|Two ethical dilemmas: one fake, one real
||[Jan. 10th, 2008|01:30 am]
I like to think that I keep an open mind, but sometimes people's opinions stretch the limits of my credulity. There is apparently a "debate" going on about radical life extension, i.e, using biotechnology and other scientific means to dramatically increase average human lifespan. The debate is not about whether such a thing is remotely feasible, mind you—it's about whether radical life extension is desirable. The opponents of this position are essentially arguing for death.
Of course, you'd expect opposition from the usual quarters: without death, where would religion be? But this is a debate among scientists. Diana Schaub's essay is particularly inane:
But how would human relations be affected? How would monogamy fare? It’s not doing great as it is, but could one even imagine the vow “till death do us part” when death might be nine centuries away?Hold on a second, monogamy is so important that if we can't protect it, we should give up and die? I'm speechless. Note that she is not arguing that we should have the choice not to prolong life and health if the technology should be come available; she is arguing against the technology itself.
For those of us who are not death cultists, let me move on to dilemma #2. This one is far less hypothetical and is rather immediate—I expect that society will grapple with this question within five or ten years.
The voluntary amputation dilemma. If you haven't been following the progress in prosthetic limb technology over the last few years, you can be forgiven. After all, it's not something that affects most people's everyday lives. But you'd be surprised, perhaps shocked, at how far things have come.
In many track-and-field events, participants with artificial feet perform almost as good as those with natural body parts. Very soon, organizers will have to make decisions on whether to allow prostheses in regular competitions. That's a big dilemma right there, but hang on.
Huge improvements have also been made in building myoelectric arms—prostheses that sense and interpret nerve signals in the microvolt range to make appropriate arm movements. This short video showcases the dexterity and functionality of a recently developed, amazingly advanced arm.
What does the future hold? Evolution took millions of years to make our limbs as good as they are; technology moves slightly faster. In five years, expect prosthetic feet to have far surpassed natural feet for most athletic purposes. With prosthetic arms, the possibilities are endless—bone-crushing grip strength, your weapon of choice built into the arm, typing at the speed of thought, and so on.
Some people with healthy limbs will inevitably want to replace them with prostheses. Are we going to try to stop that?
Let me make a few things clear, in case they aren't obvious. First, the technology is wonderful, it has already made such a huge difference to so many people's lives and will continue to make an even bigger change. It would be madness to even suggest that we shouldn't develop better-than-natural prostheses.
Second, it will be a very, very small fraction of people who will opt for voluntary amputation. I'm not suggesting that the average person would do so, just because it would give them a competitive advantage. But even if a hundredth of a percent of people do, that's still a huge number, and it puts some pressure on people whose jobs involve physical skill and who find themselves handily outperformed.
One might hope that no one would be crazy enough to cut off a limb. But that is a naïve hope, and there is much to suggest otherwise even in our current society. Pro-wrestlers have seven times the mortality rate of the general population. They know what they're getting into, yet choose to pump themselves full of steroids. Jihadists of the extreme variety would need little convincing to get artificial arms if it will help them fight better. Someone who is desperately in need of money would probably also be easily tipped over the edge.
My own position is clear: I am under all circumstances opposed to interfering with the individual's right to self-determination. I'm afraid that society as a whole is a lot less laissez-faire. Governments will obviously try to ban voluntary amputation, because governments like to ban things. It legitimizes their existence. This will make the problem worse by pushing it into the black market, but will do little to actually stop it: the cost of even advanced prosthetic limbs is projected to fall dramatically into the hundreds, perhaps tens of dollars.
The fundamental problem with either judicial or social solutions is that you can never tell for sure if an amputee suffered an accident or if they chose their destiny. Anyone can come up with a story. Oddly enough, there is hope in technology: perhaps the relentless march of automation will progress fast enough that in a decade or two, there will be virtually no jobs left that require manual labor. If the fruits of these advances reach the third world, that will take away most of the incentive for voluntary amputation.