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

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Too Inconvenient

The bloggers over at ThinkProgress provide a heads-up about a piece appearing in tomorrow’s Washington Post, written by the environmentalist Laurie David. In the piece, David tells the story of her attempt to donate 50,000 free DVD copies of Al Gore's generally excellent documentary about climate change, An Inconvenient Truth (which she co-produced) to the National Science Teachers Association.

The Association remarkably refused to accept the free DVDs, suggesting that were they to do so other “special interests” might ask them to distribute their materials, too. The Association said they didn’t want to offer any “political” endorsement of the film. They also saw “little, if any, benefit to NSTA or its members” in accepting the free DVDs.

Yes, the National Science Teachers Association is implying that the scrupulously researched, incomparably widely affirmed case offered by the film An Inconvenient Truth is the "politicized" expression of "special interests."

There is a sense in which I am happy to concede that the film does foreground the special interest scientifically literate people have in the usefulness to sound public policy of the advice of consensus science... but it is truly difficult to grasp how this could pose a difficulty for The National Science Teachers Association, given the dictionary definitions of all the terms of which their organizational name is comprised.

Laurie David draws special attention to the Association's concern that accepting thse DVD would place “unnecessary risk upon the [NSTA] capital campaign, especially certain targeted supporters.”

I scarcely imagine anybody will be particularly surprised to discover that these "certain targeted supporters" include Exxon-Mobil, Shell Oil, and the American Petroleum Institute, all of which have already given millions of dollars in funding to the NSTA. You will forgive me if I suggest that the NSTA's fastidiousness concerning "special interests" would appear to be somewhat selective.

Laurie David savors (then spits out) the irony that the very selfsame NSTA that shrugged aside An Inconvenient Truth, has, however, eagerly distributed “educational” content funded by the oil industry. Among these fine nonpoliticized educational materials, she points out, is a video produced by the American Petroleum Institute, which offers up the immortal opening lines: “You’re absolutely not going to believe this, but almost everything I have that’s really cool comes from oil!”

Today's Random Wilde

One must have some occupation nowadays. If I hadn't my debts I shouldn't have anything to think about.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Technoethical Pluralism

In What Pragmatism Means, William James proposed that “truth is one species of good, and not, as is usually supposed, a category distinct from good, and coordinate with it. Truth is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons.” For pragmatic philosophy since Peirce, beliefs are construed as habits of thought that provide guides for conduct. Taken together, these theses imply that we properly describe as “true” those warranted propositions that guide us to conduct ourselves in ways that yield more satisfaction than not in our efforts to cope with our various personal and shared concerns.

But it is obvious that people take up any number of different -- even what might appear to be irreconcilably different -- concerns. And this human heterogeneity is manifest not only in our social and cultural and political plurality, but even within our own hearts. And if our concerns are not always reducible to the same essential form, then -- from all the above -- this implies that our good beliefs, proper truths, warranted assertions will likewise take a number of proper forms.

And so, people arrive at rational convictions in their diverse coping with efficacious, moral, ethical, aesthetic, and political concerns (no doubt among others). Each of these concerns can be expected to be quite differently warranted and surely none of them is, a priori, reducible to or stably hierarchizable in respect to any of the others, except in a case to case sort of way.

To be rather schematic about it, I distinguish five basic modes of reasonable belief-ascription (and since it seems to me that this sort of schema is likely to edify philosophically-inclined folks like me most of all, I have correlated these modes to the various branches of Philosophy in a roughly traditional sketch):

[1] Efficacious beliefs (for which practices of consensus science will tend, usually sensibly enough, to be taken as paradigmatic), (a) implemented or incarnated through collective practices of experimentation, substantiation, and publication, (b) these are warranted by criteria of defeasibility and demonstration, and contingent commitment to them provides (c) relative powers of prediction and control;

[2] Moral beliefs, from mores, or "we-intentions," (a) implemented or incarnated through collective practices of identification and dis-identification, (b) these are warranted by coherence with observed collective practice or in respect to authoritative utterances (by established authorities or through authoritative interpretations of canonical texts), and contingent commitment to them provides (c) a relative sense of belonging and assurance of social support;

[3] Aesthetic beliefs (beliefs that things that are idiosyncratically valued by oneself are therefore valuable as such, that is to say, susceptible to legibility as valued by others even if they are not in fact valued widely at present or even at all valued otherwise), (a) implemented or incarnated through exhibitions and performances of ongoing creation and self-creation offered up to general reception, (b) these are warranted in particular by the absolutely unpredictable transaction of inter-personal affirmation and facilitated in general by the scene of informed, nonduressed consent as such (even if not necessarily legible as optimal, normalizable, generalizable, rationalizable, moralistically acceptable, and so on), and contingent commitment to them provides (c) a relative sense of autonomy and personal perfection;

[4] Ethical beliefs, (a) implemented or incarnated through practices of public deliberation available -- typically only "in principle" -- to all, (b) these are warranted by general assent and formal universalizablity (this is tricky to delineate theoretically, since universals will always retroactively be exposed as expressions of parochial perspectives: the real force of formal universality is that it is a normativity that aspires to a universality defined, in actual practice, always against the grain of contemporary practices of moral normativity that themselves are always circumscribed by practices of dis-identification with constitutive outsiders who are then in principle included (includ-able) in a formal universality that fails therefore to yield the effects of positive identification), and contingent commitment to which provides (c) a relative incarnation of a "personal status" accorded the standing of rights-bearer, property-bearer, consent-bearer, cosmopolitan citizen-subject, peer among peers;

[5] Political beliefs, (a) implemented or incarnated through the dynamic of strategic, opportunistic, usually citational, never equal interpersonal power relationships (in the sense best and complementarily delineated by Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt as non-sovereign "power," and then recently reformulated by Judith Butler as "performativity"), (b) these are warranted by their general legibility and their specific legitimacy -- in democratic variations, usually according to constitutional establishments of a rule of law ordained by the consent of the governed, in anti-democratic variations, to authoritative pronouncements by a ruling or incumbent elite often claiming a privileged relation to a divine or naturally (this includes "market") ordained order of things -- a process which provides (c) a contingent reconciliation of the aspirations of the diversity of the stakeholders or peers who share a finite world (not all of whom we will concede are our "equals," not all of whom solicit our personal identification). In democratic variations of the political, the reconciliation of these diverse ends must be as consensual and nonviolent as possible, while in anti-democratic variations (which will typically mime democratic forms at the level of rhetoric), politics is simply a matter of reconciling majorities to elite or incumbent interests.

Now, it seems to me that enormous amounts of confusion and mischief arise from the fact that philosophers, of both the professional and armchair varieties, too often seem mistakenly to want to characterize the protocols of warranted assertibility arising from just one of these modes of belief ascription -- which they happen to privilege for whatever reason, only their therapists know for sure -- as uniquely characteristic or definitive of rationality as such. From this, they go on then to misread the attributes, protocols, and ends defining other necessary normative modes in ways that distort or denigrate them.

I would say that this is what happens when people seek to understand the political from the perspective of scientific instrumentality (as reductionism does), or of aesthetics (as some fascists did), or morality (as many religious fundamentalists seem to do), or to understand ethics from the perspective of the political (as nihilists do) or of instrumentality (as determinists do), and so on.

For me, rationality, properly speaking, is nothing like a reductionist project at all, but consists of being able, first, to determine which mode of belief best comports with a particular end or mode of shared concern (prediction and control? membership in a particular moral community? narrative coherence in a risky project of self-creation? normative claims that solicit universal assent? reconciliation of ends among peers? or what have you) and then, second, to satisfy the criteria for warranted assertibility proper to that mode.

I happen to think these considerations can be especially illuminating to what is described as "bioethical" discourse and technoethical discourses more generally at the moment.

To me, for example, what goes on under the heading of "bioethics" sometimes looks far more like a kind of biomoralism. By this I mean to say such "bioethical" discourse really amounts to a set of prescriptions arising out of some particular community of moral identification and, crucially, disidentification. I would suggest that many "bioconservative" arguments take this form.

Some "bioethics" looks to me far more like a kind of bio-aestheticism: that is to say, they consist of testaments to a desired or ongoing pursuit of private perfection in the form of projects of prosthetic self-creation making claims to general legibility but not necessarily to general affirmation. Sometimes "bioethical" discourses take the form of what I would describe instead as bioscientisms, parochial prescriptions stealthed as medical or "neutral" instrumental descriptions. And, of course, quite a lot of "bioethical" discourse is really simply a matter of skirmishes across a biopolitical policy terrain, consisting of efforts to arrive at contingent compromise formations in the context of diverse stakeholders in relatively, or at any rate notionally, democratic societies.

These differing concerns (instrumental, moral, esthetic, ethical, political, and so on) clearly generate importantly different "shoulds," they are arrived at through importantly different protocols, they are sensitive to importantly different phenomena, and they are warranted as rational by importantly different criteria.

I worry that bioethical discourse sometimes tends to be insensitive to (and perhaps even a bit antagonistic to) the actual irreducible diversity of perfectly rational, intelligible normative practices. It seems especially susceptible to a reductionism that would denigrate democratic stakeholder plurality as "bias," or consensual lifeway diversity as "suboptimality," "illness" or "irrationality" -- either out of a misplaced faith in a triumphalist scientism that looks for all the world like the evangelism it likes (properly enough) to decry in others, or as an uncritical expression of sociocultural privilege in an era of technodevelopmental social struggle defined essentially by conflicts between reductive corporate-military rationality on the one hand and pluralist democratic movements on the other.

A second worry I have is that I would assume key contemporary technoethical discourses to be defined in their historical specificity, and that these specificities would also yield a diversity of actual forms. It isn't simply a matter of irrationality that some people who take a civil libertarian stance on questions of neuroceutical interventions into mood and memory nevertheless express hostility to what seem conceptually analogious civil libertarian positions on questions of access to reproductive technologies to end unwanted pregnancies or facilitate wanted ones, but the fact that these arguments are lodged for some people in the historically separable discourses and commitments of the concrete politics of the so-called "War on Drugs," on the one hand, and the anti-abortion politics of "Life," so-called, on the other.

What I mean to say is simply that, whatever interesting structural, conceptual, and historical relations obtain between them, the fact is that bioethics really isn't exactly the same thing as neuroethics. Neither is it roboethics, or media criticism, or environmental criticism, or existential risk assessment, and so on. I would like to see more interesting work which surveys the field of these technoethical discourses with an eye to their topical and tropological connections but also in a way that does justice to the concrete historical and political specificities of each.

Both of these worries, that influential bioethical and technoethical discourses tend to be insufficently responsive to the actual modal diversity of rational human normativity as well as insufficiently attentive to the actual historical diversity of concrete normative practices, are nudging me into a contrary and compensatory perspective: an affirmation of the plurality of modes of reasonable belief-ascription corresponding to an affirmation of the possibility of a technoscientifically literate and technodevelopmentally democratizing planetary multiculture, alive to the values of equity, diversity, openness, and consent that I might as well describe as technoethical pluralism.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

MundiMuster! Mandate for Peace

Sign the Mandate for Peace!
The people have spoken out through the 2006 mid-term election. By voting out pro-war candidates and changing control over Congress, we have repudiated war policies and issued a mandate for new policies that promote peace and international cooperation. We insist that the newly elected Congress, in its earliest days in office, pass legislation requiring the prompt removal of all US troops from Iraq and discontinue funding for military purposes in Iraq except the safe withdrawal of all U.S. forces.

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