Thursday, May 1, 2014

Is Transhumanism Compatible with Anarchism?

Transhumanists want to liberate themselves from the limitations of the human body. Anarchists want to liberate themselves from the limitations of contemporary human social structures. You might think that these two goals are compatible: that the liberatory ethos of transhumanism could complement that of anarchism. But according to an article by Kolovuo and Karageorgakis (hereinafter “KK”) this is not the case. Starting with the example of eco-anarchism and moving on to more traditional forms of social anarchism, these authors argue that there is an incompatibility between transhumanist and anarchist ideals. In this post, I want to look to take a look at their arguments.

I do so by following, in broad outlines, the structure of their own discussion. Thus, I begin by looking at the concept of human nature and the role it plays in both philosophies, then I look at the argument for the incompatibility of eco-anarchism and transhumanism, and I conclude by considering the argument for the incompatibility of social anarchism and transhumanism. (I’ll exclude any discussion of eco-anarchism and bioconservatism, which although it appears in their paper, doesn’t really interest me.)

Before getting to all that, however, I want to make a comment about KK’s general style of argumentation. Much of their article involves quoting from transhumanist sources, noting the apparent compatibility of the statements in those sources with anarchist principles, but then going on to suggest that other statements, or the implications of thereof, are really inconsistent with anarchist principles. This creates the following pattern of argumentation:

Transhumanist writers are committed to proposition X. 
Prima facie, proposition X is compatible with anarchism. 
But either proposition X has implication Y or transhumanists also say Y, and Y is incompatible with anarchism. 
Therefore, transhumanism is incompatible with anarchism.

I worry about this style of argument. I think “transhumanism” is a pretty broad school of thought, one whose core commitments are not fully worked out nor, indeed, appreciated by individual authors (and arguably the same is true of anarchism, though it has been around for longer). Consequently, I would be cautious about arguments that purport to demonstrate the incompatibility of such a broad school of thought with another broad school of thought. An argument that is limited to the views of particular authors is more likely to be successful (and KK’s arguments could be reinterpreted in this manner) but even then the opacity of certain key concepts — e.g. “freedom” and “nature” — make it difficult to assess. We will encounter some of these difficulties below.

1. Three Conceptions of Human Nature
Anarchism is fundamentally an ideology of human emancipation, specifically emancipation from statist control. If there is one thing that anarchists can agree on, it is that the dominating control that the state exercises over our lives is a bad thing, and that it needs to be eliminated. Freeing us from state control will allow us to prosper as human beings, to realise a happier and more harmonious form of life. Anarchists tend to diverge somewhat on the precise form of that life, with libertarian-anarchists emphasising individuality and freedom of exchange, and anarcho-syndicalists emphasising community and co-operative exchange.

The debate between anarchists and their critics is often cashed-out in terms of competing views of human nature. Defenders of the state usually cling to a Hobbesian conception of human nature. Anarchists cling to a more Rousseauian conception. These can be defined as follows:

Hobbesian Human Nature: Human beings are fundamentally (or, at least when left without state control) individualistic, competitive and violent. Without state control, human society would collapse into a war of all against all.
Rousseauian Human Nature: Human beings are fundamentally communitarian, cooperative and benevolent (“nothing can be more gentle than man in his natural state”). It is state control that distorts this fundamentally good nature.

These conceptions are almost certainly an over-simplification of Hobbes and Rousseau’s actual views, but they serve as useful extremes within which we can frame the debate. Thus, even if anarchists don’t fully embrace the Rousseauian extreme, they tend to be closer to that end of the spectrum than their critics. And those critics, in turn, may not fully embrace the Hobbesian extreme, but they tend to be wary about human nature in the absence of state control.

KK acknowledge quite a lot of complexity in this debate. Anarchists are often critiqued for having a naive and wildly inconsistent approach to human “nature”. On the one hand, they tend to assume that present social structures have immense power to reshape and distort the fundamentally good human nature; on the other hand, they tend to downplay any evidence suggesting that we are biologically inclined towards certain forms of violence or non-cooperative behaviour. The problem here may be that the concept of “nature” itself is highly opaque. Is the natural that which is fixed? Or that which is bequeathed to us by evolution? Or is it just that which will express itself in the absence of state control? It’s not entirely clear. As a result it’s not surprising to find some anarchists — KK cite the example of Eckersley — talking about both our potential and essential natures. I’m not sure any of this is helpful. I think what tends to matter is whether human behaviour can be readily altered in morally preferable ways and what methods are best for achieving this.

Anyway, KK think that transhumanists have their own conception of human nature. This conception leans somewhat in the Hobbesian direction (in the sense that it is negative rather than positive) but focuses predominantly on the limitations and restrictions posed by our current biological form. Thus, transhumanists lament the limited cognitive powers, physical capacities and lifespans that are currently made possible by human biology. They urge us to use our intelligence and our technologies to transcend those limitations:

Transhumanist Human Nature: Our natures are primarily constituted by the limitations of our biological form. These limitations are negative. We must use our intelligence and technology to transcend those limitations.

Still, there is some nuance here too because occasionally you may find transhumanists saying that it is “in our nature” to transcend ourselves, i.e. to use our natural rational capacities to transcend our limitations. Again, the vocabulary of “nature” isn’t particularly illuminating.

2. Transhumanism and Eco-Anarchism
Illuminating or not, the “nature”-related discourse dominates KK’s discussion of transhumanism and eco-anarchism. This is for the obvious reason that eco-anarchism is characterised by the belief that contemporary society not only exerts dominating control over human beings, but over the entire natural world as well. It is the goal of eco-anarchists to end this dominating control. Thus, just as we must stop exploiting our fellow human beings for gain, so too we must stop exploiting nature in order to grease the wheels of the capitalism. Instead, we must develop a more harmonious and cooperative relationship with one another and with nature.

KK think that transhumanism is incompatible with the eco-anarchist goal. KK are frustratingly opaque in their development of this argument. The following is simply my attempt to read between the lines:

  • (1) Eco-anarchism is committed to the goal of ending human domination of nature (i.e. of freeing nature from human domination).
  • (2) Transhumanism is committed to the goal of dominating, expropriating and redesigning nature.
  • (3) Therefore, the ideologies are incompatible.

The first premise of this argument is what I derive from KK’s brief discussion of eco-anarchism. I think it is a fair, albeit stipulative definition of their position. The second premise is where the action is. One problem with it — that KK readily acknowledge — is that many transhumanists have explicitly said and endorsed seemingly contrary views. Thus, for example, they cite Nick Bostrom and James Hughes as disavowing speciesist approaches to moral status. They might also have cited David Pearce (co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association, now Humanity+), who is a vegan and who has long argued that we have an obligation to end the suffering of non-human animals. Advocacy of renewable and sustainable energy sources is also found among transhumanists. And indeed, pro-environment principles are incorporated into the Transhumanist Declaration. So what’s the problem?

According to KK, the problem is that despite these explicit endorsements, transhumanists really — when you look at it in more depth — do not value the natural world in and of itself. Thus, despite their claim to value all forms of sentient life, KK submit that transhumanists really only care about intelligent life. They have a couple of examples of this, one being that Bostrom’s concept of existential risk only seems to cover risks to intelligent life. Furthermore, they cite James Hughes as arguing that the ultimate goal of transhumanism is to supplant the natural with the designed, i.e. to use human intelligence to reshape nature in a better way. This suggests a dominating attitude toward nature and leads KK to label transhumanists as “mis-naturalists” (like mis-anthropes, only that their distaste spreads to all natural things).

I think there are two problems with this argument. The first has to do with the general method of argumentation, which I worried about in the introduction to this post. To defend their position, KK must argue that the transhumanists who claim to be committed to pro-nature and pro-environment principles are not really committed to those principles (i.e. that they are either liars or self-deceived), because they are actually committed to another set of contradictory principles. I don’t think that’s a persuasive way to argue, at least when it comes to understanding movements like transhumanism. I think it’s possible for ideologies to contain within them contradictory principles and for the advocates of an ideology to not be fully committed to either (or, to be committed to one set on one occasion and another set on another occasion). Consequently, I don’t think the implicit contradiction has any necessary implications for how transhumanists might act in the real world. Furthermore, I don’t see why we should deny the sincerity of those who do claim to be committed to the pro-environment principles.

The second problem with the argument is that it proceeds on a faulty assumption. Or so I believe. KK seem to presume that nature is intrinsically valuable and is something we should seek to preserve and protect. But I think that is just wrong. Many “natural” things are bad, and not just because they are bad for human beings. Predation is bad for the animals that get eaten; floods are bad for many forms of vegetation; and certain bacteria and viruses can be bad for pretty much everything (apart from the bacteria and viruses themselves). There are many good things about nature too of course, and what I say shouldn’t be taken to mean that plants and animals cannot be afforded some degree of moral status. It simply means that extreme conservationism is morally untenable. We should preserve and protect that which deserves to be preserved and protected; we should try to eliminate or modify that which does not. There’s nothing in the transhumanist view that is inconsistent with that approach to the natural world.

3. Transhumanism and Social Anarchism
So much for the compatibility of transhumanism and eco-anarchism. What about the compatibility of transhumanism with the more traditional forms of social anarchism, i.e. with those that focus on freeing humans from the dominating control of other humans (particularly the state)? Is that also incompatible with transhumanism? Again, KK argue that it is.

Their argument this time round is slightly more subtle than their eco-anarchist argument. I’ll do my best to elucidate its basic logical structure. In general terms, their concern is with the role of technology in the transhumanist project and with who owns and controls that technology. They worry that, far from being a liberatory force, technology can actually reinforce ideologies that restrict and limit human freedom. That gives them the following argument:

  • (4) Anarchists are committed to granting human beings freedom from dominating control.
  • (5) The transhumanist project is likely to reinforce, or create new, forms of dominating control.
  • (6) Therefore, anarchism is unlikely to be compatible with transhumanism.

KK adduce three main lines of support for premise (5). The first is the classic worry that the benefits of enhancing technologies will not be evenly distributed among the population. This may lead to a new transhumanist elite which exerts dominating control over the lower classes of human being. Of course, transhumanists have argued that this may not follow on the grounds that the transhumanist elite might be morally enlightened and less inclined to exert dominating control (just as contemporary human societies are, arguably, more enlightened in this respect than our ancient ancestors). This is speculative to be sure — who really knows what will happen? — but KK dismiss it on somewhat unconvincing grounds, stating that claims like this merely serve to highlight the value-laden nature of the technologies.

The second reason for believing in premise (5) has to do with the control over the innovation necessary for the transhumanist project to succeed. KK argue that this innovation will be controlled by scientific and technological elites (coupled to a technopolitical lobby). These groups will tend to reinforce the existing capitalistic status quo. Finally, the third reason, which is slightly weaker, stems from Bostrom’s concept of the “singleton”, which is a single, independent decision-making entity that he feels may be necessary if we are to guide human evolution in the desired direction. KK reply to this in a pithy fashion: “It sounds like the nightmare of every anarchist” (p. 325).

I have mixed feelings about this argument. I think its best if it is not interpreted as an attempted argument for the incompatibility of transhumanism and anarchism, but rather as a warning call. If we are to follow the transhumanist project, we certainly should be wary about the possibility of reinforcing or perpetuating forms of dominating control, and about the corporate interests and ideologies that might be served by that project.

Nevertheless, I would reject the idea — implicit in KK’s analysis — that enhancement technologies cannot be genuinely emancipatory. Last year, I wrote a paper about enhancement and hyperagency, suggesting that one of the goals of enhancement was to allow human beings to become hyperagents (i.e. agents with complete control of all aspects of their agency). Although there are some legitimate concerns about that possibility — several of which I address in that paper — I fail to see why it would not be genuinely emancipatory. Not unless the concepts of “freedom” and “emancipation” are being understood in some mystical sense that I don’t fully appreciate.

In summary then, although KK’s analysis of transhumanism and anarchism is certainly provocative, and occasionally insightful, I don’t think it is, in the final analysis, persuasive.

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