The Rise of the Up-Wingers Part Two

The Case for the Proactionary Principle In the Face of Uncertainty


In part one of the interview with Steve Fuller, the professor of social epistemology at the University of Warwick discussed an emerging ideological axis in which the Left and the Right are replaced by Up-Wingers and Down-Wingers. Up-Wingers embrace the proactionary principle, which advocates risk-taking for the survival of our species and environment. Many are turned off by the proactionary principle because of its perceived recklessness, and Fuller says that the philosophy definitely has a public relations problem. However, it’s worth recalling that the US government has operated on the proactionary principle in some of the most progressive periods in its history.

October 23, 2014 | Breakthrough Staff,

In part one of the interview with Steve Fuller, the professor of social epistemology at the University of Warwick discussed an emerging ideological axis in which the Left and the Right are replaced by Up-Wingers and Down-Wingers. Up-Wingers, Fuller says, are fundamentally opposed to the dominance of the precautionary principle in guiding policy. In the second part of the interview below, we explore the failings of the precautionary principle and the advantages of a proactionary state, which has a documented history throughout the United States and Europe. 

You have advocated Max More's 'proactionary principle' as a replacement for the precautionary principle. What is the proactionary principle?

The proactionary principle says that humanity is better served by people embracing risk as an opportunity than fearing it as a threat, the default position of the precautionary principle. Put in terms of harms and benefits, the precautionary principle amounts to the Hippocratic Oath projected onto the entire environment: above all else, do no harm. In contrast, the proactionary principle is closer to ‘No pain, no gain,’ which is to say, there are acceptable – perhaps even unavoidable – costs to get to a ‘better’ place, however that is defined. Where precautionaries are inclined to see irreversible loss, proactionaries think in terms of compensation for damages. Put this way, it may seem that the proactionary principle encourages recklessness. However, proactionaries turn the charge around, arguing that failure to change in a changing world (even if we are the source of most of those changes) is itself a formula for species extinction.

It seems obvious, but how are proactionaries different from precautionaries?

Ultimately the difference between the two positions boils down to an attitude of optimism (proactionary) versus pessimism (precautionary) toward our competence in risk management. However, what counts as ‘competence’ in such matters is tricky to gauge. For the last 40 years, research into human cognition has uniformly pointed to limits and biases in our natural reasoning capacities, not least when it comes to assessing and calculating probabilities. Nevertheless, these liabilities may cancel each other out in practice, resulting in a satisfactory, if not optimal outcome.

For example, in the case of engineering ‘megaprojects,’ a key factor motivating their completion is that boosters tend to overestimate their benefits, which compensates for an underestimation of the costs. But in the end, they get done – which might not have been the case had both the costs and benefits been correctly estimated at the outset.

In the opening of The Proactionary Imperative, the psychology of modern progress is compared to pyramid scheme finance, in that the likelihood of your own success is directly tied to recruiting others to push the scheme forward, in the hope that enough recruits will deliver on the scheme’s promises (beyond simply multiplying members). Of course, the hope may or may not be borne out in the normatively relevant time frame. So, while this psychology lay behind the recent global financial meltdown, a version of it has also worked over a longer time horizon to vindicate the proactionary principle.

To many environmentalists, the precautionary principle is one of the major bulkheads against the introduction of toxic, poorly understood substances into the local environment. Is the proactionary principle applicable at the local scale, too?

I don’t think the difference between the two principles boils down to scales or locations. However, I can see why you ask the question this way. Risk-aversion tends to increase as the potential for damage is more immediate, which is ultimately what makes the precautionary principle so easy to sell. The proactionary principle requires a completely different mindset, perhaps implying that the default ways we assign cost and benefit are themselves problematic.

Is the proactionary approach mutually exclusive with a precautionary approach, or can they simultaneously operate?

I would say that the proactionary principle should operate as the overarching regulatory principle governing innovation, with the precautionary principle functioning as a side constraint, such that the burden of proof is placed on those who would enforce precaution in specific cases. This is roughly the exact opposite of how the two principles relate to each other in EU legislation. My starting point is that policy requires the reduction of uncertainty, which in turn makes risks manageable. But no amount of laboratory experiments, computer simulations or even clinical trials can replace the knowledge that can be obtained from direct intervention in a target environment.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that these more conventional scientific methodologies aren’t worthwhile, but ultimately they provide only a map of the contingencies surrounding a proposed innovation. This especially applies to the so-called ‘converging technologies’ agenda, in which for the past dozen years public science funders on both sides of the Atlantic have provided incentives for researchers to combine cutting-edge nano-, bio-, neuro- and info- sciences and technologies for purposes of ‘enhancing’ human lives by making them longer, healthier, and more productive. In such an interdisciplinary context, which brings together so many variables that are normally studied in mutual isolation, only the ‘real world’ can provide an adequate testing ground. By contrast, the usual scientific arsenal of experiments, simulations, trials, etc. are merely embodied speculation backed by the power of the state.

Is the proactionary principle something only governments and firms can act on?

The final chapter of The Proactionary Imperative is devoted to how the public might become quite literally ‘scientifically enfranchised’ – that is, to see themselves as co-participating in the scientific enterprise in the normal course of their lives. For example, we countenance a ‘right’ or ‘duty’ for citizens to be active in the conduct of science, as well as legal mechanisms for conferring intellectual property rights on one’s genome (‘hedgenetics’), for which its bearer then would be held responsible.

From our perspective, if there is a problem with the recent scandal involving Facebook’s manipulation of the emotional responses of 700,000 users via their news feeds, it is mainly one of rhetoric. If Facebook users were told (sufficiently explicitly) that any research done on their behavior would be made available to them for their own use (in terms they can understand), then my guess is that most users would welcome it.

The main culprit here is a residual sense that ‘science’ is somehow alien to the human condition, which needs to be treated with prima facie distrust, which in turn inclines science-minded companies like Facebook to obscure their intentions. Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly is basically right when he argues that the main concern we should have about the mass surveillance activities of Facebook, Google, or the National Security Agency is not what they learn about us but whether we will be able to use that information for our own purposes.

What are the biggest limitations and constraints of the proactionary principle?

I don’t think the principle has been sold especially well so far. Much of The Proactionary Imperative deals with the unfortunate – and often self-imposed -- stereotyping of the difference between the precautionary and the proactionary principles in terms of the former being socially responsible with regard to current and future generations, while the latter is driven by a reckless self-centered individualism that disregards consequences altogether. Matters are not helped by many transhumanists defending quite speculative enhancement treatments (eg, neural therapies to increase cognitive power) as no more than an incremental step beyond routine medical interventions: it only serves to leave the impression that real risks are being deliberately downplayed.

Seems like a public relations problem. What’s the way forward?

My own proposal for handling this public relations problem is to admit upfront that we live in a risky world, even without the proactionary principle. But the proactionary principle provides a way to turn risk – and the harms that are bound to be suffered – to our collective advantage. This is the lesson that the proactionary principle should take from the histories of science, technology, and entrepreneurship more generally. Where we might now advance on these precedents is not by minimizing risk but by getting clearer about what might count as adequate compensation for the inevitable errors that will be committed in the name of risk-taking. Thus, the proactionary principle needs to be promoted as being about courage, perhaps even heroism, in the face of uncertainty, rather than promises of an ultra-convenient and beneficial world in the foreseeable future. ‘To boldly go where no man has gone before’ would not be a bad motto for the proactionary principle – minus the sexist pronoun! But self-presentation aside, the proactionary principle has public relations problems because it cannot plug into people’s default intuitions as easily as the precautionary principle.

Given prevailing political and social conditions, how likely is it that the proactionary principle will be embraced?

Here it is worth recalling the key role that the empowerment of citizens vis-à-vis corporations played as a theme over the course of the 20th century in turning the US federal government into the intelligence-driven proactionary state that it remains, despite periodic ‘anti-intellectualist’ pushbacks. Issues of ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’ started to loom large once interlocking elites appeared to increase their knowledge over the rest of the population asymmetrically, serving to undermine the epistemic level playing field long regarded as a necessary condition for the conduct of democratic politics. In this context, the state intervened to break the epistemic monopolies and the rent-seeking tendencies of such elites. Three moments of in the evolution of the American proactionary state in the past century may be identified, each associated with a phalanx of academics and intellectuals:

  1. The Progressive Movement: This is when central government first became fully self-conscious as an agent in American political life that would routinely oversee and occasionally override the activities of state governments. It resulted in anti-trust legislation, a conservation policy based on resource use efficiency (as opposed to nature’s intrinsic value), a national income tax, and an active mobilization of public opinion to fight a war not on its shores – World War I.
  2. The New Deal: This moment marked the inward turn, in which central government itself was radically reorganized to enable it to exert greater regulation over the economy, including financial transactions and labor-management relations, as well as over social policy, mainly through a ‘packing’ of the Supreme Court with judges inclined to interpret the Constitution so as to accelerate the pace at which a progressive agenda might be pursued.
  3. The Great Society: At this point, in the 1960s, central government explicitly declared itself an agent in social experimentation on the population at large. Lyndon Johnson adopted the phrase ‘The Great Society’ from the Fabian political theorist, Graham Wallas. Johnson and his advisors were impressed by the ease with which whites and blacks fought side-by-side in the Vietnam War (a first in US history), which emboldened them to engage in policies such as ‘busing,’ which mixed the class and ethnic makeup of the classroom by transporting children to schools other than they would normally attend. Much can still be learned from the writings of leading academics of the period, including sociologist James Coleman and psychologist Donald Campbell – especially the latter’s methodological innovation, ‘quasi-experimentation.’

The final chapter of The Proactionary Imperative may be read as proposing a fourth moment in this evolution of the state.

In your new book The Proactionary Imperative, you highlight some key class issues emerging from a proactionary approach, namely that the 'black' future of space travel, life extension, and so on is likely to be affordable only to the wealthy. But you also argue that this challenge might present an opportunity for the renewal of the welfare state. What are the implications of a proactionary approach to technology for inequality, and how can the problems engendered by new technologies (ie, the loss of jobs due to autonomous robots) be mitigated?

In the book, I have stressed that a proactionary outlook has been integral to the Fabian and Progressive reforms that brought about the welfare state in the UK and US, respectively, in the 20th century. Moreover, these reforms were very much oriented toward enhancing the powers of the state, even though the Fabians and Progressives themselves extolled the virtues of entrepreneurship and ‘rugged individualism.’ In the book, we say, only half facetiously, that the eugenic policies favored by these transatlantic proactionaries would breed ‘natural born liberals.’ However, as the Cold War dragged on, the welfare state became increasingly invested in stabilizing (without necessarily advancing) the fortunes of the poor. The reasons for this are quite complex, involving electoral strategy, national security concerns but also a reluctance to recognize failure and diversion from the overall game plan of human enhancement that originally made the welfare state appear so appealing.

To be sure, both Daniel Bell’s and Alvin Gouldner’s early (ie, 1970s) discourses about the ‘information society’ as the leading edge of ‘post-industrial society’ still kept the original impulse of the welfare state alive, even though by then Bell was very much an establishment figure and Gouldner a more countercultural one. But by the 1980s, defense of the welfare state collapsed into a generic anti-capitalism that was fixated on one goal: minimizing income inequality, which was taken as proxy for many other social inequalities. The fixation continues to this day, even though the welfare state has had more to do with reducing unearned advantage than simply reducing advantage altogether; hence, its historic emphasis on equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome.

So, the robots aren’t killing our jobs?

I don’t see the arrival of more intelligent technologies as especially damaging to human job prospects. On the contrary, I would submit that such fears divert from the real issue – namely, the lack of people willing to do certain jobs that in the past were seen as ‘intrinsically’ human, such as care for the elderly and perhaps nursing more generally. It is here that ‘android companions’ are likely to make major inroads and, indeed, reorient humanity’s affective frontiers. But unemployment doesn’t really get to the heart of what’s at stake. A much bigger threat to our sense of humanity posed by the worldview laid out in The Proactionary Imperative – one with the potential to unleash new forms of inequality – centers on our response to those who simply wish to remain ‘unenhanced’ yet possessed of the sort of human dignity enshrined, say, in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the fate of those beings that we need to keep our eye on.                               

Click here for Part One of the interview.

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