July 26, 2011

The ethics of animal enhancement

Humanity’s relationship with animals has varied drastically over the millennia.

Animals were once (and some still are) our predators, contributing directly to the course of human evolution. They have inspired us to art—right from the time we were first able to translate our thoughts onto the walls of a cave. They have played an indelible part in our religions, at once the object of reverence, and later the object of our dominion. We have made them into our beasts of burden. They have entertained us. Animals have joined us in combat as our vehicles, weapons and messengers. We have kept animals as our companions, tried and punished them in human courts, moulded them into bizarre forms and driven entire species into extinction. Today, our relationship with animals is still changing, the most recent development being the rise of the animal rights movement.

The modern animal rights movement was given its kick-start in 1975 by Australian bioethicist Peter Singer by virtue of his seminal book, Animal Liberation. Since that time, Singer has worked to advance the notion that personhood, in both the cognitive and legal sense, is not exclusive to Homo sapiens. To this end, he founded the Great Ape Project, which in addition to advocating for ape personhood, sets aside more modest tasks like establishing minimum space requirements for animals in confinement.

Singer's revolution is arguably still in its infancy, but there have been some breakthroughs in the past twenty years that are taking the movement to the next phase. New Zealand took the first steps by passing an animal welfare act in 1999 declaring that research, testing or teaching involving the use of a great ape requires government approval—a move that essentially banned the practices. Britain soon thereafter invoked a similar ban. More recently, in April 2006 members of Spain's socialist party announced that it would introduce a bill calling for “the immediate inclusion of (simians) in the category of persons, and that they be given the moral and legal protection that currently are only enjoyed by human beings.” New Zealand is current working to introduce similar legislation, hoping to promote ape status from property to person. Such measures would represent a noteworthy step beyond mere moral consideration to that of enforceable protections. Should these bills be passed, states would be responsible for the welfare and protection of legally recognized nonhuman persons.

And of course, there's my Rights of Non-Human Persons program hosted by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies where we're hoping to see a number of candidate species granted human-level rights and protections.

The rationale behind these various efforts is the realization that some non-human animals and humans share similar psychological attributes such as the capacity for strong self-awareness, emotion, empathy and language. Work in genetics has revealed that the great apes and humans share nearly 98-percent of their genome. Various intelligence tests, brain scans and observations indicate cognitive faculties similar to those of humans. Given the mounting scientific and empirical evidence, it is becoming increasingly unacceptable to withhold consent in regards to acknowledging the presence of animal consciousness and emotional experience.

As these initiatives move forward, and as the animal rights movement continues to evolve, it can be said that humanity’s relationship with animals has transitioned from subjugation to moral consideration. And tomorrow it will transition from moral consideration to social co-existence.

The ethical imperative to uplift

Enhancement biotechnologies will profoundly impact on the nature of this co-existence. Today, efforts are placed on simply protecting animals. Tomorrow, humanity will likely strive to take this further – to endow nonhuman animals with the requisite faculties that will enable individual and group self-determination, and more broadly, to give them the cognitive and social skills that will allow them to participate in the larger social politic that includes all sentient life.

As many transhumanists and technoprogressives are inclined to point out, human enhancement offers an unprecedented opportunity for the human species to transcend biological limitations. These include not just the benefits of what may be gained, but also the benefits of what may be discarded.

In terms of what humanity may hope to gain, there are potential enhancements such as greater health and wellness, increased intelligence and memory, improved psychological control, longer lives, and novel capacities. Some of the principal arguments in favour include the recognition of fundamental bio-rights that include reproductive, morphological, and cognitive liberties. Healthier people, it is argued, will also save individuals and their governments from spending inordinate sums of money that are currently required to battle all types of ailments, including the costs of aging itself. It is also argued that enhancement technologies will result in persons more capable and willing to engage in social and political causes. In this sense, transhumanism holds radical promise for the furtherance of democratic and participatory values.

As to what humanity may hope to lose with biological augmentation, humans are poised to discard their often fragile and susceptible biological forms. It is hoped that the ravages of aging will be brought to an end, as well as the arbitrariness of the genetic lottery. More conceptually, human evolution is poised to go undergo an evolution of its own where it goes from unconscious Darwinian selection to deliberate and guided quasi-Lamarckianism. Driving this transition is the ingrained human desire to move beyond a state of nature in which an existential mode is imposed upon Homo sapiens, to one in which humanity can grow increasingly immune to unconscious and arbitrary processes. An emergent property of intelligence is its collective aversion to chaos; it perpetually works to increase levels of order and organization.

These compulsions are held by many to represent strong ethical and legal imperatives. Given the animal rights movement's goal to increase the moral circle to include higher animals, and given that a strong scientific case can be made in favour of animal personhood, a time will come for humanity to conclude that what is good for the goose is also good for the gander.

Furthermore, it would be unethical, negligent and even hypocritical of humans to enhance only themselves and ignore the larger community of sapient nonhuman animals. The idea of humanity entering into an advanced state of biological and/or postbiological existence while the rest of nature is left behind to fend for itself is distasteful.

Why uplift nonhuman animals? What is it that we hope they will gain? Ultimately, the goal of uplift is to foster better lives. By increasing the rational faculties of animals, and by giving them the tools to better manage themselves and their environment, they stand to gain everything that we have come to value as a species.

Issues of fairness, primary goods and distributive justice

The suggestion that a moral imperative exists to uplift sapient nonhumans implies that humans have an obligation to do so. Political and moral philosophers have struggled with the issue of obligations since the beginning of human social organization, due mostly to apparent incompatibilities and inconsistencies between liberty and the sense of imposition or even coercion.

Various frameworks have been proposed to deal with these issues, including social contract frameworks devised by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant. More recently, and in the context of human enhancement, there has been the work of Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen who have proposed a capabilities approach in which an individual’s “functioning” is tied directly to the quality of their ability to act in society.

Quite obviously these frameworks have interesting ramifications for arguments in support of uplift scenarios, but the most potent methodology that can be applied to the issue of bringing nonhumans into the human social fold is the theory of justice proposed by philosopher John Rawls. While concerned with human society, Rawls’s theories reveal a high degree of relevance to issues of animal welfare, particularly when one ascribes a certain degree of moral worth and personhood consideration to sapient nonhumans.

One of Rawls’s more important contributions to political theory was his concept of the original position in which individuals decide principles of justice from behind a veil of ignorance. The purpose of Rawls’s thought experiment was to weed out any preconceived notions of social position or privilege in order to devise the fairest of social arrangements – the general idea being that ignorance of one’s social position and capabilities will result in the creation of the fairest and most equitable of frameworks. As Rawls noted, in the original position “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.” Rawls’s special claim is that all those in the original position would adopt a risk-minimizing strategy that would maximize the position of the least well off.

Rawls understandably chose a reference class of Homo sapiens, but for reasons already discussed, there is no good reason to exclude nonhumans from this thought experiment. In fact, one could argue that Rawls provisioned, either intentionally or unintentionally, the inclusion of nonhumans by virtue of including psychological and physical propensities in the list. Consequently, Rawls’s veil of ignorance should also obscure knowledge of one’s species.

Decisions about justice and fairness, argued Rawls, would ultimately lead to consensus on issues of rights and duties and the distribution of social and economic advantages. In regards to how these principles were to be executed, Rawls suggested that they be crafted in such a way as to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society. Considering that nonhumans are completely shut-out from the social contract and carry negligible social standing, they should be considered among the most least-advantaged (applying what is referred to as the difference principle).

Quite obviously, even the most sentient and social of nonhuman animals lack the requisite cognitive and linguistic faculties to engage in advanced society; the human monopoly on what is regarded as “society” has arisen as a consequence of gross discrepancies in abilities. At first blush, therefore, social considerations for animals would appear to be a non-issue (and even nonsensical). However, pending enhancement biotechnologies alter this picture dramatically.

For nonhuman animals these discrepancies in abilities qualifies as a deficient primary good required for the attainment of fair and equal opportunity. Like some humans who argue that they have fared poorly in the genetic lottery, it can be said that nonhumans have missed out in the species lottery. Thus, when considering agents who are provisioning for a just society in the original position, and considering that the reference class should include sapient non-humans, it is fair and reasonable to assert that they would make contingencies for the uplift of nonhumans given the availability of the technologies that would allow for such endowments. To do otherwise would be an unfair distribution of primary goods that are requisites for political participation, liberty and justice. As Rawls surmised, individuals in the original position would adopt those principles that would govern the assignment of rights and duties and regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages across society.

Given the very real potential for biological augmentation some time later this century, the means to better distribute primary goods will eventually come into being and will by consequence enter into the marketplace of distributable primary goods. To deny nonhumans access to enhancement technologies, therefore, would be a breach of distributive justice and an act of genetic or biological exceptionalism – the idea that one’s biological constitution falls into a special category of goods that lie outside other sanctioned or recognized primary goods. Such claims, as argued by Allen Buchanan and others, do not carry much moral currency.

Indeed, liberal theories of distributive justice necessarily provide for the elimination or mitigation of the undeserved effects of luck on welfare. Fair equality of opportunity, argued Rawls, requires not merely that offices and positions be distributed on the basis of merit, but that all persons have reasonable opportunity to acquire the skills on the basis of which merit is assessed. These skills, in the context of animal uplift, are the biological augmentations that would enable social interaction at the “human” level (at the very least).

Critics contend that Rawls’s idea was to examine how a just society could be created no matter the socioeconomic or morphological composition of its members. The argument from Rawls, they argue, is that humans need to create an environment that will allow humans to be happy as humans and animals happy as animals.

What this line of thinking fails to take into account, however, is the presence of those primary goods in society that, when not equally distributed, prevent persons from living a just life. As Rawls noted, each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all. The introduction of uplift biotechnologies will greatly perturb the sense that Homo sapiens is the only species on the planet deserving of our most fundamental values.

The issue of consent

While it can be argued that humans are obligated to integrate sapient nonhumans into a larger inter-species society, the question of consent must also be addressed. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try we would never be able to convey the complexities of the issue to nonhumans, and thus, cannot depend on getting informed consent from the agents themselves. In this sense, it is a situation similar to the ethical quandary of genetic modifications and the consent of the unborn and young children. Consent (or non-consent), therefore, has to be deduced and inferred by proxy.

Again, the Rawlsian framework offers a way to deal with the issue. As Rawls noted, the veil of ignorance hides knowledge of one’s actual psychological disposition. As already argued, psychological dispositions can be reasonably interpreted in such a way as to include the psychological and physical condition of nonhuman animals. Assuming that a nonhuman would participate in the original position experiment as a free and rational decision-making agent, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that they would, like humans, come to the same set of principles designed to protect the interests of the entire reference class.

Persons in the original position, it is reasonable to say, would be very concerned about incarnating as a nonhuman animal and would undoubtedly work to ensure that all the safeguards be put in place to protect their potential interests. Moreover, knowledge of how uplift biotechnologies could better disseminate primary goods among the species would most certainly be a weighty consideration. Actors in the original position would employ game theoretic logic in making their decisions, employing the maximin strategy in which choices produce the highest payoff for the worst outcome. The prospect of coming into the world as a great ape, elephant or dolphin in the midst of an advanced human civilization can be reasonably construed as a worst outcome.

Therefore, humanity can assume that it has the consent of sapient nonhumans to biologically uplift.

Less conceptually, there is an alternative way in which both consent and uplift efficacy can be determined: uplift sampling. Rather than uplift an entire species, several individuals could be uplifted in order to assess the effectiveness of the experiment. Uplifted animals could conceivably act as spokespersons for their species and provide a valuable insight into the process and whether or not the change was desirable.

All together now

A future world in which humans co-exist with uplifted whales, elephants and apes certainly sounds bizarre. The idea of a United Nations in which there is a table for the dolphin delegate seems more fantasy than reality. Such a future, however, even when considering the presence of uplifted animals, may not turn out just quite the way we think it will.

Intelligence on the planet Earth is set to undergo a sea change. Post-Singularity minds will either be manifest as cybernetic organisms, or more likely, as uploaded beings. Given the robust nature of computational substrate, intelligence is set to expand and diversify in ways that we cannot yet grasp, suffice to say that postbiological beings will scarcely resemble our current incarnation.

In this sense, “postbiological” is a more appropriate term than “posthuman”. The suggestion that posthumans will live amongst post-apes and post-elephants misses the point that a convergence of intelligences awaits us in our future. Our biological heritage may only likely play a very minor part in our larger postbiological constitution – much like the reptilian part of our brain does today in terms of our larger neurological functioning.

And like the other sapient animals who share the planet with us, and with whom we can claim a common genetic lineage, we will one day look back in awe as to what was once our shared biological heritage.


AndrewR said...

Unfortunately (?), you can't fix ALL problems with technology. I, for example, have very fast computer here, and can up/download megabytes of information in just seconds. Same machines running behind many, many walls ... But this computational power, while has great potential for "uplifting" our thinking - used MOSTLY just for making our think-able world more simple and controllable. Moreover, technology need MORE energy and raw materials for producing anything even remotely close to biological systems.I agree with your early post (from 2006) about limited, language-based uplift for some non-human animals. But I really see Brin's books as mostly horror stories now, they show "super"-dolphins simple used, like today's dolphins, despite their advances. Sorry, this apple is poisoned.

Anonymous said...

Great article, it’s rare I ever read a so long article.

I disagree, you can be more efficient with technology than with biology. Biology only evolved from random events selected by what is best in it's environment.