James Hughes’ Problems of Transhumanism: A Review (Part 3) – Article by Ojochogwu Abdul

James Hughes’ Problems of Transhumanism: A Review (Part 3) – Article by Ojochogwu Abdul

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Ojochogwu Abdul


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Part 3: Liberal Democracy Versus Technocratic Absolutism

“Transhumanists, like Enlightenment partisans in general, believe that human nature can be improved but are conflicted about whether liberal democracy is the best path to betterment. The liberal tradition within the Enlightenment has argued that individuals are best at finding their own interests and should be left to improve themselves in self-determined ways. But many people are mistaken about their own best interests, and more rational elites may have a better understanding of the general good. Enlightenment partisans have often made a case for modernizing monarchs and scientific dictatorships. Transhumanists need to confront this tendency to disparage liberal democracy in favor of the rule by dei ex machina and technocratic elites.” (James Hughes, 2010)

Hughes’ series of essays exploring problems of transhumanism continues with a discussion on the tensions between a choice either for liberal democracy or technocratic absolutism as existing or prospective within the transhumanist movement. As Hughes would demonstrate, this problem in socio-political preference between liberalism and despotism turns out as just one more among the other transhumanist contradictions inherited from its roots in the Enlightenment. Liberalism, an idea which received much life during the Enlightenment, developed as an argument for human progress. Cogently articulated in J.S. Mill’s On Liberty, Hughes re-presents the central thesis: “if individuals are given liberty they will generally know how to pursue their interests and potentials better than will anyone else. So, society generally will become richer and more intelligent if individuals are free to choose their own life ends rather than if they are forced towards betterment by the powers that be.” This, essentially, was the Enlightenment’s ground for promoting liberalism.

Be that as it were, Enlightenment philosophers were intensely conflicted about the virtues of powerful monarchies and technocratic elites versus popular democracy. Some believed in the absolute state as the best form of governance, and others, while arguing in opposition to absolutism and the divine right of kings, took stands for the desirability of “enlightened despots” deriving political legitimacy through a perception of them as working towards their people’s interests. It was believed that free peoples, as individuals and democracies (or mobocracies), often fail at choosing those ends that are in their best interests. As such, authoritarianism gets benevolently rationalized through the thinking that rulers and their advisors understand the needs of the people better than the people do themselves.

Before the Enlightenment, Hughes discusses, this superior understanding was believed to spring from the rulers’ wisdom and spiritual guidance, and then following the Enlightenment, “the idea that some people were more or less advanced on the path of reason and progress than others lent itself to justifications for enlightened monarchy, colonialism, and scientific dictatorships.” To capture the argument; the rational re-organization of a society that needs to undergo this is more straightforward in achieving by making existing elites and monarchs the agents of Reason than seeking the conversion of the masses and pursuing a bottom-up entrenchment of Reason. Rather, a society once rationally reorganized from the top would thence have the masses find their way to Reason much more easily.

Enlightenment arguments for benevolent modernizing dictatorships got to be used in the march of history to rationalize, for example, French and British colonialism, as well as the expansion of both the Soviet Union and Pax Americana. Even though Enlightenment thinkers, like Bentham, Condorcet, Diderot, Kant, and Adam Smith, presented thoughts in early criticism of imperialism, according to Hughes, “even their attacks on Western arrogance and exploitation were muted by their support for ethical universalism, which hoped to see everyone eventually benefit from the Enlightenment.” Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, moreover, have argued for two centuries that events like the French Revolution’s degeneration into Terror and Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism each were a natural consequence of the Enlightenment’s bid to instill rationality in governance. A weakness, however, in this argument is smartly pointed out by Hughes, which is its apparent ignorance or neglect of the fact that the liberal tradition itself is as much a product of the Enlightenment.

Within the transhumanist movement today, transhumanist liberalism is a stance counter-posed to transhumanist technocracy. Transhumanists, Hughes states, are “overwhelmingly and staunchly civil libertarian, defenders of juridical equality and individual rights. Most also believe democratic government to be superior to any of the extant alternatives. But many are also suspicious of the capacity of ordinary people to make decisions that are truly in their own interests, individually or as polities.” As with a number of Enlightenment thinkers, some transhumanists express the view that, rather than seeking popular support for transhumanist values, much more can be achieved instead by winning over powerful (and visionary) elites, the likes of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson. These corporate elites could lead or support influential experimentations for the creation of transhumanist systems. Hopefully, the rest of the world would follow.

Billionaire transhumanist Peter Thiel, for example, has vented hopes that anarchist utopias at sea, in outer space, or in cyberspace can escape the authoritarian clutches of current democracies. Seasteading projects like Blue Frontiers convey this libertarian, transhumanist dream of building floating city utopias with their own laws and political systems independent of any of the existing orders of the current governments of the world. Within the United States Transhumanist Party / Transhuman Party, the topic is open for debate if the Party should continue with its predominant approach which is aimed at incrementally reforming existing political systems for the gradual realization of the transhumanist vision, or if more drastic experimentations towards building breakaway, autonomous and sovereign transhumanist societies, in the form of seasteads and micronations, be seriously supported as an imperative for the creation of a political, economic and cultural order needed to aid the free development of technologies that would instantiate transhumanist aspirations and facilitate the full flourishing of transhumanist ideals. Powerful elites could lead or support this vision, and hopefully, again, the rest of the world would follow. A belief, moreover, with prevalence among some transhumanists is that “mob democracy” is hopeless and that the only avenue for progress lies with elites and unbridled technological change. This, however, as Hughes exposes, amounts to support for anti-democratic authoritarian views as held by those transhumanists.

In particular, it is supposed, a hundred million dollars from a billionaire transhumanist put toward the project of making a benevolent super-AI will yield exceedingly more to improve the world than any political movement, since the first super-AI will, as in the view of Eliezer Yudkowsky, be the last form of government humans will ever know. AI, as Yudkowsky believes, is either the solution to all of humanity’s problems or its final solution. This totalitarian superpowerful intelligent machine would, in essence, govern all the affairs of the world, hopefully in the people’s best interests. Like Nick Bostrom also argued, there is a need for a global “singleton” to mitigate “existential risks”, though Bostrom is, Hughes says, far more open-minded about the possible nature of the global dictator than Yudkowsky is. A singleton, Hughes explains Bostrom, need not be a monolith. Rather, it can “contain within itself a highly diverse ecology of independent groups and individuals”, and could, for example, be a democratic world government/republic, a friendly superintelligence, or posthuman.

In Hughes’ analysis, Bostrom further leaves open the possibility that the singleton could evolve from liberal democratic self-governance and be accountable to human beings in an equal and transparent way. However, with consideration of the prospects of radical improvement in the cognitive powers and moral characters of posthumans and machine minds, Yudkowsky and other transhumanists of his school are convinced into advocating for humanity to in fact abdicate self-governance to be taken over by more enlightened successors, for example, a super-AI that would be able to intuit the desires and needs of all human beings and make the decisions necessary to satisfy them. Michael Anissimov, cited by Hughes, explains that enlightened AI despotism will be completely trustworthy, and that “only godlike AI, built from pure code and free of evolved Darwinian behaviors but somehow programmed for human friendliness, can be trusted as a global totalitarian singleton.” A powerful argument, again from Yudkowsky, asserts that with human cognition so irredeemably constrained by bias, and with our motivations so driven by aggression and self-interest, there is thus no point keeping up faith in the project of self-governance through rational debate. Instead, we ought to make every effort possible in hastening the moment when our affairs can be handed over to a super-rational artificial intelligence programmed to act in our best interests. However, in this argument for a godlike, enlightened AI despotism, Hughes qualifies Yudkowsky and his followers as (unconsciously) echoing “Marxist-Leninist theories of scientific socialism and the perfect reflection of the general will through the Party.”

This noted, there are yet forms of incipient illiberal and anti-democratic theories, other than dictatorship by friendly AI, possible or currently entertained among some transhumanists. As the transhumanist movement grows, Hughes predicts, there will “undoubtedly be a growing conflict between transhumanist defenders of democratic self-governance and advocates of enlightened technocracy.” What with that which the existence already of transhumanists of the far-right, even alt-right transhumanists, portends?

In some contention, Hughes counts himself among defenders of liberal democracy who need to advance positions for the virtuous circle of reinforcement between human technological enablement and self-governance. In his book Citizen Cyborg, for instance, Hughes argues that “cognitive liberty, bodily autonomy, and reproductive freedom are core Enlightenment and transhumanist values, not to be lightly trumped by corporate power and state projects for betterment.” He affirms that “cognitive enhancement, assistive artificial intelligence, and electronic communication all would strengthen the ability of the average citizen to know and pursue their own interests and would make liberal democracy increasingly robust.” Hughes further argues against a pessimistic view that transhumanists are a permanent minority, and makes a case that political majorities can indeed be won for a technoprogressive platform. The encouraging spread in recent years of transhumanism across various demographics globally, efforts of politically active transhumanists like Zoltan Istvan and David Wood, the establishment and rise of transhumanist parties around the world, and publication of groundbreaking documents like the Transhumanist Bill of Rights all lend some credence to the prospects of Hughes’ arguments.

It is, of course, a certain difficulty sustaining a faith in the possibility of progress through liberal democracy within an era characterized by a backlash against liberal and leftist politics, the rise of radical populism, anti-globalism, ultra-conservatism, and an ascendancy of several other forces of illiberal democracy even in supposedly enlightened societies of the world. Some commentators already suggest a movement towards a post-liberal synthesis which could produce a resolution of much of the ideological and socio-political tensions of our zeitgeist. Hughes, for one, expresses his anticipation of new forms of governance that satisfy his Enlightenment values better than do the existing forms of imperfect liberal democracy. Nonetheless, he submits his concluding views that transhumanists in the meantime need to maintain focus on achieving our better world through liberal democracy. A tough ask and task, for sure, but if one can borrow from the spirit of the likes of Steven Pinker and his optimism that liberalism as one of the values of the Enlightenment is, against all odds, still working and poised for more success, then perhaps transhumanists staying the liberal course is, after all, expedient and worthwhile.


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.