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Robert White: The Brain Transplant Surgeon March 26, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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A common criticism of transhumanists is that we’re nothing but a bunch of technofetishists and utopian dreamers, convinced that the inevitable march of technological progress will bring about our wildest dreams.  As such it is also assumed that we as a movement welcome any and all scientific research, no matter what form it takes or the costs associated, as long as it increases our chances of living forever or uploading ourselves into a computer.

Robert White, the subject of a new documentary, would then at first glance seem to be a poster boy for transhumanism.  As a neurosurgeon working in the 1960’s White performed some of the early experiments on organ transplants.  While he seems to have been a good scientist in many ways he is no doubt best remembered for a different aspect of his research: attempting to transplant the head of one monkey onto the body of another. Yes, this is real.  Watch the video if you don’t believe me.

Watched it?  Good, now let me make myself abundantly clear.  I consider myself a transhumanist, for whatever that’s worth, and though I obviously cannot speak for the community as a whole I can state how I as a transhumanist view this type of research.  How do I view it you ask?  It sickens me.

Frequent readers of this blog (if I have any) will no doubt have surmised that I hold pretty staunchly to a negative utilitarian view of ethics and as such I believe that if the consequences of an action result in a lessening of suffering in the world we should perform said action.  In short, that which reduces suffering is good.  It would seem then that if Dr. White’s experiments, grotesque though they are, eliminated more suffering then they caused I would have no choice but to support them.

Here’s the problem with that sentiment.  Inflicting suffering to prevent suffering is always a slippery slope.  I will not deny that there are cases in which it is the right thing to do as such a stance is indefensible.  World War II, often cited as the perfect example of a just war, inflicted massive loss of life and suffering but also stopped what may be one of the few examples of a genuinely evil regime from carrying out a program of mass genocide.  For an example a little closer to home surgery inevitably involves inflicting a relatively minor wound in order to heal a greater one.

Clearly causing suffering can sometimes be justified if the suffering prevented is greater.  My problem with Dr. White’s research is that I’m not sure that can be said in this case.  Even if the knowledge gained by transplanting the head of one monkey onto the body of another resulted in knowledge that has saved lives, something I highly doubt, I cannot believe that this knowledge could not have been gained through a less barbaric path.


Animal Suffering vs. Animal Slavery January 3, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ethics, Transhumanism.
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Are non-humans deserving of rights?  Does husbandry amount to enslavement?  Is animal testing acceptable if it sames human lives?  These questions and others lie at the heart of the debate between animal rights and animal welfare.  More than simply a theoretical discussion it has important implications for not only what place non-humans currently have in our society but how those roles may change in the coming decades.  Though science fiction stories are replete with examples of uplifted species or hybrid splices society at large has yet to consider what our response to such things should be.  One reason for this is that we still haven’t figured out where non-humans fit into our current paradigm.

Though both groups campaign against cruelty to animals there are deep, fundamental differences between them.  The crux of the argument can be summed up by the question of whether or not non-humans can or should possess the same rights we give to our fellow humans.  What rights these are can vary depending on who is being asked the question but the generally include the more familiar ones: the right to live, the right to liberty (or to not be enslaved) and so on.  The short version is that animal rights advocates support this while animal welfare advocates do not.  The slightly longer version is more complicated.

What this debate hinges on (as it appears to me) is the question of personhood.  A person here is defined as a sentient being capable of self-awareness, the ability to contemplate it’s own future and the ability to feel pain.  That last one is arguably the most important as without pain, suffering or something like it becomes very difficult to differentiate between positive and negative experiences.  The animal rights camp, following the works of people like Peter Singer (who oddly enough actually disagrees with a fair amount of their rhetoric) generally believes in extending our circle of personhood to include either some or all of the rest of the animal kingdom.  Note that animal rights groups usually stop at animals and don’t generally push for the rights of plants or ecosystems a la the Deep Ecology movement.  Animal welfarists reject this extension of rights to non-humans out of hand and continue to regard non-humans as non-sentient.

This disagreement leads to drastic differences between two groups that otherwise would seem obvious allies.  Welfarists have no problems with the act of eating meat itself while many rightists advocate veganism.  Rightests condemn, and in some cases sabotage, animal testing while welfarists generally support its use.  Once again, the issue in all of this is one of personhood.  If non-humans are persons than they deserve the rights that we as a society already extend to humans (to do otherwise is speciesism.)  Some of those rights will naturally be the right not to be eaten, not to be experimented on, and not to be imprisoned.  If they are not persons then they are not deserving of any of those.  Thus as God commands in the Old Testament, man shall have dominion over the rest of the natural world.

So who has the stronger argument?  It depends on who you ask but from where I’m standing I’m not sure either one gets it.  The major problem with the welfare approach is that it ignores the fundamental right that all sentient life shares: the freedom not to suffer.  Welfarists may pay lip service to this by advocating the abolition of unnecessary suffering but the question as to what exactly that is is a constantly moving target.  To a welfarist an animal is a tool.  Perhaps a cute tool, one which may provide great service to it’s human masters and which should be kept in the best condition possible, but a tool none-the-less.  The purpose of an animals entire existence lies in what in can provide to mankind; whether that be companionship, testing the next generation of cancer drugs or simply serving to sate a primal urge for dead flesh.

By contrast, animal rightists respect the rights of animals to a fault.  They fully believe that animals should be free from suffering at human hands and attack notions that non-humans exist to serve humankind.  Unfortunately they too lose track of their overriding goal, though they go about it in a manner quite different from the welfarists.  All to often rightists fall into the “Gaia trap,” viewing the natural world in an over-idealized and nostalgic light.  Their position can best be summed up as one of non-interference with the natural world, a sort of “life will find a way” naivety wherein animals are freed from the “tyranny” of human slavery.  There opposition to animal enslavement even extends to companion relationships which, while certainly not without there difficulties, are among the best relationships humans have cultivated.  More importantly this view completely  ignores the horrifying reality of both Darwinian evolution and daily life in the natural world, “red in tooth and claw”, wherein the vast majority of life of those born will eke out a brief, harsh existence of fear and anxiety before meeting their end at the hands, or teeth, of another.

The question of how we treat non-humans is one of the most important debates facing both philosophy and society as a whole.  To those who value the abolition of suffering it is imperative that we choose the right approach.  Neither the welfarist nor the rightist approach will do and as such a third is needed.  Call it animal guardianship.  Call it the quest for Eden.  Or perhaps, just call it the Hedonistic Imperative.