Saturday, November 27, 2010

Reason Must Trump a Visceral "Ugh!" Response

It's long been said that our greatest advances are first met with ridicule, then with reluctant acceptance, and then thought to have always existed.

As science develops ever more rapidly, it becomes ever more essential that we don't let our initial "ugh, yuk!" response prevent us from doing a reasoned analysis of proposals.

For example, Julian Savulescu, director of Oxford University's Center for Ethics, wrote, "Our fundamental cognitive abilities, physical ability, even capacity to love could be influenced by changes in human biology." In other words, if society were to allow such research to be funded, parents could eventually use gene therapy to ensure their children had high intelligence, immunity to cancer, and a loving nature.

Many people viscerally cringe at such a prospect, recalling, for example, the Nazi eugenic atrocities. Yet as with all technologies, they can be used for good or evil. The Nazis goal was extermination of all non-Aryans. Allowing parents the freedom to ensure their children are intelligent, cancer-free, and loving is vastly different. And not only would the parents and children benefit, the world would be enriched by billions of wiser, kinder people. The likely result will be fewer wars, a cure for AIDS, not to mention unimaginably amazing iPhones.

Yes, we must address issues such as "Because it will be expensive, only the rich will do it. Won't that further increase the gap between society's haves and have nots?" A reasonable question. Society would have to decide, as with all health care, whether to, like immunizations, make it affordably available to all citizens, to subsidize it for the poor, or like a Lexus, to assert that the rich should be allowed to reap the benefit of their having earned more money without having to fork over more taxes so the poor can get it too. That's a reasoned discussion, not a visceral, antiintellectual "yuk" response. Let the discussion begin.


Anonymous said...

"Because it will be expensive, only the rich will do it. Won't that further increase the gap between society's haves and have nots?"

Frederic Bastiat first explained the pervasive economic fallacy he labelled "the seen and the unseen."

We see the initial expense of advances to our well-being when they first come to market. We fail to see its future affordability should it become popular.

More and more poor individuals can now afford TVs, cars. computers, etc.

Michael R. Edelstein

Serge said...

100% Agreed! Nice to hear this from the son of the Holocast survivor, as it shows that promoting this ideas doesn't make you a Neo-Nazi.

I myself posted something very similar in a movie forum just a few days ago:

"I think though evolution is way too slow and unpredictable for shaping humanity into a post-caveman mentality. Renowned evolutionary biologists believe our genetic software (I.e. DNA) did not receive a major upgrade since 10,000 years ago. Imagine trying running a computer in the year 12010 using Windows 7 OS? It's like running computations of a modern nuclear submarine using abacus! Catastrophic miscalculations and misinterpretations are inevitable !

What we need here is the artificial selection of new generations of humans. Like we transformed a wolf into a poodle in matter of centuries, so shall we accomplish with humans: transform them from generally brutish, unstable, spiteful, irrational and more fitting to be in caves than offices, into something nobler, kinder and extremely intelligent in both traditional forms and emotional, social, physical and ecological intelligence!"

Dave said...

And this will be the end result...

Anonymous said...

I don't have any visceral 'ugh' reaction to this. I speak from reason when I say that the only way you could support this as a good idea is to ignore millennia of human experience.

This would not create a better world, it would simply be another tool for corrupt, powerful elites to mold the world in their image. You envision smart, healthy, loving children - the reality would be serfs from birth, created to compliantly serve.

Eugenics falls under the same category as socialism and communism: it looks good on paper but fails to work in the real world.

A. Roberts

Marty Nemko said...

A. Roberts,

I'm curious as to the bases for your conviction on this issue.


Anonymous said...

All of human history.

It is a fact that power often corrupts and that the corrupt seek power. One has only to look around at the various Western nations in this age of 'enlightenment' to see this is the case. There will -always- be powerful individuals that believe they have a right to their power and the right to do whatever they want with those less powerful.

You yourself quite recently lamented the lack of ethics in our society. Do you honestly believe that a society that has largely become unethical would use such a powerful tool ethically?

I believe you've got rose-colored glasses firmly in place on this issue.

A. Roberts

Anonymous said...

Take a look at any modern day nation and the history of that nation. It was not a lack of technology that brought about castes or serfs or slaves or cubicle dwellers or laity. It was the arrogant belief by certain groups of people that they had the right to shape the world around them into whatever form best suited their desires, and the right to rule over others and to be served by them. New technology will not make the human traits of selfishness, pride, ambition, greed, hatred and jealousy disappear. Even if such traits could be eliminated via technology (and I do not believe this to be the case) the technology would first exist in the hands of people that had all of those traits.

Ask yourself: is it a technology you would entrust in the hands of the governments of nations such as Iran? China? India? Russia?

I wouldn't even entrust such technology to our government, let alone governments that have a hideous track record when it comes to human rights and terrible abuses of the people in their nation.

A. Roberts

Anonymous said...

I'd only been thinking in terms of governments up until now, but it occurred to me to bring up the examples of corporations.

Read John Taylor Gatto's The Underground History of American Education for an excellent examination of what the corporate mindset did to public education. Watch the documentary The Future of Food for an eye-opening look at genetically modified food and what the corporations responsible for bringing it into existence have done to food production and farmers (and this is a -very- recent example of what corporations can and will do in the name of wealth and commerce).

A. Roberts

Marty Nemko said...

To A. Roberts,

I find your objections too broadbrush. As I wrote, technology can be used for good or evil. And even if you consider that most blatant of examples of technology used for ill--nuclear energy--which resulted in the horrific results of bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki--a not -unreasonable argument can be made that nuclear energy, when day is done, will turn out to be a technology that was well worth developing.

I believe that would turn out to be the case with allowing parents to ensure their children have genes predisposing them to high intelligence, immunity to cancer, ability to love, etc.

To maximize the likelihood of this and other technologies of being a net good with minimal bad, we mustn't ban it--sooner rather than later, nefarious forces will develop it in a black market. The wisest approach, in my view, is to make it legal and encourage modest regulation--too much and the liabilities outweigh the advantages.

Anonymous said...

We'll obviously disagree strongly on this issue. You see, I can't look at modern society and say access to nuclear power and an easier way of life was worth the lives of the Japanese men, women and children in World War II.

I can't look at eugenics and say that because a few people will benefit it's okay that a few people will suffer. I also don't believe that more people would benefit than would suffer - I believe the reverse would be true.

A. Roberts

Marty Nemko said...

Dear A. Roberts,

I certainly welcome your comments. They represent the blogosphere at its best: intelligent, respectful exchange of ideas.


Marty Nemko

Lightning Bug's Butt said...

Profound and forward-thinking idea, Marty. But modern-day Americans are the most argumentative people ever. We can't even decide what toppings to put on a pizza, let alone what genes to install in our children.

Marty Nemko said...

Lightning, we needn't agree. Parents should be allowed to choose as they personally see fit. Just as parents are allowed to select the environment in which their child is raised (what schools, friends, etc.) they should be allowed to decide what genes they should start life with.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry if my last comment sounded snarky.

The different angles from which we approach this seem to lead inevitably to disagreement and I did not want to turn this discussion into a futile crusade on my part to try and sway your opinion.

A. Roberts

Anonymous said...

Sounds like this is about whether or not some decisions should be in the hands of a larger governing body. We will never be as free as we were.

Serge said...

It would be interesting to see which genes parents select for their kids if they have a wide choice.

My fear is that ugly parents are more likely to correct their childs looks, than dumb parents correct their childs inteligence. And, I hardly expect anti-social parents correct their childs sense of ethics (or lack of thereof).

While having the Big Brother tell how many blue-eyed and how many brown-eyed kids State needs is a Orwellian nightmare. I expect the government to at least require parents to screen their children for certain genetic conditions or ask them to pay (at least partially) for huge healthcare costs associated with their child. Plus the adult child should be able to bring a recklessness suit against their parents for not preventing their condition through a genetic screening.

While I may sound callous, but if parents give birth to invalid children by choice or negligence (so perhaps they can feel occupied by lifetime care of them and/or feel sympathy from others) they should be financially (if not morally) liable towards both their kid and the society!

Marty Nemko said...

Good points, Serge.

One must weigh the net pluses and minuses. I believe that if we're overly swayed by a particularly odious abuse of a technology, we make bad decisions.

I am well aware that a critique of utlitarianism is that it tolerates the rare horrific event for a larger good and that such critics find that unacceptable. I, as a utilitarian--accept that.

The alternative would entail far more evil on the world. In short, I'd be allowing the "ewww" factor to obviate a rational assessment of net good and evil.


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