical ethics here, except that it is among the most consequential of philosophical studies.)

* The argument, in short, is that modern philosophical debates use fragmented principles that have been divorced from their original, fully articulated forms, and from the embodied social contexts in which they could find their meaning. Modern philosophical discourse, then, is disordered; it cannot provide sufficient reason to adhere to any one side of an argument, yet it purports to provide such impersonal, objective reasons. Consequently, whatever force of argument does exist, rather than a function of reason, is a function of the Nietzschean individual’s will to power in bringing another to adhere to his own interests. (Although MacIntyre differs sharply from Nietzsche in arguing that this state of inquiry is a contingent feature of modern philosophy, not the nature of philosophy as such.)

(Speaking of divorcing arguments from their full context, this is really an inadequately truncated version of MacIntyre’s. Wikipedia’s synopsis is decent and pretty short, while any serious student of philosophy or moral inquiry should read the full book itself.)

Sportiello offers an example of a student who is raised to believe that murder is wrong. The student then goes to a bioethics course in college, where he is challenged to present rational arguments for murder’s wrongness. He is presented also with potential alternatives to this view, and is given each side of the argument from a neutral standpoint so that he may “objectively” decide between them. But here a seed of doubt is introduced, and in a later moment in his life, with his certitude wavered, he might find himself with a justification for committing the act of murder.

This may be an extreme or fantastical example, but Sportiello applies the same example to the abortion question. He asks us to suppose, first, that the pro-life side is right, and to imagine a student raised to believe it is right, who is then poisoned with “neutral arguments” for both sides. Then he asks us to suppose likewise that the pro-choice side is right, and to imagine a student raised to believe it is right, who is similarly wavered from his belief. In either case — whichever side is right — should we not greet with moral horror the student who is drawn away from what is true and right (whatever we take that to be), just as we would the student taught to doubt the wrongness of murder?

Therefore, Sportiello concludes, we should not teach students bioethics. Rather, we should teach them After Virtue, and when it comes to specific issues, instead of neutrally presenting all sides of an argument, we should reject the frameworks in which these arguments are commonly presented, and instead present the view that is true, and explain why it is true, and offer resources for combating the false arguments.


This talk reveals what is perhaps the most dangerous impulse lurking beneath the MacIntyrean argument if it is not correctly understood: the one that is opposed to the Socratic method, and to the broader defenses of freedom and inquiry provided by liberal democratic states. I think the dangers are so obvious as to not be worth elucidating at length here — except to note that the genie is already out of the bottle: the ethical debates Sportiello is really interested in (such as abortion) are already underway in our society. And they remain unsettled just because, unlike on the question of murder, there are actual rival sides, and neither has yet offered arguments sufficient to convince every rational person.

This means that implementing the solution Sportiello prescribes would not be an act of philosophical restoration, but rather would be an entrenchment of the exercise of the will that Nietzsche and MacIntyre agree characterizes so much modern philosophical debate. More practically, attempting to eliminate pluralism and to force in its place the certitude Sportiello seeks would require either abandoning society for enclaves and sects, or moving away from our liberal attitudes about differing ways of life, and away from our tolerant attitudes toward free inquiry.

This doesn’t mean Sportiello isn’t on to something in his practical application of MacIntyre’s theory. There is something wrong, even dangerous, with that style of moral inquiry, so commonly found in ethics courses, that simply presents rival arguments on particular issues from a disinterested, ahistorical standpoint and asks students to decide.

But on the questions over which there is real dispute, telling (or “teaching”) students that one side is obviously right is not the only alternative. The better alternative is to offer students the resources to understand to the greatest degree possible each rival argument. But this crucially must involve not taking a disinterested, neutral standpoint, but rather following the Socratic method, and learning how each ethical viewpoint understands and attempts to answer the criticisms of the other. And, as MacIntyre so well shows, teaching rival ethical perspectives involves learning not only differing philosophies, but the distinct historical and social contexts from which these perspectives derive, and within which they are fully embodied. Any adequately articulated ethical perspective, after all, consists not just of a set of principles or propositions, but a way of being and living. Teaching this fuller form of philosophy and ethics is not a small task, but it is possible.

The preceding is my interpretation of what MacIntyre’s theories imply about the proper approach to conducting moral inquiry. But it is clear from this talk that MacIntyre has not adequately taken pains to emphasize how his approach actually requires a liberal society and a liberal methodology, even if it rejects liberalism as an account of morality itself. And it’s remarkable what a fine line there is in the takeaway from his argument between these two radically different conclusions about how we should regard liberalism.

(I should note that the conference audience last July also pounced on Sportiello and made many of these points. And he said he had not meant his talk the way we were taking it and was worried it might come across this way — though I still wasn’t clear after this on what he might have meant instead. So one should not necessarily take this post as a completely fair representation of and response to Sportiello’s argument — although he did publish a version of it as a column in the Notre Dame Observer a month later, and it appears consistent with my description here. [NOTE: See the end of this post for an exchange between myself and Mr. Sportiello about his talk.] Regardless, one could easily take MacIntyre’s work to the conclusions described here, and so it is crucial to respond to them.)


As a postscript to MacIntyre’s account of moral inquiry, I would also contend that coming to the best conclusion in a moral debate requires not only understanding but sympathizing with each side of an argument. This is crucial to inhabiting rival views, to understanding why someone might not only rationally believe them but reasonably live according to them. The act of sympathy can become a rational basis for rejecting a viewpoint — and it ought to be considered a much better basis than one of lacking understanding, of bafflement.

It strikes me that this account tends already to support a skeptical view of the reflexively progressive impulse toward bioethics and biotechnology — the impulse that culminates in transhumanism. For (at the risk of overgeneralizing) it seems that transhumanists tend to meet their critics with bafflement. Transhumanists regard their rivals’ viewpoints as fundamentally irrational and superstitious, and their approach is more often to dismiss those arguments as such than to provide criticism based on a deep understanding of their rivals. By contrast, I think critics pretty well understand and sympathize with, and have offered coherent and charitable accounts of, the impulses and reasons motivating transhumanism.

Actually, it is closer to the truth to say that transhumanists and their critics fundamentally value different, and basically opposed, sets of goods. But transhumanists seem to reject their rival goods out of incomprehension — whereas the critics of transhumanism reject transhumanism because they understand all too well what it wants.


ADDENDUM: Before publishing this post, I sent it to Mr. Sportiello to give him an opportunity to correct or clarify my account of his talk. The below is excerpted from our e-mail exchange.

Daniel Sportiello: I have now given my paper several times — and been misinterpreted several times: my audience at Providence, of which you were a member, took me to be a reactionary, for example, while my audience at Notre Dame took me to be a nihilist. No doubt these misinterpretations are my fault: I find, in the words of the poet, that it is impossible to say just what I mean. Nonetheless, let me try to articulate my thesis as clearly as brevity allows.

First, to repeat, I advocate teaching courses on After Virtue instead of courses on applied ethics — though any course on After Virtue must begin with a course on applied ethics in miniature. But we should teach them these common arguments only in order to immediately reveal their shallowness — the extent, that is, to which they depend upon premises that are without justification — and the culture of manipulation that results from that shallowness.

We should next teach them what men like Kant and Hume actually wrote — the grounding of autonomy in the normativity of theoretical and practical reason and the complementary role of sympathy and self-love in any explanation of the rise of civil society, respectively — before teaching them what really matters in all of this: an understanding of embodied rationality, deeply informed both by the practices of everyday life and by history, that would serve as the core of a tradition of rational inquiry that could be shown to be rationally superior to its rivals — who should be included, not excluded, from this conversation.

Ari N. Schulman: It’s important to point out the philosophical errors of common ethical debates. But the issues people discuss in medical ethics courses are there because they are of such pressing significance. So it seems you have to advance some positive argument about bioethical issues, even absent a revolution in philosophy or culture. People are going to have to contend with these issues — if not in an ethics course, then elsewhere.

So once you’ve taught students After Virtue, just how are you going to present them with those purportedly shallow arguments in favor of, say, abortion or euthanasia? Because the big problem with your talk as presented is that it sounds like you’re saying that you wouldn’t present them with those arguments at all — yet the arguments need a full and clear airing, whether to defend or refute them. The other problem is that if you’re truly following After Virtue, then you have to believe that you shouldn’t be teaching the common arguments against those practices, either — or rather, as you say in your talk, you have to present all of the common arguments about these practices as equally unjustified and manipulative. So you seem both to be saying that you shouldn’t teach any of the common arguments on these issues, and yet also that you should present only the right one. These two positions are of course hugely problematic on their own, but are also quite opposed to each other. So how then do you go about presenting and responding to these contemporary arguments about bioethical issues?

Daniel Sportiello: The version of my paper that you heard ended in a way that was intended to be punchy but succeeded only in being obscure. This obscurity is, it seems to me, reflected in your interpretation of my position, expressed in the paradoxical conclusion that “you shouldn’t teach any of the common arguments on these issues, and yet also that you should present only the right [arguments].” I admit this is contradictory — or would be, if “arguments” were taken in the same sense in both conjuncts. However, I do not mean for it to be so taken.

When “arguments” is taken in one sense, I affirm the first conjunct: one should not teach any of the common arguments, for or against, in applied ethics. This is because I, with MacIntyre, take these arguments to rest on incommensurable premises, each of which is shared only by a minority of those in our society; therefore, to teach any of the common arguments, for or against, would be to induct students into a practice of manipulation and to introduce unanswerable doubt into their hearts regarding matters of life and death. You are quite right, in other words, to think that my paper forbids teaching, for example, either the common argument for socialized medicine (citing utility) or the common argument against it (citing autonomy). And this applies to all of the arguments in applied ethics that are taken seriously within our emotivist culture: they should be presented only in order to show that they, and the whole practice of argumentation in which they find their home, are unsound.

When “arguments” is taken in the other sense, I affirm the second conjunct: one should teach the right arguments in applied ethics. But by “one should teach the right arguments,” I mean that one should build a whole new culture — one based not in manipulation and shallow arguments but rather upon the very deepest understanding of human practices, human nature, and human history. When you say, then, that I “have to advance some positive argument about bioethical issues, even absent a revolution in philosophy or culture,” I agree entirely: a revolution in philosophy and culture is exactly what I seek.

I know those who would put the point in this vocabulary: one should work to overthrow the Culture of Death and institute in its place the Culture of Life. Whatever one calls such a culture — one defined by its rejection of manipulation — one thing is quite clear: no one will be in doubt about the morality of issues like abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment. Sound arguments against them would be fairly trivial deductions from a comprehensive view of our relation to the world and to ourselves — a comprehensive view, that is, of the point of human life. Indeed, it might be more accurate to say that questions regarding abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment — if questioning implies honest perplexity about something — would not even arise. This could even be a litmus test for such a culture: it would not only answer such questions but, indeed, stop asking them altogether.

I hope that my tone comes across as one of goodwill rather than hostility: for what it is worth, I have come almost to regret ever giving this paper — one born less of any desire to make a bold claim than of my frustrations with teaching intelligent, eager students the sophistries of medical ethics. I never meant for it to sow the confusion that it did. For I take it that my position is not otherwise than that of a fairly orthodox MacIntyrean: the danger was not, in the words of the poet, that I would be refuted, but that I would not be understood.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Forcing People to Be Good

[Editor’s Note: We are pleased to introduce Brendan Foht, the new assistant editor of The New Atlantis. He holds degrees in political science from the University of Calgary and in biology from the University of Alberta. This is his first post for Futurisms, to which he will be a regular contributor.]
Peter Singer, along with researcher Agata Sagan, recently made an appearance on the philosophy blog of the New York Times. Suggesting the need for a “morality pill” that could boost human ethical behavior, Singer reminds us why he is the king of crass consequentialism:
Might governments begin screening people to discover those most likely to commit crimes? Those who are at much greater risk of committing a crime might be offered the morality pill; if they refused, they might be required to wear a tracking device that would show where they had been at any given time, so that they would know that if they did commit a crime, they would be detected.
As long as we’re asking people to take morality pills, we might as well preemptively implant those we deem pre-criminals with tracking devices, right?
Singer’s ideas about moral enhancement, however, pale in comparison to those of Julian Savulescu, who drops even the rhetorical semblance of doubt as to whether moral enhancements ought to be compulsory. Indeed, he seems to believe that without the development of genetic or other biomedical methods for moral enhancement, the human race is doomed to extinction.
Savulescu, a professor at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and one of the most prominent academic advocates of human biological enhancement, has argued that the human race is “unfit for the future,” and is heading into a “Bermuda Triangle of Extinction.” The three points of this triangle (representing the three factors pulling us toward extinction) consist of our rapidly advancing technological and scientific power, the evolutionary origins of our moral nature, and our commitment to liberal democracy.
The moral nature we received from our ancestors is far from perfect, rooted as it is in a world of supposedly violent and xenophobic cavemen. With the development and dispersal of powerful new technologies, it is becoming increasingly likely that powerful weapons, like genetically engineered super-plagues, might end up in the hands of people whose moral nature disposes them to violent, possibly catastrophic acts. Liberal democracy is represented in the triangle because it prevents us from taking the measures necessary to ensure the survival of the human race — measures like compulsory moral enhancement.
The idea of using genetic engineering as a measure to secure global security or peace is, hopefully needless to say, totally removed from medical, scientific, and political realities — not to mention from basic ethical and practical concerns. The idea of actually implementing such a scheme, effectively and successfully, is laughable.
Since facts don’t play much of a role in these proposals, consider just one small bit of relevant data. In Afghanistan — a country that would be high on the list as a potential source of troublesome weapons or people — the infant mortality rate in 2009 was over 13%, and one in five children died before the age of five. Even from a purely practical standpoint, are we to take seriously the idea of going into country that lags a century behind today’s medical standards, and undertaking a massive program of chemical or genetic manipulation, using techniques that are as of now barely hypothetical, targeting genes that we have barely begun to identify, on “patients” who are unlikely to understand the procedures, and in any case will almost certainly be coerced into them?
While it is true that our moral dispositions are to some extent rooted in our biology, our moral and political actions are rooted at least as much in our beliefs about justice and injustice as in our innate dispositions. And one would think that just about any society would not take kindly to an attempt to violate its members’ bodily autonomy. Even if the technical and medical problems were somehow miraculously solved, the fact that some state or international agency would have to force people to take these “moral enhancements” — as Savulescu notes, those who most “need” them would be the least likely to take them voluntarily — would create a backlash that would almost surely inspire more violence than the intervention could possibly prevent.
The apparent failure of transhumanists to recognize the basic political problems with such a scheme makes plain some of the lapses in their understanding of human nature. Savulescu’s argument that human beings are “unfit for the future” reflects an anxiety common among many people — not just transhumanists — who think about how messy and imperfect our biological nature can be. Evolutionary biology seems to show us that our bodies were designed to compete in a vicious, pre-historical struggle, burdening us with desires and vices that conflict with our higher longings and our moral values.
But this insight is of course not new; Plato and the authors of Genesis seemed to have some notion that human nature is prone to bad as much as good, and common sense shows that we are not always as good as we would like to be.
The difference between transhumanists and more serious ethical traditions is that transhumanists think that because nature is not perfectly designed, it is completely up for grabs — while others acknowledge that ethics is about learning the best way to live with our natural imperfections. In this sense, trying to eliminate the aspects of our nature we don’t like would not be a moral “enhancement,” but would rather be a profound change in the meaning of a moral human life.

How to Solve the Future

Google has set up a new program called Solve for X. In the clear and concise words of the site, Solve for X

is a place to hear and discuss radical technology ideas for solving global problems. Radical in the sense that the solutions could help billions of people. Radical in the sense that the audaciousness of the proposals makes them sound like science fiction. And radical in the sense that there is some real technology breakthrough on the horizon to give us all hope that these ideas could really be brought to life.

The site already has posted a number of videos that are forays into the “moonshot” thinking the program hopes to encourage, including one typically intelligent and provocative talk by author Neal Stephenson.

Those of us who follow the world of transhumanism may be a bit surprised to find that anyone thinks there is a lack of audacious and radical thinking about the human future in the world today. Stephenson is a bit more cautious in his talk, arguing instead that at the moment there seems to be a lack of effort to do big things, contrasting unfavorably the period from around 1968 to the present with the extraordinary transformations of human thinking and abilities that took place between 1900 (the dawn of aviation) and the Moon landing.

(It’s not quite clear why Stephenson picks 1968 as the dividing year, instead of the year of the first moon landing (1969), or the last (1972). Perhaps it makes sense if you consider that the point at which it was clear we were going to beat the Russians to the Moon was the point at which enthusiasm for efforts beyond that largely evaporated among the people who held the purse strings — meaning American lawmakers as well as the public.)


At any rate, Stephenson attributes at least some of that lack of effort to a paucity of imagination. He thus calls for deliberate efforts by science fiction writers to cooperate with technically minded people in writing what could be inspiring visions of the future for the rising generation.

There is a good deal that might be said about his argument, and perhaps I will write more about in later posts. For the moment, I would just like to note that, even accepting his premise about the paucity of big thinking and big effort today, Stephenson’s prescription for remedying it is odd, considering his own accomplishments. It’s not as if the nanotechnology world of his brilliant novel The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is an uninspiring dead letter.

The same of course goes for many of the futuristic promises of classic science fiction, but in Diamond Age, Stephenson presented his science fiction world with an unusual moral realism that one might have thought would make it all the more inspiring to all but the most simplistically inclined. Perhaps it is modesty that prevented him from putting forward his own existing work as a model.


Yet by ignoring what he achieved in Diamond Age, Stephenson also overlooks another way of looking at the problem he sets up in the achievement gap between 1900–1968 and 1968–now. For the book is premised in part on the belief that history exhibits pendulum swings. Should we really be surprised if a time of revolution is followed by a period of reaction and/or consolidation?

Believers in the Singularity would, of course, be surprised if this were the case. But they are attempting to suggest the existence of a technological determinism that Stephenson wisely avoided in Diamond Age. But he was swimming against the tide; it is striking just how much of the science fiction of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century was driven by a sense that the future would be molded by some kind of necessity, often catastrophic.

For example, overpopulation would force huge urban conglomerations on us, or would be the driver for space colonization. Or the increasing violence of modern warfare would be the occasion for rebuilding the world physically or politically or both.

Perhaps we are living in a time of (relative) pause because the realization is dawning that we are not in the grip of historical forces beyond our control. It would take some time to absorb that sobering possibility. It is not too early to attend to the lesson drawn so well in Diamond Age: that at some point the question of what should be done becomes more important than the question of what can be done.