Review of Michael Bess’, Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, March 23, 2016.)

Vanderbilt University’s Michael Bess has written an extraordinarily thoughtful new book: Our Grandchildren Redesigned: Life In The BioEngineered Society Of The Near Future. The first part of the book introduces the reader to the technologies that will enhance the physical, emotional, and intellectual abilities of our children and grandchildren: pharmaceuticals, bioelectronics, genetics, nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and virtual reality.

In the second part of the book Bess sets out the pro and cons of enhancement. The arguments against bioenhancement are that doing so: 1) plays god or interferes with nature; 2) destroys the qualities that make us human; 3) subverts dignity by commodifying human traits; 4) displays hubris and robs life of its meaning; and 5) rejects the limitations that define humanity. In these multiple ways enhancement leads to disaster. The arguments for bioenhancement are that doing so: 1) continues the long historical process of controlling ourselves and our world; 2) expresses our natural desires for new capabilities and richer experiences; 3) rejects the legacy of blind evolution and advocates directing the evolutionary process; 4) will reduce suffering and other constraints on our being; and 5) pursues our potential to be more than we are now, which is what gives life meaning.

Bess argues that the differences between the pro and anti-enhancement camps reflect the tension between conservative and romantic reactions to the Enlightenment. Thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, Locke, and Kant emphasized progress and perfectibility combined with an optimism about human social and moral evolution. Progress could continue indefinitely, as humans used reason to unlock their inner potential. But conservatives like Edmund Burke saw human nature as limited and more fixed. Instead of progressive social evolution, they saw recurring patterns of  greed and violence. (The motive for conservatism that Bess omits in my view, is religious opposition to future technologies.)

Bess suggests a via media between these two visions. Change, innovation and novelty characterize human nature as does the desire for continuity, preservation and order. Wisdom combines both: “hope …  tempered by humility … an attitude of openness to the future, chastened by the sobering lessons of past experience. The resulting moral maxim would be: embrace innovation, but proceed critically, incrementally, and cautiously in adopting it; explore new possibilities, but remain acutely cognizant of the historical track record as you go.”  Bess refers to his view as “chastened optimism.” (78)

This leads to various forms of enhancement considered on a case-by-case basis. But what moral framework should we use to make these assessments? SInce human beings differ regarding their moral beliefs, Bess argues that the best we can do is combine the ancient concept of human flourishing with today’s positive psychology and the “capabilities approach” in economic theory. Together these two fields have reached a consensus about the personal traits and social conditions that contribute to human flourishing, and Bess believes that this provides a framework for assessing enhancement technologies. The key factors in human flourishing from the individual perspective are: security; dignity; autonomy; personal fulfillment; authenticity; and pursuit of practical wisdom. From a societal perspective the key factors are: fairness; interpersonal connectedness; civic engagement; and transcendence. This framework helps us answer questions about whether a particular enhancement will or will not contribute to human flourishing.

Other questions will also arise. Who gets enhanced? Will enhancements create a new caste system? What of those who reject enhancement? Bess thinks it is unlikely that first world democracies would tolerate a biological class system, and that violence may accompany the desire for universal access to enhancement technologies. As for those who reject these technologies, it is unclear whether the non-modified will be able to live peaceably beside the modified. But when large numbers of individuals choose to adopt bioenhancement, there will be tremendous pressure on the non-modified humans to augment their own capabilities, or they will be at a distinct disadvantage. And, given enough time, the modified and non-modified will be different species.

In the third part of the book explores the more ethereal effects enhancements will have on individual humans. Questions will arise like: Do pharmaceuticals enhance our experiences by disconnecting us from reality? Do enhancements mechanize the self by eliminating the messy and unpredictable aspects of human experience? And, if the answer to such questions is yes, then are enhancements worth the price?

Similar questions arise regarding moral enhancement. For example, suppose we can give people a “morality pill” to increase the likelihood that they will make ethical choices. Such a pill wouldn’t have to completely override free will; rather it could increase the proclivity toward altruism. Bess says that we should reject this pill because intention is a large part of what makes an act moral, and the pill interferes with intentions. He believes that free will is worth the price of whatever negative outcomes follow from it. I think that this is a very large price to pay for an idea, free will, that may be illusory anyway. Still Bess maintains that moral enhancement, to the extent it undermines free will, removes moral meaning from the world. Personally, I wouldn’t care about discarding the idea moral meaning if a better world results. No doubt I am revealing my utilitarian preferences.

Other problems relating to human identity include: the possible monitoring and sharing of our intimate thoughts; the development of better virtual reality; and the extension of human lifespans. In addition, enhancement technologies will bring about unforeseen consequences. What will be the future of sex, food, privacy, the arts, and war? No doubt the future will be weird in ways that are, at present, inconceivable. But Bess thinks we should be a scared. “If you think your iPhone is a transformative device, just wait til they turn on your brain-machine interface.” (174)

The last section of the book explores the ethical questions raised by the pursuit of human enhancement. How far should we go with enhancements? What modifications should embrace and which should we reject? What is generally better, modest or radical enhancements? What sorts of creatures do we want to become, and what sort do we to avoid becoming? Will we even have a say in determining such matters?

Bess doubts that we can “just say no” to these technologies, for even if we did some would pursue them in a black market or in countries more receptive to such technologies. Thus complete relinquishment of enhancement technologies is a non-starter. So the real question is whether we want to pursue enhancements at a low-level, increasing today’s capabilities; at a mid-level, capabilities beyond today’s levels but still recognized as human; or at a high level, capabilities we would classify us as transhuman or posthuman.

It is the transhumanist vision that Bess especially fears.  He argues that you cannot have a radically expanded cognitive architecture with transforming your identity. Such a consciousness would no longer be anything like the consciousness it used to be. Thus, to transform ourselves in this manner would be to terminate ourselves and become a new kind of sentient being. But we should not do this, Bess says, because of the potential for posthumans to harm others. “Until we know a great deal more than we do today about what such entities would be like … it would be the height of folly and irresponsibility to proceed with the project of creating them … The potential rewards are too uncertain, and the risks are far too great.” Furthermore, the societal consequences of some of us becoming posthuman might tear the fabric of civilization apart.

Here I think Bess’ arguments are less convincing. The transhumanist admits that the human species, as it is, must die in order for something better to replace it. But, the transhumanist would say, this is worth the risk because without radical transformation the species will almost certainly die out. Given the many extinction scenarios that accompany our journey into the future, the prospects for our continued existence seem meager. In that case even huge gambles are justified. And, if we turn our back on enhancements, we will almost certainly go extinct. The rewards of enhancements may be uncertain, but the risks of pursuing them are no greater than if we do nothing or only do a little.

Bess admits that the temptation to pursue radical enhancements will be great, but he counsels restraint. He hopes that as we adapt to low-level changes, we can gradually relax the constraints on mid-level and high-level ones.  He admits that enforcing these moratoriums would be difficult, and international cooperation would be hard to achieve, but arms control provides a model of how this might be accomplished. Still, Bess says, trying to control technologies that may spell our doom is worth the effort.

Bess’ book is one of the most thoughtful meditations on the future that I have read. Moreover, the book is carefully and conscientiously crafted, and meticulously argued. He is also impartial, giving a fair hearing to contradictory arguments, and wrestling fairly with the ideas as he encounters them. In the end, I would situate Bess’ views a bit toward the conservative side of the argument. While he is optimistic that we can muddle our way through the coming storm, which demands a large dose of optimism indeed, I sense more fear than excitement in his words. I think he overestimates how good life is now, and underestimates how good it could be.

Bess concludes that in the future: “the most potent deed of all will still take the form of a smile, a silent nod of empathy, a hand gently laid on someone’s arm. The merest act of kindness will still remain the Ultimate Enhancement.” This is touching, and it reminds us that remaking the world demands more than just engineering. But Iet us hope that Bess doesn’t mean this literally. Let us hope that in the future we can do more for human suffering than smile, nod and touch. Let us hope that someday there will be more than just kindness to ameliorate the reality of our descendents.

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