“Transhumanism” and Ethics: An Invitation to Discussion of a Cultural “Cutting Edge”

“Transhumanism” and Ethics: An Invitation to Discussion of a Cultural “Cutting Edge” March 17, 2015

“Transhumanism” and Ethics: An Invitation to Discussion of a Cultural “Cutting Edge”

Increasingly one reads about “transhumanism”—a broad and diverse movement to promote the fundamental transformation of humanity individually or collectively through technology. Transhumanism is not merely the promotion of human physical and mental enhancement but transformation. In other words, via technology, it is hoped, the human will evolve into a new life form with abilities not afforded by biology or current technology. This new life form will be “transhuman”—more than merely human but human “plus.” Some transhumanists simply use the word-symbol “human+” to designate their ideal.

A recent technological development touted by some transhumanists as a precursor with promise, an indicator of the potential for transcending mere humanity, is the prosthetic arm manipulated by the mind. In other words, according to recent news reports, it is now possible for amputees to use only their minds to move their technologically enhanced prosthetic devices. Of course, this requires a “connection” between mind and matter created by science, a kind of “mind over matter” previously unknown to (not necessarily unanticipated by) science. In other words, this is science fiction come true on a small scale.

Some transhumanists positively envision a time when scientifically crafted technology will fundamentally transform humanity as we now know it. That is, a line will be crossed where the “human” will become something “more than human” without ceasing to be human. Science fiction and futurist books and movies are filled with concrete examples. Some are so outlandish that even the most imaginative transhumanist scoffs. Others, however, seem to many transhumanists not only possible but ideal.

An early prophet of transhumanism was philosopher-scientist Julian Huxley (d. 1975) who taught at my alma mater Rice University. Some credit him with coining the word “transhumanism.” Huxley was, of course, a leading figure in the second wave of secular humanism—a wave that included certain impulses toward transcendence but without God. Huxley envisioned a future in which humanity would, through technological enhancements, transcend itself into a new life form.

Some transhumanists are already positing a reaction to (what they consider the inevitable) transformation—“humanish” people who will decline to transcend via technology. The label “humanish” is an appropriation of “Amish.” Humanish people will be those who resist transhumanism by declining to participate and deciding to remain merely human. Already there is discussion among some transhumanists about what should be done about the “humanish.”

According to transhumanist logic the person who wears a mind-manipulated prosthetic arm or hand is already transcending via technology. In other words, this innovation promises a positive post-human future—if not for everyone at least for those willing to participate.

So what does a transhumanist envision for post-humanity? What will a transhuman being look like? In the most conservative vision he/she/it will simply have built-in abilities now considered supernatural. More daring and visionary transhumanists envision a future being “built” on a human “platform” but actually a new species entirely.

Questions and concerns about transhumanism abound. Ethicists need to join the conversation—including Christian ethicists. So far, unfortunately, transhumanism is not taken seriously enough by many ethicists. One wonders what it will take to get their attention.

A few years ago the cutting edge in bioethics was cloning. The majority of secular and religious ethicists resisted cloning. Perhaps the ultimate defeating reason against cloning was and is that a clone is the same biological age as the parent from which he/she/it is cloned. By itself this does not count against cloning a fetus or infant, however, so it alone cannot defeat the very idea of cloning itself. Why not clone an infant so he or she can have a twin? Expense is one factor, of course, but that’s not the ethical argument against cloning. The main ethical argument probably is the uncertainty of the rights of a clone. The issue is “human rights” and cloning raises the issue of the status of a clone vis-à-vis humanity to a new level. What would a “human clone” be in terms of “the human?” Might a clone be considered property? The point is that cloning would introduce an entirely new category at a time when we are as yet uncertain as to even the rights of children vis-à-vis parents and government. I suspect that cloning will return as an “item on the table,” so to speak, for vigorous ethical discussion.

Transhumanism raises similar questions as cloning—about the ethical status of humans and transhumans vis-à-vis other species. A pessimistic view of humanity might lead one to worry that enhanced powers might lead to claims of special rights—to govern and control—or to worry that an emerging new life form will be considered so dangerous and threatening by others as to lead to violence.

But the basic ethical question “right now” should be—where is the line not to be crossed by technology in altering humanity into something else? We now have prostheses manipulable by minds. Almost no one seriously questions that. But imagine a life form built on a human platform but able to (for example) read others’ minds or manipulate others’ bodies using only the mind. Science fiction? Yes, certainly. But so what? The whole point of transhumanism is to bring science fiction into reality.

My invitation here is to participate in a serious discussion about “the line” not to be crossed—if at all. (By “serious” I mean intellectual, not merely emotional.)

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