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

Wednesday, May 31, 2006


It is certainly true that practical public deliberation is indispensable to help us anticipate and plan for technodevelopmental problems and especially costly, risky technodevelopmental disruptions. But it is also palpably true that very often, in practice, the public discussion of superlative or projected future technologies is only partially or apparently practical and functions instead primarily as a kind of symbolic arena through which people express altogether contemporary commitments and preoccupations. And so, for example, I suspect that no small amount of the heat and noise that accompanies conventional contemporary discussions of "clones" and "designer babies" and the like is really driven by the ways in which these discussions serve as surrogates for discourses about familiar intergenerational tensions between parents and children, concerns about the socializing impact of public education, reflect vestigial racist preoccupations with "miscegenation" or xenophobic concerns about immigration or otherwise conservative anxieties provoked by confrontations with difference.

Consider United States Senator Sam Brownback’s recent “Human Chimera Prohibition Act,” for example, takes as its point of departure what appears to be a straightforward bioethical proposition; namely, that “advances in research and technology have made possible the creation of chimeras.” Chimeras are defined for the purposes of the Act as “beings with diverse human and non-human tissue.” The Act then goes on to prohibit the creation of such chimeras because, “respect for human dignity and the integrity of the human species may be threatened by chimeras.” Although Brownback is not explicit about it, the Act certainly seems to imply the assumption -- and it is a controversial assumption to say the least! -- that what already amounts to an at-best abstract and frankly ill-defined “threat” to what he calls the integrity of the human species outweighs any benefits that might eventuate from the creation of “chimerical” organizations, on however broad a definition, even benefits such as the therapeutic elimination of suffering and disease that drives this sort of development in the first place.

The Act does go on to conjure up a host of “threats to human dignity and integrity” that presumably preoccupy it, saying “serious ethical objections are raised to some types of chimeras [NB: the qualification of “some types” here is never explored in the language of the Act, and certainly the Prohibition that follows lacks qualification] because they blur the lines between human and animal, male and female, parent and child, and one individual and another individual.”

Now, it seems to me that humans are already animals in a nontrivial sense. (And as an ethical vegetarian I happen to think that this is a “line” that could use further blurring from time to time.) How human nonhuman animal chimericality blurs a line between “male and female” is, I will confess, utterly mysterious to me, and its unique threat to “parentage” is likewise a bit befuddling, frankly. And why would chimeras threaten the boundaries that demarcate one individual from another more than, say, blood transfusion, organ transplantation, or even the influence of a charismatic teacher might do?

What strikes me most forcefully, then, about this Act is that the “natural” order, the integrity it would presumably protect is itself the chimera -- a fantasy, a mirage.

Brownback’s Act is a kind of declaration of pre-emptive bigotry against chimerical persons who have not yet arrived on the scene -- which is already worrisome enough as an idea, surely. But I think the Act should be read even more as a threat to certain actually existing citizens who remain unnamed in it -- transsexuals and intersex folks, nontraditional families (so-called), people who make recourse to assistive reproductive technologies, and so on.

The chimera is not so much a practical threat to a conception of human dignity that demands certain lines be drawn indelibly. The chimera is a figure that testifies to the recognition, and to the anxiety this recognition occasions, that these lines are already blurred, and that to much of the world these are lines well lost.

Brownback’s Act is a disavowal masquerading as a prohibition. It is a melancholy biomoralizing project to renaturalize the terms, to re-inscribe the lines of a parochial moral order in crisis.

So, too, neuroethical quandaries about therapeutic interventions in mood and memory are often framed neuromoralistically. That is to say, they are framed as threats to the integrity of conscious intention, to the ready narrative coherence of selfhood, to the creative originality of the author, to the absolute culpability of the delinquent, to the rugged individualism of the owner... But those who have been provoked and transformed in the give and take of critical engagement and argument, in the collaborative production of creative content peer-to-peer, in the throes of erotic or psychedelic experimentation, or in the reading of Beat poetry, whatever it may be, such people are all already likely to be well-aware of the essential and dispensable fictiveness of the cognitive integrity presumed and valorized by such discourses.

There are, let us say, more generous, more capacious, less threatened alternate rituals of legible personhood available for our incarnation in the world. And, again, I think it is these actually-existing alternate practices of personhood that are under the most urgent and proximate threat when talk turns to the absolute prohibition of even informed, nonduressed, consensual cognitive modification in the name of cognitive integrity. And this remains true even when the explicit objects of this prohibition are superlative technologies projected onto far-flung futures.

This post is adapted from a section of a longer talk, "Alone With My Thoughts: Public and Private Faces of Cognitive Self-Determination," which I delivered last weekend at Stanford University as part of the "Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights Conference," organized by (among others) the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technolgies and the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics. I want to take this opportunity to thank again all of my friends and colleagues at the IEET and CCLE for an excellent conference and marvellous few days.

1 comment:

Martin Striz said...

Not to mention that chimeras already exist:

Male and female at the same time. What abominations! I bet their mothers don't think so.