Transhumanism is an emerging social movement that promotes the technological enhancement of human capacities toward the end of creating a utopian era in which “post humans” will enjoy absolute morphological freedom and live for thousands of years.
Most people have never heard of transhumanism, but the movement is quickly gaining respectability. It has already been featured prominently in media reports, including as cover stories in Wired and the New Scientist and is a frequent topic of serious discussion at our most prestigious universities.
I recently attended one such university conference- “Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights,” held at the Stanford University Law School. During the three day international symposium, transhumanists proposed:
The surgical engineering of men to allow them to give birth and the creation of the artificial womb to free women from the burdens of gestation; The “uplifting” of animals to human levels of intelligence and the eventual transformation of all animal life on the planet into post biological states in order to put an end to suffering; Permitting people who want to be amputees (a mental illness known as “body integrity identity disorder”) to have their healthy limbs removed so they can feel complete and whole; The recognition of “post human dignity” that would require an end to discrimination based on “substrate,” meaning the kind of material from which a “being” is made, e.g., biological, silicon, etc., and “ontogeny,” that is, how a consciousness comes into existence. Giving top funding priority to “curing” aging so that within a few decades the “physiological differences between older and younger adults” will be erased.
The foregoing ideas are so un-tethered from the concerns of most people that it is tempting to dismiss transhumanists as so many Star Trek convention devotees. But that would be a mistake. While it is true that the technology required to redesign ourselves into a truly post human species will probably never exist, the distorted values of transhumanism are dangerous, primarily because the movement explicitly and fervently rejects the intrinsic and equal value of all human life.
This key point was emphasized at the conference by James Hughes, a professor at Hartford’s Trinity College and author of the transhumanist manifesto Citizen Cyborg. Hughes argued that society must cast off “human racism,” his term for the belief that we all possess equal moral status merely because we are human beings.
In place of what is sometimes called the sanctity or equality of human life ethic, Hughes urges society to embrace “personhood theory.” Under this view (which is also widely accepted in mainstream bioethics), only “self aware” beings are entitled to the full rights, privileges, and protections of citizenship.
Personhood as the criterion for moral value would entitle smart robots, uplifted animals, and artificially intelligent computers-assuming they ever exist-to equal rights. But the cost would be high to existing and future human beings, particularly the unborn, infants, and the profoundly brain injured, who would all be excluded from the moral community under that ethical paradigm. This could lead to practices such as cloned fetal farming and killing the catastrophically brain injured for their organs.
Unfortunately, such eugenics thinking can be seductive. Indeed, the government is already flirting with transhumanist fantasies. Thus, “Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance,” a 2002 report issued by the National Science Foundation and United States Department of Commerce, recommended the government spend billions pursuing some of the very technologies that transhumanists crave to utilize in their morphological quests. And real money is already being spent on threshold transhumanist agendas: The NIH just issued a $773,000 grant to Case Law School in Cleveland to determine the “ethically-acceptable rules” to permit human research into genetic enhancement technologies.
It is easy to laugh at transhumanist fantasies but there is nothing funny about a movement whose core value is inherently discriminatory and oppressive. And while we will almost surely never become a post human society, we could easily devolve into a post-sanctity-of-life culture. The antidote to such a dystopian future is to stick with the basics and by recommitting ourselves to the fundamental concepts of human exceptionalism and the intrinsic value of all human life.
Award winning author Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His current book is the revised and updated Forced Exit: Euthanasia, Assisted Suicide, and the New Duty to Die.
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