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

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Michael Sandel's Contribution to the Burgeoning Bioconservative Canon

I have denoted by the term "Bioconservatism" an attitude of hesitancy about technological development "in general." Such an attitude is, to say the least, prone to certain paradoxes, hypocrisies, and confusions given the inescapable ubiquity of technique in the technoscientific societies that tend to give rise to and nourish bioconservative sensibilities in the first place, and given, too, what might be described as the profound technoconstitution of encultured, enterprising selfhood itself in such societies.

More particularly, I have called attention to the ways in which bioconservative positions tend to be mobilized especially whenever some technology is perceived to threaten the customary terms of a given social order (just as I would describe as "bioconservative" the tendency to "naturalize" and "detechnologize" those devices and techniques to which we have grown accustomed, an effort which functions to relieve the conceptual pressures and so maintain the apparent continence and salience of bioconservative positions, despite the paradoxes and confusions I mentioned a moment ago).

Needless to say, there is ample reason to worry about -- and to organize to oppose and resist -- the unsafe, unfair, undemocratic outcomes that all too typically are blandly affirmed as "technological development" in both the popular imagination and in elite neoliberal public policy discourse. And, again, needless to say, it will be a priority of any properly technoscientifically focused progressive discourse to recognize that unfair, undemocratic developmental modes will facilitate unacceptable recklessness and exploitation, exacerbate injustice, and incubate dangerous social discontent.

Although some bioconservative discourse contributes to these worthy ends, my own sense is that the appearance within bioconservative discourse of these widely affirmed concerns functions too often to provide an impression of superficial reasonableness to the expression of the more counterintuitive and politically reactionary viewpoints that constitute the more proximate concerns of most bioconservatives. Typically, these amount, I fear, to concerns with preserving the institutional terms and the familiar distribution of wealth and authority within a given social order: an order presumably threatened by the deranging forces of technodevelopmental change, and a concern expressed from the parochial perspective of incumbent interests within that social order.

Most crucial for me, the term "bioconservative" denotes the rhetorical and political gesture of a defense of "nature," and especially a defense of a "human nature" typically identified with certain social norms under conspicuous contest -- with "nature" construed as a moral category. Whatever else is afoot in various bioconservative discourses and movements, whatever their personal or historical idiosyncrasies, the definitive gesture of first a conjuration or outright invention of some expression of "nature" and then its urgent defense will always be deployed at a key moment in any bioconservative argument, or as the rationale for any bioconservative judgment or action. This matters, since it helps us disentangle the reasonable cautions and hesitations that one characteristically encounters orbiting about bioconservative discourse (and which provide it respectable cover) and then identify the white-hot anti-democratic core that makes bioconservatisms conservative in the first place.

Of course, the term "bioconservative" also, and often in fact more usefully, describes the political formations arising out of these attitudes: a coterie of public intellectuals, a canon of influential texts, an archipelago of think-tanks and well-funded political campaigns, all of which are doing political and cultural work from a perspective informed by these attitudes. While most of these texts and organizations reasonably foreground a concern with "foresight" and "critique" in the face of rapid, radical, sweeping technoscientific change, it is crucial to attend carefully to unexpected political alliances and conceptual linkages that are regularly stealthed under cover of their concern with deliberation. Especially illuminating in this regard is the regularity with which bioconservative discourse [1] aligns seamlessly with socially conservative hostility to any politics of the technodevelopmental empowerment of women by providing access to techniques to end unwanted pregnancies or facilitate wanted ones; [2] re-stages socially conservative paeans to "life" and "dignity" that function primarily to police cultural diversity into a homogeneity misidentified with "the human" as such; [3] facilitates the mainstreaming of creationist discourse, abstinence-obsessed moral panics, and other extremely damaging, extremely marginal viewpoints by treating these perspectives as key partners in serious public dialogue; and [4] often aligns curiously with reductionist (and too often outright racist) neoconservative rationales for aggressive unilateral war.

Interestingly enought, "bioconservative coalitions" also sometimes attract advocates from political campaigns more conventionally identified with the left: [1] environmentalists who are quite properly concerned about the catastrophic impact of extractive petrochemical industry on the environment and of the impact of cultural technofetishism and technohype on the disastrously wasteful and reckless practices of consumers in privileged societies; [2] anti-militarists who are quite properly concerned about the insanity of state Defense Budgets in the face of palpably prior social needs, the ongoing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, landmines, conventional arms, the ongoing development of biowarfare agents, and so on; [3] anti-corporatists who are quite properly skeptical of the abstract promotional discourse of "progress," "technology," and "development," inasmuch as they are aware of the extent to which these discourses are predominated, on the ground, by the specific urgencies of corporate competitiveness and military competitiveness (which amounts, again, to the selective subsidization of corporate competitiveness); [4] advocates of various global social struggles who have urgent stories to tell about the pernicious impact particular technodevelopmental, and especially biomedical, trajectories have had on many women, people of color, indigenous populations in postcolonial contexts, people in the overexploited regions of the so-called "developing world," the differently enabled (a term I prefer to the more customary term "disabled"), variously queer people, youth, the elderly, ethnic and subcultural minorities, and so on.

These curious left-right alliances and juxtapositions have led some writers, most notably Virginia Postrel (on the right, in her The Future and Its Enemies) and James Hughes (on the left, in his "Democratic Transhumanism"), to propose that a new technodevelopmental politics is appearing on the scene that is not intelligible within or reducible to customary left-right political categories. Although I do think these analyses provide many useful insights, clarify some of the unexpected demographics of certain policy concerns, and help make us more aware than we might otherwise be of available opportunities for certain tactical alliances, I believe it is premature to suggest that what we are witnessing is a basic transformation of the terms of the political terrain. Indeed, I suspect that the rhetoric of an at once "unprecedented" and more relevant political outlook is functioning in both Postrel's and Hughes's cases primarily to attempt the difficult work of repositioning a marginal critical vocabulary (for Postrel, associated with the anarcho-capitalist American Libertarian Party, for Hughes, with subcultural "transhumanism") as a mainstream one.

To a significant extent I think the truth is that many of the progressives making common cause with bioconservatives on questions of technodevelopmental politics at the moment are not so much creating something new as expressing their real and reasonable confusion in the face of rapid and unprecedented social change. Since the technodevelopmental skepticism expressed by the environmentalists, anti-militarists, anti-corporatists, and participants in global social justice movements is both perfectly reasonable and perfectly legible within the categories of a traditional understanding of the democratic left, it seems to me much more likely that these viewpoints will shift from their momentary alliances with bioconservative bigotry and align soon enough with what I have been documenting as an emerging technoprogressive mainstream politics arising out of the peer-to-peer network culture, the defense of consensus science from attacks funded by greedy corporations and a few marginal religions with theocratic designs, the championing of science-based outcome-based harm-reduction public policy, the support of increased public funding to cure disease and ameliorate suffering, the support of public research and development in renewable energy, and so on. All of this looks to me like a perfectly conventional, perfectly intelligible democratic left, but witnessed from the perspective of a basic literacy in and focus on questions of technoscience and technodevelopmental social struggle. Again, once one disentangles reasonable concerns from the insistently naturalist rhetoric that characterizes bioconservatism at its heart, it is usually easy to discern the difference between superficial, confused, or short-term tactical alliances and those that bespeak a deeper, more structural affinity.

I suspect that those who are eager to see something more unprecedented emerging in the political landscape and in political language will incline to deride my conclusion here as my own wistful (if not, worse, strident and hectoring) clinging to comfortable worn-out conventions. The fact is I would be more than happy to break with the crust of convention if it got us anywhere, but I can't see how an insistence on a radical technodevelopmental "overcoming" of traditional left-right politics ever plays out as anything much other than an encouragement for otherwise reliable radical democrats occasionally to mistake as allies anti-democratic reactionaries who happen to be excited about certain emerging technologies just because they expect to make money out of them or desire new gadgets to facilitate "kicking ass" in some awful benighted conservative project of theirs.

I also think there is, sadly, a significant extent to which these apparently progressive alliances with bioconservative advocacy sometimes bespeak something worse than a moment of conceptual confusion -- and one well on the way to rectifying itself in the emerging technoprogressive movements. I think it is also true that there is something about the unprecedented radicality, rapidity, and sweep of ongoing and palpably upcoming technodevelopmental transformation that has the power to make otherwise progressive and reasonably moderate people into actual conservatives. Let me offer up what I take to be the latest unfortunate example of what I am talking about.

A new book by the distinguished political philosopher Michael J. Sandel (whose Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, among other works, have been enormously influential, and were a real provocation to my own thinking) is to published later this year, in May. I will certainly revisit the text when it actually arrives on the scene, but I wanted to comment on the promotional verbiage that appears on the Harvard University Press website for the text and which presumably summarizes some of the case the book will be making.

Like Jurgen Habermas's recent The Future of Human Nature, Sandel's book, which is entitled The Case against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering, looks to be another in a long line of bioconservative texts from academics who are not typically quite so reactionary in their politics as they appear to me to be when they contemplate ongoing and upcoming biomedical interventions into what have been, hitherto, long-accustomed limits in human capacities, traits, and lifeways. Needless to say, I was hardly surprised to find social conservatives like Leon Kass (Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Human Dignity) or neoconservatives like Francis Fukuyama (Our Posthuman Future) writing bioconservative arias, but it is getting a little disheartening to find more reasonable people succumbing to the lure of bioconservatism's facile "naturalist" theology.

"Breakthroughs in genetics present us with a promise and a predicament," begins the promotional summary for Sandel's text, reasonably enough. "The promise is that we will soon be able to treat and prevent a host of debilitating diseases," the text continues, and note that medicine already treats and prevents a host of debilitating diseases, and hence, there is an important sense in which there is nothing new in the least about this "new" state of affairs. Or more particularly, framing the debate in this way tends to disallow a host of analogies between the new treatments that are the focus of Sandel's book and the vast array of treatments to which we are already accustomed. This takes us directly into the heart of Sandel's discourse, and notice that the argumentative weight here, as always in bioconservative discourse, is on an un-interrogated "nature": "The predicament is that our newfound genetic knowledge may enable us to manipulate our nature[.]"

Lest this breathtakingly unchallengeable uncharacterizable bombshell impel reasonable readers to dismiss the argument out of hand as unhelpful -- however well-meaning it may be -- the summary very quickly adds at this point a key bioethical distinction to the mix: "to enhance our genetic traits and those of our children." This move is quite characteristic and certainly fascinating: It is easy to understand that there is a significant, and fraught, distinction between the ethical calculus and political provision that obtains in the scene of adult consent to therapeutic intervention, as opposed to the ethical calculus and political provision that obtains in the scene of decision of parents and legal guardians to empower therapeutic interventions for nonconsensual or preconsensual subjects. But is it really true that this is a distinction that puts us in a position to understand what is meant by "our nature" (which is clearly implied by the fact that the distinction is offered following a colon promising a definition or at least clarification of the portentious phrase "our nature")? Even if that is a reasonable topic for conversation, is it true that Sandel will always confine the force of this key normative term, "nature," to the quandaries specifically registered in the distinction of adults and wards in matters of consent and so on? If not, why foreground these issues at all, why not offer up a clearer characterization of the kinds of work Sandel expects the shorthand tag "nature" to be doing in his argument?

It is very interesting that in the next paragraph of the summary (to jump ahead a little for a moment), we are promised that "The Case against Perfection explores these and other moral quandaries connected with the quest to perfect ourselves and our children. Michael Sandel argues that the pursuit of perfection is flawed for reasons that go beyond safety and fairness." This matters because, so far it isn't the least bit evident what is clarified by going beyond questions of "safety and fairness" in these matters. But more to the point, my own sense is that Sandel is offering up bioethical formulations (distinguishing adults from their wards) that are perfectly legible within the terms of a preoccupation with questions of "safety and fairness" precisely to give some objective (and reasonable) shape to the more socially conservative concerns that ultimately undergird the defense of "nature" in cases such as these.

To return to the text itself, the first paragraph of the summary continues from before with an intriguing claim: "Although most people find at least some forms of genetic engineering disquieting, it is not easy to articulate why." As it happens, it is quite easy to articulate why "most people find at least some forms of genetic engineering disquieting": the problem for Sandel is that this ease is a function of the fact that most of the reasonable concerns people have are precisely matters of "safety and fairness." Sandel is having none of it, and the promotional summary bangs down the gavel and insists that there is just one question we should be asking right about now: "What is wrong with re-engineering our nature?"

According to the summary, Sandel proposes that "[t]he drive to enhance human nature through genetic technologies is objectionable because it represents a bid for mastery and dominion that fails to appreciate the gifted character of human powers and achievements." Now, it seems to me that the beneficiaries of successful therapies are quite eager to express their appreciation of the gifts of the scientists and skilled medical practitioners to whom they are beholden for their health (in my own nation this gratitude is sometimes complicated by the catastrophic elitism of the corporatized model of healthcare provision, but these are matters better discussed in the vocabulary of "safety and fairness" and hence lead us astray from the incomparably more vital intangible matters with which Sandel is presumably preoccupied).

To what else can Sandel mean to refer us when he speaks of the "gifted character of humans powers and achievements"? Does he refer to the reliance of technoscientific progress on the warranted consensus descriptions that constitute "the given" terms through which we understand the environment? Does he refer to the reliance of social progress more generally on a vast archive of hard-won historical knowledges and political accomplishments? It is difficult to understand how genetic therapies violate these gifts and givenesses in the a priori way it seems Sandel must be taking for granted. Presumably, we who concentrate our attention in these matters on questions of "safety and fairness" are devoting inadequate attention to whatever deity Sandel personally worships and to whose beneficence he attributes the worthy things scientists and doctors and good citizens do. Perhaps he doesn't mean to say anything in this line, but it is difficult to guess where he is coming from otherwise.

And to the extent that this is indeed the argumentative line he is pursuing, one is curious to know just why the objectionable ingratitude of those who make recourse to genetic therapy is so very different from the "bid for mastery and dominion" that suffuses the projects of public education, secular multicultural tolerance, democratic reformist politics, and any number of human activities that induce individuals to pursue private perfections and in consequence of these pursuits shake up the public terms of the social order that has been "gifted us."

Rather hilariously, the summary soldiers on: "Carrying us beyond familiar terms of political discourse, this book contends that the genetic revolution will change the way philosophers discuss ethics and will force spiritual questions back onto the political agenda." Of course there is nothing the least bit "unfamiliar" about these terms, especially coming out of the mouths of those who would "force spiritual questions back onto the political agenda." That is to say, Sandel's bioconservatism seems a fairly straightforward expression of the usual social and religious conservatism, but with occasional genuflections in the direction of a fact-based policy discourse. These secular genuflections no doubt function as the spoon full of sugar that helps the theocratic bioconservative medicine go down, but it is difficult to shake the sense that science-based outcome-oriented harm-reduction policy vocabularies themselves gain little in the way of clarification or even moral force through their encumbrance with such theological paraphernalia.

I will conclude as the summary concludes as well: "In order to grapple with the ethics of enhancement, we need to confront questions largely lost from view in the modern world. Since these questions verge on theology, modern philosophers and political theorists tend to shrink from them." One appreciates the modesty of the suggestion that Sandel's is a discourse that "verges" on theology here, rather than demanding an outright substitution of theological concerns for political ones (in a world of diverse stakeholders, who deeply differ in their religious beliefs and many of whom have no religious beliefs at all or at any rate no interest in introducing them into their deliberations on these matters). "But," the summary assures us, "our new powers of biotechnology make these questions unavoidable." Of course, despite its repeated insistence to the contrary, there is nothing provided in the summary in the way of evidence to support the contention that Sandel's concerns with matters "beyond" those of "safety and fairness" are anything like "unavoidable." If anything one finds everywhere here the indications of an acute anxiety that Sandel's own preoccupations seem to be of a sort that most people think are best either privatized (as matters of profoundly personal pursuits of meaning, value, and idiosyncratic perfection) or avoided altogether. Instead, to the horror of incumbent elites and those who pine for the stasis of a "spiritualized" politics (being lucky enough, one supposes, to be among the pampered few rather than the imperiled many in the world as it is), we find ourselves in an historical moment when a rising worldly majority increasingly demands shared recourse to technoscientific accomplishments to solve public problems of poverty, illness, and illiteracy, and who are far more likely to articulate their worries through a language of "safety and fairness" addressed to progressive movements of democratization than to any regressive movements pining after theocracy.


Robin Zebrowski said...

I'm late for a violin lesson so I didn't get to finish reading - just ignore me if I'm not making sense, but my reading of Sandel has always been (and I even argue this in an article I wrote) that his notion of "gifted" is a very thinly veiled religious reference. There is only one gift-giver in most of these views, and some people are more explicit about it than others.

Must run!

Dale Carrico said...

Yeah, it sure looks that way to me, too.

Robin Zebrowski said...

My initial reading of your entry was partial and rushed, so I had only seen you making the argument against nature as a gift-giver, but if I had read your whole entry I would've seen that yes, you pretty much said just what I said!

(I can send you the article I wrote for the International Journal of Applied Philosophy on this if you want - I call Sandel out specifically on this point, as well as Kass).

Dale Carrico said...

I'll bet you managed to say it with much more consision than I did, though! I love the blogging thing as an arena in which to think out loud and find my way through to conclusions... but I think these sprawling realtime blogposts of mine are branding me as the world's most chatty cathy. (Yes, please do send me your article, btw. I'd love to see it.)