Berry College political scientist Peter Lawler wants you to be afraid of biotechnology. Very afraid. “We will lose autonomy over our very beings," he warned during our debate concerning the ethics of radical life extension at Wheaton College in Massachusetts last week.
Lawler, a member of President George W. Bush's controversial Council on Bioethics, tried to make the case that using technology to radically extend human lifespans, and boost human intellectual, emotional, and physical capacities, will end in coercion. Those who don’t want to take advantage of the kinds of enhancements that biotechnology, nanotechnology, and cognitive technology will offer, argues Lawler, will ultimately not have a choice about using them.
But is that so? If anyone should be concerned about coercion, it is the transhumanists who rightly fear that bioconservatives like Lawler will try to use the power of the state to halt the research that would lead to the development of enhancements would enable them to improve their life chances and those of their children.
I advocate a liberal tolerant approach: People who reject enhancements for themselves and their progeny are free to do so, whereas those who want to upgrade their mental and physical capacities are also free to do so. Lawler believes, however, that the tolerance I favor must inevitably give way to coercion. What does he mean by “coercion?”
In his presentation at Wheaton College, Lawler offered a couple of examples of enhancement coercion. For his first example, he suggested that certain enhancements might make physicians more intelligent and surgeons more dexterous. Lawler admits that no one is forcing any doctor to use these enhancements. But he wondered, “Who will want to go to a 'bad' doctor?” Lawler thinks it obvious that any reasonable person would prefer to go to a doctor who is better able to diagnose and cure their patients because they have taken advantage of enhancements. The result is that doctors who don’t want to take enhancements will nevertheless be “forced” to do so if they want to continue to practice medicine.
Lawler offered a second example of transhumanist “coercion” in which a moody professor believes that his morose character gives him “clues to who he really is.” The professor cherishes his downbeat personality because he believes that it tells him something important about the truth of the human condition. On the other hand, Lawler grants that the brooding professor is in fact not very productive and students avoid his classes. Meanwhile his colleagues are using safe modern pharmaceuticals to boost their brainpower and their sociability. Again, the pressure to be a productive teacher and a pleasant colleague will “force” the moody professor to take enhancements and his “authentic” insights into the dismal human condition will ebb from his consciousness.
Lawler also warned that parents would be “coerced” into enhancing their children. Again, if safe enhancements for improving minds and health are available, lots of parents would likely want to give these benefits to their children. Lawler argued that if, say, Mormons and Roman Catholics wanted to have babies the old-fashioned, unenhanced way, “we won’t let them do it.” Why not? Because enhanced people would regard “the stupid and disease-ridden Catholic babies as a risk to their own well-being.”
Transhumanist enhancement, on Lawler’s account, thus threatens the “liberty” of doctors to be relatively incompetent, professors to be unproductive, and parents to ensure that their children are comparatively stupid and more likely to suffer disease, disability, and early death. Enabling people to lengthen their healthy lifespans and improve their intellectual capacities, their physical stamina, and their emotional resilience expands rather than contracts their liberty. These are general capacities that anyone would want because they increase the range of their possible life choices. It is rarely the case that being stupid and sick makes one freer.
Rhetorically, Lawler is trying to confuse “coercion” with the social pressure that comes from competition. Coercion is the act of using force or intimidation to obtain compliance against one’s will. Competition involves the rivalry between two or more persons or groups for a desired object or goal. In liberal societies, economic and political competition rather than coercion is used to allocate money, status, and power. It must be admitted that competition can be annoying, especially to those who already have money, status, and power.
In primitive societies, one way self-selecting nobles, warlords, and priests stay on top is to deny potential competitors access to “enhancements” like reading, writing, and arithmetic. But once top-down coercion is lifted and competition is unleashed the race is never done; to stay in the game, everyone must constantly upgrade their skills. The happy side-effect of this competition is that social productivity increases dramatically and people become wealthier, healthier, more educated, and, yes, generally freer.
What about those old-fashioned folks who want to make sure that their children are just like them, naturally stupid and disease-ridden? Lawler suggests that the unenhanced would pose a risk to the enhanced and therefore would be inevitably coerced by government into participating in the transhumanist project. Actually, it seems likely that the unenhanced would present very little risk. After all, they would not be real competitors. With regard to the disease risks that they might pose, the enhanced would already be protected by their augmented health. And the more intelligent enhanced would also be better able to anticipate and counter aggressive acts by the emotionally unstable unenhanced.
During the debate, I suggested that the Amish provided an example of how unenhanced people might dwell among and cooperate peaceably with the majority of people who choose enhancement in the future. Make no mistake about it, the majority will choose safe enhancements. Even a paper, "Age-Retardation: Scientific Possibilities and Moral Challenges," produced for President Bush’s Bioethics Council on which Lawler eventually became a member acknowledged that it is a "reasonable expectation" that "if effective age-retardation technologies become available and relatively inexpensive, the vast majority of us would surely opt to use them, and they would quickly become popular and widely employed." The same rational expectations apply to technologies that will enhance intelligence and physical and emotional resilience.
Lawler retorted that he didn’t want to be consigned to the
condition of the Amish. Of course, in order to prevent that, Lawler
and other bioconservatives would really have to coerce the rest of
humanity into foregoing enhancement. In the end, Lawler defines
liberty and autonomy as forcing people to remain naturally sick and
stupid—that is absurd on its face.
Disclosure: I want to thank the Intercollegiate Studies Institute for setting up this debate and providing me with travel expenses and an honorarium.
Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.