What should a good man think about the possibility that technological improvements will lead to widening levels of inequality? Nathan Zimmerman explains.
The Use of Technology
Perhaps more difficult (but no less inevitable) than the creation of a technology is the task of coping with it once it arrives. The adjustments we make range from changes in conceptions of manner and politeness to revisions of the political contract; as the body of technology grows it must throw off the normative frameworks which are no longer capable of containing it. The body politic must undergo a process of moulting.
Consider the shit-show that is our national dialog on the second amendment: Are you an originalist about the second amendment? If so are you a reference-originalist (all and only breach-loading muskets and cannons available to those alive during the writing of the constitution are what it protects) or a sense-originalist (read: tanks, missiles, nukes and all modern analogs of the arms available at the time of the signing)? If not, what is your position but the ad hoc attempt to slow the progress of an inevitably fatal wound?
(I am told that there exist alternatives to originalism, though it is unclear to me how such alternatives could be cashed out–both of the positions I’ve sketched are attempts to understand the meaning of a piece of text as it was written. If you have a reasonable alternative in mind, I encourage you to explain it.)
The Problem: Characterized
The hermeneutic intractability of certain people’s positions on the second amendment notwithstanding, the purpose of this post is to highlight a trajectory towards a possible dystopian future. The problem, minimally conceived, is this: as our ability to engineer solutions to the ailments that evolution overlooked (better: never cared to look at) increases, and we move from patching up a failing system to outfitting it with potential upgrades, the laws that dictate a hospital’s legal requirement to stabilize anyone requiring emergency care won’t be strong enough to protect against the exacerbation of social inequality and the general bifurcation of outcomes for haves and have-nots.
More on this later. First, we have to understand the limitations of the social glue we inherited.
The Origins of the Problem
At one time, the arguments for private property didn’t extend beyond that which a claimant could personally use. As ‘personally use’ became a term so broad as to be meaningless (“Don’t I personally use Trump Tower? Look: my name’s on the damned thing!”) or as people stopped caring about the fine print of the arguments which provided apologia for their actions (assuming that they ever did), the billions upon billions of dollars amassed by figures such as Bill Gates became framework orienting examples of private ownership. At this point, it is commonplace to treat as equivalent 1) what a person has gathered together in a legal manner and 2) what a person has a right to claim as their own personal property. It isn’t uncommon to not even recognize that these two things are theoretically separable; yet they are not, as far as I can tell, analytically bound.
Why, then, is power not entirely pooled in the hands of a few? Shouldn’t we expect, if money begets money, that complete monopolization of power is a logical conclusion of capital? One reason is that humans are finite beings, only capable of realizing the grand schemes of reason within a limited scope and against the stubbornness of a material reality: we’re big, mammalian sacks of meat that lumber around and eventually collapse from wear and tear, at which point the identity upon which such things as property rights depend is scrambled in a great entropic orgy. We go to sleep and never wake back up to claim what is ours. Power is diluted as those who have it die off. It then pools up again as new humans accumulate wealth throughout their lives. (Now, of course, there exist political elements that are dead-set on eliminating the basically good and redistributive effects of death–but that’s another story.)
The Problem: Restated
As medical technology improves, we move closer to a point at which we not only sustain the mortal condition but augment it and practically move beyond it. If you have earned everything that you own and you can afford the unnecessary procedures which allow you to continue to expand not only the amount of money that you possess but the rate at which you acquire it, the idea of capitalism which is only imperfectly manifested by our fleshy embodiment could very well enter a stage of as-yet unfathomed inequality. Just as the syntactic engine’s asymptotic approach of a semantic engine yields something indistinguishable from the semantic engine—a mind—it seems that our tinkering with medicine might allow for a frictionless capitalism which is measured not in dollars but in hours.
Of course, I kind of doubt that people will throw off the yoke of fate entirely and begin ending lives prematurely (as they do in the movie I just referenced). But that’s not really necessary; all that this awful future requires is a supremely stacked set of dice.
The Problem: Generalized
Hopefully you see that there’s something very wrong here and potentially very dangerous. There are two morals that I think we can draw here, of which at least the first is useful to those uninterested in philosophical speculation:
1) A certain conception of human freedom is not the be-all and end-all of human flourishing: if unconstrained freedom leads to a possible future in which the term takes on an uncomfortably Orwellian shape, perhaps freedom (like all the rest of our great ideals) is not the type of thing that exists outside of careful meditations on the limits which we must impose on exercises of power. Understanding isn’t something you have; it is something you can do through sustained dialogical effort.
The libertarian’s great flaw is historical blindness and the lack of imagination that comes with it.
2) Bioethics does not end at the body because the body does not end at the body: it is a tool whose location in social space can’t be exhaustively accounted for in three dimensions.
An earlier version of this piece appeared at Useless Praxis.