Friday, December 19, 2008

Dichotomy and Interdependence: An Analysis of "The Matrix"

The release of the Wachowski brother’s film The Matrix in 1999 was a milestone in science fiction cinema and special effects. The film depicts a dystopian future where the reality perceived by humans is actually a simulated reality created by sentient machines in order to subdue humans and utilize their biological energy to power a machine civilization. The plot follows Neo, a messianic character in the film, as he is liberated from the bondage of the machines and attempts to unshackle, or unplug, the remaining members of the human race. Combining elements of cyberpunk, martial arts, and what has come to be known as “bullet time” special effects, The Matrix is both visually stunning and conceptually thought provoking. The film also utilizes imagery and a narrative structure to seemingly illustrate many philosophical and social dichotomies that may be familiar in our current cultural context. I will argue that these dichotomies are in fact complements in the film and are not only symmetrical and interdependent but inform and define each other. I will go through the film in chronological order and use the specific imagery and narrative context to describe and illustrate these complements. I will also discuss how the film is a warning against technology and provide a commentary on the sublime nature of reality.

The film opens with greenish, electrically shimmering film logos and ominous music to immediately convey to the viewer that something will be different in this film compared to others. The viewer is then presented with what seems to be computer code written in an unfamiliar, Asian-like language cascading down the screen, slowly disappearing and morphing into the title of the film. The purpose of these first 40 seconds is to set a tone of disengagement and confusion along with begging the viewer to ask the question, “What is the Matrix?” This is important because one of the themes of the film is the philosophical difficulty of reality. In other words, how does one know with certainty that what they perceive to be real is, in fact, true? The more disengaged and confused the viewer is at this stage of the film, the deeper they will be engaged into the film itself as the story develops. This is the first set of dichotomies established in the film – disengagement versus engagement and confusion versus clarity. These dichotomies serve to bring the viewer along for the ride and also reinforce the notion that belief is important to both character and viewer. In the case of Neo, belief is important in a new “reality” (Matrix) where anything is possible and in the case of the viewer, belief is important in accepting the possibility of such a future. Each dichotomy depends on its analogous parts to drive the intrigue forward, present in both character and viewer.

The next scene follows the character of Trinity, first as a voice discussing Neo and later as she performs some seemingly impossible kung fu and flees the agents on the rooftops. The menacing, corporate clad agents set up another dichotomy with the vinyl clad Trinity both in clothing and morality. The viewer is unsure who she is but it seems clear that she somehow represents good while the agents represent evil. We later learn that this is the case, although it is suggested that the roles were reversed at some point in history when humans unjustly treated the machines in their early stages of self-awareness. Clothing is important throughout the film. The agents in their brown suits, matching ties, and square sunglasses could arguably represent a corporate system of control while the vinyl or leather clothing worn by Morpheus and his crew could represent the bondage of the individual or non-conformist in a corporate state. Again, dichotomies of good versus evil and corporate versus individual are established early in the film before the viewer has comprehension of what is taking place. This scene ends with a phone booth and the disappearance of Trinity, the question of how she disappeared left as yet unanswered.

The next scene introduces the Mr. Anderson/Neo character played by Keanu Reeves by taking the viewer through what appears to be an electronic circuit, greenish patterned energy flowing past. This scene also introduces the dichotomies of waking versus sleep and machine versus human. Neo is first seen asleep with headphones on, a computer search running in the background for Morpheus. The search for Morpheus, named for the Greek god of dreams, is actually Neo’s search for an answer to the question of the Matrix. The answer to the question of the Matrix concerns the nature of reality. The mind relies on the senses to interpret the world by which reality is defined. Without the mind or the senses, neither could truly exist just as dying in the Matrix means death in the real world. This is yet another complementary dichotomy that the film illustrates. The imagery of the computer words on a black screen and not an actual voice waking Neo up speaks to the interdependence Neo has with machines along with the idea that reality can be like a dream state, further supporting the notion that reality may be ambiguous. Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy explores and develops methodological doubt along similar lines. This scene will also tie into the computer center of the Nebuchadnezzar in that Mr. Anderson’s room in Matrix looks remarkably like the computer network of Morpheus’ ship. The imagery and quiet narrative of Reeve’s character in this introductory scene are rich with opposites that will reverberate throughout the film – reality versus illusion, waking versus sleep, machine versus human, rationality versus experience - all interdependent and complementary because neither opposite could function or exist without the other.

The notion that “life is but a dream” recurs many times throughout the film along with references to Alice in Wonderland to exacerbate the idea that everything may not be as it seems. References to “follow the white rabbit” and the appearance of the character of Du Jour with a white rabbit tattoo on her shoulder are the most obvious examples of this link to Lewis Carrol. It is interesting that the character of Troy, a somewhat shady figure, reveals the future of Neo by saying, “Hallelujah. You’re my savior, man. My own personal Jesus Christ” and “Don’t worry, you don’t exist.” Finally, Troy says, “It just sounds like you need to unplug.” This is interesting because he seems serious about his use of mescaline, a mind-altering hallucinogen. This could be a commentary about drug use in that by “dropping out”, one may actually be more in touch with what may be actual reality. This notion is certainly supported further by the choice Neo has to make after meeting Morpheus between taking a drug, whether it be a red pill or the blue.
The scene that takes place between Neo meeting Trinity and his introduction to Morpheus further develops many of the dichotomies already established. Trinity confirms that Neo is searching for something other than Morpheus, the work discipline meeting with the boss that looks like an agent, and the attempted escape illustrate the dichotomy between corporate versus individual, reality versus illusion, and the interconnectedness of man and machine. Neo needs computers in the Matrix to find the answer of what the Matrix is, which proves to be part of the machine world. The lecture given to Neo by his boss is remarkably like the message of the what machine world is attempting to achieve with humans, which further adds to the notion of interconnectedness between the parts and the whole of both the machine world and the corporate world. The attempted escape from the agents not only sets up the inevitability that agent Smith refers to in his fight with Neo later in the film but also another dichotomy between ordinary and extraordinary. The humans that are plugged in need the comfort of the ordinary environment produced by the simulated reality of the Matrix, which is, in fact, an environment where the extraordinary feats may be achieved. The journey Neo takes is from the commonplace world that the Matrix provides, into the real world of Morpheus and Zion, and finally back into the commonplace world of the Matrix, is a journey that allows for his transformation into savior. Once again we see interdependence and complementary dichotomies that help define and inform each other woven throughout The Matrix.

The scene from Neo’s interrogation by the three agents to his birth out of the Matrix further develops the ambiguous nature of reality, Neo’s relationship with Agent Smith, and the dual nature of Neo himself. The viewer is once again transported through an electronic device, which seems to give the illusion of coming though a television monitor. This could be a commentary on the dual nature of television and media in general along with establishing yet another dichotomy. As much as we view television and are informed by it, maybe in a way, television views and is informed by us. The imagery of the “bug” transforming into a fleshy creature, disappearing through Mr. Anderson’s navel followed by Neo waking to Morpheus’s phone call further plays with the notions of disengagement, confusion, and reality both for the viewer and in a diegetic way. Agent Smith’s character is developed more in this scene as well, with many negative “human-like” qualities starting to surface such as pride and sadism in Neo’s disturbing loss of his mouth and subsequent invasion by the “bug”. It is interesting that Neo’s character is many times affectively flat, much like Agent Smith. This is not a coincidence as each character helps to define each other. They are in fact symmetrical and complementary just as good and evil or Jesus and the anti-Christ are symmetrical and complementary. Each is, in a way, without purpose and meaning without each other. We also see that Neo is a dichotomy within himself, living two separate lives with almost two different personalities. His choice of taking the red pill after he finally meets Morpheus does not erase the plugged in side of this dichotomy and indeed sets him up for failure before he succeeds by eventually saving Morpheus. The imagery of the mirror becoming unbroken for Neo, covering him, and eventually overwhelming him supports the notion that the two sides will become one in his future. It is only through finding the interdependence between the two-sides of his nature that he is able to master the Matrix. Besides entertaining and challenging the viewer, maybe this is the ultimate message of The Matrix – we all have two sides in our nature and knowledge of this fact and balance between these forces is what we should strive to achieve.

The scenes from Neo’s birth from the Matrix into the “desert of the real” through his visit with the Oracle to Morpheus’ rescue by Neo work together to develop the interdependence that the Matrix and the “real world” have on each other as well as the relationship between knowledge and belief. The imagery and music as Neo “awakens” from the Matrix in a reddish pod overlooking humanity/power generator towers is probably one of the most memorable in all of science fiction film. It is here that the diegetic reality world is revealed to Neo and the narrative reality to the viewer. The power of the mind over the body is clear as Neo is rehabilitated from an atrophied state into a functional member of this new reality. The interesting part of his rehabilitation, however, is that it requires plugging him into a computer construct for training and education. It is also in the construct that Neo learns of nature of the Matrix, which initially is overwhelming to the point of a psychosomatic break. The machines become the tools and life support systems in a new way or maybe just in a different way.

The harshness of the real world aboard the Nebuchadnezzar is also evident by the imagery of ragged clothes, worn out technology, and less than desirable food. In many ways and what will become Cipher’s argument, the Matrix may make for a better life than the real. The epistemic difficulty of certainty and knowledge is fully revealed in these scenes. How do we know with certainty what we know and how can we trust our eyes and other senses to support our sense of truth and actuality? Other questions that are begged are what makes for a good life or what is an acceptable price to pay for freedom? Cipher’s meeting with Agent Smith in the restaurant illustrate that freedom itself may be an illusion and defining a good life may have universal attributes. The classic kung fu scene between Neo and Morpheus also begin to reveal that maybe belief, not knowledge, is more important in both worlds because knowledge itself may be untrustworthy. The cryptic message from the Oracle to Neo allows him the power or freedom to believe in something not as big as saving the world, but in the saving of one man (Morpheus). Trinity and Morpheus’ belief in Neo is both challenged and confirmed while their knowledge is also tenuous. Ultimately, Neo finally believes that, “There is no spoon.” in the lobby gun and kung fu sequence to rescue Morpheus and Trinity later from the helicopter. Through belief, the student becomes the master, another interdependent dichotomy illustrated in the film. Lastly, these scenes begin to develop the dichotomy between fate and choice and its relationship between illusion and reality. As Morpheus says, “There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path”. This makes the viewer question that notion that if a prophecy can come true, was there ever any choice along the way. The dichotomies in these scenes allow for Neo to become the power that that was prophesized by the Oracle, but challenge both his character and the viewer to wonder if he is simply a tool in a larger scheme, out of his control.
The scenes from Neo’s fight with Agent Smith to the end of the film bring the dichotomies I have discussed so far through imagery and narrative structure to illustrate the complementary and symmetrical nature of interdependent opposites. Neo’s disengagement, confusion, and struggle with the Mr. Anderson side of himself are somewhat maintained in his character but these qualities are brought together with their opposites, which allow him to reach his potential, stop the bullets, and bring about Agent Smith’s demise. Jumping into Agent Smith is symbolic in that there is a part of both characters that is fighting for control and freedom. It also begs the question of how much of Smith is now inside of Neo. If Neo is the ultimate human in the film and Agent Smith is the ultimate machine representation, then by the dichotomous structure that the film takes, both need each other as much they are in conflict. Neo and Agent Smith are visually and narratively the largest representation of Yin and Yang in the film - corporate versus individual, good versus evil, and machine versus human all come together through their interaction. This part of the story will be brought to the forefront more in the second and third Matrix films.

The other dichotomy that is developed in a significant way in these last scenes is between Neo and Trinity. This part of the film develops the love story between them and demonstrates its power over the two characters. Indeed, it was Trinity’s words and kiss, just as in a fairy tale, that was essential to Neo’s resurrection after Agent Smith killed him. This is where the message of hope is revealed – love may sometimes conquer all. Both Neo and Trinity are strong in complementary ways. Both are essential to the plot and storyline in complementary ways. Both find and rescue each other in complementary ways. Both need each other in symmetrical and complementary ways. The notion of male and female, whether that is in physical form or of character, make for the last dichotomy in the film, and not by chance. We cannot venture through this world alone because it can be ambiguous and filled with self-doubt. It is only through the connections we make with other that allows us the hope and ability to make it through each day. This is especially true with those that we consider to be our opposite, our match, or our soul mate because we give as much as we receive in an ultimate state of interdependence. The Matrix presents us with a dystopian future, but it ends on a message of hope, both in the context of the love of one and within the context of society as a whole. Maybe one day all of us, like Neo, we will strike that balance between our own inner dichotomies so that we may also fly.

The relationship that humans hold with machines could arguably be considered fragile. The bone that allowed our ancestors the ability to fend off starvation by killing animals for their meat also held the power for murder of other humans, as Stanley Kubrick illustrated in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The more advanced the tool, the greater potential for its misuse. Computers speed up processes that would be nearly impossible for any one mind alone, but its development also paved the way for new kinds of theft and depravity. Dynamite was invented for use in mining, but history clearly shows how much pain and suffering has come with its development through munitions and bombs. Along with that potential for misuse, the development of technology has increased our dependence on it. We have lost much of the body hair that our ancestors possessed because clothing and other forms of technology no longer made that trait a necessity. How long could we survive without the technology of shelter and electricity? Many of us would survive but it unquestionable that many would perish as a result. It is important to keep in mind, however, that our evolution into sentient creatures may not have been possible without our use of technology. John Harris, author of Enhancing Evolution, argues that human evolution stopped around the mid 1800’s. Technology took enough environmental pressure off of us as a species so that natural selection could no longer act. Instead, he argues that deliberative selection replaced the natural in setting the course for a human future. Therefore, if it is true that we are dependent on technology and have an evolutionary relationship with it (even though it may be misused), it follows that the misuse of technology holds with it the potential to harm us or lead us into our own de-evolution. Technology, like the machines in The Matrix, holds within it dichotomies then for good and evil along with happiness and despair.

The Matrix is, in a way, a commentary on the dichotomy of technology. As much as we depend on technology, the development of technology is dependent on us. Should we ever achieve sentience in the machines that we create, the interdependence between the two would change the way we define responsibility and look at ourselves. In the film, the humans in the “real world” suffer many creature comforts that many would call necessities, but they could not survive without the machines such as the Nebuchadnezzar that serve them. The machine world need humans for power and could not survive without us. We need them as much as they need us. Maybe the conflict between man and machine reached the level that it did because the humans of the future unwittingly built their psyches into the machines and ended up seeing themselves like the repetitive images of mirrors within The Matrix. Many times, we fight as much with our psyches as we do with each other so the future people in the film ended up doing what humans do best – fighting with each other. If we endow a machine with all of the qualities we characterize as human, would we not be fighting ourselves because we have put us into them? What else should we expect of a sentient technology that we make in our image? The message and warning of The Matrix is that technology will no doubt continue to be part of our shared future, but hubris and not remembering that technology has a dark side may become our undoing. Remember that the person that goes higher up a ladder will be able see farther than those below, but the higher one goes up, the harder and more lethal the fall.

To conclude, I will briefly discuss the sublime nature of reality surrounding the story of The Matrix. The epistemological difficulty of reality has been debated since the birth of philosophy. Rene Descartes took the argument to extremes to ultimately argue for the existence of God and provide a method for practicing science. He brought the idea down to one certainty with the cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). The idea of confusing reality due to being plugged into a machine or in a dream state is not original then to the Wachowski brothers. It is interesting that the development of technology allowed the concept of an ambiguous reality to be conveyed in such a sublime way. In other words, without powerful computers and other technology to generate expansive special effects, The Matrix could not be made, which would not provide us the warning against technology. The image of Neo overlooking the towers of humans dreaming away existence is simultaneously beautiful, terrible, and beyond comprehension – the very epitome of the sublime. Agent Smith also commented on the nature of the Matrix as he is torturing Morpheus, the view from the top offices overlooking the expanse of the Matrix to the artificial horizon. As much as the Matrix represents slavery, it is from a sensory point of view, indistinguishable for anyone except Neo. But what if it was true? What if you, the reader of this paper, did not exist in the way that you think you do? That would be sublime as well because there is just as much beauty, terror, and that which is beyond comprehension in this reality as any other imagined reality so even if you did not live in the desert of the real, I argue that it would not matter. Trinity says to Neo on their way to see the Oracle that the Matrix cannot tell you who you are. Meaning, purpose, and perspective ultimately lie within each of us, regardless of reality. The truth of what our senses tell us is not important in the grand scheme of things. Reality or more precisely the idea of reality provides us the challenges to find the balance within and what we do with the cards we are dealt. All of these ideas may have philosophical implications in regards to truth but at the end of the day, we must function within the world that we live. Maybe then truth, like reality, is also sublime.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Evolution, Technology, and the Sublime: An Analysis of Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey"

Stanley Kubrick’s release of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the spring of 1968 marked a pivotal moment in filmmaking history. Whether referring to the stark realism of space travel in contrast to such films as Destination Moon (1950) or the deafening quiet and lack of dialogue reminiscent of the silent film era, 2001 was and remains to this day unique. Many argue, including co-screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke, that the story is an expansive 4 million year history of human evolution through intelligent, alien means. I will argue that through Kubrick’s use of music and imagery of the sublime, the film is indeed about human evolution, but more precisely, it concerns the evolution of the human relationship with technology. I will show how the film's depiction of technology makes a commentary that it is not simply a tool of human masters to achieve ends otherwise impossible to our physical selves, but that it actually informs and defines identity and the human condition. As such, human evolution and the human condition are dependent upon technology and the ensuing culture that technology allows, blurring the distinction between master and servant. I will describe the visual and musical aspects of the sublime from the pre-film overture through “Jupiter Mission: 18 Months Later” as support. Lastly, I will briefly discuss a possible implication and future of the human relationship with technology.

Kubrick begins to set the tone of 2001 before the MGM logo even appears by playing a three-minute musical overture of Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” against a blank screen. The eerie quality of the music puts the audience in an expectant mood, which, after the brief appearance of the movie logo and before the opening credits, is delivered by a stunning image of the sunrise over the planet Earth. The imagery immediately places the viewer and that of mankind within an intended perspective – humans as a small, almost insignificant entity in an immense, awe-inspiring universe. Richard Strauss’ grand “Also Sprach Zarathustra” is playing forcefully, further adding to the mood and affect of the sublime. The planetary alignment is representative of the sublime in its grandeur, beauty, and vastness but more importantly, it speaks to the meaning of this celestial configuration in human history. The religious importance of lunar and solar eclipses throughout the history of civilization is undeniable. The black screen of the overture coupled with the sunrise over Earth scene could be interpreted to be symbolic of the religious in that many creation stories start with absence of light and nothingness to a sudden birth of light and form. The creation of the ape-man in “The Dawn of Man” is left open to speculation but this opening sequence sets the stage for the birth of man within the universe, not just within a localized region of our planet.

“The Dawn of Man” opens with wide still-shots of what appears to be the African savannah. It is desolate, vast, and immensely quiet except for the sounds of crickets and wind. This imagery, lack of music, and minimal sounds are used by Kubrick to convey the state from which our ancestors lived – sublimely beautiful and terrible. It is clear from the first images of the ape-men that their nature is different from conventional thought of innate human aggressiveness. They are weak, non-threatening, and starving to death. They forage for plants in the dust alongside obviously plump tapirs and are preyed upon by a leopard from a position above the framing of the shot. The viewer sees sun-bleached humanoid bones strewn about also as an indication that even the basics of what we would deem civilization has not yet been established. The point of this prelude to the monolith is that the ape-men are on the brink of extinction and they do not have the intelligence or means to do anything about it. This is exacerbated by the nighttime scene of fright that seems to be evident on the strained faces of all of the ape-men.

Dawn, however, brings something different to both the ape-men and the audience. It begins with light upon their sleeping faces, the waking of one of their number, and the rising music of Ligeti’s “Requiem”. Before we see the monolith, Kubrick creates another expectant mood of the sublime or, arguably, the religious. When the audience finally sees the monolith, it is with the same curiosity and wonder as the ape-men exhibit, and this is deliberate. The monolith is itself an image of the sublime in its perfection and mystery. It further conveys the notion of the sublime and, again arguably, the “birth” of man when the alignment of the Sun and Moon rise over the rectangular form. Whether divine or alien, the monolith seems to give our ancestors the push they need to survive through the discovery of tools. Primitive in rock and bone, our evolution to sentience is dependent on what will later become technology. The ape-men no longer starve replacing the leopard on the top perch of the food chain. What is troublesome and poignant, however, is the immediate association with appears to be the first murder at the waterhole. A double-edged sword perhaps, but certainly an essential dependence on technology and factor in the evolution if our species has been born.

The image of a bone thrown into the air transposed into a satellite, a leap of 4 million years into the future, is at once memorable and purposeful signifying that maybe mankind has become more sophisticated with the use of tools but not with issues related to what is necessary to take another leap in evolution. Johann Strauss’ “Blue Danube” further conveys the idea of sophistication and evolution as well as once again setting a sublime mood associated with the beauty and vastness of space. It is beyond the scope of this essay to explore possible interpretations of Kubrick’s vision of what our next step in our evolution might look like in “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”, but I argue it must involve elimination or, at very least, a minimization of the double-edge nature or dark side of the interdependent relationship we hold with technology. In “TMA-1”, the double-edge nature of technology is evident in the fragility and dependence of not only the physical human self throughout Heywood Floyd’s journey to the Moon, but with the interaction with the Soviet scientists and deception imposed by the discovery of the second monolith as well. It is double-edged or a dark side because, just as our ape-men ancestors, we still rely on technology for life yet use it not to unify but to divide. Most notions of an evolutionary next step involve a move to a more ideal, peaceful, and unified humanity. It is possible that this step will only be achieved by a true mastery of technology coupled with a lack of dependence, which I will further explore next.

In “TMA 1”, we start to see a similarity between man and machine. First, the clothing and emotion are sterile just as the space technology of 4 million years of evolution is sterile. Secondly, there is a mundane quality to the action (or lack thereof) of the characters including Heywood Floyd and the flight personnel. The technology may not be mundane, even by today’s standards, but the acceptance of the technology seems to be associated with quiet boredom or the mundane. From eating liquid food from an enclosed tray to using a gravity-free toilet, the dependence on technology does not seem to be on a conscious level of awareness. When the shuttle lands on the Moon and is lowered into the docking bay, the shuttle itself looks like a human head. Further the bay itself is lit with red light, which gives the impression of womb, more symbolism Kubrick uses to bring together the idea of human evolution and technology. The act ends with the approach of Heywood Floyd and company to the second monolith. Again, there is the same reverence, curiosity, and awesome potential meaning associated with Kubrick’s filming of this scene in a similar way as the ape-men scene with the first monolith. Ligeti’s “Requiem” is again playing communicate both the similarity to our ancestors and the sublime nature of the spatio-temporal moment in history. As before, the imagery of the Earth, Moon, and Sun is highlighted with the monolith, which is abruptly disrupted by the radio interference generated presumably from within.

The acceptance of and dependence on technology sets the stage for next act, “Jupiter Mission: 18 Months Later”. Again, boredom and the mundane seem to be what Kubrick is trying to convey about the reality of space flight. The carousel and the introduction of HAL are a constant reminder for the audience of the dependence Bowman and Poole, indeed humanity, have with technology. The cryogenic chambers with seemingly dead bodies within bring this notion clearly into focus. The similarity between man and machine is also developed further through the seemingly robotic apathy of Bowman and Poole along with certain characteristics of HAL. He suffers from hubris and seemingly human emotion but it is interesting that his speech is maintained at a monotone level from the beginning of the scene through his destruction. It is the emphasis of similarity between man and technology that highlights the interdependence of the two. The tool cannot be without man while man cannot be without the tool. Mankind still wins out in this scene because Bowman is able to achieve what HAL could not - murder. It is also seems clear that since HAL is one of the first of his kind that this might not always be the case unless the construct is changed concerning the interaction and relationship between mankind and technology.

The construct Kubrick portrays through imagery and music of the Jupiter Mission along with the relationship between HAL and the crew of Discovery is at the heart of my thesis – the story of human evolution is inextricably linked with the evolution of technology. Further, technology informs us and defines certain aspects of identity through what is culturally possible with technology. In the case of 2001, the similarity between man and machine are almost necessary for the rigors of space travel. At the same time, it is doubtful that the encompassing technology of HAL and Discovery do not shape the identity of Bowman and Poole. The simulacra that HAL represents, is not only evidence of how far evolution has taken us but what we may become. The more we advance technologically, the more risk we take in changing the human condition that is itself shaped by the technology we create through the our advancement. This is not so hard to believe when we look at cell-phone technology and how it has transformed how we communicate and how we relate to each other. What is even more startling is the relatively short time these cultural changes have taken place. Text messaging has streamlined the number of words necessary to relay a message to someone we may never actually physically have contact with. How is this so different from the design of the cell-phone technology we created to allow us to do that in the first place? We have shaped the technology as much as technology has shaped us.

2001: A Space Odyssey, is both a sublimely beautiful and cautionary at the same time. Like the relationship humans have with technology, the tale carries with it throughout the film the thread of interdependence, danger, and identity in exploring one possible explanation for our evolution. The monolith with its coldly perfect form may be part of our past as well as our future in ways that Kubrick never intended. In other words, maybe technology gave birth to us so we could give birth to more technology, but maybe we are the monolith and our destiny is to merge with technology, to become cold and perfect. If we continually strive to advance and perfect technology and technology shapes who we are in relation to the universe, it is logical and inevitable that humans are headed down the same path to advancement and perfection. The question then is: will we reach that destination or, like the creation of HAL, will we create our own demise? One thing is for certain, our relationship with technology will remain tenuous until we can master ourselves and maybe that was the real message that Kubrick was trying to convey. Only with this mastery of ourselves can we shape advancing technology that will in turn shape an ultimate destination, not a demise.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Daniels' "Why Not The Best?"

Daniels, Norman (2000). “Why Not the Best" in Buchanan, Allen et al. eds, From Chance to Choice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 156-203.

This chapter seeks to answer the question why parents should or should not seek the best – even through genetics - for their children. Parents are generally regarded as having permission and, some say, obligation to produce the “best" children possible. This includes development through nutrition, exercises, sports, and other investments to produce the best prudential or moral agents possible. The poor may struggle just to have their children survive and this may be the best they can do or expect of the child. We recognize that best as perceived by society may not constrain many religion’s pursuit of what they feel is best for their children. Neglect and abuse aside, interference is viewed as a fundamental interference to a parent’s conception of a good life. Environmental pursuits seem to be different from genetic because it is viewed as working within the natural capabilities of the child. This modifies the phenotype of the child and there is no agreed upon "best" as to what this should look like. Daniels rejects genetic determinism and claims that it is components of the phenotype that is central to our conception of self, not genotype. Because we leave so much room for environmental effects, this should undercut any idea of genetic determinism. Are there adequate or defensible standards as to what makes a child “best”? Who is allowed to make such decisions under what criteria?

Three positions supporting attempts to perfect children through genetic intervention:
1. Strongest – it is morally required of parents or others to seek to produce the best children possible.
2. Weaker – it is morally good for parents to use a variety of mean, including genetic interventions, to attempt to produce the best children possible, i.e., we attempt to benefit the child for the child’s sake.
3. Weakest – within the legitimate authority of parents in having and raising their children to use at least some forms of genetic interventions in seeking to improve their children.
Is the use of genetic intervention morally good or desirable, other things being equal, in the same way as environmental interventions? Even if some genetic intervention is on balance undesirable, is it morally permissible because of a parent’s legitimate authority over their children? The history of eugenics should give us caution when answering these questions but Daniels notes that prejudice and stereotyping is just as much of a problem for environmental interventions as it could be for genetic.

If we are to say that a parent tries to produce the best child possible, we must reasonably expect the child to share the value and criteria of best means. The problem is that childrearing shapes the values and evaluative standards that shape their outlook on their life and other standards so, in a sense, a child is tainted by the very practices in question. Daniels argues that any attempt to justify an endorsement of steps that produces the effects on the child must include the notion that the child later has the independent capacity to evaluate those steps. The problem here is that the notion of choosing your own character is incoherent when one considers that one must have character and values before one can evaluate character and values. In this respect, this criterion is insufficient to justify a child’s character. Disability is brought up again and he notes that different groups have advocated that their disability allows for a flourishing of other abilities so, with accommodations, this removes much of the disadvantages the disability confers. I think this is problematic in the same way a child's upbringing shapes the perspective of value as both a means and an end to that upbringing. Daniels further notes that there is not systematic contrast between harms and benefits that is objective, i.e., a harm to my life and child may be a benefit to yours. The idea of normal species functioning, Daniels argues, provides a prima facie case for elimination or benefit from genetic intervention in the treatment of disease. This is problematic, however, because it begs the question of who determines the medical boundary line. The authors seem to reject the idea of a parent’s neutrality in the use of genetic intervention and claim that it may lead only to particular or idiosyncratic conception of what the parent’s idea is of a good life.

Daniels then appeals to Feinberg (1980) to explore the case of a child’s right to an open future. I'll make only a few comments as I have studied this concept before in bioethics. He does feel that right to an open future is compatible to genetic intervention in the same way environmental intervention is compatible but he does question how much this has the possibility of limiting those options. If environmental interventions affect evaluative prospects of a future child and genetic interventions have the possibility of doing the same, is the idea of a right to an open future viable considering that autonomy is affected one way or the other? In other words, how much does a parent affect adaptive capacity? A child has moral and legal rights but we also know that even society limits the scope of these rights because they are not in a position, due to development, to make certain moral choices on their own. Daniels next goes into what role the state should play in genetic intervention, if any, of a child. He cautions that a society’s concern does rule out a perspective of what is best for the society, rather than for the individual. I think this disturbs them that eugenic history may repeat itself if society had too much power in this respect. He does think that it may be less problematic in a liberal democracy if it concerning all-purpose traits such as resistance to tooth decay. He argues that a society’s neutrality must be more stringent than a parent's concerning any type of intervention.

Daniels then appeals to Rawls’ notion that reasonable people, despite their own comprehensive moral views and conceptions of a good life, must incorporate within their views a view that others may reasonable disagree about such matters. As such, parents must aim to create children with the intellectual and emotional capacity to do the same, even if that means that child disagrees with the parent. This may be problematic for both environmental and genetic intervention because how can we know the future state or evaluative position of a child that we are responsible for developing?

Daniels' "Positive and Negative Genetic Interventions"

Daniels, Norman (2000). “Positive and Negative Genetic Interventions" in Buchanan, Allen et al. eds, From Chance to Choice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 104-155.

Chapter 4 is primarily authored by Daniels but the preface also states that Allen Buchanan, Dan Brock, and Daniel Wilker should be credited as well. The chapter starts off with a brief history of eugenics including the distinction between positive and negative eugenics. The point is to show that there may be a moral distinction between practices that seek to achieve the same goal. The idea of normalcy is brought up to note that an idealized or perfectionist view of superior or normal traits may mean that we know to be normal today may be defective in the future. He concludes this section by pointing out that we are appalled by the bad science of the past. He is implicitly cautioning against science functioning out of control in the future.

The next section starts with a presumption that negative genetic interventions (abortion, screening, somatic/germline cell replacement) are mostly viewed as being permissible while positive genetic intervention (enhancement) is at least problematic and possibly morally impermissible. It is important to note that this chapter tends to focus on public policy as it relates to medical intervention by the state or insurance so it is unlike the focus Harris has on the individual. In fact, he does not even mention whether an individual has a right or the freedom to enhance certain traits. He does delve into social justice issues, which may actually indirectly state his position. He does make a distinction between the eugenics movement of the past and current interest in somatic or germline therapy by noting that we are less concerned about population gene pools and more about individual health. He also notes that the disability movement has increased awareness and led to more acceptance of diversity than in the past. Lastly, whereas negative eugenics was not generally viewed as a moral distinction, it very much is so today, especially when so many are sensitive and frightened that history may repeat itself.

The “brute luck view” or natural lottery that Scanlon coined drives the quest for the right moral approach to the notion of equal opportunity and its implications to health care. The treatment/enhancement distinction is closely related to the idea of medical necessity or a medical boundary line. From a public policy or insurance perspective, it has more to do with etiology than suffering because there are many cases of suffering (mostly psychological) that may not affect equal opportunity. Impairment seems to work better from the insurance view than unhappiness, preferences, or possibly even bad coping behavior. The treatment/enhancement line comes from the idea that it has a disease component that we are not responsible for and an objectively specifiable burden of harm. It must be typical of the human condition and not because someone has a bad attitude. This is problematic in certain cases that have different causal explanations but similar effects on impairment. He asks whether the Aristotelian idea of justice demands that we treat cases like this similarly. This too is problematic as he shows between the case of being dull and having a learning disability. We treat one and not the other (in a narrow sense) even though the starting position may have been the same. This raises the difficulty of making the treatment/enhancement line more arbitrary and of less value. There is also the possibility that the line may be value laden by social constructs, which therefore creates problems with postulating a moral boundary.

The treatment/enhancement line is not the same as the obligatory/nonobligatory line because resources may not be able to meet the needs of all impairments. It is also not the same because society recognizes that we may have certain moral and legal obligations to offer medical services without impairment. Daniels/Buchanan et al. claim that their primary justification for considering a health care service as obligatory by society is for the reasonable effective treatment of disease and impairment. They claim that the line between this and normal functioning is relatively objective and nonevaluative provided by biomedical science. I argue that objectivity is problematic because biomedical understanding/technology changes everyday along with societal values that struggle to keep up. They also claim that the normal functioning line also allows people to remain competitive in all aspects of social life, a point that they will relate to justice. This lead to an equality of opportunity that they argue is an obligation of society to protect. Some diseases/impairments will be more important than others to maintain this “normal range of opportunities”. It is here that they start to appeal to Rawls. They identify two other “pulls” as it relates to egalitarian concerns: to equalize of at least reduce the disadvantages that result from less than equal opportunities regardless of impairment/disease; and to remove the source of unhappiness from which we suffer through no fault of our own.

Daniels view of the normal functioning model rests on Rawlsian view of equality of opportunity. As it relates to health care, it keeps people as close as possible to normal function as possible as a way to create a just, egalitarian society. Liberty must come into the picture but may conflict with resources and efficiency of distributing health care. The equal capabilities model formulated by Sen argues that the object of our egalitarian concerns is equality in what can do or be. We achieve equality of opportunity when our capability sets are equal. Daniels thinks this might be problematic because a theory of justice requires integrating concerns for equality with that of liberty and efficiency, which the equality of opportunity model allows while maintaining equality of capabilities. Incommensurability is mentioned as a problem as well because different people may rank different sets based on different conceptions of a good life. Due to this, no baseline can be established, which may actually push for a more expansive model of medical intervention.

The equal opportunity welfare model says that we have a claim to others assistance whenever we are worse off than they are through no fault or choice of our own. Only if the same expected payoff in preference satisfaction can be achieved, can this model be obtained. Normal capacity for revising our goals, values, and preferences is more of an issue than explicit choice. They then continue to argue that the normal function model makes for better public policy. Further, they claim that support may wane for mental health interventions if reasonable efforts are not made to modify someone’s attitudes or behaviors through environmental means. The same goes for physical genetic enhancement as it relates to genetic enhancement. I do not see how public opinion or support should effect the question of justice and morality, especially as it relates to matters of freedom and health care. In addition, wouldn’t resources be different for enhancement technology than other types of technology? Even if the resources were the same, we would recognize utility of resources for need first, want second. The case that comes to mind is breast enhancement for a mastectomy victim versus the stripper. I think justice would dictate that the mastectomy victim has preference but if the resource was available, why shouldn’t the stripper be allowed to purchase the enhancement. Lack of resources creates a moral boundary on who gets the resource, not a boundary line on the procedure itself.

They conclude by claiming that the point behind appealing to a natural baseline is that it provides a good basis for public action, despite disagreements of value. They claim the natural baseline has not metaphysical importance but is a focal point of convergence to what we owe each other by way of medical assistance or health care. The treatment/enhancement line is useful but they do not expect a lot from it. Doesn’t that imply that maybe it is not the best line to use? They do note that it does not necessarily match up with the permissible/impermissible line. Many enhancements, they claim, would cause serious problems plus there may be other concerns so a moral flag should always be raised concerning questions of enhancement. Public goods and other coordination problems arise when all parents pursue a course intended to be best for the offspring. What parent doesn’t that is within the set of “good” parents? They also believe that enhancement would give a positional advantage and that the values of the child may be in conflict with the values of the offspring.

Harris' "Good and Bad Uses of Technology"

Harris, John (2007). “Good and Bad Uses of Technology" in Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 123-142.

Harris argues against Leon Kass and Jurgen Habermas whom he believes express a strong opposition to enhancement. Kass argues that the following objections to enhancements fail:
• Safety is not any more a concern for enhancement technology than it does for nonenhancement technology. Harris agrees.
• The access to enhancement technology as it relates to justice and fairness does not stand; only the goodness or badness of the enhancement matters. Harris agrees.
• Parental control over the genotype would add to existing social instruments of parental control and of risks of despotic rule. Harris disagrees and argues that neither genotype nor parental wishes have significant impact on autonomy.
Parents want their children to experience a decent, civilized, and independent life but they will always also want willful control of the process because they think they know best. The claim that attempts to alter our nature through biotechnology is different than through medicine, environment, and education seems wholly implausible on this account. If it is a parents right to alter a child’s nature then the best, most reliable, efficient, and economical method of doing so should be a freedom afforded the parent.

In he next section, Harris addresses Kass’ concerns for cloning and notes that sexual reproduction is akin to roulette and that, if cloning technology was viable, there is less risk than to clone than through sex because the cloner is already a tried and tested product. Since experiences affect physical structures in the brain, there is little chance that a clonee would be exactly like a cloner just as one identical twin is not exactly like the other. Harris rejects pure genetic determinism in favor of free will, choice, and self-development in spite of enhancement. He notes that enhanced powers would not likely be expresses exactly the same way in all individual because on non-genetic factors so there will still be differences between people. We may raise the floor, but the ceiling would be raised as well viz. he rejects the idea that enhancement would create conformity.

Harris then attacks Kass’ critique of enhancement by first noting that it is not always the case that people feel repulsed by the idea of enhancement. Even if they do, it is not a morally relevant feature just as we do not always view it as a moral difficulty when both rich and poor live in the same world. It does not follow that if there is something good or dignified about a natural process that a synthetic modification or replacement is either bad or even of less value. Harris argues that it may actually be better than the natural process because of its relief of human suffering. He then backs to the idea that choice may still mean hard work but acknowledges that making the right choice may be more difficult in the future but that does not mean we should eliminate the choice. He attacks Kass again and comes back to the idea that enhancement, in many forms is already around us so to say that enhancement is somehow different and off-limits is puritanical. Harris obviously rejects the argument from design or God but only claims to want the freedom for individuals to choose for themselves and not have restrictions affect laws come from a religious convictions. In other words, do for your child what you think is best, I will do for mine what I think is best. I think this may have value in conjunction with Glover’s idea of the European model as government as a filter, not a stopper. He argues that Kass’ argument for limitation based on a puritanical and “stunted” view of life shackles the human spirit within the confines of his own imagination and desires. Lastly, he notes that enhancement will only be able to go so far and that experience will still have value viz. there will never be a pill that either induces or removes grief.

Harris then moves to Jurgen Habermas who wrote The Future of Human Nature (2003). Habermas argues against any type of eugenic control and calls enhancement on children human bondage. Further, he claims that it is inegalitarian and destroys future generation’s right to autonomy. Harris comes back with the idea that if we restricted this and restricted that for what a parent can and cannot do, few children would live to be adults. Our parents are instrumental in creating pathways in the brain and, hence, functioning of our minds. This is true with or without enhancement. This goes against the idea that we would be taking autonomy away from our children in some sort of despotic sense. As such, this does not create an unfair social justice of inegalitarianism. Harris concludes by arguing that enhancement would no more result in a loss of personal identity for a future child than a “natural” child born today would. If that child did claim such a loss of identity as the result of enhancement, Harris would remind them that the parents tried to give them best chance at a good life that was available and maybe they should pull themselves together and recognize that they are autonomous beings none the less. The responsibility for how children turn out will always be on the shoulders of parents in so far that they had a choice to do or not to do. To take away handicap or not take away, to enhance or not to enhance; they have to do their best.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Harris' "Perfection and the Blue Guitar"

Harris, John (2007). “Perfection and the Blue Guitar" in Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 109-122.

Harris primarily takes up against Michael Sandel in this chapter. Sandel’s argument is along the same lines that others have argued, namely that enhancement is beyond us in a way that alters our essential nature and humanity. Harris calls this a conservative position and describes this as being a position the expresses suspicion to change, emphasize the virtue of things the way they are and acceptance of those things. He again points out that human history could be described by enhancement in all fields of human endeavor I mentioned in a previous post. He also notes that enhancement is part of the evolutionary process. I will not detail Sandel’s arguments that Harris quotes at length, only Harris responses as we will probably review Sandel’s work in greater depth later.

Harris does respond to Sandel first by claiming that it is not rational to think that effortful superiority is better than effortless. He uses the sports analogy to compare this idea. Was Pete Rose (the hard worker) better than Joe DiMaggio (the graceful, gifted player)? Harris argues that both had to train to develop what talents they were born with and that they were ultimately judged as baseball players by their achievements. Excellence is the result of doing, not just having. It requires authentic human agency with effort and non-effort. Even the steroid fueled behemoth must work at it and to think that it is easy, is missing the idea of what excellence is or should mean. Now Harris is not arguing for enhancement in this way, he is only arguing against Sandel that there is something inherently less to be valued in achievement from effortlessness compared to more effort.

Harris argues that it is true that an enhanced sense of human agency coupled with increased powers to influence the future and the world may transform our understanding of the moral landscape. A poignant point he makes is that with this technology, we become responsible for our inaction as well as for what actions we do take. Does a child a legitimate claim to harm if a parent fails to act on a disability when that choice was available? Harris would say yes. It is clear that Sandel is a theist so it is not surprising that Harris uses the word “destiny” in regards to the notion of human agency. Sandel also seems to appeal to Rawls in that we should not be entitles to a full measure of the bounty they reap on society compared to those with less gifts. Harris makes the interesting move of arguing that enhancement is actually a way of redistributing gifts before society has to redistribute resources to equalize for the sake of social justice. As Harris says, “enhancement provides more to redistribute and less need for redistribution” (p. 120). Ultimately, Harris wonders whether people who choose to enhance as true masters of their destinies or as the best judges for what they deem best for their children will be able to if arguments like Sandel’s are used to restrict freedom and liberty. This is a bigger question outside the scope of our project, but if God is the presupposition, where is the medical boundary line or is there one?

Harris' "Disability and Super-Ability"

Harris, John (2007). “Disability and Super-Ability" in Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 86-108.

Harris argues that it is not wrong to prefer to produce or even prefer to be a nondisabled individual rather than a disabled one. He argues that all people are equal, have the same moral worth, and that it is wrong to discriminate against disabled people, but that it is fallacious to assume that to prefer to have a child without disability is an affront the existence of an existing disabled person. Any argument, then, that opposes human enhancement on these grounds does so on a fallacious sense of fear that it has a negative objective cost to a disabled community. He grants that there may be a subjective cost to a disabled person for others choosing children unlike them but that is irrational. Public policy or reproductive choice should not be based on the subjective, irrational thoughts of some individuals when the consequences of inaction does not promote a bettering of lives or decrease in suffering. It is interesting that he agrees that the “disability question” is the most plausible argument against legitimate attempts to make better people.

Harris states, “… it is better that a child be born without disability but not that a nondisabled child is better than a disabled child” (p. 89). He makes an interesting distinction between reason and justification. An in vitro patient may have a reason for not selecting a disabled embryo but the justification would be in terms of entitlement to decline to implant at all, i.e., choice. He agrees that the idea of selecting a nondisabled embryo over a disabled one is based on the notion that disability is disabling and therefore undesirable from the point of view of choice. A disabled person may still have a life worth living and he argues that it is better to have a child with disabilities (unless there is a component of suffering involved) than no child at all. If we have the choice of an embryo, however, we should choose a nondisabled over disabled because of the idea of a better life. He does not define disability in terms of any conception of normalcy nor does he think it depends on a prediction of the subject of the condition will feel. It is simply a matter of best functioning for the best life. Normalcy is a vague term that is constantly changing due to advancing medical and other technologies.

Our parent’s DNA goes into our DNA makeup so any genetic “harm” is causally related to them but only morally so if they are aware that they were likely to transmit those harms or if they were aware that a procedure or other event could have made a better child. Again, to prefer to remove disability is not the same as preferring nondisabled persons over disabled. In this respect, it is not an existential preference. He then discusses his view on abortion, which is pro-Choice and may not be relevant to our project as to why. This will be a good discussion point with Jim. He does appeal to Jonathan Glover and argues that he does not think his (Harris) view provides an ugly attitude towards people with disability. I’m not sure that Harris’ view is strong enough to resist this claim because it does fall into a regress that leads to the extinction of certain types of societies, i.e., deaf, paraplegic, etc. There may be different types of disability that need to be teased apart. Ridding the world of cancer does not mean lack respect for people with cancer but there does seem to be something different concerning deaf culture when many in that culture claim that they have no desire to hear. Is their desire delusional or without a point of reference or is their claim based on something that hearing individuals cannot comprehend such as an increased capacity for touch and the beauty that comes along with it? Harris comes back the same point repeatedly: we have reasons to start out in life with any unnecessary disadvantages, however, slight.

He concludes by addressing what he calls the “Beethoven fallacy”. To choose not to have a child with inherited syphilis is not to say that the world would be better off without Beethoven. Modern notions of choice and intervention may not affect the “who” is born in the same way that it may not affect who I am if my parents were frisky in November versus December. There is more choices other than abortion that affect whether we ever to be. The argument for potentiality can only go so far. He does not address the “super-ability” that I was looking forward to reading but it is a natural extension from disability to super-ability if one accepts the claim that line between treatment and enhancement is at minimum blurry and sometimes the same.

Harris' "What Enhancements Are and Why They Matter"

Harris, John (2007). “What Enhancements Are and Why They Matter" in Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 36-58.

Harris attempts to argue that the overwhelming moral imperative for both therapy and enhancement is to prevent harm and confer benefit. He suggests that it is unimportant whether the protection of benefit conferred is classified as enhancement or improvement, protection or therapy. He rejects the notion that enhancements can be defined relative to normalcy or to normal species functioning. It is in this chapter that he addresses objections made in terms of motivation or objectives to be achieved along with tests that enhancements have to meet, primarily by Daniels and Buchanan et al. in From Chance to Choice. It is interesting that he finds the question surrounding the debate of change in human nature or evolution ethically uninteresting. Self-evolution, post-humanism, transhumanism, or the sciences of new breeds are not moral issues to Harris.

He starts by claiming that the abnormality of a characteristic relative to other humans does not affect its value unless the abnormality itself has other consequences such as the ostracizing that may take place because of green skin. If, however, the green skin turned into a benefit, then not even the ostracizing would decrease its value. He sees no problem with the creation of new species or a “different” human line if that meant a bettering of life because our current existence is due to a change that bettered us in the past creating our current form of human.

Harris points out that Daniels human subject research would rule out most enhancements while Buchanan et al. suggests that the lack equal opportunity related to enhancement technology would be the biggest moral drawback to enhancement technology. Harris seems to be attacking their idea of normalcy and the medical boundary line. I will be reviewing Daniels and Buchanan et al. later so I will not go into their arguments as much as his responses. Harris argues that the fact that we cannot cure everything has never been an argument for failing to cure something, especially when it is something that causes pain, misery, or premature death. Most of what passes for therapy is an enhancement for the individual relative to a state prior to therapy so the therapy-enhancement line is problematic. The moral imperative comes from the value of minimizing harm, not on conceptions or normality. He also argues that we should strive for equality of opportunity but that it is not the necessary moral condition for treatment or enhancement. Intervening on the natural lottery to simply promote equality of opportunity or ability to compete is not sufficient. Harris also does not think that the notion of normal species functioning or successful social cooperation are key ideas that license interference in the natural lottery as well because many things like aging and disease are part of normal species functioning. It would not be immoral to start vaccinating for HIV/AIDS or cancer even if was initially only available in scarcity. We save lives not to secure equal opportunity or secure access to “normal competition”. We save lives, postpone death, and enhance human functioning to better lives … no further moral justification is needed.

Harris argues against Daniels’ imperative not go above the medical boundary line viz. “normal claiming that his definition is too narrow and does not include benefit to society and population. He argues that we should take the viewpoint of possible functioning, not normal functioning because “normal” is problematic. For Harris, the moral imperative is safety and the duty to compare risks with benefits not on equality of opportunity, not on an ambiguous concept of normality, but rather on the probability of magnitude and probability that the proposed treatment or enhancement saves lives, postpones death, and decreases suffering. Save lives now with a perspective towards justice and equality along the way. The distinction between treatment and enhancement becomes more a matter of semantics, not morality. He concludes with a brief commentary on the nature of the human condition. He seems to think that to object to enhancement based on the grounds that it changes human nature or the human condition does not take into consideration where we have come as a species and how enhancement is everywhere. If we cured heart disease and cancer, we would change human nature and the human condition, which may not be a bad thing.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Harman's "Moral Relativism"

In Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity, Gilbert Harman argues that the truth conditions of moral judgments are always relative to a choice of moral framework. Objections to moral relativistic theories, such as Harman’s, include the claim that it falls into moral nihilism – the idea that morality does not exist and therefore, moral statements have no truth-value. Although Harman explicitly rejects moral nihilism, I will show how he withstands the charge by holding to moral skepticism – the idea that it is not possible to discover the truth-value of any moral statement, but that moral truth may exist. I will first discuss Harman’s claims that morality is a type of bargaining similar to the convention of law and show how this withstands the charge of moral nihilism. Secondly, I will explain how Harman argues that universal features of morality may exist and show how this may be compatible with Harman’s argument. I will then show how this withstands both moral nihilism and moral objectivity - the position that certain acts are objectively right or wrong, independent of human opinion. Lastly, I will argue that moral skeptics, such as Harman, hold an epistemological position, distinct from the metaphysical positions of nihilism and objectivism.

I will begin with a review of Harman’s argument, which starts with a comparison of morality to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Just as an object’s mass and motion are relative to a spatio-temporal framework, the truth conditions of a moral statement are relative to a context and moral framework. For example, a passenger on an airplane has a different perception of his or her motion and velocity compared to someone from the ground perceiving the plane in flight. Similarly, the truth condition for Person X for an action is dependent on the context and the moral framework of Person X, which may be different for Person Y. It does not make sense to say that the mass of object P is privileged at a particular coordinate in space at a particular velocity over its mass at another. Likewise, Harman argues that it does not make sense that a moral truth condition is privileged in a particular context within one moral framework over another. In other words, as Harman says, “… no moral framework is objectively privileged as the one true morality.” Next, I will show Harman uses social conventions and a moral skeptic position to reach his conclusion.

Harman is both a moral conventionalist and a moral skeptic. As he states, “…even the most basic aspects of morality are conventional in something like the way in which law is conventional.” He claims that law is also completely conventional but argues that moral conventions are less determinate. This may be due to the smaller, more numerous groups associated with moral conventions such as within families, neighborhoods, and friends. There may even be different moral conventions when one is alone and not in a group. He does say that morality comes about because of social bargaining, much like law. As such, it is more a matter of coming to agreement on the right answer concerning a moral or legal issue versus the recognition of an objective truth. This does not provide support against a claim of nihilism but his explicit rejection of nihilism and his claim that “there are universal truths about moralities just as there are universal truths about spatio temporal frameworks” does support a position of moral skepticism. The following is a review of the premises of his argument:
1. Morality is completely conventional.
2. Truth conditions of moral judgments are made within a context specific framework.
3. Moral skepticism underlies relative moral judgments and can continue to play a serious role in moral thinking.
4. No moral framework is objectively privileged as the one true morality.

Taken together, this entails his conclusion that moral right and wrong are always relative to a choice of moral framework. Next, I will focus on the bargaining or conventional aspect of his argument to further support that idea that it does not fall into moral nihilism.

Bargaining refers to the process of moral decision-making. If the truth condition of a moral action cannot be reached through rational means, then there still may be value in reaching a decision, which may only come about through bargaining. Harman argues that people care about what they value, which indicates that people care about their moral framework in making decisions. Caring points to what Harman calls an affective attitude, which includes desire, fear, and hope, while cognitive attitudes refer to belief, perception, and doubt. Cognitive and affective attitudes may coincide or conflict in an individual or among individuals concerning moral decisions. Moral relativism may help explain why there are conflicts between people or within us; however, it does not tell us why it is important resolve these moral disagreements. It is important to resolve moral disagreements because we need to know what to do in certain situations. In other words, as Harman states, “moral differences involve conflicts in affective attitude that are resolved only if agreement is reached on what to do.” For example, many disagree on the morality of abortion, which requires an agreement to resolve. Abortion laws in the United States reflect a resolution of the moral disagreement surrounding the issue. It is not legal to get an abortion at anytime over a nine-month pregnancy but it is legal within a certain timeframe. Harman would agree that there may be an objective moral truth to the issue of abortion but since we cannot know what that is, we must not give preference to one position over the other and resolve the dispute through bargaining. This is not moral nihilism but rather a pragmatic view of moral skepticism. I will now discuss Harman’s idea of universals and how they are compatible with moral relativism.

Harman notes that, “there will be universal moral truths just as there are universal truths about spatio-temporal frameworks.” In regards to universal moral truths, this may refer to the morality of killing, harm, and deception. In regards to spatio-temporal frameworks, this may refer to the admittance of motion and rest regardless of relative position or velocity. The existence of universal moral truths neither supports moral nihilism nor does it support moral objectivism. Universal moral truth does not entail moral objectivism because although moral truth may exist, knowledge of its truth may be unreachable. Secondly, universal truth may exist for only certain actions, which would still require bargaining to resolve trivial moral disagreements on other matters between individuals or groups with differing moral frameworks. On the other hand, a moral nihilist may claim that the existence of moral agreement among all individuals and frameworks does not entail the existence of objective truth. It may be explained by coincidence or other reasons similar to those posed by evolutionary psychologists. It may also be explained by a different type of social contract such as that formulated by Thomas Hobbes, which I argue does support the idea of moral nihilism via his theory of a state of nature. The existence of universal moral truth can withstand the charge of universal moral truth because of the difference between moral skepticism and the positions of moral nihilism and objectivism. Next, I will expand on these distinctions.

Moral skepticism is an epistemological position while moral nihilists and objectivists claim a metaphysical position regarding the existence or non-existence of moral truth. Truth conditions of moral judgments are either meaningless or an absolute standard regardless of context or opinion because of this claim. Moral skeptics, such as Harman, make no metaphysical claim and are therefore in a categorically distinct position. Moral relativism, then, should not be viewed as being on a spectrum between moral nihilism and moral objectivism. Arguments that challenge the premises of moral relativism do not easily slide into either of the other positions as a result. This does not mean that the argument cannot be defeated, but from the perspective of bargaining and the possibility of the existence of universal truth, arguments for either position do not seem strong enough to reject moral relativism. Harman says that, “moral diversity is nit a disproof of moral absolutism.” I argue, however, that the best argument in support of moral skepticism is based on the fact that people from different cultures, backgrounds, and educational levels do disagree on certain moral truths. For example, the U.S. Republican Party that represents 55 million Americans supports an anti-abortion position that the procedure is always wrong. The Democratic Party on the other hand, represents approximately 72 million Americans and supports a platform that abortion is not always wrong. If so many people disagree then maybe, knowledge on any moral claim is unknowable. If moral truth is unknowable but one allows for the possibility that objective truth exists, then Harman’s moral relativism provides a good argument and explanation for moral diversity.

In conclusion, Harman’s argument for moral relativism withstands the charge that it falls into moral nihilism both explicitly and implicitly. Bargaining provides a process to resolve moral disputes when rationality makes the right answer unknowable. The unknowable nature of objective or absolute moral truth provides support for both moral relativism and skepticism. This does not mean that morality is not important and should not play a serious role in everyday life because of the possibility of the existence of universal truths. Harman allows for this possibility. This may seem to point to moral objectivism but since what exactly those truths are again unknowable, he withstands the charge that his argument is a case for moral objectivity. It is the unknowable nature of moral truths that is important to remember. It is an epistemological claim, and not a metaphysical that further distinguishes moral relativism from both moral nihilism and objectivism. The argument is difficult to argue against unless one makes such a metaphysical claim.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Harris' "Enhancement Is a Moral Duty"

Harris, John (2007). “Enhancement Is A Moral Duty" in Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 19-35.

Harris attempts to introduce the ethical case for enhancement and the positive future of humankind. He uses five examples to give a sense of the debate and the different objections to the different modes of enhancement.

1. Mechanical versus Chemical Enhancement – he comments on the Boorse and Daniels definition of health to include illness as a departure form normal of species-typical functioning. He then makes the analogy of using glasses to binoculars. One raises sight up to a normal level while the other enhances beyond what is normally capable. He argues that to make an argument against enhancement, one would have to argue against the use of binoculars. He then makes some comparisons to give a sense of the moral debate. Buying a child the best education possible versus giving drugs to reach the same level of intelligence. Riding a bike versus using steroids. It seems the current debate says that the first choice is morally acceptable while the second choices are not. Harris seems to be a bit of a cautionary consequentialist in that if it is safe, then he sees no difference if the results are the same.
2. Disease and Vaccination – he notes that there has been very little resistance to this type of enhancement technology. If we alter human beings to affect their vulnerability to things, we are enhancing them. The issue then with new enhancement technology may be a matter of perception.
3. Genetic Enhancement – he notes David Baltimore's work at Caltech as HIV/AIDS and cancer vaccinations using genetic therapies as an example against "normal or species-typical functioning" against Boorse and Daniels. He further argues against Francis Fukuyama's claim that changes to human nature are absolutely unacceptable. Fukuyama's idea of Factor X, what is left when we strip away all of a person's contingent and accidental characteristics, as human nature is argued by Harris to include enhancement because if Factor X can be preserved or even enhanced then it must be a good thing by Fukuyama's own argument. He then notes that cloning is the only way to preserve the human genome and that universal cloning is the only way to prevent genocide. He notes that you could use Aquinas' Doctrine of Double Effect to argue for enhancement but that it would not be sufficient, again from a consequentialist viewpoint.
4. Chemical Enhancement – Harris favors enhancement as an absolute good and not as a positional good. This means that if we enhance for a longer life, it is good in and unto itself, not as an improvement to others even though other that do not have this good may not live as long. Making lives better rather making lives better than others must be the focus concerning enhancements, i.e., there may be inequality but is not necessarily a reason not to enhance. We already treat kidneys and hearts as scarce resources that some may get while others may not and we should work to get to a point that it may be available to all but that does not mean that no one gets a kidney until all can. Making a few better lives now may be unequal now but that does not mean we should abandon making those few lives better. It has to start somewhere and throughout history, new technology has started off on an unequal foot with many examples of that changing to be a common good. There is no moral case for delaying access to new technology or health saving device because it is not available to all.
5. Life Extension – life-saving is equivalent to death-postponing. Why do we look at certain methods of life-saving as morally necessary while talking about others as morally disdainful? If postponing death is a good, what about if we could postpone it indefinitely. Harris argues that regenerative medicine may not always be simply therapeutic but it may have an enhancing dimension. He ends this section with a word of caution by stating that we should not tamper with healthy human beings that will harm rather than benefit.

He concludes with a commentary on The Precautionary Principle and Playing God. He notes that UNESCO's International Bioethics Committee has maintained the idea that "...the human genome must be preserved as a common heritage of humanity." He responds with the following rebuttal of their assumptions:
1. The present point in evolution is unambiguously good and not susceptible to improvement.
2. The course of evolution will naturally make things better, not worse.
He views (1) and (2) as incompatible and argues that the common heritage of humanity is the result of evolutionary change. He then appeals to F.M. Cornford to note that if we reject any action on the present on the possibility of future harm, nothing would ever be done the first time to argue against the precautionary principle against enhancement. Lastly, he argues against the "Playing God" argument by noting that medicine can be described as a comprehensive attempt to frustrate the course of nature and therefore God. Artificially changing the nature of nature has led to a change of human nature.

Harris' "Introduction" and "Has Mankind a Future?"

Harris, John (2007). “Introduction” and "Has Humankind a Future?" in Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making Better People. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1-18.

Harris attempts to answer the question: if the goal of enhanced intelligence, increased capacities, and better health is something we might strive for though education, why should we not strive to produce these goals through other enhancement technologies, including genetic enhancement? He defines enhancement as good if they make us better people. His thesis defends enhancement and argues that not only are enhancement permissible, but that in some cases, there is a positive moral duty to enhance. He briefly appeals to Plato, Marx, Locke, Rousseau, and Bentham to argue that we, as moral agents, have a responsibility to make the world a better place. He notes that we have reached a time in human history at which further attempts to make the world a better place must include changes to the world and humanity. He does not seem to think this is a bad thing and he will show later in the first chapter. He does not think that it is a bad thing that our descendants will not be human in the sense that we now know, but that it is inevitable from an evolutionary point of view or a technological point of view. He thinks that natural selection will be replaced with deliberative selection and Darwinian evolution will be replaced by enhancement evolution. He believes that humans have a moral responsibility to make informed choices for our fate and the fate of the world in which we live along responsibility to make a world a better place. Done correctly, we can take the chance out of evolution and place it within our hands so that change leads to a better species altogether. He seeks to find an ethical way to enhance intelligence, happiness, strength, and life expectancy in ways that protect the safety of people and are consistent with justice, government, and regulation.

He will look at stem cell technology, gene manipulation, embryo selection, drugs, and mechanical enhancements. Harris will also argue against the health and disease models advanced by Boorse and Daniels, which we should review. He argues that the presumption is that citizens should be free to make their own choices in the light of their own values, whether or not these choices and values are acceptable by the majority. He will argue against Michael Sandel, Leon Kass, and Jurgen Habermas who have supported arguments against enhancement. He thinks that choice of phenotypical traits such as hair, eye, and skin color are morally neutral because it is it no worse to be black versus white or blond versus brunette, etc. Harris advocates for research and argues that the fetus is an irredeemably ambiguous entity and not sacred. Research should be regarded not only as desirable but as a positive moral obligation.

He opens up the first chapter by claiming that human enhancement is a good thing and that our genetic heritage is in need of improvement. He also quotes de Lampedusa, "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." He takes this tact to argue against a conservative position and points out those conservatives who argue against enhancement actually engage in enhancement all the time. He notes that glasses and vaccinations are forms of enhancement – an improvement from what went on before. We enhance in these ways because we are decent, moral people who want to protect each other from harm and benefit ourselves and others. He argues that there is no inherent difference in types of enhancement. The opportunity to create healthier, longer-lived and therefore better lives is a moral responsibility and in the best interest of governments and society.

Harris then appeals to Bertrand Russell's Has Man a Future? to note that we must preserve and expand on what is good in humans, which entails that we should improve in humans over preserving the species in its current form. Harris does not believe that illness and poverty are likely to occur by chance over the thousands of generations evolution requires so any change for the better, based on where we are at as a species, must be up to us. Our potential is in our hands. In this sense, evolution does become something concerning progress and thus becomes teleological. Again, he goes back to the conservative question and argues that we must change at least to preserve, which may mean things cannot remain the same. Shelter, learning, teaching, toll using, farming, social living, and language lend to human enhancement. He argues that genetics will just be next in the list.

Harris does acknowledge that anything listed as historical proof of enhancement has been ill used but that does not discount the overall benefit to humans nor does it entail that we not attempt new technologies for enhancement. Just because something may be used improperly, does not mean that it should be abandoned altogether. Also, just because a new technology may not be available to all is not a good argument to abandon it until it can be. Take writing for example, at one time only a few were allowed to learn and slowly it became available to all. The same with certain antibiotics and electronic technologies. Sometimes technologies that advance are produced slowly. This does not mean that it is unjust or will not be available to all at some point later in the future. Just because it is elitist now does not mean that it always will. He then appeals to Richard Dawkins to warn against a "fetish" of sticking to any one evolutionary stage because any static period in our evolutionary past would entail that humans in our current form would not exist. This will be an argument he uses against Kass, Sandel, Annas, and Fukuyama. Evolution is change so why not embrace it instead of arguing that evolution exists but let's do everything possible to keep it static now. Lastly, he argues that we should take the dangers seriously but without knowledge of how probably or serious the dangers are against the probability and size of the benefits, we have to rational basis for either precaution or enthusiasm. Is ceasing to be human in the way we know now truly problematic?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Borges' "The Aleph"

The first narrative theme of Jose Luis Borges’ The Aleph (1949) concerns the protagonist’s grief over his unrequited love and death of Beatriz Viterbo. The fact that Borges’ fictionalizes the protagonist as “Borges” speaks to the multi-layered complexity of the story that is indicative of his writing style. Also indicative of his style is the prima facie unrelatedness of themes or stories within a story. For example, within the story of unrequited love and death in The Aleph, Borges develops the story of writers and their aesthetic differences along with the later story of the aleph itself, an object in space that contains all other points in space that allows simultaneous viewing of everything within. Seemingly distinct, the three stories are connected in a meaningful way. In the following, I will briefly analyze each of the three themes or stories within The Aleph. I will then show how each theme relates to, parallels, and informs the other. Lastly, I will argue that the three themes share problems of perception and show that Borges’ is claiming that true knowledge of the sublime, like death and art, is unreachable.

The story of unrequited love and the death of Beatriz begins with a commentary on the fleeting nature of memory and ends with a horrific vision in the aleph of Beatriz’s physical decay. Borges says, “… the vast, unceasing universe was already growing away from her and … the universe may change but I shall not, thought I with melancholy vanity.” This refers to Borges’ sad attempt to hold Beatriz as near in memory as he thought she was in life. It is sad because of the lengths he goes to keep the memory of her intact viz. befriending Daneri, a writer he despises, simply to have access to the house where Beatriz lived. It is the memory of Beatriz that drives the false relationship and humiliation of Daneri until the end. This is a metaphor for the false relationship and humiliation Borges’ feels over the memory of his lost love that he cannot relinquish. It is not until Borges sees Beatriz in the aleph that he lets go of her. It is not a coincidence that it is at the same time Daneri loses his house and the aleph. It is also not a coincidence that not letting go of Beatriz, Daneri losing the aleph, and the aleph itself are too much to endure or too far to reach without the loss of something else – identity. I will show that identity is also a thread that ties the three stories or themes together.

The story of writers and their aesthetic differences points to subjective nature of art. What is beheld in Daneri’s eyes as, “A stanza interesting from every point of view” , Borges beholds as, “…the poet’s work had not lain in the poetry, but in the invention of reasons for accounting the poetry admirable.” The striking difference between the two interpretations is what is important to note because it begs the question of which one of them is prideful or delusional or if it is an all-together different question of what art is in the first place. Borges paints the picture that Daneri is pompous and unskilled so when it is revealed that Daneri takes second place in the National Prize in literature, it speaks more to the subjective or inaccessible nature of art. The reader is somewhat confused because Borges is somewhat the hero in the story. Borges discusses Daneri’s award, however, with detached resignation. It is confusion and detached resignation that links the emotional state of the writer’s story with that of the story of unrequited love and death. Loss is confusing and acceptance of a loved one’s death is that of detached resignation. The aleph is also confusing and Borges’ response is detached when he lets it go because the aleph, like art and death, is overwhelming and a reminder of our lack of significance. To protect one’s identity against insignificance, one must keep the unreachable at a distance and resign, unconsciously or not, to this fact.

The story of the aleph, although more visual and fantastic, is easier to understand than the other two stories if one accepts the idea that it is actually a metaphor for the sublime. The words Borges uses such as “…dizzying spectacles … infinite … spider-web … labyrinth … secret, hypothetical object …” clearly points to classic definitions of the sublime. It is this object “… whose name has been usurped by men but which no man has ever truly looked: the inconceivable universe.” that conceptually links the three stories together. Those same words could arguably be used to describe death or art as it can be for the sublime. The distinction between the story of the aleph and the other two is the representative necessity of the aleph but then, that is the point. We cannot truly know death. We cannot truly know art. We cannot truly know the sublime. It is only through representations that can we conceptualize the unconceptualizable. This is why, according to Borges, the three concepts and the three stories are unreachable and always will be regardless of how much we may fool ourselves that it is within our reach.

The unconceptualizable nature of death, art, and the sublime is due to the limitations of human perception. In other words, the three stories and themes of Borges’ The Aleph share epistemological problems that our senses cannot resolve. We can approximate but never truly ascertain the nature of death, which is why we grieve so much and many times hang onto the memory of love lost. We may approximate but never truly ascertain the qualitative nature of art even though many argue it is firmly within the realm of the subjective. We may approximate the nature of the sublime but we are resigned to simply represent it through language and thought that may never be significant enough to truly understand. Borges’ protagonist is, in a way, sad and pathetic in his relationship with Beatriz and Daneri. His loss in the National Literature contest points to his failure in his art as well and that is the point. The character of Borges is us and we cannot presume, without risk of hubris, that we can achieve true knowledge of the sublime, art, death or we would be just as sad, just as pathetic but this is not a gloomy prospect. There is beauty in his vision of Beatriz as there is in his interpretation of art. There is beauty in the aleph as well but not knowledge and that is the thread between the stories that ties all the other threads together. We can appreciate beauty and the inconceivable without true knowledge of why it is beautiful.