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

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Christopher Reeve Wanted to Be Well, Even Better than Well, But This Doesn't Mean He Wanted to Be Superman

There is an editorial in today’s Times written by Michael Gove on the occasion of the death of Christopher Reeve, which meditates on the dread and desire that freights the popular imagination as it contemplates the prospect of enhancement medicine.

There is something quite upsetting and unseemly to my mind in Gove’s editorial, which makes the most of an incidental association of the actor Reeve with the fictional character Superman (Reeve’s most famous film role), and Reeve’s advocacy of enhancement medical research to overcome his own accidental paralysis, an advocacy some mistakenly identify with eugenics as a kind of cult of the Superman idea.

Gove writes:

The research in which Reeve reposed the greatest hope was the development of cures for all manner of conditions from experimentation on stem cells. These cells, which exist in embryos and also in adults, notably in the umbilical cord and in bone marrow, are particularly versatile building blocks of life. They have the potential to repair or regenerate damaged cells and tissue. Scientists have held out the prospect of cures for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, heart disease and diabetes through their use.

Reeve himself believed that if embryonic stem-cell research had not been impeded by the Bush Administration, then a cure might have been found for his condition in his lifetime. Most scientists doubt very much if that would ever have been the case. But the impression lingers in many minds that the Bush Administration, and others who harbour doubts about embryonic stem-cell research, inhabit a medieval moral universe where outdated religious doctrine prevents science relieving suffering. Reeve compared opposition to embryonic stem-cell research with the attitude of Jehovah’s Witnesses objecting to blood transfusions. And the depiction of President Bush as a prisoner of “the religious Right” certainly plays to the prejudiced impression of an Administration mired in obscurantism.

Although my own opinion on these questions is somewhat more qualified than the form in which they are being attributed to Reeve here, and frankly I think probably Reeve’s own expectations were likewise more qualified, I have to say I deeply sympathize with the words Gove is putting into Reeve’s mouth here.

Gove continues on to say, “Scepticism towards embryonic stem-cell research is not, however, evidence of moral impoverishment and lack of imagination. Quite the opposite.”

I will happily grant Gove some of this point. Quite a lot of the hyperbolic claims made in the name of embryonic stem cell research and other kinds of radical enhancement medical research should be greeted with skepticism. Many of the deep fears and fantasies that freight popular discourse about medical science are unrealistic. And few have adequately considered the consequences of both relatively beneficial and relatively costly impacts of developments in enhancement and longevity medicine humanity is likely to confront quite soon.

But not all skepticism is reasonable just because some of it is.

The title of Gove’s editorial is "We should fear the disturbing future where man becomes superman." But is the future represented by Reeve’s hopes really one in which man becomes superman in the first place? And even if that future has some disturbing paraphernalia about it, is it right to dismiss or repudiate it as only disturbing, only dangerous, only destructive?

My friend, Gui1io Pri5c0, a transhumanist-identified technophile and fellow CybDemite, has reacted to Gove’s editorial with a painful outrage that I have a lot of sympathy for.

What I want to do here is say why I think there is a real validity in both the sentiment he is expressing and the one against which he is reacting, and see if there is a language in which we can express the validity and aspirations of both without losing ourselves in outrage and disgust.

This is important to me because I seem forever strangely torn, seeing the sense in both technophobic fears and technophilic hopes, understanding the relevance of both temperaments to a tech-progressive sensibility, and wondering if there is a way to make use of insights drawn from both.

For me, the key confrontation happens when Gove writes: "To be human is to inhabit a world of vulnerability and limits. The weakness of flesh, and its end in death, frame all human endeavour. Human virtues, certainly as most moral thinkers have understood them, are responses to the fraught nature of our existence." And then Gui1io writes in response: “Then my dog is much more human than me: she is much more stupid and will have a much shorter life. A fly is more human than both. The ‘human dignity’ that apologists of death want for us all, is the dignity of flies.”

I honestly believe that Gove is wrong to draw as the “moral” from Reeve’s own hopes a repudiation of the vulnerability and limits he calls our attention to, but I think that Gui1io’s own reaction to Gove is also curiously perpendicular to Gove’s actual intentions. I have the feeling here of well-meaning people responding symptomatically on the basis of deep unstated assumptions that deserve scrutiny on their actual merits.

Now, first, I want to stress that Gui1io’s outrage and disgust are absolutely valid here. I think that he is in mourning, after all -- and not just for the loss of Reeve. Reeve represents the specter of mortality in the popular imagination at this moment and also reminds us of the probably unnecessary suffering and premature death to which we all and others we likely know and love better than Reeve are vulnerable.

But I have to say that I just don't think it is true that Gove and all of the many others who fear and worry about enhancement and longevity medicine are necessarily foolish or cruel to feel as they do. And I agree with them that anyone who looks to technology to overcome all human limits is leaving the path of wisdom and likely to do as much harm as good.

Now, all my many wise well-meaning and progressive technophilic friends, please read what I am saying before you predictably freak out.

To acquire power is not to become omnipotent. To acquire new capacities is not to lose our vulnerability. To acquire knowledge is not to become omniscient. To increase our wealth is not to overcome the costs of living among peers with whom we differ. To acquire choices is not to gain certainty that our choices will bring us better than other choices might have done. To acquire greater power to transform our traditional limits is not to transcend limits as such, nor to hurdle past the deep quandaries those limits pose to humanity.

It's not that I don't think you all don't know this already. I don't mean to seem patronizing. But I want to stress this side of things to put you in a better position to understand where these worried, distrustful sensibilities are coming from and to learn something from them rather than just repudiating them as ignorant or unreasonable or masochistic.

In the words of the Gove piece against which Gui1io is responding, familiar limits do indeed provide a frame, do provide standards and intelligibility and guidelines and context in which human beings have managed to do their best in making valuable, meaningful, successful lives for themselves. And it is true that once we bound past those limits we do not only gain something, we lose something. This does not mean what we gain is not well worth what we lose, but it is deeply wrong to disavow the loss.

Technology is taking us onto uncharted waters. As Nietzsche says, "Perhaps there has never been such an open sea." Already, we know that with the lack of understanding of our new capacities many devastating consequences will flow.

Wise people are right to worry that the denial of limits, the denial of risks, the denial altogether of the value of what we lose is reckless and apt to be cruel.

Understand me: I think enhancement and longevity can be emancipatory, can increase the space of human freedom and beauty and pleasure. I believe they can make the world more just and more joyful.

But I see very keenly the point of those who worry that advocates of transformative medicine are often bamboozled by hype, disrespectful of differing values, overconfident and disdainful in their views, and prone to suspicious disavowals of the real-world reality of frailty, uncertainty, and intractably difficult choices.

There is sometimes something of the cruelty and inhuman purity of a priestly caste in many of the advocates for technological transcendence, and I fear this impulse as deeply as any bio-conservative you might meet.

Human beings, you know, are valuable right now. Their lives are worthy and precious and meaningful right now.

To insist on this is not to say that dogs are more valuable than human beings. It is not a love of death and unconsciousness that demands we affirm the value of lives framed by these limits. It is a love of the lives that have been defined in the face of these limits in fact.

Now, as we start to chip away at those limits, and we confront new limits, new choices, new problems, the love of those defined by familiar limits provides a key connection between the lives that we know and the ones we will come to know. It reassures us that love and meaning and intelligibility and dignity and comfort will still be available. It reassures us that the new world will not be just for the strong, the resolute, the indifferent, the cruel. For we will *still* be defined by limits in the future. We will transform, but we will not transcend, our limits.

The Gove piece continues on:

"For some scientists the promise inherent in stem-cell research, the cloning of human embryos and the whole burgeoning field of biotechnology, is the prospect of remaking man. The frailties that make up the human condition can, progressively, be eliminated by the manipulation of life's building blocks. Not just life-threatening disease, but all manner of infirmities and imperfections can, potentially, be engineered out of existence. The prospect, if not of Superman, certainly of superior models of man, beckons. The comic- book myth of transcending human constraints has become a modern scientific aspiration."

And Gui1io defiantly concedes his point, writing, “Here the author is right, transcending human constraints has become a modern scientific aspiration.” But is this really true? Does science aspire to transcend all human constraints? Is that even possible? Isn't there a real difference that makes a difference in the aspiration of medicine to reform familiar expectations about human lives and capacities, and the aspiration of some to become invulnerable via such technology?

Gove raises the very familiar and in fact almost inevitable specter of eugenics at this point: "Have we not learnt from those in the past century who wished to remake man, and saw in the lure of genetics the chance to create their own superman? I fear that once we trample over respect for the vulnerable and voiceless in our desire to eliminate frailty, we no longer make weakness our enemy, but make enemies of the weak."

Gui1io angrily repudiates this imputation: Gove, he writes, “tries to scare the reader by making a subliminal analogy with things, like eugenics and nazi, that carry a negative connotation (without having anything to do with the actual issue), and tries to appeal to the social sensibility of the reader with a similarly misguided argument.”

Of course, Gui1io is right to deny that enhancement medicine is tantamount to eugenics. Does Gove think penicillin makes us supermen? Heart translates? In-vitro fertilization?

Enhancement and longevity medicine will hopefully deliver us longer and healthier life-spans than we enjoy at present, and enhance our capacities for the enjoyment of life, and even one day deliver us the capacity to re-write our bodies ever more in the image of our own personal paths of self-creation. There is much in such a vision that inspires both fear and hope, dread and desire, worry and confidence. But Giu1io does not inspire confidence himself when he writes next: “We do not want to make enemies of the weak, we want to make the weak strong. Period.”

Look, who are we to say with confidence we know what is weak, what is strong, what is wrong, what is botched, what is unviable, what is pathological, what is pleasurable, what is worthy?

If enhancement medicine imposes normativity it is sure be an engine of intolerance as much as of empowerment.

Morphological freedom will exacerbate the tensions of difference, and I think Gove’s article and Gui1io’s response to it are a clear expression of this.

Another place where this is sure to come up is when technophiles talk of using technology to overcome “disability”. Progressive technology advocates must be very clear that modification medicine will proliferate the viable forms of human life, not disregard the value of different but viable incarnations of humanity policing people into conformity in the name of "health."

Unless we are careful to insist that modification is proliferative rather than a matter of re-writing humanity in the image of whatever vision of value some particular person or community happens to affirm as best, then it would be absolutely absurd to pretend that the lessons of eugenics are unavailable to us.

Technology advocates would do well not to pretend we are transcending constraints, but to admit that in overcoming familiar constraints we are likely to confront new ones, and that we lose much of the archive we had in how to cope with the old ones as we replace them with new ones.

Again, this isn't to deny it is well worth the risks to embrace the new capacities and pleasures and freedoms of the new world -- but we will seem much more sensible to those who are not enthusiasts but maintain reasonable skepticism if we recognize our fallibility, recognize risks, recognize ambiguity, recognize the need to ensure that development is fair else it certainly will not be.

In closing, let me stress again that I am on the side of those who would embrace enhancement and longevity medicine. I sympathize with the view that there are pragmatic, moral, ethical, and political imperatives to hasten the arrival of technologies that could improve and increase human health and choices and lives.

But I completely see what opponents are worried about, and I see the sense in much of it. I think we must take greater care in making our case to people with whom we differ in our values but with many of whom we will share both the future and the path to it.

1 comment:

Dale Carrico said...

The qualification in this post are like the initial throat clearing that soon enough, and more and more, became the full throated critique of reactionary futurological PR and eugenicist ideology... if you land here, please go to the more recent critiques available on the sidebar.