A Critical Summary of Bioethics: From Humans to Transhuman, then Posthuman

This article was originally written for  WP2201E From Humans To Posthumans.

In A Moral Vision for Transhumanism, Hopkins (2008) suggests reasons which power the transhumanist movement. This ideology stems from the desire to breach physical limits so that we may magnify our capacity for improvement, resolve existential suffering and hence, address the human condition. Also, this movement seeks to allow us to realize our imagination. To become genuine transhumans, our characters must be transformed in tandem with our bodies. This, Hopkins further claims, allows us to seek truth and goodness. Technological advances can part the veils of existential mystery so that we may see “truth” and discover whether it is worth pursuing.

Hopkins’s argument, while coherent, rests uneasily on the assumption that a definitive ‘perfection’ – “truth”, “good” – can be achieved (p. 3,5). However, ‘perfection’ is a psychological construct, a subjective state that varies not only between individuals, but even during phases of an individual’s life. It changes according to socio–cultural and political environments too. Hogle (2005), an anthropologist of science, affirms that “expectations of what it takes to sustain life changes in various […] contexts and across time periods (p.712).” Chasing after ‘perfection’ is akin to pursuing elusive phantoms; we do not know what we collectively want as a species and thus, the movement seems to float towards a vague, rose –tinted vision.

This ideology, Hopkins optimistically asserts, evolves from a desire to reach perfection and enlightenment (p. 5).While it certainly accounts for the motivations of some transhumanists, it is neither the sole nor primary reason. Venture capitalists may want to profit, money-wise, from the technology; governments may legislate the science according to the political calendar; researchers, according to Flannery in Biotechnology & Bioengineering (1998), may be probing due to “emotional as well as intellectual satisfaction” (p. 465). This myriad of reasons sustaining the biotechnology revolution cannot be carelessly encapsulated under the umbrella term of knowing the “truth” and pursuing the “good”.

In what seems like an attempt to assuage critics, Hopkins recognizes in the subsequent section that transhumanism may not necessarily lead to the betterment of mankind – some might become “bodhisattvas” and others, “superhuman warlords”. This stance, contradictory to his pro–transhumanist inclinations, is only fleetingly addressed – a customary olive branch to placate the movement’s opponents – before he conveniently continues to share his confidence in transhumanism.

By beginning his exposition with general information on transhumanism, Hopkins gives lay readers insights into this movement. His mild, pedagogical tone inspires interest before he attempts to excite with his personal moral vision and ends with a dramatic rhetoric. Lest his optimism eclipse the sobriety of bioethics, there must be an understanding that caution should temper the technological breakthroughs and that transhumanism is a journey towards growth – and not an eventual destination.