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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Euneurics

It is not difficult to imagine a specifically neuroethical analogue to the eugenics movement. Let's call it, say, "euneurics."

Strictly speaking, it seems to me it would be better to call such an impulse neuromoralizing rather than neuroethics -- just as I have to admit that a lot of what passes these days for "bioethical" discourse looks to me more like biomoralizing. But that is a separate discussion for another time.

Anyway, euneurics would likely claim to be a movement to "optimize" consciousness.

In one variation it might involve pathologizing the perfectly reasonable responses (including anxiety, mild depression, shyness, and so on) of people to the undue and unprecedented stresses of an ever more demanding and precarious privatized and neoliberal social order and then prescribing medicines rather than social reforms to cope with these stresses -- that is to say, using medicine and technique to assimilate people more seamlessly into an irrational and unjust order that demands subservience from most to increase profits for a few. In another variation it might involve a fearful and intolerant project to constrain the breadth of exhibited human neurodiversity (including functional bipolarity, and many of the forms of cognitive atypicality that get lumped together nowadays as "autism," and so on) in the service of bolstering a neurotypicality with which majorities identify personally -- using medicine and technique to police conformity in the service of a parochial reductionism at best and outright genocidal eliminationism at worst.

In yet another variation it might involve the desire and eventually the use of medicine and technique to enhance mood, memory, perception, and capacities the better to compete for profit and success as these things are conventionally reckoned -- indifferent, one fears, to questions of whether obviously profitable ends indeed deserve facilitated accomplishment, without examining the norms that underlie the pursuit of those ends among others that might be less profitable but more valuable on deeper consideration but frustrated or disabled by "enhancement" or "optimization" for profit-making. And of course these variations aren't strictly separable, but would likely inter-implicate and co-construct one another, pivot and play off of one another, and so on.

One can easily imagine a variation in which the euneuric project would direct medicine and technique to the task of rewriting (or "rewiring," as some of our bold cybernetic totalist friends would have it) the actually existing diversity of flourishing minds in the image of some parochial vision of "right-mindedness" mistaken for Enlightenment itself -- one must admit, a fairly obscene proposal to constrain imagination and duress autonomy in fact and all in the name of "Reason" and "Individualism."

Both because it denigrates the equity of actually nonduressed consent and the diversity of actually flourishing human lifeways in the world, we already understand the eugenic project as a profoundly anti-democratic one. Whether through direct compulsion or through the seduction and duress of extensive and intensive regulative norms, the eugenic imagination would seek to "engineer" the human species into a more "optimal" morphology or lifeway (or would seek to ban and police interventions wanted by informed nonduressed people, in the name of "preserving" some lifeway mistaken for an already-existing optimality) according to the standards of some parochial perspective with which its partisans happen to identify personally, standards indifferent to or prior to any questions of consent or desire testified to among the people to be so engineered.

What is especially troubling about euneuric analogues to the eugenic project is that while one can always set the parochial demands of the would be optimizers (which may square, whether they deserve to or not, with the expressed values of majorities, after all) against the demands of consent (which are likely to be affirmed, even at the cost of perceived suboptimality, by sizable portions of the same majorities), but the euneuric project would likely intervene into the scene of and capacity for consenting itself, to intervene in ways that could duress the terms of now-legible consent while claiming to "enhance" and so "defend" the very capacity for consent it is actually violating.

The issues are more fraught than they may appear at first blush. Do our intuitions about conventional pedagogy assume the contours of euneuric chauvinism when assessed retroactively through the lens of emerging or imagined techniques for cognitive modification? At what point does tolerance for and facilitation of variation amount to alienation, indifference, or abuse? Fatality seems too loose a standard to facilitate neurodiversity while ensuring neuroequity (respecting any nonfatal morphological or lifeway variation seems more reasonable, possibly, as a standard to facilitate biodiversity, however), but a standard that would "optimize" cognition for consent clearly seems more likely to encourage than discourage the enthusiasts of the euneuric imaginary in the first place.

My own sense of the solution is to insist on respect for any neurovariation, however atypical or nonoptimal it may appear from any one parochial perspective (including my own), so long as it accords with a legible -- not "optimal," but as generous a conception of legibility as is compatible with equity -- scene of informed, nonduressed consent, a scene the substantial content of which will involve social support (public services and accommodation of the differently enabled, access to reliable information, and lifelong education, basic healthcare, and basic income to ensure one is at liberty to participate in the scene of consent in the first place) rather than any hyperbolic "individual responsibility" impelling conformity to an ideal.

5 comments:

jfehlinger said...

Euneurics -- I can't look at this coinage without thinking
of "enuresis".

jfehlinger said...

BTW -- you have seen that ubiquitous underwear commercial,
n'est-ce pas?
http://youtube.com/watch?v=B4o28_-B02E

Number Twelve ought to look just like me.

AnneC said...

Heh...great post but I do have to agree with Jim re. the title. Anyhow, though:

Dale said: Fatality seems too loose a standard to facilitate neurodiversity while ensuring neuroequity (respecting any nonfatal morphological or lifeway variation seems more reasonable, possibly, as a standard to facilitate biodiversity, however), but a standard that would "optimize" cognition for consent clearly seems more likely to encourage than discourage the enthusiasts of the euneuric imaginary in the first place.

I agree completely. I've been told personally on more than one occasion (not very recently, though, thankfully) that the only reason I "think" I don't want to be made neurotypical is because I don't know what it's like to be neurotypical.

E.g., even though I am perfectly capable of communicating the fact that no, I don't want to be "cured off the autistic spectrum", my communications are sometimes considered invalid on the basis that I can't possibly know what I'm talking about. (Patronizing much?)

...scene of informed, nonduressed consent, a scene the substantial content of which will involve social support (public services and accommodation of the differently enabled, access to reliable information, and lifelong education, basic healthcare, and basic income to ensure one is at liberty to participate in the scene of consent in the first place) rather than any hyperbolic "individual responsibility" impelling conformity to an ideal.

I think this is a key point here.

Any time I come across someone proposing a "future utopia" in which all people are supposedly "independent" and not in need of any social services or accommodations whatsoever, I am immediately suspicious -- I don't see how such a "utopia" could possibly exist so long as you have a thing you'd call "civilization" in the first place.

Civilizations consist of beings who are simultaneously independent (in that each person has their own autonomous mind and perspective) and interdependent (everyone somehow, and in some way, benefits from the efforts of others whether they realize it or not).

And so long as any individual differences exist at all between persons (and they certainly would in any world I'd be willing to inhabit), you're going to have a situation where different people are going to need different amounts of X and Y in order to participate in and contribute to the project that is civilization. Which means, no, nobody gets to impose the Standard Human Template atop the entire populace on the grounds that well, gee, it would be SO much cheaper if we didn't have to "accommodate" different kinds of people.

Dale Carrico said...

Euneurics -- I can't look at this coinage without thinking
of "enuresis".


Neither can I... NOW.

Hmmm... Euenuresics Movement: Bedwetting superelite selectively breeds to eliminate palpably inferior drysleepers... Something to watch out for.

Dale Carrico said...

I've been told personally on more than one occasion... that the only reason I "think" I don't want to be made neurotypical is because I don't know what it's like to be neurotypical.

Oh my god, some people! So appalling, honestly. Of course, my Mom told me once she would have aborted me had she known I would have turned out gay and didn't realize that this comment was homophobic. I had to explain it to her.