August 17, 2006

More comments re: animal uplift, autism, and enforced neurotypicality

[a response of mine taken from the Technoliberation list]:

> my point: if we invite nonhuman animals to take part in our evolved
> social and democratic processes (and our technological developments),
> will it be understood that we need to respect their own goals for their
> future, particularly if they are able to very clearly indicate that they
> want or don't want a certain modification? Or, will we take the
> position that we know that it's fundamentally good to be able to make
> human speech-sounds, and that obviously Mr. Bonobo shouldn't expect to
> receive his piano lessons unless he agrees to (for crying out loud!) put
> on some PANTS?

There’s no perfect answer to this, mostly because society and medical ethics are not cut-and-dry. As you noted, there are examples already in society where some individuals claim to fall within the bounds of acceptable human functioning while others claim that the same individuals are somehow ‘deficient’ or ‘disabled.’ The autism rights movement (and the disabled rights movement in general) is very much about protecting perceived distinctiveness; a high degree of repugnance is given to efforts in which autistics are forcibly neurotypicalized. The same sort of reaction is experienced by the physically disabled when, for example, an effort is made to ‘cure’ a disability by conforming to the bounds of normal human functioning (e.g. a person without legs should be given artificial legs instead of wheels).

And as you indicated in your post, notions of neurotypicality are normative. Homosexuality was once thought of as a psychological condition and efforts were made in the name of rehabilitation. Western society has a very puritan view of human psychology. It’s one of the reasons why recreational drug use is so chastised. There is a powerful conviction that runs through the West suggesting that altered or alternative psychologies are undesirable and potentially crippling.

So, we’re not doing a great job today recognizing the validity of alternative psychology types, but I have cause for hope. First, a number of movements are afoot that seek to preserve one’s right to their own desired psychology. The Centre of Cognitive Liberty and the Autistic Rights Movements are two examples. I also think that the idea of alternative psychologies will normalized in society, particularly once more powerful neuropharma hits the market.

I think we all need to promote a broader interpretation of neurotypicality, but as we’ve discussed before, not one in which an inbound person’s ability to participate in society is dramatically lessened. It’s unethical for parents to deliberately constrain or predetermine capabilities that will limit their child’s ability to engage in life (or as Rawls would say, invoke inhibitors to the attainment of social justice: “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.”) Obviously, this is open to huge interpretation, which is why we’re having this conversation. Moreover, an entirely new set of complexities is introduced when a person reaches the age of consent, at which point they (arguably) should have the right to ‘tune out’ in Learyesque fashion. The point, I think, is that a parent can’t impose a Learyesque existence on their child – persons deserve the right to a genetic constitution that will by default maximize their life options rather than constrain them.

In relation to uplift scenarios and animal welfare considerations, there are three things I’ll say to that. First, I agree that uplift must be done respectfully and incrementally with consideration given to advancing the species itself (and its proto-culture) without conforming necessarily to human cognitive and morphological standards. Second, during the course of the process, the input and preferences of the animals themselves must be taken into consideration.

And finally, to second a point that James made earlier, we must acknowledge the fact that as a subject is uplifted, the subject changes. There is no such thing as the immutable self – even outside of uplift scenarios. While continuity of self and existence will be maintained through memory, the precise parameters than make up the animal’s psychology will be in flux. Consequently, the desires and preference of the uplifted subject will change over the course of time. The effect will be akin to a child growing into an adult; we remember our childhood and we maintain certain personality characteristics from our childhood, but we most certainly do not retain our childish personalities and preferences.

Back to the issue of coercion versus consent, I think nonhuman animals who are being uplifted and who wish to preserve their distinct identity and characteristics will have to go about it in the same way humans do today – through the creation of rights movements and by increasing general awareness. That’s how you get people to think outside the box.

1 comment:

Anne Corwin said...

As long as you're not somehow equating atypical neurological development with psychedelic intoxication, much of what you say here does make sense. However:

I think nonhuman animals who are being uplifted and who wish to preserve their distinct identity and characteristics will have to go about it in the same way humans do today – through the creation of rights movements and by increasing general awareness. That’s how you get people to think outside the box.

This mindset assumes (at least as I'm reading it) that perhaps when atypicality or a cluster of group/culture specific traits is largely intractable, it can exist by default -- but when the potential exists for it to be fundamentally altered or eliminated, the atypicality or culture must be eloquently defended by a minority to a majority audience.

I have a little bit of a problem with this, especially from the democratic standpoint. I heard an analogy somewhere that the role of government might be akin to that of the one who intervenes in a discussion between 2 wolves and a sheep with regard to what they ought to have for dinner.

Government is the factor that steps in and says, "The sheep is not your dinner" -- not the factor that insists that the sheep explain why it ought not to be eaten.

While I agree that rights movements have been instrumental (and are still instrumental) in championing the rights of disadvantaged and misunderstood groups (whether these groupings are sorted by an "intrinsic" property or by a cultural construct), I do wonder if perhaps societies ought to instead come up with a "validity test" -- some more expedient way to determine the validity of a minority viewpoint, and one that does not risk the very real damage that could result from short-sightedly keeping social barriers in place that hinder minorities, or from incautiously eliminating the minority altogether so that the rest of the people don't need to be inconvenienced by it.

I don't see any need to cling to "social Darwinism" any more than I see the need to cling to anything else that exists as a result of unconsciously-directed evolution. I think conscious beings can do better than that and perhaps at some point we will.

But in the meantime, yes, I think that constant education, organization, and arguing for rights and preservation of what is worth preserving is very important.

I'm not involved in my defense of neurodiversity because I think culture is defined by a lack of certain skills (I don't!), but because I think that there is more than one valid biological operating system.

One thing I've noticed in some reactions to neurodiverse ideas is that people tend to think I'm making arguments that I'm not actually making, and these tend to be "strawman" arguments (like the idea that by not wanting to "cure" my AS I'm using it to define me).

That's not the case at all -- it's no different, in my mind, from arguing that I want to be able to define my own lifespan rather than have it socially and biologically imposed on me. I don't want the government or a tyrannical social majority forcing normality on me because my existence is inconvenient for them, just as I don't want the same forces trying to tell me they know I ought to die when I'm 80 for the good of the "collective" or trying to tell me I am obligated to have children simply because I have a uterus.

And as for children that don't yet exist -- that's an entirely different question, and one that I think requires a lot more careful thought and research on everyone's part, including mine. I certainly am not trying to defend the right of parents to have autistic children on the basis of my wanting there to be sufficient numerical population support for my ideas -- that isn't my place to say, and I have no desire (or right) to force people to breed certain types of individuals to meet my own political ends.

Rather, I am arguing from the standpoint of someone who is wary of too much intrusion into the lives and choices of parents, and someone who thinks that no loving parent would ever choose to "inflict" an existence on their child that produced more suffering than good.

If a person has a genetically transmissible trait that they themselves don't have a problem with, them obviously it is possible for people to live with that trait and not have a problem with it.

Also, there's a reason you don't see people banding together for the right to remain cancerous or the right to remain depressed -- nobody wants to feel crappy, and parents do not want their children to feel crappy either. So there's not much need (aside from, perhaps, in the case of Christian Scientists and others who really *would* deny their children lifesaving medical care) to actually enforce a genetically deterministic monoculture; the things that should be changed and eliminated will be changed and eliminated with little to no coercion needed. At least, that is my impression.