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

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Neither God Nor Nature Draws The Line

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot:
You ignored my point about Rebecca Taylor. Don't you think it is interesting that she only opposes "enhancement" but not germline genetic engineering to fix defects? She feels "enhancement" is where medicine crosses the line into transhumanism, but I think it is enhancement itself to enable people to pass on genes that are better than their own.
You should read more carefully. Presumably Taylor regards normalizing therapeutic outcomes as continuous with our intuitions about basic healthcare more generally already, even if it is a splashy novel technique or even imagined technique that enables the normalization in any particular case. By normalizing outcomes I mean to say therapeutic results that square with statistically normal health outcomes for an age-cohort, or at any rate best health outcomes for that cohort as they are conventionally characterized: lifespan, strength, stamina, skill retention, absence of sustained discomfort, and so on. And, no, I don't find this to be more interesting than the things I did talk about at greater length in responding to Taylor. Her distinction seems to be, after all, a bioethical commonplace. Of course, in my piece I pointed out that all such norms are contingent over the longer term on expectations, customs, technical and infrastructural affordances. Such a recognition calls that bioethical commonplace into question and so does indeed respond to what you say I ignored, if you like. Now, you want to speak of "The Line" that transhumanists are crossing. In actual practice? In their dreams? This is left unclear. But in my view there simply is no permanent line of this kind for "nature" to draw. Further, as I have said many times, there are no actually-existing transhumanist therapies to cross "the line" anyway.

Health-qua-norm matters to me less than questions of safety, access, equitable distribution of costs, risks, and benefits, and the scene of informed, nonduressed consent to the enterprise. My own focus has been to insist on the point that there is no neutral vantage from which to describe a non-normalizing prosthetic intervention as always-only a "correction" or "enhancement" of always-only a "defect" or "disability." And that point very much includes your own confident declarations about knowing what genes, traits, capacities are "better than their own." Better for what? Better according to whom? You may want to pretend that "nature" is whatever is customary now, or whatever you selectively take to be customary now, and then invest such parochial customs with an inviolable sacredness or attribute perfection to them, but it remains true nonetheless that people want different things from one another, and that the customary has been otherwise in times past, might be otherwise in times present, will be otherwise in times to come.

You will probably want to declare me a "transhumanist" for saying this, just as transhumanists like to declare me a "luddite," "deathist," or "bioconservative" when I declare their techno-transcendental fancies incoherent (such as techno-immortalizing uploading, since you are not a picture of you even if you call the picture a "scan" and no computer, network, or software is eternal any more than biological bodies are) or too implausible to deserve consideration over more proximate urgencies (foolish distractions over clone armies, nonhuman animal "uplift," made-to-order designer babies, centuries or even decades of life-extension, and so on, instead of focusing on urgent health concerns like universal access to clean water and basic nutrition, neglected treatable disease in overexploited regions, access to safe, legal, abortion, contraception, and ARTs for women and girls everywhere, universal basic healthcare coverage, common sense gun safety regulations, elimination of environmental health threats like pollution, toxic materials, ecosystem spoilage).

The simple fact remains that transhumanist and bioconservative outlooks are both extremes -- between which the whole field of actually-real actually-relevant shared problem-solving, consensus science, progressive reform, and lifeway diversity exist to solicit our intelligence, effort, concern. And more than extremities, transhumanism and bioconservatism are also both futurisms, and if it seems paradoxical to describe bioconservatism as futuristic this is no more paradoxical than the recognition that all futurisms tend to be reactionary retro-futurisms in their substance, in that they both dis-identify with the real present and identify instead with a golden age to come or to which we should return in which lifeway diversity is rewritten in the image of an amplified elite-incumbent parochialism denominated "The Future." But prenatal care and basic nutrition radically changes infant and child mortality norms, anti-inflammatories transform expectations of adult mortality associated with heart disease, anesthetic and pain killers changed the lived experience of normal biological processes like childbirth and injury incredibly profoundly, the examples can be deliriously multiplied -- none of these are in-born to human species-being, though they have become normalized for many members of the human species. Who knows what might become normal, and hence natural next? Are you a transhumanist if you are anesthetized for a root canal at the dentist's office? Note carefully that sub(cult)ural transhumanists have a strong interest in having you answer "yes" to that question -- because to pretend healthcare is life-extension or medical enhancement they lend the coloration of legitimacy to their techno-immortalizing and techno-superhumanizing fancies.

You may think your own fetishization of genes as Nature (which you largely share with the transhumanists and their many evopsycho douchebag fellow-travelers, by the way) is of a different character than the threatened Nature presumably defended by the anti-anesthesia zealots of yesterday or the threatened Nature presumably defended by forced-pregnancy zealots of today. But the force of your distinction ultimately depends on all the silly slippery slopes you almost certainly and wrongly think you are sliding along. For example, the real quandaries of regulation for safety of the heritable don't seem to me qualitatively different than the quandaries of regulation for safety of long-term effects, from a general welfare perspective (and that is the source of the most forceful objections I have read in the bioethical literature on the general question of genetic medicine). Worries about the irrational pathologization of wanted non-normal traits and lifeways cuts in both bioconservative and transhumanoid directions. And, anyway, quandaries about the eugenicizing force of irrational parochial norms is already very much at issue without bringing futurological fancies into the picture, and this is also true of more conventional questions about social priorities for funding therapies, about balancing safety with liberty, about adjudicating competing claims of children and wards with their legal guardians, about dealing with the way the reality of the scene of consent is compromised by unequal information, unequal resources, irrational prejudices, and so on. You should think deeply about whether your objections to Taylor actually abet the techno-transcendental faith-based transhumanist pseudo-scientists you claim otherwise to abhor the better to abet the reactionary faith-based bioconservative parochialisms you cherish.


John Howard said...

Yes, her distinction of enhancement versus medicine is a bioethical commonplace, and I agree it's quite meaningless because the line changes as time goes by and procedures move from enhancement to medicine. It's just soothing words to make us feel that she is doing her job as a Catholic bioethics watchdog, fighting the transhumanist enemy as hard as she can. But how many of her readers do you think realize that she thinks germline engineering will be a good thing? I don't think she advertises that, I had to dig it out.

It turns out her job, as she sees it, is the like yours: pretend to be a foe of transhumanism and make fun of their crazy ideas, while holding the door open for "responsible" genetic engineering and eugenics.

I define "Transhumanist" as anyone who thinks we should allow labs to make babies that aren't the union of a man's sperm and a woman's egg. That seems to be an essential belief of all self-identified Transhumanists, and it makes a good firm dividing line that allows meaningful discussion. Otherwise people can say "oh, glasses are tranahumanism so we're all transhumanists" or "it's all just medicine, so there's no such thing as transhumanism." And that might be fun to argue about for you as a rhetoritician, but I am trying to make a difference and actually enact a line that is a useful line: keeping people created equal, and preserving everyone's equal right to reproduce with their own genes, and stopping germline genetic engineering and eugenics so we can focus on actual medicine and healthcare.

Dale Carrico said...

As predicted, you declare me a transhumanist. There is no more relentless, consistent, exhaustive, or long-standing critic of transhumanism than me. Your obsession with "the union of a man's sperm and a woman's egg" yields a definition that is completely idiosyncratic, that is unable to account for the majority of views and practices actually evident among transhumanists, you declare it "essential" when there is probably no transhumanist person or organization anywhere who would agree with you. We have arrived at the inevitable point exchanges with you always find their way to sooner or later -- I leave you alone now to rock in the fetal position contemplating a puddle of your menaced sperm while you mumble to yourself about the gays and the designer baby army we are building to rule the future with iron fisting.