Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Ethics of Benign Carnivorism (Part Two)

(Part One)

This is the second part in my series on the ethics of benign carnivorism. The series is working off Jeff McMahan’s article “Eating animals the nice way”. Benign carnivorism (BC) is the view that it is ethically permissible to eat farmed meat, so long as the animals being reared have lived good lives (that they otherwise would not have lived) and have been killed painlessly.

In part one, I covered the main characteristics of BC; I offered a basic defence of BC; and I outlined two initial critiques. The defence of BC was based on the notion of comparative advantage: BC benefits humans, and allows for more and better animal lives to be lived than would otherwise have been the case. The first critique of this argument was formal, casting doubt on the permissibility of making comparative assessments of this sort. The second critique was more substantive, pointing out that the basic defence of BC seems to allow for a similar argument to made about human beings. In other words, that it allows one to defend the permissibility creating and rearing human beings for some beneficent purpose, e.g. organ donation.

In this post, we will continue the dialectic by looking a further critiques and refinements of BC. Following McMahan, we’ll end up with the conclusion that BC is probably only acceptable under extremely unlikely conditions.

1. Animals Rights and Interests
Let’s start by dwelling on the more substantive critique for a moment. As I said the last day, this can termed the “why not humans too”-dilemma because the intuition underlying it is that if BC is acceptable then so too are analogous practices involving humans. The argument then obviously depends on the analogy between the benign rearing of meat for human consumption and the benign rearing of humans for a beneficent purpose. But how analogous are these practices really?

It seems all too easy for the defender of BC to argue “not very”. “Surely”, they will say, “there are important differences in the moral status of humans and non-human animals”. Humans are moral agents, they are conscious, they possess a strong sense of self-identity, they have ongoing interests in their future projects and well-being. All of these qualities grant humans a robust right to life. As a result, it cannot be permissible for them to be created killed merely so as to benefit others.

This right to life argument is vulnerable to critique. The obvious riposte is to argue that animals too have a right life. In other words, to say that the differences between humans and other animals are not sufficient to deprive the latter of a right to life. This is a common argument in the animal rights movement, and McMahan has some sympathies with it. Nevertheless, he thinks it isn’t quite right.

The problem is that there are thought experiments that challenge the suggestion that an animal’s right to life is the same as that of a human beings. Consider:

Chimpanzees v. Humans: Suppose we are faced with a scenario in which the painless killing of a single chimpanzee could save the lives of two five-year-old children by making its organs available for transplantation. Would it be permissible to do this?

Suppose we are faced with a similar situation in which the painless killing of a five year old child could save the life of two others. Would this be permissible?

McMahan points out that most people think it is permissible to kill the chimpanzee in the first case, but not the human in the second. This suggests that whatever the moral status of a non-human animal is, it is not sufficient to grant it the same right to life as a human being.

I’m not sure that the intuitions are right here — I think I would struggle to condone either death — but McMahan prefers to highlight some flawed logic in this response: generally speaking, rights are thought to be invariant in their application across their possessors (i.e. if X and Y both possess the same right, then that right applies in the same way to both of them). This leads him to propose an alternative way of thinking about the issue. Instead of thinking about it in terms of the right to life, we can think of it in terms of the competing interests at stake (this isn’t a huge leap since interests and rights are closely associated).

If we make this switch to thinking about competing interests rather than rights, where does it leave us? Well, it leaves the defender of BC in an unwelcome position. Think about the interests at stake in the typical case of an animal being slaughtered for its meat. Suppose that this animal could supply 20 human beings with nutritious and tasty meals. This suggests that, when we consider the morality of killing this animal, we must weigh its interest in continuing its life against the interests satisfied by those 20 tasty and nutritious meals. It doesn’t seem like much of contest does it, especially when humans have other sources of nutrition available to them?

I’ve phrased this as a rhetorical question, but I think it captures the argument that McMahan makes in the article. And I’m almost inclined to agree with it, but it does rely on a somewhat questionable assumption, namely: that the animal in question has a morally protected interest in continuing its existence.

I’m guessing that McMahan is implicitly relying on the deprivationist account of the badness of death when making this argument (i.e. the view that death is bad because it deprives the animal of future positive experiences). This is presumably why the animal has an interest in its continuing existence. But this seems problematic to me for at least two reasons. First, it’s not clear (to me) that the deprivationist account of death is the correct one (this is something I’ve repeatedly explored on this blog). And second, even if it is correct, it’s not clear that it would apply to all animals. I think a sense of connection with one’s future self is necessary before the deprivationist account becomes truly compelling and it might be doubtful whether all animals experience this (though some no doubt do).

2. The Practice versus the Act?
Here’s another argument that the defender of BC could make: We can accept that, all else being equal, it is wrong to kill an animal with an interest in its future existence, but all else is not equal in this instance. We have to keep in mind the comparative aspects of BC. It is central to the BC defender’s view that the animals being killed would not have existed without the practice of BC. Thus, the future interests of the animal should be set off against the overall benefits they accrue from the practice. So long as their lives are, on balance, good, it is not wrong to bring them into existence, and then kill them.

McMahan rejects this argument. The problem is partly structural. The argument appeals to the impersonal goods of the overarching practice and claims that those goods are sufficient to give us reason to bring animals into existence and kill them, (the impersonal nature of the goods was discussed in part one LINK). But we usually assign very little weight to goods of this sort. For example, few of us (with the exception of certain fundamentalist religionists) think that we have a positive obligation to bring any being into existence. Consequently, even if the practice of BC increases the amount of impersonal good in the world, it seems like we don’t have any strong reason to engage in that practice (apart from satisfying our desires for eating meat).

The lack of a strong reason to engage in the practice must then be weighed against our obligations to the individual animal once it has come into existence. Once any particular animal exists, we would seem to have an obligation to refrain from killing it purely for our pleasure. So the result is that the impersonal goods of the practice of BC are insufficient to defeat the argument outlined in the previous section. The balance of animal interests over human interests still gives us strong reason not to kill the animal.

This then raises the question: if we must refrain from killing the animal, must we also work hard to maintain its comfortable and pain-free existence? This would seem like a step too far to many. Surely releasing them into the wild would be permissible? But this raises a problem. The defender of BC contends that the animals being reared by that practice are likely to die in the wild, presumably under much more distressful and painful conditions. If so, isn’t it more humane to painlessly kill and eat them, as the practice of BC mandates?

This would, at best, be a Pyrrhic victory for the defender of BC. After all, it could only work for extant domesticated farm animals. It provides no reason to continue the practice of BC into the future. Furthermore, there is reason to think it fails to even provide a Pyrrhic victory. For starters, as was pointed out in the comments section to part one, some domesticated farm animals can survive okay in the wild. More importantly, it is likely that we accrue obligations to the animals we bring into existence through the practice of BC. If they are so weak and dependent that they cannot survive in the wild, then surely we have an obligation to protect them? Just as parents have an obligation to protect their children until they become strong enough to fend for themselves.

3. An outlandish possibility?
There is one last roll of the dice for BC. The problem that has emerged so far is that it seems impermissible to bring into existence and then kill an animal that could live for longer, merely to consume its meat. This is because the animal, once alive, has an interest in its future existence, and are we are obliged to respect that interest. But what if the animal were genetically programmed to die at an age when its meat was still good to eat? Would it not then be permissible to kill them (painlessly) just prior to their genetically programmed death?

In such a scenario, the animal’s death would be determined before it came into existence — i.e. prior to our developing any obligations toward it — and so in dying its future interests would not be thwarted. By bundling together the act of creation and the act of killing, this suggestion neatly sidesteps the objection we’ve been developing so far. Maybe scientists should get to work on engineering the appropriate animal genome?

Not so fast. McMahan argues that if we did accept this scenario we would run right back into the “why not humans too”-dilemma. Would it not then be permissible to genetically engineer into existence a class of humans that would die at age 50 and whose organs could be used for transplants?

He thinks most people would reject this. His suspicion is that they would do because they rely on a comparative, and impersonal, value judgment to the effect that there are better sorts of human beings that we could bring into existence. The problem is that the same sort of comparative and impersonal argument would apply to animals. There are better sorts of animals we could bring into existence, to deliberately engineer a set of animals with inferior lives just doesn’t seem right. (I’m not entirely sure about this argument).

That leaves one final possibility. What if instead of deliberately engineering them into existence the relevant genetic mutation arose by chance? If this happened in the case of human beings (as it actually does, e.g. Huntingdon’s disease), we’d probably say we had an obligation not to bring such human beings into existence. But if it happened in the case of animals, the situation is less certain. We would probably be less strongly opposed to bringing them into existence (FWIW: I don’t think the judgment is that clearcut in all human cases).

Thus, McMahan accepts that BC may be permissible in just this sort of scenario. So long as a relatively young death is foreordained by a random genetic mutation, and so long as the animals who have this are reared in humane conditions and painlessly killed (just prior to their, possibly more painful, genetically pre-programmed death), it is permissible to rear and consume them for their meat. But this a highly fanciful scenario. It is certainly not enough to give the stereotypical defender of BC any consolation.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Ethics of Benign Carnivorism (Part One)

Is it morally permissible to eat farmed meat? According to a position known as “benevolent carnivorism” it can be. I’ll offer a more detailed characterisation of this position below, but in general terms benevolent carnivorism (BC from here on out) is the view that it is permissible to eat farmed meat so long as the animals one eats live good lives (that they would not otherwise have lived) and are painlessly killed. Proponents of BC are opposed to factory farming and any other practices that cause great suffering to animals. But they still eat meat.

Jeff McMahan’s article “Eating Animals the Nice Way” offers an interesting and typically careful critique of the BC view. According to McMahan, the standard defences of BC suffer from various formal problems and even when these are corrected the view still suffers from substantive weaknesses. These substantive weaknesses are so great that the only plausible version of BC is outlandish and unlikely to be practicable in the real world. The implication would then seem to be that BC is indefensible.

McMahan’s article presents a challenge to my own beliefs and practices. I still eat meat, despite various qualms. There are a variety of reasons for this, many non-rational and contingent upon my personal history. Nevertheless, in my more reflective and rational moments, I think I can justify my position by appealing to something like BC. I must confess, however, that I hadn’t given the matter much thought prior to reading McMahan’s article.

Over the next two posts, I want to go through McMahan’s arguments. In the remainder of this post, I will do three things. First, I will offer a more detailed characterisation of BC. Second, I will outline a basic defence of BC. And third, I will look of some of McMahan initial criticisms of that defence. Part two will look at some more detailed critiques.

(H/t to Martin O’Reilly for drawing McMahan’s article to my attention)

1. What is Benevolent Carnvorism?
As I mentioned, BC is the view that it is okay to eat farmed meat, so long as the animals one eats live good lives and are painlessly killed. This is a basic sketch. In his article, McMahan lists a bunch of other characteristics that are part and parcel of the BC view. Here are the most significant ones:

  • A. The animals in question have lives that are, on balance, worth living. They are well-fed and protected. They do not suffer greatly (at least no more, and probably a good deal less, than similar animals living in the wild). They are allowed to exercise their natural instincts.

  • B. The animals would not have lived without the practice of BC. Why? Because they are not biologically capable of surviving for themselves in the wild. It is not just that particular animals would not have lived, but that a whole set (species, sub-species) would not have lived without the practice. Consequently, without BC there would be many fewer animals living lives that are, on balance, good.

  • C. The animals are allowed to live a considerable portion of their lives before being painlessly killed.

  • D. Although this practice of painlessly killing the animal deprives them of some part of their natural lifespan, it does not deprive them of enough to offset the goods they have from being alive (i.e. the deprivation of death does not outweigh the gain from life).

  • E. The significance of the loss from being killed must take into account the fact that the animals in question do not have the same kind of psychological continuity as we humans do (i.e. the animals in question, even though they have some moral status, are not “persons”). In other words, because (we assume) they do not have a rich self-conception that they can project into the future, their loss from dying is less than the loss of a human being.

  • F. Those that are painlessly killed are replaced by animals that live equally good lives.

A couple of words about these characteristics before considering the basic defence of BC. First, not all of these characteristics are equally important. As we’ll see in a moment, the claim about the comparative well-being of the animals that are enabled to exist through the practice of BC is the most important when it comes to defending the practice. In other words, the most important thing about BC (from the point of view of its defenders) is that it enables animals to live good lives that they would not have otherwise been able to live. How it manages to do this is, of course, important as a practical matter, but not when it comes to evaluating the practice from a purely ethical standpoint. This means that characteristics A and B, above, are the most important ones. The subsequent characteristics just try to explain why it the comparative well-being claim might be true.

Second, these characteristics suggest that BC is quite idealistic. I suspect that it is doubtful whether any actual commercial farming and slaughtering system currently meets the conditions of BC. I know that certain organic and free range farming methods are better than factory farming, and I know that there are efforts to make more humanely-reared meat available for market, but I wonder whether these meet the thresholds required for BC. That said, I’m not knowledgeable enough about the matter to say for sure.

Third, the use of the word “animals” is a little unfortunate here. That term denotes a broad and diverse class of creatures some of whom raise fewer moral concerns than others. For example, I would argue that there is a significant moral difference between a cricket and a chimpanzee. I would be much less concerned about the morality of farming and eating the former than I would be about farming and eating the latter. McMahan never really addresses this issue in his article, sticking with the general term “animal” throughout. Nevertheless, I would suggest that for the remainder of this series, the term be read with the usual suspects in mind. So, for a Westerner, that would mean animals like chickens, sheep, cows and pigs.

2. A Basic Defence of Benign Carnivorism
How can one defend BC? McMahan spends a good deal of time in his article addressing the value judgments that underlie BC. For instance, some people argue that BC rests on the assumption that animal suffering matters more than animal lives. So, as long as we reduce or eliminate their suffering, we are okay to reduce the length of their lives. But as McMahan argues, this assumption does not make sense of the BC position. For if suffering was all that mattered, it would make more sense to kill an animal before they even have the capacity to suffer. Or better yet, never cause them to come into existence in the first place. Clearly, defenders of BC do not believe that: they think there is value to some amount of animal life.

I think McMahan does good work when probing these value judgments. Still, the result is somewhat frustrating as he never then proceeds to offer a formal argument in favour of BC. I would have liked to have seen that. Fortunately, he does highlight two arguments/reasons that are typically proffered in support of the position. The first has to do with the lives of the animals; the second has to do with the humans who eat them.

The first is the comparative animal advantage argument. This is the view set out in characteristics A and B in the preceding section. It can be stated (informally) like this:

Comparative Animal Advantage Argument: Without the practice of BC, the animals in question would be worse off than they might otherwise have been. For without the practice of BC they would not exist at all, but with the practice they get to live lives that are, on balance, good.

There are significant formal problems with this argument as it is currently stated. I’ll deal with these below. Despite these problems, I think the non-existence claim is correct. I think it is true that agricultural cows, sheep, pigs and chickens would cease exist without the practice of farming. From what I can tell, these animals (in their domesticated variants) are highly dependent on humans for their existence. If they were released into the wild right now, they would probably die out pretty quickly. (Does anyone know of a counterargument to this?)

The second argument/reason for BC has to do with the comparative advantages of meat consumption for humans. It can be stated (informally) like this:

Comparative Human Advantage Argument: It is comparatively better for humans to consume some meat than to rely on non-meat alternatives.

This is a very simple statement of the argument. The term “better” is deliberately vague. It could be cashed out in terms of health or dietary advantages (maybe consuming some degree of animal protein is better, on balance, for human health than consuming none) or it could be cashed out in terms of conscious pleasure (it is nicer/more enjoyable to consume meat). For what it’s worth, I think either version would be contentious. Nevertheless, I won’t dwell on those contentions here. One of McMahan’s main arguments against BC is that the practice is nearly always impermissible, no matter what the comparative advantages for humans might be (there might be one exception to this, which I’ll mention in part two). Consequently, we’ll just assume that some variant of the human advantage argument is correct in the remainder of this series.

One other point about the human advantage argument before moving on. Note how the argument only relates to the advantages of eating meat. It does not factor in possible costs and benefits of rearing and slaughtering meat. Some people argue that the costs of these practices are significant, particularly when it comes to environmental damage; others argue that these costs are overstated and that are in fact benefits from rearing and slaughtering animals. I don’t have a view on this right now.

3. Initial Criticisms of the BC
McMahan has a number of critiques of BC in his article, some of these respond to modified versions of the position. We’ll look at most of them in part two. For now, we’ll just conclude by considering two initial criticisms. The first one is largely formal; the second a little more substantive.

For the formal criticism we must return to the comparative animal advantage argument. As you can see from the statement of it above, this argument claims that BC is better for the animals in question than the alternative (their non-existence). But McMahan thinks that comparative claims of this sort — at least when they speak of what is “worse” or “better” for the animals — are off limits. To put it bluntly, in order to make claims about what is better or worse for an individual, that individual has to first exist. If they never existed, then it makes no sense to claim that they (qua individual) are worse off. As he puts it himself:

…to say that it is better for an animal to be caused to exist implies that it would have been worse for that same animal never to have existed. But again, there cannot be anyone for whom it is worse never to exist. In one clear and relevant sense, there are no individuals who never exist. 
(McMahan, pg. 68)

I think the situation is a little bit more complicated than McMahan makes out. We make comparative judgments of this type often enough when it comes to death, as he himself points out in a footnote, but perhaps the difference there is that at least we have an individual who has existed at one point. I might return to this problem at the end of the series as it seems to me that, throughout his discussion, McMahan simply assumes that death is always (comparatively) bad for the one who dies, which is a position that is rejected by certain schools of philosophical thought.

In any event, McMahan thinks that the formal problem with the argument can be resolved. Instead of making comparative claims about what is better or worse for the animals, we can switch to making comparative claims about what is better or worse from an impersonal point of view (i.e. the view from nowhere). Thus, one can argue that, from an impersonal perspective, it is good (better overall) that more animals are enabled to exist and live good lives; and it is bad (worse overall) if they are not. I think this is an appropriate formal “fix” for the argument.

This leads us to the second, more substantive, criticism of BC. We can call this the “why not humans (or persons) too?”- dilemma. It is very straightforward. It holds that if it is acceptable to bring animals into existence, allow them to live a decent portion of their lives, and then painlessly kill them for the benefit of humans, why is it not acceptable to do analogous things to human beings?

Just to be clear, we are not talking about killing humans in order to consume their meat. That’s not the right kind of analogy. We are talking about rearing and killing humans in order to supply some other benefit for other human beings. McMahan gives the example of bringing a special group or class of humans into existence (who would not have otherwise existed) in order to supply organs to the rest of us. The donors would live lives that are, on balance, good; and the organs they supply would benefit many. So what’s the problem? (In case you are interested, a scenario akin to this is explored in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let me Go).

Obviously, the intuition McMahan wishes to pump is that rearing humans for such a purpose would be morally impermissible. But if that’s right, why isn’t it impermissible to rear animals for an equivalent purpose? This is the basis for the dilemma. Either it is acceptable for both or acceptable for neither. It cannot be acceptable for one but not the other.

Okay, so we’ll leave it there for now. In part two, we’ll see whether there is anyway to resolve the “why not humans too” dilemma, and whether animal interests outweigh human interests, at least when it comes to the practice of eating meat.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Is Modern Technology Creating a Borg-like Society?

Sounds Swedish...

The Borg are the true villains of the Star Trek universe. True, the Klingons are warlike and jingoistic, the Romulans are devious and isolationist, and the Cardassians are just plain devious, but their methods and motivations are, for want of a better word, all too human-like. The Borg are truly alien: a hive-like superorganism, bent upon assimilating every living thing into their collective mind. To hardy individualists, this is the epitome of evil.

In a somewhat alarmist article entitled “We are the Borg! Human Assimilation into Cellular Society”, Ronnie Lipschutz and Rebecca Hester wonder whether we are at risk of creating a Borg-like society of our own. After all, we are on the verge of creating a world in which every object or event is monitored for data, which is then uploaded to the internet (the so-called “internet of things”). The pace at which we are doing so is truly outstanding. As Jeremy Rifkin highlights in his recent book, in 2007, there were an estimated 10 million sensor devices connecting human artifacts to the internet; by 2013 this was believed to have risen to 3.5 billion; and by 2030 it is estimated to reach 100 trillion. With the increasing ubiquity of these sensors, and with brain sensor devices being included among their ranks, is it really that far-fetched to say that we are creating a Borg-like society?

Lipschutz and Hester argue that it isn’t, and that even if true Borg-likeness is a distant possibility, there are aspects of our current technological infrastructure that are pushing us in that direction. Their article performs a useful service to those of us who interested in technology and the future of human society. It draws attention to aspects of our prevailing political ideologies that draw us toward a Borg-like future; it highlights the technologies that may make this possible; and it suggests why this might be problematic (though it doesn’t spend nearly enough time on this latter issue).

In this post, I want to take a more detailed look at their arguments, focusing, in particular, on the ideological and evaluative aspects. In doing so, I hope to clarify, expand upon and critically engage with what they have to say. I want to stress at the outset that I think there are many potential benefits to the kinds of technology mentioned below. It is those very benefits, however, that make this such an important and interesting debate.

In what follows, I focus on three questions. First, what kinds of technology might make the Borg-like society a reality? Second, what kinds of ideology might drive us to use those technologies in a Borg-like fashion? And third, is this worrying and if so why?

1. What kinds of technology might make this possible?
Before thinking about the technologies that would make a Borg-like society possible, it is worth pausing to consider what a “Borg-like” society would actually look like. In the world of Star Trek, the Borg are a superorganism, much like an ant or termite colony, with an underclass of workers/drones, headed-up by a “queen”. The colony works by “assimilating” new individuals, races and species into a collective mind. Every newly-assimilated drone has their mind and identity completely fused into the colony’s collective consciousness. They consequently lose any sense of individuality and autonomy: their thoughts are no longer their own; they think and act solely for the benefit of the group. The queen may be the one exception to this.

Lipschutz and Hester do not think that we are literally on the verge of creating a collective mind that would rival what we see in the Trek TV series. Instead, they think that some of our technologies are making our societies more Borg-like, where this falls short of what is depicted on screen. To be precise, they think that a variety of technological and social changes “point toward a “cellular society”, in which individual identities and autonomy are submerged in a greater whole” (Lipschutz and Hester, p. 2 of the online version).

With this in mind, we can craft a rough-and-ready definition of Borg-likeness:

Borg-likeness: A society can be said to become more Borg-like to the extent that it minimises the diversity of individual identities and reduces the scope individual autonomy by subsuming those individuals into a greater whole.

The problem with this, of course, is that all societies are Borg-like to some extent. There would be no society without some submerging of individuality into a greater whole. After all, societies work by policing individual behaviour through the use norms (social, legal, moral etc.). Nevertheless, there are obviously degrees of Borg-likeness. It is those degrees that are important in this debate. Some societies are incredibly authoritarian, and work hard to minimise individuality. Others are much looser in the restrictions they place on individuality. The question is what degree of Borg-likeness is acceptable.

There are variety of mechanisms through which society can become more Borg-like. Technological changes are merely one part of the picture. Nevertheless, Lipschutz and Hester suggest — as do others — that they are an important part of the picture. Modern technologies, in particular technologies relating to the internet of things, can greatly facilitate the creation of Borg-like power structures.

So what are these technologies? The most obvious, and most prevalent, are the technologies of surveillance. This includes anything that records what we do, where we go, what we say, who we say it to, and so on. Such technologies are becoming more and more prevalent, from the CCTV cameras that dominate our urban environments, to the metal detectors and X-ray machines that protect our public buildings, to the smartphones we carry in our pockets. Every one of these technologies helps to facilitate the control and constriction of individual behaviour.

These technologies of surveillance are greatly assisted by the internet and by modern data-processing algorithms. The internet allows for the information recorded by surveillance technologies to be uploaded, shared and stored across a global network. This allows governments and other members of society to police individual behaviour. The data-processing algorithms add an additional layer to this. They help to “tame” the overwhelming volume of data that is recorded by these technologies. They spot patterns and draw connections. If they are integrated within an artificial intelligence control system, they can even automate the control of individual behaviour, warning us when we violate norms, and perhaps even issuing punishments and commencing court proceedings against us.

In addition to all this, there are specific forms of surveillance and control that make the possibility of a Borg-like society even more tangible. Lipschutz and Hester draw particular attention to technologies for the mobile-monitoring of health-related data. We already have some primitive forms of this (with things like the Fitbit) but there are some pipeline technologies that would be more impressive. Similarly, there are technologies for reading brain-based data, and inferring mental states from that data, and also technologies that allow for direct brain-to-brain or brain-to-computer communication.

I have to say that I’m wary of the claims made in relation to brain-reading technologies. I know a fair bit about brain-based lie detectors and the like (I’ve published a few bits and pieces on it already, and should have a new article on the topic in the next couple of months), and I don’t think anything we currently have allows for pervasive “mind-reading”. I worry about overstating the effectiveness of these technologies, and of the attendant hype and panic-mongering. Still, not even I can dismiss long-term possibilities.

2. What are the ideological pressures that might encourage this?
As I said above, technology is just part of the picture. Technology doesn’t simply pop into existence. There are ideological, cultural and economic pressures behind every technological development. Indeed, by themselves, technologies of surveillance and control do not create a more Borg-like society. They need ideological assistance to do that. One of the real strengths of Lipschutz and Hester’s article is their attempt to draw attention to the ideological mechanisms that might hasten such a creation.

Chief among these ideological mechanisms is the prevalence of risk-based thinking. We live in risk societies. These are societies that are deeply concerned with identifying and pre-empting social and personal risks. These include things like economic meltdowns, natural disasters, the spread of infectious diseases, terrorism and other threats to national security, public health crises (e.g. cancer, obesity), and other possible environmental and technological disasters. These threats are constantly discussed in the public space, and governments are repeatedly tasked with addressing and resolving these incipient risks.

This preoccupation with risk creates the ideological impetus for the Borg-like society. The concern for risk alters the subjective worldviews of virtually every actor within a society. They now tend to be on the look out for potential risks; and to seek control of individual behaviour in risk-minimising ways. The kinds of technologies discussed in the previous section are ideal assistants in this. They allow us to constantly monitor and intervene in individual behaviour.

Lipschutz and Hester highlight two further, closely-related, mechanisms that might push us toward the Borg-like society. These mechanisms operate in the shadow of risk-based thinking. That is to say, they cannot really be understood apart from that background ideological framework. They are:

The “Double-Down” Mentality: Whenever a risk materialises, governments and other social actors tend to double-down on that risk. In other words, they dedicate more resources to policing and controlling that risk. We see this pattern repeatedly in recent social history. A good example would be the doubling-down on the threat of terrorism post 9/11. This brought with it a host of new laws and technologies for monitoring and controlling individual behaviour.

The Willing Consent Mentality: Although the policing of risk can be coercively enforced by governments from the top-down, it is also willingly consented to by citizens from the bottom-up. The fact is, most people want to avoid risks to their personal well-being. They will happily accept the technological infrastructure that makes this possible, even if it means sacrificing a degree of autonomy and independence.

This is not to suggest that people are simply willing slaves to governmental policy. There is still some resistance to these technologies, and that resistance may not be entirely futile. The important point is that the technologies that allow for the creation of a Borg-like society have a seductive ideological appeal. This appeal is felt by governments and individual citizens alike. Lipschutz and Hester use terrorism and national security as an example of how this has already happened (they say nothing about the Snowden leak and the ensuing debate, which suggests that their article was written before that came to light). I might use healthcare as another example. A lot of people are enthusiastic about health-tracking hardware and software. They use it to improve their fitness, enhance their well-being, increase their productivity and reduce their waistlines. This can be autonomy-enhancing. But the technology that makes this possible can — unless we are careful — also be used to police and control individual behaviour, as governments and health insurers try to reduce risks, and as members of our peer group encourage us to be healthier and to reduce their own exposure to health risks. There may be good rationales for all this intervention and control, ones that we buy into, but it still increases the Borg-likeness of our society.

3. Should we be worried about this?
Grant for now that the technologies and ideologies identified above are increasing (and will continue to increase) the Borg-likeness of our societies. Is this something we should be worried about? This is an evaluative question. It is asking us: would a more Borg-like society be worse, all things considered, than a less Borg-like one? This depends on one’s evaluative commitments. Unfortunately, Lipschutz and Hester are not particularly strong on this matter in their article. They (somewhat ironically) highlight the general risks associated with it, and point to questions that need to asked in the future.

I want to be a little more systematic in my analysis. I would say that there are three general classes of evaluative concern one might have about creating a more Borg-like society. The first two are present at minimal degrees of Borg-likeness. Indeed, they are present right now. The last would only be present at high degrees of Borg-likeness, but is probably worth considering anyway. I won’t analyse these concerns in any great depth; I will merely sketch them.

The first concern has to do with the further opportunities for risk that are created by these technologies. This concern is somewhat ironic since we are assuming that one of the rationales for introducing and deploying these technologies is their ability to minimise risk. But even if this is the case, we must acknowledge that these technologies bring with them fresh opportunities for risk creation. Technologies of surveillance and control can be co-opted by those with nefarious goals, be they governments, corporations or other groups of citizens. For example, devices that automatically administer insulin to diabetics could be hacked into and used to lethal effect. The same goes for any semi-automated medical device with wireless technology. And this is just one subset of technology. Additional risks and harms will be made possible by other technologies. Identity theft, for instance, is now more common thanks to the huge amount of personal data that is now inputted and stored online.

The second concern has to do with harms to privacy. This is, in many ways, the classic concern when it comes to technologies of surveillance and control. I am one of those people who think that privacy is not an overwhelmingly important good. I certainly don’t think it is an intrinsic good. There is a line in one of Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic, where he suggests that the best way to live one’s life is to have nothing to fear if its details are exposed to one’s worst enemy. I tend to think that is the right ideal. I would certainly like to think that I have done nothing in my life that I am ashamed to share with others.

Nevertheless, I don’t wish to be naive in this. I think that privacy is an important bulwark against the moral imperfection of others. What do I mean by this? Well, I think that ideally I would have nothing to fear from disclosure of personal information to others, but I realise that this only works if those others are morally enlightened. The problem is that other people have morally imperfect attitudes. They can be intolerant of alternative lifestyle choices, even when those choices are perfectly acceptable. They can perceive those choices as a threat, and they can inflict various forms of harm on those who make those choices. Consider the way in which homosexuals have been treated throughout history. Privacy should be protected in order to guard against the moral imperfection of others. Otherwise, personal data could be used to persecute and oppress minorities and perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes.

What does this mean for the technologies that increase the Borg-likeness of society? The answer is complicated by the fact that not only do these technologies provide opportunities for oppression, they also provide opportunities for empowerment. To give an example, on the day that I write this post a video has gone viral in which a man has recorded a racist verbal attack on him by a woman. This video is, arguably, being used to positive effect by bringing racism into the light and holding those with racist attitudes to public account. Similarly, Tal Zarsky has argued that algorithmic control systems could be less prone to implicit bias than human control systems (I covered this argument previously). So I’m not sure what the answer is here. There are important values that are protected by the right to privacy and threatened by the technologies in question; but at the same time, those values can also be protected and enhanced by the same technologies. It all really depends on who controls the technological infrastructure.

The final concern has to do with threats to individual identity, autonomy and responsibility. This is the concern that dominates when it comes to the fictional Borg. The reason why the Borg are so villanous, and so disturbing to the Federation, is that they ride roughshod over these values, callously assimilating individuals into their collective. Is this a serious concern in the real world? I think it might be, certainly in the long-term.

I, for one, value my individuality. I think my identity is important, and my ability to choose my own course in life is something worth protecting (as long as it does not inflict moral harm on others). I think this is true for other individuals too, of course. There is a real concern that technologies of surveillance and control could impact negatively on these values. By constantly monitoring and policing our behaviour (and maybe even our thoughts) these technologies could reduce diversity and create an increasingly homogenised set of social actors. Such actors might become little more than moral patients — i.e. passive and controlled recipients of the benefits of technology — with no real sense of their own agency and responsibility. With direct brain-to-brain communication and control, this could be further exacerbated, leading to the creation of something very close to the fictional world of the Borg.

Not everyone is worried about this. Some people are far more communitarian in their moral outlook, and some even positively embrace the idea of collective minds in which our mentality is submerged. Although I don’t think he says so explicitly, Ray Kurzweil’s dream of creating a universe that is saturated by our intelligence seems to imply something like this (at least, I can’t see how this could be realised without the creation of something like a massive groupmind). I find nothing attractive in this vision. I like the idea of harnessing technology to increase the scope of individual autonomy; I don’t like the idea of submerging the individual in a collective mind. Perhaps this is just an irrational prejudice on my part.

Anyway, that brings us to the end of this post. To recap, the central thesis of Lipschutz and Hester’s article is that modern technologies of surveillance and control, coupled with the ideological superstructure of the risk society, make the creation of Borg-like societies a reality. I have tried to clarify their reasons for thinking this and to identify the evaluative concerns that such societies would raise. No doubt I have missed many important issues. Feel free to offer your thoughts in the comments section.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Book Recommendation ♯16: The City and the City by China Mieville

(Series Index)

It's always the way, isn't it? For the first fourteen entries of this series, I never bothered to recommend a work of fiction, and now I'm about to recommend two on the trot. This time round its China Mieville's genre-bending noirish whodunnit The City and the City

Mieville's one of my favourite science/speculative fiction writers. I've enjoyed all of the books of his that I have read. The most recent one, Railsea, was an imaginative and compelling retelling of Moby Dick, albeit with trains instead of boats, railway tracks instead of the sea, and giant moles instead of great white whales. His 2011 work, Embassytown, provided some interesting meditations on language and the role it plays in shaping our view of our environment. And his earlier Bas-Lag trilogy of novels weaved an epic and socially-conscious set of tales around the steampunk metropolis of New Crobuzon. The latter set of novels, in particular, evidence Mieville's Marxist/socialist leanings, which he has also written about in more formal, academic works.

Nevertheless, of all the Mieville books I have read my favourite -- by a long shot -- is his 2009 novel The City and the City. Ostensibly, the book is a simple murder mystery. It tells the story of Tyador Borlu, an Inspector of the Extreme Crime Squad, in the decaying, vaguely Eastern-european, city of Beszel. He is investigating the murder of a young student named Mahalia Geary. The city of Beszel borders with another city called Ul Qoma. They have a politically uneasy relationship, and there are strict protocols for crossing over between the two. The situation is somewhat reminiscent of East and West Berlin at the height of the Cold War. This provides the novel with its major plot point. During the course of his investigation, Borlu must partner up with the police in Ul Qoma and look into the underground political group that Geary was involved in. Much intrigue ensues.

There is much more to the book than this of course -- it is speculative fiction, after all. It turns out that the "border" between the two cities is not so straightforward, and the political turmoil underlying their relationship is much more interesting than it first appears. But, unfortunately, I can't say more without spoiling it. Suffice to say it's good. It reads like a mix of Borges and Kafka. So if you like those authors, you'll definitely like this. And even if you don't like them, I think you'll probably still like it: it's a good deal more accessible than either of those authors (in my opinion anyway).

Highly recommended.