May 14, 2008

Biopolitical Credo

Shadow of the genePractical Ethics: Looking for Biopolitical Trouble and CNE Health: Man is a Biopolitical Animal are my comments on the discussions caused by the Cornell genetically modified human embryo (a great example of how something only becomes news when the news media decide it is news).

My point is simply that we ought to aim at a deeper biopolitical debate rather than messing about with thin surface issues that are mere stand-ins for real core values. Instead of arguments akin to "how many angels on can dance on the head of a pin" about when embryos become ensouled (see Ronald Baileys' amusing report on it) we should admit that the real stakes is defining what it means to be a human and try to handle that as a biopolitical debate.

See below for my biopolitical credo.

As I see it, humans are biomass that happens to have acquired a few interesting and important traits. Our actions are not just controlled by innate and learned behaviours, but also behaviours we deduce from fairly general cognitive processes that can predict cause and effect a decent amount of steps, as well as beliefs that are amenable to change due to experience, internally generated ideas and information from other humans. Our prefrontal cortex enables Kant-style morality. Or rather, an approximation of it bounded by a lot of resource constraints and evolved biases - but it is still pretty impressive.

That we are conscious is in my opinion less important; I tend towards the panpsychist position at least on Wednesdays. Similarly our emotional life, for all its delights and horrors, might be what we ought to expect for a large animal in a terrestrial environment (I thinkRobert J. Sawyer has a good argument at the end of his essay).

We are also highly contingent creatures: we have a lot of degrees of freedom in our minds. We need a long childhood just to set some of these degrees, and given their number, the environmental experience and the nonlinear interactions between them each human become very individual. Not just in the sense that the bits in our heads are different from person to person, but that overall behaviour patterns show a great deal of variation. We emerge from genes, environment and individual choices (some of which are doubtless entirely randomly caused, others emergent results of all the previous development) in a way that is unpredictable and unrepeatable. Hence the loss of a human is great loss, we will never get a repetition.

However, tinkering with embryos does not affect persons: we only become these highly contingent moral subjects as we develop, not when we are just genetics and epigenetics. Hence there is no problem per se with designing children, unless it manages to hurt the eventual person. In fact, as the above account suggests, there is a lot of aspects of our minds and bodies that are not in our best interests (everything from evolved cognitive biases to ageing) and it might be both moral or even obligatory to fix.

Since I do not see any particular value in the given but much potential value of increasing diversity and complexity, expanding human potential through both embryonic and adult enhancements/extensions is a good thing. If I can increase my rational abilities, personal uniqueness or happiness by enhancing myself, I should do it. We should encourage each other to self-actualize in constructive ways, and some of these will be biotechnological.

This requires rights such as morphological freedom since our individual life projects can be quite different and we need freedom both to modify ourselves and to say no to modifications desired by others. I generally regard top-down solutions for individual human lives as risky, suffering from information problems and having a bad track record (yet popular among humans due to what I think is a cognitive bias to overvalue rational design and deference to authority), so I prefer bottom-up approaches where people locally decide on what to do or which institutions to join. Only when there is convincing and compelling reasons to think this will go seriously wrong should centralized plans be enforced - and in those cases any reductions in freedoms and rights must be balanced by corresponding effective transparency and accountability in the agencies.

I will cooperate with other people who accept similar principles as these ones, who do not seek to coerce me and seek peaceful resolution to conflicts of interests. Together we will work against those who wish to infringe on our various liberties, regardless of whether they think they are doing us a service.

Posted by Anders3 at May 14, 2008 06:20 PM