December 26, 2009

On Singer and radical life extension

Russell Blackford is a guest blogger for Sentient Developments.


The current (December 2009) issue of The Journal of Medical Ethics contains my paper: "Moral pluralism versus the total view: why Singer is wrong about radical life extension." There, I critique an early 1990s paper by Peter Singer, which argues that we should not proceed to develop a hypothetical life-extension drug, based on a scenario where developing the drug would fail to achieve the greatest sum of universal happiness over time. I respond that this is the wrong test. If we ask, more simply, which policy would be more benevolent, we reach a different conclusion from Singer's: even given his questionable scenario, development of the drug should go ahead. A more pluralistic account of the nature of morality than used by Singer reaches a benevolent recommendation on life-extension technology.

My paper is intended not merely to offer a better solution to the conundrums raised in Singer's original piece, but also to suggest a methodology of much wider value in applied moral philosophy.

The scenario

Singer's argument employs an imaginary scenario in which life extension would not increase, and would actually reduce, the universal sum of happiness or welfare (henceforth, I will refer simply to "happiness") over time. Singer describes a scenario in which an anti-ageing, or life-extension, pill would more-or-less double human lifespans, but the level of happiness enjoyed in the second half of a typical individual's life would be lowered to some (relatively small) extent. He also stipulates that it would be necessary to ensure that fewer people came into existence over time if the life-extending pill were developed and used. Given this scenario, he thinks, we should not go ahead with developmental work on the hypothetical life-extension pill.

More specifically, Singer imagines a scenario in which those who take the drug experience no effect during their early decades of life. However, when they reach middle age, the drug retards further ageing so dramatically as to extend an average life span from about 75 years to about 150 years. During her additional years of life, an individual's health will not be restored to youthful levels, but it will be good enough for a very worthwhile quality of life (similar to the health of people in their sixties or seventies today). An individual may find that life has lost some of its experienced "freshness", and the combination of this (should it happen) with somewhat reduced health will make her additional years less happy than her first 70 or 80 years of life - but not greatly so.

Mark Walker has questioned this scenario elsewhere, suggesting that it is unrealistic to assume that the first 70 or 80 years would typically be happier than the second for those with what he calls "superlongevity". My own approach is more fundamental, as I conclude that Singer gives the wrong recommendation even if we accept all of his stipulated facts.

A further stipulation made by Singer is that resource limitations will require population controls, whether or not the drug becomes generally available, but they will need to be more severe if the pill is developed. Fortunately, Singer tells us, the pill will allow for an increase in average child-bearing age and a lower fertility rate. Nothing in his analysis depends on the exact ingredients of a population policy; rather, his essential point is that it will be necessary to devise an appropriate policy to ensure that only half as many people are born if the life-extension drug is available. I.e., he has in mind a scenario in which the total number of people who will be born and live out their lives over a large number of years will be half what it would have been without the drug. (The fairly simple calculations involved are discussed in my article; suffice to say that Singer is more or less right here, if we adopt all his basic assumptions.)

It is easy to demonstrate that, if we adopt all these assumptions - which Singer evidently regards as constituting a plausible scenario - the total sum of happiness, over a set period of time, is greater in a society without the life-extension pill than a society with the life extension pill. Moreover, the average society-wide happiness at any given moment is higher in the society without the life-extension pill. On the other hand, typical individuals of the future will have better lives in the society with the life-extension pill than in the society without it. This may seem paradoxical, but it is actually quite easy to demonstrate that it is true so long as we make some plausible assumptions. In that case, should we go ahead with developing the drug or not?

Recommendations: Singer's ... and mine

Singer argues that should not develop the drug; I disagree. But here the argument gets complex, and I cannot, in a relatively brief blog post, do justice to the complex issues that I needed a 7000-word article to tease out properly. I agree with Singer that we should take into account the interests of future generations, not just the interests of people who are alive now, but what follows from this?

It appears that Singer wants to maximise what we could call total future happiness-years (I hope the meaning of this is transparent: in any event, it involves multiplying the number of future people by the average number of years they live, and then by their average level of happiness across an entire life). He wants to do this at all costs, even if the people who come into existence have worse lives than the smaller number of longer-lived of people who would have come into existence under a different policy. I find that very implausible. Although Singer offers thought experiments to support his approach to the question, I find them unconvincing (my article explains why in some detail).

We should, I suggest, adopt the more benevolent policy, and we should not think of benevolence as a matter of maximising total happiness-years. In a situation such as the one that concerns us, the choice of the pro-pill and anti-pill versions of Singer's life-extension scenario, we should not try to maximise the overall number of happiness-years. We should try to produce the most fortunate lives.

Moral theories

It may be that utilitarians, such as Peter Singer, are inevitably pushed toward "total-view" thinking - which attempts to maximise the total amount of happiness in the universe - rather than toward a view that we should ensure the best possible lives for those people who will come to exist in the future. As a result utilitarians can, again paradoxically given the sympathies that underly their moral theory, make policy recommendations that are not the most benevolent available.

Unfortunately, all utilitarian theories developed to date contain paradoxes or involve counterintuitive implications. If, however, we take a more pluralistic approach to the sources of our morality, such difficulties vanish. I expect that a considerable diversity of values underpins our actual moral thinking. We care, for example, about the reduction of suffering, about the lives of others going well, and about people being able to live with a certain spontaneity. We value wilderness, art and culture, the quest for knowledge, the existence of complex, creative cultures … and many other things. To at least some extent, we value all these for themselves, not solely because of their further utilitarian effects.

We do not value the largest possible sum of happiness over time ... which can, in principle, be gained by multiplying the number of sentient beings (so long as they have lives that are at least worth living). What we value, rather, is that whatever actual lives come into being should go well. Other things being equal, we value the outcomes that would be chosen, among those possible, by a benevolent decision-maker, not by a decision-maker committed to total-view utilitarianism. As shown by the way Singer has set up his life-extension scenario, these two kinds of outcomes can diverge.


It is clear to me that I should vote to go ahead and develop the life-extension pill - and so, after reflection, should you, and so should Singer. No plausible values are violated by this action; quite the opposite. Far from feeling guilt or regret at having adversely affected another person, or having destroyed or damaged anything precious, an individual who votes to develop the life-extension pill has every reason to feel virtuous. She will have helped to create a world in which lives go better than (more and different) lives would otherwise have.

I am, however, conscious that some readers will find this very truncated version of the argument unconvincing. That may, of course, be because I am wrong! However, it may also be because the issues become quite complicated, and that I really do need the considerably greater length of the full article in The Journal of Medical Ethics to explain them properly. If you have library access, I suggest you look up the original article and the other works cited there.

Otherwise, I can only promise that I will return to similar issues in future writings, perhaps here, but certainly in my own blog over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

December 25, 2009

After proud knowledge

Russell Blackford is a guest blogger for Sentient Developments. This post is cross-posted at Sentient Developments and Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

I'm currently reading a book that has been sitting on my shelves, unbroached as far as I can recall, for too many years: The Proud Knowledge: Poetry, Insight and the Self, 1620-1920, by John Holloway (London: Routledge, 1977).

The Proud Knowledge has certain annoying features. One is a generally disdainful or arrogant attitude on the part of the author. He dismisses Robert Southey's then-enormously popular but now-almost-unread narrative poems, The Curse of Kehama and Thelaba the Destroyer, as "ridiculous works" (p. 94) and almost valueless, despite their influence on the likes of Keats and Shelley. Well - perhaps so. I can't say otherwise, since I, like most people these days, have never read them. Perhaps they really are dreadful. But Holloway rather loses my sympathy when he faintly praises Southey's occasional descriptive passages of merit, facility for prosody, and varied style (pp. 102-103), then adds:

But in the main, those two poems more or less fulfilled for their time the function fulfilled in recent times by films in gorgeous technicolour of the Orient, and by science fiction and possibly by a novel like The Lord of the Rings. Scenery, romantic affairs, fantastic travel, cosmic warfare, other grandiose but trifling thrills, make their stock in trade. (p. 103)

Despite its haughty tone, this passage actually makes The Curse of Kehama and Thelaba the Destroyer sound pretty interesting! Maybe their popularity, including with Keats and Shelley, wasn't just an aberration of literary taste. As I read Holloway's description, I start to wonder whether Southey's narratives really are as bad as is commonly assumed - whether they might not, in fact, be pretty good and just waiting to be rediscovered (perhaps by Hollywood screenwriters). Southey was, of course, rendered a ridiculous figure by Byron's satirical attacks (as was Thomas Shadwell by Dryden's at an earlier time). He is best known as a radical-turned-conservative and a literary dunce ... but surely anything worth being compared to science fiction and The Lord of the Rings must at least have suspense and entertainment value.

Nearly as annoying is Holloway's assumption that anyone reading his scholarly work must be fluent not only in English but also French, Latin, and ancient Greek. His pages are peppered with quotations in these languages - without translations. Now, anybody who has read widely in the history of ideas is likely to have picked up some useful Greek and Latin words and phrases, while my French is at least good enough for me to cope easily with many of the shorter quotations. But I am not inclined to struggle, my Babelfish in hand, with solid blocks of literary French whose full significance might well elude a sophisticated native of Paris. I realise that Holloway's attitude was still common in the 1970s among British literary academics, so the book is a product of its time, but it's nonetheless annoying to be told, in effect, that you are not wanted as a reader unless your fluency in foreign languages matches the author's. If Holloway finds it so easy, why not provide his own translations and potentially expand his readership?

All that said, the book is worth a reading. Holloway is dealing with the solitary quest for deep knowledge, undertaken by so many of the English poets from the sixteenth century through to the time of the high Modernists (and perhaps beyond). He offers the insight, obvious once pointed out, that this was simply not a theme in English poetry before the modern period. Instead, the lyric meditations of Donne and his predecessors tended to fall back on a body of generally-available cultural wisdom, associated with Christian doctrine. By Milton's time, this is becoming problematic (even though Milton does attempt to justify the ways of God to Man), and by the time of the Romantics we see great poets such as Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley embarking on their own far-flung intellectual quests. Even when the wisdom they bring back resembles conventional religious reassurances, it is hard won through individual experience and insight - often involving epiphanic moments. Objects and events are now observed with a new intensity, by poets attempting to understand them for themselves, rather than being analogised to aspects of the traditional, commonly-available wisdom. The Romantic poets achieve, or affect to achieve, a special knowledge unavailable to more prosaic or city-bound souls - or in some cases they come to see the proud, solitary quest as essentially destructive, as chasing a will-o'-the-wisp that leads only to despair or desolation.

In literary terms, of course, much has been gained by our culture - namely the mighty works of the Romantics and those who followed (among them, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Hardy, Yeats, and Eliot).

At one point, early in his book, Holloway lucidly expresses what was lost - if "loss" is the best way to describe the subversion of false certainties. Discussing Henry Vaughan's "Cock-Crowing", he observes:

In these facts about the task undertaken by the poem, I see signs of two great convictions which have lain at the heart of civilization over long periods in the past, but do so no longer. The first is, that man [sic] was the primary entity in the cosmos, and that the other orders of creation were secondary entities of which the significance was in the end derivative. The second, that the great and essential truths which map out the human situation do not await discovery, or even constant re-discovery, but have been established long ago, and once for all. The poet's task is therefore to present truth rather than explore it; and the quality of attention which he brings to his experience reflects that guiding fact. (p. 57)

Exactly right. By the time of the Metaphysical poets, these convictions are coming under pressure, but even John Donne (so it seems to me, and evidently to Holloway) is always quick to grasp the traditional, culturally-available knowledge, however much he may rely upon new forms of learning for his ingenious figures of speech. Writing during the Enlightenment, the great Augustans seem to me (though Holloway might not agree with this formulation, since he pretty much skips from Milton to Blake) almost reactionary figures, attempting to hold on to old certainties and values, despite the drift of the times. In any event, the traditional, culturally-available knowledge is losing its prestige throughout the Enlightenment and appears to require defence, restatement, qualification, and some kind of harmonisation with the down-to-earth knowledge of the politically ascendant bourgeoisie.

But of course, it is the Romantics who first valorise the enterprise of poetry as a lonely quest for unique insights: insights possibly reaffirming the traditional dogma, in some ways - or to some extent - but quite possibly antithetical to it. Even in moments when they opposed the moods of their times, the Romantics were products of a breakdown in the long-accepted synthesis of ideas in Christian Europe - as, of course, are we. What's more, there is no going back; and why would we want to, when the new era has produced extraordinary beauties of its own? Without the breakdown of the traditional wisdom - most prominent, perhaps, in the seventeenth century - we would have nothing remotely like Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley (or Mary Shelley!), Keats, Tennyson, Arnold, Browning, Hardy, Yeats, or poor, nostalgic T.S. Eliot - much less Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, or Ted Hughes ... or even Milton, Dryden, and Pope. This is even before we step beyond the canon of English poetry, into other cultures, other literary domains (such as the science fiction that Holloway evidently scorns), or other artforms.

What comes next remains to be seen. Holloway seems to apprehend the impending close of our era of quests for "proud knowledge" - and he may even be correct, though the arguments need to be made out and examined. Most certainly, however, we cannot return, like contrite runaway children, to a time when ideas of human exceptionalism and received wisdom were unchallenged. "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?" as Eliot asked. However we answer, we can only go forward, and there's no good reason that I can see to do so in a chastened or bleak spirit. We have learned much, and we can continue with a fitting optimism.

December 22, 2009

Avatar: The good, the bad and ugly

Great science fiction films are few and far between, so it was with great anticipation that I went to see Avatar on opening night.

I had been looking forward to this film since 2006 when James Cameron began working on the script. My expectations were significantly heightened after learning that Cameron, the director of Aliens, the first two Terminator movies and Titantic, was drawing inspiration from Japan -- namely through such directors as Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) and Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away).

I was particularly interested to see if Cameron could pull of the Miyazaki. As fans of his films know, there's nothing quite like a Miyazaki picture; they are as delightful, provocative and as imaginative as they come. Not since the early days of Disney have animated films been so good. Miyazaki weaves a magical touch that has eluded Hollywood since their Golden Age (think Pinocchio and Snow White).

After watching Avatar, I can honestly say that Cameron gave it a good shot. The Pandoran jungle was as atmospheric and alive as anything that Miyazaki has ever produced. The 3D element added an immersive and visceral component that was particularly powerful; there were times when I truly felt lost in the jungle alongside Jake and Neytiri. The bioluminescent forest was truly jaw dropping.

Further, the tastefulness and care with which Cameron added the CG elements is unparalleled (with a tip of the hat to Lord of the Rings). This is the kind of film that George Lucas could watch but not have the slightest clue as to why Cameron's CG works and his does not. Cameron, unlike Lucas, has learned to weave the fabric of all on-screen elements into context such that nothing is superfluous and everything adds to the entire composition and story. Where Lucas works to bash viewers over the head with a 'look what I can do!' approach to movie making, Cameron has taken a more thoughtful and artistic course.

Take, for example, the floating seeds that land on Jake when he first meets Neytiri. I was genuinely moved by the delicacy and beauty of each tiny seedling as it floated through the air. Moreover, my feelings were heightened after learning about the sacred status of the seeds and the implication to the story. This is exactly the kind of aesthetic moment I imagined when I thought about the potential for CGI back when it was first introduced so many years ago.

Spoilers follow.

In addition to the visual elements borrowed from Japan, Cameron also dipped heavily into one of Miyazaki's most famous films, Princess Mononoke. Indeed, one could say that he borrowed perhaps a bit too greedily. Rarely does imitation of this sort lead to anything deeper or superior than what was provided by the original.

Specifically, both films feature a majestic and beautiful forest teeming with a life that's intimately interconnected with itself and an ethereal spiritual realm. And both feature a nature that is under threat. The balance of the natural worlds are in jeopardy from greedy miners who are consuming its resources at an alarming rate. The miners are in turn threatened by an outsider who, after learning the ways of the forest, has come to protect and preserve it at all costs. Ultimately, the creatures of the natural world are forced to band together and deal directly with the parasitic elements. Even the character of Neytiri is a close parallel to San; both are deeply connected to the natural world, borderline feral and ride on the backs of wolves.

Interestingly, Princess Mononoke was Japan's top grossing movie until Cameron's Titanic usurped it from that position in 1999. This certainly looks like a case where if you can beat them, you should still join them.

Princess Mononoke wasn't the only story co-opted by Cameron; aside from the Miyazaki touches (both graphically and narratively), Avatar closely resembles another classic story, Frank Herbert's Dune. In fact, Avatar is essentially Dune -- Cameron simply replaced the desert planet with a jungle and removed all the depth, complexity and profundity that made Dune the classic science fiction story that it is.

Again, the comparisons: A young man arrives on a strange and inhospitable planet occupied by hostile natives -- natives who are perfectly adapted to the planet and live in harmony with it. The young man's civilization is there to exploit the planet for a precious resource and at the expense of the planet's ecological balance. Our hero, awkward at first, learns the ways of the locals and eventually 'goes native.' He finds a girlfriend among his new clan and is accepted and revered by the natives on account of signs that point to his unique purpose and status. The hero-messiah then starts to exceed the abilities of his new comrades -- there's even a test of manhood involving the taming and riding of a dangerous animal. In the end, the hero leads a charge against the outsiders by banding together natural resources and the local population. They eventually win and drive the outsiders out.

Now, while this certainly describes the general plot of both stories, Herbert's universe is filled with intelligent and provocative commentary that touches upon such themes as ecology, evolution, commerce, politics, religion, technological advancement and even social Darwinism. The best that can be said of Cameron's adaptation is that he got the environmental message across. But where Herbert's discourse on the environment was treated with subtly and complexity (including the issue of terraforming), Cameron chose to bang his audience over the head with a blatantly overt, simplistic and ridiculously biased sledge hammer.

In Avatar, Cameron rekindled the tired and cliched "noble savage" myth and set it in space. It was an effort that seemingly attempted to romanticize Stone Age culture and promote a Gaianist agenda. The film was anti-technology, anti-corporatist, anti-progress, and dare I say anti-human.

Gaianism in space? Really, Cameron? That was the best story you could come up with on a $237,000,000 budget?

Okay, some credit where credit is due. Given that the story is, whether I liked it or not, a Gaianist treatise, I did appreciate how Cameron achieved the sense of interconnectedness between the characters and Pandora. The ability of the Na'vi to link with other animals in a symbiotic fusion was very cool, as was the ability to upload conscious thought through the very fabric of the planet (a nice interplay on the high-tech/lo-tech theme knowing that the humans were also dabbling in mind transfer). I also liked how the humans could not breath the air of the planet, a strong hint that they truly had no business being on Pandora. The natives, on the other hand, were at complete peace with their environment.

So, overall some very mixed feelings about Avatar. The graphical and aesthetic achievements were certainly impressive, and for that it's a must-see film. And for those with a pronounced environmentalist bent, you will likely swoon over this movie. But if you're looking for a story with depth, complex characters and some challenging commentary, you're going to have to look elsewhere. And in this sense, the movie is a significant let down. One that I'll gladly watch over and over again.

December 15, 2009

Link dump: 2009.12.15

From the four corners of the web:
  • When robots have feelings their rights will need protection, too | Peter Singer and Agata Sagan
    If, as seems likely, we develop super-intelligent machines, their rights will need protection, too
  • "The Most Important Number in the World" | Ronald Bailey
    "The most important number in the world," Mohamed Nasheed, president of the Maldive Islands, told an audience of hundreds of climate activists in downtown Copenhagen, "is 350." Why 350? That's the threshold for parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that will cause dangerous anthropogenic interference with the world's climate.
  • Asteroid Deflection as a Public Good | Marginal Revolution
    In Modern Principles we use asteroid deflection as our example of a public good. Aside from memorability, the example has two virtues as a teaching tool. First, asteroid deflection is a true public good for all of humanity which raises free riding issues on a worldwide scale. Second, asteroid deflection is an example of a public good that is currently provided neither by the market nor by government. Thus the example underlines the fact that public goods are defined by their characteristics--nonexcludability and nonrivalry--and not by whether they are publicly provided, a point of confusion for many students.
  • 21st-Century Babies - Building a Baby, With Few Ground Rules |
    Surrogacy is largely without regulation, creating an emerging commercial market for babies that raises vexing ethical questions.
  • A Cold War Over Warming | Open the Future
    There is, I believe, a non-zero chance that an extended period of climate instability could induce a state that believes itself to be better able to adapt to global warming to slow its efforts to decarbonize in order to gain a lead over its more vulnerable rivals.

December 13, 2009

The best of Sentient Developments: 2009

Here are my favorite Sentient Developments articles from the past year:

The best of the guests

A hearty thank you goes out to all the guest bloggers who contributed to Sentient Developments in 2009. Here are my favorite of their articles from the past year:

December 6, 2009

The Harmonic Convergence of Science, Sight, & Sound

Linda MacDonald Glenn is guest blogging this month.

I had the pleasure of listening to Joann Kuchera-Morin from Allosphere at the BioPolitics/H+ conference this weekend and just had to share it -- it elevates the art and science of communication to a new dimension (including the six dimensions now recognized in quantum physics):

You can check out Linda's original blog at the Women's Bioethics Blogspot.

December 5, 2009

Link dump: 2009.12.05

From the four corners of the web: