Transhumanism and the Limits of Democracy

A paper presented at the Workshop on Transhumanism and Democracy

Below is a paper I presented at the Arizona State University's Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict Workshop on Transhumanism and the Future of Democracy last week. The workshop was directed by ASU history professor Hava Tirosh-Samuelson. My fellow participants were Case Western Reserve University law professor Maxwell Mehlman, Georgetown University law professor Steven Goldberg, University of Southern California law professor Michael Shapiro, University of Chicago political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain, Emory University bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe, with a closing response by University of California, Berkeley Nobelist Charles Townes.

The workshop addressed such questions as how does the enhancement of human beings through biotechnology, information technology, and applied cognitive sciences affect our understandings of autonomy, personhood, responsibility and free will? And how much and what type of societal control should be exercised over the use of enhancement technologies?

What is transhumanism? A pretty good definition is offered by bioethicist and transhumanist James Hughes who states that transhumanism is "the idea that humans can use reason to transcend the limitation of the human condition."[i] Specifically, transhumanists welcome the development of intimate technologies that will enable people to boost their life spans, enhance their intellectual capacities, augment their athletic abilities, and choose their preferred emotional states. What's particularly noteworthy is that Hughes argues that democratic decision-making is central to the task of guiding humanity into the transhuman future.

I will argue that where Hughes and others go wrong is in fetishizing democratic decision-making over the protection of minority rights. Second, I will argue that transhumanism should be accepted as a reasonable comprehensive doctrine and, as such, that it should be tolerated in liberal societies by those who disagree with its goals. Third, I will illustrate the problems of democratic authoritarianism by detailing some of the history of legal interference with reproductive rights. And then, I will briefly outline and analyze various arguments used by opponents of human enhancement which they hope will sway a majority into essentially outlawing the transhumanist enterprise.

Hughes and other would-be democratizers fail to recognize that the Enlightenment project that spawned modern liberal democracies sought to keep certain questions about the transcendent out of the public sphere. To keep the social peace and allow various visions of the human to flourish along side of one another, questions about the ultimate meaning and destiny of humanity were deemed to be private concerns.

Similarly, hostility to biotechnological progress must not to be used as an excuse to breach the Enlightenment understanding of what belongs in the private sphere and what belongs in the public. Technologies dealing with birth, death, and the meaning of life need protection from meddling—even democratic meddling—by those who want to control them as a way to force their visions of right and wrong on the rest of us. One's fellow citizens shouldn't get to vote on with whom you have sex, what recreational drugs you ingest, what you read and watch on TV and so forth. Hughes understands that democratic authoritarianism is possible, but discounts the possibility that the majority may well vote to ban the technologies that he believes promise a better world.

In fact, Hughes extols social democracy as the best guarantor of our future biotechnological liberty, while ignoring the fact that it is precisely those social democracies that he praises—Germany, France, Sweden, and Britain—which now, not in the future, outlaw germinal choice, genetic modification, reproductive and therapeutic cloning, and stem cell research. For example, Germany, Austria and Norway ban the creation of human embryonic stem cell lines. Britain outlaws various types of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to enable parents to choose among embryos. (Despite worrisome political agitation against this type of biotech research, in the United States, private research in these areas remains legal. More recently, President Barack Obama directed the National Institutes of Health to begin formulating guidelines under which embryonic stem cell research might receive federal funding.)

This ideal of political equality arose from the Enlightenment's insistence that since no one has access to absolute truth, no one has a moral right to impose his or her values and beliefs on others. Or to put it another way, I may or may not have access to some absolute transcendent truth, but I'm pretty damned sure that you don't.

Under constitutional liberalism, there are questions that should not and cannot be decided by a majority vote. As James Madison eloquently explained in Federalist 51, "It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure."[ii] Alexis De Toqueville made the same point when he asked, "If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach?"[iii]

John Rawls updated and extended the arguments supporting these Enlightenment ideals in his Political Liberalism, where he made the case for a limited conception of politics that could reconcile and tolerate diverse "reasonable comprehensive doctrines." According to Rawls, a reasonable comprehensive doctrine has three features: it deals with the major religious, philosophical, and moral aspects of human life in a coherent and consistent fashion; it recognizes certain values as significant, and by giving some primacy of some values over others expresses an intelligible view of the world; and it is not unchanging, but generally evolves slowly over time in light of what its adherents see as good and sufficient reasons.

The result is "that many of our most important judgments are made under conditions where it is not to be expected that conscientious persons with full powers of reason, even after free discussion, will all arrive at the same conclusion. Some conflicting reasonable judgments (especially important are those belonging under people's comprehensive doctrines) may be true, others false; conceivably all may be false. These burdens of judgment of are the first significance for the democratic idea of toleration."[iv] Because there is no objective way to determine the truth or falsity of diverse beliefs, moral strangers can only get along by tolerating what each would regard as the other's errors.

Consequently, Rawls argues, "reasonable persons will think it unreasonable to use political power, should they possess it, to repress comprehensive views that are not unreasonable though different from their own." If, however, we insist that all members of a polity should adopt our beliefs because they are "true," then, "when we make such claims others, who are themselves reasonable, must count us unreasonable."[v] In such a case, members of the polity have the right to resist the imposition of views that they do not hold. Rawls concludes, "Once we accept the fact that reasonable pluralism is a permanent condition of public culture under free institutions, the idea of the reasonable is more suitable as part of the basis of public justification for a constitutional regime than the idea of moral truth."[vi]

Arguably, the kind of constitutional regime that is compatible with reasonable pluralism is one in which the powers that government can exercise over the choices of its citizens is limited. While certainly not endorsing it, the German political philosopher Jurgen Habermas describes the point of view of liberalism pretty well when he explains that the dispute between liberalism and radical democracy has "to do with how one can reconcile equality with liberty, unity with diversity, or the right of the majority with the right of the minority. Liberals begin with the legal institutionalization of equal liberties, conceiving these as rights held by individual subjects. In their view, human rights enjoy normative priority over democracy, and the constitutional separation of powers has priority over the will of the democratic legislature."[vii]

So the question is: Is transhumanism a reasonable comprehensive doctrine? Clearly, it fits Rawls' tripartite definition. Transhumanism deals with the major religious, philosophical, and moral aspects of human life in a coherent and consistent fashion. The transhumanist desire to deploy advanced technologies to increase healthy human life spans and to enhance human physical and intellectual capacities in order to foster excellence and human flourishing coherently addresses major religious and philosophical aspects of human life. Transhumanism recognizes certain values as significant, and by giving some primacy of some values over others expresses an intelligible view of the world.

Nick Bostrom outlines some transhumanist values including the core value of "promot[ing] the quest to develop further so that we can explore hitherto inaccessible realms of value."[viii] Beyond the limits that our current biology and level of technology impose on our physical, emotional, and intellectual capacities lay experiences and knowledge that can only be fully appreciated and understood by enhanced transhumans. Other values implicated in achieving the vision of an open-ended transhuman future, according to Bostrom, include encouraging sufficient global security, a strong advocacy for technological progress, and the opportunity that everyone have access to enhancement technologies.

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  • Warty||

    You could have covered this in the hate crimes post...

  • ||

    Way to ruin the thread from the get-go, Warty. Is there anything you can't screw up?

  • ||

    People should not be forced to use medicines and technologies that they find morally objectionable.

    Wow! How generous of you!

    Christian Scientists would perhaps reject most of modern biotechnology outright; Jehovah's Witnesses might remain leery of treatments that they interpret to being akin to using blood products or blood transfusions; Roman Catholics might refuse to use regenerative treatments derived from human embryonic stem cells; and still others will wish to take the fullest advantage of all biomedical enhancements and treatments. In this way, a pluralistic society respects the reasonable comprehensive doctrines of their fellow citizens and enables social peace among moral strangers.

    And Jews will have the option of not using technologies which were helped along by Dr Mengele's hypothermia experiments at Dachau. Everybody wins!

    I'm curious: do Catholic embryos have the option of not being dismembered so that their stem cells can be extracted?

  • ||

    Technologies dealing with birth, death, and the meaning of life need protection from meddling-even democratic meddling-by those who want to control them as a way to force their visions of right and wrong on the rest of us.



    Birth and death are meaningless when viewed in separation from the persons who are being born and dying...yet transhumanists seem to have precious little concern for those people. Especially when they're in the way of hurrying along the Rapture, oops, I mean Singularity.

  • ||

    Crucially, Bostrom adds that "transhumanists typically place emphasis on individual freedom and individual choice in the area of enhancement technologies.



    Unless such an individual happens to be hoarding the cells necessary for the advancement of transhumanist aspiration. In which case, get ready to be dismembered whether you like it or not.

    Humans differ widely in their conceptions of what their own perfection or improvement would consist in. Some want to develop in one direction, others in different directions, and some prefer to stay the way they are. It would ... be morally unacceptable for anybody to impose a single standard to which we would all have to conform.



    So it would be morally unacceptable to demand that scientific research not be done in a way that is expected to cause harm to individuals? I don't see where Bostrom leaves room for that standard. And if you don't have that standard, we're off and running into Mengele territory (Godwin hounds be damned).

  • ||

    Someone's taken his hyperbole pills today. You masochists have fun with that.

  • ||

    Godwin hounds be damned

    Cheeky, coming from someone who Godwin'd twice in 15 minutes.

  • ||

    Predictable. Bailey writes a 6,645 word essay decrying how transhumanists are being persecuted by not having their pet projects federally funded, and that anyone who has ethical problems with said pet projects must be anti-Enlightenment...and I'm the only one who has a problem with it.

  • JW Gacy||

    crimethink, have you already forgotten what Dear Leader has taught us? Moral qualms are merely ideological opposition to Science. All hail.

  • ||

    Marc, I can't help it if Bailey and his coreligionists demand so much leeway in pursuing their aspirations that the atrocities of the past would be permitted under their regime.

    And Godwin's Law doesn't mean what many people think it means...

    Godwin's Law (also known as Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies)[1] is an informal adage created by Mike Godwin in 1990. The adage states: "As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."...

    The rule does not make any statement about whether any particular reference or comparison to Adolf Hitler or the Nazis might be appropriate, but only asserts that the likelihood of such a reference or comparison arising increases in direct proportion to the length of the discussion. It is precisely because such a comparison or reference may sometimes be appropriate, Godwin has argued, that overuse of Nazi and Hitler comparisons should be avoided, because it robs the valid comparisons of their impact.



    [emphasis mine]

  • ||

    Bailey writes a 6,645 word essay

    Well at least he didn't write another 21 words, then you'd be really pissed.

  • ||

    People should not be forced to use provide medicines and technologies that they find morally objectionable.

    Agree/Disagree?

  • ||

    THreadJack:

    Anyone else see the SCOTUS Decision FCC v Fox that came out ? 5 - 4 in favor of the FCC BUT it's an interesting case with multiple concurrences and multiple dissents.

    Thomas, while ruling for the FCC (Ruling that they had the authority to levy the fines in question) filed a separate concurrence suggests that the pervasiveness of the Internet, plus cable and satellite tv (and V-chips and other technologies available for same) means that maybe there's no longer a constitutional basis for the FCC to regulate anything anymore.

    Kennedy, in a concurrence, explicitly states that he isn't ruling on the Constitutionality of the FCC

    The holding of the Court of Appeals turned on its conclusion that the agency's explanation for its change of policy was insufficient, and that is the only question presented here. I agree with the Court that as this case comes to us from the Court of Appeals we must reserve judgment on the question whether the agency's action is consistent with the guarantees of the Constitution.



    Gisnburg, in a dissent, also seems to be hinting that maybe the Pacifica decision should re-examined:

    "The Pacifica decision, however it might fare on reassessment, was tightly cabined, and for good reason. In dissent, Justice Brennan observed that the Government should take care before enjoining the broadcast of words or expressions spoken by many "in our land of cultural pluralism." That comment, fitting in the 1970's, is even more potent today. If the reserved constitutional question reaches this Court, we should be mindful that words unpalatable to some may be "commonplace" for others, "the stuff of everyday conversations."



    This turned out to be a pretty interesting decision, and it doesn't seem that far fetched to think that the FCC's days of censoring the airwaves MIGHT be numbered.

  • Warty||

    This thread was doomed, Epi. I was just trying to extract some dick jokes out of it, but nooooooo you're too mature for that.

  • ||

    The rule does not make any statement about whether any particular reference or comparison to Adolf Hitler or the Nazis might be appropriate.

    Understood.

    And nevertheless: GOD-WIN. Godwin.

  • ||

    If the embryos do not consent, then they have to live with the consequences of decisions that formed them, not just obscure decisions about their birth method. They are not comparable at all.
    The industrial process of genetic engineering may be ethical, but I'm not so sure about the research to get there, as there will be mistakes. Could it be done in such a manner as to ensure that no-one would have to live with the consequences? What would be the expense of doing so? Can a few - only a few - mistakes be lived with, written off as aceidents, we're very sorry, be lived with in order to benefit a great many people to some degree?
    These seem to me to be the relevant questions.

  • ||

    Catholics might refuse to use regenerative treatments derived from human embryonic stem cells

    Or, they might go ahead and make use of the treatments, and confess afterward. This is one of the more popular aspects of the Church: you can do bad stuff and then make it all better with a few Hail Marys.

  • ||

    There is nothing wrong with merely using technologies/treatments that have been developed by immoral means. Seriously, most of us in the US live on land that was stolen from the native inhabitants, who were forcibly moved and/or killed if they dared resist. There aren't many good and useful things in this world that don't bear the stain of blood upon them from sometime in history.

    To go back to my death camp hypothermia experiment example, if there had been some medical breakthrough as a result of the experiments in which Jews (and Polish priests, everyone conveniently forgets) were held submerged in freezing water until they died, I don't think it would be unethical at all to make use of it. Acknowledging the fact that good things sometimes result from terrible actions doesn't justify the terrible deeds.

  • MaterialMonkee||

    That is a damn well written bit of text

    really excellent stuff

    Its actually good to see a yank use the term liberalism correctly

    "the dispute between liberalism and radical democracy has "to do with how one can reconcile equality with liberty, unity with diversity, or the right of the majority with the right of the minority. Liberals begin with the legal institutionalization of equal liberties, conceiving these as rights held by individual subjects. In their view, human rights enjoy normative priority over democracy, and the constitutional separation of powers has priority over the will of the democratic legislature"

    That is what liberalism is all about

    Social progress through rational application of science and reason with the utmost respect for the INDIVIDUAl

    great stuff

  • ||

    I should add that Bailey's condescending faux-compromising pronouncement that Catholics don't have to use treatments developed from ESCR is a laughable attempt to change the subject and portray anyone who opposes ESCR as an ignorant Luddite.

    Few Catholics have a problem with developing new and revolutionary medical treatments. What we have a problem with is destroying human life in order to get there. A Google search will probably reveal thousands of posts on H&R where I have said this, yet Bailey et al seem not to have gotten the memo. Strange for a community that welcomes debate and discourse, as Bailey claims of the transhumanist movement.

  • ||

    I keep finding more outrageous quotes in this article with every reading. It's almost a blessing:

    The absurdity of a requirement for prenatal consent becomes transparent when you ask proponents of such a requirement if they would forbid fetal surgery to correct spina bifida or fetal heart defects? After all, those fetuses can't give their consent to those procedures, yet it is certainly the moral thing to do. For that matter, taking this strong position on consent to its logically extreme conclusion would mean that children couldn't be treated with drugs, or receive vaccinations.



    Nonsense. There's a big difference between treating spina bifida in utero and tinkering with eye color. A good rule of thumb is, would it be ethical to perform this procedure on an unconscious adult? If the answer is no, you shouldn't be doing it to an embryo either.

  • anarch||

    Must say, I appreciate crimethink's posts.

  • jtuf||

    The future is now. Times of India reported on a topical cure for erectile disfunction that uses nanoparticles.

    The Albert Eistein College of Medicine website also reports on nanoparticles used to fight microbes.

    Dr. Adam Friedman, resident in medicine (dermatology), was awarded second place at the annual dermatology research competition of the New York Academy of Medicine, for his presentation "Nitric Oxide Releasing Nanoparticles: A Novel Antimicrobial Agent for the Treatment of Resistant Pathogenic Organisms." He also received co-first-place honors for a poster presentation at the Resident/Fellow Research Symposium sponsored by Montefiore's department of medicine. The poster was one of four winners out of 65 entries.

  • shut it||

    Chicago Tom,
    Get your own frakkin' site or shut the fuck up.

  • Mr. Rational||

    Blah,Blah,Blah. The majority is always going to dictate to the minority, and human idiocy guarantees that the majority will dictate stupidity a large portion of the time.

  • ||

    The majority is always going to dictate to the minority,

    Actually, historically (and currently) it is generally a minority dictating to the majority.

  • ||

    I don't know. I'm still torn on whether a doctor should be allowed to remove the organs from some patient who is a donor match for more than one life-saving transplant.

    Letting 4 people die so 1 person can live just seems so... narcissistic.

  • ||

    B.T.W. We like to be referred to as Neo Humans, not transhumans. Please be sensitive to this.

  • Craig||

    Or to summarize, left-liberals hope to use the tyranny of the majority to force us recalcitrant individualists to join the Borg, not realizing that it is much more likely to be the science-fearing masses who actually use democratic power to prevent any significant trans-humanistic progress at all.

  • ||

    What if a genetic mod became available which allowed me to control other people's minds?

    Or if a therapy became available to increase the surface area of the cerebral cortex to give a large boost to perceptive ability, but it had a side effect that caused mental injuries in 0.001% of the people around me?

    Should I be allowed to undergo these mods which would increase my relative chance of being successful in life?

  • ||

    What if I wanted to become sub-human?

  • civil servant||

    Take a number.

  • stand in for civil servant ||

    Who says you're not already sub-human?

    Btw, those examples would be clear acts of aggression towards others. Next!

  • ||

    Rawls argues, "reasonable persons will think it unreasonable to use political power, should they possess it, to repress comprehensive views that are not unreasonable though different from their own."

    And what does 'unreasonable' mean? You could drive a truck through that statement. You could put people in jail for offensive speech, force people to go to conventional doctors, force children to go to public school, and ban flag burning under Rawl´s terms.

    "Once we accept the fact that reasonable pluralism is a permanent condition of public culture under free institutions, the idea of the reasonable is more suitable as part of the basis of public justification for a constitutional regime than the idea of moral truth."





    Yes, let´s chuck out moral principles and natural law out the window in favor of convenience. I´m assuming that because Rawls is speaking about free institutions he accepts that people can leave those institutions if they disagree with them strongly enough, either in the specific or as a general concept, or is that unreasonable opposition?
    ¨
    "to do with how one can reconcile equality with liberty, unity with diversity, or the right of the majority with the right of the minority. Liberals begin with the legal institutionalization of equal liberties, conceiving these as rights held by individual subjects. In their view, human rights enjoy normative priority over democracy, and the constitutional separation of powers has priority over the will of the democratic legislature"

    a) You can´t reconcile liberty with equality. Pick one.
    b) Unity can be reconciled with diversity if you´re talking about skin color. If you´re talking about extremely different political views, i.e. Nazis and Zionists living in the same country, then the answer is no. Culture is a stickier subject and depends on what two cultures meet.

    c) There are no rights of the majority. There are only the rights of the individual. Rights of the majority are the rights of the lynch mob.

    d) The last part looks good on paper. Too bad it always ends up going to shit.

    Democracy was never conceived to work beyond a small town, like a New England Town Meeting. A true republic was never conceived to work beyond perhaps a county or small state like Delaware. The US will either fragment or transition into a totalitarian state, democratic or otherwise. It´s too unwieldy, important checks on democratic inclinations have been undone, there is an ever increasing desire to centralize power, political culture has been eroded, and government is ever expanding.

    Our current system sucks.

  • ||

    It still baffles me as to how many of America's intellegentsia will still blatantly showcase their ignorance of Nietszche's philosophy by making such comments regarding his only constructive positive philosophical idea.

  • ||

    I should learn to use the "preview" feature for submitting comments. It is Nietzsche not Nietszche. I apologize for the typo.

  • louboutinvips||

  • ||

    I'm a little confused. At one point, you note that crossing the posthuman barrier can be ethical because we can perfect the transition in animal testing first. Then a couple paragraphs later, when talking about a species war between Homo futuriens and Homo sapiens, you note that rights extend to individuals across species no matter "how brilliant or stupid." So can you explain why an ape or monkey -- by all accounts as intelligent as an infant or young child -- can be ethically enslaved, but Homo futuriens cannot ethically enslave Homo sapiens? It seems that you have conceded that membership to the species Homo sapiens is insufficient as a basis to receive liberal rights, but have conveniently set the species floor at your own species. I would love to hear how you justified seemingly arbitrary (and self-serving) rule.

  • nike shox||

    is good

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