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.