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

Monday, October 02, 2006

Monster Tribe or Consensual Culture?

My good friend and colleague James Hughes recently raised an intriguing question on technoliberation, an online discussion list in which we both participate, and his question has set off a fairly lively conversation there. Hughes begins his discussion with a lovely provocation from Donna Haraway; namely that, "Monsters have always defined the limits of community in Western imaginations." This leads him into what he describes as “one of my central obsessions[:] the proper definition of the boundaries of moral community[.]”

I happen to share with James an obsession to try to better understand the boundary-making and boundary-breaking that seems to be demanded by our normative lives as moral, ethical, esthetic, erotic, social, cultural, and political beings. And certainly some of his and my best, and sometimes our most heated, discussions have risen out of this shared obsession. I personally suspect that there is something unhelpfully constraining from the get-go that happens when we try to work through this shared concern by framing it through a question like the one James then proceeds to ask in this case: “[W]hat are the monsters that technoprogressives are willing to exclude from mercy, to give no quarter, to deny civil rights, and so on?”

Wouldn’t it necessarily be prejudicial to enquire into community by first foregrounding our intuitions about exclusion, mercilessness, denial and so on? And more important still to my own way of thinking about these questions, are we sure we would want to assume from the beginning that there are in fact seamless continuities or even clear analogies between the kinds of normative communities conjured up when one feels moved by mercy as when one feels compelled to guarantee civil rights? I worry that too many conclusions are already embedded in the initial framing of this quandary in this case.

Part of what James is trying to guard against here is what he calls “a certain kind of liberal sensibility which always bends over backward to humanize the Other, the monsters.” Now, I have to say that this sensibility seems to me personally something I have been far more apt to encounter in abstract caricatures of “liberals,” whether from the left or from the right, whether rosy or hostile, than in actual concrete practices among living, breathing liberal people, so-called -- and I say this as an inhabitant of the blessed blissed-out San Francisco Bay Area. But of this sensibility, however real or ideal it may actually turn out to be, James writes: “On the one hand this sensibility is a necessary and even heroic challenge to the pressures to dehumanize and demonize others, queers, cyborgs, Muslims, Huns, etc. But I have always been troubled by the occasional liberals I meet who have never consciously considered a boundary to their tolerance, and muddle along with a ‘embrace first and ask questions later’ impulse.”

I suppose the reason this sort of uncritically overgenerous normativity doesn’t worry me the way it seems to worry James -- and this is just a conjecture of mine, I’m not sure about it -- is that I strongly distinguish various kinds of normative assertions and the kinds of work they do. I have noticed that whenever I encounter what initially seems a too-sweeping or too-restrictive or too-uncritical normative attitude or ascription I usually seem to discover upon closer inspection that what first appeared unreasonable about it really arose from my own mistaken miscategorization of the kind of claim being made.

While people typically use some normative terms like “moral,” “ethical,” “righteous,” “desirable,” and “just” roughly interchangeably, it seems to me quite crucial in fact to distinguish them. Morals (a term which derives from "mores") are norms through which one identifies with particular communities while at once disidentifying with other ones. Moral communities always have outsides against which they distinguish and so define themselves. Ethics, on the other hand, are norms that are formally “universal,” that aspire at any rate to universal assent. Ethical beliefs are the normative correlate to instrumental scientific or factual beliefs, in that they aspire to, and may even sometimes provisionally succeed in attaining, the universal assent of consensus while remaining always defeasible in principle. Moral (as opposed to ethical) beliefs correlate more closely to political beliefs in a way, in that they arise out of plurality and assume plurality to be abiding and ineradicable. Morals create islands of relatively, at least partially stable identitification within the greater sea of difference while politics is an ongoing reconciliation of differences among peers who recognize that they share the world and history without sharing ends or identities.

It is right to be quite skeptical about whether or not ethical norms could actually ever attain the universality that defines them, or whether in fact they really amount to morals with delusions of grandeur. Indeed, the conjuration of a normative “community” of assent -- whether lodged at the level of the human species, the mammalian, the sentient, the aversive, or what have you -- also has its brute, inhuman, insensate constitutive outside. But it still makes an enormous difference in our normative lives on the ground that we distinguish norms which contain the constitutive assumption of “us/them” as against norms which aspire (even if only contingently, strategically) to universal assent. From the ethical perspective that asserts every sufficiently sentient being is a bearer of rights, moral communities that confer a sense of belonging, bearing, security, intelligibility on some individuals through an invidious comparison with other individuals (social democrats as against neoliberal corporatists, say, or secular humanists as against Dominionist Christians) the moral community may well seem parochial while from the perspective of the inhabitants of moral communities ethical universality may seem an arid abstraction with little to commend it.

I suspect that just as oftentimes people who claim to be mobilizing ethical claims are in fact are making very provincial moral ones, it is also true that those who would claim that only moral norms exist still leverage certain moral claims on the idea of norms that aspire to a wider assent than that of particular contingent communities to which they explicitly belong. For one thing, since one belongs to innumerable moral communities at once, most of which are constituted through norms that compete with one another, it is helpful to have an ethical clearinghouse to help adjudicate among them. Definitely I would disagree with the view that either morals or ethics are reducible to, subsumed within, or prior to the other. So, too, people often connect or even confuse political claims with moral or ethical ones -- I would suggest, for example, that the discourse of prohibition often amounts to moralizing, the overextension of morals into politcs, while the discourse of rights connects politics to ethical considerations -- or try to denigrate or reduce the proper normativity of one form from the perspective of one of the others.

James raises the following example: “If we couldn't wean zombies onto a brain replacement foodstuff (as [when] humanized vampires in fiction learn to drink blood from animals or blood banks) then I suppose zombies would be outside my gated community.” If the example seems frivolous, by the way, realize that the normative terrain of contemporary bioethics is thronged with such characters, Frankenstein monsters, golems, clone armies, designer babies, talking apes, humanoid immortals, sentient computers, and so on. This does not indicate a special whimsy in the discipline so much as the necessity of rapid and radical technodevelopmental churn: not so long ago chimeras, terminator seeds, raising the dead from catastrophic heart attacks, or observing the preborn in the womb on television screens would have seemed no less fantastical.

Be that as it may, for me framing a discussion of technoprogressive normativities so insistently with the question "what kinds of people should there be?" seems less clarifying than framing it instead with the question "what kinds of things should happen?" It seems to me technoprogressive normativity is political and should strive to secure a scene of informed, nonduressed consent, both in general and in technodevelopmental contexts, rather than devoting time to the imagination and construction of some newfangled moral community.

From the perspective of moral identification, I have no doubt that there are consensual ways-of-being-in-the-world of which I would disapprove (very possibly including the lifeways of some zombies, vampires, or misanthropic robots, say), and some of which I would even argue against as damaging or threatening lifeways. But as an ethical matter some of these lifeways I might affirm as perfectly legible ones, while likewise as a political matter some I would surely recognize as legitimate stakeholder positions with which I share the world and to which I have to reconcile myself somehow. I simply don't think the immediate and apparently inevitable turn to moralism (or what sometimes even looks curiously like tribalism) is really as helpful as so many futurists and bioethicists seem to think it is so much of the time. To the extent that disruptive technodevelopmental social struggle is profoundly stressful and disconcerting it is perfectly understandable that those who are caught up in the storm would turn to the comforts of moral normativity, to its promise of ready intelligibility and belonging, but this seductiveness is scarcely enough to recommend its adequacy to the real normative demands of our historical moment.

My guess is that the response to my own political and procedural emphasis here will be that the "scene of consent" which I offer up as a more useful normative alternative to imagined moral communities of identification and disidentification will itself ultimately rely on prior (and possibly disavowed) assumptions about what kinds of beings get to enter that scene in the first place, and I will admit that there is likely to be some cause for concern about that. But I still think there will be a real difference in the normative discourse arising out of a focus on what criteria must be satisfied to ensure that legal procedures are legitimate as opposed to a focus on what criteria must be satisfied before we are content to describe certain kinds of beings as sufficiently “like” ourselves as to be worthy of standing.

I would want a legal system that prosecutes any nonconsensual predation among criminal vampires, zombies, human corporatists, robot police, and so on -- but I don't think I need to assign a conclusive "us" or "them" to any of these beings to get that job done. Apart from the idiosyncratic and personal moral, aesthetic, erotic communities from which I gain my senses of belonging or the various stakeholder positions from which I testify to my political ends (and none of these communities are or could be broad or general enough to assume the formal universality of ethics or rights or law) I tend to be awfully suspicious of any focus on or overapplication of "us/them" formations.

James responded to my worries by saying: “Since I find the idea of consensual behavior orthogonal to the idea of a zombie, I'd rephrase what you are saying as ‘enforce the laws against individuals, not against groups’ which sounds right in general. The problem is when all the members of a group are likely law-breakers, which is of course what racists have always said about their despised out-group, but which would nonetheless be likely with a group like zombies or vampires.” Like another participant on technoliberation, “Sparkle Robot,” I worry that James may have simply been unlucky in the zombies whose acquaintance he has made, but joking aside, I see his point and am content that he has seen mine. I do still insist that the difference between those who have broken actual laws and those whose presumably definitive membership in some group is construed to render them more likely to break laws at some point looks to me like a difference that really must make a difference.

James concluded by proposing that a properly technoprogressive bioethical approach “to [a] species of psycho/socio-paths [would be to] stop them from hurting anybody, and fix them if we can.” Because I suspect that the application of this intuition will not in fact be to (alien or created) species but to communities of differently incarnated and enabled humans (and possible some sentient nonhumans) here and now and in the near future, I will admit that I still hesitate to endorse much in the way of nonconsensual "fixing" beyond measures to ensure that lawbreakers don't hurt others or violate the consent of others. This is because the suggestion of “fixing” seems freighted to me with overconfident ascriptions of “optimality” and with parochial perfectionisms and hence, since this is biomedicine we are talking about here, unfortunately with eugenicism.

Another colleague of mine, Nato Welch, made a different but also quite interesting comment in another moment within the same larger conversation on technoliberation. “I often find it useful to analogize ‘postbiological beings,’ ‘posthumans,’ or the variety of prospective forms of machine intelligence (whether personal, synthetic, or otherwise),” he wrote, “to forms of artificial personhood we already have: corporations.” He was quick to register his awareness, though, that “there's [been] plenty of criminality… exercised by such forms,” and so he didn’t want this comment to be misconstrued as any kind of corporatist apologia. This sort of caveat is sadly necessary in technology discourse, given the prevalence of corporate-military categories, assumptions, and aspirations in contemporary technodevelopmental theory and practice.

In any case, it seems important to me to remember that like the "body politic" (a figure through which many have sought historically to clarify claims about state sovereignty), "corporate personhood" is, after all, a metaphor. Presumably, the personhood of a nonbiological substrate intelligence or whatever is not assumed to be merely metaphorical in the various imaginary scenarios which pose ethical quandaries for those who are preoccupied with these questions as far as I can see. This is a difference that surely makes a difference.

Nato’s shorthand claim about corporate criminality bespeaks the risks to clarity of mistaking the metaphorical for the literal in this area. Although of course I know exactly what he was talking about, the fact remains that no criminality is exercised by corporations, of course. The criminality to which he refers is exercised by fully intelligible common or garden variety human beings in ways that are facilitated by certain business formations, just as, say, the nonviolent adjudication of disputes is facilitated among fully intelligible common or garden variety human beings by certain legitimate relatively democratic government formations.

Just to be sure I'm being clear here -- my point is that the metaphor of artificial personhood is just as dispensable as a way of grasping some of the appealing features one might want preserve in certain business associations as the metaphor of the body politic is dispensable as a way of grasping some of the appealing features one might want to preserve in governments. If we think of corporations as membership societies, or co-ops, for example, we no more need to attribute "artificial personhood" to corporations to justify the sometimes socially useful notion of limited liability, than we would need to attribute "artificial personhood" to the academy to justify the sometimes socially useful notion of tenure.

Where states are concerned the point is even clearer, since the shift away from sovereign conceptions of legitimate statehood has by now a long, if convulsive, history. As opposed to the metaphor of the body politic, one might think instead of the “ship of state,” of the Adminsitration of the “national household,” of the “arena” of nonviolent conflict resolution, and so on.

I think we can grasp all the things these social formations do and have done without taking too seriously the metaphor attribution to them of artificial personhood is all I'm saying. If that is true, then it probably won't make quite so much sense to try to think through the quandaries for nonhuman persons as our peers by way of recourse to limited-liability enterprises, any more than it would to schools or democracies or ecologies.

Now, if we want to cast about for clarifying analogies apart from corporations to think through the standing of nonhuman persons I agree with another suggestion of Nato’s that ”child emancipation strikes me as another model[,]” as also are some of the very conventional intuitions that arise from secularism (that the Faithful accept the testimony of the variously Unfaithful in courts of law), multiculturalism (the attitude of live and let live conjoined to the awareness of variation as a public good), and social democracy (the conviction that fellow stakeholders in the world, whatever their differences, need to be free, healthy, secure, informed, and materially invested in the preservation of that world).

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