Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Can the Giftedness Argument be Salvaged? (Part 2)

(Part One)

Is there something disturbing about the drive for human enhancement? Is it unwise? Likely to reduce the quality and meaning of our lives? Likely to deprive us of something of great value? Several prominent philosophers argue that it is. Among them is Michael Sandel, who several years back argued that enhancement was unwise because it caused us to lose our appreciation for the giftedness of our lives. More precisely, he challenged proponents of enhancement on the grounds that its pursuit would give rise to a state of hyperagency, i.e. a state in which virtually every aspect of our lives is open to our control and manipulation.

Sandel’s argument is problematic, but has its defenders. The most capable of whom is, probably, Michael Hauskeller. In his article “Human Enhancement and the Giftedness of Life”, Hauskeller tries to refine, reconstruct and rehabilitate Sandel’s giftedness argument. In so doing, he hopes to clear away some of the confusion and highlight the strengths of Sandel’s analysis. This series of posts is examining Hauskeller’s attempted rehabilitation. Part one kicked things off by briefly reviewing Sandel’s argument and the standard critiques thereof. It also took the first steps toward Hauskeller’s rehabilitation of the argument by distinguishing between the given and the gifted.

Two important conclusions were reached at the end of the last post. The first was that there is a defensible naturalistic notion of giftedness. In other words, some aspects of our lives can rightfully be said to be gifted, even if there is no gift giver. This is because there are things beyond our control, for which we feel grateful, but which do not (or at least need not) emanate from a particular agent. For example, I am grateful for being born in the late 20th Century, in a reasonably wealthy industrialised country. This is a gifted aspect of my life, but it does not come from any gift giver.

The second important conclusion had to do with gratitude. One of the key moves made by Hauskeller is to shift emphasis away from giftedness and onto gratitude. Thus, the argument really becomes the argument from gratitude not from giftedness. Hauskeller makes this move because he thinks that once something has been gifted to us we are under a curious and informal obligation to feel grateful for it. This obligation manifests itself in two important ways: (i) it creates the conditions needed for an important kind of social bonding; and (ii) it helps us to avoid relativising the value of our lives. It is these two manifestations that illustrate the unwisdom of enhancement.

My goal in the remainder of this post is to discuss the first manifestation of the gratitude argument. I do so in three sections. First, I discuss two types of social exchange, highlighting the difference between purely economic exchanges and “solidarity”-exchanges. Second, taking this difference on board, I offer the first formal version of the gratitude argument, something I call the Solidarity and Gratitude Argument (SGA). And third, I present some comments and queries about this argument. These are very preliminary in nature. Although I ultimately want to offer some kind of response to Hauskeller, my primary goal for now is to clarify the arguments he presents.

1. Beyond Purely Economic Exchanges
A number of years back, the late and lamented Christopher Hitchens wrote a book called God is Not Great. In it, Hitchens subjected the concept and belief in God to an excoriating, and at times witty, critique. Well aware that his book would attract the ire of many a religious apologist, and never one to back down from a fight, Hitchens promoted his book with a relentless series of debates against opponents of his view. Many of these are catalogued online should you ever wish to watch them.

I remember watching a couple of these — and subsequently reading the book — and while I will always be a fan of Hitchens public speaking and good humour, I wasn’t overly impressed by the intellectual rigour of the arguments he presented. Still, there was an example he constantly used in his debates that is rather apt in the present context. Whenever challenged by a religious believer with the perennial question “how can you be good without God?”, Hitchens appealed to a fairly typical “I do good for goodness sake”-answer. To illustrate, he gave the example of how he frequently donated blood. He adumbrated two reasons for doing this. First, he had a rare blood type that people less fortunate than he might need. And second, he might need blood someday himself. While the second of these reasons speaks to self-interest, the first does not and that’s the one I want to dwell on.

For in giving blood with the explicit desire to benefit those less fortunate or in greater need, Hitchens was manifesting gratitude for his own good fortune. He was benefiting others without expecting or desiring immediate reciprocation. Indeed, even though there was a faint worry that he might require a blood donation in the future, there was equally the hope that he never would. The blood was given, freely and willingly, because of a deeper connection with his fellow man (Note: this may be a touch hagiographic of me, but even if Hitchens wasn’t quite so noble as I’m supposing him to be, there are plenty of others who are so the point still holds).

The blood donation example reveals the essential character of a solidarity exchange, which I’ll define as follows:

Solidarity Exchange: A engages in a solidarity exchange with B (or with a group of agents G) if A gives something to B (or G) out of a feeling of gratitude, not necessarily directed at B (or G), and without believing he or she has a right to receive something equivalent in return.

So a solidarity exchange is like a gift that is paid forward to others. It is given out of a sense of gratitude for one’s own good fortune, and expresses a deep commitment to the well being of others.

Contrast this with a purely economic exchange, of the sort that takes place on the open market. When I go down to my local grocery store, the shopkeeper and I engage in a typical economic exchange. I give him money; he gives me food. The exchange arises not from a feeling of gratitude but from a feeling of need or want. Furthermore, the exchange comes with the belief that one is entitled to something in return. If I don’t pay the money, the shopkeeper will not be happy and will have a legal right to make a claim against me. This is most unlike the case of the blood donation.

Economic Exchange: A engages in an economic exchange with B (or with a group of agents G), if A gives something to B out of a feeling of need or want, believing they have the right to receive something of roughly equivalent value from B (or G), and expecting to receive it.

Economic exchanges are certainly important, and are perhaps morally significant in ways we don’t fully appreciate, but the suggestion underlying Hauskeller and Sandel’s work is that solidarity exchanges are very precious indeed. They lead to a deeper, more long-lasting form of social bonding. If lost them, we would lose something of great value.

2. The Solidarity and Gratitude Argument
And so this is essentially what the first manifestation of the gratitude argument maintains. It says that the conditions necessary for solidarity exchanges will be eroded or damaged by the increased use of enhancement technologies. As a result, I call this the Solidarity and Gratitude Argument (SGA). Let’s formulate the argument first, then look at how one might defend it’s key premises.

Here’s my attempt to formalise the SGA (numbering follows on from part one):

  • (6) Gratitude makes possible a form of human exchange (the solidarity exchange) that transcends the form of exchange found in casual economic transactions. 
  • (7) An appreciation for giftedness helps to cultivate a sense of gratitude. 
  • (8) The increased use of enhancement technologies causes us to lose appreciation for giftedness (Sandel’s argument). 
  • (9) Therefore, the increased use of enhancement technologies will limit our ability to engage in solidarity exchanges. 
  • (10) It would be bad for us if our ability to engage in solidarity exchanges were limited. (11) Therefore, the increased use of enhancement technologies is bad for us.

The first premise (premise 6) of the SGA is important. I’m not sure that Hauskeller offers an explicit defence of it anywhere, but something like this might work: A solidarity exchange needs a very pure kind of motive to get started. You must act without the belief that you deserve anything in return. A sense of gratitude is the most obvious foundation on which such a belief can be built. Certainly, it cannot emanate from greed or ambition, nor can it be achieved through coercion or forced exchanges. Gratitude involves thankfulness for what one has, and it is this thankfulness that provides the basis for generosity toward others.

The second premise (7) of the SGA is even more important. Hauskeller does offer an explicit defence of the proposition contained therein. To paraphrase, he argues that if you think every aspect of your life is under your own control and manipulation (i.e. if you believe that you are a hyperagent), you will have no reason to feel grateful. Quite the opposite in fact. You will feel that all the good things in you life can be earned or achieved through exercises of agency. This then blocks the route to gratitude. If you think everything can be earned, you will be less inclined to act out of generosity toward others. After all, you’ll tend to think: they can achieve what I have achieved if they just put their minds to it.

Premise (8) is just Sandel’s argument repeated. The claim is that enhancement reduces appreciation for giftedness because enhancement brings everything within our control or manipulation. Or, rather, the use of enhancement encourages us to think that everything is within our control and manipulation. It is the belief, not so much the reality, that matters here. This is an important point, one that critics of the argument might miss.

Finally, premise (10) can be supported by going back to the blood donation example. The claim being put forward is that the kind of social bonding inherent in that exchange is not merely instrumentally valuable, but intrinsically valuable. It constitutes a deep form of commitment and communitarianism, one that is absent in other exchanges.

3. Some quick thoughts about the SGA
The SGA strikes me as being an interesting argument, one which the proponent of enhancement should consider. It bears some remarkable affinities to an argument made by Saskia Nagel, which I discussed a couple of weeks back. (This may, of course, just be my own projection onto the text). Like Nagel, Hauskeller argues that enhancement may damage important social bonds. Nagel’s focus was on issues of justice and responsibility — she was concerned that belief in hyperagency would lead people to think that others were responsible for their own shortcomings; Hauskeller’s focus is on issues of generosity and charity — he is concerned that belief in hyperagency will eliminate the motive to help other without expectation of return.

A variety of things occur to me when I look at the argument. First, I wonder whether premise (10) is really that convincing. I agree that there is something nice about solidarity, but I wonder whether we over-romanticise it. Is it really all that bad if someone donates blood but is given money to do so? Are we too quick to denigrate purely economic exchanges? I think we might be. I think an important point to bear in mind is how effective the different forms of exchange really are. If I can encourage more people to give blood by paying them, and thereby save more lives, then isn’t that a good thing? I suspect it is, and I suspect it is even if solidarity is, as Hauskeller seems to suggest, an intrinsic good. In this case, I think the intrinsic good of solidarity would be trumped by the intrinsic good of saved lives. What matters then is whether damage to the former is necessary to achieve the latter.

Second, I wonder whether the argument engages in a little bit too much armchair psychologising. As I pointed out above, the argument turns on whether people believe that the use of enhancement gives rise to a state of hyperagency, not on whether it really does give rise to such a state. In one sense, this focus on beliefs as opposed to reality is a strength of the argument. Critics of Sandel’s argument — like Buchanan — argued that the state of hyperagency was a myth, something that could not really be achieved. But if it’s a question of belief this criticism misses the mark. Still, focusing on beliefs creates problems. It seems to me like it is an empirical question as to whether people really think that the advance of enhancement gives rise to hyperagency. I can see reasons for thinking they would, but I haven’t seen any studies suggesting that they do. My own experience in dealing with people with disabilities suggests the attitude might be preventable anyway, since we don’t tend to blame or shift burdens onto the disabled, even when we think there are technologies or medications they could use to overcome their problems. Quite the opposite in fact. The goal of much equality and disability legislation is to shift some of the burden onto others. Admittedly, these may be asymmetric cases, but I think there is a lesson to be learned from this.

Third, and this is rather more speculative, I wonder whether gratitude is a necessary or sufficient condition for solidarity. If its the former, and if enhancement really does undermine gratitude, then Hauskeller’s argument would work pretty well (ignoring the other questions I have raised). But if it is the latter, then it is possible that enhancement doesn’t completely block the route to solidarity. Other feelings or emotions might allow for solidarity, and they might be compatible with the belief in hyperagency.

As I said at the outset, these thoughts are preliminary and somewhat protean. I’d love to hear comments and suggestions from others on the strengths and weaknesses of Hauskeller’s argument. In the meantime, I conclude this post. In the next post I’ll take up the second manifestation of the gratitude argument, the one that focuses on the relativisation of values inherent in the drive toward hyperagency.

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