IEET > Rights > J. Hughes
Saving Human Rights from the Human Racists
J. Hughes   Mar 27, 2006   Betterhumans  

originally published June 10, 2003

We need a global campaign for the right of all people to control their own body and mind

During a recent debate between Greg Stock and George Annas at Yale University, Annas insisted that the human species needed protecting from human enhancement. This is why, he says, he is proposing an international treaty to make cloning and inheritable genetic modifications “crimes against humanity.” Stock, in turn, says he doesn’t care about the species, in the abstract; he cares about people.

This exchange, which came on June 27 at the recent TransVision conference, crystallizes the clash of rights paradigms in the transhuman era, a clash embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed at the United Nations 55 years ago this December.  The UDHR was a landmark achievement. Creating the institutions necessary to enforce its 30 articles will take many more decades.

But the UDHR was also written with historical and political limitations which will become increasingly apparent in the coming transhuman era. It’s time we started a comprehensive campaign to deepen and transhumanize the UDHR and the concept of rights. 

Grounding rights in minds, not species

There are several ways to ground a concept of human rights, all of which can be found in the UDHR. One idea is articulated at the beginning of the U.S. Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” The UDHR says: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and that all nations must recognize the “inherent dignity and of the equal and unalterable rights of all members of the human family.”

These formulas express the “natural rights” theory, based on a theory of natural law or natural order, religious or secular. Unfortunately, although many people still believe in a God-given natural law with self-evident moral truths, natural rights provides little practical guidance since everyone sees different self-evident truths emerging from the same facts. Most philosophers today attempt to avoid this line of argument, which is known as the “naturalistic fallacy.”  The first men to articulate these principles 200 years ago thought it was self-evident that only white men were genetically suited for full democratic citizenship. Today most rights advocates think that women and all races should be included in the circle of rights, but that the circle self-evidently stops at the human race, a position I call “human-racism.”

Another approach is to argue that rights are whatever people decide they should be, and for whomever we decide they should be, so that a right to chocolate ice cream for all grumpy children could be as basic a right as the right to freedom from torture for all human beings. Some of the articles of the UDHR—such as the right to a job, clothing and a pension—are more tied to this tradition. They are historically specific agreements about what a good society would ideally guarantee, rather than self-evident claims that flow from a concept of human dignity. This is far more consistent with the idea of the democratic polity as an evolving social contract, and with skepticism about the “naturalistic fallacy.” This also permits for extending the circle of rights beyond human beings and even to absurd limits, such as to assertions that trees have rights. The arbitrariness of human convention weakens the purely social constructionist case for rights.

A third tradition implicit in the UDHR and the liberal democracy is that rights are a way of reducing the suffering of sovereign minds, and encouraging their fullest potentials. For instance, John Locke pointed out that a citizen was, most fundamentally, a person, which he defined as “a thinking, intelligent being” with “reason and reflection.” For the classic theorist of liberal democracy, John Stuart Mill, the rationale for a regime of democratic rights was that it encouraged the fullest potentials of individual personalities.

Since the only minds that were ever considered by democratic theorists were those of human beings, this tradition became subsumed within human-racism, which could appeal to religious beliefs about the soul and the divine intention for human beings. But now the animal rights movement has challenged the rights tradition by demonstrating that some nonhuman minds suffer, are self-aware and have other mental traits that make them worthy of rights-bearing. Likewise the personhood ethics tradition of bioethics has argued that some human beings, such as fetuses or the brain-dead, are human but not persons, and therefore are no longer bearers of rights. In liberal democracy’s personhood tradition rights are for persons, not humans, and not all humans are persons nor are all persons necessarily human.  As the UDHR says, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status…” —to which we need now add, species.

This is the starting point for the rights movement in the transhuman era, to free the rights regime from the human racists and social constructionists, and make it clearly a movement for the rights of persons.

Morphological freedom and the right to enhance

The other way that the concept of rights needs to be deepened is by reinforcing and radicalizing the understanding of what it means for people to be free and control their own body, mind and affairs. The principle of individual self-determination has always been considered the starting point for liberal democratic rights. John Locke argued that the most fundamental human right was “self-ownership.” The UDHR and other rights documents interpret this concept of bodily autonomy rights to include the right to life, to freedom from torture, maltreatment, slavery and imprisonment, and to rights of free thought and self-expression. The US Supreme Court and European Union have expanded on concepts of personal liberty to include the right to reproductive and sexual freedom, to control one’s own womb and tissues, to choose when, how and how many children to have and to be free to share one’s body with other consenting adults. 

The right to enhance ourselves, whether through education and exercise, or genetic engineering and cybernetic implants, must also be seen as one of the most fundamental of rights.  John Stuart Mill said, “What more can be said of any condition of human affairs, than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be?”

In the transhuman era, however, the right to control our own body and mind is running smack up against human racism and natural law. People such as George Annas, and a range of bio-Luddite forces from the Catholic Church to the deep ecology movement, are aligning to assert that people’s use of technologies of human enhancement on their own body and mind is not a right, but a violation of human rights and “dignity.” Bans on the right to cloning and inheritable genetic self-modification have been written into international treaties and national laws. According to the opponents of genetic enhancement, people will violate the rights of their children and the dignity of the human race if they eliminate a genetic propensity for cancer or increase their capacity for memory, and then have children. The human racists also believe that any nonhuman intelligences created by technology—whether a post-human, enhanced animal or machine mind—would be rights-less abominations. Sadly this line of argument is itself the most profound offense to human rights tradition.

Finding allies

The movement for a transhuman redefinition of the rights of persons, including a right to enhancement, has many potential allies, starting with all the groups and causes pushing for a non-anthropocentric understanding of rights and those whose claims to bodily autonomy have not yet been internationally recognized.

The Great Ape Project’s campaign to extend human rights protections to chimps and other apes is an important ally in breaking through human-racism. The gay and transgender rights movements are natural allies in extending rights to control our own bodies. Cognitive rights must include not only the right to free thought, but also the right to use technologies to control our own brains, such as non-addictive substances such as marijuana and psychedelic drugs. We need to join with those attempting to strengthen transnational institutions to enforce rights agreements, rather than isolate ourselves in frustration that the human-racists and bio-Luddites have the temporary upper hand in the rights debates. 

The rights of persons to reach their fullest potential will be central in the next stage of global political struggle, and we transhuman rights activists are on right the side of history.

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)


What difference do you see between speciesism and what you call human-racism?

Calling the human-racists “human-racists” annoys them a lot more than calling them speciesist. It also underlines the continuity with racism. Other than that, no, not much difference. I suppose an alien or an uplifted chimp could also be speciesist, whereas “human-racist” is a more narrow term.

Thanks for your answer. I see your point.


I am an advocate of natural rights which begin with a Creator, or source, and end with an individual who is aware of, not only their rights, but likewise aware of the like-rights of others. Without digressing to semantics of what “rights” are, I believe that natural rights embrace the concept of modification and enhancement. Notwithstanding any real or perceived gains from such activity, whatever takes place is confined nevertheless within the rules under which all creation is bound to operate.

Any modification or enhancement must eventually succumb to the rules of nature and if self-sustaining, will flourish within such prescribed rules. Everything to the contrary will cease to be given time for nature to evaluate its worthiness in the natural world. The ability to reason and conceive of such enhancements are themselves gleaned from man’s observation of the workings of the natural world; and the effects of his manipulating such are but an expression of the very functions of nature from man’s perspective.

I believe that man too must re-evaluate his place in the world and amongst its other inhabitants. Not that man must necessarily ascribe an enumerated list of rights to all species, but whether it is permissible that man’s exercise of his rights is justified by the ensuing harm caused to other life forms. The symbiotic ties which conduce all life to prosper on this planet is extensively mapped, hopefully not too late, and the physical and metaphysical ties which bind us all to a greater kinship has yet to be fully understood.

I believe there is room for natural rights and transhuman thought to coexist since it is nature which ultimately adjudicates the efficacy of all which comes before it.

“The Great Ape Project’s campaign to extend human rights protections to chimps and other apes is an important ally in breaking through human-racism.”
No offense to anyone, but I think the Great Ape project is an exercise in futility. Once they start getting noticed, a new organization called, say, The Great Sloth Project will get created by some cynical folks accusing the “equal rights for apes” crowd of being racists against sloths, ultimately revealing the fact that the Apes crowd are actually not just about apes, but about all animals.

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