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  • Human vs. Posthuman
  • James Hughes and Nick Bostrum

To the Editor:

In "Whereto Transhumanism? The Literature Reaches a Critical Mass" (May-June 2007), Nicholas Agar correctly notes that Simon Young's effort to ground transhumanism in a drive to evolve is a nonstarter. Transhumanism, like all other human aspirations, is shaped by our evolved brains, yet at the same time, it is an effort to escape from evolved constraints. Transhumanism has much in common with spiritual aspirations to transcend animal nature for deathlessness, superhuman abilities, and superior insight, though transhumanists pursue these goals through technology rather than (or at least not solely) through spiritual exercises. In this sense transhumanism has ancient roots in the capacity our animal natures have endowed us with to desire better lives and a better world, even if it is not an evolutionary drive itself.

Agar is also correct to point out that procreative liberty needs boundaries just like other liberties do, and that threats to liberal democracy from genetic enhancement would be one reason for setting limits. Most transhumanists disagree not with the need for limits, but with the bioconservative calculus that argues that all enhancements should be forbidden as unsafe. We believe cognitive liberty, bodily autonomy, and reproductive rights require a higher standard of proof of harm, and that there are alternative means to address those harms. Yes, some genetic tweaks may be unsafe or harmful, but we can regulate those without forbidding life-extending and ability-enhancing therapies. Yes, if only the wealthy can cognitively enhance themselves and their children this might exacerbate inequality. But, as with literacy and laptops, the preferred method to address these gaps should be to expand access to enhancement. Differences in biology and ability challenge social solidarity, but the Enlightenment argues for solidarity among equal citizens irrespective of biological differences.

On this last point Agar agrees with the transhumanists when he says "moral status . . . cannot be denied to posthumans." He then attempts, however, to point out a supposed lacuna in our ethics, in which we remain "local" for valuing human accomplishments. He notes that respecting the moral status of another person is a universal and compulsory value, while valuing humanness is a voluntary local choice that gives life meaning. Again, I think we agree. As an extrapolation of liberalism, transhumanism asks that we respect one another's choice to value our humanness or not, calling on the "universal" value of liberty or autonomy not to allow local valuings for mortality and human limitations to trump aspirations to greater life, health, ability, and happiness. Most transhumanists would be satisfied if we are each able to find our own set of local values, human or not.

Perhaps Agar is inadvertently pointing to two more subtle problems with transhumanist ethics, however—problems many of us grapple with. The first is the problem of balancing beneficent solidarism with strict noninterventionist liberalism. When, for instance, is someone's choice to modify his brain equivalent to selling himself into slavery? Transhumanists need to articulate "the good life," inevitably shaped by local values, to ensure that we are in fact enhancing and not simply changing. Second and related, transhumanists must be clear about the cognitive capacities we consider important for the posthuman polity. Would it be acceptable for some posthumans to expunge all fellow-feeling for mere humans, or for any other persons? Whether local or universal values, ensuring that our descendents retain capacities for solidarity and egalitarianism will limit transhumanist liberalism and the space of posthuman possibilities.

James Hughes

Institute for Ethics and Emerging

Technologies and Trinity College

To the Editor:

I have argued that posthuman modes of being and having the opportunity to become posthuman may be human values. That is to say, many of us human beings may have reasons, available from our present human evaluative standpoint, to develop posthuman capacities. Having the opportunity to become posthuman can be good for us in much the same way that it is good for an infant to have the opportunity to mature into an adult.

In one of my papers cited by Nicholas Agar in his essay, I noted that even those who think that values are defined in terms of our current dispositions...


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pp. 4-7
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Archived 2012
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