Transhumanism has a lot of opponents. Some people think we’re insane Robot Cultists drooling as we watch science-fiction movies and cowering in fear every time some aspect of our frail biology rears its head. Others think we’re immoral or philosophically confused or a hoard of imbeciles and will not deign to argue with us.
Then there is the category of people who probably fall under the banner of conservative, but given the utter meaningless of that term in the post Bush-Rove era, I’ll say there are those who are concerned about our good intentions being misled. These aren’t bad folks and they don’t think we are either. It’s sort of refreshing.
A blog for The New Atlantis, entitled Futurisms, is one of those refreshing sites. Nearly every blog post they put up makes me bang my head against the desk, but at least I’m doing it out of respect and not fury. I’m so used to finding people spew bile that I got all hot-and-bothered by one of their posts that I snarkily retorted. Adam Keiper responded and, instead of starting a comment ping-pong, I’m going to give this argument a full blog post. MAYBE TWO IF I’M FEELING LONG WINDED.
The article in question was Charles T. Rubin’s response to Hughes’ essay on Democracy vs Technocracy. For those who lack perfect memory, that one had a pretty awesome comment thread and I ended up posting about the rhetorical failings of many A.I. worshipers supporters. The essay is accompanied by what I must admit is a handy bit of photoshoppery with HAL 9000 wearing a crown – askew no less. Futurisms has been faithfully commenting on each of Hughes posts and making their own counter-point essay series in parallel. Ever so briefly, I want to point out the core failing of the, well, conservative (?? Is that fair, Futurism writers?) arguments made against Hughes.
The core failing is that… well, for Futurisms at least, the arguments made by the authors don’t lead anywhere. Every time one of their writers seems to be on the scent of some great critique of transhumanism, they just end up with something like “they’re moral relativists” or “the logical extreme of liberal values” or something else. The most recent critique of Hughes is telling. Rubin reads Hughes’ essay and comes to the conclusion that transhumanists would like a despot, but that some of us managed to retain juuuuuust enough American Government 101 to be wary – but really, we’d love a despot, especially a robotic one, because it’s from the future. I retorted by quoting Hughes’ admonition of despotism found within that very same essay, demonstrating the cherry-picking done by Rubin. Adam Keiper responded with:
To answer your question: All three of us have read Mr. Hughes’s series in its entirety. I don’t think Mr. Rubin’s post is an example of inappropriate cherry-picking. The Tocqueville quotation is a response to Mr. Hughes’s penultimate paragraph. And the line you seem to be objecting to in Mr. Rubin’s post is in response to Mr. Hughes’s last paragraph, where a reader would expect Mr. Hughes to state most clearly his deeply felt conclusions. Are you implying that Mr. Hughes simply didn’t mean what he wrote in his last paragraph: “If I could convince myself that turning our fate over to [an enlightened despot] was the only way forward I also would be tempted”?
I’m implying that Hughes didn’t mean what Keiper and Rubin construe him to mean. “If I could convince myself” is shorthand for “I just spent 10 paragraphs trying to convince myself that there is any real justification for despotism. In spite of the existence of Enlightenment despots as well as well respected apologists for despotism, I cannot convince myself despotism is ever justified, therefore I reject it. I, however, recognize the tantalizing nature of such arguments” Thus, he cannot even tempt himself. The reason I cited the more polemic paragraph made earlier by Hughes is that reflects the climax of his argument, his revelation and central point, while the line quoted by Rubin occurs in the denouement of the argument.
So in the end, what we’re left with is half an argument from Rubin – that transhumanists like Hughes might want a robotic despot even if they say they don’t – and to show how obviously bad it is, he quotes Tocqueville. Wow, what a crusher of an argument, Tocqueville’s “despots are bad” paragraph. Rubin’s retort to Hughes argument that despotism was bad is a quotation describing how bad despotism is. And that’s it. There is no “but an A.I. despot would be uniquely bad because X” or “Hughes wants democracy, but has trouble getting beyond generic platitudes. The big conflicts of liberalism show up in his microcosm of democratic transhumanism here and here.” But that doesn’t happen. There is no follow up.
The whole blog reads that way. It’s either “liberalism bad” or “libertarians bad” using the most worn-out generic arguments, like “libertarians want everything celebrated and allowed,” as they make against Mike Treder’s “Getting Used to Hideousness” piece. In short, I don’t know what the writers for Futurisms stand for, merely what they stand against. I mean, I’m not saying their not doing a good job being conservative, because what better exchange represents the conservative mind than “I’m going to do this!” “No.” “Why not?” “Because, we don’t do that.” Give me a why, writers of Futurism, give me some meat. Do you oppose cognitive enhancement? Why? Don’t just write cutesy blog posts about how dewy-eyed transhumanist goals are, hit us hard and hit us where it hurts. Pull out the Fukuyama cannons! Make it a Kass-tastrophe!
Here is an example: Futurisms and its writers don’t actually hold to any real values, which is why they are unable to import any of the transhumanist ideas into their value structures or effectively show why transhumanist ideas don’t fit. In fact, they have to use our own criteria against us, and they don’t do that very well. Alternatively I, for example, believe in natural rights, but that those natural rights are emergent and explain why a single human cell does not have the same rights as a child, and, furthermore, why a child does not have full citizenship but an adult does. Though our legal system doesn’t say it explicitly, this form of rights codification implies that rights stem from a specific level of cognitive aptitude allowing autonomy, sentience, empathy, and reflexivity allowing one to function in a polis.
When I stumbled across transhumanism late in my senior year at George Mason, I was able to incorporate ideas like uplift and non-human rights into my value structure without compromising other beliefs, such as that many animals are justly treated with fewer rights than humans because of their lower cognitive capacity. Alternatively, the writers at The New Atlantis have shown time and time again their ability to be reactionary and aggressively defend the status quo without needing to actually disclose what their values are or what the Good is, merely what exists in violation of it.
I’m tired of reading critiques of our arguments or eye-rolling posts about some future-hype scenario. Throw a punch TNA writers, I’ll take it on the jaw.
Also, stop leaning on Nietzsche for your arguments. What is it with conservatives obsessing over him? I will smear you across the table with Foucault if you pull that mustachioed lunatic out again. Seriously, stop beating a dead horse, you’re making me crazy (GET IT?).
Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
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