Ethics Issues in Transhumanism
Why do transhumanists want to live longer?
This is a personal matter, a matter of the heart.
Have you ever been so happy that you felt like melting into
tears? Has there been a moment in your life of such depth and
sublimity that the rest of existence seemed like dull, gray
slumber from which you had only just woken up?
is so easy to forget how good things can be when they are at
their best. But on those occasions when we do remember –
whether it comes from the total fulfillment of being immersed
in creative work or from the tender ecstasy of reciprocated
love – then we realize just how valuable every single
minute of existence can be, when it is this good. And you might
have thought to yourself, “It ought to be like this always.
Why can’t this last forever?”
maybe – just maybe – it could.
transhumanists seek to extend human life, they are not trying
to add a couple of extra years at a care home spent drooling
at one’s shoes. The goal is more healthy, happy, productive
years. Ideally, everybody should have the right to choose when
and how to die – or not to die. Transhumanists want to
live longer because they want to do, learn, and experience more;
have more fun and spend more time with loved ones; continue
to grow and mature beyond the paltry eight decades allotted
to us by our evolutionary past; and in order to get to see for
themselves what wonders the future might hold. As the sales
pitch for one cryonics organization goes:
conduct of life and the wisdom of the heart are based upon time;
in the last quartets of Beethoven, the last words and works
of ‘old men’ like Sophocles and Russell and Shaw,
we see glimpses of a maturity and substance, an experience and
understanding, a grace and a humanity, that isn’t present
in children or in teenagers. They attained it because they lived
long; because they had time to experience and develop and reflect;
time that we might all have. Imagine such individuals –
a Benjamin Franklin, a Lincoln, a Newton, a Shakespeare, a Goethe,
an Einstein [and a Gandhi] – enriching our world not for
a few decades but for centuries. Imagine a world made of such
individuals. It would truly be what Arthur C. Clarke called
‘Childhood’s End’ – the beginning of
the adulthood of humanity.” (Cryonics Institute)
Cryonics Institute. http://www.cryonics.org/
Isn’t this tampering with nature?
and it is nothing to be ashamed of. It is often right to tamper
with nature. One could say that manipulating nature is an important
part of what civilization and human intelligence is all about;
we have been doing it since the invention of the wheel. Alternatively,
one could say that since we are part of nature, everything we
do and create is in a sense natural too.
In any case, there is no moral reason why we shouldn’t
intervene in nature and improve it if we can, whether
by eradicating diseases, improving agricultural yields to feed
a growing world population, putting communication satellites
into orbit to provide homes with news and entertainment, or
inserting contact lenses in our eyes so we can see better. Changing
nature for the better is a noble and glorious thing for humans
to do. (On the other hand, to “pave paradise to put up
a parking lot” would not be glorious; the qualification
“for the better” is essential.) [See also “Are
transhumanist technologies environmentally sound?”]
many particular cases, of course, there are sound practical
reasons for relying on “natural” processes. The
point is that we cannot decide whether something is good or
bad simply by asking whether it is natural or not. Some natural
things are bad, such as starvation, polio, and being eaten alive
by intestinal parasites. Some artificial things are bad, such
as DDT-poisoning, car accidents, and nuclear war.
pick a topical example, consider the debate about human cloning.
Some argue that cloning humans is not unnatural because
human clones are essentially just identical twins. They were
right in this, of course, although one could also correctly
remark that it is not natural for identical twins to be of different
ages. But the more fundamental point is that it doesn't matter
whether human clones are natural or not. When thinking about
whether to permit human reproductive cloning, we have to compare
the various possible desirable consequences with the various
possible undesirable consequences. We then have to try to estimate
the likelihood of each of these consequences. This kind of deliberation
is much harder than simply dismissing cloning as unnatural,
but it is also more likely to result in good decisions.
remarks hopefully should seem trivial. Yet it is astonishing
how often polemicists can still get a way with arguments that
are basically (thinly disguised) ways of saying, “It is
good because it’s the way it has always been!” or
“It is good because that’s the way Nature made it!”
Will transhuman technologies make us inhuman?
The important thing is not to be human but to
be humane. Though we might wish
to believe that Hitler was an inhuman monster, he was, in fact,
a human monster; and Gandhi is noted not for being remarkably
human but for being remarkably humane.
attributes of our species are not exempt from ethical examination
in virtue of being “natural” or “human”.
Some human attributes, such as empathy and a sense of fairness,
are positive; others, such as tendencies toward tribalism or
groupishness, have left deep scars on human history.
If there is value in being human, it does not comes from being
“normal” or “natural”, but from having
within us the raw material for being humane: compassion, a sense
of humor, curiosity, the wish to be a better person. Trying
to preserve “humanness,” rather than cultivating
humaneness, would idolize the bad along with the good. One might
say that if “human” is what we are, then “humane”
is what we, as humans, wish we were. Human nature is not a bad
place to start that journey, but we can’t fulfill that
potential if we reject any progress past the starting point.
Isn’t death part of the natural order of things?
Transhumanists insist that whether something
is natural or not is irrelevant to whether it is good or desirable [see also “Isn’t
this tampering with nature?”, “Will extended life
worsen overpopulation problems?”, and “Why do transhumanists
want to live longer?”].
human life span hovered between 20 and 30 years for most of
our species’ history. Most people today are thus living
highly unnaturally long lives. Because of the high incidence
of infectious disease, accidents, starvation, and violent death
among our ancestors, very few of them lived much beyond 60 or
There was therefore little selection pressure to evolve the
cellular repair mechanisms (and pay their metabolic costs) that
would be required to keep us going beyond our meager three scores
and ten. As a result of these circumstances in the distant past,
we now suffer the inevitable decline of old age: damage accumulates
at a faster pace than it can be repaired; tissues and organs
begin to malfunction; and then we keel over and die.
quest for immortality is one of the most ancient and deep-rooted
of human aspirations. It has been an important theme
in human literature from the very earliest preserved written
story, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and in innumerable narratives
and myths ever since. It underlies the teachings of world religions
about spiritual immortality and the hope of an afterlife. If
death is part of the natural order, so too is the human desire
to overcome death.
transhumanism, the only hope of evading death was through reincarnation
or otherworldly resurrection.
Those who viewed such religious doctrines as figments of our
own imagination had no alternative but to accept death as an
inevitable fact of our existence. Secular worldviews, including
traditional humanism, would typically include some sort of explanation
of why death was not such a bad thing after all. Some existentialists
even went so far as to maintain that death was necessary to
give life meaning!
people should make excuses for death is understandable.
Until recently there was absolutely nothing anybody could do
about it, and it made some degree of sense then to create comforting
philosophies according to which dying of old age is a fine thing
(“deathism”). If such beliefs were once relatively
harmless, and perhaps even provided some therapeutic benefit,
they have now outlived their purpose. Today, we can foresee
the possibility of eventually abolishing aging and we have the
option of taking active measures to stay alive until then, through
life extension techniques and, as a last resort, cryonics. This
makes the illusions of deathist philosophies dangerous, indeed
fatal, since they teach helplessness and encourage passivity.
a deathist viewpoint tends to go with a certain element of hypocrisy.
It is to be hoped and expected that a good many of death’s
apologists, if they were one day presented with the concrete
choice between (A) getting sick, old, and dying, and
(B) being given a new shot of life to stay healthy, vigorous
and to remain in the company of friends and loved ones to participate
in the unfolding of the future, would, when push came to shove,
choose this latter alternative.
some people would still choose death, that’s a choice
that is of course to be regretted,
but nevertheless this choice must be respected. The transhumanist
position on the ethics
of death is crystal clear: death should be voluntary. This means
that everybody should be free
to extend their lives and to arrange for cryonic suspension
of their deanimated bodies.
It also means that voluntary euthanasia, under conditions of
informed consent, is a basic human right.
may turn out to be impossible to live forever, strictly speaking,
even for those who are lucky enough to survive to such a time
when technology has been perfected, and even under ideal conditions.
The amount of matter and energy that our civilization can lay
its hands on before they recede forever beyond our reach (due
to the universe’s expansion) is finite in the current
most favored cosmological models. The heat death of the universe
is thus a matter of some personal concern to optimistic transhumanists!
is too early to tell whether our days are necessarily numbered.
Cosmology and fundamental physics are still incomplete and in
theoretical flux; theoretical possibilities for infinite information
processing (which might enable an upload to live an infinite
life) seem to open and close every few years. We have to live
with this uncertainty, along with the much greater uncertainty
about whether any of us will manage to avoid dying prematurely,
before technology has become mature.
Are transhumanist technologies environmentally sound?
The environmental impact of a technology depends
on how it is used. Safeguarding the natural environment requires
political will as well as good technology. The technologies
necessary for realizing the transhumanist vision can be environmentally
sound. Information technology and medical procedures, for example,
tend to be relatively clean.
can in fact make a stronger claim regarding the environment:
that current technologies are unsustainable. We are using up
essential resources, such as oil, metal ores, and atmospheric
pollution capacity, faster than they regenerate. At
the present rate of consumption, we look set to exhaust these
resources some time in this century. Any realistic alternatives
that have been proposed involve taking technology to a more
advanced level. Not only are transhumanist technologies ecologically
sound, they may be the only environmentally viable option for
the long term.
mature molecular manufacturing [see “What is molecular
nanotechnology?”], we will have a way of producing most
any commodity without waste or pollution. Nanotechnology
would also eventually make it economically feasible to build
space-based solar plants, to mine extraterrestrial bodies for
ore and minerals and to move heavy industries off-earth. The
only truly long-term solution to resource shortage is space
a transhumanist point of view, humans and our artifacts and
enterprises are part of the extended biosphere. There is no
fundamental dichotomy between humanity and the rest of the world.
One could say that nature has, in humanity, become conscious
and self-reflective. We have the power to dream of
a better ways for things to be and to deliberately set out to
build our dreams, but we also have the responsibility to use
this power in ways that are sustainable and that protect essential
from Version 2.1 (2003) TRANSHUMANIST FAQ by Nick Bostrom
*Faculty of Philosophy,Oxford University.
10 Merton Street, Oxford OX1 4JJ, U. K.