Tag Archives: ethics

Uplift ethics, round two

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…)

Biopharming: transgenic animals as medicine-factories

That sound you can hear is sound of bioconservatives gnashing their teeth in horror: COSMOS Magazine has a decent long piece on transgenic animals and the role they may play in tomorrow’s pharmacology:

The greatest impact biopharming will have on the world’s medicine cabinet is one of supply – it will dramatically boost the availability of biopharmaceuticals, also known as ‘biologics’. Biologics are defined as medicinal products extracted from or produced by biological systems – many are made by genetically manipulating cells of bacterial, animal or human origin.

The majority of biologics are proteins such as hormones, enzymes, growth factors and antibodies, which can be collectively called therapeutic proteins, as well as viral proteins for use in vaccines.

This method of drug manufacture will make things cheaper… but not to the degree that you might expect:

A review of the scientific literature shows that a slew of antibody-based drugs manufactured in transgenic animals are poised to enter the market as soon as their branded competitors’ patents expire.

Traditionally, this would result in the transgenic animal-manufactured drugs being labelled as generic drugs – a non-patented, cheaper alternative to brand-name medications with the same active ingredient.

But because the antibodies that the transgenic animals produce are extremely complex monoclonal antibodies – large protein-based structures that specifically recognise one part of a target molecule – no two are alike. This means that, unlike the less complex ‘small molecule’ (non protein) structure of most drugs, they cannot technically be called generics.

“When GTC Biotherapeutics start marketing Herceptin from transgenic cows, it will be classed as a biosimilar, not a biogeneric. We may even end up having a better Herceptin, what we’d call a ‘biobetter’,” notes Heiden.

The ‘better’ refers to aspects of a drug’s profile that may be more desirable than those of its competitor, such as better efficacy or fewer side effects. These traits will affect pricing, but biosimilars will still be cheaper.

“The cost savings will be in the order of 30% – not the 80% price drops we see when a generic small molecule drug goes to market,” says Heiden. That’s because of where in the manufacturing process the savings impact. “Where we save money is at the front end. But the downstream cost of goods, which is about half of the total, is the same regardless of whether you are using cell culture or animals on a farm. You still have to extract and purify your product.”

Well, you do if you’re playing by the rules… I’ll bet there’s plenty of corners that can be cut if you’re not too bothered about meeting safety standards. Hmmm, the ideas for my genetic police procedural are all falling rapidly into place…

Rethinking reproductive restrictions

We mentioned this little lot in passing back in April, but given that they’re cropping up in UK headlines again (and that their modus operandi connects to last week’s discussion of reproductive licensing), I thought it worth mentioning again. I refer, of course, to Project Prevention, a US-based charity now operating in the UK whose ‘work’ involves offering drug addicts and other members of “the undeserving poor” £200 in cash in exchange for undergoing voluntary sterilisation.

I mention it primarily because it makes me think again about my position with regards to reproductive licensing; after all, is it not inconsistent of me to approve of reproductive licensing, if only as a principle with no obvious fair and corruption-proof method of implementation, but to be genuinely horrified by the crudely manipulative way that Project Prevention are approaching the same basic idea? It occurs to me that Project Prevention’s founders and staff probably believe quite earnestly that they’re working toward a social good, namely preventing the birth of children to parents unfit to care for them… but for them, that’s justification for a methodology that I find instantly appalling.

In other words, I’d like to say to Silvia and the other commenters on my post from last week: I think you were right. There may well be a logical core to the idea of restricting reproductive rights, but like many logical ideals, it can’t be brought into the messy sphere of human life without turning into a value judgement that no one has the right to make over someone else. A better – if admittedly harder – solution would be to work towards a society where the root causes of bad parenting are eradicated, rather than bad parents themselves; a utopian dream, perhaps, but a far more humanist one.

The need to breed: reproductive licensing

Kyle Munkittrick’s at it again over at Discover‘s Science Not Fiction blog, this time raising an ethical question that has intrigued me ever since I encountered it in an assortment of science fiction stories and novels as a teenager: should the right to reproduce be subject to licensing*?

Cue knee-jerk horror and accusations of fascism-by-the-back-door… but Munkittrick makes some points worth considering. First of all, we already have a limited form of licensing with respect to child-rearing: adoption.

If you can have children naturally, you’re free to have as many as you want and basically do what you want with them. The only exceptions are parents so horrible that the state steps in and takes them away. If you can’t or don’t want to have children naturally, then not only do you have to go through the difficult and complex processes of adoption and/or ARTs, you have to be approved to do so. It’s double-damage on the equality front. Our society, it would seem, unconsciously believes “If you’re naturally able to have kids, then it’s OK for you to have kids. But if you aren’t able to naturally have kids, there might be something else wrong with you, and you should be investigated.” That kind of mindset is wrong – your ability to have kids is not an indicator your ability to take care of them.

He goes on to point out that all that’s realistically needed is a test of basic competence, just like you take to get a driving license:

Just as it is reasonable to have a person in charge of a car take a class and a few tests to make sure they’re capable, it is reasonable to have a person who will be in charge of a new life take a few tests to make sure they’re capable. You didn’t have to be Dale Earnhart, Jr. to get your drivers license; you won’t have to be Ward Cleaver to get your parenting license. You had to be able to merge into traffic, parallel park, and negotiate a four way stop; by the same logic, every child deserves a minimally competent parent.

The main problem that I can see is that by setting up a framework intended to screen only for basic competence, you’re leaving a legacy system to the politicians of the future which could be tweaked and adjusted for more fascistic ideological purposes. Not to mention the fact that any bureaucratic system of the complexity required to license parenting in a country the size of the UK would inevitably be highly susceptible to gaming, fraud and bribery…

Ultimately I’m somewhat hesitant to pick sides on this particular issue, despite what seems to me the very logical appeal of the idea; this is because I have no intention of ever having children, and as such I can’t fully understand the incredibly powerful emotional responses that parenthood – and, in some sad cases, the inability to achieve parenthood – engenders in people. How can I deny someone else the right to do something that I’ve never wanted to do?

That said, the logic seems fairly clear to me: surely the worst thing that we could do to any child is allow it to be raised by parents either unwilling or incapable of caring for it properly? As Munkittrick points out, almost anyone can conceive a child, but evidence suggests that not everyone can raise one. So whose rights must take primacy – the right of every human being to reproduce if they’re able and willing, or the right of every child to be raised responsibly? Given that the child doesn’t get a choice about whether it gets born or not, I see it as being the underdog in the equation, and hence more deserving of protection.

Where do you folk stand on this one? Particularly interested in input from parents, would-be or actual.

[ * I feel Julian May’s Galactic Milieu books dealt rather well with this issue, in that she was careful to simply portray such a system in action, warts and all, good and bad, without passing any authorial judgement on its ethical validity. Recommendations of other stories or novels that deal with similar subjects would be most welcome! ]

Reasons not to worry about brain enhancement drugs

Professor Henry Greely reckons it’s high time (arf!) that we stopped trying to ban cognitive enhancement drugs and focus our attentions on developing rules governing their use [via SentientDevelopments]. It’s a pragmatic approach; as Greely points out, the current grey legality of “revision drugs” like Ritalin isn’t doing anything to stop their use, and as the pharmacological industry introduces more cognition-boosting chemicals onto the market (albeit ostensibly as treatments for various maladies of the mindmeat), that situation is unlikely to reverse itself.

Of course, lots of people are scared of the idea of brain enhancement, and there are some good reasons for that. But there are also some bad (or at least illogical) reasons. take it away, Mr Greely:

There are at least three unsound reasons for concern: cheating, solidarity, and naturalness.

Many people find the assertion that enhancement is cheating to be convincing. Sometimes it is: If rules or laws ban an enhancement, then using it is cheating. But that does not help in situations where there are no rules or the rules are still being determined. The problem with viewing enhancements as cheating is that enhancements, broadly defined, are ubiquitous. If taking a cognitive-enhancement drug before a college entrance exam is cheating, what about taking a prep course? Using a computer program for test preparation? Reading a book about taking the test? Drinking a cup of coffee the morning of the test? Getting a good night’s sleep before the test? To say that direct brain enhancement is inherently cheating is to require a standard of what the “right” competition is. What would be the generally accepted standard in our complex and only somewhat meritocratic society?

The idea of enhancement as cheating is also related to the idea that enhancement replaces effort. Yet the plausible cognitive enhancements would not eliminate the need to study; they would just make studying more effective. In any event, we do not reward effort, we reward success. People with naturally good memories have advantages over others in organic chemistry exams, but they did not work for that good memory.

Some argue that enhancement is unnatural and threatens to take us beyond our humanity. This argument, too, suffers from a major problem. All of our civilization is unnatural. A fair speaker could not fly across a continent, take a taxi to an air-conditioned auditorium, and give a microphone-assisted PowerPoint presentation decrying enhancement as unnatural without either a sense of humor or a good argument for why these enhancements are different. Because they change our physical bodies? So do medicine, good food, clothing, and a hundred other unnatural changes. Because they change our brains? So does education. What argument justifies drawing the line here and not there? A strong naturalness argument against direct brain enhancements, in particular, has not been—and I think cannot be—made. Humans have constantly been changing our world and ourselves, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. A golden age of unenhanced naturalness is a myth, not an argument.

I’m guessing that most readers here are open to the idea of cognitive enhancement (by whatever method)… but even so, what’s the most compelling argument you’ve heard against it?