Tag Archives | ethics

Review: To Save Everything, Click Here

To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, solutionism and the urge to fix problems that don’t exist
by Evgeny Morozov
Allen Lane, 2013, 415 pages.

To Save Everything, Click HereFor around $80,000 plus a modest annual fee, a company called Alcor can preserve your brain when you die by enrolling you in its ‘Life Extension Program’. This involves putting the recently deceased’s brain through an ice-free preservation, or vitrification, storing it at a very low temperature ‘until a future medical technology can restore that person to full health.’

Cryonics—the prospect of immortality through freezing people’s bodies soon after the moment of death in the hope of reviving them later when science has caught up—has been part of the popular imagination since the 1960s. Alcor has been in operation since the 1970s and has over 100 patients currently ‘preserved’. While it was once the fashion to freeze the whole body, in the last decade it has become more common to remove the head and simply preserve the brain. This is reportedly cheaper, easier to transport and less prone to damage (In an enlightening episode of This American Life called ‘Mistakes Were Made’, we hear how an enterprising TV repairman started his own cryonics business in the 60s and later had to explain to families of the frozen about the consequences of a damaging leak). Steve Bridge, a former Alcor president, describes the experience of conducting tours of the cryonics storage facility. After showing visitors the full-body containers, he would point to a smaller one and explain that some people had chosen to have only their heads frozen:

The most common reaction is a stunned pause with eyes growing to the size of saucers. For them, the entire building has just melted into surreality, like Salvador Dali’s clocks, sculpted in ice. A few people laugh in surprise or nervousness. A small number look queasy or disgusted. And occasionally, if I have done my job well and set up the visitor with descriptions of the repairs that will be possible in the future, the visitor will say, “Oh, that makes sense. You can just grow a new body for the brain.

Bridge must have done his job well more than once, as not only has neuropreservation become the more popular choice, but several of Alcor’s existing patients have since been ‘converted to neuro’.

The quest to conquer death is much older than cryonics of course. What’s interesting is why so many modern adventurers use the vocabulary of science. John Gray has explored this intriguing question in The Immortalization Commission, in which he claims this strange mix of science and the supernatural, of materialism and magical thinking, is really about a refusal to accept the materialist implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin’s science, he says, “had disclosed a world in which humans were no different from other animals in facing final oblivion when they died and eventual extinction as a species.”

Gray’s book chronicles the delusional nature of two such refusals. One is the eponymous Russian Immortalization Commission, an organisation of ‘God-builders’ tasked with preserving Lenin’s remains for future deification—“a true revolutionary must aim to deify humanity, an enterprise that includes the abolition of death.” The other is a Victorian England group called the Society for Psychical Research, an organisation whose membership ranks boasted physicists, philosophers, poets, physiologists, politicians and prime ministers. The Society used ‘unbiased and scientific’ methods to investigate the paranormal, including telepathy and automatic writing—that is, messages received from the dead through a medium. Most of all, they wanted to find a way for human beings to survive death.

Charles Darwin himself once attended a séance with George Eliot and Francis Galton (some of their peers and acquaintances would later become involved with the SPR.) Reportedly Darwin “found the experience ‘hot and tiring’ and left before anything unusual happened.” But evidently not everyone found it so important to keep a cool head. Darwin’s message of final oblivion and eventual extinction was not one that sat well with the optimism of the age, steeped in Enlightenment values of progress, scientific rationality, and liberation from an age of faith and superstition. As Gray suggests, “For nearly everyone it was an intolerable vision, and since most had given up religion they turned to science for escape from the world that science had revealed.”

Is cryonics too best understood this way? Certainly the more recent ‘neuropreservation’ turn in cryonics smacks of disgust at the mortal and decaying nature of the human body. What could be purer than a brain? Indeed, it is curious that the present enthusiasm for neuroscience, with its incautious assumption that we are our brains, should develop around the same time that we are getting the best evidence that Descartes may have had it wrong all along, that mind and body are not separate and that reason, emotion, thinking and feeling are all part of a complex process that involves our whole bodies.

Is the quest to find the essential truth of our humanity in our neurons a turn to science to escape the world that science is revealing? Psychologist Paolo Legrenzi and others have begun to critique our growing ‘neuromania’ and its technological claims, particularly the use of fMRI scans that show the brain ‘lighting up’ under different conditions—“you could be forgiven for thinking of the brain as being managed by a crooked estate agent letting out the same bit of real estate simultaneously to different clients.” Recently, a pair of researchers performed fMRI on a dead Atlantic salmon. While showing the salmon pictures of humans in different social interactions, they were surprised to find it showed ‘neural activity’ when asked to determine what emotion the individual in the photo must have been experiencing.

One wonders what Darwin would have made of fMRIs. But what is it about the world that his science reveals that is so intolerable to so many? Perhaps it’s not just oblivion and extinction that are unacceptable, but the sheer chaos of this. Evolution, we should remember, is drift—it has no purpose or direction. But chaos is the enemy of progress, especially the kind of incremental, orderly progress to a better future for humanity that characterised the Victorian era but that is also the credo of much present-day middle-class liberal progressivism. Gray says such people “look for a way out of chaos; but they are part of that chaos; natural or divine.”

If one pays close attention, one of the striking characteristics of the kinds of utopian worlds described and promised by those who flee from chaos is often how spectacularly boring they are. Utopias are often stuffy, lifeless places devoid of detail and colour. They lack the kind of particularities that make real life so interesting. One might think that given the limitless possibilities on offer, this sort of poor imagination is really letting the side down a bit. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised by this if it is after all a kind of avoidance of life and its chaotic particularities that drives a certain sort of person to imagine perfectly ordered worlds in the first place.

Perhaps it is an unwillingness to be part of life’s chaos that produces the kind of progressivist techno-babble that has become so much a part of today’s public imagination. When it is possible to write books with titles like What Technology Wants and have them sell in large quantities, one begins to suspect there is some seriously magical thinking going on. In this climate, ‘technology’, and especially ‘the Internet’, has become something with a life of its own, a force outside time, society and politics that offers new and better futures if only we are prepared to listen closely to what it has to say. That an idea like technology having the capacity to ‘want’ anything is a bit bonkers hasn’t stopped large numbers of very clever people taking it quite seriously, but when has it ever? Indeed, the breathtaking magnitude of its silliness is undoubtedly a large part of its novelty.

Evgeny Morozov sounds like a man who went to a séance once and found it hot and tiring. In his book To Save Everything, Click Here he describes this sort of techno-babble as: Continue Reading →

Too Much Reason

In this instalment I continue my exploration of our public character by asking is there such a thing as too much reason?


Regular readers will be familiar with the quotation by Tony Judt that I like to roll out from time to time, as I feel it captures succinctly something of our current state of affairs, how this came to be and what’s at stake. Let’s revisit it:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today … We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: Is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them.1

There are a constellation of factors and forces that have led us to the picture Judt describes; in this piece I’d like to continue the process of examining one small patch of sky at at time. As usual it will necessarily be an abridged discussion — a full treatment would take at least a couple of bookshelves.

The essence of the argument is that over the years, there have been things — an increasingly large number of things — we have decided are not important, and in some cases have forgotten how to see. The tools that we now use to craft our societies, though as sophisticated as ever, are brittle and incomplete. We have simply become blind to certain things that matter, and worse, we do not know that we are blind.

Much of the problem has to do with an over-reliance on reason. As Jonathan Haidt argues:

Western philosophy has been worshipping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years. There’s a direct line from Plato through Immanuel Kant to Lawrence Kohlberg. I’ll refer to this worshipful attitude … as the rationalist delusion. I call it a delusion because when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it.2 (emphasis in original)

For many, this will be an odd proposition. Surely reason is an unqualified good — a gold standard which we should strive to attain and by whose marker we shall know we have become fully enlightened, whether it be by the rule of philosopher kings or our arrival in the kingdom of ends. Continue Reading →

The Ethical Question

Practical Wisdom
by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe
Riverhead Books, 2010, 324 pages.
Harvard University, presented by Michael Sandel
Lecture Series, 2005, 12 x 55 minutes.
Friday Night Lights
Television series, 2006–2011, 76 episodes.

The ethical question is a simple one. It can be asked any number of ways, but the best form may be the simplest—what should I do here?

It’s a question everyone can recognise, one we all answer many times every day. When we think about ethics as an idea, we tend often to be tempted by thought experiments that pose impossible moral choices (imagine you’re driving a trolley car hurtling out of control down a hill towards five workers on the track who will be killed if you hit them. Now imagine there’s a side track you can swerve onto to avoid them, but instead you will hit and kill a single worker. What should you do?). Indeed, a scholarly appraisal may well conclude there is no moral way out of some situations. And yet, as Mary Midgley reminds us, in real life, real people still make real choices, however impossible. Morality does not occur in a vacuum.

What can we learn from people’s real ethical choices? What do we think we know? Ideas about morality have extraordinary reach and purchase in our public lives. This is of course evident when we talk about censorship, free speech or Roe v Wade, but also in ways that are less obvious and more pervasive, more pernicious.

Are people basically good, wanting to do the right thing but not always sure what it is? Or are people basically vicious and only out for themselves, needing to be restrained from violence against each other by a powerful and compelling mediator?

More importantly, do either of these views reflect things as they really are? Should we say instead either that most people are good, but a few evil folk do terrible things, or the reverse? The white hat/black hat idea is a popular one intuitively held by many of us, but as Midgley again reminds us, most binaries are false. When we say either/or, we should not forget to consider and. If we are to learn anything from looking at evil, it must surely be that things are not so convenient as black hats and white hats. The greatest evils are done by ordinary people who think they are doing good.

That makes the ethical question a little more urgent. Each time we ask ‘what should I do here?’, we must have some basis for answering.

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The Price of Everything: Neoliberalism and its blind spots

Neoliberalism is among the most influential social, political and economic forces of our time. Danu describes the neoliberal project and examines its effects upon higher education in Australia by beginning with a simple question — does it produce good social outcomes?

The Price of Everything

Have the economic reforms pursued in Australia since the early 1980s produced positive social outcomes?

To give this question proper consideration, we shall need to do a number of things, beginning of course with an explanation of what economic reforms are in question. To do this, I will focus on one particular policy area — higher education policy. This is an area of policy to which the sort of economic reforms we will be discussing have been applied visibly and purposively; it is also a policy area in which we can comfortably discuss social outcomes. We will also need to tackle the more difficult issue of evaluating what constitutes a positive social outcome and how we might recognise one.

Let us turn first to the discussion of the economic reform itself. ‘Since the 1980s’ is code for a number of related and complementary notions and assumptions about economics, society and human behaviour that became widely influential and accepted around this time — the sort of constellation of ideas that we might best describe as a movement. The movement in question has been variously described as ‘neoliberalism’, ‘economic rationalism’, ‘free-market’, ‘Friedmanite’, ‘lassez-faire’, ‘small government’ and even ‘Reaganomics’. These labels all emphasise different aspects of the movement and are largely interchangeable, though my preferred term is neoliberalism, which I will use hereafter.

Attempting a precise definition of such a fuzzy category as neoliberalism is a futile exercise, so let me instead lay out some of the core principles that underwrite it. At heart, neoliberalism combines a libertarian political philosophy with an economic world-view. That is to say, it invokes an image of humanity as a collection of rational individuals each acting in their own self-interest — the role of public policy on this view is to ensure each individual has freedom to exercise his or her rational choices as efficiently as possible. Efficiency here means with as much information (price signals) and as little interference (government) as possible. Neoliberals believe that in this state of affairs, the sum of each individual’s rational, self-interested choices in a perfect market will secure the best possible outcome for all. Free markets, free people. (In that order.)

By valuing education wholly on economic terms, we begin to deprive ourselves as a society of the capacity to comprehend our own folly in doing so.

When former US President Ronald Reagan famously said, ‘government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem’, we can see what he was getting at. Similarly, when former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher more ominously said ‘there is no such thing as society’, we see she was appealing to a vision of homo economicusEconomic Man. Continue Reading →

Recovering Adam Smith’s Ethical Economics

Contemporary economists have been eager to claim Adam Smith and his ‘Invisible Hand’ as an early forerunner for modern ideas of people as self-interested, utility-maximising creatures. The truth, as Thomas points out, is a good deal more complicated than that.

Adam Smith

Originally published at The Philosopher’s Beard. Gratefully reproduced here with permission from the author.

“While some men are born small and some achieve smallness, it is clear that Adam Smith has had much smallness thrust upon him.”Amartya Sen

Adam Smith is famous for founding economics as an independent field of study by synthesising and systemizing classical economics in The Wealth of Nations. But he was also a significant moral philosopher in his own right who deserves to be recognised alongside his close friend David Hume as a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. Smith saw economics as a branch of moral philosophy, and he saw capitalism as an ethical project whose success required political commitment to justice and freedom, not merely an understanding of economic logistics.

These days Adam Smith is most familiar to us as an economist, and specifically as the defender of the famous Invisible Hand of free-market economics, wherein the private self-interested actions of private individuals, mediated through free markets, generate results that are good for all. The market-system comprehends the true level of demand for any good and provides the appropriate incentives – profits – for producers to adjust their output to match. No external intervention or guidance is necessary. A great deal of contemporary (neo-classical) economics can be understood in terms of translating Smith’s Invisible Hand metaphor into a systematic theoretical form, with a particular emphasis on the economic efficiency of perfectly competitive markets.

Anyone who cares to read Smith’s Wealth of Nations for themselves will find an economics discussed and justified in explicitly moral terms…

However the popular view of Smith that has resulted from this emphasis is twice distorted. Firstly, it is based on the narrow foundations of a few select quotations from The Wealth of Nations (WN) that are taken in isolation as summing up his work (Smith only mentions the ‘all important’ Invisible Hand once), and secondly these quotations have been analyzed in a particularly narrow way. Both selection and interpretation have been driven by contemporary economists’ interest in justifying orthodox economic methodology and their peculiar (Mandevillian) assumption of the selfish utility maximising homo economicus. The Chicago School economist George Stigler once famously declaimed, “I bring you greetings from Adam Smith, who is alive and well and living in Chicago”. What such ‘historians’ have achieved is the diminution of Smith’s economics to those bits which can be claimed to be early (and flawed) fore-runners of contemporary economic concepts and techniques.

But anyone who cares to read Smith’s Wealth of Nations for themselves will find an economics discussed and justified in explicitly moral terms, in which markets, and the division of labour they allow, are shown to both depend upon and produce not only prosperity but also justice and freedom, particularly for the poor. With those concerns in mind, it should not be surprising that Smith was a staunch and vehement critic of those particularly grotesque sins associated with early capitalism: European empires and the slave trade.

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A Clash of Ideals

This article originally appeared at www.julianburnside.com.au. Reproduced gratefully with permission from the author.

The second series of Go Back To Where You Came From has highlighted a familiar clash of ideas and ideals. As Jonathan Green noted in The Drum on 30 August, the encounter was unlikely to shift either camp into the arms of the other. In those circumstances, it seems useful to try to identify what lies beneath the two stark positions. What is the bedrock which supports the views of Anderson, Reith and Smith on the one hand and Asher, Bailey and Deveny on the other hand.

The views of each camp seem to rest on unstated propositions which are worth exposing.

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McUniversity: I’m Learnin’ It!

Today’s universities offer increasing numbers of people a semblance of being in a university without having to engage in the effort, complexity or expenditure of time that once came with a university experience. Rob charts some of the origins and outcomes of these developments and asks just how healthy it all is.

Today’s universities offer large and increasing numbers of people a semblance of being in a university without having to engage in the effort, complexity or expenditure of time that once came with a university experience.

In 1993, American sociologist George Ritzer wrote a best-selling book called The McDonaldization of Society. As Ritzer saw it:

… McDonaldization … is the process by which the principles of the fast-food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as of the rest of the world.

Ritzer’s point was simple. McDonalds provides a basic model for providing goods and services in increasingly ‘rational’ ways. Let’s not worry about the word ‘rational’ right now—it is economic-speak for extracting as much profit or getting as much done for as little outlay of resources, time, labour (or whatever) as possible.

Central to Ritzer’s argument was that all sorts of businesses and organisations have emulated what Ray and Jim Kroc ‘invented’ when they established the McDonalds model in the late 1930s. Think of toy stores (Toys R Us), home hardware stores (Bunnings), taxation accountants (H.R. Block), bookstores (Borders), car repairs (Midas) newspapers (USA Today), child care (ABC Learning Centres) and so on. Each mimics the logic of the McDonalds chain. That is to say, McDonalds is the epitome of efficiency, calculability, predictability, increased managerial control, and the replacement of human skill and ingenuity by rational systems, many of them automated. To spell out precisely what that looks like in practice, let’s consider a number of ways in which McDonalds works.

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