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The Case For Enhancing People
December 30, 2011 12:13 PM   Subscribe

Just as Dante found it easier to conjure the pains of Hell than to evoke the joys of Heaven, so too do bioethicists find it easier to concoct the possible perils of a biotech-nanotech-infotech future than to appreciate how enhancements will contribute to flourishing lives. One of the chief goals of this symposium is to think about the indispensable role that virtue plays in human life. The chief motivating concern seems to be the fear that biotechnologies and other human enhancement technologies will somehow undermine human virtue. As we will see, far from undermining virtue, biotech, nanotech, and infotech enhancements will tend to support virtue; that is, they will help enable people to be actually good.
posted by jason's_planet (22 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
What a wonderful world it will be to have customized awareness of consumer products piped directly into our brains! And for only $250 US, a month, plus usage fees.
posted by Xoebe at 12:24 PM on December 30, 2011


Biotech could make Lady Gaga lyrics significantly less interesting.

I'm on the right track, baby
I was enhanced this way

posted by resiny at 12:27 PM on December 30, 2011


Xoebe: "What a wonderful world it will be to have customized awareness of consumer products piped directly into our brains! And for only $250 US, a month, plus usage fees."

If that's the tradeoff for being able to recognize my own family when I'm 80 years old, it's a deal. Watching a family member go through the long goodbye puts things in perspective like that.
posted by mullingitover at 12:30 PM on December 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


On a more serious note, this is an interesting argument, but the idea that biological enhancements could make people more virtuous seems to me a priori implausible at best. Contact lenses have never made someone more virtuous, so why should fancier, more futuristic stuff?

At first I thought the whole article was a bit of a red herring, because the idea that biotech could make people less moral seems implausible as well, aside from the fact that assholes might have 150 years of being assholes instead of 78 years of being assholes.
posted by resiny at 12:30 PM on December 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


What makes people more virtuous is a lack of threat to their basic needs. If people's health, safety, and emotional well-being are all secure they're spontaneously virtuous. That's why there's such a well-established link between poverty and crime.
posted by mullingitover at 12:38 PM on December 30, 2011 [6 favorites]


What makes people more virtuous is a lack of threat to their basic needs. If people's health, safety, and emotional well-being are all secure they're spontaneously virtuous.

Courage reveals itself only when people's basic needs are threatened. Great wealth is quite compatible with stinginess or grotesque excess.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 12:43 PM on December 30, 2011 [5 favorites]


This article is dumb. You'd be better off to look at dogs instead of Dante. After all, what he's talking about, essentially, is taking the reins of our genes and engaging in some self directed evolution --- to design ourselves to suit our desires, instead of the fickle finger of fate clipping the hedges even-ish as she mows along.

So: dogs. We've had a few thousand years to fuck around with them according to what we wanted. They ended up weird looking but in most cases recognizably doggish, though prone to some odd little squiggles when the pedigrees started getting too pure. I suspect it will be the same with us: nothing without its price, and you may not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound without the human equivalent of hip displaysia.

The reason people fear it will change our virtues is that our virtues only exist because it turned out we lived best when we needed each other. Human cunning and human kindness are both survival strategies. If we really could enhance away that, then perhaps we would no longer be ourselves. Works for plenty of other creatures. Perhaps we too could be predators and not Arnolds, hunting the most dangerous game. The tiger is content to live so.
posted by Diablevert at 12:46 PM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think Dr. Jekyll tried this.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:55 PM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Didn't Serenity wargame this?
posted by TSOL at 12:56 PM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


our virtues only exist because it turned out we lived best when we needed each other

Aristotle would agree. For him, flourishing meant being good at being the kind of creature that you are. He said that the virtue of temperance would be meaningless to the gods because they can neither starve nor get fat. Similarly, generosity might be meaningless as a virtue in a post-scarcity society, even without enhancements. Courage might be meaningless to well-nigh unkillable transhumans.

That doesn't bother me, because what human societies have considered to be virtues changes from generation to generation. Aristotelian great-souled-ness went out of style in the Christian era, but the medieval Christian virtue of humility ("not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one's superior") would be just as alien to 21st century Americans. Courage has been defined as everything from standing firm in the line of battle to passive martyrdom. Virtues like chivalry that functioned to sustain long-dead social orders still linger absurdly on the fringes of the way some people think about what it means to be a good person. It should not be surprising that new virtues will be needed to be a good member of a society which includes transhumans.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:14 PM on December 30, 2011 [7 favorites]


"What makes people more virtuous is a lack of threat to their basic needs"

Uh, that would be the 1%, amirite?

It's an interesting notion, virtue.
posted by warbaby at 1:29 PM on December 30, 2011


new virtues will be needed to be a good member of a society which includes transhumans.

1) Anosmoity : Not using your mind control pheromones on those without resistance splices, to give them a fighting chance to resist your advances
2) Idtegrity : Maintaining one, consistent hive mind without subdividing into new ameboid buds to subprocess
3) Humanility : maintaining a polite fiction of bio-normality among those less fortunate, e.g. only bench press Buicks among other enhanced humans.
4) Fuelity : Keeping a reserve of biodiesel in one's back hump for petrol crises
5) Temporance : A focus on the impermanence of all existence, to pretend that a 1000 year lifespan isn't the greatest thing ever
6) Abstauntion : keeping your shirt on even when you could show off your new Coach sharkskin-belly 8-pack.
posted by benzenedream at 1:34 PM on December 30, 2011 [18 favorites]


Just as Dante found it easier to conjure the pains of Hell than to evoke the joys of Heaven, so too do bioethicists find it easier to concoct the possible perils of a biotech-nanotech-infotech future than to appreciate how enhancements will contribute to flourishing lives.

This seems wrong, because for at least two decades there has been the mirror to this: the Singularitarian/trans-humanist community who endlessly preach the "joys of Heaven" of enhancement technology. This article seems like a piece from that very movement.

What you don't seem to find often are people in the middle: people who can look at the costs and benefits of various possible technologies without predicting nightmarish Frankenstein scenarios or a glorious post-human future of plenty.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:41 PM on December 30, 2011


benzenedream you rule.
posted by chronkite at 1:55 PM on December 30, 2011


While there are a few people who've made a lot of money in the biotech field via some start up or another, by and large, I don't think biotech is where you go to become filthy rich. It's more who the filthy rich turn to when they realize that reduced access to medical care for the poor does not translate into a greater life expectancy for the wealthy. And they aren't interested in how it works, just make them young, beautiful and less heart attacky again dammit!

If you want a more relaistic naritive, imagine a story where supermegarich guy commissions a virus that makes all the plebeians love him wherein, shortly after it's released into the environment, supermegarich guy becomes muchly loved because of the vast sums he's donated to charity. After that, there's a request to make the Bandersnatch brains bigger.

If you're worried about corporate control, go off the grid and grow your own macromolecules! I've been raising a culture of E. coli that keep me in biotin and vitamin K, in a space that I wasn't really using for much anyway. Custom DNA synthesis is less than $1 a nucleotide these days and once you've build your own PCR unit (slightly cheaper than lunch for two at a fast food place) you can replicate it to your heart's content and share with all your friends.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:10 PM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


benzenedream, please post links to your science fiction short stories.
posted by benito.strauss at 2:22 PM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


i could say a whole big thing here about technology existing to extend the reach of the self and how that kind of implies eventual conflict

i won't, but i could

also something something "methane plumes" something "stone age" something something "the Road" something "first world problems" something
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 2:36 PM on December 30, 2011


I think it's worth mentioning that The New Atlantis published this article alongside a response.
posted by doubleozaphod at 3:12 PM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm fairly confident the internet has helped make people more virtuous, after all we now know Santorum means "The frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex." Isn't that virtue?
posted by jeffburdges at 3:54 PM on December 30, 2011


Isn't that virtue?

Smacking down homophobes? Yes.
posted by maxwelton at 4:15 PM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


bioethicists find it easier to concoct the possible perils of a biotech-nanotech-infotech future than to appreciate how enhancements will contribute to flourishing lives

First, do no harm.
posted by biffa at 9:23 AM on December 31, 2011


First, do no harm.

Sexy catgirl harems don't count as harm, right?
posted by happyroach at 9:50 AM on December 31, 2011


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