Mike Anissimov threw a few rocks through the paper-thin arguments of the wasps over at Futurisms, resulting in their version of an angry swarm (comments and a blog post). The initial post itself is pretty funny, because, in short, Futurisms argued, with a picture and a headline, “We like one of the most likable actresses to ever exist, but the people we critique think she needs to be made into a borg to be of value.” Just to clarify, we transhumanists love Hepburn, but think it’s sad that she 1.) had lots of miscarriages and 2.) died, so we argue for technology that would have fixed those problems. The back and forth is largely uninteresting, because neither party explores what is at stake here: goodness vis-a-vis humanism. Transhumanists are humanists and those at Futurisms claim to be humanists as well. So we have a problem of interpretation, not of standards of “goodness.”

I’ll make three quick points.

1. Humanist/Enlightenment standards of “goodness” have not changed, but have been consistently reinterpreted over the past 300 years. I can guarantee that no humanist in 1750 would have argued that all human beings are equal and have understood it the same way a humanist would in the year 2010. For example: the concept of “homosexual” didn’t even exist, so how could inclusion/exclusion goodness/badness even be considered in 1750.

2. The focus has never been “human beings” so much as it has been intelligent, rational adults. For a long time, only white, landowning, men could be considered intelligent, rational adults, with everyone else being too simple to be morally responsible/autonomous. All transhumanism does is expose the original criterion – intelligence, rationality, and sentience – and point out that the boundary isn’t drawn by DNA but by something emergent. Rights are a case by case situation.

3. The “goodness” of Hepburn is an interesting case because no mention is made of what makes Hepburn so good she can’t be better. She was a fantastic human being and remains iconic, but why? Is it because she is beautiful? Smart? Kind? A humanitarian? Because she was a great actress? Her fashion sense? She was a smoker, is that good? She had miscarriages, would remedying that situation lessen her? Not only would there be a debate over what actually makes her good, any agreement (say, her fashion) would lead to debates over someone who is better at that aspect (Jackie O, Gaga, Coco Chanel).

I agree that moral relativism is a problem. I also agree with Anissimov’s point that our morality and sense of goodness are innately connected to how our minds evolved (not each individual mind, but the whole species), and neuroscience has been kinda-sorta proving the Categorical Imperative.  But for the writers of Futurisms to come to the conclusion that ah! the late 20th century version of humanism is THE version to stick with, is willfully ignorant.

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