Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Arguing with Transhumanists

Yesterday, our co-blogger and New Atlantis senior editor Ari Schulman discussed transhumanism on The Stream, a social-media-based show on Al Jazeera English. Hosts Imran Garda and Malika Bilal did a good job of kicking off the discussion, and plenty of viewers commented and asked questions in real-time via Twitter. Several video clips were interspersed throughout the show, including a snippet of Regan Brashear’s documentary Fixed, which we previously discussed here on Futurisms.

Ari debated two outspoken advocates of transhumanism*: Robin Hanson, a professor at George Mason University (whom we have frequently written about here), and George Dvorsky, a blogger and activist. If that sounds unfairly lopsided to you — two against one — well, it was unfairly lopsided: Ari clearly had the better of the conversation.

The conversation touched on many subjects, and there wasn’t time to deal with anything in great depth, but I’d like to highlight three items.

First, Ari pointed out on the show something that Hanson said recently — that “if male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create more of them instead of female lives.” (Hanson wrote this in response to a New Atlantis article; we blogged about it here.) When confronted with his own words, Hanson didn’t retreat; he stood by those remarks. Today, one of Hanson’s blog readers took him to task: “You totally let yourself look like you’d support sexism.... You made us look bad and ... I doubt you’ll have an opportunity to repair the damage your mistake caused.” I certainly agree that Hanson’s comments make transhumanism look bad — not because he misspoke or misrepresented his views, but because his forthright comments revealed the heartless calculation that underlies much transhumanist thinking.

Second, Dvorsky and Hanson both objected to one of Ari’s comments: that transhumanism shares with the twentieth century’s eugenics movement a deep dissatisfaction with human nature. When we sometimes make this comparison, transhumanists accuse us of smearing them — after all, who would want to be compared to a movement that was responsible for forced sterilizations and that inspired some of the worst Nazi atrocities? But Ari’s remarks were measured and careful, and the comparison is apt: both eugenics and transhumanism are rooted in a profound dissatisfaction with evolved human nature. That does not mean (as Dvorsky claimed) that we think that human nature as it now exists is perfect. To the contrary, we think that human beings are flawed, and some of us might even say fallen, creatures. But for this very reason, as Ari said, we are skeptical of grand schemes that promise or pursue perfection.

Dvorsky also bridled against the comparison to eugenics for another reason. He said that eugenics was a “top-down imposition,” wherein terrible decisions were made by “either the state or certain groups in power.” By contrast, Dvorsky said,

transhumanism is absolutely opposed to any of those ideas. In fact, it’s very much a hands-off type of a philosophy. If anything, it’s bottom-up, where we give the benefit of the doubt to individuals who are informed individuals, in conjunction with their doctors, their fertility clinics, and so on, who will make the decisions that are right for themselves. So everything from their reproductive rights, their morphological rights, and their cognitive rights as well.

But as Ari rightly noted on the show, not all transhumanist proposals pleasantly envision free, autonomous individuals pursuing the good as they see it. Julian Savulescu, for example, recently proposed that we should compel people to take behavior-altering drugs to make them more “moral” (as our colleague Brendan Foht mentioned here last month). And just because Dvorsky and some of his confreres think that the transhumanist future will be “hands-off” and “bottom-up” doesn’t mean that it actually will be. Who’s to say that we won’t see dictatorships of (or backed up by) Unfriendly AI? And even if somehow the transhumanist future were accomplished without obvious coercion, that doesn’t mean (as we have pointed out many times here on Futurisms) that “individuals who are informed individuals” would be free to abjure the enhancements that society is pressuring them to accept.

All in all, a fine television performance by Ari; anyone interested in hearing more such intelligent criticism of transhumanism should poke around here on Futurisms and read some of the articles we’ve linked to the right.

* To be clear, Hanson doesn’t consider himself a transhumanist, and during the program he said that he thinks “it’s somewhat premature to either advocate for or oppose these changes, because we don’t actually know very much about the context in which they’ll appear.” But since he is a vocal proponent of cryonics and he believes that many of the things that transhumanists embrace are at least plausible and in some cases desirable, I think it’s not unfair to put him on the transhumanist side of these debates.

UPDATE: See Ari’s follow-up on his exchange with Robin Hanson about sex selection.

More Problems with Jonah Lehrer’s Science Reporting

Speaking of Jonah Lehrer, there is a terrific review at The Millions of his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. The carelessness evident in his writing about memory makes one wonder about his work more generally, and as it turns out, there is good reason to be suspicious, even when it comes to the basic veracity of his science reporting. Tim Requarth and Meehan Crist, who seem otherwise quite complimentary of and sympathetic to his work, catalog a variety of problems with the new book:

If dubious interpretations of scientific data appeared only once in Imagine, it might be a worrisome fluke; but they appear multiple times, which is cause for real concern. Lehrer steps over the line again when connecting amphetamine use to creativity. He states that “Because the dopamine neurons in the midbrain are excited…the world is suddenly saturated with intensely interesting ideas.” Such definitive statements imply that neuroscience has already charted a causal course from neurotransmitter chemistry to a complex cognitive process — which simply isn’t true. That it should have come from a writer who so clearly has the ability to write about science critically and intelligently still comes as a bit of a surprise.


The book is representing speculation as fact. While isolated moments like these may or may not be indicative of a larger pattern, they do raise doubts about both how science is represented throughout the book and the way it is used to support Lehrer’s claims.

The review is informative, thoughtful, careful, not too long, and well worth a read. Also note a still-ongoing conversation between Lehrer and the authors in the comments section. Here is a particularly revealing exchange:


Lastly, I’d just like to point out that I’m pretty sure nearly every popular book on the brain (written by both journalists and scientists) would fail the standards you preach above. I honestly can’t cite a popular brain book that either 1) doesn’t cite fMRI localization studies at face value at some point or 2) engage in speculative links between neural mechanisms and complex mental phenomena.

Requarth and Crist:

That every popular book on the brain would “fail the standards [we] preach above” does not make those standards any less valid. But we want to be clear: although we believe it is problematic that books “cite fMRI localization studies at face value,” or generally claim certainty where is does not yet exist, we have absolutely no objection to writers who “engage in speculative links between neural mechanisms and complex mental phenomena.” It is a matter of acknowledging the speculative nature of those links....

An endemic problem in popular science writing is that what should be musing is presented as argument. Such misrepresentation is a disservice to readers and, ultimately, to science, as it clouds public perception of how science actually works.

The whole review is here.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Examining the Moral Meaning of Memory

The true moral significance of memory alteration is not a simple thing to understand, and cannot be inferred from basic observations about its reliability and potential manipulability. Jonah Lehrer, in his recent Wired magazine article on memory — which I earlier discussed heredoes claim to be genuinely interested in the ethical questions raised by memory alteration:

Would the President’s Council [on Bioethics] have the same reaction to memory training? What about an more effective form of talk therapy? Or is it simply the idea of an amnesiac pill that we find so Orwellian and frightening? If so, why? We take pills to cheer us up. What’s wrong with taking a pill that might get at the root cause of the sadness? These aren’t rhetorical questions – I’m honestly interested in the answers.

But it’s hard to take Lehrer’s expressed interest seriously when this is the next thing he says: “In the meantime, progress continues apace. (What Feynman dismissively said about philosophers of science is also true of bioethicists, for better or worse: they are to scientists what ornithologists are to birds.)” So is Lehrer honestly interested in bioethics or isn’t he?

Unfortunately, it seems he isn’t. The questions he poses as apparently obvious rejoinders to the ethical inquiry in Beyond Therapy are all in fact addressed directly and plainly in the memory section of the report. To wit, here are four excerpts from the report:

We also know that individuals ‘naturally’ edit their memory of traumatic or significant events-both giving new meaning to the past in light of new experiences and in some cases distorting the past to make it more bearable. The question before us is how or whether new biotechnical interventions alter this inborn capacity to refine, reshape, and edit the way we remember the past.

What could be wrong with, or even just disquieting about, wanting to feel better about ourselves and our lives, and availing ourselves of the necessary assistance in doing so? If we may embrace psychotherapy for the same purpose, why should we not embrace mood-brighteners, especially if they are not only safe but also cheaper and more effective than ‘talk therapy’? Only a person utterly at peace with the world and content with himself would be beyond temptation at the prospect of having his troubles effortlessly eased.

...there are many people whose deep psychic distress precludes meeting obligations and forming close relationships, and for whom the proper use of mood-brighteners is the blessed gift that can restore to them the chance for a full and flourishing life.

...many Holocaust survivors managed, without pharmacological assistance, to live fulfilling lives while never forgetting what they lived through. At the same time, many survivors would almost certainly have benefited from pharmacological treatment.

And so forth. The Council’s entire report is characterized by this kind of effort to explore and present both the potential good and bad of biotechnological advancement, without firmly concluding in one direction or the other. Certainly there is reasonable room to argue with the analysis. But it’s hard to take seriously Lehrer’s “hey, I’m just asking some questions and I’m really interested in the answers” shtick when it seems based on a near-total lack of knowledge of the answers the ostensible opponents have already given, and is followed by a claim that those answers are actually irrelevant anyway.


Of course, while Lehrer professes interest in the bioethical questions raised by memory alteration, he has clearly already staked out a position in the debate in favor of memory alteration. The heart of his argument seems to be that, as he puts it, “we already tweak our memories — we just do it badly.”

One can get a sense of what’s wrong with this argument by seeing how quickly it devolves into this: “there is no clear line between the tweaks of ‘biotechnology’ and the changes that unfold every time we remember anything.” This is perhaps the most common argument in the transhumanist playbook. It goes basically like this: X new biotechnical intervention will totally change everything, so it’s great and we should embrace it — and there’s no reason not to because it’s actually no different from what we’re doing already.

This line of argument is linked to another favorite theme of transhumanists and other pro-enhancement writers: who we are as human beings is the result of an unplanned, chaotic, and messy sequence of events — whether those events were in our evolutionary past, shaping our genetic heritage, or just things that happened to us during our own lifetimes that we would rather not remember. Sometimes, as with Allen Buchanan’s discussion of evolution and human nature, the arguments raise deeply important questions about the moral meaning of human nature. But Lehrer’s application of neuroscience to the ethics of memory alteration is just a misunderstanding of the ethically significant questions.

Real ethical reflection on these issues would not try to dismiss them with one or two stale tropes. The personal, moral, and emotional significance of memory does not depend on it representing past experiences with perfect factual accuracy. And just because there are natural processes for “re-constructing” our past experiences, it by no means follows that techniques for purposefully ablating memories are morally uncontroversial. If we already tweak our memories, it seems just as possible that we could already sometimes do it well as do it badly. One would hope that in any case the goal would be to better understand the personal and moral significance of memories, and to learn how to integrate them into the broader meaning of our lives.

Jonah Lehrer’s Errors on Memory and Forgetting

About a month ago, Wired magazine published a widely discussed article on a scientific breakthrough that will have huge implications for psychotherapy, bioethics, and human self-understanding: apparently, memory is not perfect.

The author — Jonah Lehrer, the popular writer on neuroscience — reports on some scientific findings regarding the reconsolidation theory of memory retrieval, which holds that every time a memory is recalled, the brain needs to recreate the memory, just as it did when the memory was originally formed. He quotes one of the researchers describing his work in terms of Thomas Kuhn, saying that he is overturning “a very stubborn paradigm.” And Lehrer seems to agree with this characterization:

Once a memory is formed, we assume that it will stay the same. This, in fact, is why we trust our recollections. They feel like indelible portraits of the past.

None of this is true. In the past decade, scientists have come to realize that our memories are not inert packets of data and they don’t remain constant. Even though every memory feels like an honest representation, that sense of authenticity is the biggest lie of all.

Reconsolidation theory and the research behind it are potentially important contributions to the neuroscientific study of memory. But Lehrer grossly exaggerates the significance of these findings by repeatedly trying to characterize them as novel and revolutionary when they are not.


The problem starts from Lehrer not making much effort to distinguish between the two big takeaways from this research, which are: (1) memory can be altered by the act of recollection; and therefore, (2) memory is fallible. The first part is reconsolidation theory itself. Lehrer presents some evidence that this idea has only recently entered the scientific mainstream, but as for its being revolutionary, well, he himself notes in a follow-up blog post that scientists have been conducting research in support of the idea for almost a hundred years. Moreover, as he also notes in the article, the idea has been basically assumed by psychotherapists for decades.

It’s the second point that’s really supposed to be revolutionary, though: Lehrer uses as a foil the supposedly naïve conventional and ancient philosophical wisdom that human memory works like a videotape, accurately recording and replaying events. But he does this mainly by misrepresenting or misunderstanding the way others have thought about memory in the past.

The first volley is fired at Plato, who, Lehrer says, “compared our recollections to impressions in a wax tablet.” But Plato, in the Theaetetus, discusses this model only to quickly reject it. More to the point, Plato does so precisely in an effort to explain why beliefs can be false and memories unreliable. The naïve assumption that memories are “inert packets of data” has certainly had its adherents over the years — most of them in the last century, really, when such metaphors came into vogue — but the idea that memories are fallible, and that they have a life of their own, is at least as old as philosophy and literature. Indeed, even without philosophical reflection there are certain self-evident aspects of memory that show us how it can be imperfect; memories are clearly less distinct than present experiences, and no one trusts their recollections to the same extent they trust their perception.

Lehrer suggests that these developments in neuroscience constitute a transgressive and exciting challenge to entrenched beliefs about human nature. But there’s no apparent reason in this case for why neuroscience should be fighting with ordinary human self-understanding — indeed, this seems like a perfect case of neuroscience coming around to realizing and providing some biological explanation for a phenomenon that’s already very familiar.

The fact that people have always known memory to be fallible still leaves unknown why this is so, and does not diminish the value of neuroscientific research that might help explain it. Moreover, this possible biological explanation for why memory can be inaccurate does not show that memory is arbitrary or always unreliable, or that memory cannot or does not have some strong relation to the truth.


These problems with Lehrer’s account would not be so important if not for the highly flawed ethical arguments he uses them to support. You see, another implication of this research is the possibility of creating drug-based therapies to erase the painful aspect of particular memories, or even the memories themselves. By way of supporting this possibility, depicting as naïve the idea that memory always is truthful becomes the basis for depicting as naïve the idea that memory ought to be truthful.

In that blog post following up on his article, Lehrer gives the supposed ancient philosophical wisdom about memory a modern voice in the ethical analysis of this topic by the President’s Council on Bioethics in its 2003 report Beyond Therapy. As he describes it, the Council

declared the possibility of erasing traumatic memories deeply dangerous, and worried that it would lead to the unraveling of “moral responsibility” in society. After all, if we can choose to forget our pain, then what would prevent us from thoughtlessly inflicting pain on other people? “Without truthful memory, we could not hold others or ourselves to account for what we do and who we are,” the Council wrote. “Perhaps no one has a greater interest in blocking the painful memory of evil than the evildoer.”

This argument at first seems “perfectly reasonable” to Lehrer, since “even the worst memories serve an important purpose, allowing us to learn from the past.” But his agreement turns out to be rhetorical, for

the verdict of the Council, grounded in our ancient intuitions about memory, is also problematic. The main reason is straightforward: Although the Council repeatedly proclaims the importance of maintaining “authentic” memories, they failed to realize that such an ideal form of memory doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as immaculate recall....

But the word “authentic” does not even appear anywhere in the part of the Council’s report dealing with memory. Moreover, the Council itself acknowledges precisely the point about memory reconsolidation that Lehrer claims vitiates the Council’s analysis:

it is important to note that “stored memories” do not remain static. Every time we recall a memory, what gets stored after such acts of recollection is a different memory, altered on account of how we, in recollecting it, have “received” and reacted to it. Once encoded, memories can be altered by recall.

Lehrer is criticizing a straw man. Not only does the Council’s argument not presuppose some idealized notion of perfectly accurate memory, but there is no reason for it to. Would evildoers only have an interest in blocking painful memories, in themselves or their victims, if those memories were perfect? Does the fact that memories can change or be imperfect mean that they have absolutely no relation to the truth? Does it mean we have no ethical or emotional interest in them bearing some relation to the truth?

Questions like these are the ones that the scientific discoveries Lehrer mentions really seem to raise, but Lehrer seems more interested in making bold bioethical pronouncements on the basis of neuroscientific findings than examining these tough bioethical questions. I’ll turn to comparing the Council’s analysis of these questions about the ethics of memory alteration with Lehrer’s analysis in my next post.

Images: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind;
Photo Album (via Shutterstock);
Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Seeing and Believing

John Ruskin, in Modern Painters (1843), defined the “pathetic fallacy” this way: “false appearances ... entirely unconnected with any real power or character in the object, and only imputed to it by us.” He was largely but not entirely critical of this fallacy for its tendency to produce bad poetry. But as reflecting certain kinds of human characters, the story was more complex:

The temperament which admits the pathetic fallacy, is ... that of a mind and body in some sort too weak to deal fully with what is before them or upon them; borne away, or over-clouded, or over-dazzled by emotion; and it is a more or less noble state, according to the force of the emotion which has induced it. For it is no credit to a man that he is not morbid or inaccurate in his perceptions, when he has no strength of feeling to warp them; and it is in general a sign of higher capacity and stand in the ranks of being, that the emotions should be strong enough to vanquish, partly, the intellect, and make it believe what they choose. But it is still a grander condition when the intellect also rises, till it is strong enough to assert its rule against, or together with, the utmost efforts of the passions; and the whole man stands in an iron glow, white hot, perhaps, but still strong, and in no wise evaporating; even if he melts, losing none of his weight.

I was reminded of the pathetic fallacy by this music video:

NO "Stay With Me" from Ryan Reichenfeld on Vimeo.

However charming in its own way, this video is certainly an instance of “false appearances.” But it is less clear just what emotion the filmmakers are “over-dazzled” by, or whether they are to be credited with an emotion sufficiently powerful to overwhelm a strong intellect, or rather with a weak intellect easily mislead by emotion. I’m inclined to think Ruskin would find it bad poetry: What is the point of ascribing human emotional characteristics to crash-test dummies? One might as well feel bad for the car being crashed. Does it add anything to the longing of the song’s lyrics to have them reflected in an impossible scenario, or is it rather some post-modern ironic distancing from longing, an unwillingness to commit to it even while expressing it?

Perhaps a recent interview with Sherry Turkle, the erstwhile techno-optimist, helps to clarify this particular pathetic fallacy. Turkle has written a book called Alone Together, which she calls “a book of repentance in the sense that I did not see this coming, this moment of temptation that we will have machines that will care for us, listen to us, tend to us.” She explains:

People are so vulnerable and so willing to accept substitutes for human companionship in very intimate ways. I hadn’t seen that coming, and it really concerns me that we’re willing to give up something that I think defines our humanness: our ability to empathize and be with each other and talk to each other and understand each other. And I report to you with great sadness that the more I continued to interview people about this, the more I realized the extent to which people are willing to put machines in this role. People feel that they are not being heard, that no one is listening. They have a fantasy that finally, in a machine, they will have a nonjudgmental companion.

The video takes this idea one step further — a companion that will save us from the mere humans who are not hearing us. I suspect that here is the pathetic fallacy at the heart of social robotics. It is a vicious circle. The more we put our hopes in machine companions, the less we expect from each other, and the less we expect from each other, the more we will accept the substitute of machine companions. Thus does “only connect” become “just plug it in.”

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Radical Cowardice of Utilitarian Bioethics

It is clear that Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva were doubting some pretty obvious ethical truths in their recent paper. As Ari suggested, this is quite contrary to Kyle Munkittrick’s credulous praise that their paper is

exactly what intellectual exercise is meant to be: a reasoned exploration of an idea we find difficult and troubling. True philosophy, honest ethics, dares to ask the un-askable questions. If we are horrified by what we find, then we need to examine the very foundations of our philosophies.

But did these authors really even exhibit the spirit of deep philosophical questioning that Munkittrick claims to defend? In fact, looking at the paper itself, and at the defenses of the paper written by the authors and the journal’s editor, it is clear that they reached this ostensibly outrageous position not by deeply questioning any basic moral assumptions, but by scrupulously following certain widely accepted principles of utilitarian “personhood” ethics to their horrible logical conclusion. As the authors say in defense of their article: “It was meant to be a pure exercise of logic: if X, then Y.”

Yet so very far was this “exercise in logic” from the deep questioning of moral principles that, when they reached the conclusion that killing babies is okay, they accepted that conclusion, rather than questioning the principles that brought them there. That certainly demonstrates the deep commitment these authors had to the principles of utilitarian bioethics, but it sure doesn’t say much about their commitment to challenging moral assumptions or principles.

Their indignant surprise at the public reaction to their paper, which they take pains to point out was intended for academic audiences only — a canard that Andy Ferguson rightly ridicules — also shows how little these authors wanted to challenge any widely held assumptions in the culture. And while there was clearly a very strong negative reaction from the public, some of the assumptions made by the authors, such as the idea that “children [with Down syndrome] might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole,” are unfortunately all too common in our society.

As Caitrin Nicol notes in “At Home with Down Syndrome,” ninety percent of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. As Peter Wehner writes in a recent review of A Good and Perfect Gift — a book written by Amy Julia Becker, the mother of a child with Down syndrome, named Penny — not just utilitarian bioethicists, but also “physicians, genetic counselors, prenatal screeners, and even biology teachers” embrace the cultural assumptions that children with disabilities should be viewed “not as gifts but as burdens, not children to love but mistakes who should be eliminated.” Amy came to understand “amidst the pain and through grace,” as Wehner puts it, “that there is purpose in Penny’s life simply as she is and who she is.”

The transhumanists, with their belief in the importance of human enhancement, unquestioningly embrace our culture’s ethos of power, productivity and, efficiency as a matter of principle. Picturing themselves as critical, skeptical, free-thinking iconoclasts, they view as backwards and conformist beliefs like Amy’s. But in an age that so prizes the abilities that make us productive, useful, and powerful, it may be that beliefs like hers — that power is perfected in weakness, that the poor in spirit are blessed, and that it is the meek who shall inherit the earth — may still represent the deepest challenge to the ideological commitments of our hardened minds.

The False Boldness of “After-Birth Abortion”

How many people are in this picture?A paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics called “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?,” by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, has been stirring up quite a lot of attention. Here’s the abstract:

Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.

And here’s just a little sample of the kind of moral acuity you can find in the paper itself:

In spite of the oxymoron in the expression, we propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide’, to emphasise that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus (on which ‘abortions’ in the traditional sense are performed)....


a second terminological specification is that we call such a practice ‘after-birth abortion’ rather than ‘euthanasia’ because the best interest of the one who dies is not necessarily the primary criterion....

No kidding. Just to make clear whose interest is the primary criterion:

people with Down’s syndrome, as well as people affected by many other severe disabilities, are often reported to be happy. Nonetheless, to bring up such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care....

Can you think of any cases before where groups of individuals have been denied rights or killed on the basis that they are not full persons, are disabled, and/or that they are a burden to society? And it’s not just the disabled:

Actual people’s well-being could be threatened by the new (even if healthy) child requiring energy, money and care which the family might happen to be in short supply of.... In these cases, since non-persons have no moral rights to life, there are no reasons for banning after-birth abortions.

I rather hope the atrociousness of a paper like this speaks for itself (though you can see Wesley J. Smith take it on here and here). Senselessness and sophistry masquerading as rational inquiry. But in case you need more:

Failing to bring a new person into existence cannot be compared with the wrong caused by procuring the death of an existing person. The reason is that, unlike the case of death of an existing person, failing to bring a new person into existence does not prevent anyone from accomplishing any of her future aims.... If the death of a newborn is not wrongful to her on the grounds that she cannot have formed any aim that she is prevented from accomplishing, then it should also be permissible to practise an after-birth abortion on a healthy newborn too, given that she has not formed any aim yet.

Emphasis in original. The contrast between ideological commitments is striking: a newborn child is only a potential person, who does not necessarily have a right not to be killed — but it seems the newborn does have a right not to be disenfranchised by being referred to with the masculine terms he or him. Somehow beings that are merely potential persons, but do not exist, can be gendered — and must have their gender properly acknowledged, but not their life defended.


Let’s try to be charitable. Although the conclusions are awful, and the logic used to get there riddled with countless obvious errors, if there’s one thing that can be said in favor of this kind of reasoning, it’s that the kinds of distinctions they’re making — between what the authors would call actual persons and potential persons — might be useful, because they are similar to the kind of distinctions one makes in determining whether an individual is of sufficient mental capacity to be held criminally responsible for his actions.

Indeed, these criteria and distinctions are not so far away from the kinds that are used in modern societies that still use the death penalty, to determine whether a person has the mental capacity to be held accountable for a capital offense, and to pay for it with his or her life. Such, then, is the curious bent of modern “personhood theory”: the criteria, once used to defend people who are too mentally undeveloped to justly deserve being deprived of their lives, easily become the criteria by which the same kinds of people, even well beyond birth, are too undeveloped for their lives to deserve defending at all, even for a crime so small as being an inconvenience to someone else.

Realizing this points to the biggest failing of the paper on its very own terms. Giubilini and Minerva propose to extend abortion to “the first days or few weeks after birth,” before an infant possesses personhood traits like “self-awareness,” “expectations,” and “future aims.” But they offer no reason to think such traits, most of which seemingly require capacities like speech and conscious memory recall, are present as early as a few days or weeks after birth. They are enormously vague in defining and describing these traits, saying only that an infant’s ability to “value the different situation she would have found herself in if she had not been harmed ... depends on the level of her mental development.” But the traits apparently necessary to secure personhood, and so protection from being killed, are not present until at least many months after birth, and often not until age one or two — indeed, under many reasonable interpretations, not until many years after birth.

If the authors had really committed to their personhood criteria, they would need to be defending the killing of children a few years beyond birth, at minimum. And a more rigorous commitment to personhood would reasonably extend the boundary much further out, indeed, to something like the age of criminal accountability or voting. But I guess the authors didn’t want to be too radical.


Unsurprising though this is, it should be pointed out that this is the kind of thing that gets transhumanists really excited, and that counts to them as philosophical insight and bravery. Kyle Munkittrick, for one, is breathless:

The purpose of articles that are so obviously controversial and counter-intuitive. is not to endorse or advocate a political position and say “this is right and should be law.” Instead, they are exactly what intellectual exercise is meant to be: a reasoned exploration of an idea we find difficult and troubling. True philosophy, honest ethics, dares to ask the un-askable questions. If we are horrified by what we find, then we need to examine the very foundations of our philosophies.

If something is obvious, then that is the very thing a diligent bioethicsist should be questioning and doubting.

Nowhere, of course, in this or a follow-up post (which without explanation is titled “Witch Ethics” — I guess because criticizing pro-infanticide arguments is a witch hunt?), does Mr. Munkittrick actually do any of that “reasoned exploration.” Instead he just lauds “exploration” itself, congratulating the authors for their bravery and condemning their critics for cowardice. The authors themselves are similarly aghast in a pseudo-apology they issued:

When we decided to write this article about after-birth abortion we had no idea that our paper would raise such a heated debate.... It was meant to be a pure exercise of logic: if X, then Y.... We do not think anyone should be abused for writing an academic paper on a controversial topic.

It’s all just about logic and academic freedom and the boldness to ask challenging questions! Why are people getting so bent out of shape!

Just to put peoples’ silly reactions to this paper in context, imagine that instead of the paper making the case for infanticide, it advanced an I’m-just-saying or gee-hey-why-not daring defense of some other practice, like, say ... rape, murder, slavery, or genocide. Actually, I guess I’m tilting the question by using such condemnatory terminology. “Genocide,” for example, should just be called “heritage-selective aggregate after-after-birth abortion,” lest we acknowledge “the best interests of the ones who die.” Anyway, who would dare fail to celebrate such a harmless intellectual exercise?

UPDATE: See also Brendan Foht on the same paper.

[Mother and child image via Shutterstock]

The Revolution Will Be Advertisement

More on augmented reality, from Jeff Bercovici at Forbes:
So far, Google has only scratched the surface of the advertising potential here. That makes sense: How many times in your life are you actually going to point your phone at an ad?

Google glasses could change all that. Now the user doesn’t have to point his phone at an ad to activate the AR [augmented reality] layer — he only has to look at it. Combine that with location data and all the other rich targeting information Google has at its disposal and you’re talking about potentially the most valuable advertising medium ever invented.

Imagine it: You’re walking home from work. You put on your Google Glasses to check your email and notice that the sushi place across the street, where you frequently go for takeout, is highlighted. In the window is a glowing icon that lets you know there’s a discount available. A tiny tilt of your head brings up the offer: 40% off any purchase plus free edamame. With a bit more tilting and nodding, you place your order. By the time you cross the street, it’s ready for you. Would you like to pay via Google Wallet?

You nod.
In unrelated news, Ben Goertzel thinks that corporations “are directly and clearly opposed to the Singularity.”