Part 4: Moral Universalism vs. Relativism
James Hughes’ essays on the problems of transhumanism continue with a discussion on conflicts, borrowed from the Enlightenment, between universalism and relativism within transhumanism. The Enlightenment event (European and global), in addition to its attack and severance of the roots of traditional European culture in the sacred, magic, kingship, and hierarchy, thereby secularizing all institutions and ideas, also (intellectually and to some extent in practice) effectively set on course the demolition of all legitimizing basis of monarchy, aristocracy, woman’s subordination to man, ecclesiastical authority, and slavery. These were replaced with the principles of universality, equality, and democracy. Included in this was also an argument for moral universalism, a position that ethics and law should apply equally to all humans.
Now, despite profound differences of outlook among the Enlightenment thinkers, there was a wide area of agreement about some fundamental points, i.e., the reality of natural law (in a formulation that signaled a departure from the language of orthodox Catholic or Protestant doctrine), of eternal principles the adherence to which alone could make humans enjoy wisdom, happiness, virtue, and freedom. For theists, deists and atheists, for optimists and pessimists, and for puritans, primitivists, as well as believers in progress and the finest fruits of science and culture, only and just one set of universal and unalterable principles governed the world. These laws were the principles that governed inanimate and animate nature, facts and events, means and ends, private and public life, as well as all societies, epochs and civilizations. Humans degenerate into crime, vice and misery only by failing to follow them. There may have been differences and disagreements among the Enlightenment thinkers about the nature of these laws, the process of their discovery, or who even possessed the qualification to expound them; but that these laws were real, and could be known, be it with certainty or probability, was the widely accepted and central “dogma” of the entire Enlightenment.
Enlightenment thinkers proposed that all humans should be accorded the Rights of Man, though the legitimacy itself of universal, equal rights was advanced by several varieties of argument within the Enlightenment. John Locke, for example, as Hughes explains, argued for universal rights on the grounds that in the human state of nature, as created by God before civilization, we were given possession of our bodies. All humans, therefore, possess these natural rights equally, and interference with individual rights violates natural and divine law. Thomas Jefferson’s statement in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” rested upon this logic.
Hughes points out that the assertion of moral realism was never consistent, however, with the Enlightenment’s empiricism, and so other Enlightenment thinkers made social contractarian arguments for moral universalism in the pursuit of consistency with Enlightenment empiricism. The utilitarians, he cites for instance, argued for moral universalism on the basis that if we accept that all creatures want less suffering, the goal then of morality should be the reduction of all creatures’ suffering, regardless of race, gender, or even species. What did the declaration of universal rights do? It generated demands, almost as an immediate outcome, for an end to slavery and the subordination of women. Its universalist meme, unfolding through politics, recorded various emancipatory gains in the 19th and 20th centuries – from workers’ movements, to feminism, to anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles, down to the demands of the rights of sexual minorities and the disabled in contemporary times. Summarizing the highpoint, Hughes affirms that the 1948 adoption of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights was “a milestone in the institutionalization of Enlightenment universalism.”
The Counter-Enlightenment, a movement that emerged and spread in criticism and rejection of the Enlightenment, in response has presented a continual attack on moral universalism from a couple of sides according to Hughes. On the one hand, he says, religious conservatives and moral realists have maintained that distinctions between the rights and duties of men and women, propertied and propertyless, European and non-European, etc., which the universal rights of Enlightenment ignored, existed and were “real.” Other conservative thinkers on their part argued that our acknowledgment of the existence of any rights only occurs fundamentally because they are rooted in particular cultures and traditions. Therefore, as Hughes would summarize a thinker like Edmund Burke, rights cannot be universal, and it turns out meaningless trying to defend the right to free speech of, say, the Chinese or the African. In fact, the danger is easily exposed of the Enlightenment actually threatening the “local, embedded rights that people do possess because its universalism ignored the importance of local culture, seeking to overturn national traditions in favor of global cosmopolitanism.” Postmodernist intellectuals were to extend this line of argument by adopting their own critique of moral universalism and defense of local embeddedness. Enlightenment universalism, couched in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, gets accused and attacked by such thinking as having been used as a rationale and decoy instrument for Western imperialism and the suppression of local cultures and laws. Ironically, respect for self-determination and cultural diversity among particular societies of the world also counted as Enlightenment values, but then in situations where local cultures violated the rights of women or ethnic minorities, or suppressed free speech, moral universalism was (and continues to be) posed in conflict with those very values which called for respect of localism and diversity.
One may, in grappling still with this problem, extend here by bringing in some historical analysis from Isaiah Berlin who had argued that the surprising and unintended consequence of the counter-Enlightenment revolt against the Enlightenment has been pluralism, a complex phenomena which owes more to detractors of the Enlightenment than it does to its proponents, most of whom being monists whose political, intellectual and ideological offspring have, surprisingly again, often been (or ended in) terror and totalitarianism. For Berlin, with the Enlightenment’s legacy in the 20th century being monism (which he interprets as favouring political authoritarianism), whereas the legacy of the counter-Enlightenment has been pluralism (which he identifies with liberalism), we herein this twist, therefore, find two of the ‘strange reversals’ of modern intellectual history. Yet, for someone like Richard Wolin, following his work of tracing the modern descendants of the counter-Enlightenment in postmodernism’s deep suspicion of “universalism,” paralleled by its endorsement of “identity politics,” Wolin is led to conclude that it has acted against the values of toleration and mutual recognition, not merely of diversity but of commonality. In the perspective of Hughes, moral relativism is to be understood as both “an external, counter-Enlightenment strain of thought, and an internal and consistent product of one line of Enlightenment reasoning.” The contradiction(s), as well as its flip-flops and heirs, therefore come both from without as well as within the Enlightenment.
Part of this contradiction, as Hughes will make us see, is also found within transhumanist thinking as manifested today in the tension between transhumanist universalism and transhumanist relativism. Transhumanists are likewise caught between ethical universalism and relativism, and conflicted about who exactly the circle of moral universalism and equal legal citizenship should extend to. Most transhumanists, Hughes says, are certainly universalist in their assertion of the rights of all people to control their own bodies and minds, to take advantage of technological enablement, and to even assist non-human animals with cognitive and other enhancements through technology. Among these are the universalist transhumanists who believe and assert that transhuman democracy can and should promote the rights of all “persons” regardless of species; animal, human or posthuman.
That said, most transhumanists, according to Hughes, reject the idea of some objective universal morality or natural law foundation for human rights. Furthermore, there are a significant number of transhumanists, especially of the relativist school, who remain hostile to the idea of any effort to impose Enlightenment values on other societies, posthumans, or animals. These ones, upon the perception that ethical views are historically situated and not absolute, also hesitate at the idea that humans as in their current form (or “humanity 1.0”) should attempt to constrain the moral choices of our descendants, for “if our descendants evolve morally and intellectually, then our attempt to influence them would be as foolish as our Paleolithic ancestors attempting to ensure we did not deviate from their values”, so Hughes articulates their rationale which will rather, going by the concept of evolutionary ethics, have left opened the conviction that future generations will inevitably develop a new ethics. But then what if, as an argument against transhumanist relativism would level, posthumans decide to enslave unenhanced humans, treating them like we as current humans treat children or animals? Is it not hence morally obligatory that we take steps now in any way we can to ensure future legal equality and racial harmony between humans and posthumans?
Connected to the above, Hughes refers to the presence of some transhumanists who argue for the possibility of defending a transhuman version of moral universalism that enforces equal basic rights for both humans and posthumans. Hughes reiterates his own argument in his book Citizen Cyborg that just as we currently formally acknowledge the different capacities and rights of adults without violating universalism, we could protect the basic equality of the enhanced and unenhanced while carefully acknowledging their differences. Also, just as we in contemporary society oblige people to take specific courses of education, testing, and licensure, and then subject them to special rules and obligations for them to, for example, drive cars, fly planes, possess weapons, and hold certain occupations, so too by the author’s logic is it possible to imagine that some cognitive and physical powers would be so dangerous that we would similarly require licensure for their possession. Hughes posits that going by such careful regulation of enhancements, possible threats to legal and political equality between human and posthuman citizens in the future could therefore be diminished.
Other transhumanists believe, however, that with the vast superiority in power, cognition, and moral progress which posthumans are likely to possess, pet-like subordination by them will therefore be the best of outcomes for humans. A number of other opinions over this issue are still presented to us by Hughes, as in some scholars, like Allen Buchanan, who while rejecting assertions that posthumans will inevitably carry out genocide against humans, yet acknowledge posthuman authoritarianism as a “practical worry.” In the view of this intellectual, rather than a carefully regulated acknowledgment of different rights and obligations (like the right to drive) which preserve political equality, Buchanan, somewhat in contrast to Hughes, sees instead a serious risk unfolding in a scenario in which posthumans would insist that their superior mental powers warrant greater political powers. Yet again, hope is also found among some transhumanists that human coexistence with our posthuman descendants will, as Hughes states, be “a moot issue since posthumans will want to leave Earth altogether”, thereby leaving no case of a shared Earth and prospect of conflict with humans. A World Transhumanist Association survey in 2015 of transhumanists, as presented by Hughes, indicated that a plurality of transhumanists (46%) agreed that “humans and posthumans will be able to coexist in one society and polity,” while 41% were unsure, and 12% believed they could not coexist. Apparently, there are many paths down which the road could lead.
Hughes for concluding remarks speaks, in the manner of recommendations, of the need to advance towards a postmodern transhuman moral universalism, which in essence would imply the renewal of commitments to a subtler, limited form of moral universalism. This would also require some enabling global political institutions around which we shall have to rally. Transhumanists, he comments, “especially of the libertarian variety, have retreated too far from Enlightenment moral universalism, towards moral relativism.” A necessity, therefore, prevails for transhumanists to “reassert our commitment to moral universalism and the political project of equality for all persons and institutions of global governance powerful enough to enforce world law and individual rights.” This new moral universalism (moral universalism 2.0 as it is called), however, in affording to be not just an extension of human parochialism, must demonstrate higher sophistication, and as Hughes admits, partisans of the Enlightenment; a group among whom he identifies, cannot count on a defense of moral universalism simply by re-asserting that rights are “God-given, natural, or self-evident.” Rather, he says, “We have to acknowledge that rights and moral status are social agreements, shifting daily with the balance of political forces seeking to limit and expand them. Moral universalism needs to be tempered with respect for diversity and, where meaningful, respect for individual consent and collective self-determination.” It is thus relevant for the moral universalism in present usage to acknowledge the limits of our current perspective, the possibility that some of our universals may, in fact, be parochially human, and that our descendants may come up with better ethical and political models.
Nonetheless, Hughes avers that for the meantime, just as we should not refrain from working to stop acts of oppression such as ethnic cleansing, torture of prisoners, and net censorship in places where they occur all in the name of a relativist deference to such societies’ objections made under the guise of “that’s how we do it here,” so should we likewise at present actively engage in promoting a common standard of moral obligation for all “persons” (or intelligent life) across species boundaries, be they animal, human, posthuman, and as could be presumably now added, sentient machines and other advanced sapient life forms. The United States Transhumanist Party’s “Transhumanist Bill of Rights” is already one such commendable effort in this direction.
Ojochogwu Abdul is the founder of the Transhumanist Enlightenment Café (TEC), is the co-founder of the Enlightenment Transhumanist Forum of Nigeria (H+ Nigeria), and currently serves as a Foreign Ambassador for the U.S. Transhumanist Party in Nigeria.