A fight over whether or not transhumanism can be libertarian broke out over at The American Conservative. The contretemps began with an article by Zoltan Istvan, author of The Transhumanist Wager. Istvan is also seeking to become the Libertarian Party candidate for governor of California.
In "The Growing World of Libertarian Transhumanism," Istvan optimistically asserts that "freedom from the government will allow radical science to go on undisturbed."
Zoltan defines transhumanism as "the international movement of using science and technology to radically change the human being and human experience. Its primary goal is to deliver and embrace a utopian techno-optimistic world." Due to rapid technological progress "the world is shifting under our feet—and libertarian transhumanism is a sure way to navigate the chaos to make sure we arrive at the best future possible."
Kai Weiss, a researcher at the Austrian Economics Center and Hayek Institute in Vienna, Austria, swiftly denounced the piece. "Transhumanism should be rejected by libertarians as an abomination of human evolution," he wrote.
Clearly there is some disagreement.
Weiss is correct that Istvan doesn't expend much intellectual effort linking transhumanism with libertarian thinking. Istvan largely assumes that people seeking to flourish should have the freedom to enhance their bodies and minds and those of their children without much government interference. So what abominable transhumanist technologies does Weiss denounce?
Weiss includes defeating death, robotic hearts, virtual reality sex, telepathy via mind-reading headsets, brain implants, ectogenesis, artificial intelligence, exoskeleton suits, designer babies, and gene editing tech. "At no point [does Istvan] wonder if we should even strive for these technologies," Weiss thunders.
While Istvan may not wonder, Weiss fails to make a single argument against these technological developments: It is apparently self-evident to him that they are evil.
As with all new technologies, unintended consequences are inevitable and people can and will surely misuse them. Libertarians know all too well that vigilance against government abuse of modern technologies is vital. These worries do not, however, constitute preemptive arguments for preventing people from voluntarily seeking to use the fruits of innovation to work out how to live the best lives that they can.
Oddly, as a riposte against libertarian transhumanism, Weiss cites Christian conservative Rod Dreher's assertion that "choice matters more than what is chosen. The Technological Man is not concerned with what he should desire; rather, he is preoccupied with how he can acquire or accomplish what he desires." This is a non-sequitur. Of course, libertarians (and one hopes most other folks) are concerned about what it is that we should desire. The central question is who, if anyone, has the right to stop us from pursuing our private and non-aggressive desires once we've applied our intellects and moral imaginations to figuring out what it is that we want?
Progressives and conservatives believe government has extensive authority to tell citizens how to live their lives. Libertarians do not. On that count, Weiss is entirely correct to call out Istvan for succumbing to authoritarianism when he advocates for licensing reproduction as a way to prevent overpopulation.
As someone who evidently thinks he is committed to enlarging human liberty, Weiss would do well to ponder this observation from economics Nobelist Friedrich Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty:
Nowhere is freedom more important than where our ignorance is greatest—at the boundaries of knowledge, in other words, where nobody can predict what lies a step ahead….the ultimate aim of freedom is the enlargement of those capacities in which man surpasses his ancestors and to which each generation must endeavor to add its share—its share in the growth of knowledge and the gradual advance of moral and aesthetic beliefs, where no superior must be allowed to enforce one set of views of what is right or good and where only further experience can decide what should prevail. It is wherever man reaches beyond his present self, where the new emerges and assessment lies in the future, that liberty ultimately shows its value.
Hayek's point is that human beings are terrible at foresight. Engaging in a robust process of trial, error, and correction is how nearly all moral and technological progress has ever been made.
As I have earlier argued:
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.
While Weiss asserts "it is time for libertarians to argue against the notion of extreme transhumanism," he ultimately concedes "the state shouldn't prohibit it." So long as he leaves government power out it, Weiss is, of course, free to argue as much as he likes that transhumanism is an abomination contrary to libertarian thinking. But I suspect that few people, especially folks committed to liberty and the development of technologies that enable them and their progeny to have better chances to lead flourishing lives, will heed his Luddite counsel.
For those interested in libertarian arguments in favor of transhumanism, you may be interested in my essay, "The Case for Enhancing People" and my book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution.
Disclosure: I was on a panel with Istvan at FreedomFest in Las Vegas a month ago discussing the much dreaded prospect of designer babies. I am generally in favor of allowing parents to use modern biotechnologies with the goal of improving the prospects that their children will enjoy flourishing lives.