Friday, March 16, 2012

Progressive Utopianism

Progressive leftists are fond of dreaming up ways to create utopian societies, but often the brave new worlds they conjure up turn out to be dystopic prisons.

The communist prison states of the twentieth and twenty first centuries were the product of leftist attempts to produce perfect societies. Even if the dreamers seem like a sweet, kind souls the future they envision is often a dehumanizing, totalitarian nightmare. B.F. Skinner's Walden II comes to mind as does Peter Singer's vision of a future in which mothers are free to kill their young children.

Now comes The Atlantic with an essay on the thoughts of an academic by the name of S. Matthew Liao, a professor of philosophy and bioethics at New York University. Mr. Liao believes that at least part of the solution to our pending environmental troubles is to re-engineer human beings so that they leave a diminished carbon footprint. Here's The Atlantic's lede:
The threat of global climate change has prompted us to redesign many of our technologies to be more energy-efficient. From lightweight hybrid cars to long-lasting LED's, engineers have made well-known products smaller and less wasteful. But tinkering with our tools will only get us so far, because however smart our technologies become, the human body has its own ecological footprint, and there are more of them than ever before.

So, some scholars are asking, what if we could engineer human beings to be more energy efficient? A new paper to be published in Ethics, Policy & Environment proposes a series of biomedical modifications that could help humans, themselves, consume less.

Some of the proposed modifications are simple and noninvasive. For instance, many people wish to give up meat for ecological reasons, but lack the willpower to do so on their own. The paper suggests that such individuals could take a pill that would trigger mild nausea upon the ingestion of meat, which would then lead to a lasting aversion to meat-eating.

Other techniques are bound to be more controversial. For instance, the paper suggests that parents could make use of genetic engineering or hormone therapy in order to birth smaller, less resource-intensive children.

Liao is keen to point out that the paper is not meant to advocate for any particular human modifications, or even human engineering generally; rather, it is only meant to introduce human engineering as one possible, partial solution to climate change.

He also emphasized the voluntary nature of the proposed modifications. Neither Liao or his co-authors, Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache of Oxford, approve of any coercive human engineering; they favor modifications borne of individual choices, not technocratic mandates.
Of course. Brave new worlds always start out sounding reasonable and non-coercive, but it's not long until, as in Orwell's Animal Farm, it all turns ugly. When people choose not to genetically rejigger their children or to wear the meat patch the state will decide to do something "reasonable" like set limits to how much carbon you can consume, or they'll tell you they'll not provide insurance coverage for more than two child births, or they'll not provide health care for people over a certain bodyweight, etc.

In the end they won't tell you that you'll have to do the things Liao suggests, you'll be free to ignore the wise advice of the government planners and statists if you wish, but you won't be able to afford to. You'll have been coerced by Big Brother into participating in their dehumanized society without even realizing it was happening.

Here are some of the "options" Liao proposes:
  • A "meat patch" that makes you vomit when you eat meat.
  • Hormones that retard your children's growth.
  • Drugs that make you want to write checks (to charities, of course).
  • Genetically engineering humans to grow "cat eyes" so we don't need light bulbs.
It all sounds so reasonable. Just like Mephistopheles' bargain sounded so reasonable to Dr. Faustus.