Individual Rights: Minority Imposing its Views on Majority

This from Jesse Reynolds at Biopolitical Times (repsonding to this from Ron Bailey) is one of the more stupid democratic totalitarian arguments I’ve heard (and yes, it does mention the Peter “The Root of All Evil” Thiel):

Public opinion surveys show that an overwhelming 85 to 90 percent of Americans are opposed to human reproductive cloning and would like to see it banned, whereas only a tiny percentage would like to engage in the activity. This opposition is certainly not a radical ideology.

Furthermore, the US’s lack of any governance of powerful reproductive and genetic technologies–a remarkable exception among industrialized nations–is praised by Bailey as

a good thing too, since lack of government intrusion allows for the expression of moral pluralism. So far, at least, with regard to many biotechnical advances, the majority in the U.S. doesn’t get to impose its values on the minority, as has happened in many other countries.

In other words: Fortunately, with regard to many biotechnical advances, the minority in the US has so far been able to impose its values on the majority, unlike what has happened in many other countries.

Such opposition to democracy is not surprising, given Bailey’s transhumanist agenda. He knows that his vision is not popular. In order to implement it, experts such as himself and fellow anti-democratic libertarian Peter Thiel must be trusted and given authority, lest the wishes of the unreliable and ideological masses actually be enacted.

If I’m reading this correctly, Reynolds sees the maintenance of a private sphere beyond the reach of majoritarian interference as repression of the majority by the minority. That seems to be a pretty common, and utterly insane, view among democraphiles.

Do these people really not see the difference between denying a person the right to live her own life and denying the majority, acting through the state, the right to control the lives of others? Bailey and Thiel don’t want “authority” over anything except their own lives.

Utopian Surgery and the Wisdom of Repugnance

Al Roth points to this Boston Globe story about the initial opposition to anaesthetic. I’m reminded of this great essay by David Pearce, which nicely draws out the lessons for bioethical thinking today. The introduction:

Before the advent of anaesthesia, medical surgery was a terrifying prospect. Its victims could suffer indescribable agony. The utopian prospect of surgery without pain was a nameless fantasy – a notion as fanciful as the abolitionist project of life without suffering still seems today. The introduction of diethyl etherCH3CH2OCH2CH3 (1846) and chloroform CHCl3 (1847) as general anaesthetics in surgery and delivery rooms from the mid-19th century offered patients hope of merciful relief. Surgeons were grateful as well: within a few decades, controllable anaesthesia would at last give them the chance to perform long, delicate operations. So it might be supposed that the adoption of painless surgery would have been uniformly welcomed too by theologians, moral philosophers and medical scientists alike. Yet this was not always the case. Advocates of the “healing power of pain” put up fierce if disorganised resistance.

The debate over whether to use anaesthetics in surgery, dentistry and obstetrics might now seem of merely historical interest. Yet it is worth briefly recalling some of the arguments used against the introduction of pain-free surgery raised by a minority of 19th century churchmen, laity and traditionally-minded physicians. For their objections parallel the arguments put forward in the early 21st century against technologies for the alleviation or abolition of “emotional” pain – whether directed against the use of crude “psychic anaesthetisers” like today’s SSRIs, or more paradoxically against the use of tomorrow‘s mood-elevating feeling-intensifiers i.e. so-called “empathogen-entactogens”, hypothetical safe and long-acting analogues of MDMA.

It’s worth recalling too that early critics of surgical and obstetric anaesthesia weren’t (all) callous reactionaries or doctrinaire religious fundamentalists. Nor are all contemporary critics of the use of pharmacotherapy to treat psychological distress. The doubters, critics and advocates of caution were right to consider the potential diagnostic role of pain – and to emphasise that the risksmechanisms and adverse side-effects of the new anaesthetic procedures were poorly understood. In Victorian Britain, around 1 in 2500 people given chloroform anaesthesia died directly in consequence. Around 1 in 15,000 died as a direct result of being administered ether. This statistic pales beside the proportion that died from post-surgical infection; but it compares with the present-day mortality figure of 1 in around 250,000 people who die as a direct result of undergoing surgical anaesthesia in the UK. Safe and sustainable total anaesthesia that is 100% reliable – and reliably reversible – is as hard to achieve as safe and sustainable analgesiaeuthymia, or euphoria. Yet the technical and ideological challenges ahead in banishing suffering from the world shouldn’t detract from the moral case for its abolition.

I just don’t get how anyone can defend the wisdom of repugnance when history shows us that those things we find repugnant today will often seem unobjectionable tomorrow.  I get very angry when queasiness backed by the force of the state forces people into lives of unnecessary suffering and/or kills them. Only the status quo bias allows us to see a moral difference between forcibly denying a child cognitive enhancement drugs and forcibly inducing brain damage to make him less intelligent,  or between killing a person and forcibly preventing them from acquiring life-saving medicine.

As a rule, if you feel queasy about something but can’t rationally justify that queasiness, there is no wisdom in your repugnance. Unfortunately, people seem quite capable of using horribly bad arguments to convince themselves that their gut reactions are rational.

The Confused Idea of ‘Eugenics’

Whenever someone uses the word ‘eugenics’ to refer to anything other than the political movement, popular in the twentieth century, with the aim of using state power to improve ‘the race,’ there’s a good chance they’ll end up very confused. Like ‘fascism,’ ‘eugenics’ today functions as little more than a slur, and is normally used very imprecisely. The confusion resulting from this imprecision is evident in this post at Center for Genetics and Society Blog:

If eugenics makes a come-back, it will likely be as a consumer option, which explains why it tends to be championed by libertarians. A recent report, however, is raising the specter of old-fashioned, state-sponsored eugenics, and doing so from what appears to be a thoroughly libertarian perspective.

The report is from the Citizens’ Council on Health Care (CCHC) in St. Paul, MN, and written by its President, Twila Brase. It focuses on the practice of testing the DNA of newborns and keeping the results on file, often without fully informed parental consent. As a consequence, Brase speculates, the government may soon have enough data about individuals to make genetically-based decisions about who would be a “burden on society.” Given that, her logic goes, might not some see it as in society’s interest at least to sterilize them?

Brase is a committed opponent of “socialized medicine” (video here of a “Tea Party” speech) who recommends that genetic screening programs be privatized as a “protective strategy.” Clearly libertarian, then, in her general approach; but worried about eugenics. What gives?

There is no contradiction: Brase’s concern is with what some call “negative eugenics” — government programs to discriminate against, sterilize (or outright murder) the so-called “unfit.” The CCHC report does a fine job of relating modern privacy concerns about newborn genetic screening to the sordid history of negative eugenics, but says nothing about “designer babies” or “improved” humans, the so-called “positive eugenics” that some advocate today.

Of course there is no contradiction: the kind of eugenics Brase is worried about is utterly different from the parent-controlled genetic screening or enhancement (‘designer babies’)  most libertarians see as unobjectionable. The relevant distinction here is not between positive and negative eugenics; but, I would suggest, between eugenics and non-eugenics. The meaning of ‘eugenics’ has been stretched beyond recognition, but I would like to return to the definition it was given by its founder, Francis Galton. Writing in 1904, Galton defined eugenics as ‘the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage.’ This is clearly a collectivist ideology: the aim of eugenics is to improve the race as a whole, rather than any individual in particular.  Galton continues:

A considerable list of qualities can easily be compiled that nearly everyone except “cranks” would take into account when picking out the best specimens of his class. It would include health, energy, ability, manliness, and courteous disposition. Recollect that the natural differences between dogs are highly marked in all these respects., and that men are quite as variable by nature as other animals of like species. Special aptitudes would be assessed highly by those who possessed them, as the artistic faculties by artists, fearlessness of inquiry and veracity by scientists, religious absorption by mystics, and so on. There would be self-sacrificers, self-tormentors, and other exceptional idealists; but the representatives of these would be better members of a community than the body of their electors. They would have more of those qualities that are needed in a state–more vigor, more ability, and more consistency of purpose. The community might be trusted to refuse representatives of criminals, and of others whom it rates as undesirable.

Let us for a moment suppose that the practice of eugenics should hereafter raise the average quality of our nation to that of its better moiety at the present day, and consider the gain. The general tone of domestic, social, and political life would be higher. The race as a whole would be less foolish, less frivolous, less excitable, and politically more provident than now. Its demagogues who “played to the gallery” would play to a more sensible gallery than at present. We should be better fitted to fulfil our vast imperial opportunities. Lastly, men of an order of ability which is now very rare would become more frequent, because, the level out of which they rose would itself have risen.

The aim of eugenics is to bring as many influences as can be reasonably employed, to cause the useful classes in the community to contribute more than their proportion to the next generation.

It’s clear that both positive and negative eugenics – the promotion of desirable traits and the discouragement of undesirable traits – fall within Galton’s scope. We may find negative eugenics, especially when it involves forced sterilization, more repugnant than positive eugenics, but libertarians should be troubled by both forms. Eugenics in Galton’s definition involves the state or ‘society’ deeming some traits desirable and others undesirable, and using state power to maximize the former and/or minimize the latter at the population level.

Compare this to the ‘liberal eugenics’ of parents selecting for certain traits through pre-implantation screening or, in the future, genetic manipulation. In this case, no agency is empowered to act upon the population as a whole. The aim is not the improvement of the race, but the improvement of a single human life. A large part of my dislike for state eugenics is the single standard of desirability binding upon all. This, along with extreme coercion, is absent from liberal eugenics.

There seem to be two particularly morally relevant dimensions to consider in distinguishing different attitudes to human enhancement:

  1. The intended object of improvement – does the decision-maker wish to influence the population or an individual?
  2. Improvement or stasis – does the decision-maker wish to change genetic traits based on their own conception of what is desirable, or avoid genetic traits from being intentionally changed?

There are undoubtedly other factors to consider, but I think these two get at the core of the issue and enable a simple mapping on a 2*2 matrix:


Classical eugenics and the contemporary drive to enhance one’s own children through biotechnology share the desire to improve genetic traits. They differ, though, on the level at which they operate. In this respect classical eugenics and the contemporary opposition to liberal eugenics are similar: both define the boundaries of a desirable or acceptable life and use state power to enforce that standard. If I were king of Language Town, I would restrict the use of the word ‘eugenics’ to the upper left cell of the matrix, since this is clearly what classical eugenics was all about and liberal eugenics (the lower left cell) seems entirely different. Given that ‘liberal eugenics’ has become the standard term for individual enhancement of one’s children, I will grudgingly accept it. But I would ask – nay, plead – that anyone talking about enhancement keep the crucial distinction between classical and liberal eugenics, as well as the commonality of classical eugenics and collectivist stasism, in mind. This would all be too obvious to bother saying if it weren’t for all the confusion out there.

Who Wants to Live Forever?

Mike Treder reports some interesting poll results from Reader’s Digest:

So much for eternal youth! Most respondents to our latest global survey are just fine with their limited shelf life here on earth. Not even the younger crowd consistently chooses immortality. In fact, more than 50 percent of those 45 and under in seven countries (including the United States) report that they don’t want to live forever. Brazilian youth buck the trend, with 74 percent preferring no expiration date. Two surprises: In the Philippines, everyone over 45 wants life everlasting; in China, not a single older survey-taker does.

Mike provides this graph of the percentage answering ‘yes’ by country. A cursory glance suggests a negative relationship between GDP and stated desire to live forever. That could well be sampling bias, as the readers of Reader’s Digest in rich and poor countries are probably very different people.


I’m pretty convinced that if life-extension technologies were available, many more than this poll suggests would use them. Firstly, the decision of whether or not to live forever is never a decision anyone will actually have to make. Even if we can indefinitely expand lifespan, it will be possible to refuse them or commit suicide if life ever becomes a drag. I’m not quite sure whether I want to live forever, but I’m pretty sure I want to live longer than one hundred years, and suspect I’d be keen to keep living at least a few hundred. It’s pretty difficult to imagine far beyond that.

Secondly, expressive concerns about how we’d like to see ourselves and have others see us are bound to dominate in surveys. Living forever is generally seen as a weird and geeky idea, and not something that most respectable people want to be associated with. People see the acceptance of death as a sign of bravery and maturity, and that is exactly what it is when we can’t avoid death. Most people, for lack of imagination, continue to see a normal lifespan as the best they can hope for.

Finally, a good deal of it is just plain sour grapes. People, I would say incorrectly if they’re younger than 50 or so, assume that they cannot have immortality, so they engage in a heroic effort of rationalization to make themselves feel better about things. They wanted to die anyway. All new technologies which promise to make our lives radically better are greeted with suspicion. I just hope nobody I care about dies as a result of this suspicion.

Freedom is Slavery

This press release is odd:

Easy abortion an abuse of women

“Any move to minimize the health risks of abortion and encourage a woman in a crisis pregnancy to terminate her pregnancy through medical or surgical means, is a cynical abuse of power and has no place in a professional Health Service,” says Annetta Moran, President of Voice For Life.

I think the argument is that decreasing the medical harm (i.e. the cost) of abortion increases the demand. Since there are psychological costs for the woman, reducing the physical harm of abortion increases the aggregate psychological harm. That’s true, of course, but I think a woman is in a better position to evaluate the potential psychological costs to  herself than is some religious type who is presumably worried about the blastocyst rather than the woman. The increased psychological harm is likely to be outweighed by the decreased physical harm.  

I wish folks would stick to the arguments they really believe (personhood begins at conception and so abortion is murder) rather than come up with any old argument that leads to their conclusion. As Eliezer Yudkowsky has said:

Arguments are soldiers.  Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back – providing aid and comfort to the enemy. 

I think everyone is guilty of this at times, particularly in politics but also elsewhere.

Stem Cells and the Neutral State

This post from Stephen Franks points to a real problem with the possibility of a liberal, neutral state with a substantial role to play:

I’m glad the ban [on Federal funding of stem cell research] has been reversed, though I think that not spending a fervent minority’s tax money on something they believe to be wicked can be a legitimate compromise, as long as the research itself is not banned.

Stephen also mentions the superstitious concerns of anti-GE environmentalists and Maori (the native people of New Zealand) spiritual types affecting policy. I have no problem calling these people superstitious and don’t think they should be able to impose their beliefs on me. Of course, we can’t just legislate against superstitious concerns affecting policy, since the evaluation of whether a belief or value is mere superstition can only be subjective. I find reverence of the ‘natural’ and belief in omnipotent invisible friends absurd, but accept that others feel similarly about my reverence of the ‘voluntary’ and belief that humans are unusually intelligent apes. Unless some agent is given the authority to legislate truth, there is no way to eliminate superstition from government decision-making.

Liberalism minimally requires that the state remain neutral between competing conceptions of the good life, which each include a combination of descriptive and normative claims. When the state does anything, it is implicitly favouring some conceptions of the good life over others. Federal funding of stem cell research favours a scientifically orientated worldview over the religious, and I find it fairly objectionable that people are forced to contribute to activities they find immoral. Of course, funding other medical research but not that involving stem cells favours the religious worldview over the scientific: public research presumably crowds out private and thus reduces total stem cell research. When government does a lot, the refusal to engage in one activity favours the alternative.

Any state action is subject to collective choice: one decision must be reached for all. Consequently, every sphere in which government intervenes becomes politicized. When the government funds medical research, the debate around bioethics becomes much more salient, because each person is arguing for how we, rather than I or one, should behave. It is impossible to live and let live when we must act jointly, since the majority will have its way and the minority will be forced to comply. In most cases, a neutral position will not even exist in theory, nevermind be the result that actually emerges.

Designer Babies and Eugenics

From Human Enhancement and Biopolitics:

With all the cries that selecting one’s babies will lead to a situation like that portrayed in Gattaca, nobody seems to realise that the movie’s portrayal of public coercion to have a particular sort of baby is already happening. The only difference is the ’sort’ of baby that parents are being pushed, by social pressures, to have.

Yep. A similar argument can be made about outright state coercion. It’s always puzzled me how the eugenics movement of the 20th century, which arbitrarily defined what genetic traits were desirable and used the coercive power of state to promote them, can be equated with parents being at liberty to use biotechnology to give their children genetic traits the individual parents find desirable. Any attempt to regulate what genetic traits parents can foster in their children involves the state defining what is to count as an authentic and acceptable human life and using its coercive power to enforce that standard. Sounds like eugenics to me, but with a different value of eu-.