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Transhumanism as the Heir of Ethical Modernism — or Against Virtue
Steve Fuller   Sep 10, 2015   Sociological Imagination  

Anyone who takes transhumanism seriously is almost by default an ‘ethical modernist’. The position is easiest to state in terms of the history of philosophy. It is someone who believes that Kant and Bentham in the late 18th century set the framework for constructing a theory of ethics. To be sure, they are associated with quite different, typically opposed positions: ‘deontology’ and ‘utilitarianism’. However, they share a few salient features:

(1) Morality is not something that one acquires from others and then reproduces; rather it is something that one legislates for oneself and others, and ethics is its rationalization.

(2) ‘Rationalization’ is understood as akin to the process that science performs on our empirical understanding of the world.

(3) Armed with the right ethics, the moral agent acquires powers that had been previously reserved to God.

(4) The fact that ethics contradicts ordinary morality is at most a public relations problem and quite possibly a mark of its validity and hence an inspiration to self-discipline.

When I first studied ethics in the 1970s, the Cold War was very much in the air. Perhaps unsurprisingly, ethical modernism was the only game in town – and Existentialism was its irreverent popular front. (Anyone who sees Existentialism as opposed to Kant and Bentham fail to appreciate their massive common ground.) Back then, it was all about taking sides, taking responsibility and hoping for the best but expecting the worst. But this was before 1989, when the USSR demonstrated that it was incapable of holding up its side of the world-historic tension.

Since this historical backdrop remains strangely muted in the academic literature, I need to resort to more familiar academic benchmarks. From this perspective, Alasdair MacIntyre’s conversion to Roman Catholicism was the tipping point that unleashed the revanchiste movement against ethical modernism known as ‘virtue ethics’ (and its sidekick, ‘virtue epistemology’), with branch offices in the left-of-centre world, courtesy of Martha Nussbaum and Michael Sandel. This movement, which is arguably the dominant trend in moral philosophy today, involves a systematic denial of the above four theses in the name of what it advertises as a more ‘humane’ and even ‘humanistic’ approach to our moral life, typically rooted in some conception of a species-wide ‘human nature’, which has been given a slightly less essentialist spin in recent years under the rubrics of ‘capacities’ and ‘capabilities’.

Virtue theory takes human life as it already is – understood in light of our ‘natural history’ – to have arrived at largely satisfactory norms of conduct. From that standpoint, both Kant and Bentham appear to have operated with hyperbolic standards that underestimate the strength of our sentiments, our cognitive limitations, and perhaps most importantly, the enduring nature of our traditions and institutions, which have not required the services of a Kant or a Bentham.

To be sure, ethical modernism always faced opponents who saw morals in more broadly ‘ontological’ terms, i.e. as intimately connection to some relatively fixed conception of human nature that can be accessed through intuition and/or biology. Indeed, Aristotle is rightly seen as the patron saint of contemporary virtue theory. For their part, ethical modernists see ‘human nature’ as no more than a platform for building an ethical life, which goes beyond the default patterns of social relations. Thus, ethics doesn’t aim merely to reflect humanity’s state of being but to improve it.

Logically speaking, virtue theory collapses a distinction that ethical modernists uphold, namely, between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’. However, I don’t mean to accuse virtue theorists of fallacious reasoning. On the contrary, their view harks back to the pre-modern period, when people believed that a moral life was led by discovering one’s place in the natural order (a la ‘natural law’), what the great historian of modern ethics Jerome Schneewind gamely called the ‘divine corporation’. It followed that people tailored their aspirations to their capacities, secure in the knowledge that their capacities – however meagre on their face — did indeed serve a larger purpose. In this respect, life was about figuring out your job description before you’re retired and sent to Heaven.

Ethical modernism is not about dissolving the divine corporation but about replacing God with humanity as its CEO. In that case, the corporation may be due for a structural overhaul, both in terms of its overall ends and the means by which they are achieved. Thus, biologically given capacities may be enhanced or diminished, depending on the corporate strategy – and, in principle at least, any human should be able to make such a judgement and all should be able to agree to it. Indeed, this principle is present – in somewhat different guises – in both Kant’s and Bentham’s accounts of rationality. And while both acknowledge that our epistemic and practical powers fall short of the divine, nevertheless the ethical character of our actions is located specifically in our willingness to own those actions, i.e. take responsibility for them, regardless of the consequences.

The step from Kant and Bentham to transhumanism can be seen in their common attitudes, which can be in turn contrasted to that of the virtue theorist, in at least two respects:

(1) The meaning of ‘ought implies can’: This Kantian slogan is usually read to mean that people can’t be obliged to do things that they are incapable of doing. To a virtue theorist, it refutes the superhuman feats of will and calculation that ethical modernists would require of us. In other words, we need to downsize our moral aspirations.

However, the correct way to read this slogan, which pushes Kant toward transhumanism, is that we need to become the sort of people who can live up to the correct ethical principles. Kant was not only the philosopher of human dignity but also of species-level moral progress, a theme further developed by Hegel and Marx. For their part, Bentham and his followers have been happy to offload the utility calculations to mechanical procedures if they prove too taxing to ordinary human minds. These are the precursors of today’s transhumanist talk about ‘moral enhancement’ via the right neurochemical cocktail or gene therapy.

(2) The role of science in ethics: Virtue theory is often presented as part of the general ‘naturalistic’ turn that has been slowly taking place in philosophy over the past 50 years. However, the exact relationship between ‘naturalism’ and science is rarely made explicit. In the case of virtue theory, the emphasis seems to be placed on the actual content of, say, social or biological science, especially as a check on the more outlandish aspirations of the ethical modernists. In terms of evolutionary theory, virtue theorists are more partial to Darwin’s natural historical approach than the lab-based molecular genetics approach that has dominated in the post-war period and fuels transhumanist imaginaries of a ‘Humanity 2.0’. This latter position locates the ethical modernists, who are ultimately more aligned with the rational and experimental character of science than the actual findings of science. Thus, they stress the reversibility of facts under changing conditions and the need to harvest untapped potential: To simply let the past dictate the future is to abdicate moral responsibility and thereby behave unethically. In that case, perhaps the Kantian slogan should read instead: ‘can implies ought’?

A good genealogy – or perhaps better an autopsy! – of virtue theory will no doubt cover many cases – like that of MacIntyre himself – in which someone starting from the hard left becomes disillusioned with Stalinism’s efforts to shoehorn people into ideology and then gradually loses faith in human beings, either individually or collectively, to determine their own destiny. In the end, they end up as neo-conservative Neo-Thomists, often in spite of themselves. I have called these people ‘down-wingers’,  and I’m afraid they’re not going away soon. In fact, my guess is that self-avowed people of the left who rest content with criticizing the current neo-liberal order without proposing a positive alternative are likely to be lured by the siren call of virtue theory.

Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. From 2011-14, he published three books with Palgrave Macmillan on ‘Humanity 2.0’. His next book, due out in Autumn 2017 from Anthem Press, is on ‘post-truth’.


Assuming that this post is serious, I am curious about a couple of statements about ethical modernism:  3) Armed with the right ethics, the moral agent acquires powers that had been previously reserved to God.
(4) The fact that ethics contradicts ordinary morality is at most a public relations problem and quite possibly a mark of its validity and hence an inspiration to self-discipline.
When viewed in the knowledge that Steve Fuller has said “but I guess I’m indeed with Stalin when he said you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.” And his last post that ironically called for the murder of the opponents of transhumanism,  I am curious:

What sort of violations of ordinary morality will this Transhumanist “ethics” allow?

Steve Fuller knows full well that Stalin meant murdering, torturing and imprisoning millions of people in the pursuit of personal power and dubious political goals when he quipped “Can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.” 

Will Tanshumanist “ethics” allow Steve Fuller to rationalize killing, torturing, and imprisoning millions of ordinary people like me, if he thinks he can become an immortal god like being?  After all if the god like Steve Fuller lives billions or trillions of years that has to be worth more than the lives of millions of ordinary people who are just going to die anyway ( I mean , they are practically zombies anyway.)

So in other words,  for Kant, “ought implies can” is more about modus ponens, while for the virtue theorist, it’s more about modus tollens?

Also: Would I be correct in claiming (against the thrust of the essay), that there is also a resemblance between virtue ethics and transhumanism? They both are geared towards care of the self, however, the way “care” is cashed out will be along the bioethical distinction between therapy and enhancement. Would you call an ethical program that is aimed at enhancement a “virtue ethics”, or something else? Why not a set of transhumanist virtues that are directed towards navigating the problem space it opens up? The aspirationalism in transhumanism suggests that languishing in technological ease is somehow missing the point (think of Nietzsche’s “last man”). Seems like the starting point for a virtue ethics to me, anyway.

First, to Leah Carr. That’s exactly right. In fact, over the past 25 years it has been common for ‘naturalists’ in ethics and epistemology to invoke Kant’s principle in the modus tollens sense to bend Kant to their purposes. I may have been guilty of this too, until I realized that the point of ethics might be to get people to live up to a higher standard rather than simply gravitate to a some collective comfort zone.

To Jim Moore. I realize you’re trying to be provocative but the style of your response captures what’s at stake. Ethical modernism requires a semi-detached attitude to the feelings and habits of ‘normal people’. It’s a very anti-common sense movement, in that sense. It’s for this reason that I object to arguments that make transhumanism look like an extension of common sense, just as I object to philosophers who try to make science look like an extension of common sense.

Of course, it’s true that the radical changes in knowledge and being promoted by science and transhumanism, respectively, will come from the resources already available to people now. But if what we desire to know and be were already so readily available, then we would have already achieved those states. In other words, will is required to move forward, which is to say, resolving open situations with regard to the future in which we break with the past. This may happen violently or not.

Obviously ‘irreparable damage’ is to be avoided and regretted, but this is why we should try to make damage ‘repairable’ rather than avoid damage altogether. There is no secure peaceful route to a higher state of knowing and being—and on this point I think transhumanists of the Buddhist persuasion may be disingenuous to suggest otherwise. It would be nice if we can just nudge our ways to higher states of technologically enhanced consciousness without blowback, but we need to be prepared for the worst consequences of getting what we ask for.

The ‘Achillies heel’ of the transhumanist project is in not understanding just how fragile, limited and corruptible is the moral/ethical construct that humanity has fashioned for itself to date. And that any real progress in ‘transcending’ the human condition will require progress on that front, in parallel, if not in front of any technological advance and here, transhumanism has absolutely nothing to offer!

Steve Fuller, I understand why you think that my refusal to accept your misleading metaphors and obscuring philosophical argot in this discussion is provocative.  I am trying to make clear what are the implications for ordinary people, when someone takes your transhumanist “ethics” seriously.

You can think of this discussion as a chance for you to take a little responsibility for your “ethics” that would allow you to “break” some “eggs” (like me) in your pursuit of “a higher state of knowing and being”.  Or as a more plane spoken person would put it:
Your willingness to imprison, torture, (and regrettably?) murder people (like me) in your pursuit of becoming an immortal god like being.

Your way of talking allows you to think of yourself as history’s man of action, with a will made of steel that will do what is necessary to bring us to a new glorious age. 
My way of talking about this makes you seem like a selfish deranged lunatic.
(I would also like to point out that an ethicist taking responsibility for their ideas is in no way equivalent to the ethicist actually bearing the burden of negative consequences that flows from their new improved “ethics”.)

Now, I think that it is very unlikely that Steve Fuller actually is a selfish deranged lunatic but when you combine self deception with a strong desire for wish fulfillment and a will of steel, lots of unintended bad things are bound to happen.

Jim, you’re confusing me with the libertarian transhumanists. In my Proactionary Imperative, I actually make the case for a Welfare State 2.0—which entails taking responsibility for what follows from the proactionary principle. I don’t expect you to have read my book, but if you study the full range of my comments on this site carefully, you’ll see that I’m all about taking responsibility for the ethics I preach.

But in terms of what I call ‘ethical modernism’ here, utilitarianism and deontology are already widely paid lip service, yet people don’t own up to the fact that their principles require superhuman—dare I say ‘transhuman’—beings for the principles to be fully realized.

Perhaps what you don’t get about my position is that you can be (1) pro-risk-taking, and also (2) pro-securitizing those subject to the risks. In other words, you start from the assumption that to get to utopia, things in certain respects may need to get worse before they get better—which means we need to anticipate possible harms and compensate for them when they happen.

I sometimes think that the preoccupation of certain transhumanists with eliminating suffering blinds them to the amount of suffering that will probably need to happen along the way. Most of the stuff written about very enthusiastically here—and I share that enthusiasm—are really just optimistic projections of science and technology that in many cases are just in the prototype stage. We really don’t know what all these wonderful enhancement gizmos will do, once they’re generally available. No doubt we shall learn a lot, but much of that knowledge may come from error and disaster. We need to design our societies to be able to cope with that; hence Welfare State 2.0.

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