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The Problem of Technology and Liberal Democracy
"Biotechnology" is a neologism for the new age. New and novel also is the thing it names: industrial-scale processes and products offering power to alter and control the phenomena of life-in plants, in animals and, increasingly, also in human beings. But while the word may be new, the idea of biotechnology is old, and so are the motives behind it. It is central to the modern humanistic vision, first conjured in the seventeenth century, that would bring the pursuit of knowledge into firm marriage with the aspirations of humankind for the conquest of disease, the relief of suffering and the prolongation of life.
As I have already said, biotechnology today flourishes especially in liberal democracies. Its practice takes advantage of their freedoms; its products serve the needs of multitudes. Yet as I will argue from start to finish in this book, biotechnology and the science on which it rests are proving to be a growing problem for liberal democracies, both in practice and in thought. To understand why this might be so, it is helpful to place biotechnology in its larger context and to consider more generally the problemof technology as a whole.
Attempting an overview of the problem of technology is daunting. For one thing, the topic is enormous: technology is everywhere, in a shifting variety of guises, from flush toilets to food processors, from automobiles to artificial organs, from cell phones to smart bombs. Second, given this vast heterogeneity, it seems foolish to try to identify the problem of technology, let alone how it relates to liberal democracy, a hefty subject by itself. Third, there is the embarrassment of apparent hypocrisy: how can a man who travels hither and yon by airplane and automobile, to deliver lectures produced on a computer and laser printer, rendered legible and audible through eyeglasses and microphone, and now made readable through the latest printing and publishing techniques, have the effrontery to speak about technology as a problem? Finally, there is the matter of my limited competence; though I have worried for more than thirty years about the meaning of biomedical technologies, I remain largely ignorant of other technological areas and, I confess, I have not often tried to think about the problem of technology whole.
Still, one must make the attempt, for the stakes are high. For one suspects that technology, despite its great diversity, remains in some sense "a whole," whose aggregate significance for human life cannot be exaggerated. We have lost our innocence about technology in recent decades, and hence we need all the more to try to understand it.
Probably the most common view of "the problem of technology" is something like this: technology is the sum total of human tools and methods, devised by human beings to control our environment for our own benefit. Because it is essentially instrumental, technology is itself morally neutral, usable for both good and ill. There are, of course, dangers of abuse and misuse of technology, but these appear to be problems not of technology but of its human users, to be addressed by morality in general. And, besides abuse and misuse, there is a genuine problem of technology itself: the unintended and undesired consequences arising from its proper use. Thus, the problems of technology can be dealt with, on one side, by technology assessment and careful regulation (to handle side effects and misuse), and, on the other side, by good will, compassion, and the love of humanity (to prevent abuse). This combination will enable us to solve the problems technology creates without sacrificing its delightful fruits.
This view, I contend, is much too simple. It holds too narrow an understanding of the nature of technology, too shallow a view of the difficulties it produces, and too optimistic a view of our ability to deal with them-not least because this vision is itself infected with the problem of technology. That at least is what I will now endeavor to show.
What Is Technology?
We must begin by trying to understand what technology is. The term itself is singularly unhelpful; according to the Oxford English Dictionary, its original English meaning, dating back to the early seventeenth century, was "a discourse or treatise [that is, a logos] on art or the arts," or, again, "the scientific study [a logos] of the practical or industrial arts." A second meaning identifies technology as "technical nomenclature," that is, the terminology or speech-logos-of a particular art. Only in the nineteenth century was the meaning transferred to the practical arts themselves, taken collectively: "His technology consists of weaving, cutting canoes, making rude weapons" (1864).
The term has Greek roots: techne, meaning art, especially the useful crafts rather than the fine arts, that is, carpentry and shoemaking rather than poetry and dance; and logos, meaning articulate speech or discursive reason. But the Greeks did not have the compound technologos. As far as I can tell, the closest they came to any such notion was not an account about art-a logos of techne-but an art of speaking. Rhetoric, the art of persuasive speech, was indeed a techne of logos, and in the sophists' view a means of rationalizing political life free of the need for force. (One could, I think, get very far in understanding the difference between the ancient Greek polis and the modern nation-state by beginning with and thinking through the difference between technology understood as rhetoric and technology understood as rationalized art and industry.)
Still, art and speech are intimately related. Both are manifestations of human rationality, of the fact that man is the animal having logos, the rational or reasoning animal. Human craft, unlike the productive activities of animals, is not spontaneous or instinctive. It involves deliberating, calculating, ordering, thinking, planning-all manifestations of logos. The connection was observed succinctly by Aristotle: techne, he says, is a disposition or habit of making (as contrasted with doing) involving true reasoning (logos). All artful making has a manual element, to be sure, but to be truly technical it must be guided by mind, know-how, expertise. It is this mental and rational element that makes the various arts eminently teachable-through various "how-to" guides and manuals. (About the disposition to make-that is, why human beings want to make-I will speak shortly.) Following up these clues, one might think that technology is the sum of the products of craft and industry, and, even more, the sum of the know-how, skills and other devices for their production and use.
But this is, at best, a partial view. Technology, especially modern technology, occupies itself not only with the bringing-into-being of machines and tools and other artifacts. It is centrally involved in the harnessing of power and energy-thermal, hydroelectric, chemical, solar, atomic. The drilling for oil, the damming of rivers, the splitting of atoms provide not objects of art but an undifferentiated ready resource for all sorts of human activities, both in war and in peace. Indeed, according to Heidegger, this aspect of modern technology is essential and decisive. Modern technology is less a bringing-forth of objects than a setting upon, a challenging forth, a demanding of nature: that its concealed materials and energies be released and ordered as standing reserves, available and transformable for any multitude of purposes. Not the loom or the plow, but the oil storage tank or the steel mill or the dynamo, is the emblem of modern technology.
Yet this, too, does not go far enough. For technology and technique are not today limited to external and physical nature; technology now works directly on the technologist, on man himself. There is burgeoning biomedical technology, to this point largely harnessed by the art of healing, but in the future usable also for genetic engineering and the like. There is psychological technology, from various techniques of psychotherapy to psychopharmacology. There are abundant techniques of education, communication and entertainment; techniques of social organization and engineering (for example, the army and the police); techniques of management (the factory or the boardroom); techniques of inspection and regulation; techniques of selling and buying, learning and rearing, dating and mating, birthing and dying, and even-God help us-of grief. In modern times, as Jacques Ellul has persuasively argued, the technical is ubiquitous, much wider and deeper than the mechanical or the energetic. For him (as for Heidegger), technology is an entire way of being in the world, a social phenomenon more than a merely material one, characterized by the effort, through rational analysis, methodical artfulness and correlative organization, to order all aspects of our world toward efficiency, ease and control-to achieve the fullest control at the highest efficiency at the least possible cost and trouble. Technology comprises organization and scheduling no less than machinery and fuel, concepts and methods no less than physical processes. In short, it is a way of thinking and believing and feeling, a way of standing in and toward the world. Technology, in its full meaning, is the disposition rationally to order and predict and control everything feasible in order to master fortune and spontaneity, violence and wildness, and leave nothing to chance, all for human benefit. It is technology thus understood, as the disposition to rational mastery, whose problem we hope to discover.
Whence comes such a disposition to mastery? What is the source of the technological attitude? Again, a question difficult to unravel. According to some, its deepest roots are somehow tied to human weakness: necessity is the mother of invention. Need lies behind the fishhook and the plow, fear of beasts and men behind the club and the barricade, and fear of death behind medicine. It is, according to Hobbes, the fear of violent death that awakens human reason and the quest for mastery. Of course, too much fear can enervate. According to Aeschylus's Prometheus, only when men ceased seeing doom before their eyes were they able, with his aid, to rise up from abject nothingness, poverty, terror. In this view, the world's inhospitality-not to say hostility-toward human needs and wants arouses the disposition to self-help through technology.
By other accounts, the primary root is not weakness but strength: pride rather than needy fear erects the technological attitude. According to Genesis, for example, the first tool was the needle and the first artifact the fig leaf, when shame-which is here nothing but wounded pride-moved the primordial human beings to cover their nakedness, right from the moment of their rise to painful self-consciousness. Pride lies behind the technological project of the city and tower of Babel, the human race being moved by the desire to make itself a name through artful self-assertion. At the beginning of the modern era, Francis Bacon, himself moved by honor and glory, called mankind to the conquest of nature for the relief of man's estate, a project he regarded as the highest and most magnificent human possibility. Ambition-the desire for wealth, power and honor-prompts many a man of science and industry. Finally, the master does not seek mastery just to escape from the cold.
There are, of course, other possible roots than fear, need and pride: for example, laziness, beneath the desire for an easier way to mow the lawn; boredom, beneath the desire for new amusements; greed, beneath the desire simply for more and more; vanity and lust, beneath the desire for new adornments and allurements; envy and hatred, beneath the desire to afflict those who make us feel low. And there is also the hard-to-describe desire to do something, to make something, to order something just to see it done-call it curiosity, call it willfulness, call it daring, call it perversity, call it will-to-power. I think we all know the motive, even from the inside.
This analysis of the origins of the technological disposition is, so far, only psychological, and goes deep into basic features of the human psyche. Yet this cannot be the whole story. For one thing, not all human societies would be rightly described as technological, even though all of them practice at least some of the arts. The people of ancient Israel and the Native Americans of the New World were not technological nations; neither is technology today the ruling outlook in Iran or in much of Africa. In place of the disposition to rational mastery, these societies and many others like them are ruled by the spirit of reverence, or national pride, or the passion for righteousness or holiness or nobility, or even just the intense devotion to one's own traditions. Even in the rationalist West, technological society seems to have appeared only in the last two centuries, and at its now runaway pace, only in the last seventy or eighty years. It certainly seems as if modern technology differs from ancient techne, not only in scale, but even, decisively, in its nature.
Whether or not this is so can be argued at length. But one thing is indisputable: modern technology would not be the ubiquitous phenomenon-or the problem-that it is, were it not for modern science, that daring and stupendous edifice of still-swelling knowledge, built only over the last 350 years, on foundations laid by Galileo, Bacon and Descartes. Says Robert Smith Woodbury in his article on the "History of Technology" for the Encyclopaedia Britannica: "For many thousands of years ... [man's] progress in technology was made by trial and error, by empirical advance.... It was only toward the end of the 18th century that technology began to become applied science, with results in the 19th and 20th centuries that have had enormous influence." A discussion of the nature of technology would be incomplete without at least a few words about modern science.
Though it is fashionable to distinguish applied from pure science -and it makes some sense to do so-it is important to grasp the essentially practical, social and technical character of modern science as such. Ancient science had sought knowledge of what things are, to be contemplated as an end in itself, satisfying to the knower.
Excerpted from Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity by Leon R. Kass Copyright © 2002 by Leon Kass
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Nature and Purposes of Technology and Ethics|
|Ch. 1||The Problem of Technology and Liberal Democracy||29|
|Ch. 2||Practicing Ethics: Where's the Action?||55|
|Ethical Challenges from Biotechnology|
|Ch. 3||The Meaning of Life - in the Laboratory||81|
|Ch. 4||The Age of Genetic Technology Arrives||119|
|Ch. 5||Cloning and the Posthuman Future||141|
|Ch. 6||Organs for Sale? Propriety, Property and the Price of Progress||177|
|Ch. 7||Is There a Right to Die?||201|
|Ch. 8||Death with Dignity and the Sanctity of Life||231|
|Ch. 9||L'Chaim and Its Limits: Why Not Immortality?||257|
|Nature and Purposes of Biology|
|Ch. 10||The Permanent Limitations of Biology||277|