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.

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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.

The Mainstreaming of Transhumanism

Congratulations to Nick Bostrom, Jamais Cascio, and Ray Kurzweil for being recognized as three of Foreign Policy magazine’s “Top 100 Global Thinkers.” Once upon a time this kind of notoriety might not have helped the reputation of an Oxford don in the Senior Common Room (do such places still exist?), but even were that still the case, it must be tremendously satisfying for Professor Bostrom qua movement builder to get such recognition. The mainstreaming of transhumanism, noted (albeit playfully) by Michael Anissimov, proceeds apace. Ray Kurzweil did not win The Economist’s Innovation Award for Computing and Telecommunications because of his transhumanist advocacy, but apparently nobody at The Economist thought that it would in any way embarrass them. He’s just another one of those global thinkers we admire so much.

Of course such news is also good for the critic. I first alluded to transhumanist anti-humanism in a book I published in 1994, so for some time now I’ve been dealing with the giggle and yuck factors that the transhumanist/extropian/Singularitarian visions of the future still provoke among the non-cognoscenti. Colleagues, friends and family alike don’t quite get why anybody would be seriously interested in that. I’ve tried to explain why I think these kinds of arguments are only going to grow in importance, but now I have some evidence that they are in fact growing.

The Emperor Has No ClothesWhich leads me to Mr. Anissimov’s question about what it is that I’m hoping to achieve. My purpose (and here I only speak for myself) is not to predict, develop, or advocate the specific public policies that will be appropriate to our growing powers over ourselves. In American liberal democracy, the success or failure of such specific measures is highly contingent under the best of circumstances, and my firm belief that on the whole people are bad at anticipating the forces that mold the future means that I don’t think we are operating under the best of circumstances. So my intention is in some ways more modest and in some ways less. Futurisms is so congenial to me because I share its desire to create a debate that will call into question some of the things that transhumanists regard as obvious, or at least would like others to regard as obvious. I’ve made it reasonably clear that I think transhumanism raises many deep questions without itself going very deeply into them, however technical its internal discussions might sometimes get. That’s the modest part of my intention. The less modest part is a hope that exposing these flaws will contribute to creating a climate of opinion where the transhumanist future is not regarded as self-evidently desirable even if science and technology develops in such a way as to make it ever more plausible. So if and when it comes time to make policies, I want there to be skeptical and critical ideas available to counterbalance transhumanist advocacy.

In short, I’m happy to be among those who are pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, even if, to those who don’t follow such matters closely, I might look like the boy who cried wolf.