Uplift ethics, round two

Paul Raven @ 27-07-2011

Unsurprisingly, there are some responses to my screed from yesterday on the ethics of animal uplift. First up is George Dvorsky’s riposte:

First, when I talk about the “same cognitive gifts that we have,” I am not necessarily suggesting that we humanize non-human animals—though I concede that some human characteristics, such as the capacity for speech and complex recursive language, are important augmentations. More accurately, I am discussing animal uplift in the context of the broader thrust that sees not just humans move away from the Darwinian paradigm, but the entire ecosystem itself. I realize that’s not a small or subtle thing, but eventually our entire planet’s biosphere will come under the auspices of intelligent oversight—what in some circles has been referred to as technogaianism. We are poised to systematically replace a number of autonomous environmental and evolutionary systems with new and improved ones that will see a dramatic reduction in global suffering and a much more vibrant planet. And quite obviously it’ll also be part of our efforts to fix the damage we’ve done thus far to Earth. So, when I talk about enhancing animals, I’m talking about bringing them into the postbiological fold along with us. To just leave the animal kingdom alone to fend for itself seems plain wrong and repugnant to me.

Well, OK, technogaianism seems like an idea I can acknowledge as a net good, but Dvorsky’s confidence in its imminence seems undimmed by the fact that we don’t currently have a global political framework that can ensure every human being gets their fair share of available resources and a say in how things are run. Hell, in a lot of places, that isn’t even available locally – just look at the current (and growing) schism between the political classes and the general populace in Europe and the US at the moment. You think you’re going to be able to set up a global technological framework for regulating the biosphere with even a simple majority consent from the population, given how difficult it is trying to convince people that as blindingly obvious a problem as anthropic global warming is worth taking action for? Good luck with that, seriously.

I mean, I think it’s an attainable goal, but it’s gonna take a lot of work… and a far deeper understanding of the complexity of planet-scale ecosystems than we currently have, not to mention a more inclusive sort of politics that acknowledges and allows for different attitudes to the husbandry of planetary resources. To make a medical analogy, we’re still at the draining-humours-with-leeches stage of planetary management.

At no point do I suggest that we should “leave the animal kingdom alone to fend for itself”. Quite the contrary: we should repair the environments that support it, and – as far as is possible – give it space to exist without any interference from us whatsoever. A safari park planet, if you like… or you could think of it, perhaps, as the biosphere equivalent of declaring a heritage zone for protection. The biosphere gave rise to us, but our sentience does not implicitly grant us mastery over it – merely a custodial duty of care. Might does not make right. Which brings us to Dvorsky’s second point:

Second, and related to the first point, I think many of my detractors must have a very different definition of imperialism than I do. What they see as imperialism (though I’m not exactly sure what they’re suggesting humans are exploiting here) I see as compassion.

Oh, man, come on. The bringing of civilisation to “backwards” natives has always been framed in the rhetoric of compassion and moral duty – it’s all for their own good, right? The exploitation angle always comes after the intervention (though in some cases it may have been an unspoken motivation from the outset). And the last half a century or so is replete with examples of how essentially liberal impulses can still drive essentially imperialistic projects: I refer you first and foremost to America’s earnest but severely misguided (not to mention tragically blundered) attempts to spread the benefits of democracy and corporate capitalism to the developing world. And bear in mind that this has, in a number of cases, been done in places where the recipients of this attempted cultural uplift were able to observe and even desire the more visible trappings of the enfranchisement they were being offered (even if their understanding of the full consequences of said enfranchisement remained opaque, whether deliberately or not).

Shorter version: you can explain the possible benefits of cultural uplift to another human, and give them the choice (though the latter stage has historically been skimped upon more often than not, and the former rarely done as thoroughly and honestly as a clean conscience might require). But with non-human persons, with whom you have only a very limited framework of language through which to communicate extremely complex ideas, you don’t even have the option of warning them what’s to come. Is it not possible that we could get it right, and uplift an extended genetic family of great apes who’d be grateful to us for doing so? I don’t think it’s impossible. But I think we’d be in a much better position to take that chance once we’d demonstrated an ability to uplift our human sisters and brothers to the same position of privilege we already occupy. Don’t run before you can walk, y’know?

I find it interesting how many critics of uplift call upon Western norms and taboos to make their case, while my ethics is almost exclusively informed by Eastern philosophies, namely Buddhism. I look at animal uplift in the same way I do any other compassionate act in which a human or non-human animal is pulled-up from deplorable conditions, whether it be extreme poverty, or having to survive alone in the jungle.

Right, I’m no zoologist, but I think this portrayal of apes in misery “having to survive alone in the jungle” is anthropocentrism writ large. How can you be sure that the apes aren’t completely happy in the environment that they evolves to inhabit, or with the society and culture they’ve developed as a result? Sure, nature’s red in tooth and claw, and I’m not naive enough to think that apes – or any other animal – live in some sort of bucolic Eden. But who are we to decide on their behalf that a more human lifestyle would be preferable to them? I dare say it probably would be if the project of uplift succeeded in humanizing them, but again, you’d have made that decision to change their state of being on their behalf, because you’re so certain that human consciousness is the known peak of sentience. And of course you’re certain! I dare say if you could ask a well-fed dog in the midst of running after a thrown stick whether everyone would prefer to be a dog, they’d enthusiastically agree with your suggestion. Privilege breeds conceit.

Let’s try it another way: if you’re making an argument that apes should already have the rights of personhood conferred upon them, how can you not include the fundamental right of a person not to have major changes to their state of being made to them without their express consent? You can’t have your cake and eat it, guys; either apes are persons already, and hence deserving of your protection from those who would meddle with their state of being, or they’re not yet persons, and you’re making the indubitably anthropocentric assumption that the human state of being is superior to what they have already, and that they’d surely thank you for being raised to it.

Perhaps the latter is true, but here’s the thing – you only get to find out after you’ve done it. Our philosophical difference here is over whether that risk is a reasonable one to take given the potential rewards of the outcome. What worries me most about sitting down to do that particular bit of moral calculus is that while all the potential gain would accrue to the uplifted apes, so would all the potential risk.

You must not play god with the state of being of an entire species. Put the shoe on the other foot for a moment, and imagine the arrival of an alien species so far in advance of our own state of being that their motives, philosophies and moral framework are completely incomprehensible to us. We can see that they have conquered various technical and scientific problems which have thus far eluded us; as far as we can tell without being able to actually immerse ourselves in their culture, they seem happy and fecund and fulfilled, though their long-term goals are completely inscrutable, and they do many things that make no sense to us at all.

Now imagine said alien race starts plucking up a few randomly picked humans with the intent of making them more like the aliens. (This is, I believe, the basic concept of Octavia Butler’s Xenomorph series of novels, which are unquestionably postcolonial texts.) The end result is something neither human nor alien, but something in between, something carrying the legacy of a sociobiological experiment in which they had no say; something caught between two preexisting cultures, sprung from both, belonging to neither. Deliberately or not, you create an outsider species. Being as familiar with human emotions and attitudes as you must be (what with being one) can you really imagine your uplifted people having no resentment of this in-between state of being? Perhaps you can, but if that’s the case I humbly suggest you’ve had a very fortunate and privileged life already, and that doesn’t put you in a very good position for empathising with those who’ve not been so lucky in a manner that doesn’t – quite unintentionally – come out as condescension.

I’m going to issue a challenge to the opponents of animal uplift: Go back and live in the forest. I mean it. Reject all the technological gadgetry in your possession and all the institutions and specialists you’ve come to depend on. Throw away your phones, your shoes, your glasses and your watches. Denounce your education. As I’m sure I don’t have to remind anybody, it’s these things that have uplifted humanity from it’s more primitive “natural” state. Humans haven’t been truly human for thousands of years; we’ve been transhuman for quite some time now. If you reject animal uplift, then you must reject your very own transhuman condition.

Yeah, like that’s going to happen. Pretty easy to dismiss uplift from the position of privilege, isn’t it? Who’s the real imperialist, here?

I’ve been reading your stuff for many years now, George, and I really thought your rhetorical chops were up to a higher standard than this: a rough equivalent of “if you think life in Islamic Afghanistan is so awesome and deserving of protection, why don’t you go live there, huh?” (At least you’ve not gone so far as to wave whatever the uplift equivalent of the “it’s political correctness gone MAD!!!” banner might be.) Far from disproving my accusations of imperialist attitudes, you’ve actually strengthened them with this implicit labelling of ape culture as inferior to our own, as something they must be rescued from for their own good – after all, you’d find it impossible to cope with, so therefore it must be bad, and your life must hence be better!

The motive is pure, I’ll grant you – noble, even. But we all know what the road to hell is paved with, and you only have to look at Afghanistan (and Iraq, and countless other “backward” nation-states that have been thoroughly mangled by the neoliberal project to deliver Western-style cultural freedoms and economic liberty to places where it appeared to be lacking) to see plenty of examples that the liberal imperialist impulse is just as prone to enslaving or subjugating those it intends to uplift as the older monarchic imperialisms were.

I’m not suggesting that’s a deliberate outcome, mind you; I’m suggesting it’s a function of the inherently hierarchical way of looking at sentience that is powering this “obligation” to uplift. If you see sentience as a ladder with us stood on its highest rung and the apes a few rungs further down, then of course you’re going to feel you should pull them up the last few steps once you’ve clambered off onto the plateau at the top. But the anthropomorphic assumption here is that apes are as interested in climbing that cognitive ladder as you are. Heck, I’d bet you good money less than half your fellow humans would agree that humans climbing further up that ladder is an unmitigated good thing, and at least there you have the chance to make your case to someone who can potentially understand it. With the apes, you’re simply assuming your moral calculus will make them happy in the long run; as such, I return to my original diagnosis of well-intentioned hubris.

Ultimately, my argument boils down to this: if you truly believe that apes are human-like enough to deserve equivalent rights to us – a point on which I cautiously agree, I might add – then the first and greatest of those rights is the right not to have a new way of life forced upon you, whether “for your own good” or otherwise. Volition has to be a cornerstone of personhood. If it isn’t, where does volition enter the equation of sentience and ethics, exactly? This is a central question of postcolonial theory, and one which, I respectfully submit, we have not adequately answered in the context of our own species, let alone that of our genetic cousins.

This post is already running long (and eating a large chunk of my day), so I’ll leave discussing methods by which uplift might be achieved while still granting volition to its subjects for another day… though I will briefly note this part of Kyle Munkittrick’s response to my original post in that context:

My hope is that uplift technology will be based on our own human cognitive enhancement technology. Tech that enhances the mind as-is will enable animals to be more intelligent without altering their genes such that we change how an animal’s brain works. Animals uplifted in this way would contribute to neurodiversity and make Earth home to more than just one intelligent species.

OK, if you make the tools of enhancement non-invasive and volitional – to use a crude sf-nal example, by leaving brain-booster headsets laying around for apes to find and experiment with, if they so chose – then we’re talking about a very different ballgame. (And that gives me another opportunity to mention a favourite science fiction work in which that is one of the strands, namely Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile…)

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5 Responses to “Uplift ethics, round two”

  1. Athena Andreadis says:

    I’m frankly not worried about these messianic effusions, because the likelihood of their implementation is exactly zero. I concede this stuff makes prime fodder for late-night bull sessions, right along with the other TH pet project for “genetic virtue” (think Miranda of Firefly). Of course, some of that time would be better spent poring over basic biology textbooks, but to each their own entertainment.

  2. otocon says:

    i know I know, we all cant wait to go see rise of the planet of the apes lol. But seriousely futurismic has got this on lockdown. All the points are there the lines have been drawn and the sides have been taken. And after reading all that i agree 99%. This Dbrowsky guy or watever sounds a bit of a fanatic. Humanization of humans first XD

  3. jaia says:

    By this logic, how do you justify educating children before they’re old enough to choose for themselves? (And how well could they choose for themselves without educastion?)

  4. j.mele says:

    Firstly, let me say I’ve been lurking around here for a long time. I’ve found this to be one of the most consistently interesting feeds (up there with Beyond the Beyond, sometimes) in my reader for about a year now.

    Second, I think the meat of your objections to animal uplift are spot on. It’s one of the best and most succinct encapsulations of why an obligation to uplift animals is a terrible idea. Between the implicit imperialism (and it is unarguably imperialism) and the certainty of exploitation, uplift projects should be very carefully considered once they get into the realm of the possible.

    Unfortunately for the ‘low impact’ uplift scenario, it seems a pretty good bet that animals are going to be used as part of the research and development process for human cognitive enhancement. Uplifted animals are going to be the very first recipients of various processes designed for later use in humans. Most likely, the act of creation with itself be an act of exploitation.

    That said, I have a couple of bones to pick with you. First, I do think you’re guilty of the noble savage fallacy. You chose the quality of innocence as the defining difference between Great Ape (at the lower bound of personhood) and man. That both presupposes the existence of an actual state of innocence, and positioning both apes and men into that category. This seems as much an act of anthropomorphism as insisting on their uplift.

    Additionally I’m not sure the concept of volition is a sufficient cornerstone for personhood. I mean, not one of us here had any volition in our own creation. It seems fairly difficult or even impossible for their to be volition in the creation of a new sapient species, especially if you anchor personhood to it. How can a species (and an uplifted breeding population of apes would, I think, count as a new ‘species,’ at least behaviorally) voluntarily create themselves?

    TL;DR- I agree with the description of uplift as implicitly imperialistic but think your reasoning is tinged with a similar, if inverted, anthropomorphism. Additionally (and tangentially) using volition as a major component of defining personhood seems rife with vicious circularity. Aside from these quibbles, I found this to be an interesting and accurate takedown of any kind uplift obligation.

    Finally, as otocon points out, the obligation for uplift should be squarely on humans first.

  5. Paul Raven says:

    @jaia: Because human children are human, and hence we have a pretty good idea of how their adult minds will work (what with having adult human minds ourselves). The ape mind is unknowable to to the human mind; that’s the point I’m trying to make. :)

    @j: You compare this site to Chairman Bruce’s BtB? You honour me hugely, sir! And thanks for the picked bones, too; today I’m a) very busy and b) very hungover, so I’m not going to wrestle with them now, but I will definitely be taking them on board next time I sit down for a think about the uplift question. :)

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