October 21, 2004
Arrogant Scientists And What Is A Rights-Possessing Being?

William Happer, a professor of physics at Princeton University and George W. Bush supporter, says a lot of scientists are too stuck on their own intellectual superiority. (the magazine The Scientist requires free registration that is well worth the time to sign up for it)

Happer, a member of the Homeland Security Science and Technology Advisory Panel, suggested that the charges from the UCS and Nobel Laureates are largely overblown and out of context. He said that some scientists, who've garnered a sort of "deity complex" based on their scientific achievements, take their role to be akin to Plato's "philosopher kings," wise advisors who would tell citizens how to live. "They're extremely upset when the Bush administration doesn't call in the philosopher kings to be told what to do," he said.

When I hear some of the scientists who are angry at Bush Administration restrictions on embryonic stem cell research part of my reaction is that the scientists are seemingly opposed to the idea that anyone besides scientists should be able to decide what is ethical in areas where the scientists are working. This is something ultimately arrogant and condescending about their rhetoric. They can't see how anyone can legitimately disagree with them. Yet we face serious ethical issues with the ability to manipulate cells that have the potential to develop into full humans. It strikes me as immature to expect the public to all just jump and shift to the position held by most stem cell researchers just because the stem cell researchers are experts. Should we have a society which is ruled by experts?

Leave aside what you personally feel about ethical questions related to embryonic stem cell research. Look at the case of murder. Almost everyone agrees that murder is a bad thing and it should be outlawed. By contrast, there are sharp divisions in America and in many European countries over abortion. Why? It is hard to draw the line on what is a human now that we can intervene in areas we never had the ability to intervene in before. What principles should we use to guide us in making those decisions? Most scientists arguing for allowing the use of embryonic stem cells do not even try to provide an answer to that question. They just rag on Bush and those supposedly horrible fundamentalist Christians.

Religious folks do attempt to provide an answer for why they are opposed to both abortion and embryonic stem cell therapies: They think these procedures and manipulations kill spirits. Now, do we have spirits? Heck if I know. Hope so. Doubt it too. Is there a God who has set absolute rules for right and wrong? The scientists have no better idea to the answer for that question than do priests and pastors. Science is throwing up all sorts of cases where we have to decide on right and wrong where we never had to before because we couldn't create the conditions that produced the ethical problem in the first place.

It is a strain on the public to be faced with so many ethical issues on matters of such gravity. Scientists need to recognize this and to show some patience. That some people (whether for religious or non-religious reasons) tend to take a more expansive view of what is a human than some scientists desire is not a bad thing even if those people are wrong. Would you rather live in a society where the populace tends to draw too small a circle around what is human? Or would you rather live in a society where people err in the direction of greater protection? It is exceedingly unlikely you are going to live in a society where people make their judgements about rights with perfect precision and infinite wisdom. We are only humans after all.

It seems to me that a government has to be legitimate in the minds of its people and that legitimacy has to rest on a widely held set of beliefs on what is right and what is wrong. That need to come up with a consensus on moral questions can not always be avoided by oft-made claim that we can sidestep the need for consensus by letting each person decide whether, say, to make use of the ability to have an abortion or to use embryonic stem cells for therapy. The reason is that the debate is over the question of what is a rights-possessing entity. The answer to that question is by no means obvious. We hold now that babies are from the moment of birth rights-possessing entities. Killing a baby is murder. But back in the Roman Empire that was not the case. Down through time there have been many changes on where to draw the lines on what is a human and on what rights humans possess under different circumstances. So there is no obvious self-evident truth on what is murder or what is a human.

Scientific advances are going to create new situations to debate on where to draw the line and also provide information that will affect how we define where to draw the line. But science by itself can not provide ethical answers. Arrogant condescending assertions of what is right and wrong by academic biomedical researchers are no more helpful than similar assertions by their opponents. One can be a reasonable and well-informed person and disagree with either side. One can even be reasonable and well-informed and be deeply ambivalent about many of the questions that are arising as a result of biomedical advances.

What is a human? The stakes are incredibly high for how we answer that question. The stakes matter for not just abortion and embryonic stem cell research but also for genetic engineering of children, genetic engineering to increase the intelligence of other species, the development of artificial intelligence and human-computer interfaces, and with the ability to keep alive brain-dead or extremely cognitively decayed humans. Most of the ramifications of what happens if we make various choices are hard to guess at. But at least some of those choices would be disastrous in my view. For instance, imagine if we allowed any entity that can pass a Turing test full rights. This would likely be an appealing criterion for some scientists even though most people don't even know what a Turing test is. But then genetically engineered psychopaths would be free to prey on people until they were caught committing a crime.

So far secular scientists have not advanced a compelling non-religious basis for deciding what is a human. Carl Sagan suggested drawing the line (if memory serves) at the point at which the cerebral cortext begins development. His argument was that the frontal lobes of the brain are what makes human minds unique. But most scientists do not try to engage the question at that level. They just assert that of course any reasonable person could not possibly believe that a single cell deserves legal protection.

What I find more worrying about this state of the debate is not the arrogance of scientists. The bigger problem in the longer run comes from the intellectual demands that will be placed on anyone who is trying to judge whether some product of science really is something we want to recognize as sufficiently human-life to deserve protection as a human. The level of cognitive ability and of education even needed to understand the reasoning of arguments for some moral positions about what is a human and what is a rights-possessing entity will be so great that those arguments will be inaccessible to a substantial fraction of the population. How can we have a moral consensus on the legitimacy of crucial laws regarding what is murder and what is a human life if the population can't even understand the laws and their justifications?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 October 21 03:06 PM  Policy Science

Eric said at October 21, 2004 5:48 PM:

I'm of the opinion that the morally relevant category here is person, not human: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Person

I'm not seeing arrogance on the part of the scientists, but that might be personal bias.

I suspect that the failure of pro-research advocates to make concrete public arguments about criteria for personhood is that that kind of discussion will go over the heads of most people. But for the biologically literate, I think it goes without saying that an embryo is not a person.

As to the religious opinion that "ensoulment" happens at conception, I find it hard to accept that that belief can stand as public policy. I don't see any healthy precedent for allowing religious doctrine to direct public policy.

Randall Parker said at October 21, 2004 6:08 PM:


You say:

I don't see any healthy precedent for allowing religious doctrine to direct public policy.

Well, where are people supposed to get their moral beliefs? Just dream them up? Go with what feels just? I mean, is trust of one's emotions any more reliable of a guide than trust of some religious doctrine?

To put it another way: If you reject a supernatural source for our sense of right and wrong then Isn't our moral sense a product of evolution? Musn't it be the product of natural selection?

If our moral sensibilities are the result of genetic variations wiring up our brains certain ways and if, as seems exceedingly likely, there are genetic variations between people that give people different moral sensibilities then what is more correct about a scientist's decision to have one view about embryonic stem cells versus another view held by a fundamentalist Christian?

Scientists are, on average, much smarter than the general public. They are much smarter mostly due to genetic variations that make them smarter. They are also, on average, different in personality than the public at large. So I expect them to differ from the public at large in their moral sensibilities. But are they any more correct in their moral sensibilities? Is there even some objective standard of correctness? If so, where is that standard coming from?

Also, if as you argue:

I suspect that the failure of pro-research advocates to make concrete public arguments about criteria for personhood is that that kind of discussion will go over the heads of most people.

Then that supports my final point. Scientists are taking biotechnology in directions that will make possible things that scientists will find acceptable while much of the lay publicwill object because they can not even understand the arguments for why a particular technique or manipulation is not morally reprehensible. Seems to me then the trend is going to be toward greater moral conflict between the cognitive elite and the masses. Not a rosy future.

Though genetic engineering to raise cognitive abilities should be expected to reduce the size of ethical divisions in society as more people gain the ability to understand arguments in favor of the types of biotechnology that currently produce so much opposition.

Eric said at October 21, 2004 6:30 PM:

Re: source of morality

I would submit that reason and debate are the grounds for moral justification in our society. For example, The Declaration of Independence speaks of a "creator" but the message is about the nature of persons and their rights. One problem is: scientists aren't philosophers and they mostly don't have the credentials to lecture on ethics.

I grant that our moral sense has a genetic/biological origin, but we shouldn't base our laws on feelings. Too often people confuse their aesthetic and moral senses to the detriment of liberty.

Re: public outreach

Attention span more than intellect is probably the biggest impediment to public understanding of biotech issues. I think it could be explained in a way that the average person would understand, but it would take an hour-long TV show.

Randall Parker said at October 21, 2004 7:16 PM:


Even very smart people build very elaborate justifications for what they deep down feel is right or wrong. Scientists in politics do this as much as anyone else.

Debate is just a technique for hashing through the issues. But we inevitably bring preexisting values to a debate. Rarely does debate change people's values.

Look at partial birth abortion. Are you going to convince someone who is revolted by the image of pumping baby brains out of a womb that they have nothing to be disgusted about? No, it is not going to happen.

Or are you going to convince me to rationally feel that there is nothing wrong with torturing puppies since puppies have souls? No way. I'm disgusted by the idea of torturing puppies and no amount of rational argument will sway me. We have esthetic sensibilities and instinctual reactions that have big effects on our moral beliefs.

You say:

One problem is: scientists aren't philosophers and they mostly don't have the credentials to lecture on ethics.

But you have just expressed the sentiment of a philosopher-king: the idea that there are people who have been academically trained to be ethics experts. Peter Singer perhaps? I roll my eyes.

I think it could be explained in a way that the average person would understand,

Average? About half the population is below the median (unless some are exactly on the median). How to explain the issues to people below 98 IQ (which is the mean, not the median for the US - don't know what the median is) in a way they would find satisfying? Once you have explained the scientific issues suppose they just answer that their faith tells them that ensoulment happens at the moment of conception. How can you prove them wrong? I don't see that you can.

A. Nonymous said at October 21, 2004 8:14 PM:

I visit FuturePundit to learn about interesting future-related scientific and technological issues. In this role FuturePundit serves a valuable purpose, and is quite good at selecting, summarizing, and highlighting important implications of, various stories.

The amateurish philosophy that comprises this thread detracts from your website and threatens its credibility as a source of scientific information.

Of course, it is your site, and you are free to write about what you like (just as I am free not to read it). But I make this comment as someone who likes FuturePundit and is concerned about its possible degeneration. My well-intentioned advice is to delete the thread.

Randall Parker said at October 21, 2004 8:22 PM:

A. Nonymous, Just what do you find to be so amateurish about this discussion? Is there not a need to discuss what are the criteria for a rights-possessing being? Or is it that you think the way I'm going about it is amateurish? Or does it just bore you and you are looking for more scientific fun facts of coming fancy flying spacecraft and medical treatments?

I can't figure out where you are coming from...

Joshua Allen said at October 21, 2004 9:26 PM:


You are right on; the idea that these things are based on logic or science is just silly. I note that people who feel it's unethical to kill an infant in the third trimester do not see anything wrong with killing 30 year-old felons. And people who feel it's unethical to kill adult felons often argue for a woman's right to kill her infant children. So obviously nobody cares about the official definition of "when does life begin", or "what is a human" when making these value judgments.

Eric said at October 21, 2004 9:29 PM:

I'll try to make it up to A.Nonymous for being so boring.

Randall, I agree with you that most people will not be convinced by debate, but laws must be made that way.

I think we may be working with different meta-ethical beliefs. I believe in objective moral truth. Using the methods of critical thinking, I believe that one can generate moral knowledge. I suspect that you are embracing a kind of moral relativism, at least in a methodological sense. Perhaps it's moral skepticism.

Torturing puppies may be morally wrong if we agree that causing undue pain to a feeling creature is wrong -- soul or not. But I think we agree that painlessly killing puppies is okay, because puppies are not people. Killing them causes them no harm, but it does harm a person because we have aspirations for our future.

On the issues of stem cells, I don't think it takes a philosopher a see that human embryos are not morally significant in and of themselves. Only a belief in souls (ghosts in the machine) can cause a reasonable person to think that destroying an embryo in vitro could be morally significant. How is it worse to kill an embryo than to kill a puppy?

However, the discussion from Bush et al has been no more profound than from the scientists. With short attention spans the *average voter* doesn't have time to think through the issue, but she/he can digest sound bites. That's what we have. Not debates but sound bites. But I think we can hardly blame the scientists for adopting the best strategy for success, even if it compromises the best intellectual practices. Nor do I think we can blame scientists for advancing their own political agenda. Not without also placing blame on the many other interest groups.

Eric said at October 21, 2004 9:34 PM:

Hmm... perhaps our difference of opinion stems from trying to answer different questions. (1) How does the average person make moral judgements? (2) How can one justify a moral judgement for the sake of making public policy. True, the answer to (1) is that they use their moral intutions. I was trying to answer (2).

Divus Masterei said at October 21, 2004 9:53 PM:

I've to agree with the scientist somewhat from what I've read here(though I've not read the linked article yet), the public is too gullible, and too ignorant too actually make acceptable decisions regarding the numerous human ethics questions that are arising. Furthermore many've been brainwashed by religious zealots, and might be beyond hope, lost and unable to steer away from the positions given by their religious officials, no matter what.

"How can we have a moral consensus on the legitimacy of crucial laws regarding what is murder and what is a human life if the population can't even understand the laws and their justifications?"

That's a very good question... and the answer is most likely we'll have to settle with... the ignorant masses more often than not reaching consensus on the wrong illogical side, and they'll try to oppose the few who're knowledgeable....

####"Gallup polls indicate that about 45% of Americans classify themselves as "born again" (the fundamentalist language for dedicating one's faith in Christ as the son of God and the single pathway to heaven). This is a significant increase from 1992, when only 32% of Americans classified themselves as such.

Along with this faith is a corresponding rejection or suspiciousness of science. For example, Americans favor teaching creationism in the public schools, along with evolution, by a margin of 68% to 29% (although 55% say they would oppose replacing evolution with creationism, the truly frightening fact is that 40% would not oppose such a move). Within this group of those who are willing to consider creationism as valid "science," are the 47% of Americans who believe that God created human beings at one time and within the last 10,000 years pretty much in their present form. A 2001 Gallup survey indicated that only 12% of Americans indicated a belief in the Darwinian model of evolution, not driven by a deity. "####

The horror....

"Is there a God who has set absolute rules for right and wrong? The scientists have no better idea to the answer for that question than do priests and pastors."

Well, the laws are right there written into the very fabric of this world. The point of view that is backed by MIGHT, by POWER, will be deemed legitimate at that point in time and space whence it's backed... it will be allowed to take place, no matter how horrible, or abominable we may deem it, if someone believes that something is right or wrong and he gets the strength to enforce his views, they will be the law.

"then what is more correct about a scientist's decision to have one view about embryonic stem cells versus another view held by a fundamentalist Christian?"

The theory, the belief of many christian fundamentalists is based on gap-theories, they are internally logically inconsistent for the most part. Ever-loving-and-forgiving God that places individuals in simplish minds, with genetic and environmental predisposition, and after performing a small evil in this trivial world(that from many a christian point of view is a simulation, for the soul is the real persona from their point of view), is sentenced to perpetual suffering? Let see, the following is particularly for catholics, embryo's are to die prior to birth a significant % of the time through natural reproduction, it's best thus not to reproduce naturally and wait for better means if one values the embryo(probably billions lost anually due to natural attempts at reproduction), yet sex is good and must be practiced without protection for protection is wrong.... yet how can they even oppose e-stem cell therapy if they allow 100s of millions if not billions of embryos to die naturally each year by not even proposing a remedy to this, like say mass sterilization or something? I believe only those whose views are based on beliefs that are internally logically consistent are valid.

"Seems to me then the trend is going to be toward greater moral conflict between the cognitive elite and the masses. Not a rosy future."

Yes, and not very rosy for the views of the ignorant masses, POWER is concentrating at the level of the individual, and the degree of this varies drastically. It is the intellectual elite that is gaining the most power, and it will be the one that will choose what is right and what is wrong, and the masses will have in the end... no say in this... for the power that they shall gain is without bound, the nations of this world will have to bow once their greatests, that which is powered by the atom... is useless. Hopefully, what will arise out of this will be an ideal world, where bigotry/hate is no more, and were all entities are enhanced into that which is deemed best for all.

Randall Parker said at October 21, 2004 10:45 PM:


I believe in objective moral truth. Using the methods of critical thinking, I believe that one can generate moral knowledge. I suspect that you are embracing a kind of moral relativism, at least in a methodological sense. Perhaps it's moral skepticism.

I can understand how people who belong to religions that believe in a God who has laid down absolute moral rules can believe in objective moral truth. Are you getting your belief from a belief about the supernatural or about the physical world?

Ayn Rand believed she could deduce (not sure if "deduce" is the correct word) absolute moral beliefs from reasoning about objective reality. But I never found the Objectivist approach convincing. If you are trying to identify a set of objective secular moral beliefs which all rational people ought to be able to agree on I'd sure like to know how you think you can do that.

As for moral skepticism: My own moral beliefs are irrelevant to the argument I'm making. What I'm saying is that some people are claiming supernatural authority for their views on, for example, embryonic stem cells. Okay, I can understand where their beliefs from even though I seriously doubt that God ever came down and created any of the world's religions as his revealed truth to humanity. But I do not see how I can convince them they are wrong and that is what I think we'd have to go in order to get some of them to change their minds about, say, abortion or embryonic stem cells.

Torturing puppies may be morally wrong if we agree that causing undue pain to a feeling creature is wrong -- soul or not.

If we agree? Can we agree because it is "an objective moral truth"? How to prove that? Why would we agree other than because it is painful to contemplate puppies getting tortured? Then there is the question of why is in painful to contemplate that? I think we have feelings for warm cuddly animals that were selected for. Maybe that is the result of the co-evolution of humans and dogs living together contributing to each others' survival. I don't know. How is that feeling, if we agree to agree on it and to make it into a moral rule of some sort, an "objective moral truth" as you put it? It kinda seems like an accident of evolution.

One of my points is that scientists are not nearly as rational or on as soild scientific ground when making ethical arguments about avenues of research as some of them either imagine themselves to be or present themselves to be. Their ethical beliefs are not derived purely from logic as Ayn Rand seemed to imagine hers to be. On any number of subjects at some point they have to be hitting points like I do about puppies when I just feel it is wrong to torture puppies. They are saying to themselves "Choice X feels right and so what is a good argument for choice X?". They pretend otherwise.

The other point I'll make about Bush and the scientists is this: We know that Bush is a politician using political tactics. Okay? He can't assume the mantle of scientific objectivity. Yet he is a religious guy too. He's making his judgements based far more on his religious beliefs than he wants to admit publically and I think that is deceptive. But Bush is no more deceptive than his opponents. We know he's not a scientist and that he can't make claims to presenting the scientific facts on, say, embryonic stem cells. But what chafes at me about the scientists who are attacking him and supporting Kerry is that they are feigning an objective scientific pose as the basis for their position. Worse yet, I think some of them even believe their pose and their position is based only on science.

But I do not think this is mainly about Bush versus the liberal scientists in academia. There is something ultimately more important here. There is no ultimate source or method for identifying moral authority that is recognized by all. I see no great towering moral thinkers in the political debate who are obviously closer to the moral truth. Why is this worrisome? I think existing and future scientific advances are creating possibilities and choices that are producing a widening gap between various factions and groups in society over what is morally legitimate. History demonstrates that societies that deeply divide over moral questions have crises of moral legitimacy that can be expressed through terrorism, civil war, and breakdown of civil society.

nectarflowed said at October 21, 2004 10:53 PM:

Re: "Seems to me then the trend is going to be toward greater moral conflict between the cognitive elite and the masses."

It does seem though that every area of civilization is becoming more sophisticated... Even religion has evolved considerably since the middle ages. As the steady IQ increases of the Flynn Effect continue in pace with the increasing sophistication of civilization and science, and society's overall ability to organize information into ideas and values continues to increase, many values that are causing conflicts today between the cognitive elite and the masses may in time fall into minority status, as racism and sexism have (compared to the predominance and degree they once had).

Religious scholar Huston Smith in an interview describes changes in the U.S. churches:
"It's true that the mainline churches are in terrible trouble. They've lost close to 25 percent of their membership in the last 25 or so years, and there's no sign that that's going to change. The chief reason for this is that they have accommodated the culture. Seminaries like the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley are training ministers to go out into these mainline churches. But the teachers in the seminaries look up to the university, and the university ethos is secular to the core. " (http://www.motherjones.com/news/qa/1997/11/snell.html)

Joshua Allen said at October 21, 2004 11:36 PM:

A fascinating companion to this is http://www.nickbostrom.com/papers/dangerous.html; where the author takes on the claims that a "transhumanist" might not be entitled to the same rights, because by evoving ourselves too much we might lose the essence of what makes us "human".

Eric said at October 22, 2004 12:00 AM:


You have a lot of good points, but I think you have read too much into my comment.

I believe that some objective moral truths exist. They will probably be very basic truths about morality as it relates to persons. Just as I believe that objective truths about arithmetic exist, separate from our discovery of them. Also, I think that Christians would agree that objective moral truths exist.

I am not at all certain of our ability to discover those objective truths. We have a knowledge problem, for which I would prescribe critical thinking as the best solution. A Christian might say that divine revelation is a source of moral knowledge. As an atheist I refute that claim, but I also think that what Christians mean by this is that God is a reliable information source on morality (being all good and all knowing), not that morality is merely the same as divine will (and the Euthyphro by Plato).

Frankly, I do not know how you can convince someone that accepts divine revelation as a source of infallible knowledge of a contradictory position. Perhaps it would require many generations (e.g. flat Earth theorists).

I am not sure that I follow your thinking about scientists feigning scientific justification for their positions. Certainly, there is no fact about the world that in and of itself lets us know that destroying embryos is wrong. However, it is fully appropriate for scientists to describe the physical and biological properties of embryos, to differentiate them from fetuses. If they presented themselves as more than just citizens with specialized knowledge, then that is wrong of them. However, I have not seen that.

To the last point: there is no ultimate source of any knowledge, except the a priori. Perhaps some moral truths can be known a priori as Rand suggests. But for all applied ethics, some facts about the world need to be added to the mix.

Perhaps biotech will replace abortion as the new moral divisor in the US. There certainly has been terrorism and civil strife over abortion.

Engineer-Poet said at October 22, 2004 5:57 AM:

Scientists do (or at least should) have greater moral authority on certain things than the average member of the public, and even than theologians.  That is because they know things better for what they are rather than for what the ignorant popular image (or dogma) holds them to be.  Someone making a moral judgement about stem-cell research (or first-trimester abortion) because their mental model is of a cooing, cuddly baby being hacked apart is simply wrong.

Anyone who wishes genetic engineering to be banned should be forced to visit hospitals and institutions where the victims of genetic errors suffer for nature's mistakes.  Anyone who DOESN'T want a moratorium on reproductive cloning of humans should have to see the documentation of failures before Dolly, and her short life and medical issues afterward.  There are legitimate concerns but ignorant knee-jerk judgements will not address any of them.

"Pardon him. Theodotus: he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature." -- G. B. Shaw, "Caesar and Cleopatra"

Peter said at October 22, 2004 5:57 AM:

What ticks most scientists off about this administration is not limited to the stem cell dispute. It is the politicization of science at all levels. If science conflicts with the political agenda, then the science is thrown out. Loyalty to the administration comes first and truth comes last (which is translated into the "you are with us or against us, there is no middle ground"). Which is the opposite of science: it is Lysenkoism.

The current administration is not a "faith based" one, it is a delusional and totalitarian one. You don't matter, the truth doesn't matter, laws don't matter. Which is why most of the jokes about the bush administration are recycled stalin-era jokes.

Sniffy McNickles said at October 22, 2004 2:15 PM:

Ethics in this case reduces to a matter of personal privacy. I know that our host here has different standards than I do (witness the discusion some time back about whether someone should be allowed to forget things), but my belief is that what I do in my own life is nobody's business but mine, modulo any damage I cause others.

Abortion and stem cell research follow from this - others do not have the right to tell me I must host a baby, should I choose not to. Ditto any research I may do - so long as I'm not blowing up my neighbor's property, killing their pets, or producing horrible odors, they have no right to tell me what I can or can't do.

Many people call this a naive viewpoint in an effort to affect nuance, but it ends up becoming nothing other than a pretention to controlling other people's lives.

Invisible Scientist said at October 22, 2004 2:57 PM:

I speculate (as I often do, since you can see from my other comments), that
since the world is beginning a rather turbulent era (_just beginning_) both in the global
economic, political, and military areas simultaneously, if history is any guide,
from all the biological experiments done during World War II (in the USA, Germany, and Japan
during the previous world war),
we can safely jump to the conclusion that biotechnology will be used by world governments
as a salvation mechanism to compensate for all the troubles, as national policy. Very
draconian and arbitrary, and even irrational measures will one way or another involve
the use of biotechnology. It is my hope that the war crimes of the previous century will
not be repeated in the biotechnological realm, but since I am a naive fool, this will almost
certainly happen.

Randall Parker said at October 22, 2004 6:39 PM:

Peter, Scientific funding comes from the government. It is political.

The trend toward greater political meddling in science predates the Bush Administration and most of it is not the product of Bush Administration policy. An increasing amount of science appropriations are earmarked for particular Congressional districts. University X gets an institute or lab to study some problem. Yet scientists rarely complain about this while they bloviate about Bush. Why is that? Because they are partisans too. They just complain about partisan politics when the partisan decision making is coming from the other side of the aisle.

The vast majority of academics are Democrats. That is true of science departments as well. So of course they are going to snipe at Bush.

Look, I really dislike Bush. I'm a right-wing guy who is disgusted by him. But I also can recognize when criticism of him is motivated by more partisan left-wing partisanship and that is what I am hearing from academic scientists.

Randall Parker said at October 22, 2004 6:42 PM:

Sniffy McNickles,

Suppose two people were Siamese twins and one of them wanted to do heroin. Would that person have a right to do heroin when doing so would subject their twin to heroin as well?

Suppose you had a baby. Suppose you secretly refused to feed it and it died of starvation. Would you be guilty of murder? Or is your right to not do anything for anyone else so absolute that not feeding your own baby is an absolute right?

Divus Masterei said at October 22, 2004 6:43 PM:

##"ANKARA, Oct 21 (AFP) - More than a third of Turkish women believe they deserve being beaten if they argue with their husbands, deny them sex or burn the meal, according to a survey carried by Anatolia news agency on Thursday.

The survey found that 39 percent of women in Turkey believe their husbands are right to beat them for at least one of the following reasons: burning the meal, disputing the opinion of their husbands, spending money unnecessarily, neglecting the children or refusing to have sex.

In rural areas, 57 percent of women said their spouses had a right to batter them in at least one of the above circumstances.

Arguing with the husband topped the list of justified reasons for domestic violence, followed by too much spending and the negligence of children."##

Can this be allowed to go on? Society guided by the blind has had it chance, and it has failed. The time is nigh, and this is the end of history for man, and the dawn of postman

"History demonstrates that societies that deeply divide over moral questions have crises of moral legitimacy that can be expressed through terrorism, civil war, and breakdown of civil society."

But the thing is, the winners have already been practically decided. The true power, even a small fraction of what's to be possible is enough to bring the masses under submission.

Power is the legitimizer, and it will be had by the few. The time shall come, when enhancements will be enforced, some may want to be blind, some will accept torture, slavery, death at another's hand,that is not to be allowed. Humanity has had it chance, it failed, it was unable to protect the weak, to defend the way of life of their kin... now posthumanity will take charge, and the world will be made stable, and that which is evaluated as best, will be made so.. . regardless of opposition. For if one cannot defend one's memories, one's ideas, and if they're not what is best for one and for those around one... are they not better changed into a better state, by those who're more capable? Capable of undoing all opposition, even within memories,minds, personalities...

Fly said at October 23, 2004 3:18 PM:

Randall, excellent post.

Randall: “I think existing and future scientific advances are creating possibilities and choices that are producing a widening gap between various factions and groups in society over what is morally legitimate. History demonstrates that societies that deeply divide over moral questions have crises of moral legitimacy that can be expressed through terrorism, civil war, and breakdown of civil society.”

I strongly agree.

Eric: “They will probably be very basic truths about morality as it relates to persons.”

Possibly game theory, e.g. tit-for-tat simulations, or evolutionary studies of biological communities could provide principles for peaceful co-existence and conflict resolution. These might provide a framework for a scientific ethos. Whether these principles would be compatible with human nature or most human cultures is a separate question.

Eric: “Perhaps biotech will replace abortion as the new moral divisor in the US.”

People are practical. Once their loved ones can be cured, once aging can be reversed, once they can easily enhance their bodies and minds then the battle will be over and biotech will have won.

That will still leave major questions about what defines a “person”, what is that “person” responsible for, when should society step in to change a “person” or prevent a dangerous “enhancement”.

Advanced technology will increasingly empower individuals. Loony individuals could have the power to harm many, many others. In self-defense, society may have to act preemptively. Certain personalities might be proscribed as too dangerous to others. The future looks to become a strange place.

Garson Poole said at October 24, 2004 3:44 AM:

On the theme of "rights-possessing beings" there was a controversy in the UK this year. Cambridge University was planning to build a primate center to conduct animal research into brain diseases. Activist groups such as BUAV (British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection) and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) opposed the new research center. These groups believe that primates should be "rights-possessing beings" and that animal experimentation is cruel and unacceptable. Animal-rights groups are powerful in the UK and they succeeded in preventing the establishment of the center at Cambridge; however, the UK government says it may be try to build a center elsewhere in the future. Here is a New Scientist article about the controversy.

Another stranger candidate for a "rights-possessing being" was discussed at Slashdot today. At the University of Florida researchers extracted 25,000 neurons from a rat brain and cultured them on a dish with a multi-electrode array. The cells grew interconnections and formed a neural network. A grid of 60 electrodes at the bottom of the dish was used for communication and training. Researchers were able to train the neural network to control a flight simulator on a desktop computer. Articles available here and here. Some Slashdot commentators wondered about the "rights" of these neural networks.

Tj Green said at October 24, 2004 6:05 AM:

In december 1940,in Oxford England,policeman Albert Alexander scratched his face on a rosebush.The scratch became infected,and the infection spread to his blood,the bones of his right arm,and finaly his lungs.Penicillin was administered,and his urine was collected so that the penicillin could be reused.After four days he had made a remarkable recovery.Unfotunately there was not enough penicillin to save him.The infection returned and he died a month later.A few years earlier,in west Africa,people were becoming infected with the HIV virus from eating chimpanzee meat.A virus that would eventually spread,via the trade routes,until no country was left unaffected.We now see a mutation/polymorphism on the CCR5 gene amongst Africans,as this confers resistance to HIV.To be human must be the pursuit of knowledge,so that our species have the tools to survive.

Michael Vassar said at October 26, 2004 8:04 AM:

Divus: I understand what you are getting at, but I don't think you see the end of the tunnel. I recommend the thread from the September or October 2004 www.sl4.org/archive where "the siren song of normative reasoning" is discussed. There are others who have been where you are now and have progressed beyond.

DougBuchanan.com said at October 28, 2004 5:40 PM:

Thank you much for the superlative entertainment of Randall Parker and those who commented on his comments. I laughed robustly.

The government chaps, and the scientist chaps, and all the other fill-in-the-institutional-reference chaps, will eventually die of old age, like their institutional predecessors, still perceiving and insisting that THEIR instituional perceptions, and thus the design of their minds, are superior to the design of those damn individual human minds who must be taught and controlled by the institutions, including all the institutions whose laughably self-contradicted perceptions contradict each other, including those which perpetuate wars, and remain frustrated by their unresolved contradictions, such as wars, much to the howling laughter of the observers.

The government chaps, the scientists, the adults, the teachers and all the other institutionally contradicted minds literally cannot identify the inherently existant, flawlessly verifiable and useful demarcation between the individual human mind, and thus its logic-based design as a contradiction identification and resolution device, and the fatally contradicted institutional mind which has adopted the process of an institutional perception while the institutional reference holds no individual mind to identify and resolve the institution's inherently created and perpetuated contradictions.

An institution cannot exist as a reference word, separate from an individual human mind with the given name of its body, if the institutional chaps did not create the contradictions that individual human minds were invented to resolve.

An opponent cannot exist without the perception of a contradiction he creates, by design of the human mind, a contradiction identification and resolution device.

It was the invention of institutions or orgainizations, two or more humans with an adopted, separate name holding no mind, after the invention of humans, which created the contradictions to entertain the humans.

All contradictions are easily resolved, if you simply ask and answer the series of questions from the original perception of a contradiction, to the verifiable resolution, including any contradictions created by the actions of opponents who refuse to resolve the contradictions they therefore attempt to sustain. An individual human mind can efficiently do that. An institutionally trained mind will not, and cannot, allow or answer the questions that identify the inherently existant, controlling contradiction of the institution, or the institutional reference word could not exist as a manifested phenomenon, and thus perpetuates the thus self-induced contradictions that frustrate institutionally trained minds.

Wisely chose to be an individual human, without need for institutional credentials, to laugh yourself to tears at Randall and his institutional ilk, much as I laugh myself to tears at myself for my self-delusions under the influence of my previous institutional credentials.

If you are not laughing robustly at the obviously contradicted statements of the self-flattering scientists, government chaps and their institutional ilk, you are missing the only show institutional minds know how to stage. They are of no other sustainable utility to humans.

If you are laughing, you may have therefore retained the utility of your individual mind's design, a contradiction identification and resolution device, and can therefore ask and answer the questions that can resolve every contradiction created by the government and science chaps, and their ilk, and verify the answers, and manifest them against all the opposition of every institutional mind even if they all joined forces to oppose you and thus create the contradictions you can easily resolve.

What is the ability of the design of the individual human mind? What is the ability of that same mind which flawed its process by perceiving that it is more than its original design by being self-referenced with mindless words such as, a government official, scientist, religious leader, adult, or other WORDS without their own brains?

If one mind is trained to use the power or perceived advantage of its institution, which is not a mind, and another mind holds no power or advantage beyond the thinking ability of its bare-assed naked mind, which will hold incentive to think more extensively, that is, ask and answer more questions after the institutional mind concluded its questioning process with its institutional perception of superiority? Are humans predicated on the ability of their mind, or the ability of their institutional reference words?

Is there any human-perceivable concept whose identification does not alter the subsequent perceptions?

Can those intellectually absent government dolts and their unquestioning supporters, laughable lot that they are, with all the power and force they can gather in the hollow name of the people, sustainably cause your or my mind to perceive as existing, that which does not exist, against your or my mind's ability to ask questions of contradictions, such as their manifested perception that humans can advance the human phenomenon by waging wars to destroy the human minds which constitute the sum of the contradiction identification and resolution devices of the human phenomenon, among other contradictions that the individual mind can recognize and thus question while the institutional mind is not capable of the same questioning or the contradictions would have already been resolved by the institutions which manifest them?

Odd lot these humans, but of superlative entertainment, would you not agree?

May you learn the most knowledge of the most concepts, most efficiently.

And you may inquire.


Bonobooz said at October 6, 2005 2:49 AM:

Thank you for the entertaining view on things, DougBuchanan, in a way I agree with your view, "Life is a play" and there is a certain amount of "redicule" in the fights and discussions different human coalitions have, basically caused by a lack of understanding why they morally judge the way they do.
There are interesting publications though on this topic, and I like to refer to them. I read in most of the posted messages here a strong belief, or at least so it seems from what I read, in a kind of deterministic neurologically hard-wired set of moral values. My personal view is a little more complex. I think that there are certain behavioral prefered systems in the human brain which have an evolutionary background. Interesting examples are the preferred ability to detect cheaters in social exchange (Cosmides & Tooby) and in violation of precautious reasoning (Larry Fiddick). Observing those preferences could already partly lead to the formation of cultural values (it's a littlebit a chicken and egg story, but it's in the advantage of groups of humans to be able to detect and punish cheaters, for sake of the fitness of the group)...
Yet, there is another basis of cultural preferred orientation, which basically becomes important AFTER birth: the cultural learning of a baby by the cultural environment in which he/she grows up. An oak tree already contains genetic programming on how it should grow, more or less. But those genes do not take into account the average western wind force 4 in the field for example. The tree will grow slightly to the east due to this wind, and so you can expect developing brains to grow with the cultural preferences in his/her surrounding. The paper "Does morality have a biological basis", http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/cep/papers/incest2003.pdf (Lieberman, Cosmides, Tooby) gives an interesting study on this kind of prefered morality.

In any case, whether your name is Bush or Einstein, it's not interesting at all to search for those things that make us different, it's much more constructive to search to the similarities in the modules that we're built of. But again, it requires a certain amount of neurons to realize that.

BrokenBokken said at April 1, 2006 10:30 AM:

"What principles should we use to guide us in making those decisions? Most scientists arguing for allowing the use of embryonic stem cells do not even try to provide an answer to that question."

Science is the process of gathering information and drawing conclusions based on those observations whereas religion is taking what is presented to you on faith. One requires empirical evidence, the other does not. A scientist will not attempt to justify his or her research, experiments or results with a matter of belief, and I believe that's where your misconceptions concerning science and ethics are rooted. Rather than taking a moral stance based on what the scientist was told as a child by his or her parents, they must observe whatever they're attempting to come to grips with and draw conclusions based on it. As such, your question is already answered by the very occupation of the (hypothetical, I assume) scientist you're asking--scientific principles.
The first comment pointed out that this is a matter of sentience, of being a self-aware entity, a person. We know the cerebrum to be an essential anatomical feature required for this; as such, until the point it begins to develop, there is a scientific certainty that no self-aware consciousness is being cut free of the matter responsible for it manifesting itself physically (aside from that which potentially exists, a la Catholicism's argument against masturbation which, from a scientific perspective, is absurd). That's what we can say based on observation--anything more must be taken on faith at this point.
That is not to say that a scientist cannot make a judgement based on gut feeling or faith and live by it. We're all still humans capable of emotion. However, just as political sentiments must be kept separate from scientific work, so must personal emotional issues be contained. That's the reason we typically don't name lab rats we know will be destroyed in the process of an experiment and why I would never get involved in any kind of research my personal feelings could influence the results of. Unfortunately, many individuals go into a scientific field with predetermined ideas that they wish to prove rather than entering with a desire to learn. Trying to prove what you "believe" is a sign of weak faith and contributes nothing to the scientific community or the progress of humankind.

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