Toward a Typology of Transhumanism

Years ago, James Hughes sought to typify the emerging political debate over transhumanism with a three-axis political scale, adding a biopolitical dimension to the familiar axes of social and fiscal libertarianism. But transhumanism is a very academic issue, both in the sense that many transhumanists, including Hughes, are academics, and in the sense that it is very removed from everyday practical concerns. So it may make more sense to characterize the different types of transhumanists in terms of the kinds of intellectual positions to which they adhere rather than to how they relate to different positions on the political spectrum. As Zoltan Istvan’s wacky transhumanist presidential campaign shows us, transhumanism is hardly ready for prime time when it comes to American politics.

And so, I propose a continuum of transhumanist thought, to help observers understand the intellectual differences between some of its proponents — based on three different levels of support for human enhancement technologies.

First, the most mild form of transhumanists: those who embrace the human enhancement project, or reject most substantive limits to human enhancement, but who do not have a very concrete vision of what kinds of things human enhancement technology may be used for. In terms of their intellectual background, these mild transhumanists can be defined by their diversity rather than their unity. They adhere to some of the more respectable philosophical schools, such as pragmatism, various kinds of liberalism, or simply the thin, “formally rational” morality of mainstream bioethics. Many of these mild transhumanists are indeed professional bioethicists in good standing. Few, if any of them would accept the label of “transhumanist” for themselves, but they reject the substantive arguments against the enhancement project, often in the name of enhancing the freedom of choice that individuals have to control their own bodies — or, in the case of reproductive technologies, the “procreative liberty” of parents to control the bodies of their children.

Second, the moderate transhumanists. They are not very philosophically diverse, but rather are defined by a dogmatic adherence to utilitarianism. Characteristic examples would include John Harris and Julian Savulescu, along with many of the academics associated with Oxford’s rather inaptly named Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics. These thinkers, who nowadays also generally eschew the term “transhumanist” for themselves, deploy a simple calculus of costs and benefits for society to moral questions concerning biotechnology, and conclude that the extensive use of biotechnology will usually end up improving human well-being. Unlike those liberals who oppose restrictions on enhancement, liberty is a secondary value for these strident utilitarians, and so some of them are comfortable with the idea of legally requiring or otherwise pressuring individuals to use enhancement technologies.

Some of their hobbyhorses include the abandonment of the act-omission distinction — that is, that there are consequences of omitting to act; John Harris famously applied this to the problem of organ shortages when he argued that we should perhaps randomly kill innocent people to harvest their organs, since failing to procure organs for those who will die without them is little different than killing them. Grisly as it is, this argument is not quite a transhumanist one, since such organ donation would hardly constitute human enhancement, but it is clear how someone who accepts this kind of radical utilitarianism would go on to accept arguments for manipulating human biology in other outlandish schemes for maximizing “well-being.”
Third, the most extreme form of transhumanism is defined less by adherence to a philosophical position than to a kind of quixotic obsession with technology itself. Today, this obsession with technology manifests in the belief that artificial intelligence will completely transform the world through the Singularity and the uploading of human minds — although futurist speculations built on contemporary technologies have of course been around for a long time. Aldous Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World, for example, imagines a whole world designed in the image of the early twentieth century factory. Though this obsession with technology is not a philosophical position per se, today’s transhumanists have certainly built very elaborate intellectual edifices around the idea of artificial intelligence. Nick Bostrom’s recent book Superintelligence represents a good example of the kind of systematic work these extreme transhumanists have put into thinking through what a world completely shaped by information technology might be like.

*   *   *

Obviously there is a great deal of overlap between these three degrees of transhumanism, and the most mild stage in particular is really quite vaguely defined. If there is a kind of continuum along which these stages run it would be one from relatively open-minded and ecumenical thinkers to those who are increasingly dogmatic and idiosyncratic in their views. The mild transhumanists are usually highly engaged with the real world of policymaking and medicine, and discuss a wide variety of ideas in their work. The moderate transhumanists are more committed to a particular philosophical approach, and the academics at the Oxford’s Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics who apply their dogmatic utilitiarianism to moral problems usually end up with wildly impractical proposals. Though all of these advocates of human enhancement are enthusiastic about technology, for the extreme transhumanists, technology almost completely shapes their moral and political thought; and though their actual influence on public policy is thankfully limited for the time being, it is these more extreme folks, like Ray Kurzweil and Nick Bostrom, and arguably Eric Drexler and the late Robert Ettinger, who tend to be most often profiled in the press and to have a popular following.

“Fixed” — A New Documentary on Disability and Transhumanism

I recently attended a rough-cut screening of Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement, a new documentary by filmmaker Regan Brashear. Her film tackles the vexed relationship between transhumanists and disability advocates.The film is framed around interviews with a number of members of the transhumanist, bioethics, disability, and robotics communities, such as Rodney Brooks, James Hughes, and Marcy Darnovsky. But it focuses primarily on three figures, each of whom is disabled (apparently all by paraplegia [SEE UPDATE]): John Hockenberry, an accomplished journalist and a Distinguished Fellow of the M.I.T. Media Lab; Gregor Wolbring, a biochemist and bioethicist at the University of Calgary; and Patty Berne, a disability and LGBT activist.Through these interviews, Fixed weaves a subtle and challenging story. If it has a specific conclusion you are meant to take away, it is not interested in simply presenting it and telling you to believe, but nonetheless you can’t come away from it without your thoughts on these issues deepened. What the film presents is the paradox that comes from entering into any other person’s life — the discovery of how profoundly different we each are, and yet how essentially the same.That tension between sameness and difference is particularly crucial to understanding how transhumanism relates to disability. As the film shows, transhumanists seem keen to co-opt the disability movement, arguing that people with prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs are the first cyborgs, and that they show why we should embrace departure from “normal.” The film gives the impression that this is only a rhetorical move by transhumanists, who are less interested in honoring and respecting the disabled than in using them as a steppingstone on the path to self-modification and techno-transcendence.That much is obvious; but what’s so challenging about Fixed is that transhumanists and disability advocates (some of whom are the same people) can’t seem at all to figure out how to feel about each other — and don’t seem to realize it. “Abolish normal” and “Embrace difference” seem to be the common rallying cry of both movements. Yet many of the disability advocates in this film seem to think that this is a cry against transhumanists even more than against the strictures of society itself.“Transhumanism is just the logical extension of ableism,” says one interviewee, and many seem to agree that the quest for ever more strength, intelligence, and ability, will devalue the lives of the disabled. And indeed, where John Hockenberry and others are seen praising how happy, valuable, and loved by their families are people with Down syndrome, the film also shows a discussion between James Hughes and Gregor Wolbring in which Hughes claims:

Our society is far too ready to encourage parents who have disabled children to bring them into the world, with this logic of “You know, oh, I have a Down syndrome child, and he’s the greatest gift to my life, and he’s had so many special gifts.” Well, if you want to just have a child to enrich your family, why don’t you get a dog?

The charge that the lives of the disabled will be devalued, even discarded, by those who celebrate their own tolerance is far from hypothetical. (Note that Gregor Wolbring, an accomplished scientist and eloquent speaker, is paraplegic due to being a “thalidomide baby” — so a little advance in prenatal diagnosis of the sort that the enlightened Hughes calls for might have averted the burden of Wolbring’s existence.)There are useful distinctions on these issues that are not made by any of the interviewees in this film: between “normal” as inclusive versus exclusive; between difference as given versus chosen. Without these, it remains unclear what might come of the relationship between transhumanism and disability — whether “tolerance” might not end up being perverted into the rallying cry of the powerful against the weak. But Fixed offers a fascinating and insightful look into the lives of the people for whom these questions are more than academic.I hope the project will get to see completion, and the film will have a public release. If you’re interested, you can help the film reach that goal at its Kickstarter page. And for more reading on this subject, see Caitrin Nicol’s “At Home with Down Syndrome” in our pages.UPDATE: It’s been brought to my attention by filmmaker Regan Brashear that I’ve gotten some things wrong about Fixed in this post. So I’d like to clear a few things up about this post.First, contrary to my claim, the three people featured in the documentary are not all paraplegics. The version of the film I saw doesn’t state the nature of their disabilities; I simply inferred this because the film offers some glimpses into the personal lives and struggles of these figures, including that all appear to lack use of their legs. Because the film includes these personal elements, it seemed important to mention them, though I did not mean to imply that any of the people mentioned should be defined by their disabilities.I should also make clear that my parenthetical comment about the “burden” of existence of one person with a disability was meant ironically; one of the things the film’s main interviewees all suggest is that if we view the lives of disabled persons this way, then the fault lies in ourselves.The larger problem, though, is that I may have given the misimpression that the film shared my own particular critical stance on its subject. I meant to make clear that the film, in the version I saw, does not seem to be pushing any particular stance towards transhumanism one way or the other, but neither is it simply informative; the ideas and persons presented are challenging. More to the point, I didn’t sufficiently emphasize that many of the people presented in the film seem pretty clearly to be pro-enhancement, and so one could reasonably interpret the film itself as having either a pro- or anti-enhancement message, or something more agnostic. So, to be clear, the film presents both sides of this story; my aim was to indicate that there is one side we ought to find much more compelling.Most importantly, it may not have been sufficiently emphasized in my post that the version of the film I saw was unfinished. So, I hope my commentary will be viewed in that provisional light. I maintain that the film offers an insightful and compelling look into the relationship between transhumanism and disability advocacy, and will challenge anyone who views it to think more deeply about ideas like “disabled,” “normal,” and “enhancement.”

James Hughes, the Enlightenment, and the radiant future

[Continuing coverage of the 2010 H+ Summit at Harvard.]

James Hughes had the morning talk after Patrick Hopkins. He basically did a rapidfire ten-minute version of a mini-essay he published earlier this year on transhumanism’s inheritance of Enlightenment problems. That mini-essay was supposed to be part of a seven-essay series, although it looks like only five have been published. We have discussed a few of these essays on this blog (here, here, here, and here).

James Hughes, far right, enlightened by his laptop's glow.

Because of the short time slot, Hughes compressed his talk into a thesis with which I’m generally in agreement: that transhumanists don’t usually realize that very many of their debates recapitulate Enlightenment debates, and they have a responsibility to learn about and engage with those arguments. We part ways with Hughes on the details, though (as evidenced by our series of responses), and in particular I’m skeptical about the idea that transhumanism’s fractured Enlightenment inheritance spells positive things for its coherence and goodness, even when that inheritance is recognized and engaged with.

Here’s just one example. Hughes notes that continental Enlightenment thinkers laid the foundations for the utopianism we find alive today in transhumanism. In particular, they pioneered the idea that pure reason would liberate us from the shackles of death and tyranny, a notion that Hughes more or less embraces (albeit with a huge caveat).

Hughes calls particular attention to the Marquis de Condorcet, who “wrote one of the most remarkably utopian essays in the history of the Enlightenment, which proposed that reason would eventually liberate us all from the church and the state, that there would be women’s suffrage eventually, that we would get rid of slavery eventually, and that we would get rid of unnecessary involuntary death.” He’s referring here to the Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit.

Although Hughes notes the difficult conditions under which Condorcet wrote his Sketch — he “was part of the French Revolution but was being hunted down by the Jacobins” when he wrote it — Hughes misses the significance of that fact. As Charles Taylor explains in his book Sources of the Self:

Certainly the greatest and fullest statement of the philosophy of history of the unbelieving Enlightenment is Condorcet’s Esquisse [Sketch], taking us through ten ages of human existence, the tenth being the anticipated radiant future of mankind…. This passage takes on an additional poignancy when one reflects that it was written in 1793, when its author was in hiding in Paris, with a warrant for his arrest by the Jacobin-controlled Committee of Public Safety as a suspected Girondin, and that he in fact had only a few months more to live. There were, indeed, “errors, crimes, injustices” for which he needed consolation. And it adds to our awe before his unshaken revolutionary faith when we reflect that these crimes were no longer those of an ancien régime, but of the forces who themselves claimed to be building the radiant future. [Emphasis added.]

One can only hope that transhumanists will heed the darker lessons of the Enlightenment in their call for a radiant future incomprehensibly brighter than that dreamed of by the Jacobins. But that would require levels of responsibility and restraint that are not only not in evidence among transhumanists, but are basically inimical to its goals.

[NOTE: I’ll have a few more posts tonight or tomorrow, catching up on other presentations from the conference, along with some more pictures and a few concluding thoughts.]

Mannequinned space travel

According to NASA, a humanoid robot will be sent into space for the first time later this year. Perhaps fittingly enough, it will be on STS-133, the last manned space mission to be launched directly by NASA for the planned future. Wired magazine writes:

James Hughes, who studies emerging technologies at Trinity University [College], suggested that humanoid robots may provide a nice middle ground between hardcore human spaceflight evangelists and those who would rather see robotic missions. Most space watchers feel that the human programs are what drives interest and funding in exploration, while scientific investigation will be driven by robots.
“A humanoid robot splits the difference. You get some of the advantages of both and hopefully it will be a nice compromise between the two,” said Hughes. “But it may not satisfy either side.”

The article also points out that humanoid robots might fulfill some useful functional gaps. That part is reasonable if true. But to say that humanoid robots split the difference between the cases for manned and robotic space travel is rather like looking at the debate over whether to travel to Mars and saying we can split the difference by going halfway there and back. (Don’t insult my intelligence, Kirk.)

To get a full sense of the folly of socialized robotics — that is, robots that are designed to elicit responses from humans as if they were human, without actually being human — read Caitrin Nicol’s “Till Malfunction Do Us Part.” And don’t miss Robert Zubrin’s case for manned space travel in the new issue of The New Atlantis.
(hat tip: Brian Boyd)

The Superintelligent Despot (Still Another Response to James Hughes)

All hail King HAL

As in the other essays in his series on the problems of transhumanism, in “Liberal Democracy vs. Technocratic Absolutism” James Hughes wants to make the case that the family quarrels within transhumanism reflect family quarrels within the Enlightenment itself. In this case, Prof. Hughes writes as a lukewarm defender of what he takes to be liberal democracy (freedom to pursue one’s own interests, free speech, political empowerment) against transhumanists who anxiously await being governed by superintelligent machines.

Prof. Hughes begins by explaining the non-democratic elements of Enlightenment thinking, then spends a fair amount of time telling us about enlightened despots, and those among Enlightenment thinkers who seem to approve of them. It seems to me that in attempting to establish a tradition of liberal/Enlightenment despotism, he rather misses the point. That when living under a despot a liberally-minded thinker might praise an enlightened despot over an unenlightened despot does not mark liberalism (as such) as favoring despotism (as such). The founders of modern liberalism had to play the hand dealt them, and so they had no choice but to direct their arguments to those holding the power to reform. But in fact, the political principles articulated by the likes of Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke have been remarkably successful at undermining despotism, and if there were once upon a time despots who attempted to implement some portion those principles, one can only commend their disinterestedness or note their shortsightedness. History surely teaches that enlightened despotic rulers can institute liberal reforms, but so doing makes their own positions increasingly untenable.

Almost by definition, the same situation would not be true with respect to rule by superintelligence. Prof. Hughes seems to understand that were it to prove possible at all, the despotism that some transhumanists yearn for would be universal and permanent by design. About this future he has qualms; he would rather see one in which “cognitive enhancement, assistive artificial intelligence, and electronic communication all would strengthen the ability of the average citizen to know and pursue their own interests and would make liberal democracy increasingly robust.” But there are two problems here. First, it seems likely that by a more “robust” liberal democracy Prof. Hughes has in mind a more democratic liberal democracy. Second, he still sees that robust liberal democracy in instrumental terms as an advantageous staging area for transhuman and posthuman transformation. Put these two problems together and it becomes impossible not to quote Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America on the distinctive form despotism might take in the democratic world:

Above these [men] an immense and tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves. It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principle affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?

“Yes, please,” would seem to be the answer that many transhumanists would give to the last question; what Tocqueville is describing as a problem is almost precisely their definition of progress. Sharing so much of that definition, Prof. Hughes himself is not immune to this siren song: “If I could convince myself that turning our fate over to the enlightened despotism of HAL or Khan Noonien Singh was the only way forward I also would be tempted.” In the face of so much human folly, it is almost as if Prof. Hughes is yearning to be convinced. I wonder if his openly despotic transhumanist confreres have not seen the political consequences of their illiberalism more clearly.

Why Hope?: Transhumanism and the Arts (Another Response to James Hughes)

In another of the series of posts to which Professor Rubin recently responded, James Hughes argues that transhumanism has been marked by a tension between “fatalistic” beliefs in both technological progress and doom. Hughes’s intention is to establish a middle ground that acknowledges both promise and peril without assuming the inevitability of either. This is a welcome antidote to the willful blindness of libertarian transhumanism.
But conspicuously absent from Prof. Hughes’s post is any account of why techno-fatalism is so prominent among transhumanists — and so of why his alternative provides a viable and enduring resolution to the tension between its utopian and dystopian poles.

I would suggest that the prominence of techno-fatalism among transhumanists is closely linked to how they construe progress itself. Consider Max More’s description of progress, which is pretty well representative of the standard transhumanist vision:

Seeking more intelligence, wisdom, and effectiveness, an indefinite lifespan, and the removal of political, cultural, biological, and psychological limits to self-actualization and self-realization. Perpetually overcoming constraints on our progress and possibilities.

What is striking about this and just about any other transhumanist description of progress is that it is defined in almost entirely negative terms, as the shedding of various limits to secure a realm of pure possibility. (Even the initial positive goods seem, in the subsequent quote in Hughes’s post, to be of interest to More primarily as means to avoiding risk on the path to achieving pure possibility.) The essential disagreement Hughes outlines is only over the extent to which technological growth will secure the removal of these limits.
Transhumanists, following their early-modern and Enlightenment predecessors, focus on removing barriers to the individual pursuit of the good, but offer no vision of its content, of what the good is or even why we should want longer lives in which to pursue it — no vision of what we should progress towards other than more progress. Hughes seems to acknowledge this lacuna — witness his call to “rediscover our capacity for vision and hope” and to “stir men’s souls.” But in his post he offers this recently updated Transhumanist Declaration as an example of such “vision and hope,” even though it turns back to the well that left him so thirsty in the first place:

We need to carefully deliberate how best to reduce risks and expedite beneficial applications. We also need forums where people can constructively discuss what should be done, and a social order where responsible decisions can be implemented.

This, along with much of the rest of the Declaration, reads as a remarkably generic account of the duties of any society — putting the transhumanists decisively back at square one in describing both social and individual good.

For transhumanists — or anyone — to articulate the content of the good would require an embrace of the discipline devoted to studying precisely that question: the humanities, particularly literature and the arts. Hughes is right when he suggests elsewhere the postmodern character of transhumanist morality. The triumphant postmodernist is a cosmopolitan of narratives and aesthetics, a connoisseur who samples many modes of being free of the binding power of any. Because the postmodernist redefines the good as the goods, he is compelled even more than his predecessors to be a voracious consumer of culture and cultures, particularly of narratives and aesthetics.
The transhumanist vision of progress begins from this postmodern freedom to function in any mode of being. But, seemingly paradoxically, transhumanists tend to be indifferent to the study of literature and the arts as a means of knowing the good(s) (with the notable exception of science fiction). If they were not indifferent, then they might be aware of the now-lengthy tradition in the arts dealing with precisely the postmodern problem of maintaining “vision and hope.” Near the middle of the last century, the novelist Walker Percy wrote of the subject of postmodern novel:

How very odd it is … that the very moment he arrives at the threshold of his new city, with all its hard-won relief from the sufferings of the past, happens to be the same moment that he runs out of meaning!… The American novel in past years has treated such themes as persons whose lives are blighted by social evils, or reformers who attack these evils…. But the hero of the postmodern novel is a man who has forgotten his bad memories and conquered his present ills and who finds himself in the victorious secular city. His only problem now is to keep from blowing his brains out.

Postmodern art moves from abstract theories to realized depictions of how the heroically actualized self lives. Inevitably in such depictions the triumphant victory of theory gives way to the unsustainable alienation of postmodern life, and the problem theory has shirked becomes pressing: Why hope? How to keep from blowing your brains out?
For the likes of the Beats, the solution could be found in a frantically earnest embrace of the postmodern imperative to move from one mode of being to the next. For Percy’s protagonists, the solution lies partly in embracing the same imperative, but ironically. For the readers of The Catcher in the Rye, the viewers of American Beauty, and the listeners of Radiohead, there is a consoling beauty to be found in the artistic depiction of alienation itself. For the French existentialists, the solution might just be to go ahead and blow your brains out.
That transhumanists have not grappled with the hollow and alienating character of their vision of progress could be taken as evidence of their historical and philosophical myopia. But of course their uninterest in depictions of the good(s) is not simply an oversight but an underlying principle. Whereas the postmodernist’s freedom from all modes of being is constitutionally ironic, the transhumanist is gravely serious about his freedom. His primary attitude towards discussions about the relative merits of different value systems or ways of life is not playfulness but wariness — or sometimes, as we have seen in the comments on this blog, outright hostility and paranoia.
Whereas the postmodernist takes the freedom from and to choose any mode of being as inherent, the transhumanist believes that it must be fought for — else there would be no gap between here and transcendence. Indeed, it is the effort to bridge this gap that constitutes transhuman teleology; the feat of the earning itself is the central end of transhuman progress. Transhumanism takes the lemons of postmodern alienation and makes the will to lemonade.
Hence the essential insatiability of the transhumanist project. It has as its goal not some fulfilled form, but a constant seeking after transgressive will and power which, once secured in some measure, surrenders its transgressiveness to the quotidian and so must be sought in still greater measure. The transhumanist, unlike even the theoretical postmodernist, can never fully actualize.
And hence the unsexiness Prof. Hughes bemoans in his project to split the difference between fatalisms, for his “pessimism of the intellect” appears only as a dreary accidental impediment to transcendence. A transhumanist project versed in the arts might be able to provide a more unified and compelling vision of its quest for progress — but it would also have to confront the everyday despair that lies at its heart.
[Images: “Transhuman DNA”, courtesy Biopolitical Times; Walker Percy; Radiohead.]

The Transhuman and the Postmodern (A Further Response to James Hughes)

My previous post on transhumanism and morality elicited a response from James Hughes, whose recent series of essays was my prompt. I thank Prof. Hughes for his response, although it seems to me to confirm more than not the main point of my original post.

I’m confident that Prof. Hughes understands that what we are calling for the sake of shorthand “Enlightenment values” did not present themselves as “historically situated” but as simply true. Speaking schematically and as briefly as possible, it took Hegel (no unambiguous fan of the Enlightenment) to historicize them, but he did so in a way that preserved the possibility of truth. It took Nietzsche’s radical historicism in effect to turn Hegel against himself, and in so doing to replace truth with willful, creative overcoming. That opens the door to postmodernism.

It looks like it is almost axiomatic to Prof. Hughes that all “truths” are historically situated and culturally relative, so in that postmodern manner he is rejecting “Enlightenment values” on their own terms. Nietzsche, shall we say, has eaten that cake. But why then “privilege” “Enlightenment values” at all? Prof. Hughes wants to keep the cake around to the extent it is useful to pursue a grand transformational project (a necessary one, according to at least some of his transhumanist brothers and sisters). But why (assuming there is a choice) pursue transhumanism at all as a grand project, or why prefer one version over another? To this question Prof. Hughes’s axiom allows no rational answer (“Reason,” he writes, “is a good tool but … our values and moral codes are not grounded in Reason”) although the silence is covered up by libertarian professions, the superficiality of which Prof. Hughes understands full well.

What Agnes Heller calls “reflective postmodernism” describes a response to the dilemma Prof. Hughes is facing that to my mind is not without problems, but at least seems intellectually respectable. Armed with Nietzsche’s paradoxical truth that there is no truth, the reflective postmodernist is alive to irony, open to being wrong and playful in outlook. But above all, the reflective postmodernist is an observer of the world, having abandoned entirely the modern propensity to pursue the kind of grand, “necessary,” transformational projects that made the twentieth century so terrible. Absent such abnegation, I don’t see how the postmodern-style adherence to “Enlightenment values” Prof. Hughes recommends for transhumanism can be anything more than anti-Enlightenment will to power.

Transhuman Morality 2.0 (Responding to James Hughes)

I don’t know if I’d take his intellectual history to the
bank, but James Hughes is dealing with some serious issues in a series of blog posts
about internal tensions within transhumanism as they relate to the
Enlightenment ideas out of which he wants to claim it springs. In this post, for
example, he notes how transhumanism is torn between a universalistic and a
particularistic streak; this question is important because of its connection to
the moral framework within which we should be thinking about the rise of transhuman diversity and the relationships between
seriously advanced forms of posthuman intelligence and such merely human beings
as might still be around in the future. To put the problem somewhat more
bluntly than Professor Hughes does, the issue is whether posthumans
will be under any ethical obligation to be nice to their human forebears. On
the one hand, Prof. Hughes sees clearly that transhumanism’s stress on
diversity, and the libertarian moral relativism that goes along with it,
provides no good grounds for any such obligation. On the other hand,
transhumanists, Hughes notes, seem to want to be right-thinking liberals when
it comes to extending the sphere of egalitarian concern (a good, universal
Enlightenment value) and being on the right side of contemporary human rights
issues. It’s a puzzlement.

Prof. Hughes diagnoses that “transhumanists, especially of the libertarian variety, have retreated too far from Enlightenment moral universalism, towards moral relativism.” His concluding prescription:

We need to reassert our commitment to moral universalism and the
political project of equality for all persons and institutions of global
governance powerful enough to enforce world law and individual rights…. [But]
we partisans of the Enlightenment cannot defend moral universalism by re‑asserting
that rights are God‑given, natural, or self‑evident. We have to
acknowledge that rights and moral status are social agreements, shifting daily
with the balance of political forces seeking to limit and expand them. Moral
universalism needs to be tempered with respect for diversity and, where
meaningful, respect for individual consent and collective self‑determination.
Our moral universalism needs to acknowledge the limits of our current
perspective, the possibility that some of our universals may in fact be
parochially human, and that our descendants may come up with better ethical and
political models.

There is a technical term for what Prof. Hughes suggests
here: having your cake and eating it too. Unless he is imagining some kind of
neo-Hegelian universal and homogenous state, in what sense can rights and moral
status be universals if they are a matter of social agreement and choice? (I’ll
try to take up in a later post the question of what Prof. Hughes has to say elsewhere about
powerful global governance.) At the same time, what are respect for diversity,
individual consent, and collective self-determination (an interesting tension
is surely possible between the last two) being presented as except putative
universals, despite the fact that Prof. Hughes introduces them as ways to
temper moral universalism?

Prof. Hughes’s hopes for the future seem equally confused. When
he suggests that what we think of as universals might really just be
expressions of the “parochially human,” that might seem to open the door to the
progressive uncovering of genuine universals based on a less limited
perspective. But in fact all he will commit to is that our descendants may come
up with “models” for behavior that are “better.” The way he has framed the
issue, he can really only mean better for
, according to whatever balance of forces will operate in their world. That
may or may not look better, or be better, for us.

It is surely true that there is an irreducible element of
Enlightenment thinking in transhumanism, but it has little to do with
transhumanist politics and morality per se, and is to be found rather in
the topic of another of Prof. Hughes’s posts: scientific and
technical progressivism
. For the most part, though, transhumanism seems to
rely on thinkers who reacted against Enlightenment liberal universalism, as is
the case of Mill, whose utilitarian libertarianism explicitly eschews any
rights foundation. Indeed, the éminence grise behind transhumanism may well be that great
anti-liberal and anti-Enlightenment thinker Nietzsche. Too few transhumanists,
if any, have fully come to grips with the significance of a crucial point of
agreement with Nietzsche: that mankind is nothing other than a rope over an
abyss, a rope leading to the Superman.

“The means to make the man of the future”

The impulse to redesign humanity is not new, and turns up in surprising places once you start paying attention to it. Consider the following passage from a very long speech given in 1891 by Woman’s Christian Temperance Union founder Frances Willard, one of the giants of turn-of-the-century progressivism:

It may be that in some better day the world will see a human being gifted with the best powers of what we are wont to call the “lower orders of creation;” keen sighted and swift of motion as a bird, sharp scented as a greyhound, faithful as a dog and full of wisdom as an elephant. It may be, too, that we shall see a human being who has not only these powers, but is made up of the best physical graces, mental gifts and graciousness of all generations; one who shall gain knowledge, not by the present slow process of acquisition, but instantaneously, through magnetic currents, from the books and brains about him. One who will be such a thinker as Kepler or Kant; such a poet as Shakespeare or Tennyson; such an artist as Da Vinci; such a sculptor as Phidias; such a musician as Beethoven; such a statesman as Gladstone; such a philanthropist as Shaftesbury; such a saint as Guyon. Naturally the unintelligent and the unimaginative will declare this impossible, but everything helps forward the advent of just such a being as that. All arts, inventions, philanthropies, religions, are but tentacul put forth, searching for the means to make the man of the future, who shall be what all who have the vision and faculty divine have always prophesied he would yet be — a microcosm, the mirror of the universe. We in our little corner, doing our work well-nigh unnoted by the world at large, are helping by our small increments of power to create this complete human being — the goal of all desire and hope. The coral zoophyte builds not more surely on the unseen reef that yet shall rise in gleaming beauty above the deep sea’s level blue than we are building for universal and perfected human nature. Nothing less is in our thought, and nothing else; for by ideals we live, and this ideal has been upon our consciousness from the beginning. The brain is but a stained glass window now, we wish to change it to a crystal pure and brilliant. The total abstinence [from alcohol] pledge is but one strand in the cable of our organised endeavour, for we have seen that to make man as God would have him be, the student of perfection must study his heredity, must hover like an unseen guardian about his cradle, his desk at school, his happy playground, his thoughtless and endangered youth, his tempted manhood, and must guard, not only against beginnings of ill in his own separate career, but their organised form in the habits, customs and laws of his nation and his world. For “it is easier to prevent than to undo.”

This excerpt is Willard at her most utopian, and to that extent does not do justice to the strong bent of practical reform that is the dominant tone of her speech. Yet it is not disconnected from that dominant tone; Willard evidently realized that reform has to aim at something or else it is mere change, and here she adumbrates her ultimate goal.

Willard’s description of her hoped-for human future could serve as a manifesto for contemporary transhumanism, but for a few key distinctions. The first is her sense, explicitly mentioned later in the speech, that the wisdom of science was on a convergent course with the truth of religion, which (in good Spinozistic fashion) she defines as doing good, not doctrine. The stir James Hughes made in transhumanist circles by even approaching the Catholic Church on transhumanism confirms the obvious, which is that for most transhumanists, their project is a substitute for religion.

A second distinction is her willingness to acknowledge not only animal bodily superiorities, but high points of human culture as well — which count as little or nothing for those in quest of the Singularity. What is Da Vinci, in comparison with some imagined super-intelligence? A dabbler and dauber, a constructor of termite mounds.

Finally, Willard looks to a perfected humanity. Her notion of that perfection is ultimately hard to fathom (mirror of the universe?) and perhaps somewhat mystical. But it is a united perfected humanity, not the for-the-most-part libertarian transhumanist visions of diverse forms of do-your-own-thing posthumanity. For Willard, we are all in this together.

On their merits, Willard’s speculations may be superior to the transhumanist norm, but at the very least they are rhetorically superior precisely for the differences just noted: she has a vision of human progress not cut off from all previous human history, but flowing from it. In context, that would be something like a common touch. She apparently thought nothing of laying out her vision to the second biennial convention of the World Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and to do so in a section of her speech devoted to abstinence, the organization’s key issue. We don’t know, of course, how her audience, representatives of a mass movement, reacted to this passage. We do know that transhumanists talk mostly to… other transhumanists. But perhaps in principle their separation from the human mass should not be a problem; after all, if they are correct about the future, they’ll be alright Jack.