Suppose in the not-too-distant future we master the art of creating people. In other words, technology advances to the point that you and I can walk into a store (or go online!) and order a new artificial person from a retailer. This artificial person will be a full-blown person in the proper philosophical sense of the term “person”. They will have all the attributes we usually ascribe to a human person. They will have the capacity to suffer, to think rationally, to desire certain futures, to conceive of themselves as a single coherent self and so on. Furthermore, you and I will have the power to design this person according to our own specifications. We will be able to pick their eye colour, height, hairstyle, personality, intelligence, life preferences and more. We will be able completely customise them to our tastes. Here’s the question: would it be ethical for us to make use of this power?
Note that for the purposes of this thought experiment it doesn’t matter too much what the artificial person is made of. It could be a wholly biological entity, made from the same stuff as any human child, but genetically and biomedically engineered according to our customisation. Or it could also be wholly artificial, made from silicon chips and motorised bits, a bit like Data from Star Trek. None of this matters. What matters is that (a) it is a person and (b) it has been custom built to order. It is ethical to create such a being?
Some people think it wouldn’t be; some people think it would be. In this post I want to look at the arguments made by those who think it would be a bad idea to design a person from scratch in this fashion. In particular I want to look at a style of argument made popular by the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas in his critique of positive eugenics. According to this argument, you should not design a person because doing so would necessarily compromise the autonomy and equality of that person. It would turn them into a product not a person; an object not a subject.
Although this argument is Habermasian in origin, I’m not going to examine Habermas’s version of it. Instead, I’m going to look at a version of it that is presented by the Polish philosopher Maciej Musial in his article “Designing (artificial) people to serve - the other side of the coin”. This is an interesting article, one that responds to an argument from Steve Petersen claiming that it would be permissible to create an artificial person who served your needs in some way. I’ve covered Petersen’s argument before on this blog (many moons ago). Some of what Musial says about Petersen’s argument has merit to it, but I want to skirt around the topic of designing robot servants (who are still persons) and focus on the more general idea of creating persons.
1. Clarifying the Issue: The “No Difference” Argument
To understand Musial’s argument, we have to understand some of the dialectical context in which it is presented. As mentioned, it is a response to Steve Petersen’s claim that it is okay to create robot persons that serve our needs. Without going into all the details of Petersen’s argument, one of the claims that Petersen makes while defending this view is that there is no important difference between programming or designing an artificial person to really want to do something and having such a person come into existence through a process of natural biological conception and socialisation.
Why is that? Petersen makes a couple of points. First, he suggested that there is no real difference between being born by natural biological means and being programmed/designed by artificial means. Both processes entail a type of programming. In the former case, evolution by natural selection has “programmed” us, indirectly and over a long period of time, with a certain biological nature; in the latter case, the programming is more immediate and direct, but it is fundamentally the same thing. This analogy is not ridiculous. Some people — notably Daniel Dennett in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea — have argued that evolution is an algorithmic process, very much akin to computer programming, that designs us to serve certain evolutionary ends; and, furthermore, evolutionary algorithms are now a common design strategy in computer programming.
The other point Petersen makes is that there is no real difference between being raised by one’s parents and being intentionally designed by them. Both processes have goals and intentions behind them. Parents often want to raise their children in a particular way. For example, some parents want their children to share their religious beliefs, to follow very specific career paths, and to have the success that they never had. They will take concrete steps to ensure that this is the case, bringing their children to church every week, giving them the best possible education, and (say) training them in the family business. These methods of steering a child’s future have their limitations, and might be a bit haphazard, but they do involve intentional design (even if parents deny this). All Petersen is imagining is that different methods, aimed at the same outcome, become available. Since both methods have the same purpose, how could they be ethically different?
To put this argument in more formal terms:
- (1) If there is no important difference between (i) biologically conceiving and raising a natural person and (ii) designing and programming an artificial person, then one cannot object to the creation of an artificial person on the grounds that it involves designing and programming them in particular ways.
- (2) There is no important difference between (i) and (ii) (following the arguments just given)
- (3) Therefore, one cannot object to the creation of artificial persons on the grounds that it involves designing and programming them in particular ways.
To be clear, there are many other ethical objections that might arise in relation to the creation of artificial persons. Maybe it would be too expensive? Maybe their presence would have unwelcome consequences for society? Some of these are addressed in Petersen’s original article and Musial’s response. I am not going to get into them here. I am solely interested in this “no difference” argument.
2. The Habermasian Response: There is a difference
The Habermasian response to this argument takes aim at premise (2). It rests on the belief that there are several crucial ethical differences between the two processes. Musial develops this idea by focusing in particular on how being designed changes one’s relationship with oneself, one’s creators, and the rest of society.
Before we look at his specific claims it is worth reflecting for a moment on the kinds of differences he needs to pinpoint in order to undermine the “no difference”-argument. It’s not just any difference that will do. After all, the processes are clearly different in many ways. For example, one thing that people often point to is that biological conception and parental socialisation are somewhat contingent and haphazard processes over which parents have little control. In other words, parents may desire that their children turn out a particular way, but they cannot guarantee that this will happen. They have to play the genetic and developmental lottery (indeed, there is even a well-known line of research suggesting that beyond genetics parents contribute little to the ultimate success and happiness of their children).
That’s certainly a difference, but it is not the kind of difference you need to undermine the “no difference” argument. Why not? Because it is not clear what its ethical significance is. Does a lack of control make one process more ethically acceptable than another? On the face of it, it’s not obvious that it does. If anything, one might suspect the ethical acceptability runs in the opposite direction. Surely it is ethically reckless to just run the genetic and developmental lottery and hope that everything turns out for the best? For contingency and lack of control to work to undermine the “no difference” argument it will need to be shown that they translate into some other ethically relevant difference. Do they?
Musial highlights two potentially relevant differences that they might translate into in his article. The first has to do with the effects of being designed and programmed on a person’s sense of autonomy. The gist of this argument is that if one person (or a group of persons) designs another person to have certain capacities or to serve certain ends, then that other person cannot really be the autonomous author of their own lives. They must live up to someone else’s expectations and demands.
Of course, someone like Petersen would jump back in at this point and say that this can happen anyway with traditional parental education and socialisation. Parents can impose their own expectations and demands on their children and their children can feel a lack of autonomy as a result. Despite this, we don’t think that traditional parenting is ethically impermissible (though I will come back to this issue again below).
But Musial argues that this does not compare like with like. The expectations and demands of traditional parenting usually arise after the child has “entered the world of intersubjective dialogue”. In other words, a natural child can at least express its own wishes and make its feelings known in response to parental education and socialisation. It can reject the parental expectations if it wishes (even if that makes its life difficult in other ways). Similarly, even if the child does go along with the parental expectations, it can learn to desire the things the parent’s desire for it and to achieve the things they wish it to achieve. This is very different from having those desires and expectations pre-programmed into the child before it is born through genetic manipulation or biomedical engineering. It is much harder to reject those pre-programmed expectations because of the way in which they are hardwired in.
It might be disputed at this juncture that even biological children will have some genetic endowments that they do not like and are hard to reject. For example, I am shorter than I would like to be. I am sure this is as a result of parental genetics. I don’t hold it against them or question my autonomy as a result. But Musial argues that my frustration with being shorter than I would like to be is different from the frustration that might be experienced by someone who is deliberately designed to be a particular height. In my case, it is not that my parent’s imposed a particular height expectation on me. They just rolled the genetic dice. In the case of someone who is designed to be a particular height, they can trace that height back to a specific parental intention. They know they are living up to someone else’s expectations in a way that I do not.
Musial’s second argument has to do with equality. The claim is that being designed and programmed to serve a particular aim (or set of aims) undermines an egalitarian ethos. Egalitarianism (i.e. the belief that all human beings are morally equal) can only thrive in a world of contingency. Indeed, in the original Habermasian presentation, the claim was that contingency is a “necessary presupposition” of egalitarian interpersonal relationships. This is because if one person has designed another there is a dependency relationship between them. The designee knows that they have been created at the whim of the designer and are supposed to serve the ends of the designer. There is a necessary and unavoidable asymmetry between them. Not only that, but the designee will also know themselves to be different from all other non-designed persons.
Musial argues that the inequality that results from the design process can be both normative and empirical in nature. In other words, the designee may be designated as normatively inferior to other people because they have been created to serve a particular end (and so do not have the open-ended freedom of everyone else); and the designee may just feel themselves to be inferior because they know they have been intended to serve an end, or may be treated as inferior by everyone else. Either way, egalitarianism suffers.
One potential objection to this line of thought would be to argue that the position of the designee in this brave new world of artificial persons is not that different from the position of all human beings under traditional theistic worldviews. Under theism, the assumption is usually that we are all designed by God. Isn’t there are necessary relationship of inequality as a result? Without getting into the theological weeds, this may indeed be true but even still there is a critical difference between being a designee under traditional theism and being a designee in the circumstances being envisaged by Musial and others. Under theism, all human persons are designees and so all share in the same unequal status with respect to the designer. That’s different from a world in which some people are designed by specific others to serve specific ends and some are not. In any event, this point will only be relevant to someone who believes in traditional theism.
3. Problems with the Habermasian Critique
That’s the essence of the Habermas/Musial critique of the no difference argument. Is it any good? I have a two major concerns.
The first is a general philosophical one. It has to do with the coherence of individual autonomy and freedom. One could write entire treatises on both of these concepts and still barely scratch the surface of the philosophical debate about them. Nevertheless, I worry that the Habermas/Musial argument depends on some dubious, and borderline mysterian, thinking about the differences between natural and artificial processes and their effect on autonomy. In his presentation of the argument, Musial concedes that natural forces do, to some extent, impact on our autonomy. In other words, our desires, preferences and attitudes are shaped by forces beyond our control. Still, following Habermas, he claims that “natural growth conditions” allow us to be self-authors in a way that artificial design processes do not.
I’ll dispute the second half of this claim in a moment but for now I want dwell on the first half. Is it really true that natural growth conditions allow us to be self-authors? Maybe if you believe in contra-causal free will (and if you believe this is somehow absent in created persons). But if you don’t, then it is hard to see how can this be true if it is conceded that external forces, including biological evolution and cultural indoctrination, have a significant impact on our aptitudes, desires and expectations? It may be true that under natural growth conditions you cannot identify a single person who has designed you to be a particular way or to serve a particular end — the causal feedback loops are a bit too messy for that — but that doesn’t make the desires that you have more authentically yours as a result. Just because you can pinpoint the exact external cause of a belief or desire in one case, but not in the other, it does not mean that you have greater self-authorship in the latter. You have an illusion of self-authorship, nothing more. Once that illusion is revealed to you, how it is anymore existentially reassuring than learning that you were intentionally designed to be a particular way? If anything, we might suspect that latter would be more existentially reassuring. At least you know that you are not the way you are due to blind chance and dumb luck (in this respect it might be worth noting that a traditional goal of psychoanalytic therapy was to uncover the deep developmental and non-self determined causes of your personal traits and foibles). Furthermore, in either case, it seems to me that the illusion of autonomy could be sustained despite the knowledge of external causal influences. This would be true if, even having learned of the illusion, you still have the capacity for rational thought and the capacity to learn from your experiences.
This brings me to the second concern, which is more important. It has to do with the intended object or goal behind the intentional design of an artificial person. Notwithstanding my concerns about the nature of autonomy, I think the Habermas/Musial argument does provide reason to worry about the ethics of creating people to serve very specific ends. In other words, I would concede that it might be questionable to create, say, an artificial person who has been designed and programmed to really want to do your ironing. If that person is a genuine person — i.e. has the cognitive and emotional capacities we usually associate with personhood — then it might be disconcerting for them to learn that they were designed for this purpose, and it might impact on their sense of autonomy and equality if they are.
But this is only because they have been designed to serve a very specific end. If the goal of the designer/programmer is not to create a person to serve a specific end but, rather, to design someone who has enhanced capacities for autonomous thought, then the problem goes away. In that case, the artificial person would probably be customised to have greater intelligence, learning capacity, foresight, and imagination than a natural born person, but there would be no specific end that they are intended to serve. In other words, the designer would not be trying to create someone who could to the ironing but, rather, someone who could live a rich and flourishing life, whatever they decide for themselves. I’m not a parent (yet) myself, but I imagine that this should really be the goal of ethical parenting: not to raise the next chess champion (or whatever) but to raise someone who has the capacity to decide what the good life should be for themselves. Whether that is done through traditional parenting, or through design and programming, strikes me as irrelevant.
I would add to this that the Habermas/Musial argument, even in the case of a person who has been designed to serve a specific end, only works on the assumption that the specific end that the person has been designed to serve is hard to reject after they learn that they have been designed to serve that end. But it is not obvious to me that this would be the case. If we have the technology that enables us to specifically design artificial people from birth, it seems likely that we would also have the technology to reprogram them in the middle of life too. Consequently, someone who learns that they have been designed to serve a particular end could easily reject that end by having themselves reprogrammed. It’s only if you assume that this power is absent, or that designers exert continued control over the lives of the designees, that the tragedy of being designed might continue.
It could be argued, in response to this, that if you are not designing an artificial person to serve a specific end, then then there is no point in creating them. Musial raises this as a worry at the end of his article, when he suggests that the only ethical way to create an artificial person is to not specific any of their features. But I think this is wrong. You can specify some of their features without specifying that they serve a specific end, and if you are worried about the ethics of creating such a person that does not serve a specific end you may as well ask: what’s the point of creating natural persons if they don’t serve any particular ends? There are many reasons to do so. In my paper “Why we should create artificial offspring”, I argued that we might want to create artificial people in order to secure a longer collective afterlife, and because doing so would add value to our lives. That’s at least one reason.
This is not to say there are no problems with creating artificially designed persons. For example, I think creating an artificially enhanced person (i.e. one with capacities that exceed those of most ordinary human beings) could be problematic from an egalitarian perspective. This is not because the designee would be in an inferior position to the non-designed but rather because the non-designed might perceive themselves to be at a disadvantage relative the designee. This has been a long-standing concern in the enhancement debate. But worrying about that takes us beyond the Habermasian critique and is a something to address another day.