Ethical synthesis (Was: Anti-Capitalism)

From: Anders Sandberg (
Date: Mon Apr 23 2001 - 11:53:41 MDT

lördagen den 21 april 2001 16:02 wrote Mark Walker:
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: Anders Sandberg <>
> > You better get working on coming up with some sane model of a "leftist
> > transhumanism" (for lack of a better word). I have been asking for it
> > for ages - I think there is nothing that has hurt the development of
> > transhumanism as much as the lack of internal debate over the
> > philosophical foundations of transhumanism. We need something more than
> > just taking one's normal political stance with transhumanism tacked onto
> > it, we need a true synthesis.
> As a philosopher myself it is pleasant to think that this is true. But I
> wonder why. Do you mean by a "synthesis" that we ought to be looking for a
> unifying political philosophy for transhumanism? Why isn't a healthy
> pragmatism here sufficient? For example, why can't liberal, socialist,
> libertarian, and facist transhumanists be content to work together on
> specific issues?

Transhumanism stated roughly as the idea of enhancing the human condition
beyond current limitations through rational means does not itself have any
values, which makes it rather useless as an ethical or political philosophy
without some value system. If is of course possible to take a value system
from some political philosophy and combine it with transhumanism, but the
result doesn't always make sense - a libertarian transhumanism works well,
but a conservative transhumanism develops inconsistencies that makes it
rather ridiculous. So clearly not every value system works here, and I think
it might be fruitful to explore whether there might be similar fundamental
inconsistencies between socialism and transhumanism (or for that matter,
between libertarianism and transhumanism).

However, just tacking on transhumanism onto whatever you happen to believe
politically or ethically (or vice versa, selecting politics and ethics from
your transhumanist views) when there is not too much inconsistency might
satisfy the human need for consistency but does not base any of this in your
view of reality or guarantee any long-term coherence of the system. We need
consistency in order to guide our self-transformation process.

This is where I think transhumanism (or rather, *a* transhumanism) needs 1)
to consider what foundations it is based on, and 2) create a synthesis with a
value system that can create a workable and consistent whole.

> My own view is that the question of whether a transhumanist ethics can
> be fashioned is the logically prior question. For all political
> philosophies announce or presuppose some theory of human nature. But
> transhumanism raises the question of which nature ought we to have; which
> is in itself an ethical question.

At the same time, transhumanism does not necessarily deny the existence of
any prior human nature.

Theories of human nature has objective and subjective parts. We can all
roughly agree on the objective parts (human are animal organisms, have
certain psychological basics etc), while the subjective parts are of course
more contentious (are humans "good" or "sinful"? what rights do they have and
why etc.). Being a basically empirical and rational view, transhumanism must
remain consistent with the objective, testable parts of human nature we can
study. Different choices of the subjective parts of theories of human nature
will however produce different theories, and I would say this is where an
value or ethical system is introduced.

Having some form of value system is necessary to direct action, and
especially necessary for answering questions about what human natures we
ought to have - as well as what changes are allowable. Am I allowed to modify
other individuals minds to embrace what I consider true? Is it acceptable to
improve myself using any means available?

Transhumanism as a practical philosophy useful for living a good life must be
able to give at least tentative answers to these questions. Hence it would
ideally be based on a theory of human nature (which in its transhuman
perspective would of course be a malleable concept but likely with a few
invariants assumed to be inviolable, essential or at least defining), giving
rise to an ethics that drives transhuman action and a consistent politics.

In practice we tend to develop our personal philosophies in a far more
haphazard manner, but that doesn't mean there is no benefit in refining and
developing them towards this kind of consistent views. The more our views
hang together, the easier it is to act when it is virtuous and avoid acting
when it would be bad.

> I am not that optimistic
> for the possibility of a synthesis given that transhumanism is working in a
> completely new ecological space in the intellectual
> environment. (Unless by 'synthesis' we mean aufheben). Part of the problem
> is that traditional ethics suffers from a similar limitation as political
> philosophy, namely, that all ethical theories presuppose a theory of human
> nature.

Which means that we will need to develop an ethics that can handle a dynamic
human nature. My best guess is that it would be based on acknowledging humans
(of whatever form) as processes undergoing constant change due to internal
and external factors, and define values from desirable and undesirable states
of this process or possibly desirable and undesirable directions of

> As a simple example of this
> consider the claim by Kant that "ought implies can". It is absurd to say
> that I ought to allievate all suffering on this earth because I can't. (I
> can lend a hand, but I can't do it all by myself). What we can and can't do
> is circumscribed in part by who we are, i.e., in part by our nature. By
> changing the scope of what we can do, by altering our natures, will likely
> lead to an increase in the scope of what we ought to do.

Quite possibly. The ethical obligations of posthumans might be significantly
larger than for baseline humans. It is not just that with great power comes
great responsibility (and I don't buy the Kant argument), but that being an
ethical subject is in itself closely linked to the ability to modify and
regulate one's actions, foresee consequences and understand the relationship
between oneself and the world. In posthumans these capacities would likely be
enhanced, and hence they would have a greater ability to act ethically (which
doesn't mean they *will* act ethically).

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