Transhumanism is the philosophical thesis that we should use technology to radically enhance human beings. Transhumanism is broader than eugenics in that transhumanism is concerned with all possible modifications of the biological basis of human beings, not just genetic modifications associated with reproduction. The term ‘radical enhancement’ is understood as altering targeted characteristics beyond the range set by current human biology. For example, no human has lived longer than 122 years due to intrinsic limits of human biology. Transhumanists envision radical enhancement of the biology of aging where people might live hundreds or thousands of years. This entry discusses the targets of radical enhancements, the technologies that might be used to achieve radical enhancements, and reasons for and against transhumanism.
Targets of Enhancement
There are any number of attributes that might potentially be enhanced using technology. The focus here is on a few that have received the most philosophical attention: intelligence, longevity, happiness, and virtues. Other possibilities include increased perceptual capacities or perhaps new sensory modalities, enhanced memory (and perhaps enhanced ability to forget), increased agility, increased strength, to name but a few.
Although there are disagreements about the nature and best way to measure intelligence, it is generally agreed that humans are much more intelligent than apes, dogs or rats. Altering the biological basis of intelligence leads to the speculation that it might be possible to create beings who stand to humans in intelligence as humans stand to apes. Such a radical enhancement might be sufficient to be considered a speciation event (Walker 1994).
As noted, transhumanists think that lifespan is a good target for enhancement. Enhanced humans might live to be thousands of years old, if technology can stop or reverse organ and cellular decay and otherwise maintain the healthy functioning of the human body. Such enhancements would not make humans impervious to catastrophic accidents, but humans may no longer die from age related afflictions.
Happiness is another possible target of enhancement. The biological basis of our moods and emotions is well-established, leading to the possibility that modification of the biological substratum could lead to the creation of much happier people (Walker 2013).
Moral behavior is another target of enhancement ((Walker 2009a) (Persson and Savulescu 2008) (Persson and Savulescu 2012)). One version of moral enhancement focuses on virtues. Virtues are moral character traits, e.g., if you have a high degree of the disposition to be kind to others, or tend to be just in your dealings with others, we might describe you as a kind and just person. Since there appears to be a biological basis to such dispositions, the possibility exists that we could use technology to make our descendants kinder and more just than we are today (Walker 2009a).
The Technologies of Enhancement
Transhumanists have noted the possibility of using genetic engineering (either germline or somatic (Bostrom 2003)) to enhance intelligence, longevity, happiness and virtue. For example, it is not a lack of educational opportunity but biological differences in our brains which explains why most humans can play chess, do algebra and write stories while even the brightest chimp cannot accomplish any of these. As has long been observed, one major difference between human and chimp brains is relative size (Jerison 1973). This suggests a relatively straightforward means of creating beings smarter than humans: there are a handful of special genes (homeobox genes) that control how large our brains grow. Potentially changing these genes could lead to a larger brained descendent, one whose brain is larger than the human brain is compared with chimps (Walker 2004). Advances in pharmacology suggest the possibility of smart pills, happiness pills, life-extending pills and virtue pills. Looking further to the future, transhumanists have considered the possibility of changing the very substrate of persons from carbon-based biological beings to persons based in silicon computers. One such possibility, “uploading”, involves scanning the human brain’s molecular structure. In this way, the essence of a human is captured and moved to a computer platform in a robotic body (Blackford and Broderick 2014).
Reasons for Transhumanism
Transhumanism makes a moral claim: radical enhancement is something good to be pursued. It is thus different from the prediction that humans will use technology for the purpose of radical enhancement. To illustrate the difference, imagine Jack thinks that it is a reasonable prediction that humans will use technology for radical enhancement, but laments this as a foolish and immoral decision on the part of humanity. Jill thinks that humans will not use technology to radically enhance, but laments this as a foolish and immoral decision on the part of humanity. Jill is a transhumanist. Jack is not.
One reason to think that enhancement is good stems from a general anti-paternalistic which favors a presumption of individual liberty. Accordingly, people should be allowed the liberty to modify their own bodies as they see fit. Thus, accordingly to this line of thought, people should be permitted the “morphological freedom” to enhance, just as people now have the freedom to get tattoos, or laser eye surgery (Sandberg 2001).
Another reason appeals not to liberty but to duty. The notion of duty can be parsed into prudential and moral duties. Prudential duties are duties to oneself to live a valuable life. When we say things like “you should take vitamin D so that you will live a longer and healthier life”, or “you should go to college to get the education you need to succeed”, or “you should volunteer some time with the homeless, as studies show this will make you happier and kinder” are all reasons that appeal to prudential concerns (Griffin 1986). One line of argument in support of transhumanism claims analogous prudential duties to take pills (or employ some other technology) to make ourselves smarter, happier, longer lived and more virtuous.
The moral duty to radically enhance often appeals to good social consequences. For example, transhumanists have long been concerned about the potential negative consequences for all living things of advanced technologies (Bostrom 2002). The enhancement of human intelligence and virtue offers the possibility of reduction of such extinction scenarios (Walker 2009b). Another example of a purported duty to enhance stems from speculation about the positive consequences of happy-people-pills: people who are happier tend to be more pro-social (Walker 2007). It has also been claimed that epistemic duties to pursue the truth in science and philosophy will be better served by enhancing human intelligence (Walker 2002, 2004).
Much of the early criticism of transhumanism centered on the claim that technology could be used for the purpose of radical enhancement. Although many suspect that transhumanists are overly optimistic about the successful application of technology to radical enhancement, it is generally conceded that at least some of the technologies discussed are powerful enough to achieve some enhancement aims for the foreseeable future.
Most debate at present focuses on the ethical claims of transhumanism. Very general worries about enhancement include Leon Kass’ contention that the transhumanist call to radical enhancement is a morally suspect form of hubris (Kass 2003). Michael Sandel argues that radical enhancement violates the “gifteness” of our present biology (Sandel 2007). Jurgen Habermas worries about a loss of autonomy to those enhanced through genetic engineering (Habermas 2014). Nick Agar questions the aforementioned analogy that transhumanists often make: claiming one ought to undergo radical enhancement for intelligence is like saying that one ought to go to college to become smarter. According to Agar, radically enhanced descendants would be alien to human concerns, and so the analogy fails (Agar 2010).
Many criticisms have been made of more specific targets of enhancement. For example, the idea of enhancing the human life span has been criticized on the basis of leading to problems such as boredom (Williams 1973), overpopulation, and reduced happiness (Singer 1991). The proposal to enhance the biological basis of happiness has been criticized in terms of creating a “Brave New World”, where authentic lives are absent (Elliott 2004) . Enhancing human intelligence has been criticized in terms of the thought that we might create ‘evil geniuses’ bent on destroying the unenhanced.
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