Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Eugenics and the Denigration of Consent

I have argued that both the "transhumanist" and "bioconservative" stances (roughly, the undercritical technophilic imagination as against the undercritical technophobic imagination) on questions of so-called "enhancement" medicine can rightly be described as eugenicist. In my view, there is a significant parallel to be discerned between
[one] on the one hand: the "transhumanist" who feels a moral obligation to "enhance" human capacities, morphologies, and lifeways by means of emerging genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive techniques to better facilitate the project of engineering the homo superior of the "posthumanity" with which they identify, and

[two] on the other hand: the "bioconservative" who feels a moral obligation to ban such "enhancements" and such techniques to better facilitate the project of preserving the homo naturalis of the parochial and static vision of "humanity" with which they identify.
These projects to facilitate particular parochial conceptions of humanity with which they identify through emphatic recourse to or repudiation of medical technique, seem to me in both cases profoundly eugenic (it pays to remember that in foreswearing emerging forms of medical technique, "bioconservatives" are enshrining as "natural" the norms and practices that currently contingently guide kinship and reproduction in the service of patriarchy and other traditional hierarchical social forms, a selective breeding program no less technical and artificial for having lasted in most places for many thousands of years).

"Transhumanist"-identified readers often object to my characterization of their viewpoint as eugenicist. It is a sore spot with them: after all, they get a lot of that... but if the shoe hurts, you may be wearing it. It is true that few of them openly advocate coercive or involuntary programs of medical intervention to facilitate their engineering of an "optimal" "enhanced" posthumanity (although even self-declared "democratic" transhumanists like James Hughes advocate the suppression of, say, non-hearing prospective parents who would "screen" for an atypical but certainly both valuable and nonlethal while scarcely demonstrably disadvantageous non-hearing child as an expression of gratitude for and solidarity with their own non-hearing lifeway, for example). Indeed, some transhumanists declare in exasperation that their viewpoint amounts to more or less my own (when it palpably does not).

I believe that to value human lifeway diversity and human stakeholder equity as people of the secular progressive democratic left in an era of prosthetic/therapeutic polyculture demands neither [1] pretensions to knowing what ideal human optimality properly consists of and pressuring human plurality into reflecting it nor [2] pretensions to knowing what ideal human normality consists of and pressuring human dynamism into conformity with it, but instead [3] always only the struggle for more informed, nonduressed consent, peer to peer. What is wanted in my view is a politics that will shore up the scene of informed, nonduressed consent in therapeutic contexts, and celebrate the proliferation of wanted human capacities, morphologies, and lifeways that will be sure to eventuate from such a consensual scene. Against the eugenicism of the elitist "transhumanist" optimizers and the eugenicism of the elitist "bioconservative" preservationists, I have proposed the better alternative of a more informed, nonduressed consensual secular democratic prosthetic polyculture.

I disagree that "transhumanists" are in accord with my view here, but before I elaborate why let me first address the question of coercion that some "transhumanists" believe gets them off the eugenicist hook despite their overconfident belief that they know what optimal human health, abilities, and ways of life will look like and their advocacy of that optimality as an "objective standard" that should function as a norm in public discourse, in administrative policy, and shaping professional and institutional formations.

It is not only those who go so far as to actively advocate involuntary modification who are typically described as eugenicist in my understanding. There are disciplinary pressures beneath the threshold of conspicuous coercion that will yield eugenic effects just as surely, and often more efficaciously, than blatant threats and attacks of violence will do. Certainly programs of involuntary medical intervention constitute the most hideous and heartbreaking end of the eugenicist spectrum, but one can easily observe comparable homogenizing and restrictive effects arising from popular misinformation, from social stigma, from mass mediated promulgation of norms, from uncritical and inertial workings of orthodox institutional healthcare mechanisms. And the workings of these unexamined orthodoxies do no small amount of the work enabling more conspicuously coercive interventions, by marginalizing and befuddling objections to them and sanctifying their "best intentions" as only natural.

Not everybody needs, as some "transhumanists" apparently seem to do, literally to see a Nazi brandishing a firearm or cracking a whip in the service of genocide before they will grant that even now society is conspiring unnecessarily and at great human cost to cast certain perfectly liveable and flourishing and legible and wanted human capacities, morphologies, and lifeways as less-than-human, as offenses to humanity demanding "remedy" whatever those who incarnate them might have to say in the matter.

As far as I can tell, "transhumanists" who hide behind their restraint from conspicuous coercion to protect themselves from the "eugenicist" charge for all their glib talk about what objectively counts as a life worth living and a capacity worth "enhancing," have simply arbitrarily accepted a far too-restrictive conception of what can count as eugenics and then pretend everybody else agrees with that conception when almost nobody actually does. In my view the very idea of a discourse of morphological or lifeway "improvement" in the abstract -- rather than and apart from discourses and practices of actually diverse, actually wanted, actually expressed, informed nonduressed consensual prosthetic/therapeutic interventions -- is dangerously eugenic in its implications.

To treat as "settled" or as "neutral" value questions that are and should remain under contestation about what human ends are worth optimizing for and what human lifeways are actually wanted is to circumscribe the terms of what is humanly possible and important in a profound violence that tends to precede and indeed function as the precondition for certain techno-fixated and techno-transcendental eugenic discourses on "enhancement" that like to promote themselves as celebrations of choice. Theirs is a choice impoverished from the outset, offering always only choices to enhance competitive performance or to enhance the consumption of available entertainments, always in the paradoxical service of incumbency figured as "the future." Freedom reduced to the "freedom to enhance" risks the foreclosure of freedoms in the name of freedom and, worse, looks so to misconstrue freedom as an engineering matter rather than a political experience that it threatens to undermine freedom altogether

Apart from all this, I want to add that while many "transhumanists" pay lip service to consent, few actually demonstrate a substantive commitment to that value by actually talking about it apart from occasions when they are being accused by critics of indifference to it. Few seem interested in celebrating actually wanted actually existing lifeway diversity in the world they share as against their personally-preferred visions of an engineered diversity they project onto "The Future" world that never seems to arrive. Few actually devote their time and energy otherwise to discussions of the way consent might be practically, politically, institutionally facilitated in reality -- via equitable access to the franchise, lifelong education, universal healthcare, basic income, social security, rights culture -- and so on. It's hard to escape the sense that this is because they don't really care much about these topics. In the absence of such substantial exhibitions of concern, they will please spare me the manufactured outrage at being "misrepresented" on this score, just because they can fling out pious vacuities when challenged and mumble about how, at best, they are loosely pro-choice or, at worst, we should "let the market decide," and can we now talk about Shiny Robots some more, please? They are hereby invited to put their money where their mouths are.

I'll believe "transhumanists" who claim to advocate consensual therapeutic multiculture as I do when more of them show anything like real concern about the ways in which savagely unequal distributions of authority, resources, reliable information, and legal redress stratify our grasp of the diversity of viable and flourishing lifeways in the world as well as duress the actually existing scene of consent in the present day.

I'll believe "transhumanists" who claim to advocate consensual therapeutic multiculture as I do when they demonstrate equal zeal championing those who would undertake a non-"normalizing" procedure they recognize as non-lethal and compatible with ongoing consent but not "enhancing" of desirable capacities by their own lights, or who would refrain from choosing a non-risky and "normalizing" procedure -- or even an "enhancing" procedure by their lights -- as they do in championing procedures that are either normalizing or enhancing on their personally preferred terms.

I'll believe "transhumanists" who claim to advocate consensual therapeutic multiculture as I do when more of them propose as part of their presumed championing of consent to address these deficiencies with a strong defense of general welfare, public education, access to reliable information, a truly living wage, single-payer health care, and democratically accountable govrnment, a respect for democratic outcomes even when these frustrate the pace of development by their lights, and a celebration of actually lived diversity rather than idealized outcomes in their rhetoric.

I'll believe "transhumanists" really believe as I do in people making their own actually informed, actually non-duressed choices about what they themselves take to be prosthetic "enhancement" (whether the prostheses in question are medical, educational, or otherwise cultural) when fewer of them advocate free market feudalism, when fewer of those who know better stop choosing such feudalists as their political allies, and when fewer of them deploy bioreductionist formulations to rationalize feudal attitudes toward women, workers, diversity, and humanistic values.

It is no surprise that advocates of "optimality" that declare themselves committed to the usual libertarian conceptions of impoverished voluntarism and vacuous consent will nonetheless propose policies in which the individual choice to maintain or craft a "suboptimal" morphology or capacity (on competitive productivist and consumerist terms that are neither settled nor neutral) is to be treated as generating an externality imposing social costs that must be re-internalized: This amounts to the proposal of a punitive legal and incentivizing regulatory framework naturalizing a permanent arms race of force-amplification in the service of eternal accumulation as an unexamined end-in-itself.

The democratic value of equity-in-diversity (and the interminable democratic contestation over its terms and forms) is neither equality-as-homogeneity nor aspiration-toward-optimization. To be indifferent to issues of consent or, just as bad, to advocate vacuous forms of consent, while at once advocating strong norms pretending to the status of scientific objectivity concerning human capacities, morphologies, and lifeways that aspire toward an "optimality" that earns them the designation "enhancement" -- in the abstract and apart from actually expressed preferences and exhibited stakes of actual people incarnating or wanting these capacities, morphologies, and lifeways -- is indeed a eugenic outlook, dangerously vulnerable to authorizing institutional eugenic practices that diminish the human equity and diversity on which democratic freedom depend in fact. They should be understood and opposed by people of the democratic left on just those terms.


peco said...

Why is "free market feudalism" incompatible with choice (about enhancement)?

consent might be institutionally facilitated

What do you mean? If institutions "manufacture consent," isn't that still consent?

they know what optimal human health, abilities, and ways of life will look like

I don't think they're saying that. They are saying that there are optimal humans (persons), but "optimal" could mean "what the person wants to be like."

Dale Carrico said...

peco wrote:

Why is "free market feudalism" incompatible with choice (about enhancement)?

Read my Trouble in Libertopia

If institutions "manufacture consent," isn't that still consent?

Read up on the Propaganda Model I am citing in the phrase, whether on wikipedia or from the authors themselves.

They are saying that there are optimal humans (persons), but "optimal" could mean "what the person wants to be like."

No, they're not. I mean that in the literal sense of those are not the words they are saying.

Pay more attention. And please don't treat my reading recommendations as invitations to endlessly answer questions.

If you want me to teach you you'll need to pay for the privilege like all my students do -- then I'll have all the patience in the world for you. If you want to learn through participation in the conversation of the community of the Moot, you need to be more patient yourself, listen more, learn more, read more, dwell in confusion for a while and then questions and make comments and see whether or not the community takes you up on them.

If they don't -- don't worry, it means you need to go back to more lovely learning and listening for a while -- and anyway, I tend to respond even when others in the Moot don't.

Do we understand one another on this, now, peco?

Nato Welch said...

I've always noticed your use of the term "non-duressed", and that struck me as a pretty plain way to include impersonal disciplinary forces (eg the market forces that market fundamentalists/feudalists accept) as unacceptable in addition to overt coercion.

@Peco: think about how many people can't effectively function at work without a cup of caffeine, then extend the same principle to other, more drastic, not-yet-available modifications. Just because everyone (or a great many) agrees to take on a particular modification or intervention in order to compete in a labor marketplace does not mean that they are not under duress in adopting it, even if outright coercive forces are not at work.

The liberty to take on transformative interventions must necessarily include the liberty to reject and refrain from them. Otherwise, there is no liberty - merely convenience for those who want them. Morphological freedom has to include //actual// freedom to live as you are, and not just a lack of overt coercion to live otherwise.

John Howard said...

Have to object to the assertion that bioconservatives opposed to genetic engineering simply want to preserve "the natural", and also that they want to maintain a eugenics through hierarchy and patriarchy. No, this bioconservative is opposed to genetic engineering in order to preserve sex and consensual mutual sexual reproduction with someone of the other sex and to preserve conception rights, meaning the right to conceive with unmodified gametes. Note that I'm for preserving it not because it is "natural", but because it would be a much better future than allowing genetic engineering, which would be a slippery slope to coercive eugenics and a loss of individual conception rights, and be terribly wasteful of energy and medical resources.
As to wanting to preserve the patriarchy, well, I certainly don't want to replace it with postgenderism, but it's not an either or. Any injustice caused by sexual difference should be mitigated by society through marriage and civil laws and social norms in a non-offensive or misogynist way, not through postgenderism and transhumanism and super-fertility by overcoming the human limitation of being one sex or the other and needing the other sex to reproduce. Postgenderism is really another tool of patriarchy and misogyny, in that it disprespects and devalues the role of women by rich white men.

Dale Carrico said...

No, this bioconservative is opposed to genetic engineering in order to preserve sex and consensual mutual sexual reproduction with someone of the other sex and to preserve conception rights, meaning the right to conceive with unmodified gametes.

Sex isn't under threat, so it doesn't need whackjob homophobic John Howard to "preserve it." And "defending consensual sex" by seeking to restrict it only to "reproduction with someone of the other sex" and "preserving conception rights" by seeking to restrict access to ARTs is just the sort of Orwellian opposite-day double-speak you always peddle in your episodic visits to this blog. Go away, John, nobody is fooled and nobody is interested. Further posts will be moderated. You've had many chances here, and you abuse them every time. Get help.

Elithrion said...

It would seem to me that your primary issue lies not with transhumanists, but rather with society in general, which refuses to assume your political views. Perhaps you should be complaining about the fact that belonging to "the democratic left" is still a fringe position, rather than against transhumanists for not somehow universally belonging to it.

Dale Carrico said...

It is quite clear in the piece to which you imagine you are responding that [1] I am equally critical of the eugenicism of transhumanist and also bioconservative formulations and that [2] I regard both of these viewpoints as extremes that, while certainly quite ugly and pernicious enough on their own terms, also illuminate troubling eugenic attitudes that prevail, often in more muted or ambivalent ways, in mainstream developmental discourses as well.

It is revealing that you seem to regard the democratic left as a "fringe" position as against transhumanism which you seem to imagine has been assumed by "society in general." I daresay this flabbergasting hallucination is shared by several sad sociopathic Robot Cultist caught up in the full froth of True Belief.

Perhaps you should take care about espousing eugenics too eagerly -- you are showing clear signs of a dullness in "brainpower" that may get you culled from the herd should your parochial perfectionism ever actually manage to trump consensual democracy altogether.

By way of conclusion, I'll just mention that "critique" isn't simply a matter of "complaining," any more than critical analysis in other modes is -- however unpleasant or discomfiting its targets may find it.

Elithrion said...

You have read far too much into my simple statement. For one, certainly, transhumanism is a fringe position - my Firefox's spellchecker does not even recognise the word, and I am quite certain that the vast majority of the population is simply unaware it even exists. Indeed in your reflexive reaction to my comment you seem to have ignored its substance entirely, instead addressing some imagined comments that I never made.

Allow me to rephrase so that you may, perhaps, have some additional difficulty in missing what I say. Transhumanism does not inherently bear any definitive political prescription of either the libertarian or socialist sort, or of any other political position. While many of its adherents may subscribe to similar ideologies this is more coincidence of appeal than an implicit feature. Indeed, one can easily imagine transhumanism tinged with communism, socialism, centrist positions, fascism, libertarianism, or anything else. What you demand in your "critique", in particular when referring to the requirement of "informed, nonduressed consent", which you repeat as a sort of mantra, is that every transhumanist adhere to your particular political ideology. This is absurd as while I am sure that there are certain transhumanists who do just that, there is no particular reason why any more of them should embrace it than the number who embrace it in society at large. That number being sufficiently small that I am comfortable calling it a "fringe position", with which appellation you seem to take such issue. Thus, I claim that your real issue lies with society for not embracing this position as mainstream, not with transhumanists for reasonably reflecting society.

Dale Carrico said...

Transhumanists, like other techno-fetishists, often like to imagine that their views are politically neutral, but that reductionist gesture is itself a profoundly political one. I have written elsewhere that it is a move that conduces in general to incumbent-elitist politics of the right -- a structural tendency that is more indifferent than not to the professed politics of its adherents.

The notional political diversity among the Robot Cultists is more often an expression of indifference to the salience of political differences in matters of technodevelopment in my view, an indifference that expresses antipathy to stakeholder politics and yields reactionary political effects more often than not. Also, I have noted that the Robot Cultists who flog this particular line about political diversity tend to be defensive avowedly left-leaning Robot Cultists trying to provide rationalizations for their participation in a movement with such a conspicuously reactionary political history and which skews anti-democratic in its politics right up to the present. (Not to put too fine a point on it, eugenicism is finally incompatible with democracy, as is elitist technocracy.) I consider these declarations about ideological diversity in the Robot Cult to be PR moves more than anything else, usually involving quite a bit a data massage and terminological hanky-panky.

You are quite right that I do demand every transhumanist respect the value of consent, inasmuch as I demand every single human being on earth respect consent. I guess that's what you mean when you call it my "mantra." It is rather hilarious that you seem to imply this is a kind of tyrannical intolerance on my part. As it happens, it is possible to champion both equity and diversity while recognizing the tension that obtains in the implementation of these democratic values. You may be shocked, by the way, to discover that the intolerance of my "fringe position" and "particular political ideology" also extends to murder, torture, and fraud.

I can't say that I feel particularly alienated in my secular democratic values. While there is no small amount of progressive democratizing, consensualizing, diversifying work to be done and the demand for resistance to the evils of corporate-militarism is more urgent than ever, I don't feel that my vantage or aspirations are particularly unintelligible in my society even if they are not yet reflected to my satisfaction in its institutions. I certainly have no trouble recognizing that Robot Cultists are incomparably more "fringe" in their views than secular democrats like me. Thus your claim about my "real issue" with Robot Cultists amounting to an expressions of ideological alienation simply makes no sense to me at all.

Dale Carrico said...

I'll upgrade this exchange to a post on its own, so that if you wish to continue this discussion it can be in view of more readers and also won't divert this Moot too far afield from the actual topic of the denigration of consent in eugenicist formulations, whether transhumanist, so-called, or bioconservative.

Poor Richard said...

This discussion of eugenics and consent reminds me of a problem I was trying to work out a while back. I had seen a disturbing video of a pre-adolescent boy giving a fire-and-brimstone sermon to a church full of right-wing-nut fundies. I was agonizing to myself about all the kids being born onto crazy authoritarian households. It seemed like both nature (i.e. heredity) and nurture must be stacked against their cognitive development potential.

We seem to be able to justify regulating against toxic lead and mercury exposure but if we want to protect kids from toxic genes or toxic parenting we are guilty of eugenics or social engineering.

Any thoughts?


Dale Carrico said...

One errs on the side of tolerance, always, as constrained by the scene of legible consent, first of a consenting adult and then of the responsible agencies of an alter-consensual ward (child, developmentally disabled adult, nonhuman animal -- while again tolerating the expressed preferences of that being to the extent that they satisfy the scene of consent in its most capacious understanding).

While I can't say that I contemplate the spectacle of religious fundamentalism among the very young with pleasure, and there are times when I see the sense in the suggestion that any upbringing aspiring to the patriarchal norms of the "nuclear family" smacks of child abuse, we have to take care to remember that to speak of "toxic" parenting is a metaphor unless a parent is literally abusive.

I am inclined to celebrate a wider than my widest imaginable range of lifeways and morphologies among consenting adults and in respect to the raising of their children and wards on their terms. Although violence and abuse cannot be tolerated as "parenting," given proper criminal statutes, otherwise we should err on the side of parental consent and interested responsible agents like teachers and social workers with sustained relationships with a child or ward until such time as, and in accordance with the extent to which, the child or ward reaches an age of consent herself. There are grey areas and complexities, of course, but they are usually of a kind that drives a good episode of Law and Order SVU, not the kind to drive a philosopher to distraction.

Education through undergraduate college should be seen as socializing, inculcating basic competencies among which is participation in the scene of consent. It should function as a countervailing force to goofy parenting (as should the standards homeschooling must be equal to). Beyond that, in any system regulated to resist regulatory and election system capture by incumbent-elite interests to ensure equal access to the law and providing the security of a basic guaranteed income (or sufficiently rich welfare entitlements to function as a watered down BIG) and access to reliable knowledge through both of which to exercise the scene of consent, then, as a general matter people are competent to collaborate to solve shared problems and manage a convivial co-existence whatever the diversity of their lifeways and aspirations in my view. I am content to educate, agitate, and organize, peer to peer, and otherwise let a bazillion flowers bloom.

Poor Richard said...

Dale, your remarks leave me wondering where is the line between "metaphorical" and "literal" abuse/neglect.

Of course that line will always remain relatively fluid under the conditions of ignorance, ambiguity, complexity, chaos, etc. I know that.

Of course the best-intentioned intervention in custodial relationships by friends, family, community and (god forbid) the state will always stand to cause more unintended consequences than intended ones. I know that.

"Pro-life" authoritarians seem perfectly comfortable placing the well-being of the embryo/fetus above that of the mother, which I find patently absurd.

But once a human being is born, I am inclined to see it as a child of the earth and of the "village" perhaps even more than a child of the parents. The village certainly has some proper custodial right and responsibility, even if defining the appropriate boundaries between various custodial interests is fraught with difficulties.

I don't mind letting consenting adults "make their own kind of music" within the constraints negotiated with other adults. But the influence of authoritarian and otherwise cognitively crippled or monstrous parents on non-consenting children in their cognitive developmental stages is very disturbing to me. I feel that I am witnessing a cognitive plague being transmitted from one generation to the next, and I am not as sanguine as you seem to be about the mitigating influences of our existing social and educational institutions and service providers.

I'm not saying I have any answers, I'm just saying my heart is breaking for these little children. The notion that their parents' crazy, f-ed up value systems may be just as existentially valid as my own offers my breaking heart little comfort.

Of course, I'm used to that because I live with my questions and my pain (as I can tell that you do, too) rather than silencing them with hypnotic words.


Dale Carrico said...

I am more resigned than sanguine on this issue after weighing precisely the considerations you lay out -- unintended consequences of well-intentioned intervention in cases that do not rise to documentably clear cases of neglect or abuse. Most of the tricky issues here, interestingly, seem to be epistemological more than they are moralistic. I default to parents and teachers not out of some romantic fantasies about parental bonds and heroic teachers but only because I trust sustained over superficial acquaintance to provide the more reliable evidence of things going right or wrong with wards, comparatively speaking. Again, this provides no guarantees, one cannot feel sanguine about these arrangements, but one resigns oneself to the hope that the clearest abuses can be caught in time and over the long-term life, love, and therapy might have some wholesome say. I do like to think in the more relaxed and sensible atmosphere of a well-administered secular sustainable consensual equitable multicultural democratic republic people might in the main be better behaved toward one another and the more flagrant bullies and loons do less harm to the vulnerable than in a society such as our own that celebrates the violators. On the distinction, more a traffic I would say, between literal and metaphorical violence, see my Rhetoric and Nonviolence, where I puzzle away at some of these questions.

Poor Richard said...

I knew better than to call you sanguine. In retrospect I think that was unnecessarily provocative.

I think you are saying it is a case of settling for lesser evils and I agree but I am saying that I feel intuitively that "resignation" is not acceptable regardless of the apparent constraints that result in the present status quo.

I am still feeling that kids desperately need to be rescued and we need to find a way, some day, to make THAT the lesser evil without setting off down some slippery slope towards Huxley's Brave New World.

As we hope/work/wait for a "well-administered secular sustainable consensual equitable multicultural democratic republic" to lift all boats we need to keep a vigil over our children and actively search for some rescue "moves" that we don't yet fathom.

I don't think that makes me a self-righteous missionary zealot-- I admit that I don't have any answers. At the same time I believe the intensity of my concern is not unfounded. I think the accumulating weight of cognitive and developmental neuroscience strongly suggests that intervention in childhood is the only way to address some largely irreversible pathological cognitive and epigenetic formations that are epidemic in our species. If we are in fact approaching a point as Dawkins (The Selfish Gene)thinks where cognitive & behavioral adaptations that promote success for individuals become suicidal for our species as a whole, the lesser evil to extinction could be kidnapping all the kids whose parents don't believe in clean energy, environmental protection, global warming, etc.

My reading of your "Rhetoric and Nonviolence" page makes me think you are close to an appreciation of how even subtle cues and nudges of violence experienced in early childhood can acquire life-long trajectories even if early childhood development is not your thing.

I could say more but I sense you may have said about all you (or most anyone) currently can say on this and I don't want to be tiresome.

When I come across as good a thinker and communicator as you who is accessible (rare) I'm afraid I get over-exited about sharing some of my "burning questions".

I appreciate the serious attention you have given.


Dale Carrico said...

I knew better than to call you sanguine. In retrospect I think that was unnecessarily provocative.

I didn't take it amiss -- it's been a good conversation, keep at it.