[ExI] transhumanism by any other name

Anders Sandberg anders at aleph.se
Thu Dec 13 10:29:48 UTC 2012

I agree with the core point of Mike's post: yes, transhumanism is 
widespread in our culture, but not called transhumanism. Every time 
people cheer when their character gets an upgrade in a computer game 
they express a transhumanist sentiment. We have shelves of self-help 
books. When people say they enhance their serotonin with chocolate and 
wine, they are framing a hedonistic experience in transhumanist (and 
mechanistic) terms. Popular and governmental imagination envison the 
future as transhuman:

Where *we* are needed is to think further.

On 13/12/2012 05:52, Mike Dougherty wrote:
> I always thought Magneto made very convincing arguments.  The context
> for mutants as the next evolutionary step strikes me as an obvious
> similarity to transhuman enhancement.  We frequently think of
> technological enhancement (robotics/uploading) but with advances in
> biology we could see other kinds of upgraded human forms.

There is a deep difference. X-men completely flubs evolutionary biology, 
assuming that there is a prepared next evolutionary step. The franchise 
essentially assumes there is a series of stages humanity is supposed to 
go through. This is by no means a unique concept: historians of ideas 
have mapped out its evolution from the medieval concept of The Great 
Chain of Being over Victorian progress ideals to modern stuff like new 
age mythology. In reality evolution works by trial and error: if it 
survives and thrives, it must have been good. No real directionality and 
no purpose.

Magneto assumes mutantkind to be the next step, and then assumes 
mutantkind has special value because of this. The first happens to be 
untrue, and the second doesn't follow logically (strictly speaking he is 
formally right, just as the moon being made out of green cheese implies 
that I am pope - ex falso quodlibet). The genes for lactose tolerance 
have been spreading very successfully since they emerged a few thousand 
years ago and will no doubt eventually become standard in the entire 
human population if nothing changes. That doesn't mean that this very 
minor superpower makes us who got it extra important in any moral or 
practical sense, and it doesn't mean we have any reason to band together.

But the big problem for Magneto is that mutants are not self-choosen. He 
can at least instil a sense of brotherhood because mutants might feel 
persecuted or special, yet unable to change their mutanthood. If it was 
a matter of buying the right enhancement being superpowered would be 
like deciding on a car or computer make (some, like Apple, of course 
still manage some of the cultishness anyway). The future belongs to the 
lactose tolerant and enhancement users, but mostly because they are 
likely to be *useful*, not because of some deep destiny. Rules 
regulating what enhancements are not acceptable are not infringements on 
people's right to live in the same way as rules against mutants (whose 
powers are part of who they are) - they might of course still be wrong 
in a lot of ways (limiting freedoms, expressing biased values, 
preventing useful applications etc.), but they do not interfere with 
core moral status or (post)human dignity in the same way.

As for the moral status of the very enhanced, I recently read Allen 
Buchanan's insightful “Moral Status and Human Enhancement” 
He actually does concede an interesting point to Magneto: the 
super-enhanced might deserve new or different (post)human rights. 
However, their status does not affect the normal human rights of anybody 
(enhanced or not), and does not change the moral status of anybody.

[ It is worth noting that the X-men have actually influenced the current 
US legal definition of "human". I kid you not.: 
And a battle over laser tag games led to the current EU model of how to 
treat human dignity:
http://merlin.obs.coe.int/iris/2004/10/article6.en.html . ]

...and that was today's accidental philosophy lecture.

Anders Sandberg,
Future of Humanity Institute
Oxford Martin School
Faculty of Philosophy
Oxford University

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