Category Archives: Ethics
The ethics of human enhancement are tricky and often the first objection that I hear to technologically improving our minds and bodies is one of morality: why should some people get to become smarter and stronger while others do not? is it right to try to improve our god-given body? isn’t it dangerous to allow such technologies to develop?
Despite these objections the human race seems to be eager to step into this next phase. take exoskeletons for example. a couple of years ago I saw a video of an exoskeleton being tested for military use. Recently a paraplegic woman was able to walk a marathon using an exoskeleton (over the course of 17 days but hey, she can’t move her legs). I also saw that a little girl with a muscular disorder was given a 3d printed pair of arms to help her move. and here’s another suit made by the Tokyo university of science which allows a person to carry substantially more weight.
No one’s asking if we should be doing this, and no one’s saying this isn’t right or natural. Of course, disabled individuals are the first to be helped by enhancement technologies, but not all of these suits are therapeutic. I think that we’ll see many more disabled individuals using exoskeletons to get around, and factory workers using suits and gloves.
If you’ve looked at some of these links you may have noticed that everyone but the story about the little girl references iron man. I’m not really going anywhere with that point, I just think it’s interesting.
Anyway, human enhancement is normal in our culture and I think there is good reason for this. We’ve really been enhancing ourselves ever since we could make tools and talk to each other, all technological progress has been human enhancement and what we are doing now feel in line with that process. I only wonder when we will reach the point when we realize that our enhancement is now actually radically changing who we are, and our tools are significantly more powerful and worrisome than what’s come before.
I personally experience the normality of enhancement in my own college environment. Study drugs (mostly aderall, coffee too) are widely used by college students to help focus and be more productive. The hyper-competitive academic environment encourages students to find ways to get an edge, and drugs are one of the easiest ways to do this. Students take these drugs without thinking about the moral implications for such actions, how such actions unfairly advantage the individual over the collective, making it so others have to take these drugs to remain competitive, like in professional sports. Of the dozens of students I’ve talked to about the morality of using study drugs, I’m the only one who feels strongly that taking these drugs is an immoral decision. My stance falls apart when people bring up coffee, a societally acceptable stimulant. Well, life is a sliding scale, what are you going to do about it? I prefer that we not ingest stimulants via pills. drinking bean juice seems better than prescription drugs.
So while I’m encouraged that humanity seems poised to jump into transhumanism and an enhanced existence, I’m also discouraged by how normal it is for my peers to take amphetamines. Perhaps this has not become a big enough issue to address, like doping in sports, but I really don’t want us to get to a crisis point in academia where the only way to make a meaningful contribution to human knowledge is by getting high on speed.
The problems I’ve explained here only really come up in the context of a competitive environment, and perhaps there is hope if capitalism collapses and we reorient our system. After all, learning and exploring should really not be a competition.
On the other hand, perhaps we will find a way to make our brains run faster without negative effects such as coming down from a drug or mental damage. It wouldn’t be so bad if we all just kept thinking faster and faster I suppose, I’m just not sure that amphetamines are a step in the right direction.
Wilt thou hunt the prey for the lion? or fill the appetite of the young lions, when they couch in their dens, and abide in the covert to lie in wait? Who provideth for the raven his food? when his young ones cry unto God, they wander for lack of meat.
-God (Job 38)
It amazes me that many people today still cling to an outmoded and dangerous way of thinking, a view of the world which can be summed up as the “just world hypothesis.” (I think I got the phrase from Richard Dawkins). The hypothesis, or assertion, is that the universe obeys laws of justice, that what goes around always comes around, in short: life is fair.
This problem of justice and the universe drives at the core of our being. Our discussion of this topic likely goes back in history as far as our sense of humanity. One of the oldest texts on the matter is a wonderful book from the Old Testament, the Book of Job. I’m sure many of you know the story since I expect I am writing largely to a Western audience, but I’ll summarize the story so we’re all on the same page.
There was a man named Job who lived in the land of Uz (somewhere in the Middle East). Now, Job was an upright and honest man, and faithful to god. He sacrificed some of his many animals daily to God (back when that’s what God wanted), even sacrificing some so that God might forgive Job’s children if they happened to sin. Job was good to God, and God was good to Job: he was the wealthiest man in the land, and quite happy.
Then an adversary in God’s court (not actually Satan as many claim, but more of a devil’s advocate) challenges this wonderful setup, telling God that the only reason Job is righteous is because he is given wealth and prosperity. So god tries to prove the adversary wrong by unleashing plagues upon Job in quick succession: his cattle are slaughtered by marauders, his house collapses and kills his family, and he is stricken with boils. For weeks he suffers immensely as his friends (“sorry comforters” as he calls them) come to him and in turn offer their view of why he is suffering, saying that he must have sinned against God to deserve what has happened. Through this Job refuses to repent for any sin, because he knows that he has not sinned, and that in a sense what he is experiencing is unjust. The conversation with the friends is quite a bit more complex than I am presenting it, but that’s the gist. After a while Job starts calling for God, or at least a heavenly mediator, to explain what is happening. Finally at the end God shows up and speaks to Job (the longest speech of God’s in the Bible). God doesn’t acknowledge either side of the argument, but instead puts Job in his place, telling him that he doesn’t know how the universe was stitched together, That Job’s not responsible for feeding a starving lion cub with the flesh of another animal. God describes a universe that isn’t ruled by laws of Justice at all, but something more nuanced and complex: a world of titanic forces which must be kept at bay, a world in which suffering must occur regardless of our puny human notions of “Justice.”
It was horrifying to me to discover that the Quran treats this story as if Job acted righteously and was rewarded as such, end of story. In Islam the world is described as Just, wicked people get punished and the righteous are rewarded. It’s amazing that they backtracked so much from a good lesson from a good book. It was quite obvious even at the time of writing the book of Job that wicked people prospered and the innocent suffered. This was so fundamentally upsetting to humankind that we had to create the concept of heaven and hell so that God still has a role in dispensing justice, so that the universe could still be ruled by Justice. Unfortunately this mode of thinking is at its best misleading, and at its worst damaging and poisonous to mankind.
When we believe that everyone gets what they deserve, how do we justify something as horrible as the holocaust? The moment you begin to justify that episode in our history you have insulted the memory of millions of tortured and dead humans. Would you look a child in the eye and tell them there is a reason that they have been forced to witness the murder of their friends and family and then be subjected to torture and death themselves? Any reason you give is not good enough. Any reason that God could give isn’t good enough. There is no reason for innocent suffering.
When we believe that everyone gets what they deserve, there is no need to help anyone. The poor are where they are because they weren’t motivated enough and the rich got to where they are by hard work and service to God. This is how I’ve previously characterized a Libertarian mindset.
Human history has been our slow and increasing realization of ourselves as God, as the only force of Justice in a cold, uncaring universe. In a sense what I am saying contradicts itself: I call the universe uncaring, yet we are the universe, and we care. I do believe that there is a force of Justice in the universe, and it is us. We created God in our image, not the other way around. The onus is on us, we must do everything in our power to make of this universe what we want it to be: a place where the wicked suffer and the righteous prosper.
Google’s master plans aside, people are freaking out because of this policy change, and honestly I’m not quite sure why. Almost all of the comments on the article I found were to the effect of “I’m deleting everything Google related on my computer and using other search engines,” or “ this is the beginning of NAZI germany/the world is ending.” One lone woman put forth the idea that what you do on the internet is fundamentally not yours anymore, and in quick order she too was called a NAZI, or communist or something. Yet nowhere did people connect what was specifically happening in the policy change to any possible negative consequences. All I saw was fear: pure, irrational fear.
Here’s the thing: from the moment you leave your house, you will be watched, you will be listened to, and you will be examined. You will be videotaped and recorded, and everything that is observable about you will be observed. This is not a bad thing, and to understand this you must free yourself from the context of industrialism and nations. The truth is it is not “big brother” who is watching you; it is everyone, including you. We all are watching each other, just as nations watch each other with spy satellites. We allow ourselves to be spied on because there is no choice; you can’t control a man’s eyeball and you can’t control empty space. If we didn’t watch each other closely we couldn’t possibly form a cohesive unit.
This doesn’t mean you have to give away your social security number, or address, or any personal information you don’t want to. It means that you need to be more responsible with that information. It is entirely possible to use the internet with millions of people trying to steal your identity, and never let them get what they want; it’s completely up to you.
I need not waste many words arguing that soon factory jobs will all be outsourced to machines, though convincing others that even thinking jobs will be outsourced is sometimes too inconceivable and scary to accept. The fear of a job crisis is quite a reasonable one when we think about these developments.
I’ve been talking quite a bit about the collapse of the nation-state recently, or at least on subjects relating to that transition, and this subject is no exception to that. I suppose I could also phrase this as the collapse of industrial society, which goes hand in hand with the nation-state (I still hesitate in using the word “collapse,” there is a certain roughness and decimation implied in it. Perhaps I should just say “transition away from”). Anyway, concern over jobs and employment levels is a pretty distinctly industrial/national concern. Think about how we conceive of our unemployment on a national scale, as if our nation is one coherent factory which must employ workers to maximum effectiveness or lose revenue fast. This system has some perverse qualities to it: entire towns can be put out of work and suffer poverty when economic interests shift for any of hundreds of reasons. One reason why people suffer such unemployment is lack of mobility (which can be a problem of mindset too): there are certainly jobs in the world. If communities were more self reliant (which should happen after the transition from the nation state), unemployment would be less of a concern. Certainly a town may not grow as fast if an export loses favor in the global market, but if everyone is fed and sheltered and have something to do, it’s not really a big deal.
I was reading an article in the Washington Post recently written by a woman who believes college students should be thinking more about how their major can be applied to a lucrative career. Now I admit I come from a slightly different perspective than most here, having grown up on a farm. I have never seriously worried about how I will make money in the future because I know I can always farm. But it’s not just me who thinks that we should be worried about our future careers, pretty much everyone I talk to– granted, in my small liberal arts college—agrees that it’s somewhat silly to think that an undergraduate degree will mean anything serious in terms of a career. College is the new highshool: you have to go to it to have a nice job, but by today’s standards a college level job is not a specialized one.
This all seems somewhat desperate in terms of career prospects, things are certainly getting pretty competitive, and the situation seems even more dire as all of our jobs are being outsourced to machines… but we need to relax and pull ourselves out of this industrial mindset. Jobs are ending because industrialism is ending, but that doesn’t mean that we’re all going to starve to death, it just means that we will need to realign our values. The end of Jobs doesn’t mean a worldwide plunge into poverty and an extremely wealthy 1%, it means the eradication of poverty (…and an extremely wealthy 1%). The problem will not be how to support ourselves, the problem will be what to do with ourselves.
I know it’s hard to believe that there could be an end to scarcity soon, that things won’t go on as we feel they always have, but that is precisely what is happening right now. The world is changing drastically and there is great reason to believe in an optimistic future, one that is quite different from our current pessimistic outlook. Perhaps the only thing I can do to convince many of you is to wait.
In addition to the idea of a post-scarcity world, the idea of intellectual jobs being outsourced is inconceivable to some. I know that the authors of The Sovereign Individual and many libertarians give far more credit to ingenuity and thinking than menial work, though both have been necessary for our continuing success as a species. They fail to realize that even thinking isn’t going to be special anymore. I don’t think any of us can really grasp how we will relate to each other and keep ourselves going after this point.
the Occupy movement is bringing our consciousness toward wealth inequality, and so I go there too.
Wealth is a measure of power and social position. Human society tends to develop with a range of social statuses. We can see even how apes honor an alpha male and other higher born individuals, conferring privileges of sex and food to these individuals. This social system has a clear evolutionary advantage; the process of natural selection is accelerated by individuals themselves selecting which genes will characterize the next generation. In addition to this, one decision maker is better than many (as long as they are good decisions).
This kind of hereditary and force based hierarchy system prevailed for the vast majority of human history, written and unwritten. Recently in human history many merchants became wealthier than hereditary nobles, upsetting notions of social status and power. Now wealth is power and the issue of wealth inequality has risen in prominence as the wealth gap has rapidly widened.
Now, before proceeding we must acknowledge that jealousy is the impetus for battling wealth inequality. The poor want rich people’s money because they want to be like the rich (though they would loathe admitting it). We all carry a certain class anxiety, evidenced by how few individuals would characterize themselves as upperclass. In this country making a quarter million dollars a year is considered upper middle class by many in that status because of the many people with even more money. Yet if we looked at the rest of the world we would realize that 90% of us are upper class, and indeed middle class families have a standard of living higher than most kings.
So we can sense that there are little problems with our desires and the manner in which we compare ourselves, and with that said we continue: unequal distribution of wealth is unfair. This is a statement which is true, but masks another truth which we are far less willing to admit: equal distribution of wealth is unfair.
It’s easy for me (less for some others) to see how wealth inequality is unfair, but I’ll give a little Marxist lesson to reiterate: say 100 people are born in a small town in Germany at the beginning of the industrial revolution. One of these people inherits a large sum of money from his family and the others are peasants. The man with money sends himself to school and then starts a factory which employs the other 99 in making shoes. He pays these individuals LESS than the value of what is being done so that he can make a profit, thereby raising his standard of living enormously and allowing him to open up more factories and go to more schools. Meanwhile the factory workers are busting their asses off and being exploited continuously such that they have far fewer opportunities than the factory owner, and this wealth inequality is accelerated. It is important to note that while there is a sense that it was the talent and ingenuity of the factory owner which gave him the factory, there is a much, much stronger sense that this talent and ingenuity were a manner of luck, being born into the right family. While he is smarter than his employees, that is not intrinsic, it is socially constructed. And even if something genetically predisposed him to be more talented and intelligent, there’s no reason to think that just because he was lucky enough to be born smart that he should suffer less than others. If it was just luck that made him have a much easier life than his employees, why shouldn’t we redistribute his wealth to his workers to make things more fair?
This is precisely what the welfare state does, in partnership with unions. I like welfare, and I like unions, but over the past century these reactions to capitalistic exploitation have caused a backlash. I can see this backlash when James Dale Davidson talks of an “exploitation of capitalists by workers,” pointing out extreme examples of unions coercing money from factory owners. These reactionary measures in addition to heavy taxes on the rich, while very fair in one sense, are also unfair in another. The rich are forced to pay for more than they benefit from, and entrepreneurship is discouraged when the entrepreneur knows half of his money will be taken away. If you put yourself in the position of a rich person, it’s unfair that you should be forced to give away the money you “earned.” This is of course very selfish and overlooks the fact that no money could be made without the help of others, yet still has some truth to it. To reinforce this point I ask that you put yourself in the position of the factory owner (I know this is quite different from the way we usually put other people’s shoes on). You were certainly very lucky to have money and an education to start a factory with, but does that mean you shouldn’t go forth with the factory? the employment will provide a sustained increase in the standard of living of the 99 peasants around you, so it’s charitable. when your workers start to argue that you’re exploiting them and demand more money you are somewhat confused– yes you have more money, but you are continually reinvesting it in the factory, steadily improving the standard of living of your workers. They could all live much more comfortable if you gave them all of your money, but then the factory couldn’t run. Every bit more you pay them screws them over in the long run. It’s a bit like they’re trying to hack open the goose that lays golden eggs. The morality is tricky and self centered, but it’s there in its annoying little way.
Now, the unhappy truth you will have to accept is that you are not so different from the factory owner at all. Indeed there are so many starving people who could benefit from the money you spent on your new smart phone or your college education or whatever little thing you just bought. We can try and justify ourselves by saying we are building ourselves up so that we may help everyone more later, but then we start to sound selfish, elitist, like the factory owner. Truly, if you have anger toward the top 1% you must ask yourself why you choose to let people die who could be fed with your spare change. It should go without saying that the problem is not a conspiracy from the top, it’s all of us. We are all the 1%.
Let’s pull back a little and think more about what we’re talking about. When we talk about wealth equality we’re really talking about standard of living. No one thinks that everyone should have a right to have power over people, they should just be powerful enough to enjoy a good standard of living. The bare minimum of a good standard of living includes proper food, shelter, drinking water, and other essential basic needs. Psychologically speaking, our individual happiness increases only to the point where all of our basic needs are met: beyond that the millionaire is basically as happy as the poor man. If all the people in the world were fed and sheltered, I would have much less of a problem with wealth equality, but as it is, every dime we spend toward a purpose other than meeting our basic needs is in a sense stolen from the poor of the world.
As I mentioned in my last post, the singularity will not be an egalitarian revolution, despite what we may all desire right now. While technology empowers individuals over larger social structures, it empowers individuals with more money faster. The wealth gap is going to grow exponentially following the singularity, which many will lament in a pessimistic way, claiming that human society is on a constant downward spiral. Yet at the same time the standard of living of everyone will rise dramatically and basic needs will be met with far fewer resources. The “unfairness” of wealth inequality will wither away in our minds as we realize that many civilizations across the universe had a head start on us and are enormously more powerful. Furthermore, it will become harder to be jealous of individuals when their accelerating power undermines their own individualism: should we be jealous that Google is so powerful?
As people become as powerful as companies and then gods the rest of humanity will envy them I suppose, but I don’t believe that we will have the same urge to take their power away and give it to the less powerful, just as there wouldn’t be an urge to take power away from alien civilizations just because they had an unfair head start. I’m not sure how else to relate this, but the fact is that we will likely come to accept “wealth inequality,” and this won’t be a bad thing.
I think the conversation will likely shift more toward happiness. The Singularity implies our ability to augment our subjective well being, willing ourselves into happiness (through drugs or brain augmentation or whatever). It won’t really matter to people that they have far less power than others if they can make themselves happy with what they have. Perhaps the power to augment happiness will be a new measure of wealth.