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Transhumansm; Ethics Issues in Transhumanism

4.1 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?

It 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?”

Well, maybe – just maybe – it could.

When 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:

“The 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/

4.2 Isn’t this tampering with nature?
Absolutely, 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?”]

In 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.

To 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.

These 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!”

4.3 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.

The 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.

4.4 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?”].

Average 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 70.

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.

The 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.

Before 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!

That 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.

Espousing 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.

If 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.

It 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!

It 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.

4.5 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.

Transhumanists 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.

With 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 colonization

From 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 values.

(Selection from Version 2.1 (2003) TRANSHUMANIST FAQ by Nick Bostrom
*Faculty of Philosophy,Oxford University.
10 Merton Street, Oxford OX1 4JJ, U. K

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