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.

Civil Rights, Eugenics, and Why It’s “Being a Good Human” to Kill Your Daughters

As Adam very kindly described, I appeared on Al Jazeera’s The Stream last week to talk about transhumanism with George Dvorsky and Robin Hanson. (Thanks to both the producers and my interlocutors for an enjoyable chat.) I’d like to expand upon a subject I mentioned on the show. Back in January, Prof. Hanson expressed support on his “Overcoming Bias” blog for sex selection — that is, selective abortion of female fetuses based on their gender. His reasoning was:

if male lives are more pleasant overall, it is good that we create more of them instead of female lives. Yes, supply and demand may eventually equalize the quality of male and female lives, but until then why not have moves [more] lives that are more pleasant?

I took the opportunity to ask Prof. Hanson about this on the air (my comments start around 14:45, and his response is at 16:30). Here is how he replied:

He’s right that that’s what I said, and I meant it. But we’re talking about individual private choice. We can think about parents choosing children, choosing high-IQ versus low-IQ children, choosing athletic versus less athletic children. I think it’s good if parents have the best interest of their children at heart, and choose children that they think will have better lives. I think that goes to the center of humanity; it goes to the center of being a good human — wanting the best for your children.

Reported Sex Ratios at Birth
and Sex Ratios of the Population Age 0-4:
China, 1953-2005 (boys per 100 girls)
Year Sex Ratio
at Birth
Sex Ratio,
Age 0-4
1953 107.0
1964 105.7
1982 108.5 107.1
1990 111.4 110.2
1995 115.6 118.4
1999 117.0 119.5
2005 118.9 122.7

This sounds sensible and compassionate for about half a second, until one realizes what it means: “having the best interest of your child at heart” means not allowing her to exist or killing her because she’s a girl. Tempting though it is, however, there are more clarifying ways to understand this issue than through the abortion debate — or through the trivial extension of Hanson’s logic to justify killing girls long after birth.Commentators on sex selection have been right to talk about the issue as in part one of women’s rights, since this is almost entirely a phenomenon directed against girls, with some 160 million worldwide barred from life due to being female. Whether you consider these to be actual lives or potential lives lost, the fact is that these societies are deeming women less worthy than men by increasingly preventing them from even entering into this world. Not in the least coincidentally, this happens overwhelmingly in countries where women are considered inferior to men, where they often lack basic rights like voting, driving, and full ownership of property, and where not only women but girls are frequently forced into labor, marriage, and prostitution. If nothing else, Hanson is right that, in these countries, women’s lives are generally a lot less pleasant than men’s.




Differing approaches to social uplift

Consider for a moment: what direction would Hanson’s arguments have pushed us in had they been made during past struggles for equality and civil rights? Women had to struggle for rights here in the United States, too — to gain the right to vote, and then later to gain equality in the workplace and in the broader culture. Women’s lives could have been considered a lot less “pleasant” than men’s at these times, too.Had Hanson and sex-selective technology been around at the time, his prescription would have been not to change laws, attitudes, and culture to bring a class of people out of oppression — but to just get rid of those people. This is exactly what Hanson is prescribing and celebrating in countries where women are abused and oppressed today.One can imagine how Hanson’s prescription would have applied to still other civil rights struggles from America’s past. And not just in imagination: the idea that certain classes of people had lives that were less worth living — either based on race, or, just as in Hanson’s criteria, strength and intelligence — was in fact the rationale behind eugenics programs that sought to eliminate those lives. Other practices recently proposed and praised by transhumanists include infanticide, compulsory drugging of populations to make them more “moral”, and massive programs of engineering the human race to control their greenhouse gas emissions.The path of moral progress we moderns tell ourselves we have been forging is toward a society of ever greater justice and equality, in which the individual cannot be denied her place by the prejudices of others, in which the weak are protected from the strong. Transhumanists, utilitarians, and self-anointed rationalists insist that they are dedicated to pushing us further down the path of enlightenment — toward “Overcoming Bias.” They insist that their dreams, when realized, will be a vehicle of moral progress and individual empowerment — the repudiation rather than the continuation of the twentieth century’s programs of social coercion. Isn’t it pretty to think so?

The Radical Cowardice of Utilitarian Bioethics

It is clear that Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva were doubting some pretty obvious ethical truths in their recent paper. As Ari suggested, this is quite contrary to Kyle Munkittrick’s credulous praise that their paper is

exactly what intellectual exercise is meant to be: a reasoned exploration of an idea we find difficult and troubling. True philosophy, honest ethics, dares to ask the un-askable questions. If we are horrified by what we find, then we need to examine the very foundations of our philosophies.

But did these authors really even exhibit the spirit of deep philosophical questioning that Munkittrick claims to defend? In fact, looking at the paper itself, and at the defenses of the paper written by the authors and the journal’s editor, it is clear that they reached this ostensibly outrageous position not by deeply questioning any basic moral assumptions, but by scrupulously following certain widely accepted principles of utilitarian “personhood” ethics to their horrible logical conclusion. As the authors say in defense of their article: “It was meant to be a pure exercise of logic: if X, then Y.”Yet so very far was this “exercise in logic” from the deep questioning of moral principles that, when they reached the conclusion that killing babies is okay, they accepted that conclusion, rather than questioning the principles that brought them there. That certainly demonstrates the deep commitment these authors had to the principles of utilitarian bioethics, but it sure doesn’t say much about their commitment to challenging moral assumptions or principles.Their indignant surprise at the public reaction to their paper, which they take pains to point out was intended for academic audiences only — a canard that Andy Ferguson rightly ridicules — also shows how little these authors wanted to challenge any widely held assumptions in the culture. And while there was clearly a very strong negative reaction from the public, some of the assumptions made by the authors, such as the idea that “children [with Down syndrome] might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole,” are unfortunately all too common in our society.As Caitrin Nicol notes in “At Home with Down Syndrome,” ninety percent of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. As Peter Wehner writes in a recent review of A Good and Perfect Gift — a book written by Amy Julia Becker, the mother of a child with Down syndrome, named Penny — not just utilitarian bioethicists, but also “physicians, genetic counselors, prenatal screeners, and even biology teachers” embrace the cultural assumptions that children with disabilities should be viewed “not as gifts but as burdens, not children to love but mistakes who should be eliminated.” Amy came to understand “amidst the pain and through grace,” as Wehner puts it, “that there is purpose in Penny’s life simply as she is and who she is.”The transhumanists, with their belief in the importance of human enhancement, unquestioningly embrace our culture’s ethos of power, productivity and, efficiency as a matter of principle. Picturing themselves as critical, skeptical, free-thinking iconoclasts, they view as backwards and conformist beliefs like Amy’s. But in an age that so prizes the abilities that make us productive, useful, and powerful, it may be that beliefs like hers — that power is perfected in weakness, that the poor in spirit are blessed, and that it is the meek who shall inherit the earth — may still represent the deepest challenge to the ideological commitments of our hardened minds.

The False Boldness of “After-Birth Abortion”

How many people are in this picture?A paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics called “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?,” by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, has been stirring up quite a lot of attention. Here’s the abstract:

Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus’ health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled.

And here’s just a little sample of the kind of moral acuity you can find in the paper itself:

In spite of the oxymoron in the expression, we propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide’, to emphasise that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus (on which ‘abortions’ in the traditional sense are performed)….

Also:

a second terminological specification is that we call such a practice ‘after-birth abortion’ rather than ‘euthanasia’ because the best interest of the one who dies is not necessarily the primary criterion….

No kidding. Just to make clear whose interest is the primary criterion:

people with Down’s syndrome, as well as people affected by many other severe disabilities, are often reported to be happy. Nonetheless, to bring up such children might be an unbearable burden on the family and on society as a whole, when the state economically provides for their care….

Can you think of any cases before where groups of individuals have been denied rights or killed on the basis that they are not full persons, are disabled, and/or that they are a burden to society? And it’s not just the disabled:

Actual people’s well-being could be threatened by the new (even if healthy) child requiring energy, money and care which the family might happen to be in short supply of…. In these cases, since non-persons have no moral rights to life, there are no reasons for banning after-birth abortions.

I rather hope the atrociousness of a paper like this speaks for itself (though you can see Wesley J. Smith take it on here and here). Senselessness and sophistry masquerading as rational inquiry. But in case you need more:

Failing to bring a new person into existence cannot be compared with the wrong caused by procuring the death of an existing person. The reason is that, unlike the case of death of an existing person, failing to bring a new person into existence does not prevent anyone from accomplishing any of her future aims…. If the death of a newborn is not wrongful to her on the grounds that she cannot have formed any aim that she is prevented from accomplishing, then it should also be permissible to practise an after-birth abortion on a healthy newborn too, given that she has not formed any aim yet.

Emphasis in original. The contrast between ideological commitments is striking: a newborn child is only a potential person, who does not necessarily have a right not to be killed — but it seems the newborn does have a right not to be disenfranchised by being referred to with the masculine terms he or him. Somehow beings that are merely potential persons, but do not exist, can be gendered — and must have their gender properly acknowledged, but not their life defended.—Let’s try to be charitable. Although the conclusions are awful, and the logic used to get there riddled with countless obvious errors, if there’s one thing that can be said in favor of this kind of reasoning, it’s that the kinds of distinctions they’re making — between what the authors would call actual persons and potential persons — might be useful, because they are similar to the kind of distinctions one makes in determining whether an individual is of sufficient mental capacity to be held criminally responsible for his actions.Indeed, these criteria and distinctions are not so far away from the kinds that are used in modern societies that still use the death penalty, to determine whether a person has the mental capacity to be held accountable for a capital offense, and to pay for it with his or her life. Such, then, is the curious bent of modern “personhood theory”: the criteria, once used to defend people who are too mentally undeveloped to justly deserve being deprived of their lives, easily become the criteria by which the same kinds of people, even well beyond birth, are too undeveloped for their lives to deserve defending at all, even for a crime so small as being an inconvenience to someone else.Realizing this points to the biggest failing of the paper on its very own terms. Giubilini and Minerva propose to extend abortion to “the first days or few weeks after birth,” before an infant possesses personhood traits like “self-awareness,” “expectations,” and “future aims.” But they offer no reason to think such traits, most of which seemingly require capacities like speech and conscious memory recall, are present as early as a few days or weeks after birth. They are enormously vague in defining and describing these traits, saying only that an infant’s ability to “value the different situation she would have found herself in if she had not been harmed … depends on the level of her mental development.” But the traits apparently necessary to secure personhood, and so protection from being killed, are not present until at least many months after birth, and often not until age one or two — indeed, under many reasonable interpretations, not until many years after birth.If the authors had really committed to their personhood criteria, they would need to be defending the killing of children a few years beyond birth, at minimum. And a more rigorous commitment to personhood would reasonably extend the boundary much further out, indeed, to something like the age of criminal accountability or voting. But I guess the authors didn’t want to be too radical.—Unsurprising though this is, it should be pointed out that this is the kind of thing that gets transhumanists really excited, and that counts to them as philosophical insight and bravery. Kyle Munkittrick, for one, is breathless:

The purpose of articles that are so obviously controversial and counter-intuitive. is not to endorse or advocate a political position and say “this is right and should be law.” Instead, they are exactly what intellectual exercise is meant to be: a reasoned exploration of an idea we find difficult and troubling. True philosophy, honest ethics, dares to ask the un-askable questions. If we are horrified by what we find, then we need to examine the very foundations of our philosophies.

If something is obvious, then that is the very thing a diligent bioethicsist should be questioning and doubting.

Nowhere, of course, in this or a follow-up post (which without explanation is titled “Witch Ethics” — I guess because criticizing pro-infanticide arguments is a witch hunt?), does Mr. Munkittrick actually do any of that “reasoned exploration.” Instead he just lauds “exploration” itself, congratulating the authors for their bravery and condemning their critics for cowardice. The authors themselves are similarly aghast in a pseudo-apology they issued:

When we decided to write this article about after-birth abortion we had no idea that our paper would raise such a heated debate…. It was meant to be a pure exercise of logic: if X, then Y…. We do not think anyone should be abused for writing an academic paper on a controversial topic.

It’s all just about logic and academic freedom and the boldness to ask challenging questions! Why are people getting so bent out of shape!Just to put peoples’ silly reactions to this paper in context, imagine that instead of the paper making the case for infanticide, it advanced an I’m-just-saying or gee-hey-why-not daring defense of some other practice, like, say … rape, murder, slavery, or genocide. Actually, I guess I’m tilting the question by using such condemnatory terminology. “Genocide,” for example, should just be called “heritage-selective aggregate after-after-birth abortion,” lest we acknowledge “the best interests of the ones who die.” Anyway, who would dare fail to celebrate such a harmless intellectual exercise?UPDATE: See also Brendan Foht on the same paper.[Mother and child image via Shutterstock]

Peter Singer’s utilitarianism increases human suffering

They told you life is hard, Misery from the start, It’s dull, it’s slow, it’s painful. But I tell you life is sweet In spite of the misery There’s so much more, be grateful. -Natalie Merchant
Peter Singer recently published a New York Times blog post seriously posing the question of whether the human race should allow itself to go extinct. Most of the post is built around the arguments of philosophy professor David Benatar, author of the book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. Singer writes:

We spend most of our lives with unfulfilled desires, and the occasional satisfactions that are all most of us can achieve are insufficient to outweigh these prolonged negative states. If we think that this is a tolerable state of affairs it is because we are, in Benatar’s view, victims of the illusion of pollyannaism. This illusion may have evolved because it helped our ancestors survive, but it is an illusion nonetheless. If we could see our lives objectively, we would see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone.

There is a simple riposte, of course, to anyone seriously claiming we should not exist: one simply need note that no rational being is capable of posing such a claim, for once he believes it, if he is fully consistent in his conclusions and convictions, he should immediately kill himself, and so never have the opportunity to communicate the argument. Of course, I’m not suggesting that extreme utilitarian philosophers should kill themselves (though one could consider their existence as a special sort of suffering), and the fact that they don’t do so should be the first indication that something is amiss in their arguments. They live, like the rest of us, based on the notion that their lives are worth living, even though they are uniquely incapable of understanding that they are and why.
Even the most hardcore of evolutionary psychologists can agree with the notion that an organism that has lost the will and drive to continue its own existence is deeply sick — indeed, not just sick, but suffering from sickness. And it is a sickness of the highest degree, overwhelming as it does the most fundamental imperative of any organism or rational being: to exist, to maintain the prior condition for any state of goodness, joy, or wellbeing. We consider this true for animals so ill they have ceased to eat; and we consider it even truer for human beings who are suicidal: over and above whatever suffering has caused their state, we understand the state of not wanting to live to be itself a profound form of suffering — literally, the deepest form of existential despair.

Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” So, also, he who has no why to live cannot bear with almost any how. Walker Percy claims that postmodern man “has forgotten his bad memories and conquered his present ills and … finds himself in the victorious secular city. His only problem now is to keep from blowing his brains out.” Singer et al. turn this problem into the explicit question of why we shouldn’t, and when it exposes the gaping vortex of nihilism at the center of their philosophy, they attempt to divert our gaze with posturing of bold discovery and heroic honesty.

What we risk suffering from most deeply is not the physical anguish that concerns the utilitarians, but the very existential despair they so eagerly prescribe. By defining the value of our lives as simply the absence of physical suffering, philosophers like Singer may actually markedly increase human suffering. Not only does their philosophy provide an active reason for people to be suicidal, but it commits extreme utilitarians to arguing that the profound suffering of being suicidal is itself good reason for the suicidal to go ahead and commit suicide. (Notably, I know of no utilitarian philosophers who have had sufficient confidence in their convictions to openly advance such an argument.)

It is indeed a profound loathing for most of human existence that undergirds Singer’s philosophy. At the end of his post, he poses the question to the readers, “Is life worth living, for most people in developed nations today?” Though Singer allows, both here and in the conclusion to his post, that life is under the right circumstances worth living — presumably, under circumstances similar to his own — it is apparently taken for granted in this question that life is not worth living for people in undeveloped nations. And it must be even more taken for granted that life was not worth living for the thousands of generations of ancestors to whom we owe our own (at last potentially worthwhile) existences. Posterity, then — the accumulated infliction of the suffering of existence by each generation on the next — must be an injustice of unthinkable proportions.

It is in this understanding of the meaning of posterity, of course, that Singer most profoundly misses the worth of life, as available to today’s poor and to our impoverished ancestors as it is to affluent college professors. As a commenter on the Singer post, Pierce Moffett, puts it:

Maybe most normal people enjoy their lives to a greater extent than the typical philosopher does. It wouldn’t surprise me. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad I’m here. I have unfulfilled desires, but I have also had a great deal of enjoyment. I experience a few minutes of profound joy every morning when my 5 year old gets out of bed, comes to my office, and crawls up into my lap for a still-sleepy hug — and by having her, I’ve made it possible for her to have that joy herself someday if she has a child of her own. This sort of utilitarian, weigh-everything-on-the-scales approach is the worst sort of academic pseudo-philosophical nonsense.

As a philosopher, Dr. Singer is surely aware that the notion that [the] world is getting worse every year has been around among philosophers for a very long time. But out in the real world, people do the millions of things they like to do — from roller skating to playing computer games to solving differential equations to flying hang-gliders … and many of these things we love to do involve our children.