Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tiny, Happy People: C. Ben Mitchell on Global Warming, Human Engineering, and Ethics

Just when you think you have heard it all, someone pushes the envelope. According to three ethicists writing in the journal Ethics, Policy and the Environment, because geoengineering might be too risky a way to combat global climate change, we should alter the human species instead.

Here is the argument offered by Matthew Liao, Anders Sandberg, and Rebecca Roache. Climate change is the result of human corruption of the environment—so-called anthropogenic causes. Climate change affects food production, access to water, health, and the environment. Since, in their view, millions could suffer from the consequences of climate change something radical must be done. Recycling, tax-incentives, and large-scale manipulation of the environment are, according to the authors, either too negligible or too grand to be effective. Geoengineering, in particular, is disadvantageous because “in many cases, we lack the necessary scientific knowledge to devise and implement geoengineering without significant risk to ourselves and to future generations” (p. 4). So, in one breathtaking leap, the authors argue that we ought to consider “biomedical modification of humans to make them better at mitigating climate change.”

To be fair, they do offer a caveat: “Our central aim [in the paper] is to show that human engineering deserves consideration alongside other solutions in the debate about how to solve the problem of climate change. Also, as we envisage it, human engineering would be a voluntary activity—possibly supported by incentives such as tax breaks or sponsored health care—rather than a coerced, mandatory activity.”

The suggestion that we ought to modify the human species as a means of mitigating climate change is at once both naive and hubristic. If they think modifying the environment may be difficult, successfully modifying the extraordinarily intricate balance of human homeostasis is a pipedream at best. Here is what they think might be desirable.

First, humans might be altered to be meat aversive. All one would have to do is stimulate the immune system so as to “induce mild intolerance (akin, e.g., to milk intolerance)” to meat. Or, since the “human ecological footprints are partly correlated to our size,” we can just make humans smaller! “Reducing the average US height by 15 cm would mean a mass reduction of 23% for men and 25% for women, with a corresponding reduction of metabolic rate (15%/18%), since less tissue means lower nutrients and energy needs.” One way to produce these tiny people would be through pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, say the authors. Just select the embryos for transfer to a woman’s womb that have the genes for compactness; toss the embryos will tall genes. Smaller humans could also be produced through hormone therapy and reduction of birth-weight.

Second, the number of humans could be modified through cognitive enhancement. Why cognitive enhancement? Because apparently only stupid people have more than two children per family. “There seems to be a link,” the authors maintain, “between cognition itself and lower birth-rates.” Since two children per family is lower than the replacement rate (of roughly 2.1 per family in industrialized countries), population would decline.

Third, pharmacological enhancements could increase altruism and empathy. The result: generous and happy people through chemistry. Modifying altruism and empathy “by human engineering could be promising.” Testosterone, by the way, “appears to decrease aspects of empathy,” according to the authors. So, to follow their logic, since testosterone prepares both males and female for reproduction, reducing its levels in every human body would both reduce the number of people on the earth and, at the same time, make them more compliant.

Why undertake the re-engineering of the human species? Because, say the authors, “human engineering is potentially less risky than geoengineering. Second, human engineering could make behavior and market solutions more likely to succeed.” In other words, we would be far more likely to create tiny, happy people than we would be to modify the environment or create incentives that would encourage environmental stewardship.

Most readers will find the suggestion that re-engineering the species to control climate change is simply ludicrous on the face of it. But it is worse than ludicrous, it is dangerous. Although the authors say these alterations will come about voluntarily, it would, in fact, be parents who would make these decisions for the next generation without consent. Our children would become guinea pigs in a massive genetic and pharmacological engineering experiment—which, in many cases, we would be unable to reverse.

In an interview with Ross Andersen in The Atlantic, one of the authors, Matthew Liao, a professor of philosophy at New York University, said that making these sorts of modifications in our children is not morally problematic. After all, the tiny, happy child will thank you for making him smaller and more altruistic. And why shouldn’t he? You modified him to be generous and altruistic.

Well, what about an individual’s free will? Wouldn’t giving a child behavior modifying drugs to make her detest meat violate her freedom? Says Liao, “ . . . in some sense your inability to control yourself is a limit on the will, or a limit on your liberty. A meat patch would allow you to truly decide whether you want to have a steak or not, and that could be quite liberty enhancing.” So, by extension, a little doping of the water supply would help people truly express their will. The logic is simply perverse.

In this paper we see another example of the human self-loathing that is so much a part of both the environmentalist and transhumanist movements. For environmentalists, human beings are parasitic threats. For the transhumanists, human beings are maladaptive and need re-engineering. Instead of seeing human creativity, innovation, and market forces applied in stewardly ways for the sake of the truly human good, the technologist (the human) becomes the technological artifact (the modified post-human). Human re-engineering, it seems to me, is a far greater threat to our humanity than climate change.

C. Ben Mitchell is Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University.

(from First Things)


-Andrew said...

The ideas presented by those three sound like some sort of an eccentric joke... Has conservative media come up with any good televised or online satire programs yet? I don't watch enough TV to even know where to start looking, though with the ridiculous state of recent news headlines, the iron(y) certainly seems hot enough for the striking... The one passably good satire program I'm aware of at the moment is The Onion, but it seems often more interested in pure entertainment than real argumentation.

On another note, thoughts held in the vein presented by those three used to confuse me to no end, though one day I stumbled upon a line of 'Choruses from The Rock' which seemed to peg their position entirely:

"Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?
She tells them of Life and Death, and of all they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good." -T.S. Eliot

When people reject the answer of Truth from their outset, all that's left available for them to solve their problems with seem to be entire absurdities... I enjoyed reading the article, thank you for posting it!

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

I think you're right, Andrew. The options reduce to two: Truth or absurdity. If you reject truth often enough, you'll no longer recognize either it or its opposite. That's where modern culture has placed itself.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

I have young children. I want them to be able to argue against this perverse stupidity of the age.

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

God bless you and them, TUAD. They have many battles to fight and dragons to slay before they are done. They'll be glad to have a dad like you.