I have long considered "bioconservative" and "transhumanist" formulations on bioethical questions to represent inter-dependent extremisms. The transhumanists, so-called, would engineer an optimal idealized postulated homo superior with which they presently identify at the cost of a dis-identification with the free and diverse homo sapiens with whom they actually share the world and, hence, are advocating a de facto eugenicist politics. The bioconservatives, so-called would ban safe, wanted, but non-normalizing therapies in an effort to "preserve" a static idealized postulated homo naturalis with which they too presently identify at the cost of a dis-identification with the free and dynamic homo sapiens with whom they actually share the world and, hence, are likewise advocating a de facto eugenicist politics. What is wanted is to advocate research into safe effective medicine, however unprecedented or non-normalizing it might be, to solve health problems in ways that people consent to on their terms in truly informed, nonduressed ways. Just as one hardly needs to join a Robot Cult to defend "Enlightenment" values of critical thinking, consensual self-determination, and anti-authoritarian politics (indeed, quite the contrary!), so too -- and really this should go without saying -- one hardly needs to join a Robot Cult to advocate for funding, regulation, and fair distribution of medical research nor to defend the politics of Choice, not only in matters of reproductive health, but on questions of, say, consensual recreational drug use or how to improve the lives of the differently enabled by their own lights, whether in normalizing ways or not.
To my charge that transhumanists "would engineer an optimal idealized postulated homo superior," Michael Anissimov replies:
Negative, we just want to make that option available. One of the very reasons I and others might want to become "Homo superior" (I prefer the term Homo novus) would be to protect unenhanced humans from others of that enhanced group.
Of course, this reply is patently absurd. The transhumanists do not want the "option" of what they fancy to constitute superhumanization to be available in some abstract sense, they want very much to exercise that option, which is exactly what I said. In the very next sentence Anissimov has already admitted that they "might" desire this after all.
I leave to the side the facile rationalization that follows this coy admission of Anissimov's pretensions to Robot Godhood for himself and his friends, namely, that he wants to be a god only because he wants to be a Good Robot God to protect everyday folks from all the Bad Robot Gods who will lack his own kindly disposition to still-human less-than-gods wallowing around in their helpless inferiority. In the first place, if he means for this argument to be taken seriously he is, let us not mince words here, a probable candidate for a lunatic asylum together with all the other people in panties and capes who earnestly fancy themselves candidates for the Super Friends. In the second place, nobody is fooled by those who rationalize their disproportionate powers -- or, more to the point here, desires for such disproportionate powers -- through patronizing insistence on their personal indispensability as superiors to their fellow citizens. As an aside (within an aside), one wonders -- and not for the first time I fear -- just what a nice self-described "progressive" boy like Anissimov is doing expressing so many reactionary political views all the time as he does.
Be that as it may, my point is not to deny the Robot Cultists some available "option" that they desire in the way of self-determination. It may seem a minor point to our Robot Cultists, but there is, after all, no super-humanizing post-humanizing pathway actually available to human beings, either as a practical or, quite as much to the point, as an ethical matter.
It is indeed true that some actually-emerging and proximately-upcoming genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive therapies yield wanted non-normalizing interventions into hitherto customary human capacities, morphologies, and lifeways. It is indeed true that laws, policies, norms, customs, institutions will have to adapt to these circumstances, and that they represent a challenge especially to those of us who would ensure that the costs, risks, and benefits of these changes are distributed equitably and reflect the actual diversity of their stakeholders.
Nothing is clarified while much is confused by introducing the figure of "enhancement" into such discussions. There is no such thing as an "unenhanced" language-using human in any sense that properly underwrites ascription of inferiority or superiority to some humans among others in the normative senses inevitably mobilized by such loose talk. Enhancement is always -- enhancement to whom? enhancement in respect to what end? Enhancement is not a neutral category, it is not a scientific designation, there is no consensus as to the ends for which human capacities, morphologies, or lifeways should be optimized so as to declare of them that they represent "enhancements." To pretend otherwise is to engage in a moralizing politics that disavows its politics as an "instrumentality" and as a "hygiene" the better to conceal their parochialism and authoritarianism. To the extent that discussions of non-normalizing therapeutic interventions foreground a vocabulary of "enhancement" they tend in consequence to background the more urgently relevant vocabularies of equity and diversity and of the informed, nonduressed consent on which these democratic values depend above all.
But worse than glib assertions concerning the accomplishment of human "enhancement" through whatever actual or imagined non-normalizing therapeutic interventions the transhumanists happen parochially to prefer at the moment, is their typically superlative investment of this moralizing vantage with an even more hyperbolic "world-historical" significance, assigning to their preferred constellation of medical modifications the moniker of "post-human" being, homo superior, with which they go on to identify at the cost of disastrous dis-identification with their actually-human peers in the world (and, I might add, in the mirror).
There is no actually realizable substance to all this Robot Cult handwaving, of course, at least not in anything like a term near enough to befuddle the Keynesian long-term in which we are all dead (the "we" matters quite as much as the "dead" here). The transhumanists are not going to upload their informational souls into cyberspace or into shiny robot bodies, they are not going to be therapized into superlongevity nor will they be prostheticized into near-invulnerable demi-gods. This is not a pessimistic technical claim on my part (and neither are the Robot Cultists making optimistic technical claims to the contrary if we look at these matters plainly), but a recognition on my part that intelligence is embodied and social, that life is embodied and social, and that progress is as political as technical coupled with the further recognition that the transcendentalizing techno-utopian rhetoric on which the Robot Cultists depend to distinguish themselves from straightforward techno-scientifically literate secular progressivism like mine is organized essentially by a denial of these basic facts about intelligence, life, and progress that render them more crucially incoherent than merely impractical (which of course they also are).
The material substance, the actual historical force of their assertions in this conceptually confused vein, then, is actually to be discerned in the ways this rhetoric of bodily and social alienation, anxiety, and hostility deranges our practical public deliberation on technodevelopmental questions, and (as a secondary matter) mobilizes certain marginal -- and mostly, I fear, damaging where they are not simply irrelevant -- organizational formations.
There is nothing new about eugenicism, and so I fear I must decline Anissimov's preference of the term homo novus to describe the parochial and alienated fantasy of homo superior with which he identifies as a transhumanist. It is worth noting that just as eugenicism is nothing new, more to the point medicine, culture, and democracy are not new although they could use some help in troubled times. I point this out because buried deep beneath the hyperpole, panic, elitism, and nonsense of Robot Cultism is a kernel of common sense which these scared, scarred, cynical flim-flam artists and dupes have glommed onto and debauched. Human beings in relatively democratic, relatively lawful, relatively decent, relatively educated societies can collaborate in the effort to solve shared problems and address themselves in their creative expressivity to the world to the benefit of us all. Relatively informed, nonduressed consensual non-normalizing prosthetic self-determination is an elaborate phrase that names an ongoing, emerging, upcoming facet of a multiculture that already includes science and policy and morals and style and ethics and law and criticism and politics in all their planetary diversity. A facet -- not a replacement, not a Key to History, not a Theory of Everything, not a Final Truth to Die or Live For, just another facet of human history and diversity and intelligence and care, made by humans who have always already been as artifactual in their utterly socialized acculturated linguistic historicized natures as they ever will be, that is to say, already as "post-human" as they ever will be however "still-human" as they always are.
This concludes my response to Michael Anissimov's piece. I thank him for the serious engagement with views with which he disagrees. Forgive the delayed arrival of this concluding section. The earlier sections of this response are Intro One Two Three Four Five, for those who are interested.