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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

The Myth of Human Dignity

[This was first published on the Betterhumans website and later republished by IEET.]

Despite what some bioethicists say, our DNA doesn’t hold our moral worth.

In 1997, when the creation of Dolly was announced in the pages of Nature, many of the early responses expressed outrage that the cloning of human beings in a similar way would “violate human dignity.” Similar claims are frequently made about embryonic stem cell research or, indeed, any kind of research that involves the destruction of human embryos. Claims about the violation of human dignity are the stock in trade of politicians, bioethicists, clergymen, newspaper columnists and many others who wish to argue that such-and-such technology must be stopped.

However, it is often not clear what this argument amounts to. If human dignity is “violated,” the means by which it happens often seem obscure. How, exactly, would my dignity be violated if I made a free, well-informed decision to clone myself? Worse, it is difficult even to find a cogent and agreed upon definition of what “human dignity” is.

If we cut through the verbiage, it eventually becomes clear that what is being relied upon is the idea that human beings, as such, are especially worthy of moral respect and consideration. In this context, “dignity” is best understood as “moral worth”; accordingly, the expression “human dignity” refers to a special moral worth that is supposed to attach to us simply because we are human.

But while you wouldn’t know it from many bioethical debates, “human dignity” is a flawed ethical concept—one that we should stop relying upon for making decisions.

The concept of respect

The related concepts of moral worth and moral respect may not be much easier to clarify than that of human dignity, but this cluster of ideas can be better understood if we start with the concept of respect.

Taken at its broadest, to respect something or someone, X, means perceiving X as a constraint on our ability to act self-interestedly, or just according to whim. In other words, if we respect X, we must take X into account before we act. The ways in which we do so need not be moral, at least not in any narrow sense, but there will be something about X that should give us pause.

This might involve no more than exercising prudence. For example, I can be said to respect something inanimate, such as a powerful storm, or even something abstract, such as the storm’s power. My respect for the storm and its power will lead me to think twice before I go driving in the high winds—let alone putting out to sea in mountainous waves.

If I am foolish enough to go out in the storm, my failing is not essentially a moral one, though there may be an element of that if I take others with me, putting them at risk. Even if the direct risk is only to myself, others may love me or depend on me, and I am thus putting their happiness and welfare on the line, as well as my own. Still, in this example, my reasons for respecting the storm are basically prudential rather than moral.

Some other dictionary meanings of “respect” are much narrower than this broad idea of taking something into account. For example, respect can involve attitudes of deference, admiration, esteem or even reverence, for particular individuals. Still, it is clear that we need not feel this kind of respect for every human being whom we encounter, or read or hear about. On the contrary, some people don’t seem to deserve any particular admiration—certainly not our reverence. Some actually strike us as quite contemptible.

And yet, we treat our fellow human beings—even the contemptible ones—as morally constraining our ability to act selfishly or thoughtlessly. We can’t, in other words, just do what we like to other people; we must give their separate interests at least some regard. In this sense, they are all worthy of our respect.

Why respect other people?

So far, so good. It seems that we are morally obliged to respect other people, even if we don’t esteem them all as individuals. This comes to the same thing as saying they have moral worth, or possess dignity. But if we are asked how it is that other humans can impose this kind of constraint upon us—exactly why people merit moral respect—we don’t advance the argument if we reply that it is because they possess the property of human dignity.

Once we understand how all these concepts relate to each other, we can see that this is no more helpful than being asked why oil burns and replying that it is because oil possesses the property of flammability.

Our reason for responding to other humans as beings whom we cannot treat just as we want, without regard for their interests, is that they possess a rich set of intrinsic and social characteristics that we feel we cannot ignore. The intrinsic characteristics at issue include sentience, self-consciousness, rationality, moral agency, autonomy, the ability to formulate life plans, deep inner experience and simply the shared knowledge and burden of mortality (I owe this composite list to thinkers as various as Bertrand Russell, Robert Nozick, Peter Singer and Raimond Gaita).

Babies and children don’t possess all of those characteristics, at least not to the same degree as adults, but they possess others that compel us to have regard to their interests. Indeed, they strike us as uniquely appropriate subjects of our care and kindness. Not least important are their developing human minds and personalities, and their social dependence if they are to grow and flourish. As do adults, they also have their place in our societies, a very important one, since all societies see children as their hope for the future—no society would last for long if its members thought or felt otherwise.

Respecting nonhumans

If we think about nonhuman animals, we quickly realize that the species we have encountered to date possess only some of the characteristics that I’ve listed. However, animals do possess sentience, to varying degrees. Some appear capable of suffering in ways that go beyond physical pain. Some possess quite high levels of intelligence, and they are able to bond with us socially. All of these characteristics of animals may be enough (at least in particular cases) to make us feel we owe them considerable respect—moral respect, not the merely prudential kind that makes us avoid getting into unarmed combat with a rhinoceros or a tiger.

If we think about this seriously, some of us may feel compelled to vegetarianism. For the rest of us, it seems that an appropriate response to nonhuman animals is to at least kill them with the minimum of cruelty. At the very least, we should ensure that they are not subjected to extreme pain or to lives of suffering. All of this discussion suggests that nonhuman animals possess some dignity, understood as moral worth.

What about inanimate things? These, too, may sometimes constrain our actions, if only because harming them might harm other human beings or other sentient animals. (I set aside the tricky question of whether inanimate things can ever have interests of their own.) Even some individual trees, such as the General Grant redwood in the US and the magnificent Tule Tree in Mexico, seem to possess extraordinary value. To destroy or harm them would be reprehensible. The same can apply to works of art, to certain landscapes or seascapes and even to some complex and valuable machines.

By this point, it seems that we must show some moral respect not only to other human beings, but also to many other beings and things.

What if we encountered another species as intelligent as ourselves? We can, of course, imagine circumstances in which it would be rational to treat any such beings as our enemies—for example, if they were warlike and showed a low regard for our moral worth. But could we just treat them however we wanted? Would we be entitled to torture them? What if, like us, they felt terrible psychological suffering when their young ones died? Could we just slaughter their young anyway?
Our ability to bond socially with these other creatures—or their ability to bond with us—might be very relevant to how we would treat them. Likewise for their possession of characteristics such as sentience, self-consciousness and the capacity for deep emotional experiences. By comparison, the fact that they would not have human DNA seems of little relevance.

At this point, we can conclude that being human is not a necessary condition for having moral worth.

At least in principle, it is not even a necessary condition for having moral worth to the same degree as human adults and children.

Nor, I argue, is it a sufficient condition.

The moral worth of embryos

A human zygote or embryo is biologically of the species Homo sapiens, as I am, and as I can assume all my readers are. Does that give a zygote, or an early embryo, the same moral worth as an adult human being or a human child?

No. An early embryo is a tiny blob of cells that bears no resemblance to an adult or infant human being, except insofar as its DNA contains certain species-specific sequences of base pairs of nucleotides. An early embryo lacks such characteristics as sentience, awareness or rationality, or any of the other psychological or social characteristics that give adult or infant human beings their moral worth.

Nor is it a good argument to suggest that an embryo has the potential to develop these characteristics if it grows into a fully formed human being. The short answer is that the potential to develop morally significant characteristics is just not the same as actually having those characteristics right now. (But there is more to be said here; I have discussed this in comprehensive detail in my article “The Supposed Rights of the Fetus.”)

This leaves open the possibility that some abortions—for frivolous reasons or at an unnecessarily late stage—might turn out to be morally wrong. As for infanticide, I cannot put the point more plainly than Francis Fukuyama (in his Our Posthuman Future), who states that, “It is the violation of the natural and very powerful bonding that takes place between parent and infant.that makes infanticide such a heinous crime in most societies.” However, invoking the supposed human dignity of a zygote or an early embryo borders on irrationality or superstition.

DNA isn’t a deciding factor

It is plain that the moral worth of human beings, other animals and inanimate things is not dependent on the presence or absence of human DNA. The presence of human DNA is neither necessary nor sufficient to bestow moral worth. Instead, there are many other characteristics that strike us when we consider how we may (ethically speaking) treat someone or something.

There is, of course, something attractive and true in the idea that we humans all have great moral worth, despite our individual differences. This idea can be invoked to argue, for example, that people of all racial or ancestral backgrounds should be treated equally under the law and, moreover, with kindness and consideration. After the horrors committed by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s, and similar horrors that have continued since in many parts of the world, it is surely worth making the point—as strongly as possible—that we are all very similar under the skin.

If the phrase “human dignity” helps us keep this in mind, perhaps it can be retained as shorthand to refer to the moral worth of all adult or infant human beings, irrespective of race or ancestry.

However, our moral worth does not reside in the fact of our Homo sapiens DNA. For this reason, it makes no sense to argue about bioethical issues, such as cloning and stem cell research, on the basis that there is a specific human dignity. The concept of human dignity is a blunt tool for any careful analysis of those issues. It is a tool that we should discard.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Russell Blackford page at Academia.edu

For anyone interested, and who might not see this in some other way, I've built a page for myself on the Academia.edu site. The new "Russell Blackford" page includes several previously published articles that I've uploaded to give them additional life. Among them, there's a slightly longer and better version of my ABC Religion and Ethics Portal article on Sam Harris and free will: among other tweaks, I've restored some cut material and reverted some changed wording between my manuscript, as sent to the ABC, and the version that was published in April 2012. Some of the original editing done on the manuscript by the ABC improved it, but IMO not all. So this is the director's cut if you want to think of it that way.

Among others, I've also included my "Science and the Sea of Faith" piece, which is not otherwise readily available.

And I've also included a quite detailed academic CV, if you're by any chance interested. I'm not expecting that readers of this blog are going to besiege me with job offers, but I do think it's worthwhile having a CV Out There online that gives something of the full story: something a bit less minimalist and austere than I'd usually write about myself. (The CV on my own website now pretty much mirrors the Academia.edu one, but I'm not expecting anybody to run off and compare them, so I won't bother you with that link.)

Friday, April 15, 2016

Live long! Live free!

With just one change in the spelling of a word, I'm reposting this - in the spirit of 1. keeping a record and 2. making the piece available to new readers - from the Longevity Meme site.  It was first posted there on November 15, 2002. In turn, "Live long! Live free!" was based on an article, "Life Extension and its Enemies",  first published in Quadrant magazine in December 1999.

Since the predecessor to "Live long! Live free!" was written almost 17 years ago, and the piece was revised/abridged in this form nearly 14 years ago, I don't necessarily endorse every sentence. Still, it seems to hold up pretty well. If I have a reservation, it's that I now take an overall more pessimistic view about existential risks to humanity. That might change my emphasis when writing de novo about such topics.

If some H.G. Wellsian counterpart to me had been alive a century ago, and speculating about the future development of science and technology, how would his contemporaries have reacted if he'd managed to make a series of broadly accurate prophecies about the 20th century?

He might have predicted how communications in the developed world would be revolutionized by the spread of telephones, radio broadcasts, television and the Internet. He might have described the emergence of sophisticated motor cars, aviation, space vehicles and probes, impressive ocean vessels, large-scale engineering techniques, freely available electricity, awesome weapons of mass destruction, extraordinarily precise scientific instruments, and biomedical advances in fields such as antibiotics, organ transplants, contraception and genomics. By the turn of the millennium, so he might have prophesied, all fields of human enterprise and activity would be altered strangely, dramatically and deeply by science and technology.

At the beginning of the 20th century, anyone seriously putting forward such a vision would have risked being called a crackpot, a fraud, or extravagant opportunist - at best, some kind of utopian dreamer. Yet exactly these innovations and more have come to be. While it is difficult to predict just what technological and social changes will take place during this new century and millennium, recent experience suggests they will be enormous. The development of technology will further shape how we live, how we see ourselves, perhaps our very nature.

Barring a successful program by governments to suppress technological change, we will increasingly transcend our biological limitations. In particular, it is possible that current research on the causes of human aging will lead to genuine breakthroughs in maximum life expectancy, not merely average life spans, opening up dramatic changes in social organization and mores.

Those who oppose the development of futuristic technologies often express skepticism as to whether they are possible. There are, indeed, scientific and philosophical arguments as to why some technologies may not be feasible, at least as they are currently imagined by speculative thinkers. Despite the swiftness and power of our aircraft, we have never equalled the freedom and beauty of the birds.

However, as more technologies move from the realm of pure speculation to that of in-principle achievability, skepticism will increasingly be superseded by frightened resistance from neo-Luddites, with expressions of repugnance when new technologies appear "unnatural" and appeals for relinquishment when they appear too powerful. Radical technologies to extend human life are already encountering opposition, even though it is too early to state authoritatively that our maximum life expectancy, as opposed to the average life span, can be increased.

My fear is that we are more likely to turn out to be the last generation of mortals than the first generation of immortals. Yet, some scientists well qualified in the relevant fields speak openly of the possibility that aging can be defeated. There is at least a hope that we can live far longer, healthier and more active lives than ever before. This realization has caused a backlash, and it is surprisingly difficult to find support for such an attractive prospect from the cultural elites. On the contrary, writers, intellectuals and journalists display a negativity towards radical life extension that often shades into horror or disgust.

Worse, there is every sign that this backlash could grow into a widespread political struggle to ban life-extending technology and research. The current reaction to genetic technologies provides a precedent for this. The political forces that would be ranged against any effective life extension technology could easily win out-at least for a time. We have already seen such bizarre statements as Margaret Wertheim's wish to have the "choice" of a society in which she is not only free to decline the use of radical life extension technology, but in which everyone else is prevented from doing so, even if they want to. She actually argues for this in the name of freedom!

Supporters for legislative prohibitions will be found on both the Right and Left of the traditional political spectrum. The religious Right advocates the coercive use of state power to control private behavior inconsistent with its moral and metaphysical views. The Left has largely renounced its support for individual liberty. Many left-wing intellectuals and political agents see the political arena as one where power is to be seized and used to impose their own visions of the good. They have abandoned the classical liberal ideal of a society in which people are free to pursue their own values and life plans with as little restriction as possible. In those circumstances, Wertheim will not be alone in wishing to invoke the state's guns and police to suppress any radical life extension technology that begins to look feasible.

Why all this resistance to something that seems good-the prospect of living much longer, of living healthily and actively deep into what we now think of as old age... and beyond? Why the urge to suppress our freedom in this area? Often, the opposition seems to be on metaphysical grounds, or it flows from a rationalization of death's inevitability as somehow desirable.

Wertheim is opposed to life extension fundamentally because she sees it as "selfish", but that alone is not usually a reason for conduct to attract legal prohibition. We are normally free to pursue self-regarding interests as long as we don't interfere violently or unreasonably with the bodies or property of our fellows. To be fair, she develops an argument that is not obviously ridiculous. She posits the following dilemma. If the technology is developed, it will either be restricted to a wealthy elite or become widely available. If it is closely confined to the wealthy, this will increase the gap between rich and poor. If it is spread widely, particularly if this applies globally, the outcome will be environmentally disastrous.

Well, we do not normally suppress goods and services because they may be disproportionally available to the rich. The whole point of legitimately acquiring wealth is that it becomes possible to buy things that are unavailable without it. However, it could be argued that the possibility of a radically extended life would be so important that it should become accessible to everyone. It is one thing (so the argument might go) to live in a society where some people possess many times the material wealth of others. The problems are an order of magnitude greater in a society where the rich have transcended their biology, leaving others behind and creating a formerly unimaginable gap between their interests and those of everyone else.

There is some force in this. It is certainly arguable that every attempt should be made to offer the choice of powerful new technologies, such as radical life extension, as widely as possible, as quickly as possible. But this confronts us with the other horn of Wertheim's dilemma. She relies on the undoubted fact that the Earth has a limited carrying capacity for human beings, which would be tested all the more severely if life expectancy increased.

At the same time, improvements in biomedical technology do not happen in a vacuum. For example, widely effective use of nanotechnology for biomedical purposes would exist only in a world that had developed nanotechnological manipulation for other purposes, such as new kinds of manufacturing. Powerful technologies for augmenting the human life span by attacking the genetic bases of aging would exist only in a world with high levels of genetic expertise for other uses, such as improved nutrition. No effective technology for radical life extension will be developed while work in other technological fields stays still. A world in which radical life extension is available will be one with vastly greater resources than ours.

Furthermore, there is a tendency for populations in developed countries actually to shrink unless growth is encouraged by the state through migration programs and other means. Affluent and educated people turn away from having large numbers of children in order to concentrate on other domains of their lives. If high levels of technology including, but not limited to, radical life extension became available globally, it should not be assumed that long-living human beings would breed at the rates that have predominated in past centuries under quite different social and economic arrangements.

A society of the very long-lived people might appear strange to us and do many things differently, but it need not have a devastating effect on global resources. In any event, no one has ever suggested that such considerations provide a legitimate argument against sanitation, immunization, safe roads and other measures for public health and safety, though average life spans would be reduced drastically if these were abandoned. Any interference by the state with people's control of their own bodies is surely a last-ditch resort for dealing with population problems.

Fortunately, the opponents of life extension will not have things all their own way. It is one thing to ban a technology such as reproductive cloning, which is likely to have attractions for relatively few people. It is quite another to deny us technologies that open up the possibility of dramatically enhanced lives for everyone. For myself, I see the argument as one between people who are committed to advancing the power of medical science to give us more life, and those who prefer to deny our freedom and impose their personal moral views. The position of the latter group is neither intellectually persuasive nor an acceptable basis for public policy in a liberal society. As the debate begins over radical life extension, I have no doubt which side I am on.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Some updated census information on religion in Australia


- ANGLICAN .......... 39.7
- CATHOLIC ........... 22.7
TOTAL XIAN .......... 96.1
OTHER REL. ............ 1.4
NO RELIG/N ............ 0.4
INAD DESCR ............ 2.0


- ANGLICAN .......... 22.0
- CATHOLIC ........... 27.0
TOTAL XIAN .......... 70.9
OTHER REL. ............ 3.5
NO RELIG/N .......... 16.6
INAD DESCR ............ 9.0


- ANGLICAN .......... 20.7
- CATHOLIC ........... 26.6
TOTAL XIAN .......... 68.0
OTHER REL. ............ 4.9
NO RELIG/N .......... 15.5
INAD DESCR .......... 11.7


- ANGLICAN .......... 18.7
- CATHOLIC ........... 25.8
TOTAL XIAN .......... 63.9
OTHER REL. ............ 5.6
NO RELIG/N .......... 18.7
INAD DESCR .......... 11.9


- ANGLICAN .......... 17.1
- CATHOLIC ........... 25.3
TOTAL XIAN .......... 61.1
OTHER REL. ............ 7.2
NO RELIG/N .......... 22.3
INAD DESCR .......... (seemingly) 9.4

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Old Man's War, by John Scalzi - comments, and a sort of review, with spoilers

Last year I wrote posts on, respectively, Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman's The Forever War.

More recently, I've read John Scalzi's 2005 novel, Old Man's War, which can be understood as an updated version of both. I haven't read any of the book's increasingly numerous sequels, so I'm going to comment on it isolation.

Old Man's War has received much attention over the past decade or so, and it's widely regarded as one of the most important science fiction novels, so far, of the new century. On balance, I think that response is justified, and that the book is in many ways a worthy successor to Starship Troopers and The Forever War. To be honest, I found much of the dialogue and exposition too hokey, but the story is involving and suspenseful. Some irritations aside, it held my attention.

Like the novels by Heinlein and Haldeman, Old Man's War is told in the first person by a military recruit - John Perry in this case - telling us about his enlistment, training, combat experience, and other (mis)adventures. As with the earlier novels, there is much emphasis on the daily hardships of military life, though it is clear enough that the narrator has at least survived to tell the tale.

Scalzi updates the vision of futuristic military technology: instead of emphasizing armoured battlesuits, he portrays his warriors as radically enhanced via genetics and other biological innovations. Although they do wear high-technology suits as protection, they rely mainly on superhuman strength, speed, reaction times, and so on, together with wonderfully advanced guns and communications systems.

The major twist is that the military of the future enlists older recruits: enlistment is for volunteers who have turned 75. On joining up, they are augmented by having their minds uploaded into biologically enhanced clones of themselves, physically aged about 20. Though the exact nature of what will happen is not revealed to them in advance, they do receive strong hints that they will be rejuvenated in some way, and indeed this is their major inducement to enlist. The rejuvenation is simply much more radical than they expect or can imagine. (In this novel at least, Scalzi does not deal with the issue of whether the recruits' identities are preserved by the uploading process.)

As with Starship Troopers, there is no end in sight to the war, although in this case it is fought against a variety of alien civilizations squabbling with each other, and with colonists from Earth,  over territory - or in the case of one especially highly advanced civilization, fighting for less scrutable reasons. At the same time, we are left with hope for an optimistic outcome for the main character (similar to that ultimately gained by William Mandella at the end of The Forever War).

In writing, last May, about The Forever War, I noted how its portrayal of the military - and of warfare - is far more bitter and cynical than that of Starship Troopers (which could surely be used as recruitment propaganda). Yet there is a sense in which Haldeman's book has a happier ending than Heinlein's, since its war is not actually "forever". Old Man's War neither glorifies the military and a commitment to military life, in the way of Starship Troopers, nor condemns them, in the way of The Forever War. If anything, Scalzi makes the difficulties and the tedium seem less oppressive than we are shown by either Heinlein or Haldeman - though there are plenty of deaths of sympathetic characters, and the narrator is put through numerous kinds of hell. The difference is not so much in the kinds of events described as in the distinctive voice of John Perry: he seems detached and intelligent both in his role as a narrator and during the various episodes that he recalls (this is, perhaps, appropriate for a man of more-than-mature years who has had time to acquire much worldly wisdom before he even signs up).

As Old Man's War ends, war seems to be neither a necessity that transcends any moral demands (providing, rather, a backdrop to them), as in Starship Troopers, nor to be, as in The Forever War, sheer unnecessary craziness. The sense, rather, is that pursuing alternatives is difficult, perhaps almost impossible. We need to try, but meanwhile we also need to carry on. One character who preaches diplomacy rather than war is shown as both essentially right and as a sanctimonious, egotistical fool (there may be a way to achieve what he wants, but not here or yet or easily... and he's a fool not to realise that).

That's a more complex vision than we're used to in science fiction novels, perhaps, though possibly a realistic one; I'll be interested to find out where Scalzi takes it in the sequels.