Question: What is Objectivism's general stance on the concept of transhumanism, as well as the complex ethical, metaphysical, and political issues that it entails?
Answer: Transhumanism (e.g. H+ ) or Extropianism is an ideological coalition centered on the idea that, in the near future, substantial technological leaps will enable a radical increase in human life spans and capabilities. It envisions a future when human beings can become “post-human” due to radically improved health, physical powers, and greater mental abilities. Transhumanists advocate embracing and managing new technologies such as pharmaceuticals, genetic engineering, cybernetics, and nanotechnology for the sake of improving life and happiness.
The basic premises of Transhumanism are compatible with Objectivism. Transhumanists emphasize the use of reason to assess new technologies, view technological progress as desirable, and value individual control over one’s body and mind. Transhumanism is a this-worldly ideology descending from secular humanism and it rejects mysticism. Objectivist values would fit within the Transhumanist tent. And insofar as Transhumanist projections of the future are accurate, Objectivists would be advised to take them into account.
Transhumanists question traditional attitudes toward self-enhancement and life-preservation. This makes transhumanism a useful source of concrete ideas about therapies, practices or life arrangements. These range from the notorious ( cryonic preservation ) to the banal ( dietary advice ), but are valuable suggestions nevertheless. It is simply rationality to take a clear-eyed view of future possibilities.
Transhumanists get excited thinking about the complex possibilities of future technology in a future society. It’s no accident that science fiction writers have been seminal figures in the movement. To be sure, future technologies will be complex—they will even employ “complexity theory”!—but then, society today is highly complex. As long as capitalism survives and people retain a rational view of life, we will have the social mechanism of the market to help us manage complexity without the need for unified social planning, and we will retain the autonomy we need in society to be able to guide our lives successfully.
While an Objectivist could be a Transhumanist, many Transhumanists embrace values that are contrary to Objectivism. This is particularly true in politics, where some leading Transhumanists seek government support for favored technologies and favored research programs. Environmentalism is a growing ideology in the science community, and my impression is that Environmentalism is affecting Transhumanist thinkers as well, causing many of them to shift from a pro-technology boosterism to arguing that society must manage and control technology to avoid harmful outcomes. Similarly, Transhumanism’s moral fundamentals may be shifting from promoting autonomy and individual human welfare toward embracing a utilitarian approach that purports to value all forms of sentience equally, including animals. That’s more like anti-humanism to me.
Another occupational hazard of Transhumanism is a tendency to deprecate man as he actually is. Transhumanists argue that it is possible to make people healthier, smarter, and more capable than they are today, and that new technologies will make this much easier to do. Does this imply that human beings as we are today are flawed? The current trend of “evolutionary” psychology often views human beings as dominated by inherited traits and behaviors, many of which are maladaptive in the modern context. This view of man is enthusiastically embraced by many Transhumanists, who want to repair the “bugs” in the human genome and psyche.
By contrast, Objectivists, while not denying that we evolved, emphasize the robust capacities that humans actually have, which underlie Objectivism’s heroic view of man. Objectivism also emphasizes the fact that humans have free will and are capable of reason, as against those evolutionary claims that portray us as automatons. That we can be improved and strengthened doesn’t make us bad or incapable as we are. Indeed, it is glorious that we are increasingly able to take conscious control of our biological nature and are able to understand our world so profoundly as to be able to radically improve it.
In short, I think Objectivists can be Transhumanists and can learn from what Transhumanists investigate. But Transhumanists could benefit from the Objectivist view of human nature, ethics, and politics as well.
William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.