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The Moral Philosophy of Transhumanism
Amon Twyman   Mar 1, 2015   wavism.wordpress.com  

Transhumanism is an increasingly popular philosophical movement, and that increasing popularity can sometimes lead to a degree of confusion among newer adherents about what its necessary features are. In my opinion the only common basis to Transhumanism, coined by Anders Sandberg as the “Central Meme of Transhumanism” (CMT) is as follows: That the human condition can and should be improved by technology.

Of course Transhumanism is a broad church, as they say (somewhat ironically in this case), and it contains a very large number of ideas and ideological convictions which are somewhat tangential to the CMT. Those ideas characterise variants or flavours of Transhumanism, but none of them are essential to Transhumanism itself. As long as a person endorses the CMT they may consider themselves a Transhumanist with validity, no matter what differences of opinion there are between them and any number of other Transhumanists.

Having established that, I would like to propose an idea that in my opinion comes very close to being essential to Transhumanism, and which may actually be implied by the CMT and therefore necessary to Transhumanism. I can imagine a Transhumanist who does not agree with this idea since it is not an explicit part of the CMT, but the differences of opinion between that Transhumanist and others would be interesting. Furthermore, if this idea has already been made explicit within Transhumanism then I am not aware of it having been explored fully or widely discussed in that context, so I believe it is worth examining. That idea is as follows:

That the philosophical basis of Transhumanism is Negative Liberty, and that this basis entails two further principles which we may expect Transhumanists to implicitly support. I call these the Exit Principle and the Entry Principle.

Below I have broken that statement down into three brief sections, stating my assertions, and from there I will begin a conversation about these principles with a few simple observations and thoughts.

1. Transhumanist philosophy rejects all involuntary limitation.

This rejection is only valid insofar as we are not harming or limiting others, but is otherwise total. This deep expression of Negative Liberty further implies two complementary imperatives, which we may refer to as an Exit Principle and Entry Principle.

2. The Exit Principle demands the freedom to live by our own laws.

These voluntarily chosen laws stand in contrast to those imposed on us by others, and once again this demand is only valid as long as we do not cause unnecessary harm or suffering in exercising our freedom. Full expression of this freedom may require exit from an authoritarian society, and the implied demand for free exit gives this principle its name. Societies must be allowed to determine their own nature as long as they support the right to free exit.

3. The corollary Entry Principle is that we have a duty to ensure that the freedom we enjoy is also available to others.

This may require entry into a restrictive environment in order to alter conditions on behalf of those whose freedoms have been limited, most importantly the freedom of free exit. Such a stance will inevitably conflict with repressive authorities, who would characterise any liberating intervention as an improper imposition. That argument is invalid: The only impropriety is the original authoritarian suppression of the Exit Principle, without which no intervention would be necessary or justified.

Historical Precedent for Transhumanist Negative Liberty

The idea that Transhumanism is only necessarily defined by the CMT holds appeal because there has always been a flux of ideas enjoying different levels of popularity, with no clear definition of what can or cannot be Transhumanism being universally adopted. Given that situation, no matter how many well-intentioned Transhumanist Declarations were written (and perhaps to some degree because of them), any common factor to all Transhumanism inevitably had to be extremely simple. Any “moving parts” or conditional statements would simply create points of disagreement and division. That said, there were still strong currents of popular thought within the movement which shaped its character in the early days and in some cases continue to do so today.

Perhaps the most controversial example is the notion of personal liberty, which was frequently expressed as support for political and economic Libertarianism of the U.S. variety, and which came to be associated by some with the dominant brand of Transhumanist ideology in the 1980s and 1990s known as Extropy. This was the form of Transhumanism championed by founders such as Max More, Natasha Vita-More, and Tom Bell (AKA T.O. Morrow). The question of Extropy’s relationship with Libertarianism isn’t something I intend to delve into here, but I think it is safe to say that during this important phase of Transhumanism’s growth, the idea of personal freedom from all limitation was utterly central to the dominant strain of the philosophy. Although a Transhumanist might technically disavow that idea and still be in accord with the CMT (more on that in a moment), I would argue that the concept of personal freedom from limitation still goes to the very heart of what Transhumanism is and seeks to become.

Leaving Extropy aside, we should also very briefly look at Abolitionism, a school of thought defined and championed by philosopher David Pearce. Pearce explicitly defines his drive to abolish involuntary suffering through technological means as a form of Negative Utilitarianism. Negative Utilitarianism, a term coined and advocated by Karl Popper, is about measuring the value of actions in terms of their ability to reduce suffering. The “negative” aspect of this philosophy refers to a freedom from suffering (as opposed to a positive freedom to enjoy happiness), and it therefore fits exactly the same logical mould as the more general idea of Negative Liberty. Therefore, I would argue that the defining logical imperatives underpinning both Extropy and Abolitionism are in fact one and the same: Freedom from imposition of limitation or suffering. Given the strong support for that logic within early Transhumanism, I believe it would be peculiar (to say the least) to accept Transhumanism and yet reject Negative Liberty, even if Negative Liberty is not explicitly mentioned in the CMT.

A Necessary Implicit Principle

So, having established the validity of Negative Liberty as core Transhumanist logic, we can now turn our attention to the Exit Principle. I would argue that this principle is not only necessary once we have accepted the idea of Negative Liberty, but that it is also in fact implicit in the CMT itself, and therefore a core element of Transhumanism.

To begin with the matter of necessity, let us ask how it could be that someone could accept Negative Liberty – that they should be free from imposition by others and generally free of constraint – and yet deny their own right to freely exit any community, group, or situation as they see fit. Such a stance would seem paradoxical. I can imagine arguments that free exit would be invalid if it caused harm or was in some way in breach of contract, but I have defined free exit as applying only when unnecessary harm is not caused, and presumably only contracts voluntarily entered into are valid (meaning that free exit has in effect been forfeited voluntarily where a mutually agreed contract forbids it).

Another argument against free exit might be that it can damage or degrade the community if people are free to leave as they please, and it is fair to note that communities should not be left without the right to determine their own nature and future. As with all rights, the limit of their validity is the point at which one actor uses a right to deny another actor that same right. In other words, communities should be free to determine their own fate, but only insofar as they grant the same right to their members, which at minimum means granting the right to free exit.

Finally, it is my belief that the Exit Principle is not outside the CMT (and therefore an “optional extra” relative to Transhumanism), but is in fact implied by the CMT and therefore a necessary element of Transhumanism. The logic is simple: If we can and should improve the human condition through technology, then we must insist on the freedom to make our own choices regarding what counts as “improvement”, and what technologies will best lead us toward it. If we do not grant this implicit insistence on Negative Liberty, then the CMT is perverted from a simple statement of desire to fulfill our potential, into a severely problematic submission to whatever authorities are appointed (or appoint themselves) to decide what counts as improvement, and what is best for us.

In short, without Negative Liberty the CMT itself ceases to be the CMT as we currently understand it, and therefore Negative Liberty and the Exit Principle must be considered fundamental to the very essence of Transhumanism in all its forms.

Moral Equivalence of Others, and an Inconvenient Corollary

If you accept the arguments I have put forward so far, then you agree that Transhumanism is at its heart characterised by a drive to improve without limitation, and that this requires rejection of any situation where we are trapped or limited against our will. Having established that, we must then wonder about our obligations to others who may find themselves similarly trapped or limited against their will. Depending on the circumstances of any given situation, people would inevitably entertain the full range of opinions; from believing that intervention on our part is unethical, to believing ourselves morally obliged to intervene, with various shades between. The real question for us today is whether any particular stance is mandated by the CMT or its implied Negative Liberty, and to what extent any such requirement is itself essential to the definition of Transhumanism (and therefore not optional for those who would call themselves Transhumanists).

​Of course David Pearce’s Abolitionism directly addresses the question of our responsibilities to other sentient and sapient beings, but we could easily note that Abolitionism itself is an optional variant or philosophical neighbour of Transhumanism, rather than a necessary feature. The same can be said of any number of sets of ideas common in Transhumanist circles which have some relevance to the question of our obligations to others. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that it’s a nigh-impossible logical leap from our own Negative Liberty to a positive obligation toward others. Even if such a thing were argued for (and many would), there would be too many ways in which we might object for it to be considered necessary or central to Transhumanism. So, the idea that “we have a duty to ensure that the freedom we enjoy is also available to others” (as stated in the Entry Principle, above) does not mean an iron-clad obligation to intervene in others’ affairs on a third party’s behalf.

It does, however, mean something of importance. The key point of Negative Liberty being inherent in the CMT and of the Exit Principle therefore being necessary speaks to our own rights, and how it is inexcusable for others to violate them. A problem with accepting the Entry Principle only occurs when we start to think in terms of “others” being the target of oppression rather than ourselves. In other words, confusion as to our rights and responsibilities only arises when we focus on those who are or aren’t being oppressed, rather than those doing the oppressing. Think of it this way:

Many Transhumanists already express strong beliefs about the need to intervene on the behalf of others. Such beliefs come in many variants, not least Abolitionism, and we do not need to concern ourselves with their details here. Suffice to say that there are schools of “interventionist” thought which are compatible with, although not necessary to, Transhumanism. So we can easily envisage a situation in which group A is intervening to liberate group B, from suffering and/or limitation imposed upon them by group C. Group A (the liberators) are not doing anything contrary to the CMT, even if their actions are not required by it. Group B (the liberated) are doing nothing more than demanding Negative Liberty, which I have argued is necessary to the CMT and thus Transhumanism. Group C is directly suppressing the Negative Liberty required by the CMT, and so cannot be considered Transhumanist.

Now, imagine that you are an observer, part of group D. Are you obliged by the CMT and your self-identification as a Transhumanist to take any kind of action? Not quite, no, but you do have an obligation under these circumstances. As I have noted, it is a step too far to say that you would be obliged to help groups A or B. But just as you demand your own Negative Liberty as a Transhumanist, according to the Entry Principle you must not facilitate those who would remove that right from others. In other words, the Entry Principle means that you cannot involve yourself in the situation in any way which would effectively deny others the Exit Principle and their Negative Liberty. You may not help group C to oppress group B, by blocking intervention/entry of the liberating group A or in any other fashion, if you wish to be considered a Transhumanist with validity.

A Final Note on Passive and Active Principles

When I starting writing this article, I had it in mind that the Exit Principle was “passive” in the sense that by exercising it you don’t do anything to others except remove yourself from their influence, whereas the Entry Principle seemed more “active” in the sense of requiring intervention. My sense of the complementarity of these two principles has only grown in writing this piece, but the issue of whether one principle is active and the other passive grew confused in the process. After all, it seems that the Entry Principle is actually quite passive, not requiring you to intervene but simply mandating that you do not block anyone else’s intervention. At the same time, the Exit Principle could be argued to be “active” in the sense that it involves you actively taking command of your own destiny, even if it means leaving a restrictive milieu.

In any case, my intention with this article has simply been to begin a conversation about implicit principles apparently “buried” in the CMT, and therefore central to the very nature of Transhumanism. I hope that others will be intrigued by these questions, speaking as they do to issues of self-identification and personal responsibility, and feel inspired to take the conversation further.

Dr M. Amon Twyman (BSc, MSc Hons, DPhil) is an IEET Affiliate Scholar and philosopher interested in the impact of technology on humanity.

Amon's professional background is in both cognitive science and digital arts, and he has been a founding member of several organisations including the UK Transhumanist Association / Humanity+ UK, and the Transhumanist Party. Amon is currently the Transhumanist Party’s UK Party Leader, and Global Party Secretary.

http://transhumanistparty.org.uk
http://transhumanistpartyglobal.org
http://socialfuturism.net




COMMENTS

Transhumanist ethics as described here require as a prerequisite that each individual has the full means of production at his command.  It requires full molecular manufacturing in a transportable package.  This is because the exit principle is also an entry principle, and anything less than extreme abundance means that to enter is to encroach on other people’s lives, possibly in ways they wouldn’t like, thus restricting their freedom.  There isn’t room on Earth for the exit principle.  This is why no society today is morally valid.

Inherent in the principles is also a rejection of Libertarianism (or at least full economic liberty), in spite of the fact that a lot of Transhumanists consider themselves Libertarian.  For example, in a society without full abundance, the enrichment of one person may restrict the enrichment of another, and thereby deny that person full Transhumanist expression.  This conflicts with #1 and #3 above. 

I feel so bad, because this is such an elegantly written, well thought out, high brow paper on the “moral philosophy” of Transhumanism, and yet it is ivory tower hogwash.

Frankly, I will never understand why people want to put so much non-functional baggage on so simple a tenet, such as the “Central Meme of Transhumanism:” That the human condition can and should be improved by technology.

It is as simple as the stark division between the Noble Savage and the citizens of the Brave New World.  As a matter of necessity, if you want to benefit from the high technology gifts a civilization has to offer, you must abide by that civilization’s rules.

This Libertarian nonsense of the moral necessity of a minimal state or maximal freedom or the exit/entrance principle is just pie-in-the-sky mental masterbation.  Why do people compulsively make things needlessly complicated by tacking on all sorts of bells and whistles?

A boy tells his mother: “I want to be a Libertarian when I grow up.”  The mother replies: “Which one is it son, because you can’t do both.”

Some sympathy with what dobermanmac writes, but I have one problem with the CMT, namely that I think most people would agree with it, including those who don’t call themselves transhumanists. I really think that most people would not have an issue with the CMT, stated as a general principle. What they have a problem with is specific applications of it, essentially because they find them spooky or are afraid of the implications. If someone uses the latest medical technology to cure their cancer, they are collaborating in the effort to improve the human condition through technology, and if this is pointed out to them they will probably feel good about it.

So I think transhumanism has to be something more than just the CMT. Perhaps it’s that transhumanists generally don’t recognise any fundamental limits to the EXTENT to which the human condition can and should be improved by technology. I think that expresses it better. Perhaps we can call it CMT+.

Regarding whether this implies the other ideas discussed in this article, I think it’s fairly clear that they don’t. I’m not sure I find them as daft as dobermanmac does (in particular I don’t read into them a particularly naïve or extreme version of libertarianism), but I find it difficult to see how they are implied by the CMT (or my “CMT+” for that matter).

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