Essay: Moral Shortcomings in the Technology Debate
January 31, 2013 1:56 AM   Subscribe

I don't know; I rather feel there has been an ongoing, essentially ethical, debate about human nature in response to developments in neurology, genetics, AI and what have you. The problem perhaps for van Est is that it has been driven by sceptical materialists and people with an aggressively reductive view of human nature, whereas he seems to want to develop a consensus around human dignity and specialness.

I could be misreading him, but I feel he might do better to throw in his own views directly rather than issue a rather diffuse call for a debate.
posted by Segundus at 2:47 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Personally I have always enjoyed when people try to assert their own moral values on society and force the rest of us to abide by them. Whether it is religious values or sexual puritanism, being told what to do by controlling assholes who have a strong belief in their own ethical righteousness is always a blast.

And yet it's always felt like something was... missing somehow, don't you think? Almost as if there was one tiny area of society that the morality police hadn't got to yet. But now - at long last - we have finally identified it, and I truly feel complete. I will write to my Congressman at once and demand that a political group be set up which must approve all new scientific advancement in the name of ethics and virtue. Sure, science already suffers from a certain degree of political repression (such as the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research) but it's always been so haphazard and sloppy. We can do better. Let's all work together to turn scientific restrictions into something more systematic. Perhaps - just to make absolutely sure that these ethical guidelines come from the highest moral authority - we could even get the Pope involved.

Also, when we end up back in the Dark Ages as a result of this, I call dibs on Cambridge - aka the Barony of New Cambridgia. Any who wish to join my army will receive a knighthood for their fealty. Interested parties may contact me through MeMail.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 6:56 AM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

Agree with Segundus; if he wants to have a debate, he should feel free to make his arguments and see how far they go. But he instead seems to be saying that he wants a debate, but only on his terms, and proceeding from his premises.

I'm not sure that "trust [in technology] was scathed in the Second World War." I think he's confusing his own personal analysis of that event with some sort of widespread consensus. If you look at the period immediately following WWII, there wasn't -- unlike, say, the post-WWI period -- a rejection of technology. Quite the opposite: many people in the victorious countries saw technology as a key part of their victory over fascist tyranny. Respect for scientists, engineers, and "boffins" of all types hit a high-water mark in the 1950s, as did public funding for various blue-sky research projects (some of them a bit ridiculous). It was only in the depths of the Cold War in the late 60s through 80s, and a realization that nuclear technology had given us the ability to threaten the survival of the entire biosphere, that the public lost faith.

But, perhaps mostly because many people perceive the threat of nuclear annihilation to be one that has passed, combined with the obvious life-altering advances (I won't go so far as to say "life-improving", as I suppose that's debatable, but many people apparently think so) of personal computers and the Internet, the public has come back around firmly into the pro-technology camp.

I get the impression van Est doesn't like that, but he's not especially convincing as to why it's wrong, or that having a debate about (say) biotechnology on his terms -- proceeding from his idea of a priori first principles in the Kantian tradition? I'm not really sure what he would prefer, exactly -- would necessarily produce better outcomes as a practical matter, in the sense of what people would actually prefer. And I'm very confident that a debate about those first principles themselves (i.e. one which didn't take his ethical framework on premise) would take to the end of time. Sorry, but progress isn't just going to be put on hold while we wait for the philosophers to work everything out.

If he doesn't like the direction we're headed, then he seems more than capable of articulating his concerns and trying to get people to listen to them. And perhaps that's what he's doing. But he's chosen a very roundabout way of doing it, and I don't think it's especially effective.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:07 AM on January 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Of course there is a massive gap between living and inanimate nature..." — assumed premises: check.

"human sustainability (the right to personal uniqueness: what aspects of humans and humanness are seen as manipulable..." — redefinition of terms ("sustainability"): check

"...could also be used to suppress depression, and thereby regulate our character." — worst case scenarios/fear-mongering: check

"But where is the debate?" — Holy crap, if you haven't seen debate over the ethics of the impacts of technology, even if just straight computing, on our culture over the past 30 or 40 years, what rock have you been hiding under?

I went looking for enlightenment, I found a bad Freshman philosophy paper.
posted by straw at 7:12 AM on January 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

That's right, wolfdreams01. The government should be supplying me with crack whores for my chimpanzee-human hybridization project.
posted by No Robots at 8:35 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

That's right, wolfdreams01. The government should be supplying me with crack whores for my chimpanzee-human hybridization project.

I think you must mean your straw-man/human hybridization project.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 8:47 AM on January 31, 2013

Heh. You caught me, wolfdreams01. You and I know that no scientist would undertake anything that was not in the public interest. We scientists (and I do include you, even though I don't know your qualifications: you just seem to have your heart in the right place), yes, we scientists are above reproach. Political scrutiny of our activity is a slight to our honour. You legislative peons just hand over the tax dollars, and leave the rest to us.
posted by No Robots at 9:06 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

No Robots, I think that you're looking for an argument nobody here is making. I don't think that wolfdreams01 is suggesting that there should be no oversight of science by the government, but that the oversight should be lead by scientists rather than politicians. For example, the scientists who sit on NSF and NIH panels. The panels that decide what research to fund based on the quality and importance of the proposed research. Trust me, if they'd fund just any crank off the street real life would look a lot more like a Jonathan Coulton song, and my CV would be more impressive.
posted by wintermind at 9:37 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

And I'm saying that oversight of science by scientists is not adequate: there must be political oversight. Scientists don't like that prospect. Toughers.
posted by No Robots at 9:53 AM on January 31, 2013

I think I speak for quite a lot of non-scientists out there when I say, I don't like that prospect either.
posted by forgetful snow at 10:25 AM on January 31, 2013

Well, forgetful snow, feel free to donate to your favorite scientific project TODAY!
posted by No Robots at 10:30 AM on January 31, 2013

Except that the political oversight seems to lead to bad science getting funded -- via pork-barrel projects, contractor subsidies, political favors, etc. -- with far more regularity than scientific oversight on its own leads to weird Dr Moreauvian manimal projects, or whatever it is that van Est is afraid of, getting the green light.

The idea that scientists are somehow less concerned with morality* than politicians is laughable. If politicians, as a class, had the ability to actually implement half of their half-baked fantasies without having to rely on a lot of scientist/engineer-types to actually do the work, we'd be in a horrific dystopia faster than you could say "paging Margaret Atwood." And we probably wouldn't even get cool robots or anything.

* Though I'd just clarify that morality in this, and giving the benefit of the doubt also van Est's, usage is distinct from "morality" as a code-word for "other people's bedroom business", which a great many politicians do concern themselves with an awful lot of the time.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:50 AM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised by the reactionary nature of some of the comments here. They seem to provide evidence that Van Ert's assertion is operative: the ideological belief in technology as progress is better at shutting down discussion than it is at responding to it.

Despite the fact that Marx's alternative economics have not taken hold in the world, his criticisms of political/social ideology remain essential to scholarly thought. Why demand that a discussion offer positive alternatives in its opening move? Why demand an insight address symptoms and not catalysts or causes? Why demand that a discussion not be reframed? Ideology fosters demands like these.

Another worrisome dimension of these responses is the notion that scientific and technological change are or were somehow free from moral determination. Just as the message "we were here" echoes throughout much of what we consider to be natural, so "the market was here" resonates through the halls of our scientific corpus.
posted by kurtiss at 11:56 AM on January 31, 2013

Indeed, kurtiss. As the master says:
The weak points in the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism that excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality.--Capital
It is ironic that those who demand science free from politics also tend to see themselves as Leftists.
posted by No Robots at 12:06 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Why demand that a discussion offer positive alternatives in its opening move? Why demand an insight address symptoms and not catalysts or causes? Why demand that a discussion not be reframed?

Here is a related question for you - why do you assume that Van Est is arguing in good faith? I know that if I wanted to maneuver myself or my allies into a position of power over something, the very first thing I would do would be to argue for the need to start an "open discussion" about the ethics of it, suggesting that perhaps it needs more of a "guiding hand" so as not to run amok. The second thing I would do is try to gain public support for the decisions made by this "council" that I had put into place (and seeded with my allies) so as to give it credibility. Finally, I would quite reasonably point out that even though the resolutions of the council were widely respected, they would be continue to be absolutely useless unless the council was given actual authority to enforce its verdicts. It's not like I'm even some Machiavellian schemer - this is all politics 101: pretty basic stuff.

So, here's a related question: in all probability which of these is most likely Van Est's true agenda?

1) To start an "open" discussion with the intent of eventually subjugating science to the binding resolutions of a "greater ethical authority", so that he can make the goals he argues for a reality?

2) To start an open discussion with the intent of never having any authority to make binding resolutions - even though this would be utterly useless and he would probably derive more benefit and tangible gain by sitting in the corner masturbating furiously? (Which - when I come to think about it - actually sounds similar to "open discussion with non-binding resolutions.")

One final question: if a conservative politician were to argue for "an open discussion about the ethics of gay marriage, with no binding resolutions or enforcement" would you give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was just trying to expand minds and foster open debate? I think (or at least I would hope) that you would view his suggestion with skepticism and recognize it for the veiled attack that it would indeed be. So why are you unable to do the same when this opening salvo has been fired against science?
posted by wolfdreams01 at 1:11 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I hope that Van Est wants binding political control over science. Those who see this as an "opening salvo against science" are ignoring the political and economic forces that actually determine the course of scientific and technological development.
posted by No Robots at 1:17 PM on January 31, 2013

Oh, of course. Because if there's one thing history proves, it's that only good things can happen when you give politicians the power to legislate morality.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 1:24 PM on January 31, 2013

As for scientists, they just follow orders, amirite? The question is always, however, whose orders?
posted by No Robots at 1:40 PM on January 31, 2013

Ha! That's awesome. I've been taking you seriously this whole time, but now you not only Godwinned the argument, but you actually did it with a hilarious link to a pulp-thriller style paperback on Amazon. I need to apologize to you - I thought you were legitimately debating me, but I see now that you were actually trolling me in a hilariously brilliant way. I tip my hat to you sir - you really had me going there. Well played!

posted by wolfdreams01 at 1:53 PM on January 31, 2013

In the politicization of technical advancement department, I was recently reminded of Hush-A-Phone v. United States.

I debated tossing that into the discussion because I thought that using such an extreme silly example was Godwinning the conversation, but I guess that's already happened.
posted by straw at 2:04 PM on January 31, 2013

You see something trollish and hilarious in a book wherein "distinguished German geneticist Benno Mueller-Hill documents the long-suppressed collusion of eugenics and racist politics which resulted in the mass murder of millions?"
posted by No Robots at 2:04 PM on January 31, 2013

How can I put this? You're using Nazi scientists to argue that the government needs to have more oversight over science. You... do realize that the Nazi government actually did exert quite a bit of influence over their scientists, right? Or am I completely misguided about who was in charge during WWII? Could it be that all the Nazi experiments conducted during WWII were the result of rogue scientists running amuck, and all that unpleasantness could easily have been prevented if Germany had simply had a council of Nazi politicians to exert more influence over their scientists? And most importantly, in this alternate history we're talking about, where do the aliens fit in? And what of Dr Indiana Jones?
posted by wolfdreams01 at 2:17 PM on January 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

You're missing the point, namely, that scientists are always under someone's political control, and therefore, in a democracy, it is a good idea to make sure that such control is exercised democratically.
posted by No Robots at 2:34 PM on January 31, 2013

There is no legitimate open discussion beyond the one which has been plurally reframed. If the necessary outcome of such a discourse is coercion or political manipulation, then there is not enough difference between an open discussion and a closed one. It's also true that prematurely closing a discussion creates the negative space necessary for such a reframing to take place. Perhaps I'll do that now. :)
posted by kurtiss at 2:42 PM on January 31, 2013

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