September 10, 2004

Nick Bostrom's rebuttal to Francis Fukuyama


Nick Bostrom, the Chair of the World Transhumanist Association, has penned a rebuttal in response to Francis Fukuyama's assertion that transhumanism is among the greatest threats currently facing humanity.

Published in the September/October edition of Foreign Policy, Fukuyama describes transhumanism as "a strange liberation movement" that wants "nothing less than to liberate the human race from its biological constraints." He goes on to state his usual argument, which is that suffering and other negative aspects of humanity is necessary in order for us to retain our human "essence" and properly function as individuals in society. He believes that without aggression, for example, that people wouldn't be able to fend for themselves, or that without jealousy there could be no love.

It's exactly this kind of flowery mumbo-jumbo that is emanating from the bioconservative camp these days, and Fukuyama, in my opinion, has put together a very weak and unconvincing article for FP. At one point Fukuyama attempts to demean the transhumanists by noting that, "The plans of some transhumanists to freeze themselves cryogenically in hopes of being revived in a future age seem only to confirm the movement's place on the intellectual fringe." [btw, Fukuyama has his terminology wrong: there's no such word as "cryogenically," as cryogenics is the study of low temperatures, as opposed to cryonics which is the practice of preserving frozen organisms; leave it to Fukuyama to botch-up these kinds of technological details while pooh-poohing it altogether] And lastly, he resorts to some rather juvenile ad hominem by noting in an aside that, "transhumanists are just about the last group I'd like to see live forever."

To set the record straight, Nick Bostrom recently wrote a letter to the editor of Foreign Policy. Mike LaTorra, Dale Carrico, and myself contributed to the piece.

Here's the letter in its unedited entirety:


Transhumanism: The World’s Most Dangerous Idea?
Nick Bostrom (2004)

“What idea, if embraced, would pose the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity?” This was the question posed by the editors of Foreign Policy in the September/October issue to eight prominent policy intellectuals, among them Francis Fukuyama, professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

And Fukuyama’s answer? Transhumanism, “a strange liberation movement” whose “crusaders aim much higher than civil rights campaigners, feminists, or gay-rights advocates.” This movement, he says, wants “nothing less than to liberate the human race from its biological constraints.”

More accurately, transhumanists advocate increased funding for research to radically extend healthy lifespan and favor the development of medical and technological means to improve memory, concentration, and other human capacities. Transhumanists propose that everybody should have the option to use such means to enhance various dimensions of their cognitive, emotional, and physical well-being. Not only is this a natural extension of the traditional aims of medicine and technology, but it is also a great humanitarian opportunity to genuinely improve the human condition.

According to transhumanists, however, the choice whether to avail oneself of such enhancement options should generally reside with the individual. Transhumanists are concerned that the prestige of the President’s Council on Bioethics is being used to push a limiting bioconservative agenda that is directly hostile to the goal of allowing people to improve their lives by enhancing their biological capacities.

So why does Fukuyama nominate this transhumanist ideal, of working towards making enhancement options universally available, as the most dangerous idea in the world? His animus against the transhumanist position is so strong that he even wishes for the death of his adversaries: “transhumanists,” he writes, “are just about the last group that I’d like to see live forever”. Why exactly is it so disturbing for Fukuyama to contemplate the suggestion that people might use technology to become smarter, or to live longer and healthier lives?

Fierce resistance has often accompanied technological or medical breakthroughs that force us to reconsider some aspects of our worldview. Just as anesthesia, antibiotics, and global communication networks transformed our sense of the human condition in fundamental ways, so too we can anticipate that our capacities, hopes, and problems will change if the more speculative technologies that transhumanists discuss come to fruition. But apart from vague feelings of disquiet, which we may all share to varying degrees, what specific argument does Fukuyama advance that would justify foregoing the many benefits of allowing people to improve their basic capacities?

Fukuyama’s objection is that the defense of equal legal and political rights is incompatible with embracing human enhancement: “Underlying this idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences in skin color, beauty, and even intelligence. This essence, and the view that individuals therefore have inherent value, is at the heart of political liberalism. But modifying that essence is the core of the transhumanist project.”

His argument thus depends on three assumptions: (1) there is a unique “human essence”; (2) only those individuals who have this mysterious essence can have intrinsic value and deserve equal rights; and (3) the enhancements that transhumanists advocate would eliminate this essence. From this, he infers that the transhumanist project would destroy the basis of equal rights.

The concept of such a “human essence” is, of course, deeply problematic. Evolutionary biologists note that the human gene pool is in constant flux and talk of our genes as giving rise to an “extended phenotype” that includes not only our bodies but also our artifacts and institutions. Ethologists have over the past couple of decades revealed just how similar we are to our great primate relatives. A thick concept of human essence has arguably become an anachronism. But we can set these difficulties aside and focus on the other two premises of Fukuyama’s argument.

The claim that only individuals who possess the human essence could have intrinsic value is mistaken. Only the most callous would deny that the welfare of some non-human animals matters at least to some degree. If a visitor from outer space arrived on our doorstep, and she had consciousness and moral agency just like we humans do, surely we would not deny her moral status or intrinsic value just because she lacked some undefined “human essence”. Similarly, if some persons were to modify their own biology in a way that alters whatever Fukuyama judges to be their “essence,” would we really want to deprive them of their moral standing and legal rights? Excluding people from the moral circle merely because they have a different “essence” from “the rest of us” is, of course, akin to excluding people on basis of their gender or the color of their skin.

Moral progress in the last two millennia has consisted largely in our gradually learning to overcome our tendency to make moral discriminations on such fundamentally irrelevant grounds. We should bear this hard-earned lesson in mind when we approach the prospect of technologically modified people. Liberal democracies speak to “human equality” not in the literal sense that all humans are equal in their various capacities, but that they are equal under the law. There is no reason why humans with altered or augmented capacities should not likewise be equal under the law, nor is there any ground for assuming that the existence of such people must undermine centuries of legal, political, and moral refinement.

The only defensible way of basing moral status on human essence is by giving “essence” a very broad definition; say as “possessing the capacity for moral agency”. But if we use such an interpretation, then Fukuyama’s third premise fails. The enhancements that transhumanists advocate – longer healthy lifespan, better memory, more control over emotions, etc. – would not deprive people of the capacity for moral agency. If anything, these enhancements would safeguard and expand the reach of moral agency.

Fukuyama’s argument against transhumanism is therefore flawed. Nevertheless, he is right to draw attention to the social and political implications of the increasing use of technology to transform human capacities. We will indeed need to worry about the possibility of stigmatization and discrimination, either against or on behalf of technologically enhanced individuals. Social justice is also at stake and we need to ensure that enhancement options are made available as widely and as affordably as possible. This is a primary reason why transhumanist movements have emerged. On a grassroots level, transhumanists are already working to promote the ideas of morphological, cognitive, and procreative freedoms with wide access to enhancement options. Despite the occasional rhetorical overreaches by some of its supporters, transhumanism has a positive and inclusive vision for how we can ethically embrace new technological possibilities to lead lives that are better than well.

The only real danger posed by transhumanism, it seems, is that people on both the left and the right may find it much more attractive than the reactionary bioconservatism proffered by Fukuyama, Leon Kass, and the other members of the President’s Council.

2 comments:

Charles Siegel said...

Bostrum writes: "Transhumanists propose that everybody should have the option to use such means to enhance various dimensions of their cognitive, emotional, and physical well-being. Not only is this a natural extension of the traditional aims of medicine and technology, but it is also a great humanitarian opportunity to genuinely improve the human condition. According to transhumanists, however, the choice whether to avail oneself of such enhancement options should generally reside with the individual."

In reality, once some people start "enhancing" themselves, the rest of us will have very little choice but to go along.

For example, if it were legal for athletes to use steroids, than anyone who did not use steroids could not compete. If it were legal for students to use Ritalin (or other more effective drugs) to help them concentrate, then anyone who did not use drugs would not be able to pass their classes.

This sort of enhancement does not always enhance our lives. Ritalin makes it easier to perform routine tasks but there is evidence that it diminishes creativity.

Humanity would not necessarily be improved by the consumer choice of enhancements that Bostrom advocates. People will do what is necessary to succeed in our society (take Ritalin to pass tests or genetically engineer their children to be effective computer programmers) - not what will improve the species.

This is a common market failure, but Bostrom doesn't have the slightest clue that it exists. Yet Bostrom claims to have the wisdom to lead us to a transhuman future.

Of course, tranhumanism is not a natural extension of the traditional role of medicine, which is to cure diseases.

John said...

>For example, if it were legal for athletes to use steroids, than anyone who did not use steroids could not compete.

They could compete in different divisions. The athletes who wanted fame and fortune could compete with enhancements. Their competitions would be spectator sports (just like today). Other athletes could compete without enhancements for the love of the game.

>Humanity would not necessarily be improved by the consumer choice of enhancements that Bostrom advocates. People will do what is necessary to succeed in our society (take Ritalin to pass tests or genetically engineer their children to be effective computer programmers) - not what will improve the species.

Isn't it *fun* to do something well? More fun means improving the species, right? It sounds like an oversimplification, but it fits well with utilitarianism.

Regarding creativity:

Ideally, with the adoption of enhancements would come an even more liberal understanding, which would allow for individuals who chose not go to school or take ritalin, and instead dream lucid dreams, write novels, and get high on psychedelics. This is a difficult problem that will have to be solved.

The sort of creativity/concentration trade off brought by ritalin may or may not be common with enhancements. If it is, then it's a problem that needs to be discussed.