13 June 2008

Designer babies

This is a fantastic discussion about the morals of the new controversial reproductive technologies that are popping up (the debate starts with the story of a deaf couple that actively sought, and got, a deaf child). Fantastic because the moderator - Elliot Gerson - doesn't let the discussion stop, as is customary in these discussions, with the repeated luddite observation that "we experience moral concern with regards to [insert new technology here]". Gerson pushes the two debatants on whether we can really stop the use of reproductive technologies, whether it's anti-progress to try to stop them, whether it's the result of an underlying 'religious sensibility', whether it's comparable to eugenics, and makes repeated comparisons to other forms of 'hyper-parenting' and enhancement. AND he manages to do so not from the stupid, blue-sky standpoint of transhumanism, but as an intelligent, concerned humanist.

The discussion stresses the observation that many of the controversial technologies discussed are dual-use, i.e. something we, because of their enormous medical value, cannot effectively legislate against. It also repeatedly highlights the horror some people experience at the prospect of children being made indstruments of their parents desires, exemplified by fears that this would undermine unconditional parental love. Both these points are fully mirrored in the debate around the iPlant.

I'm increasingly curious about what factors predispose a person to consider biotechnology and enhancement ethically undesirable. What (other than general unfamiliarity with science and technology) makes someone prefer the flaws and limitations of a 'natural' body to an enhanced one? Since my own opinion on this question is so utterly polarized, a second question is also becoming increasingly important to me: what is the value of pain? What is the value of experiencing things the 'natural' way, of enduring and accepting the suffering that is often associated with being alive? In his brilliant 20 min talk entitled 'Ambivalence of the Posthuman Condition', Erik Davis suggests that the value is that it helps us to maintain a critical mind; it motivates us keep on seeking change as opposed to accepting status quo and seeking only what he calls "psychologically obvious goods".

I agree with Davis, but in my experience the pain of life is often more crippling than it is enabling, and the attitude that we must remain humble and not attempt to fundamentally change the human condition and the human brain deeply deeply aggravates me. Part of that anger comes from hearing academics - the intellectual elite whose memory, self-dicipline and intelligence is in the upper 1% - talk about the need to accept the cards nature deals you. But more generally it just seems like humanistic fundamentalism to me - technophobia/neophobia and really fucking backwards.
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