America’s Grey Lady, the New York Times, has long been willing to take transhumanist topics seriously, perhaps in some hope that she too will be somehow rejuvenated. Indeed, a recent piece by David Ewing Duncan on human enhancement has something of the aura of a second childhood about it, with its relatively breathless and uncritical account of the various promising technologies of enhancement in the works. There follows the stock paragraph noting with remarkable brevity the safety, distributional, political and “what it means to be human” issues these developments might create, before Duncan really gets to the core of the matter: “Still, the enhancements are coming, and they will be hard to resist. The real issue is what we do with them once they become irresistible.”
Here at Futurisms, we were not unaware that human enhancements may be hard to resist. Speaking only for myself, however, I can add that there are all kinds of things I find hard to resist. It was hard to resist the desire to stay in bed this morning, hard to resist the desire for dark chocolate last night. It is hard to resist the temptation not to grade student papers just yet, hard to resist the urge to make a joke. I’m sure I need not go on. We all face things that are hard to resist on a daily basis. It requires motivation and discipline to resist them, and sometimes we have it and sometimes we don’t. Mostly, however, we have it, at least where it counts most, or our lives together would be far more difficult than they already are.
By saying in effect that because enhancements are coming and the “real issue” is what to do about them when “they become irresistible,” Duncan is really saying he sees no reason to resist what is hard to resist, no reason to think that the question of human enhancement might be linked to self-control in any sense other than willful self-creation. That is a pretty strong form of technological determinism. Under the posited circumstances, of course enhancements will become irresistible, because we will have made no effort, moral or intellectual, to resist them. But should that situation arise, how will it be possible to decide “what we do with them”? If the underlying principle is “resist not enhancements” then the only answer to the question “what do we do with them” can be “whatever any of us wants to do with them.” Under these circumstances, even Duncan’s anodyne concerns about issues of safety, distribution, politics and “what it means to be human” will go out the window. After all, it is my body, my life, my money, my choice, my will, my desire, that will be the important things.
Duncan reports that when he asks parents whether they would give their children a memory-boosting drug if everybody else were doing it, most reply yes. But that is hardly interesting; if most people are doing anything, it will be hard for a few to say no. What is more noteworthy is where he begins his questioning:
I have asked thousands of people a hypothetical question that goes like this: “If I could offer you a pill that allowed your child to increase his or her memory by 25 percent, would you give it to them?” The show of hands in this informal poll has been overwhelming, with 80 percent or more voting no.That is to say, most people he has asked at least say they think they would resist the temptation to give their child such a pill. If these healthy inclinations can be supported by social consensus buttressed by a variety of good reasons, perhaps enhancement will not be so hard to resist after all.
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