“Transhumanism, Or, is it Right to Make a Spider-Man”

The next essay in “Spider-man and Philosophy” is “Transhumanism, Or is it Right to Make a Spider-Man” by Ron Novy.  It basically tries to defend the idea of transhumanism from criticisms, mostly by Fukuyama.  Novy starts by considering technological enhancements like Aunt May’s glasses, her newspaper and her coffee as things that are similar to what transhumanism wants to do with technology to enhance humans, as a way to get us to consider what they want to do as benign and something that we will eventually see as normal.  His defenses of transhumanism against criticisms definitely tend to follow that line, as he opposes the idea that transhumanism will create inequalities as the wealthy and wealthier nations adopt the changes while poorer nations can’t by pointing out that we already have such cases now, which is a fairly weak defense, since there may be special conditions with transhumanism that will make these things worse, or will cause far more problems than the simple things we have now.  But, in general, to counter Novy what we need is to show that the simple, “normal” things that Novy appeals to differ in an important way from the sorts of things that transhumanism would be espousing.

As it turns out, we can, because there’s a crucial difference in the approaches the two take, as Novy himself notes.  With things like glasses, the intent is to restore someone to a “normal” state, to overcome a specific deficiency that those specific people have wrt everyone else and so bring them up to a base state and so on a relatively equal ground with everyone else.  For the others, for the most part those are technologies invented to change our environment to make things easier for humans as a whole.  Sure, it might not be easy to fit newspapers and coffee into the model of altering our environment, but if we look at them as part of a personal environment we can see that it enables a person to get access to more information than they could on their own and to recover from fatigue from, perhaps, not sleeping all that well the night before.  In all cases, however, the intent is a holistic one, either bringing someone up to the “normal” level or else providing options that most people if not everyone can avail themselves of as necessary.  Because of this, there’s no real consideration of “superiority” involved.  Someone with glasses is not better than someone who isn’t, and someone who doesn’t need coffee in the morning isn’t inferior to someone who does.

Transhumanism, as Novy himself notes, is not like that.  It is a philosophy built around creating “superior” humans, making humans themselves better in some way.  So we can immediately see an issue with transhumanism where in order to create “superior” human beings we need to first define what it would mean to make human beings “superior” in the first place.  With the other cases, we either have a human baseline to appeal to or can let the environment specify what things we are trying to overcome.  With transhumanism, we can’t appeal to either of those, because we are trying to redefine the human baseline and the technology we are inventing is trying to enhance humans in general, not as a reaction to a specific environmental concern.  So how do we determine if a transhumanist alteration is really making humans “superior” or not?  If we could increase the calculating ability of humans ten-fold at the cost of emotionally stunting them, is that an improvement or a regression?  By what, or more importantly whose, standards would we judge whether we’ve succeeded in making “superior” humans?  Because we’re aiming at producing “superior” humans, we need to be able to define it, but at the same time have lost all references we could use to define our goal.

Even if we could define what it means to be “superior”, the issues around equality cannot be dismissed as easily as Novy attempts to, for the same reason.  For the other examples, as noted, we have clear goals:  bring some humans up to the baseline, or alter the environment in a way to make it easier for humans to live in them or work in them.  Thus, while those benefits might be unequally distributed, in theory everyone can access them and we know the cases where someone might need to utilize them.  Thus, if someone can’t get them we can see that they are being deprived of them and those who don’t need them have no reason to grab them or hoard them for themselves.  So it becomes a distribution problem, not a philosophical one.  However, if the enhancements are seen to make a person “superior” to others, then there is a reason for wealthy people and nations to hoard the enhancements for themselves to maintain their superiority.  A person with normal sight has no reason to deny glasses to someone who needs them because they don’t need the glasses in the first place, and a person who needs glasses that work well for them has no reason to object if someone else gets glasses that help with their sight.  But with transhumanism, neither of these are true.  Someone who doesn’t need the enhancements might still want to keep them from others to maintain their natural superiority, and someone who gets the enhancements might want to deny them to others to maintain their enhanced superiority.  As noted, we don’t see someone who doesn’t need glasses or who wears glasses as being superior to each other, just different, but transhumanism’s explicit goal is to make humans superior to each other instead of just recognizing their differences.  Given that, those who can get them have reason to want to keep their superiority for themselves.

This, then, causes issues for society if transhumanism succeeds.  What happens to people who either can’t or won’t get those enhancements?  If transhumanism has succeeded in its stated goal, then those people would, by definition, be inferior to those who have the enhancements.  And if some people are clearly superior to others, then they would be preferred for, well, any role where those enhancements might matter.  Could it be the case that the people who can’t or won’t get the enhancements might find their dreams dashed simply because the “superior” people exist and take away all their opportunities simply by existing?  Could they be reduced to low or menial labour because those are the only jobs that the “superior” people don’t want?

Novy could — and likely would — argue that we have that now with genetic superiority.  But that is not deliberate and doesn’t make someone superior by definition.  Yes, if I want to be a professional hockey player but others have genetic gifts that mean that they are qualified to do that and I’m not, that’s unfortunate, but that doesn’t make them superior human beings and, in fact, there may be many other things that I do better than they do.  They’re just better at hockey due to their genetic gifts.  But it’s not the case that they are better than me and can become professional hockey players because they were able to pay for some transhumanist advantage and thus if I want to achieve that goal I have to do that as well or do without.  Novy could argue that things like special schools and training could do that for someone who is more wealthy, but that’s not an inherent advantage and applies to far fewer cases than it would here.

Ultimately, I can accept these differences because they are differences due to fortune, not design.  They, arguably, “got luckier” than I did, but that’s all it is.  And there’s something noble at tallying up what fortune has given you in the family and genetic lottery, seeing what it has given you, and forging the best life you can given that.  Transhumanism takes that away by making it so that you can become better through technology aimed specifically at making yourself better and superior.  You don’t take what you have and do the best you can, but instead try to reshape yourself to this supposed “ideal”.  That takes away from the individual and stratifies things even more.


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