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Enhancement Anxiety

A problem with the current debates about emerging technologies is that they really are debates—plural. Reasonable policy approaches to embryonic sex selection, for example, or to human reproductive cloning, if it were available, might not generalize to more radical technologies that could reverse the aging process, dramatically increase our cognitive capacities, alter the gross morphology of human bodies, or merge our brains with sophisticated cybernetic devices. People of reason should see each of these varied prospects as raising its own specific questions.

Consider reproductive cloning. Over the past fifteen years, Western policy makers have squandered a golden opportunity that came their way in February of 1997, when the birth of Dolly the sheep was announced in the leading science journal Nature. In principle, the somatic cell nuclear transfer technique used to create Dolly could have been applied to human beings, though this has not happened in practice because of technical difficulties. Their attention seized by the entirely hypothetical prospect of human cloning, priests and pundits thundered about playing God or violating the natural order, about the threat of a Brave New World and the alleged wisdom of repugnance. In response, many legal prohibitions were enacted in jurisdictions around the world.

A rational and liberal-minded approach to the prospect of human reproductive cloning would have focused on concerns about safety and efficacy and the possible exploitation of vulnerable people who might want to employ the technique or act as experimental subjects. There was no need for the sweeping, draconian laws that appeared around the planet, calculated to demonize and repudiate the whole idea of reproductive cloning even before the technology was developed. In short, policy makers had an opportunity to reaffirm the value of liberal tolerance, but many of them did precisely the opposite.

The moral panic and subsequent legislative frenzy that followed the Dolly announcement will make it even more difficult to argue for tolerance and legislative restraint the next time some technological or social innovation excites widespread fear and repugnance. A new, publicly conspicuous precedent has been created for enacting directly coercive laws whose primary motivation is essentially illiberal and irrational.

In general, there is little reason for Western democracies to forbid such innovations as reproductive cloning and embryonic sex selection. Whatever problems sex selection might cause in such countries as China and India—where it is the underlying social causes, not the technologies, that need to be addressed—all research to date indicates that sex selection is unlikely to be used in Western nations in ways that would skew sex ratios or undermine the welfare of women. These technologies may seem undesirable from the viewpoint of one or more of the many contestable moralities that people are free to live by within the pluralistic societies of the West, but they are unlikely to cause the sorts of direct harms to people’s ordinary civil interests that provide the least controversial basis for legal bans. What, however, about the more radical and futuristic prospects that I’ve already mentioned—such as age reversal or mergers of brains and machines? Here, the story is different, but again the fears are exaggerated. We need to step back a little and obtain some perspective.

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RB has a blog and posts regularly - read more of his articles at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club
About Me (from his blog)
I am an Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. I'm editor-in-chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology, an on-line, peer-reviewed journal. As a creative writer, I specialise in science fiction and fantasy. My non-fiction work frequently deals with issues involving the human, or posthuman, future. I am interested in the ethics, and possible regulation, of emerging technologies, and the future of religion, morality, art, literature, political organisation, and human nature itself. Some of my articles are available on my web site. I've recently returned to Newcastle, where I grew up, after 30 years in Melbourne. I am a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle. My formal qualifications include First Class Honours degrees in Arts and Law, and separate Ph.Ds in English literature and philosophy. The latter may seem extravagant, but I have my reasons! Feel free to follow me on Twitter (tweeting as "Metamagician").



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