As part of its special issue on the so-called alt-right, New York Magazine has published an especially dim-witted article attacking transhumanism, entitled "Techno-Libertarians Praying for Dystopia." The author, Mark O'Connell, begins by going after Silicon Valley venture capitalist and wrong-headed Trump supporter Peter Thiel, who also happens to have some interest in how the technological Singularity may unfold. Thiel has made no secret about the fact that he has long had "this really strong sense that death was a terrible, terrible thing." Thus he finances researchers who hope to develop anti-aging technologies and think tanks that try to foresee the consequences of succeeding at that goal. Fine.
To illustrate Thiel's evil intentions, O'Connell points to his 2009 assertion, "I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible." As further evidence of political depravity, he cites Thiel's 2011 observation, "Probably the most extreme form of inequality is between people who are alive and people who are dead." Based on these statements, O'Connell accuses Thiel of "ethical simple-mindedness." Really? Is it not more ethically simple-minded to believe that democratic authoritarianism cannot run roughshod over minority rights or that ensuring that everybody is equally diseased, disabled, and dead is somehow the height of moral probity.
O'Connell then notes that other Silicon Valley "libertarians" share Thiel's interest in human enhancement (and not only those who reside in purlieus of Palo Alto do too). Apparently, for O'Connell, the desire for ageless bodies and enhanced minds necessarily amounts to a rightwing conspiracy. As evidence for his claim that transhumanism is a manifestation of the alt-right, O'Connell digs up a couple of oddballs who've hung around the fringes of transhumanism who now call themselves neoreactionaries. Of course, anybody can apply the labels libertarian and transhumanist to themselves with malice aforethought. Remember how progressives stole the term "liberal" back in the day. Once O'Connell has made the old guilt-by-association rhetorical move, he does admit that one of his two exemplars of supposedly alt-right transhumanism is "these days something of a pariah from the transhumanist movement." Indeed.
Transhumanism is a big tent. For example, my sometime intellectual sparring partner James Hughes, who is former executive director of the World Transhumanist Association, is a fierce social democrat and author of Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future (2005). In his Transhumanist Values manifesto, Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom argues for wide access to enhancement technologies:
The full realization of the core transhumanist value requires that, ideally, everybody should have the opportunity to become posthuman. It would be sub-optimal if the opportunity to become posthuman were restricted to a tiny elite.
There are many reasons for supporting wide access: to reduce inequality; because it would be a fairer arrangement; to express solidarity and respect for fellow humans; to help gain support for the transhumanist project; to increase the chances that you will get the opportunity to become posthuman; to increase the chances that those you care about can become posthuman; because it might increase the range of the posthuman realm that gets explored; and to alleviate human suffering on as wide a scale as possible.
The wide access requirement underlies the moral urgency of the transhumanist vision. Wide access does not argue for holding back. On the contrary, other things being equal, it is an argument for moving forward as quickly as possible. 150,000 human beings on our planet die every day, without having had any access to the anticipated enhancement technologies that will make it possible to become posthuman. The sooner this technology develops, the fewer people will have died without access.
One crowning achievement of Enlightenment humanism is the principle of tolerance, of putting up with people who look different, talk differently, worship differently and live differently than we do. In the future, our descendants may not all be unenhanced Homo sapiens, but they will still be moral beings who can be held accountable for their actions. There is no a priori reason to think that the same liberal political and moral principles that apply to diverse human beings today would not apply to relations among future humans and transhumans.
The highest expression of human nature and dignity is to strive to overcome the limitations imposed on us by our genes, our evolution and our environment. Future generations will look back at the beginning of the 21st century and be astonished that some well-meaning and intelligent people actually wanted to stop bio-nano-infotech research and deployment just to protect their cramped and limited vision of human nature. If transhumanism is allowed to progress, I predict that our descendants will look back and thank us for making their world of longer, healthier and abler lives possible.
Does that sound like anyone is praying for a dystopia?