How is this for a bold statement: the ultimate morality or immorality of transhumanism rests with the position it will take on the question of human rights and more specifically its adoption or denial of the principles of one document little discussed outside of the circle of international lawyers and human rights activists: The Universal Declaration of Right of 1948.
It was by a circuitous route that I came to this conclusion, which at first glance may seem nonsensical, for, after all, isn’t transhumanism precisely about the post- human rather than us current human beings for which the idea of human rights and The Universal Declaration were created?
As briefly mentioned in a prior post, my first indication that human rights and The Universal Declaration might need to be brought into the center of transhumanists’ view was suggested to me by a person who isn’t a transhumanist at all, and indeed is deeply uncomfortable with much of transhumanist rhetoric and underlying assumptions. No one would call the science-fiction author, Kim Stanley Robinson, a neo-luddite. Rather, he sees science, at least in its beneficent manifestations, as the ultimate utopian project. And, as anyone who has ever read one of Robinson’s novels knows, he views utopianism as a very good thing indeed.
It was in a panel discussion “Utopia- Science Fiction and Fact” that Robinson brought up The Universal Declaration of Rights. As a reminder the Universal Declaration was the first global statement of rights to which, according to the consent of every nation on earth, all human beings are entitled and consists of 30 articles spelling out these rights. They include not only basic so-called negative rights such as the freedom from arbitrary arrest and torture, but positive rights such as the right to marry and found a family, the right to “social security”, the right to work, the right to rest and leisure, the right to food, shelter, clothing and medical care, the right to “the full development of the human personality”, the right to a stable domestic and international political order, the right to education and to “enjoy the arts and share in scientific achievements and its benefits”.
My interpretation of Robinson bringing up the Universal Declaration in a transhumanist forum was that we already had a utopian project for the future “the project of justice” as he called it; therefore, we should be leery about getting ahead of ourselves. He seemed to be saying that we should focus our scientific and technological efforts on achieving these still far-off 20th century goals before we run full-steam towards the 21st or perhaps 22nd century goals of transhumanism.
It was only when I came across an interview by another future oriented thinker who also brought up the Universal Declaration that I started to think there might be something more to the relationship of transhumanism and the Universal Declaration than my superficial grasp of Robinson’s view had led me to believe.
In an interview with Adam Ford, avowed transhumanist, Steve Fuller, characterized the Universal Declaration as a perfect summation of 20th century progressive politics. This view of what he called “humanity 1.0” found in the Universal Declaration he believes will be likely find itself in conflict with the transhumanism of “humanity 2.0” in the years to come.
Fuller believes that the goals of humanity 1.0, of a progressive, egalitarian society, could only be “paid for” by “holding back” the superior members of society who tried to push the abilities of humanity evolutionarily forward. As time moves onward, more and more of ranks of these visionaries, Fuller thinks, will be filled by transhumanists. Thus his predicted tension between those who hold to the goals humanity 1.0 and those seeking to expand the limits of the possible and achieve the goals of humanity 2.0.
This prediction of probable conflict between the adherents of humanity 1.0 and those seeking to move to a transhumanist notion of humanity 2.0 grows out of Fuller’s libertarian “great man” theory of progress. For him, progress is pushed forward by “superior” individuals who break the bonds of the possible through risk, experimentation, innovation and revolution pulling the rest of society along.
The kind of antagonistic picture of how the world works found in Fuller is on full display in the movie Jobs where innovation and society is pulled forward by visionaries whose disdain for the rest of us non-visionaries types makes them, in common parlance, assholes.
The question that should naturally arise whenever justifications for inequality, such as Fuller’s based upon of the pull of “great men” are made is whether or not such lone visionaries are really acting “alone”? Someone like Steve Jobs was dependent on a society and history around and before him to obtain his visions, and we can never be quite sure if his breakthroughs would have occurred without him. It is just as likely that instead of being driven by “great men” progress in science and technology or human thought in general is really a matter of seizing opportunities that are lying there for anyone to pick up, and which can only be supported if a large enough pool of individuals have come to the point in their own thinking to find the new idea, or invention or whathaveyou compelling.
This libertarian myth that egalitarian policies are the enemy of innovation and upward mobility to which Fuller subscribes and which he conflates with the transhumanist project needs to be vocally challenged, and with hard data. It is, after all, in the Scandinavian countries where egalitarianism runs deepest that rates of innovation are highest and ranked consistently higher than in the in-egalitarian US. Despite libertarian mythology, it is in egalitarian countries where upward mobility is highest as well; suggesting, that egalitarian policies, contra Fuller, are much less about holding the “superior” back as maximize those able to create breakthroughs and in giving everyone a fair shot at success.
There is also the too often unspoken question of power. In another panel discussion, this one for the RSA, only the fiction author and political activist China Mieville had the guts or the comprehension to challenge Fuller’s underlying assumptions regarding power and inequality. If inequality has deep roots in the differential distribution of power and political influence, then Fuller’s version of transhumanism becomes just one more way in which the already wealthy and powerful will be able to make their advantage permanent.
As another figure worried about exploding levels of inequality, Chrystia Freeland, points out in her book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else this is already happening at an ever increasing rate as the rich use their wealth to gain educational advantages for their children and distort market influence through their leverage over the political process. Of course, the rich have always done this. What is unprecedented today is the scale and extent to which the super-wealthy have been able to rig the game, so to speak, in their and their childrens’ favor.
A transhumanism lacking an egalitarian anchor, of which the Universal Declaration is just one example, threatens to become just one more way in which the already wealthy and powerful (including many of us lucky enough to be born in the developed world) will be able to make their advantage permanent by, for instance, genetically enhancing themselves or their children when this option is not available to all, purchasing the most advanced form of bioelectrical enhancements whose expense prices out the bulk of the middle class and the poor, replacing middle class and working class jobs with AIs and robots- further shifting the balance of economic distribution away from labor and towards capital without at the same time adopting policies to offset this decline of opportunities for human work with policies such as guaranteed basic income.
Yet, if I thought the extent of Fuller’s critique of the progressive worldview that underlie the Universal Declaration was based on a simplistic view of the reality of social equality reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged or the Kurt Vonnegut short-story “Harrison Bergeron”, I was in for a rude awakening when I actually read Fuller’s book- Humanity 2.0. It was in reading this book that I became convinced not just of the need for an egalitarian orientation for transhumanism but for the full embrace and incorporation of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights into its project if transhumanism was to free itself from the potential to unleash social evil.
It was in Humanity 2.0 that Fuller showed just how far he was willing to go in his rejection of the Universal Declaration, as far in fact as to call for the rehabilitation of the inhuman Nazi regime that had given rise to the Universal Declaration in the first place. The kinds of ethical obscenities that can be found in Humanity 2.0 are indicative of the dangers inherent when one unmoors the idea of post-humanity, of the transhuman, from the project to obtain the requisites of the human condition- of humanity 1.0- for all, and when one sees progress being driven by “superior” individuals or groups.
Part of the moral dilemma any transhumanists has to face is the sheer, and often unacknowledged gap, between transhumanist goals and the actual conditions of the large numbers of humanity. Transhumanists in large measure have objectives such as the obtainment of biological immortality when the average life expectancy in a country like Sierra Leone is 46. Talk of a technologically supercharged humanity rings hollow when 2.6 billion human beings lack toilets. If these disparities are not addressed and our global environmental, and political problems are not solved, we will likely have more explosions like the recent one in Egypt which is as much a crisis of population density, energy, food and water scarcity as it is a secular vs. religious conflict.
The immoral potential implicit in this gap confronts us directly, even if on simplistic terms, in the film Elysium where in the year 2154 the majority of humanity lives on a planet of want, social breakdown and violence when a minority lives in a transhumanist paradise in space where there is no disease, poverty or war. Here, transhumanism becomes a sort of sinister version of The Rapture of the Nerds that is the dream of singularitarians. It is a possibility that emerges from the race for the rights of the future when we have yet to secure the rights of the past.
One of the main ways techno-progressivism- a relatively recent branch of transhumanism- might best distinguish itself, or even if necessary, divorce itself, from both the kinds of anti-progressive transhumanism seen in Fuller, dramatically presented in Elysium and found in the millenarian fantasies of singularitarianism would be to openly embrace as its primary mission the obtainment of the goals set forth in the Universal Declaration. The priority of science as a utopian project would then be aimed at the achievement of a sustainable human condition for all. To these goals could then be added core transhumanists hopes such as the radical extension of the human lifespan (which would fall under the Universal Declaration’s right to life) and the right to explore and build upon the transcendence of current human capabilities, including by the use of technological means (which would fall under the Universal Declaration’s right to the full development of the human personality).
Still, a little historical and philosophical background and context might prove helpful in making the reasons for such a linkage between the projects of humanity 1.0 as represented by the Universal Declaration and tehno- progressivism a little clearer and might lay bare some of the risks in tying progressivism to science and technology alone without addressing underlying dynamics of wealth and power.
For, it should not be surprising that human rights, singularitarianism and transhumanism emerged almost simultaneously and might someday soon prove real rivals for defining the human future. All three emerged from the loss of faith that utopia could be created through political action and as responses to the recognition of a common human identity and our likely fate. To that I will turn next time…
You have spent a lot of time criticizing transhumanism on your blog. In this post, you seem to be moving towards some sort of accommodation when you suggest incorporating the rights declaration into its agenda.
I am wondering where you are going with all of this. I find myself in something of a quandary as maybe you do. We need the most outstanding visionaries and minds to move us forward so we need to have a society that makes it possible for those with superior capabilities to thrive. At the same time, my values are for an egalitarian society. These two goals will always have a tension between them.
There is an interesting parallel here with the old capitalism/socialism debate. If we put aside issues about whether we have ever had a purely capitalist or pure socialist economy (which I am sure we haven’t), capitalist leaning economies have produced greater wealth overall but have failed to eliminate inequality. The poor are still with us. Socialist economies produce more economic equality but most people are worse off because of less overall wealth. Everyone shares the same poverty.
I could see a few scenarios that might change this situation:
1- We become able to produce so much wealth that material questions become irrelevant.
2- AI really does eventually work and we no longer need visionaries – our machines will be our visionaries.
There are also some interesting parallels with Star Trek. Fuller’s approach seems to lead inevitably to a race or group of super-humans like Khan. An alternative approach, with maybe scenarios (particularly 2) that I mentioned above, might lead to the Borg. In between Khan and Borg, of course, is the militaristic but egalitarian society of the Enterprise.
Are these our alternatives?
Sorry for the late response, James, I’ve been so busy I didn’t notice that you had commented.
You’re certainly right that I’ve been critical of many aspects of trans-humanism, or more specifically, I am suspicious when anyone put the kind of blind faith in technology that we used to put into gods. My biggest beef is with the singulartarians who
try to merge religion and technology with out being aware of what they are doing. Fuller’s not so much a trans-humanist as an anti-humanists and therefore particularly galls me.
I should point out that many of my posts end up on the website for the Institute for the Ethics of Emerging Technology website.
The IEET started out as a transhumanist organization but has since adopted a new stand know as techno-progressivism. What’s that? It’s too young to have clearly defined itself yet- but it certainly recognizes the importance of technology- for good and ill- and is committed to progressive politics. From there all bets are off including scenarios you discuss.
For what it’s worth I am trying to add my voice to the discussion of what a “utopian” future would look like
and what techno-progressive means.
How is it possible to build a “better” society for humans using the same tools that have “enslaved” that society? Perhaps we should be peering into, questioning, critiquing, and criticizing the systems already in place? Perhaps we should be questioning the necessity of systems at all? And what of nature? What of nature’s role in this new society, in the new human, and in this singularity (which I happen to think is an incomplete theory, a blog I plan to post at some time in the future)? In order for there to exist a new and improved society for human beings in which all are free as much as the individual is free without having to enslave any one being for the good of the all, wouldn’t we also need to discuss the level of consciousness necessary for that to happen? See, systems cannot, on their own, change or evolve a society (it merely entraps it in routine, which leads to complacency and a host of other so-called undesirable traits in mankind), there must also be a conscious and concientious choice of the human being and the whole of humanity. Elsewise, lines of demarcation (or separation of wealth and poor) occur.
What if money were a part of the problem, the very existence of it as it is understood today? What if political systems were the problem? What if having a leader at all were the problem? What if everything we know, today, as a reality were the problem?
All good questions- none of which I can answer. I think all we’ve ever been able to do as human being is talk through what we think a good society would mean, and act to make it so. When we fail to do either one, you’re right, we just slip into the automatism society, nature, or psychology which often leads to places we would have gone had we just troubled ourselves to think about it.
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