Thursday, January 8, 2015

How sharp are the limits of humanity?

 “Every generation has the obligation to free men’s minds for a look at new worlds … to look out from a higher plateau than the last generation.”

Ellison S. Onizuka

Technology is constantly changing our society and confronts us with ethical questions. We are capable of modifying the human genome, but should we actually change human nature forever? In his essay The Limits of humanity the Dutch philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek discusses the ethical debate about the influences of technology on our society.

Bioconservatives’ mistrust
Bioconservatives like Jürgen Habermas and Francis Fukuyama mistrust the influence of certain new technologies and want to protect the “limits” of humanity. They argue that human nature could create a dangerous inequality between the enhanced and the enhancers, because the enhancers (“the programmers”) would have the power over the genetic characteristics of the enhanced (“the programmed”). Secondly, changing human nature could threaten the meaning and value of human life which by nature is neither eternal, nor perfectly happy and controllable.

Transhumanists’ blind trust
On the other hand transhumanists like Nick Bostrom argue that technology increases the value and dignity of human life and that we must therefore use it for that purpose as much as we can. Think of euthanasia which offers the dying person the freedom to choose his moment of death and the amount of suffering to endure. Secondly, transhumanists argue that mankind is a product of evolution itself and that it would therefore be unnatural to suddenly stop this process at the current stage of mankind.

Mankind and technology are interwoven
These two opposite positions (mistrust versus blind trust) have run into a deadlock. Verbeek’s essay proposes a way out. It starts by nuancing the bioconservative’s argument that we should protect mankind from the potentially dehumanizing influence from technology. Verbeek shows that technology cannot be understood as an external influence to a “more pure” and low tech humanity since humanity and technology have always been interwoven like the sugar in your coffee. Illustrations of this are the invention of the wheel, writing, electricity, internet and vaccinations: they were not simply “additions” to mankind, they changed mankind. They became the new structure and “texture” of the reality in which we live, perceive, think, relate to others and constantly make decisions.

We’re so immersed in technology that we don’t even realize how technology-based all our moral decisions are. Take the decision how fast we drive and therefore how much risk we take to harm others: it is shaped by the design of the road, the power of the engine and the presence of objects like speed control radars and speed tables. As a consequence, these technologies cannot be judged from the viewpoint of a technology neutral world in which our behavior has not been influenced by it already. But how can technology be judged ethically if it’s already all over the place?

This road in Stewart (Florida) has several speed tables that are a way of "moralizing by technology".

Technology shapes our intentions
To answer this question Verbeek explains that although technology profoundly changes our reality and the decisions we make, it doesn’t decide for us. Verbeek gives a personal example of echoscopy, which ““translated” our unborn child into a possible patient, inborn illnesses into forms of suffering that could have been avoided and us into deciders on the life of our child”. In other words echoscopy has a strong influence on the decisions parents have to make – it even creates new choices – but not a decisive influence. It doesn’t threaten the freedom of autonomous, individual and responsible human beings, it shapes that freedom. The challenge is to analyze this technological influence both without refusing it too quickly out of bioconservative mistrust and without trusting it too eagerly like the transhumanists. But how?

Not "yes or no" but "how?"
Verbeek proposes to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of mistrust and blind trust by understanding our relation to technology as one in which we need to entrust ourselves to technology. Instead of focusing on the moral acceptability of a certain technology Verbeek proposes that we analyze the quality of life that could be achieved with this technology. In this approach ethics’ primary role is not primarily to decide whether or not a technology can enter humanity, but to help mankind assess the new ways of “being human” that will emerge from it. That’s what ethics is about after all: thinking about what a good life is and how we should live to live a good life.

This assessment will not be possible if ethics remains stuck in a debate “pro” or “against” new technologies that doesn’t address the question how these technologies would change our lives and its quality. A fruitful ethical debate requires that we try to answer that question, which in turn requires us to be more explicit about what we consider a good life. In his fascinating essay, Verbeek uses literature as one of the sources of inspiration that can help provide the depth that is necessary for such debate. What makes this exploration of mankind’s exciting is that it brings us closer to the “limits of humanity” as the title suggests. To discover however that these limits are much less sharp than we might have thought.

The quote by which I started this blog is printed in every US passport.

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