"Soon our happy hearts will quiver"

Michael Cook
16 October 2012
Reproduced with Permission

In recent weeks several bioethicists have been debating vigorously in the pages of the Journal of Medical Ethics about whether homo sapiens will achieve salvation by transcending himself, what the responsibilities of a transcendent being would be towards homo sapiens , and whether it is moral to create superhumans. It is vaguely reminiscent of mediaeval disputes about the genus and species of angelic beings .

Launching the debate was Nicholas Agar , of Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand. He contended that "post-persons" -- beings with a higher moral status than us (ie, homo sapiens ) - is possible. With genetic engineering, drugs, and other forms of cognitive enhancement, it will be possible for us to create beings with intellects so advanced that to us they are literally unimaginable.

However, he thinks that it would be a very bad idea. Why? Because, just as we humans use and sometimes destroy beings of lower moral status such as rocks and goats for our own benefit, post-persons could do the same to us. This might happen in "supreme emergencies", when we would be reluctantly sacrificed for a greater good, or "supreme opportunities", when we would be cheerfully sacrificed for a greater good.

"It is reasonable to think that the creation of post-persons will leave mere persons more likely to suffer significant harms," he writes. Besides, we have no moral obligation to create these awe-inspiring being.

By and large, other bioethicists were far more optimistic about a post-human (or post-person, or superhuman, or Humanity 2.0) world. Thomas Douglas , of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, believes that creating post-persons is almost a moral duty.

"The lives of post-persons would often be valuable in themselves," he contends. "It is plausible that post-persons would be capable of enjoying extremely rich and fulfilling lives - perhaps lives much more fulfilling than any that a mere person could live." From a utilitarian perspective (most transhumanists are utilitarians), "though the harms imposed on mere persons would not be compensated, they would be outweighed."

Ingmar Persson, of the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden, agreed. He and a leading bioethicist from Oxford, Julian Savulescu, have argued in the past that ordinary humans need to be morally enhanced to keep from destroying each other. "If this argument is correct, mere persons will benefit in the longer run if they are mixed up with morally wiser post-persons who can help them avoid catastrophe."

Other bioethicists found flaws in Agar's reasoning. David Wasserman, of Yeshiva University, in New York, felt that a future dominated by post-humans is so murky that there is no need for alarm. "Like a reluctant parent, Agar accentuates the negative, adopting a worst-case scenario in his anxiety about bringing new beings into the world."

There is something rather bizarre about debating whether Humanity 1.0 ought to do itself out of a job by creating Humanity 2.0. Is this a script-writing session for a new Transformers film or one of the world's leading bioethics journals? Are these guys serious?

As a matter of fact, they are.

It's not difficult to see why. The thrust of contemporary bioethics has been solving the existential problems of fear of painful death, longing for children, fear of children, anxiety about the future and so on, with medical technology. For fear of death, there is the controlled comfort of euthanasia. For infertility, there is IVF. For fear of new life, there is the Pill. For anxiety there is Prozac.

With these precedents, startling advances in science seem to offer tools to conquer man's weaknesses and limitations once and for all. For the first time, it could be possible to shortcut the need for hard work and virtuous living by tinkering with the genome and giving people drugs. As Savulescu and Persson write in their forthcoming book Unfit for the Future: The Urgent Need for Moral Enhancement :

"Our knowledge of human biology - in particular of genetics and neurobiology - is beginning to enable us to directly affect the biological or physiological bases of human motivation, either through drugs, or through genetic selection or engineering, or by using external devices that affect the brain or the learning process. We could use these techniques to overcome the moral and psychological shortcomings that imperil the human species."

As I said at the beginning, there is something vaguely theological about this approach. Not mediaeval angelologists, but revivalist theologians booming out:

Shall we gather at the river?.
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace.

What the transhumanists are offering is clearly a kind of transhumanist salvation - a future of freedom from pain, a place of lasting happiness. But instead of a Saviour, there are scientists and bioethicists.

The world's first openly transhumanist politician, a member of the Italian parliament named Giuseppe Vatinno confirmed this in a recent interview in New Scientist . Transhumanism, he says, "aims to free humanity from its biological limitations, overcoming natural evolution to make us more than human". Is there a danger of making us less human? "Becoming less human is not necessarily a negative thing," says Vatinno"

The wilder types of transhumanists even believe that they can achieve (literally) immortality. A Russian billionaire, Dmitry Itskov, has launched a research project, the 2045 Initiative which is endeavouring to upload the minds of people who can afford it onto the internet:

"substance-independent minds will receive new bodies with capacities far exceeding those of ordinary humans [he writes]. A new era for humanity will arrive!... humanity, for the first time in its history, will make a fully managed evolutionary transition and eventually become a new species."

Apart from showing how distant bioethics has become from everyday life, this vision of secular salvation would diminish our humanity, not enhance it. Our limitations are inherent in our materiality. Even if we were able to enhance our intelligence or lifespan, we could never escape the pain of living as finite beings. It is this question that the Journal of Medical Ethics ought to address, rather than pawing through the drug cabinet for better brands of happy pills.