Friday, 27 July 2012

Meet the Superhumans! Channel 4's Paralympics Marketing Campaign

The Olympic Games finally started last night with a huge hullabaloo, but its supposedly ugly little sister, the Paralympics, will not begin before the end of August. However, two weeks ago various TV channels already broadcast a 90-second video promo, produced by a Channel 4 team, advertising the event. There we see a number of disabled athletes, training hard, faces full of determination, visibly ready to kick ass, and get a glimpse of the events that caused them to be what they are today: terrible accidents, war, genetic defects. Yet the film is made in such a way that those athletes don't come across as disabled at all. On the contrary, they appear to be immensely abled, despite the fact that they have got a limb or two missing or are confined to a wheelchair. There's no weakness to be seen, nothing that is apt to arouse compassion, or worse, pity in us. What we feel instead, and are meant to feel, is admiration, or even more than that: something more akin to awe. This impression is reinforced by four lines of text superimposed over the pictures: "Forget everything you thought you knew about strength./ Forget everything you thought you knew about humans./ It's time to battle./ Meet the superhumans." It is thus suggested that we regard the athletes competing at the Paralympics not as disabled, but on the contrary as superabled, not as less than human, as deficient in some way, but as more than human. I find this utterly remarkable, because it turns the usual perspective on its head. Superhumans are normally pictured as gifted with special physical or cognitive abilities that allow them to do things that no mere human can do. They can fly or have X-Ray eyes or read minds or bend time or are indestructable, or what have you. This is the kind of fantasy that informs much of our current thinking about human enhancement. The radically enhanced human or posthuman that transhumanists and others envisage, is really not much different from a comic book superhero. Both are able to do things that mere humans cannot do for the simple reason that for them the boundaries that determine our human existence no longer exist. They have overcome those boundaries by making them disappear. What the Channel 4 video spot about the Paralympics suggests, though, is that real strength does not show itself in a limitless existence, in the creation of an environment that no longer presents any obstacles to the satisfaction of our will, that is, in other words, in virtual omnipotence. Rather, real strength consists in the spirit. Instead of leaving behind all boundaries, we become more than human by deciding to live with them, but at the same time refusing to let ourselves be bullied by them. We prove both our humanity and superhumanity by refusing to buckle, by putting up a good fight and by accomplishing great things despite our limitations. Thus it is not human enhancement, at least not the kind of human enhancement that is commonly discussed as such, that will make us superhuman. If anything, it is resolve, and courage, and related virtues of the mind and heart.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Zero Degrees of Empathy? Baron-Cohen on Human Cruelty

I must say I had expected more from Simon Baron-Cohen's new book "Zero Degrees of Empathy. A New Theory of Human Cruelty and Kindness" (London: Allen Lane 2011), which I finished last night. If the main goal of this book is, as the author expressly maintains in his preface, "to understand human cruelty" (xi), then he fails rather spectacularly. The idea that he pursues in the book is that cruelty or what is commonly called "evil" should be understood as "empathy erosion". In other words, people who do really bad things to others do so because they have "zero degrees of empathy", which allows them to "treat others as if they are mere objects" (4). Baron-Cohen claims that this "new theory", i.e. thinking of human cruelty in terms of empathy erosion, provides an explanation, whereas speaking of "evil" does not. "Why did the murderer kill an innocent child? Because he was evil. Why did the terrorist become a suicide-bomber? Because she was evil." (4) Doesn't sound like much of an explanation, that's true, but look what happens when we replace the word "evil" with "complete lack of empathy": Why did the murderer kill an innocent child? Because he had no empathy. Why did this terrorist become a suicide-bomber? Because she had no empathy. Obviously, even though a lack of empathy might be necessary to do certain things to others, it is hardly sufficient to explain those actions, as the author himself occasionally admits. In fact, he spends most of the book discussing personality disorders that are also characterised by zero degrees of empathy, such as borderline, narcissism, Asperger syndrome, and classic autism, but that are not accompanied by a tendency to acts of cruelty. In fact, people with Asperger Syndrome are often very kind and gentle, which Baron Cohen tries to explain by distinguishing between a cognitive and an affective component of empathy, but the distinction remains largely obscure, although we can probably relate it back to his conveniently ambiguous definition of empathy, which is defined as: "our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion." (12) So there are allegedly two "stages" of empathy: recognition and response. It is hard to see, though, how one should be capable of responding to someone else's thoughts and feelings (the affective component, presumably) without first identifying (the cognitive component) what they are thinking and feeling. And surely someone who enjoys torturing another person, must do more than just know (in an abstract, unaffected way) what they are feeling. For the one who has zero degrees of empathy, Baron-Cohen explains, the other person's feelings do no longer exist. But surely they do for the cruel person. They must respond to it affectively in some way, though obviously not in what Baron-Cohen thinks of as the "appropriate" way. They are not just objects (though perhaps means to an end), but living, feeling beings. So is that what makes a person capable of enjoying (!) the suffering of others really a lack of understanding? Indifference, which certainly gives rise to many terrible acts, can perhaps be understood that way, but not cruelty. Even if we are charitable and understand Baron-Cohen as saying that a lack of empathy is necessary, though not sufficient for cruelty, we are not really any wiser than before, for all it means really is that someone who is capable of hurting others badly usually doesn't give a shit about the other person and their interests and feelings, and that is not exactly news, is it? Baron-Cohen squanders any explanatory value that the concept of empathy, or lack thereof, might be thought to have by declaring that a mother who kills her two children, must "by definition" (111), at least while she commits the deed, lack empathy. So this doesn't get us any closer to understanding why she did it. And it might not even be true that you can only kill your children, or do other terrible things to people, when they and their feelings "don't exist" for you. I don't see why a parent, in desperation, should not kill their children and at the same time feel love for them and suffer immensely in response to their distress. Is this really impossible? So at best, "lack of empathy" doesn't explain anything, and at worst it is misleading.

Notwithstanding, in the very last section of the book Baron-Cohen even goes so far as to praise empathy as a kind of panacea, a "univeral solvent" (132). If we only had more of it, everything would be just fine. Peace on earth and all that. Sure, if people were nicer to each other and thought more about others than themselves, there would probably be less violent conflicts in the world. But unfortunately they aren't and Baron-Cohen does not tell us anything about how we might change that.

What I found most interesting (because it is relevant to the possibility and meaning of moral enhancement) is an experimental finding that Baron-Cohen only mentions in passing (57). Persons with damage to certain brain regions related to empathy are far more likely to judge it morally permissible to kill an innocent person in order to save the lives of others. In other words, the psychopath is the better utilitarian. Who would have thought?

Unfit for the Future? Persson and Savulescu on Moral Enhancement

A couple of weeks ago Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu published a book on moral enhancement: Unfit for the Future. The Need for Moral Enhancement, Oxford University Press 2012. With its 139 pages it is rather a short book and it doesn't add much to the argument that the two authors have been making in various papers since the publication of "The Perils of Cognitive Enhancement" in the Journal of Applied Philosophy four years ago. However, despite my scepticism about the human enhancement project in general and the prospects of moral enhancement in particular, I cannot find much fault with the authors' argument, which is developed with the utmost care, and even with an uncharacteristic dose of modesty. The idea is actually very simple (and very neatly captured in the title of the book): we are constitutionally unable to deal with the problems that we face today - with global terrorism, mass starvation in countries that we euphemistically call developing, environmental destruction, and climate change. Liberal democracy doesn't help, on the contrary: it makes matters worse because it can only ever allow popular policies, and the restrictions that we would have to impose on ourselves in order to save the planet for future generations and non-human animals are never going to be very popular as long as we are morally so restricted as we are. Thus we tend to believe that we are morally responsible only for what we actively cause, not what we merely allow to happen. Our altruism is usually limited to people that are nearby (in space and time), and we are emotionally unaffected by large numbers, so we can stomach the starvation of millions easier than the starvation of one person right on our doorstep. So as it stands, we really are about to mess it up and before long it will be too late to do anything about it, so what we need to do, if we can, is improve our moral dispositions and find a way to overcome the deficiencies that are part of our evolved nature. As much as I would like to find fault with this diagnosis, it is probably correct.

What is remarkable about the book, though, given that Savulescu used to be one of the foremost proponents of the human enhancement project, is the authors' emphasis on the great dangers of modern scientific technologies (including those that would allow moral enhancement) and their willingness to renounce the kind of enhancement that we are by now used to see described as immensely desirable, such as life extension or cognitive enhancement, as at best trivial and hardly worth pursuing. Savulescu published an article in the Times Higher Education a few months ago, in which he warned of the dangers of synthetic biology, which promptly led to him being denounced as a bioconservative and bioluddite by angry readers, which is quite ironic really. Anyway, in "Unfit for the Future", Persson and Savulescu describe in detail various "catastrophic misuses of science", real and possible, and affirm the idea that the human organism is well-adapted and should therefore better not be interfered with (an idea that has been ridiculed, among others, by Allen Buchanan as well as Nick Bostrom). Research "into the possibility of extending human longevity beyond the 120 years or so now thought feasible" is presented as an example of "arguably misguided research" (131), and much of the other contemporary enhancement research is declared to be "governed by the selfish interests of the rich, which aggravates global inequality and harms the interests of future generations." (ibid.) So it seems that we are witnessing a remarkable turn in the attitudes of some of those ethicists who formerly tended to praise enhancement technologies for the many benefits they would bring us. Another recent example is the former liberal eugenicist Nicholas Agar who turned bioconservative with his latest book, "Humanity's End".

Still I am not sure that I agree with all the claims being made in the book, for instance the claim that there actually is no right to privacy (which would stand in the way of a yet more extensive state surveillance of citizens). Persson and Savulescu believe that individual liberty needs to be curtailed, and perhaps they are right, but I find it hard to accept that. Individual liberty is a very important thing, and we should not part with it all too easily. I'm also more sceptical of the possibility of moral enhancement. Persson and Savulescu identify altruism and a sense of justice as the core moral dispositions, which "always issue in a morally correct treatment of the individuals to whom they are directed" (108). Yet it is pretty clear that those dispositions can contradict each other, for instance in the ultimatum game, where it is the case that the more altruistic the responder feels disposed, the less they are willing to articulate and enforce a sense of justice (because this would require punishing and thus harming the other for their unfair proposal). Generally speaking, though, the authors are well aware of the problems that we would have to face if we really wanted to morally enhance people, but they argue that if that is the only chance we have to turn things around and prevent a catastrophe, then we should at least explore the option. Again, this is probably right.