Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Thursday, March 4, 2010

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 them, 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.


  1. It should be noted that without some transcendant entity of some kind capable of standing outside of what is rationally observable and making judgements, there is no way to erect a moral framework that is parochial and utilitarian.

    Universalism is impossible without transcendentalism.

    Nietzsche understood that and understood the moral quandaries posed by this. Indeed, many travel down the road he did, few can match his ability to look the consequences in the eye... or the abyss as the case may well be.

  2. Charles

    re: my having my cake and eating it too, I disagree. I am expressing in all of my essays my belief that we can remain committed to Enlightenment values (progress, reason, universalism, etc.) but only when we realize their complexity and historical situatedness. If you want to argue that rights, for instance, can only be underwritten by a belief in moral absolutes I understand where you are coming from, but I don't find it convincing.

    As to whether transhumanists have sufficiently grappled with our dubious debt to Nietzsche, perhaps you missed this series we have been printing:


    You may find it more fruitful to engage in dispute with serious transhumanist intellectuals instead of picking on poor Michael Anissimov. Or maybe not.

    James Hughes Ph.D.
    Executive Director, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
    Associate Editor, Journal of Evolution and Technology

  3. "What is a human being, then?" ... "A seed." "A … seed?" "An acorn that is unafraid to destroy itself in growing into a tree."

    David Zindell, "Neverness"

  4. Thanks for your comment, Mr. Hughes, and for the link to the Nietzsche essays, which we'll be sure to read. Setting aside your implied insult to Mr. Anissimov, it is passing strange that you would accuse us of ignoring "serious transhumanist intellectuals" in response to a post about your own work.

  5. Mr. Hughes deserves praise for acknowledging some of the tensions within the movement of which he is a part and for trying to investigate them. But, as Professor Rubin notes, Mr. Hughes’s intellectual history is a little shaky. The essay discussed above, for example, prominently features a picture of the philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke. Alongside the picture is a paragraph claiming that Burke did not believe in universal rights:

    Other conservative thinkers however, like Edmund Burke, argued that if we acknowledge the existence of any rights it is because they are rooted in particular cultures and traditions. Therefore rights cannot be universal, and it makes no sense to defend the right to free speech of the Chinese or the African. In fact, the Enlightenment actually threatened the local, embedded rights that people do possess because its universalism ignored the importance of local culture, seeking to overturn national traditions in favor of global cosmopolitanism.

    This isn’t quite right. Mr. Hughes says that Burke wouldn’t defend “the Chinese or the African” on the grounds of universal rights. But he famously did just that sort of thing more than once. Consider, for instance, this Burke speech from the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings for his governorship in India: “I impeach him [Hastings] in the name and by virtue of those eternal laws of justice which he has violated. I impeach him in the name of human nature itself, which he has cruelly outraged, injured and oppressed, in both sexes, in every age, rank, situation, and condition of life.” Or consider Burke’s description of one anti-Catholic law in Ireland as “a deprivation of all the rights of human nature” and his description of another such law as full of “outrages on the rights of humanity and the laws of nature.”

    As regards universal rights, Burke wrote in his most famous work that natural rights “may and do exist.” (Indeed, a colleague who intimately knows the secondary literature informs me that there is a “small but significant cadre” of Burke scholars, led by Peter Stanlis, which has tried to argue that Burke is best understood within the natural law tradition.)

    But for Burke, the universal rights that are natural (or “primitive”) are reshaped by society. “In the gross and complicated mass of human passions and concerns” — that is, in social life — “the primitive rights of men undergo such a variety of refractions and reflections, that it becomes absurd to talk of them as if they continued in the simplicity of their original direction.” Burke did not think that universal natural rights were nonexistent, but rather that it makes no sense to discuss those rights without context, or to apply metaphysical and theoretical pre-social rights to social and political questions. “The rights of men,” Burke wrote, “are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned.” Rather than simplistically depicting Burke as an opponent of universal rights, Mr. Hughes should instead seek out Burke’s wise counsel to better understand his own dilemma.

  6. I concur that Mr. Hughes is to be congratulated on pointing out and reflecting on certain of the fundamental presuppositions of the transhumanist project (which, as Charles points out in the later thread, must be understood as a project if we are to take its spokesmen at their word). But now having been directed to and reviewed the very recent JET essays on the Nietzsche question (called to our attention with a tone suggesting this was a well-established part of the literature), I can say that while informative and thought-provoking, the point in question is NOT addressed. (The preponderance of the attention is devoted to the question of Nietzsche's influence on transhumanism.) Transhumanism can't rest on mere willfulness (so long as it wishes to promote itself as good and just) and yet it can't help but rest on mere willfulness (so long as it declares all conceptions of good and just historically/evolutionarily contingent). That is to say, it tries to do without nature, but can't do without nature. Whether the same is true of Nietzsche's own thought I am less convinced. And FYI TNA is clearly on the JET radar, as it is mentioned two or three times in the editorial introductory remarks


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