Transhumanism as the Heir of Ethical Modernism — or Against Virtue

Anyone who takes transhumanism seriously is almost by default an ‘ethical modernist’. The position is easiest to state in terms of the history of philosophy. It is someone who believes that Kant and Bentham in the late 18th century set the framework for constructing a theory of ethics. To be sure, they are associated with quite different, typically opposed positions: ‘deontology’ and ‘utilitarianism’. However, they share a few salient features:

(1) Morality is not something that one acquires from others and then reproduces; rather it is something that one legislates for oneself and others, and ethics is its rationalization.
(2) ‘Rationalization’ is understood as akin to the process that science performs on our empirical understanding of the world.
(3) Armed with the right ethics, the moral agent acquires powers that had been previously reserved to God.
(4) The fact that ethics contradicts ordinary morality is at most a public relations problem and quite possibly a mark of its validity and hence an inspiration to self-discipline.

When I first studied ethics in the 1970s, the Cold War was very much in the air. Perhaps unsurprisingly, ethical modernism was the only game in town – and Existentialism was its irreverent popular front. (Anyone who sees Existentialism as opposed to Kant and Bentham fail to appreciate their massive common ground.) Back then, it was all about taking sides, taking responsibility and hoping for the best but expecting the worst. But this was before 1989, when the USSR demonstrated that it was incapable of holding up its side of the world-historic tension.

Since this historical backdrop remains strangely muted in the academic literature, I need to resort to more familiar academic benchmarks. From this perspective, Alasdair MacIntyre’s conversion to Roman Catholicism was the tipping point that unleashed the revanchiste movement against ethical modernism known as ‘virtue ethics’ (and its sidekick, ‘virtue epistemology’), with branch offices in the left-of-centre world, courtesy of Martha Nussbaum and Michael Sandel. This movement, which is arguably the dominant trend in moral philosophy today, involves a systematic denial of the above four theses in the name of what it advertises as a more ‘humane’ and even ‘humanistic’ approach to our moral life, typically rooted in some conception of a species-wide ‘human nature’, which has been given a slightly less essentialist spin in recent years under the rubrics of ‘capacities’ and ‘capabilities’.

Virtue theory takes human life as it already is – understood in light of our ‘natural history’ – to have arrived at largely satisfactory norms of conduct. From that standpoint, both Kant and Bentham appear to have operated with hyperbolic standards that underestimate the strength of our sentiments, our cognitive limitations, and perhaps most importantly, the enduring nature of our traditions and institutions, which have not required the services of a Kant or a Bentham.

To be sure, ethical modernism always faced opponents who saw morals in more broadly ‘ontological’ terms, i.e. as intimately connection to some relatively fixed conception of human nature that can be accessed through intuition and/or biology. Indeed, Aristotle is rightly seen as the patron saint of contemporary virtue theory. For their part, ethical modernists see ‘human nature’ as no more than a platform for building an ethical life, which goes beyond the default patterns of social relations. Thus, ethics doesn’t aim merely to reflect humanity’s state of being but to improve it.

Logically speaking, virtue theory collapses a distinction that ethical modernists uphold, namely, between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’. However, I don’t mean to accuse virtue theorists of fallacious reasoning. On the contrary, their view harks back to the pre-modern period, when people believed that a moral life was led by discovering one’s place in the natural order (a la ‘natural law’), what the great historian of modern ethics Jerome Schneewind gamely called the ‘divine corporation’. It followed that people tailored their aspirations to their capacities, secure in the knowledge that their capacities – however meagre on their face — did indeed serve a larger purpose. In this respect, life was about figuring out your job description before you’re retired and sent to Heaven.

Ethical modernism is not about dissolving the divine corporation but about replacing God with humanity as its CEO. In that case, the corporation may be due for a structural overhaul, both in terms of its overall ends and the means by which they are achieved. Thus, biologically given capacities may be enhanced or diminished, depending on the corporate strategy – and, in principle at least, any human should be able to make such a judgement and all should be able to agree to it. Indeed, this principle is present – in somewhat different guises – in both Kant’s and Bentham’s accounts of rationality. And while both acknowledge that our epistemic and practical powers fall short of the divine, nevertheless the ethical character of our actions is located specifically in our willingness to own those actions, i.e. take responsibility for them, regardless of the consequences.

The step from Kant and Bentham to transhumanism can be seen in their common attitudes, which can be in turn contrasted to that of the virtue theorist, in at least two respects:

(1) The meaning of ‘ought implies can’: This Kantian slogan is usually read to mean that people can’t be obliged to do things that they are incapable of doing. To a virtue theorist, it refutes the superhuman feats of will and calculation that ethical modernists would require of us. In other words, we need to downsize our moral aspirations. However, the correct way to read this slogan, which pushes Kant toward transhumanism, is that we need to become the sort of people who can live up to the correct ethical principles. Kant was not only the philosopher of human dignity but also of species-level moral progress, a theme further developed by Hegel and Marx. For their part, Bentham and his followers have been happy to offload the utility calculations to mechanical procedures if they prove too taxing to ordinary human minds. These are the precursors of today’s transhumanist talk about ‘moral enhancement’ via the right neurochemical cocktail or gene therapy.

(2) The role of science in ethics: Virtue theory is often presented as part of the general ‘naturalistic’ turn that has been slowly taking place in philosophy over the past 50 years. However, the exact relationship between ‘naturalism’ and science is rarely made explicit. In the case of virtue theory, the emphasis seems to be placed on the actual content of, say, social or biological science, especially as a check on the more outlandish aspirations of the ethical modernists. In terms of evolutionary theory, virtue theorists are more partial to Darwin’s natural historical approach than the lab-based molecular genetics approach that has dominated in the post-war period and fuels transhumanist imaginaries of a ‘Humanity 2.0’. This latter position locates the ethical modernists, who are ultimately more aligned with the rational and experimental character of science than the actual findings of science. Thus, they stress the reversibility of facts under changing conditions and the need to harvest untapped potential: To simply let the past dictate the future is to abdicate moral responsibility and thereby behave unethically. In that case, perhaps the Kantian slogan should read instead: ‘can implies ought’?

A good genealogy – or perhaps better an autopsy! – of virtue theory will no doubt cover many cases – like that of MacIntyre himself – in which someone starting from the hard left becomes disillusioned with Stalinism’s efforts to shoehorn people into ideology and then gradually loses faith in human beings, either individually or collectively, to determine their own destiny. In the end, they end up as neo-conservative Neo-Thomists, often in spite of themselves. I have called these people ‘down-wingers’, and I’m afraid they’re not going away soon. In fact, my guess is that self-avowed people of the left who rest content with criticizing the current neo-liberal order without proposing a positive alternative are likely to be lured by the siren call of virtue theory.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes, Rethinking The World

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