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.
Crucially, Bostrom adds that "transhumanists typically place emphasis on individual freedom and individual choice in the area of enhancement technologies. 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. People should have the right to choose which enhancement technologies, if any, they want to use." This view is clearly consonant with Rawls' argument that in a liberal polity, reasonable persons will not use political power to repress comprehensive doctrines that are different from their own. A core transhumanist value is tolerance, and transhumanists clearly recognize that their fellow citizens adhere to other reasonable comprehensive doctrines.
And transhumanism certainly meets Rawls' third criterion for being a reasonable comprehensive doctrine since robust debate among its adherents shows that it is clearly not unchanging and is still evolving in light of what its adherents see as good and sufficient reasons
So if one accepts Rawls' arguments for how liberal societies must operate morally, transhumanism should be accommodated within the constitutional consensus of liberal democratic societies as a reasonable comprehensive doctrine.