Saturday, April 13, 2013

Can the Giftedness Argument be Salvaged? (Part Three)

(Part One, Part Two)

Okay, it’s been awhile but at long last I’m going to finish off my series on Michael Hauskeller’s article “Human Enhancement and the Giftedness of Life”. To recap, in this article Hauskeller tries to refine, rehabilitate, and reconstruct Sandel’s giftedness argument against enhancement. I’m covering this as part of an ongoing series of posts looking at hyperagency-based objections to enhancement.

”Hyperagency” refers to a state of agency in which everything is contingent and manipulable, including the basic constitutive aspects of agency. In other words, if you take the typical human agent, with a complex set of desires and beliefs, and the ability to act in the world, that agent could be said to be a hyperagent if it has great power to act in the world such that it can freely manipulate and alter its desires and beliefs.

The concern of writers such as Hauskeller and Sandel is not so much that enhancement technologies literally create hyperagents (though they might), but rather that might lead us to believe that we are hyperagents. This is an important point. It would be easy to object to Hauskeller and Sandel by arguing that current and prospective enhancement technologies will not get us anywhere near to a state of hyperagency, but doing so would miss the strength of their arguments. Their critiques are based on the effect of the drive for enhancement (or “mastery”) on our beliefs or habits, erroneous though they may be. To be precise, the critique is that the drive for enhancement undermines our sense of gratitude for the gifted aspects of our lives, which has a number of deleterious consequences.

We examined one set of deleterious consequences in part two. There, I presented Hauskeller’s solidarity and gratitude argument (SGA). According to this argument, by undermining our sense of gratitude, the drive for enhancement undercuts social solidarity. And since social solidarity is a great intrinsic good this is one reason to think that the drive for enhancement is unwise. In this post, we look at another reason. This one appeals to the notion that the drive for enhancement causes us to relativise the value of our current lives, thereby missing what is good about them. Call this the “Relativisation of Value Argument” (RVA).

The post has two parts. First, I outline the argument, then I offer some general comments and reflections.

1. The Relativisation of Value Argument
Hauskeller’s basic contention is that proponents of enhancement, in their longing to be better than they currently are, tend to make better an enemy of good. Transhumanists like Bostrom (who is Hauskeller’s main scratching post in this portion of his critique) tend to optimistic about the future. This, you might think, is a healthy attitude to have. Certainly, I think people who are perpetual pessimists are no fun to be around. But Hauskeller warns that the kind of extreme optimism about the future that is present in some transhumanist writings has a negative flipside: extreme pessimism about the present.

This seems to be borne out in two quotes that Hauskeller takes from Bostrom’s article “Why I want to be a Posthuman when I grow Up”. The first quote, which is actually from Bishop Berkeley, highlights the problem that a better existence might create for our current lives:

I am apt to think, if we knew what it was to be an angel for one hour, we should return to this world, though it were to sit on the brightest throne in it, with vastly more loathing and reluctance, than we would now descend into a loathsome dungeon or sepulchre

Note the language here. Berkeley suggests that if we could just understand what it would be like to live as an angel, we would “loathe” our earthly existence, even if we were to live in the most congenial circumstances possible on this earth. These are strong words indeed. But, of course, they are fanciful. I don’t suppose anyone really thinks it possible to imagine what life as an angel (granting arguendo that such beings exist) would be like.

But maybe we have a shot at imagining what life as a posthuman is like? Certainly, this is what Bostrom tries to do in his article and, unsurprisingly given the fact that Bostrom chose the Berkeley quote as the epigraph to that article, in so doing Hauskeller thinks he creates the conditions needed for a Berkelyan-style loathing of our current lives. We see this in the following quote in which Bostrom imagines our posthuman future:

You have just celebrated your 170th birthday and you feel stronger than ever. Each day is joy. You have invented entirely new art forms, which exploit the new kinds of cognitive capacities and sensibilities you have developed. You still listen to music — music that is to Mozart what Mozart is to bad Muzak.

Well, that doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Living to at least 170 and inventing new, wonderful forms of music? Not so fast, says Hauskeller. Look at what Bostrom seems to be suggesting about the value of Mozart’s music. Isn’t he, in effect, saying that when we are posthumans, Mozart’s uplifting and life-affirming compositions will become the equivalent of dull, lifeless Muzak? That the value of Mozart’s music is relative. It seems good to us now because it is better than other forms of music, but in the future there will be even better forms of music and at that point Mozart’s music will no longer be good. In fact, it will be bad. Like Muzak.

Hauskeller thinks this is a very undesirable picture of our posthuman future. It causes us to lose an appreciation for the intrinsic value of certain things we currently have, like Mozart’s musical compositions. To be clear, Hauskeller does not seem to be saying that being a posthuman will be bad, but (again) that the drive for enhancement that precipitates that state of being is bad because it causes us to value our current lives in relative terms.

There are the ingredients necessary for an argument here, we just need to extract them and render them in the appropriate form. Here’s my shot at it:

  • (12) It is good/wise that we appreciate that our lives have an intrinsic, non-relative value.
  • (13) The drive for enhancement (for hyperagency) leads us to relativise our values: X is good only because it is better than something else.
  • (14) Therefore, the drive for enhancement is bad.

This, like the other arguments I’ve looked at in this series, is an axiological argument, not a deontic one. It is not claiming that the use of enhancement is impermissible, it is claiming that it is unwise, that it somehow lessens or impoverishes our lives. This is a significant interpretive point, one that we do well to bear in mind as we ask: is this argument any good?

2. Is the argument any good?
I don’t think I can answer this question definitively. It’s something I need to think about, but I will offer some general comments. First, I want to highlight the similarities between this argument and ones that I have previously considered. Nicholas Agar’s species-relativist argument, for example, made some very similar claims about the unwisdom of enhancement. Agar felt that if we became posthumans, we would lose access to things we currently value as normal humans. This is because different “species” might value different things. In a similar vein, David Owens’s argument from disenchantment touched upon this theme. Owens’s suggested that enhancement removes the “fixed points” in our lives, leading to a state of listlessness and constant dissatisfaction. I offered critical responses to both theorists in previous posts (here and here), so I won’t repeat myself now. Still, I think it’s interesting that they, along with Hauskeller and Sandel, make similar kinds of arguments, albeit in slightly different ways. It’s always useful to be able to group arguments into common clusters like this.

Moving on to the argument proper, I want to make some comments about premise (12). I think this premise might well be true, but it’s interesting in that it clashes with some other popular views of value, particularly views about the value of life and the badness of death. Regular readers will know that I have an interest in arguments about the badness of death. Common to most of these arguments is something called the deprivation thesis. According to this thesis, death is bad because it deprives of goods that might otherwise have been if we hadn’t died. As such, the deprivation thesis adopts a counterfactual, and relativised conception of value. The goodness and badness of a particular state being is, if we follow the deprivation thesis, determined by a comparison of states of being across possible worlds.

I’ve looked at some criticisms of this view before, the main one being that it leads to seemingly absurd conclusions in certain cases. I won’t rehash those criticisms here. All I want to do is highlight the tension between these views and Hauskeller’s. That tension could be resolved in a couple of ways. Either the proponents of the deprivation thesis are correct, and hence Hauskeller’s complaint is flawed, i.e. there is nothing bad or unwise about the counterfactual comparison of the value of our lives implied by Bostrom’s comments. Or, Hauskeller is correct and this is just one more reason to be wary of the deprivation thesis and similar counterfactual approaches to value. I have to say, I lean in Hauskeller’s direction on this one.

But that doesn’t mean that his argument is successful. There is still the little problem of premise (13). Is it really fair to say that enhancement leads to the relativisation of value? Clearly not, since there is at least one value that proponents must think intrinsically worthwhile, namely: the value of enhancement (or self-improvement) itself. But that’s a weak response since Hauskeller’s concern is that enhancement leads us to relativise lots of other valuable things, even if some intrinsic values are retained. We could modify premise (13) to make this slightly weaker claim.

Is that slightly weaker claim correct? In my critique of Agar’s species-relativist argument, I suggested that even if it is true that in becoming posthumans we lose access to things we currently value, that doesn’t mean we lose access to valuable things. We simply trade one set of goods for another. This might be desirable if the new set of goods is better. I’d be tempted to say the same thing to Hauskeller. In becoming posthumans we don’t relativise all values, we simply trade one set of intrinsic goods for another.

But that might miss the point. As noted above, the argument here is not about the actual state of posthumanhood or hyperagency, it is about the attitude that motivates proponents of those states. Arguably, this attitude is such that, even if we become posthumans, we will not be satisfied. We will strive to jump the curve to the next radical state of being because we think that’s even better still. I think there may be something to this, but then I wonder: would it be alright if just stumbled into a state of posthumanhood or hyperagency? In other words, if the motivation for enhancement was not to seek mastery or hyperagency?

Frances Kamm made this objection to Sandel’s original giftedness argument, and Hauskeller responds to it in his article. I’m not sure his response is entirely satisfactory. He says that the actual motivations of people don’t matter because “I need not be motivated by a drive to mastery in order to fall victim to it”. The suggestion seems to be that irrespective of our consciously represented motivations, in pursuing enhancement we will become trapped or bound up with the logic of mastery. Even if we aren’t aware of it directly, we will become the dissatisfied, constantly striving beings that Hauskeller and Sandel counsel us against becoming.

As I say, I’m not sure about this, but it’s definitely some food for thought.

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