May 25, 2024

Transhumanism: the theologians

Transhumanism, at least in the Journal of Medical Ethics, has a distinctly theological flavour.

Transhumanism, at least in the Journal of Medical Ethics, has a distinctly theological flavour. In recent weeks several bioethicists have been debating vigorously in its pages about whether homo sapiens will achieve salvation by transcending himself, what the responsibilities of a transcendent being would be towards homo sapiens, and whether it is moral to create a transcendent being. It is vaguely reminiscent of mediaeval disputes about the genus and species of angelic beings and inquiries into God’s motives in creating the human race.

Launching the debate was Nicholas Agar, of Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand. He contended that “post-persons”  — beings with a higher moral status than us (ie, homo sapiens) – is possible. With genetic engineering, drugs, and other forms of cognitive enhancement, it is possible for us to create beings with intellects so advanced that to us they are literally unimaginable.

However, he thinks that it would be a very bad idea. Why? Because, just as we humans use and sometimes destroy beings of lower moral status such as rocks and goats for our own benefit, post-persons could do the same to us. This might happen in “supreme emergencies”, when we would be reluctantly sacrificed for a greater good, or “supreme opportunities”, when we would be cheerfully sacrificed for a greater good. “It is reasonable to think that the creation of post-persons will leave mere persons more likely to suffer significant harms,” he writes. Besides, we have no moral obligation to create these awe-inspiring being.

By and large, other bioethicists were far more optimistic about a post-human (or post-person, or superhuman, or Humanity 2.0) world. Thomas Douglas, of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, believes that creating post-persons is almost a moral duty. “The lives of post-persons would often be valuable in themselves. It is plausible that post-persons would be capable of enjoying extremely rich and fulfilling lives—perhaps lives much more fulfilling than any that a mere person could live.” From a utilitarian perspective (most transhumanists are utilitarians), “though the harms imposed on mere persons would not be compensated, they would be outweighed.”

Ingmar Persson, of the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden, agrees. He and Julian Savulescu have argued in the past that ordinary humans need to be morally enhanced to keep from destroying each other. “If this argument is correct, mere persons will benefit in the longer run if they are mixed up with morally wiser post-persons who can help them avoid catastrophe.”

Other bioethicists find flaws in Agar’s reasoning. Michael Hauskeller, of the University of Exeter, in the UK, says if even we accept Agar’s claim that posthumans would have a higher moral status than mere humans (he does not agree), then it would not, on those grounds, be morally wrong to create them. David Wasserman, of Yeshiva University, in New York, feels that a future dominated by post-humans is so murky that there is very little justification for alarm. “Like a reluctant parent, Agar accentuates the negative, adopting a worst-case scenario in his anxiety about bringing new beings into the world.”

Political scientist Francis Fukyyama once called transhumanism one of the world’s most dangerous ideas. Whether or not that is true, this arcane debate in one of the world’s leading bioethics journals does suggest, as he says, that “ Transhumanism of a sort is implicit in much of the research agenda of contemporary biomedicine.” 

Michael Cook
Creative commons