Re: Tough Questions
Sun, 5 Sep 1999 10:30:23 EDT

Thanks to Lee Crocker for making some good "meta-points" and identifying at least some of the "tough questions" that extropian ideals and values must face:

In a message dated 99-08-31 16:25:24 EDT, (Lee Daniel Crocker) wrote:

> There are a few recurring topics on this forum that are the source
> of lively and contentious debate, and are likely to continue to be.
> But far from advocating, as some have, that they be stepped around
> or treated delicately, I think the problem is that they need to be
> taken on more directly; their various points of view and criticisms
> thereof enumerated and explained.

I certainly don't advocate "stepping around" the kinds of tough questions identified here. I may have used the word "delicate" in describing what I personally think is an appropriate way to address some of these questions, though, and for reasons I'm willing to defend in depth, for the same reason that I'd like to be able to use the word "delicate" to describe the approach taken by, say, a brain surgeon. These are tough questions because they get at the core of people's identity and addressing core identity issues is, in a very real sense, like brain surgery.

> There are good reasons to do
> this. For one, any "philosophy" or "movement" or other group of
> folks organized around ideas can be justly criticized for avoiding
> application of those ideas to hard questions. If you honestly
> believe in your point of you, you /want/ to find all opposing ones
> and figure out why they fail. Secondly, these questions are
> important, if not critical, to our future.

I agree with you 100%. All I ask of folks with whom I share an intellectual forum is that discussion of such important issues be handled in a diplomatic manner. In good extropian fashion, that's been a "distributed responsibility" on this list.

Almost as important as expressing and exploring the substance of our ideas is HOW we do it. Pulling out the rhetorical nukes at the first sign of a conflict of ideas is a poor advertisement for the substance of our ideas: I am usually suspicious that ideas defended with inflated, hostile or personalistic rhetoric can't withstand the scrutiny possible with cooler, more humane discussion.

> I would like to see
> (and am willing to host on my web site if ExI is not interested) a
> set of short essays or a collection of email excerpts on the various
> points of view on these topics (my own included of course); perhaps
> having these to point to when the topics arise again may short-circuit
> reopening discussions that have already happened.

I remember John Clark's practice of "recycling" text about basic issues, which seemed to be an effective way to deal with "newbies" and recurring issues (such as the ones I brought up when I first joined the list :-) I'm sure he tired of being the "extropian kindergarten" and I don't blame him. We do need to deal with this problem better and, hopefully, the ExI web enhancement projects that Robert Bradbury, Sasha Chislenko, Brent Allsop and others are working on will help address it.

> The "basic" political
> and ethical positions of individual freedom and responsibility I
> consider a given here, so I don't count that among the tough
> questions

That's right, and as I noted briefly earlier this week, I don't think that "outreach" efforts or rhetorical diplomacy should dilute the fact that people who call themselves extropian should share those values.

> --but that leaves plenty of room to debate the rough edges.

It certainly does!

> (1) Children's rights.
> It is intellectually consistent, and even rationally defensible in
> some ways, to believe that children have no rights at all and are
> entirely subject to the whim of parents on whom they are dependent.

I, for one, disagree that this is an intellectually consistent or rationally defensible point of view. I refer to the long post I made a week ago or so regarding "Mind abuse" for a more complete discussion of my own "morality of mind", in which I propose that an information processing system as complex and full of potential as a human child has significant rights vis-a-vis adults (including her parents). A slightly different take on similar ethical issues arising from interaction between entities with disparate mental abilities is discussed in my essay "Extropian Ethics and the Extrosattva" at

> Most of us (including me) would grant them more rights than that,
> and even more entitlements than basic food and shelter. Definitions
> of "abuse" can vary from beatings to brainwashing to circumcision.
> The point at which childhood protections and entitlements give way
> to adult freedom and respnsibility is a tough question. Are parents
> allowed to teach their children anything, profit from their labor,
> modify their bodies (genetically or otherwise), deny medicine? Do
> we have the right to create new sentient life forms however we want?

These are very tough questions, and I believe they actually collapse to the "ultimate" moral question, "What is the good?" There are two related but still distinguishable aspects to them, though, which are "How should *I* do these things?" and "What should I tolerate in the behavior of *others* in this realm?" The mistake I think many statists or stasists make is in thinking these are just one question.

> (2) Gender differences.
> In earlier centuries it was taken for granted that men and women
> had their fixed places in society and family dictated by the culture
> they lived in; today it is taken for granted than men and women are
> equally capable of any role. Both positions are wrong. There are
> unquestionably differences in capability, temperament, inclination,
> and style--perhaps significant enough even to justify different
> rights and responsibilities--related to differences in biology, and
> it is important that we understand and properly deal with these to
> create the best future for all of us. Can we alter our approach
> to better attract women to Extropian ideas?

I think we can, although this is less a matter of institutional change than it is a simple matter of manners.

> Can we attack the root
> of the women's resistance to them?

With more women participating, I think we'd naturally do a better job. Whether you attribute the differences to nature or nurture, women tend to rate some issues as more important than men and take a different approach to those issues than men, *on average*. (I'm thinking of child-rearing, the weight to be given to emotional development and approaches to social inclusiveness as examples of the kind of issues that tend to bring out gender differences in analysis and approach.)

> Is segregated dicussion useful
> and appropriate?

I actually think that segregated discussion is at least *natural* at times for homo sapiens, an opinion that comes from my observations about the biological division of labor that characterized much of human and pre-human history. I think humans and protohumans spent a *lot* of time in sex-segregated social interaction. We can overcome and transcend this, but I think it's important to realize that we're still unaugmented primates and that we can't "cut against the grain" without special tools.

> (3) Societal responsibility.
> Where does one draw the lines where individual freedom unreasonably
> endangers society/environment? Tort law can cover a lot more than
> many people think, but it still can't cover everything. Do we have
> the right to restrict the freedom of someone who is insane (and how
> do we define that)? What level of risk to others can we allow an
> idividual to take--driving a car, piloting a plane, developing bio-
> weapons in the basement?

This is THE tough question, really, since it involves balancing our high value of individual autonomy against essentially all other values. I think folks who won't tolerate discussion of creative ways to explore this balancing act do the cause of individual liberty a great disservice. Here "delicacy" is very important though, in the sense of both precision and diplomacy. Consider, for instance the way you've posed the issue, Lee: Who is the "we" in the question you ask? I know you're sensitive to this, but I think we all have to acknowledge that this is a very, very hard problem and that avoiding it with pat answers in any ideological direction is a mistake for both reasons of substance and style.

> (4) What is "harm" anyway?
> Have I committed a crime if I psychologically abuse a spouse or
> child? Is a cult leader who manipulates his followers to give him
> money using persuasion or force? Is a religious leader/astrologer/
> quack prosecutable for fraud? At what point (if any) does ridicule
> become slander/libel? At what point does advocacy of an action
> (such as violent revolt) become a dangerous act itself?

The way you've posed this question points to the fact that what we're really talking about is the ultimate moral question of "what is the good". My own personal take on this is that deep moral relativism makes it ultimately impossible to offer meaningful answers to these questions. Again personally, I think I've found a way out of that relativistic miasma, but we have to be willing to discuss this.

> (5) Intellectual property.
> Do I have a right to exclude others from using my creations?
> Should the government help me exclude them? Do I own my genome?
> My likeness? My name?

Strangely (for a lawyer often dealing with property rights) I'm deeply ambivalent about questions in this area. This may be because of my relative ignorance of current intellectual property law. Perhaps in this area more than any other, I look to my friends here for education and enlightenment.

> (6) Privacy.
> Do I have a right to expect others to refrain from collecting and
> distributing information about me? Even if I appear in public,
> or speak on a public forum? Can I reveal the contents of a private
> conversation without the consent of others involved, so long as it
> just the contents of my memory? Can I put recording devices in my
> home or on my body and use them without the consent of the recorded?

This is a subject about which reading David Brin's book "The Transparent Society" and subsequent discussions with him have really opened up my own thinking. Since this process has begun, I've seen *so many* issues in my own professional life that should be addressed with deeper thinking about privacy issues that OUGHT to be spurred by the coming development of new surveillance and recording technologies. As a tentative conclusion, I've come to advocate a shift in the default social expectation of privacy in *business* communications, taking every opportunity I can to ask business people to consider just how much less litigation there would be if it was assumed that each party to business conversations was making a high quality audio-visual record. The case that was absorbing most of my time last week would absolutely not be in expensive and risky litigation if a handful of such conversations had been recorded. In non-commercial settings, I'm much, much more ambivalent about the issues you pose, though, and I wonder whether social conventions will be able to develop quickly and flexibly enough to accommodate a line between commercial and non-commercial personal ubiquitous recording.

> (7) Inclusiveness of the movement.
> Are we willing to dilute our ideals to be more popular? Do we
> want two levels of discussion--a friendly public one and a more
> rigorous private one? We may not want to start a conversation
> with "I want to upload all our brains into a computer the size
> of a planet.", but we /do/ want to have that discussion somewhere.
> Do we downplay the dangers of technology at the risk of seeming
> disingenuous, or honestly confront them at the risk of scaring
> off the public?

All very good questions and ones that recur for many good reasons. There are definitely two different agendas (at least) in our fora: Rigorous intellectual exploration and cultural influence. We've yet to find an optimal balance between these two sometimes inconsistent agendas, but we've got to keep looking.

Again, Lee, thanks for taking the initiative to speak clearly!

     Greg Burch     <>----<>
     Attorney  :::  Vice President, Extropy Institute  :::  Wilderness Guide   -or-
                         "Civilization is protest against nature; 
                  progress requires us to take control of evolution."
                                      -- Thomas Huxley