Do we have a moral responsibility to foster consciousness?
Disruptive technologies, part II
Suppose, hot on the heels of reinventing automotive manufacturing, I retire to my garage to begin work on something else: biology (in this universe, I am a polymath). Drawing on the example set by Watson and Crick, I take some LSD and start to think. In a flash, I suddenly realise how the human brain works—how to fix it and, more importantly, how to replicate it. I can't recreate lost neural connections from nowhere—no restoring someone from a persistent vegetative state in Hollywood fashion—but I could give them a new brain; in essence, waking them up.

This means, also, that if tests caution that a child will be born with severe brain disorders, I can fix those painlessly and completely. In a break from tradition, the remainder of this article does not focus on the eugenics potential of this solution (hey! I can free my children from ADD! Or Asperger's! Or homosexuality!). Instead, the question is somewhat simpler:

If we can create consciousness, do we have a moral obligation to?

That is, if we can end mental retardation, must we? Do we have the responsibility, where possible, to elevate the degree of consciousness in the world? I can consider two possible reasons why we might right off the top of my head. The first is moralistic, and so comparatively simple—you either buy it or you don't.

The first is religious. What it takes to get into heaven is contentious, of course, and not being Christian I am not really equipped to hold court, but as far as I know the Bible has no clear position statement on whether or not the mentally ill are granted access to heaven. It is possible, though unpleasant to think in some circles, that entering heaven requires the ability to make an informed choice to accept the word of Christ.

If that were true, by not correcting pathological mental illness and disability, we could be condemning people to purgatory instead of heaven. Religiously, I could see this as being unconscionable, especially if the means of preventing it are easily accessible and available.

The other reason is pragmatic. There are, broadly, two opposing schools in terms of humanity's residence here. The first is the Malthusian view championed in recent years by people like Paul Ehrlich, who have been forecasting the imminent demise of abundance and food for fifty years now (of necessity, yes, some goalposts have shifted). On the other is a more optimistic view adopted by people like Julian Simon, who held that, by any reasonable measure, quality of life has improved globally and will continue to do so. For Simon, there was only one element in short supply: people.

Although there are certainly environmental variations—absent proper support even the most brilliant youth may wind up toiling away at manual labour forever, John Galt style—you can regard every human being as a lottery ticket. New "things"—new consumer goods, to be sure, but also new scientific advances, new works of art, new medicines, new means of producing food and fuel—may be produced at the rate of only one per million people per year (and, obviously, the real rate is doubtless far different from that). As a result, if you want more of these things, you need more people. Simon argues that this—the addition of more and more processors to the massive computer that is the human race—is what has allowed us to stay ahead of Malthus's dire predictions.

As such, the future of humanity may hinge on the number of active, engaged minds we have working on the world's problems. Failing to increase that number could be the same as wasting any other natural, finite (if renewable) resource. So what does this imply? Will parents who could correct their child's mental retardation—but choose not to—be regarded not just as vaguely immoral but indeed outright pariahs, like people who overwater their lawns in desert communities, or soccer moms who drive Hummers? Will it be acceptable to squander that potential?

Of course, as I said, even if we were a race of geniuses, there will always be people who are employed flipping burgers or cleaning gutters. But, at least in a Horatio Alger-style myth, even these people could one day invent something radical and transformational. So should everyone, at least, be on a level playing field?

I suggest that while, as a libertarian, I don't believe anyone should be compelled to pull a Flowers for Algernon on their children, it should, for the majority of people, be desirable to do so (with a happy ending this time, natch). But where's the brightline distiction? When do we go too far? If intelligence is a resource—and modulo the caprice and chaos of serendipitous discovery it largely is—then are we compelled at all turns to create more of it, the same way we should want to create more fresh water, more petroleum, more timber?

If so, where do we stop? Should artificial intelligence be taken as a shortcut, a force multiplier for our future? Consider the scientific and technological progress we could make (for that matter, consider the cultural output, all the new novels and movies and paintings) if the number of active, thinking brains on this planet could increase with only the need for power, and not for, say, food or housing.

What about animals? The same genetic engineering and nanotechnology that will allow us to correct genetic problems in humans will, inexorably, allow us to restructure the brains of other creatures—cetaceans and the great apes suggest themselves immediately, but I'm certain there are others. Do we have a responsibility to enable this, where we can? Or should we just pass them by and ignore their potential? Isn't it ever so slightly cruel to allow them to lumber on without remark? In short, as the title says, if we can foster consciousness (and therefore intellect, reason—souls, even, if that's your thing), do we have a responsibility too?

And should we here imagine a host of cats descending on the Washington Mall, waving signs that say, "I can haz suffruj?"
La Chevre!
4.10.2010 - 3h02

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