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Problems of Transhumanism: Moral Universalism vs. Relativism
J. Hughes   Feb 8, 2010   Ethical Technology  

The Enlightenment thinkers proposed that all men should be accorded the Rights of Man. Eventually this assertion of moral universalism would spread to spark campaigns for the legal equality for women, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, and the disabled. Some transhumanists have similarly asserted that a transhuman democracy can ensure the legal equality of ur-human and posthuman citizens, and promote the rights of all persons regardless of species. But respect for diversity and self-determination, an awareness that ethical views are historically situated and not absolute, and the belief that future generations will inevitably develop a new ethics make other transhumanists hostile to the idea of any effort to impose Enlightenment values on other societies, posthumans, or animals. We need to renew our commitment to a subtler, limited form of moral universalism, and to the global political institutions it requires.

This article is part of a continuing series. See also:

Problems of Transhumanism: Introduction
Problems of Transhumanism: The Unsustainable Autonomy of Reason
Problems of Transhumanism: Atheism vs. Naturalist Theologies
Problems of Transhumanism: Liberal Democracy vs. Technocratic Absolutism
Problems of Transhumanism: Belief in Progress vs. Rational Uncertainty

Moral Universalism vs. Respect for Diversity

Article 1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
Approved by the National Assembly of France, August 26, 1789

The Enlightenment argued for moral universalism, the view that ethics and law should apply equally to all men. Enlightenment thinkers were not the first or only philosophers to propose moral universalism. Arguments for an obligation to respect the dignity of all people regardless of status can be found in Eastern and Western religious ethics and Greek philosophy. Even within the Enlightenment, there were several varieties of argument for the legitimacy of universal, equal rights. Locke argued for universal rights on the grounds that in the human state of nature, as created by God before civilization, we were given possession of our bodies. Therefore all humans possess these natural rights equally, and Interference with individual rights violates a natural and divine law. This was the logic of Thomas Jefferson’s statement in the 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 assertion of moral realism was never consistent, however, with the Enlightenment’s empiricism. Where do we find evidence of God’s imbuing of all humans with rights? How can we tell which rights they were imbued with? How can we adjudicate between religious just-so stories that grant or deny rights to peasants and women?

So, other Enlightenment thinkers made social contractarian arguments for moral universalism, arguments more consistent with Enlightenment empiricism. The utilitarians, for instance, argued for moral universalism on the grounds that if we accept that all creatures want less suffering, the goal of morality should be the reduction of all creatures’ suffering, regardless of race, gender, or even species.

Almost immediately, the declaration of universal rights generated demands to end slavery and the subordination of women, and the universalist meme spread and unfolded through the politics of the next two hundred years from the Haitian slave revolt through to the demands of sexual minorities and the disabled today. The 1948 adoption of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a milestone in the institutionalization of Enlightenment universalism.

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom…

Now, Therefore the General Assembly proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations…

In response, the Counter-Enlightenment has always attacked moral universalism on two flanks. On the one hand, religious conservatives and moral realists, from the Vatican to neo-Confucianism, have asserted that there were “real” distinctions between the rights and duties of men and women, propertied and propertyless, European and non-European, etc., that the universal rights of Enlightenment ignored.

Other conservative thinkers however, like Edmund Burke, argued that if we acknowledge the existence of any rights it is because they are rooted in particular cultures and traditions. Therefore rights cannot be universal, and it makes no sense to defend the right to free speech of the Chinese or the African. In fact, the Enlightenment actually threatened the local, embedded rights that people do possess because its universalism ignored the importance of local culture, seeking to overturn national traditions in favor of global cosmopolitanism.

After World War Two, postmodernist intellectuals adopted their own critique of moral universalism and defense of local embeddedness. Enlightenment universalism, they claimed, has been used as a rationale for imperialism and the suppression of local cultures and laws. In situations where local cultures violated the rights of women or ethnic minorities, or suppressed free speech, moral universalism was in conflict with Enlightenment values of respect for self-determination and cultural diversity. Moral relativism is thus both an external, counter-Enlightenment strain of thought, and an internal and consistent product of one line of Enlightenment reasoning.

A second problem internal to the Enlightenment tradition of rights was determining what characteristics are necessary for a person to be acknowledged as a possessor of rights. There were debates internal to the Enlightenment tradition over the rights of slaves, women, children, non-citizens, and animals. If rights were a recognition of a universal moral status derived from specific capacities for thought and feeling, then which groups of creatures possessed these faculties and which didn’t? Children, for instance, progressed from a point at which the only rights they could reasonably be argued to possess were the rights to life and to not suffer unnecessarily, to adulthood where they came into full possession of their rights. Denying the right to vote or make contracts to children was therefore consistent with moral universalism. On the same grounds, some argued that slaves, women, and animals lacked these capacities and thus their attendant rights, while others argued that they possessed them. 

Transhumanist Universalism vs. Transhumanist Relativism

Transhumanists are likewise caught between ethical universalism and relativism, and conflicted about who exactly the circle of moral universalism and equal legal citizenship should extend to. Most transhumanists are certainly universalist in their assertion of the rights of all people to control their own bodies and minds, and to take advantage of technological enablement. But most transhumanists reject the idea of some objective universal morality or natural law foundation for human rights. Most are also wary of transnational institutions that might come to suppress the existing hard-won rights enjoyed in Western countries. As a consequence, many transhumanists are unwilling to endorse the enforcement of universal human rights standards by transnational institutions.

Most transhumanists also hesitate at the idea that humanity 1.0 should attempt to constrain the moral choices of our descendants. If our descendants evolve morally and intellectually, then our attempt to influence them would be as foolish as our Paleolithic ancestors attempting to ensure we did not deviate from their values. 

Arguing against relativism often starts from whether the relativist refuses to even pass judgment on genocide, and we have to ask the same thing of relativist transhumanists. What if posthumans decide to enslave unenhanced humans, treating us like we treat children or animals? Isn’t it morally obligatory that we do what we can to ensure future legal equality and racial harmony between humans and posthumans?

Some transhumanists argue that it is possible to defend a transhuman version of moral universalism that enforces equal basic rights for both humans and posthumans. Allen Buchanan (2009), for example, argues that moral status is a threshold that won’t move as humans enhance. Political rights, however, aren’t directly tied to moral status, and it is possible to imagine a transhuman society that accepts the moral equality of humans and posthumans but accords them different political rights.

For instance, in Citizen Cyborg I argue that just as we currently formally acknowledge the different capacities and rights of adults without violating universalism, we could protect the basic equality of the enhanced and unenhanced while carefully acknowledging their differences. To drive cars, fly planes, possess weapons, and hold certain occupations, we oblige people to take specific courses of education, testing, and licensure, and then subject them to special rules and obligations. It is possible to imagine that some cognitive and physical powers would be so dangerous that we would similarly require licensure for their possession. Just as people who own monster trucks and automatic weapons have not established themselves as a dictatorial aristocracy in democratic societies, careful regulation of enhancements could diminish threats to legal and political equality.

Other transhumanists believe, however, that posthumans’ vast superiority in power, cognition, and moral progress will make pet-like subordination the best of outcomes for humans. Some transhumanists hope that human coexistence with our posthuman descendants will be a moot issue since posthumans will want to leave Earth altogether. In a 2005 survey of transhumanists, only a plurality (46%) agreed that “humans and posthumans will be able to coexist in one society and polity,” while 41% were unsure, and 12% believed they could not coexist. 

Allen Buchanan (2009) rejects George Annas’ (2005) assertion that posthumans will inevitably carry out genocide against humans, but acknowledges posthuman authoritarianism as a “practical worry.” Instead of a carefully regulated acknowledgment of different rights and obligations (like the right to drive) which preserve political equality, Buchanan sees a serious risk of posthumans insisting that their superior mental powers warrant greater political powers.

David Hume (1777) also came to a pessimistic conclusion about the coexistence of citizens with vastly different powers in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals.

Were there a species of creatures, intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment; the necessary consequence, I think, is, that we should be bound, by the laws of humanity, to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not, properly speaking, lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them, nor could they possess any right or property, exclusive of such arbitrary lords. Our intercourse with them could not be called society, which supposes a degree of equality; but absolute command on the one side, and servile obedience on the other.

In other words, even if the humans 1.0 were capable of rationality, of being asked for their consent for decisions that affect them, when the gap in cognitive ability and political power becomes too great, Hume proposes, legal equality becomes impossible. Even under the optimistic scenario that posthumans feel a sense of nostalgic noblesse oblige towards ur-humans, they might find claims that humans should give consent as pointless as asking the permission of a child or an animal (a scenario Dan Wikler considers in his 2009 essay “Paternalism in the Age of Cognitive Enhancement”).  This might especially be the case if the benefit to be conferred was cognitive enhancement that enabled us to understand the importance of the benefit, and only then to exercise meaningful self-determination.

These are not abstract questions, but practical challenges we face day-to-day from clinical ethics to international law. With the mentally ill and brain damaged, we have to carefully parse when coercion is required in the subject’s best interest. Coercing someone with mental illness to take their meds may return them to self-determination. In foreign policy, we face similar questions about the overthrow of dictatorships and the “imposition” of democracy. Only the most extreme moral absolutist would insist there is never a circumstance when it is morally obligatory to coerce someone toward their own freedom.

The transhumanist debate over animal “uplift”—a term coined and given narrative flesh by new IEET fellow David Brin—has indirectly addressed this conundrum. (The discussion was carried out for instance on the technoliberation list in 2006.) In Citizen Cyborg, I argued that great apes had cognitive and emotional capacities sufficiently close to human that they should enjoy basic human rights, the position argued by the Great Ape Project. But apes are cognitively and therefore morally like human children in that they cannot meaningfully be asked for or provide consent to decisions that affect them. As with children, I argue, we have an obligation to provide apes the means to reach cognitive maturity, through pharmacological, genetic, and nanotechnological cognitive enhancement, so that they can exercise full self-determination. 

In response, critics such as Dale Carrico asserted that the project was a form of eugenics and cultural imperialism, forcing a human model of the Good on other species. Whether humans have a right to insist on universal respect for human rights or not, he claimed moral universalism does not extend across species boundaries. Great apes should not be forced to adopt human cognition. George Dvorsky and I, following Peter Singer, argued that species is morally irrelevant.

Are Transhumanist Values Universal or Parochially Human?

To what extent are transhumanist values inescapably human? In 2007, Nicholas Agar responded to Nick Bostrom’s “In Defense of Posthuman Dignity” by arguing that while there are some human moral universals, such as the moral status of human and posthuman persons, transhumanism is actually espousing values that are rooted in the human experience.

Some of our values are universal. When we identify them as such we say that they are values for everyone. Good examples are core moral values. One’s moral status should not depend on who is making the judgment. You are a morally considerable being irrespective of whether your spouse or a complete stranger is asking the question. Other values are local. They depend on who is judging. The values we place on family and friends are to a large extent local. A parent can expect that you recognize the moral considerability of her child, but she should not expect you to value him just as she does…. much of the value we place on our own humanity is local. I value humanity because I’m human. I wouldn’t trade my humanity for posthumanity even though I recognize that posthumans are objectively superior. Its being a local value means that I do not expect the value that I place on humanity to be accessible to posthumans, just as, pace Bostrom, posthuman values aren’t available to me.

Agar understands that even if some people do value being human, this does not place a moral obligation on those who do not value humanness and wish to pursue enhancement. But Agar feels that those who desire enhancement are actually rooted in local, human values and not in universal transhuman values.

Transhumanists take pride in achievements that are meaningless except by reference to humanity. I imagine that they take pleasure in writing fine books defending transhumanism rather than feeling annoyance they weren’t able to ask a time-traveling posthuman to give the subject a far superior treatment.

Nonetheless, Agar sees other core transhumanist values, such as the value on health and longevity, as universal. He believes that the bioconservative defense of illness and death as central to human experience confuses the local value on humanness for the universal value on health and life.

It would be callous to retain pain and suffering if we could eliminate them so that the fortunate among us can overcome and emerge with our characters deepened. We can avoid making a brief in favor of pain and suffering by advocating the elimination of horrible diseases as a universal value. This means recognizing that the dominant effect of metastatic cancer is to thwart human flourishing rather than to deepen the characters of onlookers and occasional survivors. The universal value of preventing and curing disease does not seem to be inconsistent with the local value of humanity. There doesn’t seem to be anything spookily posthuman about someone who makes it through to a ripe old age without having succumbed to cancer.

For a Postmodern Transhuman Moral Universalism

Transhumanists, especially of the libertarian variety, have retreated too far from Enlightenment moral universalism, towards moral relativism. We need to reassert our commitment to moral universalism and the political project of equality for all persons and institutions of global governance powerful enough to enforce world law and individual rights.

Certainly, as Russell Blackford and Claudio Corradetti (2009) have argued, our moral universalism 2.0 needs to be more sophisticated. We partisans of the Enlightenment cannot defend moral universalism by re-asserting that rights are God-given, natural, or self-evident. We have to acknowledge that rights and moral status are social agreements, shifting daily with the balance of political forces seeking to limit and expand them. Moral universalism needs to be tempered with respect for diversity and, where meaningful, respect for individual consent and collective self-determination. Our moral universalism needs to acknowledge the limits of our current perspective, the possibility that some of our universals may in fact be parochially human, and that our descendants may come up with better ethical and political models.

But for today, just as we should not shy from working to stop Iranian torture of prisoners, Chinese net censorship, or Sudanese ethnic cleansing over their objections of “that’s how we do it here,” we should be actively promoting a common standard of moral obligation across species boundaries, animal, human, and posthuman.


Agar, Nicholas. 2007, Whereto Transhumanism? The Literature Reaches a Critical Mass. Hastings Center Report 37(3): 12-17.

Annas, George. 2005. American Bioethics: Crossing Human Rights and Health Law Boundaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bostrom, Nick. 2005. In Defense of Posthuman Dignity. Bioethics 19(3): 202-214.

Buchanan, Allen. 2009. Moral Status and Human Enhancement. Philosophy & Public Affairs. 37(4): 346-381.

Corradetti, Claudio. 2009. Relativism and Human Rights: A Theory of Pluralistic Universalism. Springer.

Fukuyama, Francis. 2003. Our Posthuman Future. Picador.

Hughes, James. 2004. Citizen Cyborg : Why Democratic Societies Must Respond To The Redesigned Human Of The Future. Basic Books.

Hume, David. 1777. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals.

Wikler, Daniel, 2009. Paternalism in the Age of Cognitive Enhancement: Do Civil Liberties Presuppose Roughly Equal Mental Ability? in Human Enhancement, ed. Julian Savulescu and Nick Bostrom. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 341–55.

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)


As the other articles of this series, I think this article offers a measured and balanced presentation of different points of view.

I guess I am a moral relativist in the sense that I don’t see why the universe should care about our values. All attempts to derive a “universal morality” from first principles seem to me extremely naive and logically faulty (you cannot derive “ought” from “is”). Science and morality are two very different categories that should not be mixed.

The universe does not care about our values. But we most certainly should. We have chosen our own values, which make perfect sense to us, and in this sense we can and should live by and promote them.

I wouldn’t give up on universal morality grounded in natural law so easily.  Guilio, no sensible person tries to construct ‘universal morality’ from first principles, but instead, fans of natural laws think that empiricism could find evidence for universal morality.

Our conscious feelings supply the ‘empirical data’ of values, and there may be an ‘intuitionist moral sense’ through which universal moral truths could be perceived:

Of course, only minds with a certain minimum amount of ‘moral sense’ already built-in would be capable of perceiving these moral truths or caring about it.


I spent years (2002 onwards) shifting through thousands of possibilities and incoherent ideas, around 2006-2007 (or thereabouts) some coherent ideas were starting to crystallize.  My current (and likely final) general position is that there’s a universal morality based around aesthetics and the creation of beauty (that is, I think, all other values are simply special cases of aesthetics).  I far as I can tell, my position is truly original, although Kant did have some ideas vaguely along these ideas. 

I think this somehow hooks into science via what is known as Occam’s Razor (closely associated with what is known as ‘priors’ in Bayesian reasoning).  I think there exist aesthetic principles for models (‘universal priors’ in the language of Bayes) which are ‘locking in’ this universal morality.  The justification of following the universal morality is that failure to do so degrades our own cognitive proccesses (aesthetics is closely tied in with quality of consciousnes). 

So to sum up, I think the creation of beauty is the meaning of life.  Best guess! wink

You think the creation of beauty is the meaning of life. I think this is beautiful idea. Somebody may think killing cats and shooting people in the street is the meaning of life.

The universe does not give a damn about what we think. Giving meaning to our lives is up to us.

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