Saturday, December 17, 2005

Rational Morality

In the recent film, The Island, a biotech firm, circa 2020, provides consumers with greatly enhanced life extension capabilities. They do so by creating a clone of the individual, which could later be harvested for organs, when the need arises. These clones, which miraculously develop into adults over a period of months, are supposedly kept in an unconscious, vegetative state. Since the clones supposedly remain unconscious, the process appears perfectly ethical to the public. However, the big secret (which im sure you already have guessed) is that the clones actually are fully conscious, and are kept in an underground facility with little knowledge of the real world.

Now I think that most people would agree that harvesting the organs of sentient beings might fall under the immoral category. Even I, a 100% pro-technology advocate, have some qualms about this particular practice. But the fact remains that the vast majority of outcries against advances in biotechnology are completely irrational and unjustifiable.

In recent years there have been arguments against the morality of stem cell research. Pro-life advocates and religious groups claim that extracting the stem cells from embryos is equivalent to taking a life. Even though this research has the potential to cure hundreds of life threatening diseases that are inflicting millions of ailing patients. Even though embryos are not conscious, and would simply be discarded anyway. It appears to me that blocking this type of research is actually vastly more immoral.

President Bush, some time ago, decided that it would be unethical to grant federal funding to research any new stem cell lines because he believed that it was a destruction of life. Yet, in all his wisdom, he also decided that it would be perfectly ethical to send thousands of Americans overseas to become incapacitated or killed. It might just be me, but somehow I don't think that the logic was flowing.

Cloning also has the potential to treat hundreds of disorders and diseases. With further developments in cloning we will have the ability to clone perfectly matching organs for transplants, cure genetic diseases, reverse the aging process, and bioengineer drugs. And yet so many people make the claim that it is a deeply amoral practice. They argue that "cloning violates human dignity and makes people into products that can be replaced", or that we are "playing God", or "tampering with nature", or the technology could be abused for evil purposes.

But lets come back to reality. Humans have been so-called "playing God" since their origin as a species. If humans didn't "play God" they would still be wandering the savannas in small isolated groups. It is our nature to learn about our world and acquire the abilities to control and manipulate it. Like any technology, cloning too could be abused as it was in The Island. Yet it is highly unlikely that cloning organs for replacement would ever require developing a complete conscious being. And new technologies will always provide us with ways to carry out an objective that could be deemed rationally moral. For example, medical immortality is likely to be obtained in the near future simply by infusing one's body with nonbiological nanobots.

It seems to me that the real problem surrounding the issues of morality is the way that humans typically approach it. Peter Voss of Adaptive AI wrote an interesting paper describing the shortcomings of systems from which humans commonly derive morality.

For example, when social rules and customs act as moral agents, morality becomes relative to the context of the society. He states that, "For example one society believes that having more than one child is immoral, while another sees contraception as depraved. Unfortunately, this relativism does not usually prevent people from trying to force their views on others, even killing and dying for it in its name."

Religious systems also commonly act as guiding moral forces. Of course these too are relative and have no rational basis. --"Many wars and vast amounts of human suffering have their roots in this kind of 'morality'." "One of the most disabling, and thus immoral, beliefs that has long been a cruel tool of suppression..., an essential part of religion, mysticism and superstition..., is the belief that our lives are subject to some unknown or inexorable masterplan or masterplanner: 'It's my karma...', ...'It is probably for the best', 'It is the stars', 'It is God's will - He works in mysterious ways'. These beliefs encourage us to abdicate self-responsibility, they paralyze us. They also undermine our self-esteem by casting doubt on our efficacy."

In light of the failings of religion, some resort to intuition, or emotional knowledge as ones "moral compass". However, this too can lead to errors in moral judgment. "...without explicit, conscious selection of the principles that we internalize, our emotions are unguided missiles. Slavery, racism or treating women as second class citizens may feel very right - as it has, and still does, to many people. Intuition is no guarantee of morality."

Voss recognized that true morality can only be derived from reason, and in his paper he develops a system of morality he calls "Rational Morality". He explores how by employing "rational virtues" one can define and adhere to a personal system to achieve what he calls "Optimal Living". Taken beyond the scope of personal "Optimal Living" it is evident that rational morality can be utilized to resolve questions on a societal or global scale.

Examining the question of human cloning, it would be irrational to make any argument that it was in opposition to a higher power or force. These types of arguments are relative to particular belief system and have no bearing on the reality of the situation. However, by utilizing reason, one can recognize the flaw in cloning humans for the purpose of killing them. It is evident that the process of cloning will produce a human no different from one produced biologically. Therefore, taking a cloned human life is no different from taking a human life. Since there is an instrinsic value to sentient beings, due to their awareness, intelligence, uniqueness, and will to live, it would be rationally immoral to take ones life. By attributing certain preordained purposes to existence, morality only becomes deluded and contradictory.


Blogger RAINMAKER said...

you make sense, it was fun reading it. Had i written something on the topic, wouldn't have landed far away. Specially the part about man playing god is the truth.........

7:16 PM  
Blogger Michael Anissimov said...

Nice blog. Keep it up! I'll keep an eye out for you on AIM.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Shawn said...

Thank you both very much for your comments. :)
Michael, I have read your work extensively and it is truly inspiring. It is a great honor to have you post on this site. Congratulations on your position as Advocacy Director of the Singularity Institute. Your influence will make the future a much better place.

4:23 PM  

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