Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

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.

6 comments:

  1. "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."

    This is a false generalization.

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  2. To the comment above, I'd also like to add the following: a belief in the undue burden of Down's syndrome children is not a tenet of utilitarianism. What utilitarianism demands is that one act according to a calculus of harms and benefits, which means that utilitarian action relies on the accuracy of the underlying calculation. What you're objecting to, Brendan, is therefore not utilitarianism at all but rather one particular calculation that happens to be a bad one. If the entire point is to educate people about the actual burdens (and benefits) of Down's syndrome children, great - do that. I think that's valuable and well-supported by logic and evidence. But don't confuse that for an attack on utilitarianism (or, for that matter, transhumanism).

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  3. So much straining at gnats and swallowing camels here....mercy. Here's a belief, or a commitment, or whatever, of utilitarianism: you (the general *you*) are an autonomous subject who can and should weigh, evaluate, and calculate costs and benefits in order to make moral decisions. The author didn't say that utilitarians always believe children with Down's syndrome are an undue burden, he said that utilitarian ethics measures costs and benefits and makes its decisions based therein. It uses those criteria to decide which lives should be lived and which lives shouldn't. I happen to think that's a really bad way to make moral decisions: because I'm a Christian, because it assumes more capability to know and calculate future consequences, and because I know myself well enough to know that my particularity and subjectivity will profoundly affect the whole process.

    The promises of transhumanism will, I'm sure, be fulfilled as nobly and altruistically as the promises of the Internet have been: not so much on the intellectual exchange and thoughtful communication, and much, *much* more pornography, celebrity gossip, and banal chatter on "social media." If you want a picture of the transhumanist future, imagine the biotechnology version of Ron Jeremy posting Justin Bieber videos on Facebook - forever.

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  4. "The author didn't say that utilitarians always believe children with Down's syndrome are an undue burden"

    No? Then which "widely accepted principles of utilitarian 'personhood' ethics" are under attack here, exactly? I sure don't see any.

    "I happen to think that's a really bad way to make moral decisions"

    Again, though, this is not a principle of utilitarian ethics, that one must use utilitarian methods to make decisions. We aren't Kantians, who think that you have to think Kantian thoughts when you act, or virtue ethicists, who think that you have to think virtuous thoughts when you act. We're utilitarians: we just care about outcomes. So what do you think you're proving? And why, when you go about proving it, are you so enormously dishonest?

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  5. Thanks for your comments, folks, I'm glad my post has managed to spark a bit of interesting discussion.
    To reply to your points, Eli: When I referred to the "principles of utilitarian bioethics," I was talking about this new argument for infanticide. I brought up the situation of children with Down syndrome mainly because I had just read that excellent review by Peter Wehner, and I was struck by the contrast between the courageous ethic of unconditional love in the face of social pressures, and the outrageous, but nonetheless unoriginal and even conformist ethical analysis in that much discussed infanticide paper.
    You're also perhaps right that there is no essential connection between concrete ethical judgements like Down syndrome pregnancies ought to be terminated, or infanticide ought to be permitted, and the ethical theory of utilitarianism. As you say, these judgements are just based on the calculations of costs and benefits. Perhaps so; as it happens, my claim in the post was that the infanticide authors started with some principles of utilitarian ethics, and then, by way of a perhaps faulty logical analysis, arrived at the conclusion that infanticide is acceptable. So I wasn't saying that particular judgements about infanticide or Down syndrome are principles of utilitarianism, but that the authors of the infanticide paper reached their conclusions not by challenging any basic principles, but rather by attempting to adhere to them.
    And, as KNS rightly points out, the calculative method of consequentialism is not the only way to do ethics. For instance, there's Christian ethics, that emphasize the humility that KNS describes, and the unconditional love that recognizes the "inestimable worth" of every human being described by Peter Wehner in his review.
    And, as I was getting at in my post, it's the people (Christians and others) who see children, regardless of their abilities, as "good and perfect gifts" to be loved unconditionally who are in fact the ones confronting and challenging widely held beliefs about the value our culture places on intellect, power, and productivity.

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  6. Brendan, I would believe your last comment more if your full statement hadn't been "...by scrupulously following certain widely accepted principles of utilitarian 'personhood' ethics to their horrible logical conclusion." That sure doesn't make it sound like you're leaving open the possibility that the authors arrived at their conclusion "by way of a perhaps faulty logical analysis." It sounds, in point of fact, like you think (or, thought) that their logical analysis was spot-on. I mean, look: I have no desire to defend these idiots. So far as I can tell, they're completely wrong not just about the costs of rearing a child with developmental disabilities but, and perhaps this is even more radical, about the costs of pregnancy. But these aren't principles, let alone utilitarian ones.

    "And, as KNS rightly points out, the calculative method of consequentialism is not the only way to do ethics. For instance, there's Christian ethics, that emphasize the humility that KNS describes, and the unconditional love that recognizes the 'inestimable worth' of every human being described by Peter Wehner in his review."

    Yes, and such ethical methods have their own problems, such as what happens when two individuals of "inestimable worth" both need the same resource(s) to survive.

    "And, as I was getting at in my post, it's the people (Christians and others) who see children, regardless of their abilities, as 'good and perfect gifts' to be loved unconditionally who are in fact the ones confronting and challenging widely held beliefs about the value our culture places on intellect, power, and productivity."

    Do you really think you have a monopoly on this? That utilitarians (or transhumanists) are somehow all under the misconception that you might as well just kill kids with Down's syndrome?

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