Posted on May 14, 2020
This post presents personal opinions, which may not necessarily reflect the views of other members of the Christian Transhumanist Association.
Inequality Phobia: The challenge of social and economic inequality to Christian Transhumanism.
Every time some new promising tech comes on the scene, we hear the same objection, “The rich will benefit and the rest of us will be left behind to die!”
Indeed this is a problem, and the CTA needs to address it.
In the Transhumanist context, this question comes up with technology that extends our life-span or health-span. But I would like to apply this generally to all new inventions, and point out that actually inequality does a lot of good, so long as we moderate it.
Gunnell’s law of technological inequality states that every new technology initially increases inequality, because:
- New technology is developed firstly to benefit the rich, because they are more profitable as customers.
- Rich people are more able to adapt new technology (or hire people to do so) to increase the wellbeing of themselves and their companies.
- Rich people have spare money to risk, or to indulge, in new tech.
Since any new technology will increase inequality, and since inequality is bad, does that make new technology bad? Surely not. It’s so popular!
The first adopters of any tech pay a high price for a shoddy version. There is always a “first mover penalty”. When the technology is no longer new, it can scale quickly, and the price drops rapidly. So although the tech increases inequality initially, many technologies (e.g. the www) are great levellers. Now anyone can learn! (Or watch cat videos. You choose. You sow. You reap. There’s more inequality!)
Why is there inequality?
Great question, with many answers. A better question would be to ask why (or how) do any humans make it out of abject poverty, our default state? We lived for countless millennia as hunter-gatherers, nomads, or subsistence farmers. This lifestyle continues in some places. But most of us have found both the means and the desire to choose modernity.
To grow out of poverty, we need to work as a community. Key features of the social context in which technological development is successfully energized are trust, cooperation, and the rule of law, (not only patents). We also need people with spare resources (i.e. rich). Successful social contexts arise because they deliver progress that we want. (Largely, we vote for it.) These successful social contexts differ, but the key commonality is consistency in rules by which success is achieved, sufficient to give a level of unity of purpose in the community.
Any long-term game played by a set of rules that contains a mix of luck, discipline and insight, will end up in inequality. We see it in sports, for example basketball, where you need a mixture of luck, discipline, and insight. Luck: height, athletic genes, good place to grow up, great coaches, positive parenting. Discipline: many hours training, elite nutrition choices. Insight: game tactics, teamwork, deeply understanding your opponents. Those who rise to the top have all three. If they have only one, e.g. massive natural talent but no discipline and no insight, any success will be short lived.
The same applies in the economy. A mixture of luck, hard work, and business insight will result in success. So those of us fortunate enough to have succeeded (most, to some extent), should understand the context that allowed us to succeed (luck), as well as reflecting on what has worked for us and where the next opportunities lie.
Therefore, the longer the economy goes on, in peace, according to rules, in the absence of moderating factors, the greater inequality will become.
Put more simply, humans are unequal in luck, unequal in ability, and unequal in how hard they apply themselves, or “use their talents”. A “fair” rules-based system with enforced rules will therefore result in inequality.
We humans engage in a number of cognitive biases to convince ourselves that our outcomes are (or are not) what we deserve. Often unjustly crediting ourselves and blaming others. We ignore luck, deny poor choices, or indulge in other cognitive biases to protect our fragile egos.
We don’t like inequality.
It grates on our better nature. Ethics of reciprocity (do unto others, the veil of ignorance, etc.,) and rational compassion drive us to make our societies more equal. If we harshly enforce our “rule of law” and “rights” to dispose of our income as we see fit, those who are missing out will rise up and overthrow the existing power structures.
We can’t agree on what is “fair”. To some, “fair” means equality of outcome, to some it means equality of opportunity, so some, consistency of rules enforcement. To some, it means it’s “fair” to keep what I created (or was able to amass by whatever means), whether I need it or not. I can spend it on a super-yacht I’ll use about 3 days a month. I “earned” it! That’s “fair”.
“Fairness” means whatever I want it to.
It can mean “equality of opportunity”.
Equality of opportunity is rooted in modern history, arising with the fourteenth Amendment to the US constitution in 1868, and building through various movements, particularly post WW2 and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It’s now so encultured we believe it instinctively. Everyone should be offered the highest quality education, and if we can keep our internet trash filters in order, we can each get it. Everyone should be appointed to jobs on the basis of merit, not in-group membership.
No one dares voice any objection to this, although in practice much inequality of opportunity exists and is practiced. Nevertheless, It’s something we strive after, and demand laws about.
And it doesn’t always work. For example, in Australia in 1974, to bring about equality of opportunity, we introduced free University for all. In the 1980s, this was modified, since it amounted to a subsidy given to the wealthy, and only made a small change to social mobility. Now there is a subsidized federal contribution and loan scheme, as well as private pay options.
Free university and full-fee university have both been described as “unfair” by the left.
Similarly in Australia, the balance between demand-driven and centrally planned tertiary places is open to debate, with some courses that are needed being unpopular, and vice versa. For course availability, both demand-driven (leading to courses with no jobs) and centrally-planned (leading to limits of places) are described as “unfair”.
It seems we can’t reach an agreed answer to the simple question, “What is ‘fair’ in university opportunity?”
It can mean “equality of outcome”.
We want a level of redistribution, to bring about more equality of outcome. But no one can be really sure where to draw the line. Both too much and too little redistribution lead to undesirable outcomes. No redistribution results in massive waste at the top and poverty at the bottom. In the extreme, enforced equality results in lack of initiative, loss of hope, kulak-violence, laziness and depression.
Therefore we want a society with a balance of these, in as transparent and meritocratic way as possible, whilst ensuring those without the ability to produce (who may well one day be us or our family) still have at least a basic level of housing, medical care, and the opportunity to retrain and climb the ladder of opportunity.
It can mean “consistent enforcement of rules”
That is, whatever I am able to amass within the rules is entirely mine to do whatsoever I wish. No one can criticize me for displays of wealth, because success deserves reward.
One would note, however, that rules are hardly ever enforced consistently, not to mention the massive scriptural objections to this position.
Equality of outcome, equality of opportunity, equality before the law and the system, these competing definitions of “fairness” generate much noise in politics.
Social systems with moderating factors to drive “fairness” (whatever that means).
Socialism v capitalism
Socialism in a pure form is defined as government ownership of the means of production. This “commonality” and government ownership has never worked, resulting in sclerotic bureaucracy, in-group nepotism, stifling of innovation and rampant inefficiency wherever it has been tried. Not to mention despotism and loss of the simple freedom to start and keep your own business. It’s the exact opposite of “agility” and “initiative”. If you’re still in favor of government ownership of the means of production, well that takes evidence filters the envy of young-earthers.
But similarly pure capitalism, (by this I mean a free-market with no controls) has heaps of drawbacks. It’s great to be productive and to produce more than you consume, that’s a fundamental ethical human driver, supported both in all economic systems and scripture. But in the absence of moderating factors, it tends to extremes of inequality. Then there’s worse:
Adam Smith stated, “With the greater part of rich people, the chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches1”.
Wow! We can have fun debunking that from a Christian perspective. “It is more blessed to give than to receive2” and “command those who are rich in the world... to be rich in good deeds, to be generous and willing to share3”
Surely those who enjoy parading their riches are far from the Kingdom of God. No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and Money4.
So for those who conflate unbridled capitalism and Christianity, time to think again.
So what moderating factors will work best? Ask a socialist, and you’ll get somewhere between “tax the rich” and “nationalise the means of production”. Ask a capitalist and they’ll say “spread my work ethic, not my wealth”.
What would a Christian Transhumanist say?
A Christian Transhumanist perspective on inequality
Transhumanists value the rapid development of new technology, seeing it as ultimately a good thing and a defining attribute of humanity. In the short term it can increase inequality, but equalise opportunities in the long run. To lift the living standards of everyone means we should seek the “optimal” level of inequality (pure utilitarian perspective). Peace results where there is not too much inequality, but enough so people have incentive (and a pathway) to strive to improve their lot, and to innovate.
Christians value all humans equally as children of God. God is generous. All are worthy of the same love, opportunity, and where possible, as equal an outcome as can optimally be arranged in a society based inevitably on inequality and well-functioning meritocratic hierarchies.
Transhumanism requires massive capital investment in new technologies, the first versions of which are overpriced poor quality. But without early adopters, without inequality, there is no progress.
Christianity requires us to love our neighbour as ourselves5. And if we have two cloaks, to share one with our neighbour6. True Christian religion incorporates not only the best and highest of “ethics of reciprocity” but the ethic of “loving your enemy”. In this way, paying too much for an early shoddy version could indeed be “loving my fellow human”, because it will encourage the development of technology.
From a pragmatic utilitarian perspective, it’s not even clear what the best objective is. Maybe the best objective is to maximise the outcome for the highest number of people over a given time frame, say the next 50 years? By then, technology and society will be unrecognisable to us. Or maybe it’s to minimise suffering? Or maybe to hasten the Technological Singularity? Who is to say which of these goals is most worthy of our efforts? I know one that isn’t: it involves hedonism and time wasting.
So that requires us to seek the optimum level of inequality. This is the CT imperative to balance rapid development of technology and human enhancements with availability to all.
So why should we lengthen person A’s lifespan whilst person B starves?
Great question. Tough question. I have no good answer. But here’s some thoughts I find compelling.
Person B in this era is likely starving as a result of person C’s war, deliberate choices, economic sanctions or simply hard heart. Personally, I didn’t cause it, and have worked to ameliorate it. Do I have no rights to my own property? Can person C demand I pay the price for their misdeeds?
If Edward Jenner thought in such a way, he never would have developed the original vaccine. Instead, he would just focus on ‘alleviating poverty through redistribution’. The net result of such a hypothetical choice on Jenner’s part would have been a delay of developing the concept of vaccination (for how many decades?). Net result: much more suffering than he would otherwise have alleviated through campaigns to redistribute.
Had Einstein focused on ‘alleviating poverty through redistribution’ we wouldn’t have GPS and numerous other technologies, which do more to alleviate suffering than redistribution.
Each of us has unique gifts, unique callings, and a unique vocation. The world is not short of problems to solve, and again, not all ways of solving them are equal.
Instead of objecting on “equality grounds” to life-extension technologies, maybe you could object to warfare? Currently around 4% of global GDP is devoted to killing people, or preparing weapons to do so.
Instead of objecting on “equality grounds” to life-extension technologies, how about objecting to the existence of the pizza-fast-food-smoking-alcohol industrial axis of evil to kill people early via temptation? There’s trillions of dollars to repurpose, from less creation of junk, reduced medical costs and loss of productive years.
Instead of objecting on “equality grounds” to life-extension technologies, how about objecting to the rampant consumerism and waste of resources in high-end fashion, be that cars, $3000 bottles of wine, $200m super yachts, $10,000 suits etc?
Or if you think these choices represent a false dichotomy, and “both and” is appropriate, maybe you could see life-extension and consequent suffering alleviation as the natural inheritor of basic research. All the good things that have come from medical advances, from moonshots, from investment in computers and the www, from basic science research, had no apparent use (at first). All these things have done more to alleviate suffering, address equality of opportunity and build a better future than any amount of taxes and redistribution.
So those objecting to life-extension on “equality grounds” could think again.
How then to address inequality?
Inequality phobia appears often in Transhumanist critiques. And fear (phobia) is nothing to talk down, it’s a good positive God-given part of humanity’s make up.
Secondly, they require the redress of inequality, in a community, by placing responsibility on kings, the wealthy, and the natural community leaders, including innovators, thinkers and communicators, indeed all9.
All Christians are called to share with those genuinely in need. This can vary though, from sharing material goods to friendship and support. And sometimes dedication to a higher cause of technology that saves millions of lives is more effective than being a good Samaritan.
So as each of us considers what we can “cheerfully” give10, not only of our material goods, but also of our time to build a better world through our daily employment or business.
Inequality should be addressed with grace, not compulsion. With the love of God, and the character of Jesus, not from the heavy hand of government and stifling compulsion. Those who can valuably dedicate their time to basic research, to technology development, and to moonshots should be empowered by the community to do so, since ultimately this will do more good than any forced redistribution.
You can’t redistribute what isn’t produced.
So maybe the right kind of inequality phobia is “the fear of the Lord”. A godly fear means the understanding that we fall far short of the archetype of excellence, of goodness. All such ideals are in themselves a judge. A judge we are naturally and rightly fearful of, as we are afraid of falling short of our own highest standards, or of those we believe the Simulator/Creator requires.
It’s a good and positive thing to fear that we have fallen short of God’s requirements, especially when it comes to addressing inequality.
So yes - let’s be afraid of inequality. Whilst we humans are naturally unequal, and have different capabilities, unless we moderate inequality, social upheaval will destroy our community. Unless we operate our society with a strong ethic of reciprocity, built from the foundations of loving kindness and spiritual transformation, the “winners” of the game of economic competition will be taken down by those less fortunate.
The various scriptural commands to love (neighbours, enemies, the Lord (archetype of excellence)) impels new technology.
Scripture commands the rich to be “rich in good deeds”. Jesus commends the servant with ten talents for his investments11. So investing your surplus to create even more value (not only to alleviate poverty with ‘good works’) is a central gospel command. Without those pioneers (rich entrepreneurs), and without early adopters (rich consumers), there is no progress.
And thus our planet(s) will remain until the technological singularity, or some other end-time, with a level of inequality as we shoot for the stars. May we learn to manage this difficult truth, learning the deeper meanings of peace and justice. Yes, be afraid of inequality - it is the spark that drives us, but can burn our society if out of control.
- Technological advance requires surplus resources (riches). It is primarily driven by rich people both as customers (demand) and entrepreneurs (supply).
- What hasn’t been produced can’t be redistributed.
- Transhumanism accentuates the value we all place on the application of technology to improve the human condition.
- Christianity values all humans equally, so equality of access is the ultimate goal. This is difficult, since humans are inherently unequal (in genes, luck, and choices).
- Redistribution should be driven by transformed Christian human hearts, not government compulsion, especially not demonisation of the rich.
- The sociopolitical system and ethos that finds the optimum level of inequality that drives the most progress, whilst sharing the benefits most widely, will be the most successful long term (including electorally).
- The rich may “leave us behind”, but they will leave us a legacy also. Let’s celebrate this, with the right addition of fear of both social breakdown and of failing to live up to the standards the Simulator/Creator demonstrated through Jesus, our highest archetype.