I don’t know if I’d take his intellectual history to the bank, but James Hughes is dealing with some serious issues in a series of blog posts about internal tensions within transhumanism as they relate to the Enlightenment ideas out of which he wants to claim it springs. In this post, for example, he notes how transhumanism is torn between a universalistic and a particularistic streak; this question is important because of its connection to the moral framework within which we should be thinking about the rise of transhuman diversity and the relationships between seriously advanced forms of posthuman intelligence and such merely human beings as might still be around in the future. To put the problem somewhat more bluntly than Professor Hughes does, the issue is whether posthumans will be under any ethical obligation to be nice to their human forebears. On the one hand, Prof. Hughes sees clearly that transhumanism’s stress on diversity, and the libertarian moral relativism that goes along with it, provides no good grounds for any such obligation. On the other hand, transhumanists, Hughes notes, seem to want to be right-thinking liberals when it comes to extending the sphere of egalitarian concern (a good, universal Enlightenment value) and being on the right side of contemporary human rights issues. It’s a puzzlement.
Prof. Hughes diagnoses that “transhumanists, especially of the libertarian variety, have retreated too far from Enlightenment moral universalism, towards moral relativism.” His concluding prescription:
We need to reassert our commitment to moral universalism and the political project of equality for all persons and institutions of global governance powerful enough to enforce world law and individual rights…. [But] we partisans of the Enlightenment cannot defend moral universalism by re‑asserting that rights are God‑given, natural, or self‑evident. We have to acknowledge that rights and moral status are social agreements, shifting daily with the balance of political forces seeking to limit and expand them. Moral universalism needs to be tempered with respect for diversity and, where meaningful, respect for individual consent and collective self‑determination. Our moral universalism needs to acknowledge the limits of our current perspective, the possibility that some of our universals may in fact be parochially human, and that our descendants may come up with better ethical and political models.
There is a technical term for what Prof. Hughes suggests here: having your cake and eating it too. Unless he is imagining some kind of neo-Hegelian universal and homogenous state, in what sense can rights and moral status be universals if they are a matter of social agreement and choice? (I’ll try to take up in a later post the question of what Prof. Hughes has to say elsewhere about powerful global governance.) At the same time, what are respect for diversity, individual consent, and collective self-determination (an interesting tension is surely possible between the last two) being presented as except putative universals, despite the fact that Prof. Hughes introduces them as ways to temper moral universalism?
Prof. Hughes’s hopes for the future seem equally confused. When he suggests that what we think of as universals might really just be expressions of the “parochially human,” that might seem to open the door to the progressive uncovering of genuine universals based on a less limited perspective. But in fact all he will commit to is that our descendants may come up with “models” for behavior that are “better.” The way he has framed the issue, he can really only mean better for them, according to whatever balance of forces will operate in their world. That may or may not look better, or be better, for us.
It is surely true that there is an irreducible element of Enlightenment thinking in transhumanism, but it has little to do with transhumanist politics and morality per se, and is to be found rather in the topic of another of Prof. Hughes’s posts: scientific and technical progressivism. For the most part, though, transhumanism seems to rely on thinkers who reacted against Enlightenment liberal universalism, as is the case of Mill, whose utilitarian libertarianism explicitly eschews any rights foundation. Indeed, the éminence grise behind transhumanism may well be that great anti-liberal and anti-Enlightenment thinker Nietzsche. Too few transhumanists, if any, have fully come to grips with the significance of a crucial point of agreement with Nietzsche: that mankind is nothing other than a rope over an abyss, a rope leading to the Superman.