Sunday, 11 May 2014

Compulsory Scientific Service for the Fully Alive

Like many other transhumanists, the American sociologist Steve Fuller who currently holds the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick, UK, doesn’t think much of the precautionary principle (Steve Fuller, Towards a Proactionary Welfare State). All it does is hamper progress by unnecessarily restricting our choices. Basically, it turns us all into cowards, and this cowardice deprives us of all the great goods that we would be likely to achieve if we weren’t so damned careful all the time. We should therefore discard the principle and live instead by the proactionary principle, which encourages us to take (even considerable) risks if the expected gain is large enough. And this should of course be reflected in the law, which currently is far too restrictive. Of course there will be victims, people who are going to be “violated in the process”, but that is a price worth paying. We can also find ways to compensate those victims for their noble sacrifice (undertaken in the name of science and the progress of humanity), presumably by progressing ourselves and thus benefiting from their bravery. The value of our individual lives is overrated anyway. We should realise that our own personal survival is of little importance, given what is at stake here. “This is the largest and most difficult lesson because it calls on people to consider everything they value as negotiable, including their own lives. A proactionary welfare state would remove the taboo that locates the value of life primarily in the body of one’s birth. The legacy of decisions taken in one’s life would play a larger role, as risk-takers are rewarded in ways that keep their spirit alive even if their material existence undergoes radical transformation.”

I’m not entirely sure what that is supposed to mean, but in the given context we must assume that the radical transformation Fuller talks about includes what is commonly called the death of the individual. But Fuller is not content to demand that people be free to take great personal risks in order to speed up scientific progress, should they be willing to do so. He also believes that, if they prove unwilling, we (that is the law of the state) should actually compel them to offer their services to science and thus (at least potentially) sacrifice their own health and well-being, perhaps even their lives, for the greater good of humanity’s progress to posthuman glories. Just like the precautionary principle and the value of individual, embodied life, or life as we know it, Fuller argues that patient choice is much overrated (Steve Fuller, Suspended Ethics). It is in fact an absurd idea. Why do we have to be nearly dead to make it permissible for us to be subjected to risky and largely untested medical procedures? Why do we not use the “fully alive”?

Fuller appears to be puzzled by this “absurdity”, despite the fact that the answer is pretty obvious: because the nearly dead don’t have much to lose. If the procedure kills them, then they are not really worse off than they would have been if it had not been tried on them. Yet if you’re fully alive and healthy, then one should think that the prospect of being seriously harmed or killed as a result of the experiment (whose purpose remains obscure in Fuller’s article, but presumably would be some kind of enhancement) provides you with an excellent reason not to take part in it – unless of course you don’t put much value on your own health and survival. Not putting much value on our health and survival is of course exactly what Fuller expects us to do, but as far as I can see he doesn’t provide any good argument for it. I can only imagine that it is some murky notion of the common good that is meant to justify the demanded revision of our attitude towards our own lives. But just in case we remain unwilling to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good, the law should see to it that we do anyway. Although it would certainly be best if people made that sacrifice knowingly and willingly, the safest course of action is to make sure that they do by introducing a compulsory “scientific service”: “I see this very much on the model of compulsory national military service. Just as people are expected to bear arms when their lives are threatened (a la US Constitution 2nd amendment), they should also be compelled to participate in military service, if only to understand better all that is involved and at stake in maintaining one's life. Indeed, I would welcome compulsory ‘scientific service’ replacing compulsory military service in the long term.”

For me, this is the stuff of dystopian nightmares, and I am rather worried about the ease and nonchalance with which essentially totalitarian ideas like these are being accepted and promoted by academics and public intellectuals who really should know better.


  1. Thanks for trying to piece my view together, albeit unsympathetically. You might find this bit of use as well: In July, Palgrave will publish The Proactionary Imperative (co-authored with Veronika Lipinska), and that will give you a more complete picture.

    1. Thanks, Steve. Yes, quite unsympathetic, I know. And you're also right to point out that I might not have the complete picture, so I may well be missing something crucial here. If that is the case, I apologize, and I readily admit that my comments are based entirely on those two short pieces you published recently. "Humanity 2.0" is on my desk and I do intend to have a go at it soon. And I will also make sure to read "The Proactionary Imperative" once it is out. Thanks for letting me know about it.

    2. Thanks. I don't expect that you'll approve of the full picture, because I do take the 'scientific service' stuff seriously. For me, the issue is whether people have a right or a duty to become involved in science. At the moment, neither is really on the table, because research ethics codes are too restrictive. But I will communicate with you further by e-mail.