Transhumanism and the ethical governance of science

Discussion in 'Science' started by Fortigurn, Oct 21, 2007.

  1. Fortigurn

    Fortigurn Member

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    Reading this article on transhumanism (an interesting concept in its own right), I was struck by the following attitude to the ethical governance of science:

    I'm inclined to sympathize with the view that extended lifespans are not for everyone, but strongly oppose the view that 'scientists shouldn't have ethical responsibility for their inventions', and shouldn't be expected to have 'the same values as other people'.

    Unfortunately, the story of science in the 20th century is that scientists have not always been held ethically responsible for their inventions, and are not universally expected to have the same values as other people.

    What do others think?
     
  2. Ze.

    Ze. Member

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    I think that scientists should be responsible they conduct their research ethically but they shouldn't be held responsible for how society uses the science. It is society ethical problem whether it uses the research or not. Since you have to remember science is usually a double edged sword that can be used for our benefit or our destruction.
     
  3. Aetherone

    Aetherone Member

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    unfortunatly the decision of how to utilise scientific discovery is typically made by governmental officials with comparatively room temperature IQs.
     
  4. bcann

    bcann Member

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    Saying that "eternal life" is not for everyone is a bit like saying you can't have medical treatment because you can't afford it, or you can't go to school because your black/whie/alien/insert pc incorrect thing....

    as for scientists being held accountable, well i'm strongly of the view that 99.99% of scientists create things generally for the betterment of society, its the people that come AFTER the scientists that tend to use it for the detriment of society.

    Nuclear fission in the beginning was about learning the power of the atom and how it all works, then it became about generating "limitless power" ... then the war happened and the military saw ... Huge power = Huge explosion and it all went downhill from there....
     
  5. OP
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    Fortigurn

    Fortigurn Member

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    This seems to me to be sleight of hand. If you're a scientist working on the atomic bomb, are you really telling me you're not responsible for how people use it?

    I'm interested in how the atomic bomb, and biological/chemical weapons can be used for our benefit. I realise that nuclear fission can be used to produce power, but that's not what the scientists of the Manhattan Project were trying to do. They were trying to invent the most destructive weapon in human history, and they succeeded. I find it difficult to see how that was for our benefit.

    Eternal life was not mentioned. I referred to 'extended lifespans'. I'm not sure that I understand the rest of your point. Could you make it more clear?

    Again, I find myself reflecting on the scientists who diligently spend years of their working lives attempting to invent or improve the most destructive weapons in human history, which are specifically intended to kill people, often in hideously painful ways.

    I'm also unconvinced that '99.99% of scientists create things generally for the betterment of society'. I believe that was probably true up to about the 19th century, but after that scientists became increasingly more concerned about money than the welfare of the human species.

    These days you don't find scientists philanthropically funding their own research for the betterment of our species (as certainly used to be the case), we find them running to the nearest pile of cash and telling the owner 'This is going to be big for you, this is going to make you lots of money, now give me a grant'. Often this turns out to be the military.

    Of course there are many philanthropic organisations and individuals who generously fund scientific endeavours for the benefit of our species, but the philanthropy in this case is on the part of the philanthropists, not the scientists.

    And the scientists were right there doing their utmost to create the weapon specifically designed to obliterate thousands of people from the earth. I find it difficult to accept the idea that they weren't in the least responsible for what they created.
     
  6. Ze.

    Ze. Member

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    Of course. It is up to society to decide how they want to use it.



    Atomic weapons could be used for construction and in space. Furthermore the manufacturing techniques that are involved in them often push the frontier of manufacturing and the simulation techniques pushed the borders of what is possible with computing.

    When it comes to biological and chemical weapons often the techniques are useful in other areas. Should a scientist ignore research because it could be used for bad? Should they withstand working on that area for a specific person? Surely that should be an individual decision with society controlling how the research goes and whether it gets used.
    I think they share societies responsibilities for how it's used. Consider the atomic bomb if it hadn't been used in Japan , an invasion would've been likely and that would've been bloody.

    Would that be as bad? perhaps? perhaps not.
     
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    Fortigurn

    Fortigurn Member

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    How many different ways can you use an atomic bomb which is designed specifically to be dropped on people in order to kill them?

    You're missing the point that this is not what they were designed for. I could use a rifle as a tin opener, but that's not what it was designed for. The scientists who worked on these things didn't think 'I wonder what they'll use this for?', they designed them specifically to kill.

    Atomic weapons are not designed for construction, or for space. Exactly what kind of 'construction' could you possibly carry out with a bomb even as small as the one dropped on Hiroshima? Have you considered what you would do about the massive radioactive fallout, which would be dangerous for years afterwards?

    That isn't the issue under discussion, nor is it relevant to the issue under discussion. And in any case, would you rather that scientists put their energy into designing devices specifically for death and destruction and just hope that we get a few spinoffs along the way which are beneficial for the species, or would you rather that we poured the energy and scientific thought into research beneficial for the species in the first place?

    I'm not talking about the techniques, I'm talking about the biological and chemical weapons themselves. Are you telling me that the scientists who spend years working on them are not ethically responsible for their use? Are you telling me that these weapons themselves are beneficial for our species?

    In some cases, yes. But that wasn't what I was asking.

    No scientists should be working on biological or chemical weapons, full stop. But unfortunately many scientists only have to be offered money and they'll do whatever you want them to. That is the issue which disturbs me.

    That is actually why ethics committees are formed as oversight for various projects, because you simply cannot trust people to be ethical in their research, or to carry out research within certain ethical limits, unless you check up on them regularly. If scientists were the pure white souls of reason and enlightenment many people seem to think they are, then ethical oversight committees, ethicists, and ethical guidelines, wouldn't be necessary.

    They are necessary, because a lab coat and a pile of cash are a very dangerous combination. The history of science in the 20th century unfortunately demonstrates that offering scientists sufficient money or fame will often get you exactly what you want from them, regardless of the ethical considerations involved.

    Even an honourable man like Goddard sold his soul to the Nazis, despite knowing that his rocketry skills were being used to kill civilians, and his projects were being carried out by slave labour from the concentration camps. To give him his due, he agonized over it and his conscience was sorely afflicted (in personal correspondence we can see he felt deeply guilty), but he still chose to do what he did.

    Today Goddard would probably be laughed at as a gutless wimp who didn't understand the sacrifices necessary to advance the cause of science.

    Why should it be an individual decision? The law prohibits me from making biological and chemical weapons in my backyard, so why should scientists be exempt?

    That's a start, but shouldn't they be responsible for making it in the first place?

    An invasion was not likely. The US Navy had already argued that an invasion would be a costly waste of time, effort, and resources. They advocated a blockade and offshore bombardment. By this time Japan had no navy, no air force, and no way of mobilizing what few troops they had left, outside Japan.

    American bombers were firestorming Japanese targets daily, with complete impunity. Allied naval forces could blockade Japan without fear of any reprisals whatsoever. All the Allies had to do was simply keep sitting outside Japan in their destroyers, and maintaining the conventional bombing raids. Not only did Japan have absolutely no way of defending itself, it had no way of launching a counterattack.

    I suggest you read about the Battle of Okinawa and the Battle of Iwo Jima. Neither battle was necessary, and nor was a full scale invasion of the mainland. You can read here about how useless the invasion of Iwo Jima was.
     
  8. Goth

    Goth Grumpy Member

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    Many of the people who made significant contributions to the Manhattan Project, and those who pushed for it to be taken seriously by the government, were very much pacifists.

    Einstein was very much a pacifist. Mark Oliphant cared so much about the sanctity of life that he was a vegetarian for his entire life.

    They did their utmost to build the nuclear weapon because it was the only way to defend the world against the unimaginable horror of Hitler getting nuclear weapons first, which was a credible threat.

    Although it is not what they had in mind, a nuclear explosion is just a tool.

    You can use it to make a really big hole in the ground, to build a new harbour, or you can use it to design, in the 1950s, a practical, workable, build-able, interstellar spacecraft.

    Like a kitchen knife, it only becomes a weapon if you choose to use it as one.

    As Carl Sagan said:
    In 1920 Fritz Haber commercialised and patented the famous process for the industrial synthesis of ammonia that bears his name. This ability to synthesize ammonia, and hence other nitrogen compounds, on any scale, simply from nitrogen in the air, is almost certainly responsible for dragging on World War I for at least a couple of years.

    Without the artificial synthesis of ammonia and nitric acid, Germany would have run out of supplies of explosives by 1916, and the war would soon be over. But with the chemistry to synthesize high explosives out of, well, thin air, the war carried on for years more.

    This piece of industrial chemistry is responsible for essentially all the conventional munitions and explosives that have been manufactured, stockpiled and used over the world over the last century or so. All those deaths, in all the wars...

    To what extent are Haber and Bosch responsible for this?

    Whilst you're considering that, you might also consider that industrial nitrogen fixation, via the Haber-Bosch process, today accounts for about twenty percent of all the nitrogen in proteins and amino acids on the planet.

    Or, put another way, the Haber process allows 20 percent of life on earth to exist. It allows 20% of the world's human population to have something to eat.


     
    Last edited: Oct 22, 2007
  9. Goth

    Goth Grumpy Member

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    I take it that by "working on" you mean developing offensive weapons, and not, for example, developing defensive technologies that can detect or defend against such weapons, which requires the same knowledge, which overlaps with the knowledge required to build the weapons.

    You're thinking of Wernher von Braun, not the American RH Goddard.

    von Braun always dreamed of space exploration, using rocketry for the most noble of civilian goals. But he went to work for the military, because they were the only place where they would take an interest in the technology, with the resources to put into the development of rocket technology.

    I guess he simply viewed this as a necessary evil that would set him on a path with the resources to develop spaceflight technology, and after the war, when the US got a hold of him, he eagerly took the opportunity to work on it, and very significant contributions to things like the Apollo program are the result of that.
     
  10. OP
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    Fortigurn

    Fortigurn Member

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    Yes, I'm aware of that. I suppose they had to learn the hard way that the cause of pacifism is not materially advanced by killing thousands of people.

    I'm aware that a nuclear explosion is just a tool. But that's not the issue here. The issue here is not people researching nuclear explosions as 'just a tool', but people researching a nuclear weapon with the specific aim of killing thousands of people.

    But neither Haber nor Bosch developed the synthesis for the purpose of weaponry, nor for the aim of extending the war.

    Unless they were specifically developing the synthesis for the purpose of weaponry, they aren't. This is apples to oranges.

    This isn't remotely related to the issue I'm discussing.

    I'm talking primarily about offensive weapons. But I don't know any country which only develops defensive tools, which certainly does not require developing the weapons in the first place.

    Thanks for the correction, I knew there was something wrong. Yes, I was thinking of von Braun.

    Yes, von Braun is a classic example of the Faustian pact which characterizes the 20th century scientist. I am questioning the ethical nature of that pact.
     
    Last edited: Oct 22, 2007
  11. Ze.

    Ze. Member

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    Does it really matter if the military applications are a by product of the civilian applications or that civilian applications are a by product of the military applications?

    Another thing to consider is that most of the early chemical weapons were simply concentrated forms of pesticides. Should we avoid researching pesticides because in higher concentration they can be used as chemical weapons?

    Where do we draw the line between defensive and offensive weapons? is the former ok? but the latter not? unfortunately you can't really separate the science.

    A scientist is no more powerful than any other member of society at stopping war. It has to be societies decision to stop it.
     
  12. Goth

    Goth Grumpy Member

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    They didn't design the bomb with the intention of using it, and certainly not with the intention of using it on Japan. It may have been intended to be used in a last-ditch effort, if it was needed to stop the Nazis if they got nuclear weapons, but many of the scientists involved never approved of it being used on Japan.

    100,000 people, perhaps, worked on some aspect of the Manhattan Project. Most of them were civilians with no idea at all what a nuclear weapon was, or what they were ultimately working on.

    http://smithdray1.net/angeltowns/or/secretcitythemovie.htm
    http://smithdray1.net/angeltowns/or/go.htm

    Given that by 1945, the bomb had already been invented, and it cannot be uninvented, and the military had already saw what it was capable of, and the Soviets had already seen the technology via espionage, and knew what it was capable of, the decision was made - this was the government / military's decision, not the decision of the scientists who initiated the project years before - that it could be used to bring an expedient end to the war against Japan.

    When these tens of thousands of civilians, at Oak Ridge/CEW and at other places, learned about the atomic bombings of Japan, and their role it, they didn't worry about it so much, as the scientists did, they were never in a position to make the ethical judgements - they were just glad that this terrible war was at last over.
     
  13. Jaymo

    Jaymo Member

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    I'm all for transhumanism but I think the biggest problem with longer lifespans is our resource use and social progress.
    Will there be enough food or land to satisfy a massively increased population?

    We would have huge problems with people not contributing to advancement by holding onto age old ideals.
    Given limited resources, we would need to develop a system that would favour more efficient human progress by eliminating redundant individuals.:Paranoid:
     
  14. OP
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    Fortigurn

    Fortigurn Member

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    Yes it does matter. The key issue I'm raising is that people who deliberately involve themselves in the creation of agents specifically intended to main and kill, are responsible for their actions. I'm suggesting that scientists should always be held ethically responsible for their research.

    It seems I'm in a minority with regard to that, which is not only surprising but downright unnerving. :Paranoid:

    You're still missing my point. The people who invented the pesticides don't bear responsibility for the deaths caused by later adaptations of their invention. But those who took those pesticides and deliberately made them into something they never were in the first place, specifically to maim and kill other humans in painful and gruesome ways, yes they bear responsibility for their actions.

    I'm not talking about 'separating the science'. What you can separate is the application of the science.

    Stopping war is not the issue under discussion either. But scientists who deliberately devote their energies to the invention of weapons cannot reasonably be said to be stopping war.

    They did design the bomb with the intention of creating a weapon the like of which the world had never seen. They knew what they were doing.

    I know that many of the scientists involved never approved of it being used on Japan, but they clearly approved of it being built.

    Certainly those without any knowledge are not responsible. But those who were, are.

    I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about the fact that the scientists who initiated the project years before knew exactly what they were doing - building a weapon of unprecedented destructive capacity, which they knew full well would be used.

    When ethical judgments are simply passed on 'higher up' to other people, then something is very wrong. Since when did 'Ah, well the big brass say it's all ethical and fine, so that's ok with me' become a responsible and rational response to any ethical dilemma?

    That is one of a number of reasons why significantly increased longevity is not for everyone.
     
  15. Ze.

    Ze. Member

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    You aren't doing that at all you are suggesting they be held ethically responsible for how their research is used?

    Does the scientists bear more responsibility than the people who used it? The society that approves the war? The individuals who manufacture it?
    I don't see it that unnerving. I see it as leaving it up to the individual to decide which areas of research he will work on and which areas he won't. The fact of the matter is that the individual always has the power in this case and that's where it should lie. If society doesn't want to research that area then it has to make the decision not the scientists. Anything else is simply unrealistic.
    That is an area rife with ethical issues as well.
     
  16. OP
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    Fortigurn

    Fortigurn Member

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    No, if that were the case then I would be holding Haber and Bosch responsible for deaths caused by the explosives made possible by their synthesis of ammonia.

    These aren't actually the issues I was discussing. Individual responsibility for each of these parties may differ in weight depending on the circumstances (though the differences would probably only be slight, if at all discernible), but the fact is that they should all be held responsible for their actions.

    Wow. That's quite scary. I guess that's how Dr Mengele got away with it.

    Why is it unrealistic to expect scientists to uphold ethical principles and make ethical decisions? Why should they, of all people in our society, be permitted to research and work on as they please unless specifically and strictly forbidden to do otherwise? And why should they not be held responsible for their research and work?

    Don't you find it strange that there's no scientific equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath? There was a universal ethical code for scientists proposed in 1984, but it didn't get very far. Probably because one of the clauses was 'Scientific efforts shall therefore not aim at applications or skills for use in war or oppression'. What? Scientists forbidden to 'aim at applications or skills for use in war or oppression'? Goodness, what a bad idea!

    Recently (a couple of years ago?), England proposed an ethical code for scientists, but I don't know how successful it has been.

    It's rather disturbing to me that scientists have been let loose thus far without a universal ethical code comparable to the Hippocratic Oath, specifically with a 'do no harm' clause. Why has it taken so long? Perhaps the Enlightenment cult of science has something to do with it.

    It is indeed.
     
  17. Ze.

    Ze. Member

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    Dr Mengele's research was unethical because of how he conducted it not because of the topic.
     
  18. OP
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    Fortigurn

    Fortigurn Member

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    Trying to prove certain diseases are the result of racial inferiority is an ok topic? Testing the effects of chemical and biological weapons, depressurization, and freezing temperatures on unproctected humans is an ok topic? These aren't simply a matter of tests, these were the aims of some of his tests, and they could only be conducted one way - the destructive way.

    Even today I don't think chemical and biological weapons are tested directly on humans.
     
  19. Aetherone

    Aetherone Member

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    No, its abhorrent that so many people had to die for his research. Its vastly more abhorrent that some would prefer to sweep his results aside and make the sacrifice of these people worthless. Data gained by Dr. Mengler - particuarly for pressure and thermal extremes has saved more innocent lives than it cost.
    and therin lies the conundrum. I'm just a plant scientist with heavy emphasis in molecular biology and genetics. The same skills and techniques I use every day for my research can very simply be adapted to produce engineered bioweapons. If you wanted to stop all research which could potentially be used for negative purposes, you will essentially be asking ALL research to be stopped and 6.3 billion people to please re-enter the stone age. Except we can't research stone tools because they can be used in war or oppression.
    You forget the atmosphere of fear in the world at that time. These people built such a device for the "good guys" hoping it would mean they wouldn't be forced to build such a thing for the "bad guys" should the "good guys" lose.
     
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    Fortigurn

    Fortigurn Member

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    That is not what I am talking about. I am talking about not using it for negative purposes. As you say, it can potentially be used for negative purposes. But no one has to.

    I'm not forgetting the atmosphere of fear at the time. I know that the justification was 'We'll build it for the good guys so they can massacre the civilians of the bad guys, and we won't have to build it for the bad guys if the good guys lose'.

    Unfortunately this uses a definition of 'good guys' and 'bad guys' which is functionally meaningless. It was simply a personal rationalization of their choice. Cut it where you will, they made the decision to use their skills to produce the most devastating weapon in human history, and they did that deliberately.

    As for Mengele's work, I'm not sure that 'Data gained by Dr. Mengler - particuarly for pressure and thermal extremes has saved more innocent lives than it cost'. Even if it did, I don't believe that justifies the work in the first place. Do you believe we should keep up that kind of work, especially if it saves more innocent lives than it cost?
     

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