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Ethical Technophile: Understanding Transhumanism

David Moyer

David Moyer covers emerging technology and ethics. A freelance journalist, he has worked for several clients in a writing and consulting capacity. He graduated from the University of North Texas with degrees in Political Science and Religious Studies. In his spare time he enjoys reading, coffee, and passionate debate.

Ethical Technophile: Understanding Transhumanism

It’s impossible to talk about the subject of ethics and emerging technologies without discussing transhumanism. For those unfamiliar with the term, transhumanism is a philosophical and ethical movement whose eventual goal is to fundamentally transform the human condition through the use of emerging technologies. The eventual goal of the movement is to enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities past their biological “norms.” Transhumanists also study the possible benefits and dangers of emerging technologies, as well as the ethical implications of developing such technologies.

This may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but when you consider the developments in brain-machine interfaces, smart drugs, and genome sequencing – technologies that were only science fiction a decade ago – science fiction is increasingly becoming reality.

As the pace of technological development continues to accelerate, so does the rate at which ethical questions about those technologies appear. Understandably, this is relatively uncharted territory, given that the issues these emerging technologies raise are by their very nature unlike ethical issues society has dealt with in the past.

Because of this, as we explore the ethics of emerging technologies in this column, it’s helpful and important to develop a basic understanding of those major philosophical movements that underpin the discussion, as well as to understand the main ethical school that studies the ethics directly applicable to those emerging technologies and their application.

Contemporary transhumanism has its roots in the works of British biologist Julian Huxley. Huxley coined the term transhumanism in a 1957 article, writing:

“Up till now human life has generally been, as Hobbes described it, ‘nasty, brutish and short’; the great majority of human beings (if they have not already died young) have been afflicted with misery… we can justifiably hold the belief that these lands of possibility exist, and that the present limitations and miserable frustrations of our existence could be in large measure surmounted… The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself —- not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity.”

Philosopher Max More, who began articulating the principles of transhumanism in the 1990’s, is often credited as the founder of the modern transhumanist movement.

Though the public-at-large may not be familiar with transhumanism, the movement is one of the most controversial philosophical movements to arise in the last 50 years, and represents an ethic that those interested in emerging technology would benefit from understanding.

In 2002, the World Transhumanist Association presented two formal definitions for transhumanism:

  1. The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities. 
  1. The study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies.

Since the very core of the transhumanist ethic revolves around the idea of what it means to be human, critics of the movement abound. This usually appears in two main forms: those who object to the likelihood of the transhumanist’s goals being achievable, and those who object to the moral principles and worldview that transhumanists advocate.

The former, of course, can only be argued with the literal progression of emergent technologies and the ever evolving way in which humans interact with them. The latter is filled with critics of transhumanism who argue that the transhumanist movement stands in opposition to traditional religious values. Though this point is debatable, it bears mentioning not only because of the influence religion can have on the marketplace, but due to the long historical connection between religion and ethical philosophy.

Admittedly, this article can only barely scratch the surface of transhumanism. Readers interested in learning more about the movement should check out Max More’s Extropian Principles, as well as Francis Fukuyama’s critique of transhumanism.

In the last few decades, we’ve experienced the development of the Internet, smart phones, genomic medicine, brain-machine interfaces, augmented reality, and other life-altering technologies.

As these technologies continue to spawn new technologies that have the potential to alter our lives at a fundamental level, it’s worth taking a moment to ponder the question of what it is exactly that makes us human. Answering that question can and will fundamentally alter how one views the technological “road ahead,” defining whether technologies present the opportunity to enhance our humanity, or proffer only the risk of losing that which makes us human.

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