December 22, 2003

LET THEM BE THE LAB RATS (via Charles Murtaugh):

Biotech Ends and Means (Arnold Kling, 12/18/2003, Tech Central Station)

The Bioethics Council's report has been widely praised, at the symposium and elsewhere, for raising the critical issues and moving the debate forward. I do not see it that way. By concentrating on ends and ignoring means, the Council has ducked what I see as the most fundamental ethical issue of all, which is whether concerns over biotechnology scenarios warrant a worldwide totalitarian dictatorship. If, as I would argue, such a dictatorship would be more dystopian than any of the scenarios that technology might create, then the report is really a cop-out.

Some of the toughest issues in bioethics involve means as well as ends. Will we curb freedom at the level of research, the level of development and marketing, at the level of consumption, or at all three?

Under decentralized decision-making, we are going to continue in the direction of conscious genetic selection, new techniques for physical and mental enhancement, artificial mood creation, and greater health and longevity. We have been doing these things for thousands of years by cruder means, and we are not going to stop now in the absence of a complete social redesign. Such a social redesign strikes me as more frightening than the dangers that it proposes to avoid.

My guess is that people who live through the middle of this century will feel sharp pangs of sadness from the discontinuity that will develop between life as it is lived today and life as it is lived in future decades. This troubles me. However, as concerned as I am about where biotech is taking us, I would rather take my chances on muddling through those issues than endure the heavy-handed centralized control that I believe would be needed to slow the biotech revolution.

If I am wrong, and there are ways to alter the shape of the biotech future without destroying the freedom in our society, then the ideas for those alternative mechanisms should be brought to the fore. Instead, discussing ends without means is almost meaningless.

Mr. Kling never explains why we need a worldwide solution. After all, it's of little concern to us if others wish to degrade their cultures by making them not merely post-Christian but post-human--our concern is properly the quality of our culture. In fact, why should we despoil our own society if we can allow others to pursue the research, wait for the results, and then pick and choose among them those that don't trouble our consciences too much?

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 22, 2003 11:15 PM

25th century bio-tech may make us post-human, but 21st century tech will not.

Waiting as you suggest is a valid strategy, but it does mean that America would be deciding, actively or passively, to become a 21st century England.

If America moves forward with all other technologies, as I believe it will, bio-tech is unlikely to lag far behind. Congress can't keep up with the pace of scientific achievement, so any limiting laws passed are likely to be circumvented quickly.
For instance, the ban on human stem-cell research from aborted fetus tissue is already moot, as a way has been discovered to use umbilical cord blood from successfully delivered babies.
Cloning bans will fail, as well, unless a very broad prohibition is enacted.

Even then, any such bans are likely to be overturned fairly rapidly, as American seniors see Europeans and others reaping longevity benefits from cloning technologies.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at December 23, 2003 4:10 AM

What Michael said. I cannot think of any technology that was suppressed successfully on moral grounds for any length of time. There is always a "good" use that people demand---with proper safeguards of course.

Posted by: Peter B at December 23, 2003 5:31 AM


That's the opposite of moot. The point is you didn't need to kill babies to harvest the cells.The ban worked with no ill effects.

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2003 8:02 AM


Try building a nuclear weapon, whipping up a nerve gas agent, etc.

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2003 8:09 AM

The problem with bio-technology is that it stretches the reach of who we are. From 1775 to 1975, man advanced from the long rifle (accurate to 100 yds.) to the MIRV (accurate to 6000 miles). But man remained man, with all his hopes and fears intact.

Bio-tech may change that, with ideas as different as genetic engineering, artifically growing fetuses for prolonging adult life, the merger of computer chips with human brains, and so on.

The 'advance' of science won't stop, but Huxley's Brave New World will not wait for the 25th century.

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 23, 2003 8:10 AM

We're human,if we can do it,we will do it and complain later.
Bio-tech is going to happen for the simple reason that the boomers hate getting old and bio-tech,accurately or not,promises a fountain of youth.A huge political demographic want it,so they'll get it.
And it will be publicly funded as an entitlement also.

Posted by: M. at December 23, 2003 10:15 AM

Moore's Other Law is that, with technology, anything that can be done will be done. I'm skeptical we'll be able to stop bio-tech on a global basis. But I'm also skeptical that there is any problem for which bio-tech is the only or even the best solution.

[I have a vague memory of a short story, maybe part of Heinlein's future history, maybe not, in which human mutants with ESP leave Earth in order to build a glorious mental utopia, only to meet extraterrestrials who explain that mental powers never keep up with artificial technology.]

Posted by: David Cohen at December 23, 2003 10:16 AM

It seems rather unlikely we can do most of it though--the question is what damage we're willing to do to society in pursuit of these utopian dreams.

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2003 10:21 AM

I think the history of Marxism answers your question,OJ.

Posted by: M. at December 23, 2003 10:43 AM

We avoided Marxism by demonizing Communists, why not demonize biotechnologists similarly?

Posted by: oj at December 23, 2003 10:53 AM

AS I said above,the boomers will want it.And so will parents with children with birth defects and people in wheelchairs,etc,etc,etc.
We live in a hedonistic society where personal gratification is the highest virue and beleive evasion of personal responsibilty is an unalienable right.The same rationalizations used to justify abortion can and will be used to rationalize bio-tech(and euthanasia).

Posted by: M. at December 23, 2003 11:31 AM

Mr. Cohen;

I know the story. After some searching, I found a reference to it:

"Limiting Factor" by Theodore R. Cogswell. It appeared in the Pournelle anthology "Imperial Stars, Vol. 3 - The Crash of Empire".

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at December 23, 2003 3:10 PM

I think that biotech will happen because of a simple, universal human trait: people will not suffer passively when there is a chance to avoid it. Victor Frankl wrote that when people are faced with unavoidable suffering, they must find meaning in the suffering, or they will succumb to it and die. But only if the suffering is unavoidable. If it is avoidable, there is no meaning in the suffering, it is masochism.

Whether for good or bad, biotechnology will offer an alternative to many forms of suffering which past generations had to face with stoicism.

Posted by: Robert D at December 23, 2003 6:03 PM

"My guess is that people who live through the middle of this century will feel sharp pangs of sadness from the discontinuity that will develop between life as it is lived today and life as it is lived in future decades."

My guess is that these people will eventually die, and the people who live in future decades will look at life as they live it as the normal way of living.

Posted by: Robert D at December 23, 2003 6:06 PM


Thanks. I think that is it. I'm not sure where I came across it. I'll have to go dig around in the basement.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 24, 2003 11:18 AM
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