Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Friday, January 9, 2015

Transhumanism, Freedom, and Coercion

Transhumanists believe that natural human limitations can, or should, or even must be overcome, via biotechnology, nanotechnology, and other means.

Yet many transhumanists emphasize that people should not be be forced into using enhancement technologies. Rather, individuals should be free to decide whether or not to transform themselves. Our colleague Charles T. Rubin puts it this way in his excellent new book Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress:

A great many transhumanists stand foursquare behind the principle of consumer choice. Most are willing to concede that enhancements ought to be demonstrably safe and effective. But the core belief is that people ought to be able to choose for themselves the manner in which they enhance or modify their own bodies. If we are to use technology to be the best we can be, each of us must be free to decide for himself what “best” means and nobody should be able to stop us.

This techno-libertarian stance seemingly allows transhumanists to distance themselves from early-twentieth-century advocates of eugenics, who believed that government coercion should be used to achieve genetic betterment. What’s more, when they are compared to eugenicists, the transhumanists turn it around, employing a clever bit of jujitsu:

Indeed, the transhumanists argue, it is their critics — whom they disparagingly label “bioconservatives” and “bioluddites” — who, by wishing to restrict enhancement choices, are the real heirs of the eugenicists; they are the ones who have an idea of what humans should be and want government to enforce it. The transhumanists would say that they are far less interested in asserting what human beings should be than in encouraging diverse exploration into what we might become, including of course not being human at all. Moreover, the argument goes, transhumanists are strictly speaking not like eugenicists because they are not interested only in making better human beings — not even supermen, really. For to be merely human is by definition to be defective.

It is this view of human things that makes the transhumanists de facto advocates of human extinction. Their dissatisfaction with the merely human is so great that they can barely bring themselves to imagine why anyone would make a rational decision to remain an unenhanced human, or human at all, once given a choice.

However, if the transhumanists are for the most part against state coercion in relation to enhancements, as we have already seen that does not mean there is no coercive element in the transition to the transhuman. They can avoid government coercion because they believe that the freedom of some individuals to enhance and redesign as they please adds up to an aggregate necessity for human enhancement, given competitive pressure and the changing social norms it will bring. Indeed, to the extent that transhumanists recognize that theirs is presently the aspiration of a minority, they are counting on this kind of pressure to bring about the changes in attitude they desire.

Within the framework of the largely free market in enhancements the transhumanists imagine, an arms-race logic will drive ever-newer enhancements, because if “we” don’t do it first, “they” will, and then “we” will be in trouble. This kind of coercion is not of much concern to transhumanists; they are content to offer that it does not infringe upon freedom because, as the rules of the game change, one always retains the freedom to drop out. Indeed, the transhumanists seem to take particular delight in pointing out that anyone who opposes the idea that the indefinite extension of human life is a good thing will be perfectly free to die. In a world of enhancement competition, consistent “bioluddites” will be self-eliminating.

Once we see past the transhumanists’ superficial appeal to freedom, we can see transhumanism for what it is: an ideology committed to the necessity of human transformation, a transformation that is tantamount to extinction.

To read more of Rubin’s thoughts on techno-libertarianism and transhumanism, get yourself a copy of Eclipse of Man today, in hardcover or e-book format.

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