[Paleopsych] American Journal of Bioethics: Review of Citizen Cyborg

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Wed Oct 5 17:15:30 UTC 2005

Review of Citizen Cyborg
American Journal of Bioethics
Volume 5 Number 5 | September-October 2005

Book Review Of "James Hughes. 2004. Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic
Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future" Cambridge,
MA: Westview Press. 294 pages, $26.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Linda MacDonald Glenn

I love technology; it promises so much. Then, when it doesn't work, I find it 
infuriating and frustrating. Transhumanists (short for "transitional humans") 
have a reputation for embracing technology with unbridled passion. Conservative 
social theorist Francis Fukuyama claims that transhumanism is the "world's most 
dangerous idea." Some conservative groups have described transhumanists as 
extreme militant libertarians, who advocate anarchy and pure capitalism. Given 
that context, I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised when I finished 
reading Citizen Cyborg. Author James Hughes does not advocate any sort of 
extreme militant libertarianism; he advocates a more balanced democratic 
socialism. 1

James Hughes teaches health policy at Trinity College in Connecticut, and is 
the executive director of the World Transhumanist Association (WTA). He 
describes Citizen Cyborg as a book "about the conflict between [J.S.] Haldane's 
optimism that we could overcome our squeamishness about technology to build a 
better world and [Aldous] Huxley's pessimism that biotechnologies will 
dehumanize and enslave us." As a self-described Buddhist, he attempts to find 
the "middle way" between Haldane and Huxley.

The first section of the book is a comprehensive review of the latest advances 
in the field of converging technologies: nanotechnology, biotechnology, 
information technology, and cognitive technologies (NBIC). Hughes draws much of 
his information from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), which convened 
a series of workshops and commissioned a series of papers on the consequences 
of the convergence of NBIC for "improving human performance." The NBIC report 

"With proper attention to ethical issues and societal needs, converging 
technologies could achieve a tremendous improvement in human abilities, 
societal outcomes, the nation's productivity, and quality of life."

Hughes contends that these new technologies can help end violence, war, and 
torture; repair bodies and brains; help us be happier and smarter; and live 
longer. Despite his ample optimism for the potential good, Hughes recognizes 
the importance of monitoring and regulating the development and use of this 

The second section of the book describes "the new biopolitical landscape," in 
terms of extremist groups including defenders of natural law, left-wing 
bioLuddites, "upwingers" (as opposed to left-wing, right-wing, or any other 
wing), "extropians" (techno-libertarians) and run-of-the-mill transhumanists. 
Such a perspective is rather contrary to Buddhist philosophy. (Buddhism tends 
to focus on the "oneness," rather than categorization, and "right 
speech"-speaking in ways that are trustworthy, harmonious, comforting, and 
worth taking to heart). Hughes spends too much time arguing with and bashing 
those who are leery of the technology; the focus on the potential good is 
persuasive enough. Also, as he agrees that the development and application of 
this technology needs to be monitored and regulated, he has more common ground 
with the moderately cautious bioLuddites than the reader is otherwise led to 
believe. On the other hand, considering Fukuyama's comment about the 
"dangerousness" of transhumanism, Hughes' defensive tone is understandable. 
Hughes emphasizes the position of the WTA that "Racism, sexism, speciesism, 
belligerent nationalism, and religious intolerance are unacceptable," and 
explains that the WTA formally denounces "Any and all doctrines of racial or 
ethnic supremacy/inferiority [as] incompatible with the fundamental tolerance 
and humanist roots of transhumanism".

Hughes also lays out an argument for rights based on the notion of personhood, 
and argues that the minimal criterion for personhood is self-awareness. The 
difficulty with using self-awareness as a criterion is that it is terribly 
subjective, and therefore not objectively verifiable.

Hughes appreciably attempts to find a path for moral and legal status between 
traditional Kantianism and traditional utilitarianism; his arguments are 
similar to philosopher Peter Singer of Princeton. However, many in the 
bioethics community will find his classification of brain-dead persons, 
embryos, and fetuses as property (albeit, sentient property for fetuses), 
troublesome. His statement that "things that are not citizens are necessarily 
property" (xx) reveals the difficulty in a dualistic, dichotomized traditional 
property versus personhood approach; it doesn't recognize that new categories 
have been and are being recognized in developing law (for example, the law 
recognizes corporations as persons and at least one court has recognized that 
frozen embryos are quasi-property, as opposed to mere property. Also, other 
legal scholars have argued for the recognition of categories in between persons 
and property.) Interestingly, and to his credit, Hughes acknowledges that when 
it comes to the issue of cybernetic intelligence, the issue of self-awareness 
and rights becomes much more complicated. He states that "organic people will 
likely face more significant threats from machine minds that achieve 
self-awareness than they do from enhanced chimpanzees.. Machine minds are far 
less certain of having capacities for empathy and morality.. Our obligation to 
acknowledge self-aware machines will need to be balanced by our obligation to 
protect the interests of already existing organic citizens" (xi).

In the third section, Hughes argues that, like the democratic humanism of the 
French and American revolutions, diverse threads of humanity "can be united in 
a radically democratic form of techno-optimism, a democratic transhumanism" 
(xx). He further states, "If libertarians want enhancement technologies to be 
safe, widely available and unhampered by Luddite bans, they need to support 
legitimate regulation and universal provision" (xx). He attempts to assuage the 
fears of those who worry that transhumanism would create a culture of eugenics 
by emphasizing the careful balancing of liberty against the public good; he 
stresses the need for open debate and education, as well as (dare I say 
Buddhist) policies that encourage empathy and compassion.

In summary, anyone interested in enhancement technologies, whether pro or con, 
should read Citizen Cyborg. Time will tell if we are beneficiaries or victims 
of our own devices. Hughes makes a cogent argument that, through democratic 
processes, we can and will control technologies and that technologies will not 
control us.

I love technology; it promises so much.


1 The online free encyclopedia, Wikipedia, describes democratic socialism as a 
political movement that can gradually establish socialist reform by modifying 
capitalism from within, via democracy and trade unions and reform, rather than 
by violent revolution. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democratic_socialism 
(Accessed 6/8/2005)

More information about the paleopsych mailing list