Abusing the Meaning of Coercion

There's an article over at Reason Magazine today that calls out one example in a pattern of abuse of meaning that I've long found threatening. Attempts to fundamentally rework the meaning of a basic and important word are one of those little fragments of 1984 that manage to drift into the real world, an unsavory activity in which the meaning of the word is both kept and entirely inverted at the same time. I think the following quote captures the essence of this particular case:

Lawler, a member of President George W. Bush's controversial Council on Bioethics, tried to make the case that using technology to radically extend human lifespans, and boost human intellectual, emotional, and physical capacities, will end in coercion. Those who don't want to take advantage of the kinds of enhancements that biotechnology, nanotechnology, and cognitive technology will offer, argues Lawler, will ultimately not have a choice about using them. ... But is that so? If anyone should be concerned about coercion, it is the transhumanists who rightly fear that bioconservatives like Lawler will try to use the power of the state to halt the research that would lead to the development of enhancements would enable them to improve their life chances and those of their children.

Shades of Freedom is Slavery march through all too many minds, methinks. That is a real threat, as halting and slowing research in the life sciences is something that the bureaucrats of the modern state are very good at indeed. That people carefully try to invert the word "coercion" to mean "the existence of freedom of choice that I personally do not approve of" is also a threat, as freedom of choice and freedom from coercion are the deep roots of wealth and technological progress. Without them, you end up living in something akin to the backward ruins and ruined, predatory culture of the final years of the Soviet Union.

Freedom is fundamental to transhumanist ideals - such as developing the means to greatly extend youthful life span through biotechnology. Freedom is vital for the research and research community needed to open these new doors:

Freedom of research is, in essence, economic freedom, which is no different from personal freedom - the freedom to invest and work in whatever arrangements you can freely agree upon with other people. The most rapid progress occurs in free marketplaces, free for the exchange of ideas, free for association with others for mutual benefit, free for the exchange of goods. Any and all interference by centralized entities - such as governments - is inefficient and serves only to slow things down, make goods more expensive, and ensure that some research never happens at all.

Further, freedom is the very essence of transhumanism itself, which is no more than the human imperative to create new choices where before there was nothing. Having a choice today in an area where there was no choice yesterday is an increase in your freedom, and building those new choices - these new freedoms - is exactly what humanity achieves through technology:

Transhumanism, make no mistake, is just a fancy name for common sense. Change for the better is good, right? Common sense. It's what we humans do in our scattered finer moments - we work to change things for the better. It's common sense to fetch in the harvest on wheels rather than on foot, and it's common sense to repair the biomolecular damage of Alzheimer's before the mind begins to rot. It's common sense to build perfect immune systems from nanomedical robots, and it's common sense to develop the technologies of regenerative medicine to their logical end. It takes work, but what is work compared to a world of suffering? Choosing not to attain these goals makes about as much sense as standing out in the rain to spite yourself.

The Soviet Union may be gone in all but the longer memories, but there is no shortage of people who would strive to rebuild it again, today, in their country, one piece at a time. There are so many petty would-be totalitarians in this world, each laboring under the belief that central control of the matters they care about will work - this time! - if it is just done their way. The real danger of centralized government is that sooner or later, those would-be totalitarians get their hands on their ability to do real harm by attempting to enact their visions.


Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. New comments can be edited for a few minutes following submission. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.