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. …