Sunday, March 4, 2012

Two Types of Consent

I've been all over this for the last few months since I started the blog, but as I look back, I realized that never once have I managed to make a coherent, solid argument for uplifting other than, "it's our moral imperative." While to some people, that's enough, but to others, it's not. Unlike a lot of other "debates" - climate change, evolution, a woman's right to control her own body - this is an actual debate, and one that deserves to be handled with respect for all sides involved. While uplifting isn't on the table yet, as our science advances, we'll see an increasing potential for humanity to make it so that we're not the only sapient species in the solar system anymore. I'm all for this. Let me lay out why, and then answer to the issues against it.

It increases the net happiness in the world
I've mentioned before that I'm an abolitionist. While I don't seek to totally eradicate all pain, I do want to try and ease the amount of pain that a species feels. One way to do this is through applications of technology to make life better. Eliminating death from old age, removing diseases and other negative aspects, and making everyone happier, healthier, stronger, smarter, and more intelligent is one way to increase the net happiness.

Sapience itself leads to an increase in net happiness. Life as a sapient being is almost certainly more productive and more engrossing than life as a being who isn't; I can't think of many humans who would want to give up sapience; the sensation of being aware of one's self, understanding one's wants and needs, and the ability to achieve an understanding of the world that's granted through infliction and self-awareness actually increases the total happiness. It also makes life easier, because we can understand the principles behind technology and implement that technology in our every day lives to lessen our workload, make life easier to manage, or simply give ourselves a place to vent.

While I don't doubt animals are happy the way they are, I don't think that it's any kind of happiness as we would understand. They don't understand their world, and they're driven by instinct moreso than some kind of self-awareness; or if they are self aware, as a few animals I've listed in the past are, then they lack the ability to use technology to extend their lives to make themselves available to their families long after they should've died from old age, they lack the technology to make living a lot easier, and while we humans can do it for them - treating broken wings, handling squabbles by putting each monkey in a different cage, etc - there comes a point where it's much less patronizing to give them the ability to do it for themselves. That's what uplifting posits. Uplifting posits giving them the ability to use technology on their own, for their own means in ends. Rather than being at the mercy of a species who uses technology on them, they can become our equals, and they can learn how to use that technology and the tools to make their lives better for themselves.

Thus, the net amount of pain is reduced. You can now use this technology on yourselves. You are sapient, you are in control. It's your decision.

It becomes a moral imperative
As a sapient species, it is our moral imperative to do as little harm as possible to the world that supports us. We are part of this system, after all. We take from it, and we give to it. Sapience does give us a leg up on any number of other species on this planet. When we look around, we see species that we can use for any number of purposes, so long as we do so with respect and regard to their place in nature.

However, when we see a species that is close to us but not quite there, and we have the technology to change it, we should not overlook the fact that we have a moral imperative to do just that. To let a man drown and have the means to save him, or let him save himself, is immoral. It's sitting by and doing nothing. Thus, we must do something. And that something is let them have the ability to control their own decisions, and have the technology to make handling those decisions easier.

Two different types of consent
One of the issues that often comes in, especially in the face of the latter, is the issue of consent. The idea that, because they can't consent, we don't have any right to uplift them. If followed far enough, it leads to a catch-22; we require to their consent to uplift them, but they don't know enough about what we're going do to uplift them without us uplifting them and then explaining it to them post-uplifting (when it's too late), therefore we can't get their consent to uplift.

One of the things I was taught in my first aid class is that when someone is on the ground and they're injured, you get consent before preforming first aid. If they don't give consent, you don't preform first aid - even if it means that they would die before paramedics arrive. If that individual is unconscious, you must get consent from a relative or someone nearby.

Now, what does this mean if there's nobody around? Well, if there's nobody around, then you have implied consent; in this case, consent is presumed to be implicit and you can act to save their life. Most states have Good Samaritan laws to protect you in case this comes back to haunt you, but if they're not conscious and nobody they know is around to grant consent on their behalf, then you have a case of informed or implied consent. Work to save their life, just as if they'd granted consent to do just that.

The way I see it, uplifting falls under a similar situation - nobody is around to grant consent, thus, consent is implied. There's one major difference, though, between uplifting and the scenario I outlined above; the animals you're uplifting are not in danger of dying anytime soon. But let me put this to you a different way - if a baby is in danger of dying earlier in life than they should, and you could preform a life saving surgery on them right now that would not only improve their quality of life but also extend it, would you? You'd have to get consent from the parents or legal guardian first, but what if there aren't any? The baby isn't old enough to give consent, and there's nobody around to give consent for it. So what do you do?

So we hit on the crux. As I see it, being an abolitionist utilitarian, I see two different types of consent here. The first type of consent is implied consent to preserve quality of life and the second is implied consent to improve quality of life. With an adult, because they have the ability and are presumed rational enough to be able to make informed choices for themselves, any implied consent I operate under will be implied consent to preserve their quality of life - that is, do everything I can to save them while not trying to ruin their life.

With the baby, things are different. In theory, the baby has no quality of life to preserve, being an infant or toddler, so any action I can do that follows the "first do no harm" rule is going to be an action that potentially improves any quality of life the child might possess. That could be anything from giving a deaf child the ability to hear to the blind child the ability to see. In both cases, the child hasn't been alive long enough to integrate those into hir personality like an adult would be able to; this is what I mean. Without parents to establish the type of quality of life required to raise a child who is deaf or blind, if we have the means to heal them, we must act with implied consent to fix those, to save the child later in life (especially if they don't have the support structure to give them a decent or better-than-decent quality of life with these traits).

Uplifting is the same thing. There is no adult here to give consent. When we have the technology, we will have the ability to give them a quality of life that they can't even comprehend right now, which is better than the one that they're currently trapped in. Like the blind child without parents to grant consent to the surgery to give hir sight, there is no "adults" to grant consent to the surgery to uplift them. The child may come back later and be mad that hie is no longer blind, or they may come back and be extremely thankful that they aren't blind anymore. This is a risk that one takes whenever they do surgery to someone, including one who's consent was informed.

Uplifting is an action of implied consent to improve quality of life, because that's what we're doing. Once we've uplifted, we have no room to act on them without their permission - which means anything done post-uplift to one of the species is going to be with implied consent to preserve quality of life. Just as with an adult, because we presume that they are rational and coherent enough to make their own decisions and withhold or apply consent as they see fit to improve their own quality of life, which they get to decide and they get to set.

This is further backed up by the fact that human children aren't even complete sapient until they're around a year old; at that point, they pass the mirror test and they have a sense of "self", even if it is just an embryonic sense of self that won't fully develop until they've had a chance to live. From conception to birth and growth of human beings is evolution in motion; even the most intelligent animal is not as intelligent as a 5 year old human, working off of intelligence as being shorthand for a state of sapience, and seeing understandings from without and within while applying those understandings for practical applications.

The Consent Issue? Is it a red herring? Is it circular logic?
Having taken a look at the consent issue and having broken it down as I see it, one of the most intriguing arguments against it is that the consent issue is a red herring; for those unaware of what it means, a red herring is a distraction from the main argument by bringing up an issue that's completely unrelated to the argument at hand.

How is unrelated? Well, the argument I heard is this: Human babies don't give consent to be born. We create them and spit them out without their consent on the issue at all. It's very similar to the consent argument against uplifting in that we can't get the consent of a human being before it's born until it's born, rendering the argument a moot point. Certainly, one doesn't think of it like that, but it's the same thing - humans don't give other humans the consent to be born. Some humans are happy with the fact that they're born, while others are not, and wish they hadn't.

Uplifting, it's said, is similar. Humans don't ask to be born, and nobody stops twice to think about it, so why should we worry about whether or not animals give consent, either? It doesn't seem to matter either way; like an embryonic cluster or cells or a child inside of the womb, it has it's own existence, and it is a living thing, if not necessarily sapient thing. In giving birth to the human, or nurturing the embryo, we don't ask for the consent of the fetus to be born. It just happens, regardless what the fetus wanted out of the whole thing - providing that the fetus could even want, as a creature with base instincts, "want" is not something it understands anymore than "need" is something it understands.

Indeed, we find the idea of asking a fetus for consent to be born a strange one, because it's one that we're used to as a species. It's how we make more. It's evolution. It's "natural", even if anymore there's all sorts of testing and things that go into it to make sure the child is healthy.

So if we don't bother to ask fetuses for their consent, and the idea is every bit as absurd as it sounds, why should it be any less absurd to think we should get consent from animals before uplifting? They can't give consent, which means it never happens, which means that the argument becomes circular and, in the end, is thrown out as a distraction to the debate. Not necessarily a disingenuous one; people making the argument are legitimately concerned about applications of technology on animals, but the concept of asking for their consent is the same as asking consent from a fetus to be born.

Our Moral Imperative
In the face of all this, I am convinced that as a sapient species, it is our moral imperative to uplift species when we have the technology. We have implied consent to improve quality of life on a species that has no quality of life or doesn't recognize the concept of a quality of life, granting it a much wider and much larger understanding of the universe and itself and the ability to improve it's life without our assistance.

It's also our moral imperative to be ready for the technology when it comes, and embrace the technology and what becomes of it, rather than trying to make the technology illegal and stamp on it. If we stamp it out, only those above the law - corporations - will have access to the technology. And they will use it freely and with impunity, regardless what the laws are, and regardless what morality says should and shouldn't happen.

If we embrace it, we can use it ourselves, and we can control it and move it at a pace we can handle. By shoving it aside, we're giving it to someone else. And we may not like the end results of that.

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