[Paleopsych] Frank Forman: Transhumanism's Vital Center

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Tue Oct 26 19:22:23 UTC 2004

Frank Forman: Transhumanism's Vital Center

[This is for discussion. I submitted this to the Journal of Evolution and 
Technology, but it has not yet been reviewed. The editor, Mark Walker, 
told me I am free to send it out for discussion. I assume permission to 
pass your comments on, unless you specify otherwise.]

Review of James Hughes, Citizen Cyborg: Why Democracies Must Respond to
the Redesigning of Human Nature (Boulder: Westview Press, 2004, 320 pp.,
$26). Submitted to the Journal of Evolution and Technology.

Citizen Cyborg is an excellent survey of the promises and fears of 
technological developments that will drastically alter humans and human nature 
itself. The author, James Hughes, is a sociologist at Trinity College in 
Hartford, Connecticut, and, as Executive Director of the World Transhumanist 
Association, well qualified to survey "transhumanist" issues, issues that 
include modifications of the human genome and developments in biotechnology, 
nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence. Hughes aims to counter fears of 
both left and right "bioLuddites" who would forestall these developments by 
assuring them that they will be regulated democratically to secure safety and 
widespread access. He proposes what he calls "democratic transhumanism," which 
steers a middle ground of "regulation between resignation and relinquishment," 
between the resignation that comes from whatever market forces decide and the 
relinquishment that comes from prohibitions of technology from either left or 
right. He seeks to capture, in other words, what Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., 
called "The Vital Center" in his 1949 book by that title (Boston: Houghton 
Mifflin). Schlesinger meant by that phrase the broad middle ground between the 
extremes of left and right, though he in fact ruled out a very large portion of 
the political right as being extreme.

The vital center for Mr. Hughes is closer to the median of sociology professors 
than to the American public, just as it was for Schlesinger, and his scheme of 
things would involve far more redistribution than exists in American today. 
Indeed, he states that "no country in the world is as democratic as it should 
be" (p. 51) and later that "no society is anywhere close to an ideal democracy" 
(p. 190), which seems to refer not to inadequate constitutional safeguards, 
imperfect processes in other words, but to imperfect products, namely a 
too-concentrated distribution of income. By and large, however, Mr. Hughes 
supports the rights of parents both to adopt and to refuse to adopt technology 
to improve their children, improvements from the parents' point of view. He 
balks, however, at the rights of deaf parents to engineer deafness in their 
children so that they can belong to the deaf subculture. This puts him more at 
the vital center than to the left of sociology professors. Still, he is closer 
to the center of American electorate than are libertarians, who make up a large 
fraction of transhumanists, whose views he considers in detail, in his 
excellent short history of transhumanism.

What is missing from his book is just this constitutional perspective of 
democracy as process. So, in a case about whether to terminate life support, 
the constitutional procedure is not to consult bio-ethicists in arriving at 
some ostensibly objective "truth" on the matter, but rather to consider how a 
representative individual would assess the costs and benefits. In my own 
personal case, I feel that, should I be mostly in pain and my children say, 
"Pop, it's time to go," they are probably right, especially considering that, 
in my own case, my wealth will consist primarily of my pension, which will 
terminate after both myself and my spouse have died. But my pension situation 
and my own attitudes are peculiar to me. Though I can use persuasion, I have 
only one vote.

The constitutional issue is for the legislature to aim at what the median voter 
would regard as the appropriate trade-off and how to build safeguards into the 
law of which the median voter would approve. But the existence of pressure 
groups means that the leglislature will not automatically enact what the median 
voter would want in this particular situation of terminating life support, or 
in any other case. All constitutions will be imperfect and subject to 
manipulation: the task of constitution makers is to find a system of 
legislative rules, which define the areas in which the legislature is empowered 
to act, and overarching rules, such as a Bill of Rights, which will command 
universal consent over the long run.

Such constitutional rules and safeguards are far more basic and important than 
specific laws. I wish Mr. Hughes had addressed constitutional procedures more 
and had informed us less of his personal values and favored laws. This is all 
the more important because subgroups within our country are going to be deeply 
divided. Happily, Americans move an average of every seven years. Over time, 
Americans will sort themselves by moving to states that give them their 
prefered mix of taxes, benefits, and regulation, including those regulations 
that are germane to transhumanist issues. Mr. Hughes, however, does not take a 
federalist perspective (few people do), but here's hoping that he will realize 
that transhumanist issues do not need to be settled, one way or another, at the 
national level, but rather that states will attract movers that offer policies 
that allow and promote transhumanist developments.

All this said, there is a powerful constitutional case for redistribution that 
has little to do with Mr. Hughes's strong personal preferences on the matter. 
This case is what economists call the Pareto criterion, which states that major 
changes should render no one worse off while making at least some better off. A 
firm outsold by a competitor is worse off, certainly, but only in the short 
run, for the losers benefit in the long run by having rules of a competitive 
market order in place. Mr. Hughes is not a foe of capitalism, as such, unlike 
some left bioLuddites. What is the case, or rather the prospect, is that 
technological development may render large swaths of the population worse off, 
the most noted prospect being mass unemployment due to the proliferation of 
robots and artificial intelligence, but also the prospect of wealthy 
individuals purchasing cognitive enhancements for themselves and their 
children. From the perspective of a constitutional agreement that would be 
accepted unanimously, legislative procedures allowing for minimum incomes and 
subsidies for cognitive enhancements could be built into the constitution. But 
note again that such constitutional empowering is a matter or process and only 
secondarily a matter of product. When Mr. Hughes complains that "no society is 
anywhere close to an ideal democracy" (p. 190), he is referring to product.

These criticisms of a lack of attention to constitutional and federalist issues 
aside, Citizen Cyborg offers a thorough discussion of the prospects for 
transhuman developments, mostly near-term prospects having to do with health 
and bodily betterment--from better medical care and life extension, palliating 
and removing disabilites and mental disorders, to cognitive enhancements and 
happiness pills--but rather little to more distant prospects of cyborgs, brain 
uploading, man-machine interfaces, and the Singularity, all terms well familiar 
to transhumanists. Mr. Hughes does discuss the rights of subhuman animals, 
particularly when they get cognitive upgrades, and those of robots, a 
discussion that I hope will receive more extensive grounding in a future book.

BioLuddite objections from the right are detailed in the book and answers 
given. For the most part, these objections stem from a view of natural rights 
that holds that people, including embryonic people, have a very specific nature 
that is not to be tampered with, most often on the grounds that human nature 
was designed by the God of the Bible, without, Mr. Hughes fails to note, giving 
chapter and verse, which we would be hearing endlessly if they existed. The 
usual arguments about embryos and abortion will continue, with little movement 
toward agreement. Mr. Hughes's own arguments give ammunition to those who 
already agree with him but are unlikely to change the minds of those who do 
not. This is very common, and the solution would be federalism, if only that 
the rightist bioLuddites have long ceased to be federalist.

A more serious bioLuddite objection from the right, serious to those who do not 
share their views on embryos and abortion but need to be addressed, is that 
valuable aspects of human nature are at risk of being lost if human nature is 
transformed. Suffering and death give meaning to life. The virtue of courage 
will be weakened, inasmuch as courage often consists of overcoming fear. If 
one's brain can be modified to suppress fear, then the hero in battle will not 
be such a hero. (I doubt this applies to intellectual courage, a far more 
important kind of courage.) And the issue of genetically engineered athletes 
will only exacerbate arguments over fairness that already plague arguments over 
blood doping and the like. (Again, is athletics very important?)

The most serious objection, not discussed at length by Mr. Hughes, is that 
human nature may become emotionally flat like that of the robots of innumerable 
movies. I say that only those who love Brahms know the full price that might be 
paid if human nature loses certain traits. If Brahms-loving transhumanists are 
willing to pay the price that there will never be a proper successor to Brahms, 
then this counts far more than a similar statement from a stereotypical 
repressed computer nerd. I support transhumanism because I don't think the 
social conditions that allowed Brahms to write his music will ever be 
duplicated and because, carefully guided, upgraded humans could have more 
emotional depth than current ones. A federalist pluralism is again a possible 
answer, for subsocieties could arise that engineer deeper emotions. What I 
don't know is whether there can be enough isolation, lasting long enough, 
possibly many generations, to make this dream of a plurality of subsocieties 
feasible. Mr. Hughes certainly hopes that transhumanist technologies will not 
be used to perfect warfare, in which case the first society that adopts genetic 
engineering, state directed or not, will take over the world and may turn out 
to be made up of emotionally flat robots.

Mr. Hughes implictly assumes that reproduction will continue to be among 
discrete organisms. Most humans, indeed all animals above the level of corals, 
reproduce in this manner. When artificial intelligence comes along, it may not 
be meaningful to speak of reproduction at all. When is one computer the child 
of another? This sort of speculation goes far beyond the short-term focus of 
Citizen Cyborg, but the future may be upon us within the time period Mr. Hughes 
addresses. Again, a topic for his next book.

Left-wing bioLuddism overlaps with that on the right, but its big complaints 
are hated capitalism and fears that transhumanist benefits will be unequally 
available. Mr. Hughes says that the fears that intelligence amplification will 
exacerbate inequality are correct but that more intelligent people will come to 
agree with his democractic transhumanist vision (p. 41) and furthermore that 
measures can be taken to assure, not necessarily exactly equal access, but more 
than the market will provide. This can be handled, as argued above, not by 
being particularly "left-wing" but by invoking the Pareto criterion that no one 
be made worse off by broad changes. This is not the same as the stronger demand 
that any change should benefit everyone by he same amount. Giving in to that 
demand would stop all change, as Mr. Hughes notices, and not just transhumanist 
improvements of the human condition.

The case against capitalism, on the other hand, can be more serious. Jeremy 
Rifkin, a leftist who has teamed up even with Christian bioLuddites, is opposed 
to the commodification of life by nefarious capitalists (pp. 63-66) and with 
feminists is aghast at "uteruses for hire." It is quite true that societies 
prohibit certain actions from entering the "cash nexus," contracting for one's 
own slavery being the most obvious example, and every society regards gift 
giving as lying outside the nexus of contract. Indeed, employers in every 
nation are required to place part of their employee compensation out of their 
reach in retirement programs. No society allows freedom of contract for 
marriage and greatly restricts the kinds of marriages that will be permitted, 
in particular provisions for disinherting or divorcing a spouse.

Conservatives fully join leftists in this regard of restricting what may be the 
subject of contract, and both groups protest, not unreasonably, the increase of 
activity that has come to fall under contract. The French, concerned with the 
invasion of their culture by Disney and other American purveyors of culture, 
restrict the number of American movies, even if rather ineffectually.

In fact, globalization of capitalism has contradictory effets. On the one hand, 
nations will increasingly share cultural products, especially imports from the 
United States, on the other, powerful trends to cultural diversification emerge 
within countries. The number of subcultures is exploding in every country with 
a more or less free economy, as profit-seeking businesses seek to invent and 
exploit niche markets, the largest by far being that for Christian 
Evangelicals. This is problematic, for evangelicalism has become one more 
lifestyle choice, to which one can accede or recede from at will, the very 
opposite of the restoration of a monoculture, in which those refusing the 
Christian offer of salvation are marginalized. Being born again in a 
pluralistic society is, and is felt to be but a simulacrum of the salvation of 

This is the post-modern dilemma, a topic I hope Mr. Hughes takes up in his next 
book. He will have no solution to the dilemma; rather he might observe that 
conservative fears that society will come unglued are no longer serious, the 
reason being that a general acceptance of capitalistic exchange replaces much 
of the social glue that used to be provided by religion and other forms of 
social control. Not as much social glue is needed as it once was. Mr. Hughes 
might also explore whether the network of communication provided by the 
Internet is also providing enormous social glue. Businesses, despite what 
leftists think, are generally opposed to armed conflict, for they disrupt 
production and exchange. With increasing communication across countries, 
people, and not just businessmen, will resist armed attacks on their friends in 
other countries.

The hatred for capitalism among leftists is, therefore, greatly exaggerated. 
The alternative to capitalism, namely central planning, has failed in the eyes 
of all but a few stalwart diehards. Mr. Hughes merely wants to use the state to 
regulate capitalism and to redistribute income, including income that could be 
used for transhumanist upgrades for self, spouse, and chilren. Again, the 
problem is one of institutional design, of constitutional process rather than 
specifying one's personally prefered products. Here is hoping that his next 
book will reconsider his "vital center" approach from the standpoint of 
institutional design.

Mr. Hughes states, "The political terrain of the twentieth century was shaped 
by economic issues of taxation and social welfare, and cultural issues of race, 
gender and civil liberties. The political terrain of the twenty-first century 
will add a new dimension, biopolitics" (p. 55). This is quite true, but I 
suggest that a more general shift is occurring, namely that the principal 
left-right political axis is going to change from central planning vs. free 
market in the earlier part of the twentieth century and equality vs. inequality 
in the later part to pluralism vs. universalism in the current century. There 
are several minor axes, to wit, secular vs. sacred, self-expression vs. 
self-restraint, change vs. tradition, cooperation vs. competition, 
tender-minded vs. tough-minded, relativism vs. absolutism, and many more, some 
perhaps subsumed by others. (The left tends to be less interested in virtue and 
moral education generally than the right, and Mr. Hughes, being on the left, 
does not consider how children should be brought up in a world of mass 
unemployment, how moral education will instill other habits besides those of 
being a productive member of society. Here's hoping that his next book will 
address the matter.) There is a general clustering, not at the level of any 
high theory that reduces political preferences to a single dimension, but a 
clustering in fact. Left-wingers tend, albeit often quite incompletely, to be 
on the left side of each axis, not always because they have thought out each 
opinion, but because their co-left-wingers also have them. Right-wingers do 
likewise. For myself, I am a left-wing secularist, moderately to the right as 
far as self-restraint goes, much to the left in favoring change, mixed on 
cooperation, tough-minded more in rhetoric than in practice, and fairly much an 
absolutist (evolution limits the feasible pace of change quite a bit). For the 
major axes, I am a twentieth-century rightist for both the free market and 
inequality. What's more important is that I am decidedly a twenty-first century 
leftist in favor of pluralism.

Of course, my own preferences count for no more than those of Mr. Hughes: we 
each have one vote, mine for less, in fact, since he reaches a greater 
audience. But he is very much a pluralist and is sorely reluctant to interfere 
with reproductive freedom, except perhaps in the case of deaf parents making 
sure that their children will have deaf genes and become part of "deaf 
culture," thus parting from his more extreme leftist friends. On the other 
hand, he speculates that pressures, perhaps from the state, will be brought to 
bear on parents who refuse to enhance their children. This collides with his 
general pluralism, which opposes any universalist conception of what 
enhancement means absolutely. Still, the tension remains and will remain.

Cyborg Citizen deals very little with heated foreign policy debates, but much 
as he admires many aspects of America, he is probably opposed to using the 
American military to spread "democratic capitalism" and "American values" to 
countries in the Islamic world. He deals not at all with foreign trade policy 
or the spread of American cultural products. For my own part, as a twenty-first 
century leftist pluralist, I am not pleased with the McDonaldization of the 
world, but as a twentieth century free marketeer, I can see no solution worth 
its cost besides urging subscribing to Adbusters and making other acts of what 
the great French sociologist Jean Baudrillard called "micro-resistance."

Mr. Hughes is not in the "vital center" of sociology professors in at least one 
important respect. He states, "Contrary to the vacuous assertions of Francis 
Fukuyama and Bill McKibben that we are all biological equals, a lot of social 
inequality is built on a biological foundation, and enhancement technology 
makes it possible to redress that source of inequality" (p. 195). Risking a 
threat of expulsion from leftist circles, he states: "Gene therapy brings us 
back to Galton and the eugenicists, who were half right about the inheritance 
of intelligence, although not about its relationship to race and class.... 
These findings and other accumulating evidence give strong support to the idea 
that there are a finite number of genes that determine general intelligence, 
'g', and not just separate genes determining individual intellectual capacities 
like memory, spatial visualization or verbal skills" (p. 39).

Intelligence is quite bound up in the equality issue, but let us depart from 
that twentieth century preoccupation and hope that there has been so much 
cullture-gene coevolution, even along racial lines, that there will be major 
internal resistance to a universal culture, thus keeping the world safe for 
pluralism. I keep looking for and finding signs that leftists are indeed 
shifting to pluralism as the principle left-right political axis, that the 
failures of egalitarian programs to make people more equal though environmental 
manipulation are now so apparent to leftists that they are no longer pushing 
them, just as they are no longer pushing centrally planned economies. Their 
hatred of capitalism is no longer grounded on the lost opportunity to centrally 
plan the economic system, and not even that much any more over its generation 
of inequality, but rather because of its supposed cultural hegenomy. Mr. 
Hughes's egalitarianism is not greatly concerned with the generation of 
inequality but with what he sees as unacceptable products of that generation. 
Yet this outcome can be handled by the Pareto criterion in a renegotiated 
social contract, which will include provision of income transfers--remember he 
gets only one vote on how much--part of which may be devoted to using new 
transhumanist technologies. His next book should consider more carefully 
whether only a generalized transfer should be made or whether certain 
technologies should be provided for all, whether they want to pay for them or 
not, as is already the case for much of health care.

I keep urging the author of Citizen Cyborg to write another book. The current 
one give atrociously few citations. Another major omission is that he does 
little to argue that democratic transhumanism must be offered in order to be 
accepted, as opposed to Hughes's telling us "this is how I want the world to 
be." He is confident that, as intelligence is boosted, more and more people 
will come to agree with him. Replace him with me, please. But no, more 
intelligent people will tear up any blueprints we make for the future and 
replace them with far better ones. I want enough pluralism for this to happen, 
if only because my own culture, based as it is in Europe, just as it is for our 
author, has changed so much over the course of its history that only a 
universalist could pretend that all answers have been found.

Most of all, I urge Mr. Hughes to move out of the twentieth century and into 
the twenty-first: "At the turn of the century most working people in the 
industrialized countries worked 3000 hours a year from their early teens to the 
day they died" (p. 215). Gotcha! Here's hoping that his next book will take up 
constitutional design, process against products, and the shift to pluralism vs. 
universalism as the major political divide between transhumanists and 
bioLuddites. The vital center is shifting, and he should shift along with it.


Frank Forman is an economist at the U.S. Department of Education--his views are 
distinct from theirs--and the author of The Metaphysics of Liberty (Dordrect, 
Holland: Kluwer Academic, 1989). He regularly participates in Internet 
discussions under the handle of Premise Checker. His e-mail address is 
checker at panix.com and his website http://www.panix.com/~checker (don't forget 
the tilde).

More information about the paleopsych mailing list