Right-wing Technological Dread


A dread of scientific and technological progress is taking hold among conservative intellectuals. While not exactly new–right-wingers have often cast a cold eye on science and technology–it is becoming more vocal as biomedical breathroughs become almost everyday occurences.

Their unease about technology stems from two sources. One is the progressive demystification of the world that science has brought about. Life, it turns out, is not infused with elan vital but is built up of tiny protein machines whose workings are coming to be better and better understood. Similarly, evolutionary biology illuminates how all the variegated life on our planet has come into existence and sheds light on how the human mind developed and how it works.

Such demystification is bad enough, but the second source of conservative unease is the fear that technology will fundamentally transform what they believe to be "human nature." This conservative alarm over technological progress is on display in an elegant essay by Adam Wolfson in the current issue of the neoconservative policy quarterly, The Public Interest, where he serves as executive editor. In "Politics in a Brave New World," Wolfson focuses his concerns on the transformative possibilities of biotechnology and genetic engineering.

Wolfson begins by wondering if either liberals or conservatives can muster much resistance to technological progress. He first considers reactions by liberal thinkers to biotechnological progress, especially to the possibility of genetically enhancing human beings. Wolfson applauds the University of Maryland's William Galston, a former Clinton domestic policy advisor, for his contention that a neo-Kantian understanding of human freedom can "help draw the line between technology supportive of our dignity and technology that erodes dignity by treating us as means only."

What kind of technology is Galston (and Wolfson) talking about? What would a technology that treated us simply as "a means only" be? Electricity, modern medicine, televisions, telephones, computers—are they all not means to accomplish our different ends? These technologies certainly shape the way we interact with our world, mostly by expanding our choices, but they are essentially just better and more efficient means to accomplish our ends. We control them; they don't control us.

Wolfson goes on to suggest that because of what he takes to be the inherent relativism of their ideology, liberals will likely be unable to meet the "challenge of differentiating technologies that fulfill our nature from those that destroy it." This is tough language. I wonder what technologies to date Wolfson thinks have succeeded in "destroying" our nature? He doesn't bother to list any specific ones. New technologies have empowered more and more human beings to fulfill their own natures rather than be trapped by poverty, disease, and the narrow confines of customary bigotries. But human beings do not love less, do not pursue virtue less, nor cherish beauty any less because of technological advances.

Wolfson does, however, alert us to a truly pernicious idea that is lurking in some quarters of the intellectual left: mandatory government-subsidized eugenics in the name of equality. He cites leftist thinker Ronald Dworkin as a strong supporter of such a project. This elitist egalitarian impulse, not biotechnology, is the real threat. Wolfson realizes this and he does properly condemn egalitarianism, but his fear of how egalitarians could misuse biotechnology drives him illogically to condemn the technology as well. That is somewhat akin to arguing that simply because airplanes can be used to bomb cities, we should ban jetliners.

Wolfson turns next to the objections of leading conservatives to scientific and technological progress. He commends bioethicist Leon Kass for providing the most "powerful and convincing critique of the new eugenics." He cites Kass' condemnation of modern science for "its failure to say anything about human ends or the good of man." What would this mean? Science is not about finding the virtue gene or the compassion gene. Science can and does tell us more and more about what our nature is and perhaps how it came to be what it is, but science can't tell us what to do with our new knowledge of our "given" natures. Understanding ourselves better as embodied and evolved beings may well tell us how to achieve our goals more efficiently, but science cannot tell us what those goals should be.

Wolfson then considers Friedrich Hayek. He begins by reminding us that Hayek warned against "constructive rationalism," the intellectual impulse to construct the ideal social order or planned economy. Wolfson suggests that technological control over human genetics may be a manifestation of "constructive rationalism." He worries about "all this talk of human design, rational planning, scientific expertise, and progress and perfection." Here Wolfson makes a mistake confusing macro-level with micro-level constructive rationalism, if you will. At the micro-level, the activity of biotechnology, just like the activities of building a house, a car, or a computer, requires rational planning. But it is the rational, voluntary planning of individual people contracting with experts to achieve their individual ends. The threat to human dignity, liberty, and life arises when elites begin to treat their fellow human beings as ends. Their social planning overrides the choices of individuals in the name of some other allegedly "higher" goal—egalitarianism, say. As history shows, egalitarians don't need modern technology to pursue their leveling agenda.

Wolfson half-heartedly tries to suggest that "biological planning" is somehow akin to "social planning." They are not. In the case of biological planning or, perhaps more accurately, parental choice, technology empowers people to make decisions about their own offspring and how best to help their children eventually achieve their own ends. Social planning by definition means that the desires of individuals must give way to the goals of the group, whether set by a majority or by powerful elites.

But Wolfson will have none of this genetic libertarianism. "The libertarian argument that genetic engineering is acceptable so long as it is freely chosen by individuals is fraught with difficulties," claims Wolfson. Let's take a look at the difficulties that he sees.

"Once genetic engineering is offered on a voluntary basis… social coercion at least will come into play," writes Wolfson. His example of social coercion today is his assertion that doctors already pressure prospective parents to test for genetic abnormalities in developing fetuses. While it's true that doctors may pressure, they cannot command–and surely we can all agree that doctors should never be given the power to command. In reality, most prospective parents are happy to have the opportunity to assure themselves that their baby will be healthy.

More broadly speaking, I am puzzled that a conservative is apparently against "social coercion," if by that term he means the general standards of behavior to which an upstanding member of the community is expected to conform, e.g., parents vaccinate their children, they work to support their families, they mow their lawns, etc. To some extent, we all already go along to get along. That is an expression of our nature as social beings. Wider technological choices will not change that.

Another difficulty with genetic engineering that Wolfson foresees is that conservatives will have to contend with liberals (egalitarians) who will demand government subsidized eugenics for the poor. He's right, but one can't justify opposing biotech because egalitarians might try to misuse it. By banning biotech, one would, in a sense, be furthering the egalitarian project. After all, egalitarians believe that "if we all can't have something, then none of us should have it."

For Wolfson "another difficulty is that individuals will not easily exercise informed, independent choices when it comes to eugenics. They will almost always need the advice of highly trained experts, and as a result their 'freedom of choice' will be more form than reality."

What an odd argument! Does Wolfson plan to do his own open-heart surgery? Repair his own car? Fix his own plumbing? Of course people will need to seek out the best advice they can find to guide their decisions about biotech medical treatments or genetically enhancing their offspring. And naturally some people will be more discriminating and demanding than others about the advice and services they receive. But we all rely on experts to get through life now and by doing so we are not diminishing our freedom of choice. In fact, by having a range of experts on tap, we have substantially expanded our choices. Fortunately, too, we can rely on another older technology called markets to supply patients and parents with good advice and quality services. It works for schooling, grocery stores, restaurants, prescription drugs, and there is no reason to think that if we can limit government interference with these new technologies, that markets won't work to supply us with more rather than fewer choices.

Wolfson also believes that Americans cannot resist the new technologies because we live in a society that is pervaded by technological metaphors and a protechnology ideology. In Marxist terms, we're like the bourgeoisie who cannot see class relations because they are blinkered by their own positions in the system. To illustrate how he thinks that technological metaphors have taken over and changed our self-conceptions, Wolfson cites a common argument brought out by advocates for genetic engineering : Why shouldn't parents be allowed to enhance their children's IQs through genetic engineering? After all, parents already spend thousands of dollars on education to achieve the same goal.

Wolfson counters that this argument confuses achieving a high IQ with the larger purposes of education rightly understood. Education was once understood, he says, as helping a child "to become a good citizen and a good man; it was about the inculcation of virtue. It was about shaping human souls, not raising test scores." He's posing a false dichotomy. High test scores are not usually thought to be a bar to inculcating virtue or to becoming a good citizen. One can be both smart and virtuous.

"A sentiment less generous than education of the young drives the ambition to engineer smarter, cleverer beings. It is the desire for an ever more complete mastery over nature," complains Wolfson. Again, it is not one or the other, it is both. And what's wrong with wanting "more complete mastery over nature" anyway? The successful quest for mastery has essentially doubled human lifespans in the past century, prevented the starvation of hundreds of millions, and lifted millions more out of desperate poverty and the darkness of ignorance.

Wolfson rejects as cold-blooded "reductionism" the greater understanding of the components of human nature that evolutionary biology and genetics can afford us. "The woman who falls for Prince Charming, or the man who courts a woman with a voluptuous figure, is said to be really seeking to produce attractive, healthy offspring," writes a dismissive Wolfson. He then cites James Joyce's sarcastic observation that such a view "tells you that you admired the great flanks of Venus because you felt that she would bear you burly offspring and admired her great breasts because you felt that she would give good milk to her children and yours."

There is no denying that evolutionary psychologists find consistent patterns in people's physical criteria for selecting a mate, but does not mean that we love our spouses any the less. And whatever genetic and evolutionary impulses underlie our appreciation of Venus, she remains as beautiful as ever.

At the end of his essay, Wolfson touches on an issue that he believes could be very socially and politically disruptive. He fears that the more we learn about the genetic differences between people, the more pressure this could put on our notions of political equality. Here he is skirting the naturalistic fallacy in which "the natural" is mistaken for "the moral good." However, political equality is sustained chiefly by the principle that people who are responsible moral agents, those who can distinguish between right and wrong, deserve equal consideration before the law and a respected place in our political community. The broad ability to distinguish right from wrong does not depend on the genetics of IQ, skin color, or gender. With respect to political equality, genetic differences are differences that make no difference.

Wolfson ends by citing Benjamin Franklin's admonition that it is more important to be a good parent, a good spouse, a good friend, and a good citizen than it is to excel at scientific and technological pursuits. Who would argue with that? The pursuit of scientific excellence and technological prowess does not controvert those fundamental values.

Ultimately, the conservative worries about technological progress are rooted in a deep skepticism about human intentions. And we must surely be vigilant against people and ideologies, including conservatism, that might attempt to misuse technology to limit human freedom. But the plain fact is that despite the horrors of the past century, technology and science have ameliorated far more of the ills that afflict humanity than they have exacerbated. In the end, the highest expression of our human nature is our ongoing quest to understand ever more of the world around us and ourselves.