Transhumanism vs. a Conservative Death Ethos

Ed Hudgins's picture
Submitted by Ed Hudgins on Wed, 2014-08-20 20:45

Transhumanism vs. a Conservative Death Ethos
By Edward Hudgins

August 20, 2014 -- Zoltan Istvan, author of the provocative novel The Transhumanist Wager(I’ll review it soon), recently suggested in Wired that individuals be required to secure a government license before having a child. I disagree with Istvan. So does Wesley Smith, who pens the Human Exceptionalism column for National Review. But Smith disagrees because Istvan rejects the morality of individual self-sacrifice. Istvan’s rejection is, in fact, a good reason for anyone who loves life to consider the bright future that the Transhumanist enterprise can offer.
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Transhumanists seek to develop and apply technologies to greatly enhance human physical and mental capacities. Centers like Singularity University, founded by futurist Ray Kurzweil and space entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, are facilitating major advances toward this goal.

Too many people?

Istvan and many other Transhumanists argue that in a few decades technology and breakthroughs in biology and genetics will literally allow humans to live forever. But with thousands of children starving to death in our world every day, Istvan believes the situation will be even worse with a growing, undying population. This is one reason why he “cautiously endorse[s] the idea of licensing parents” and that “applicants who are deemed unworthy—perhaps because they are homeless, or have drug problems, or are violent criminals, or have no resources to raise a child properly and keep it from going hungry—would not be allowed until they could demonstrate they were suitable parents.”

But for two centuries technology has dispelled the myth of resource depletion and allowed billions of human to live long and prosper. Continued abject poverty and starvation is mostly due to a lack of free markets and property rights.


But Istvan himself recognizes objections that, I would argue, require us to reject his proposal.

He says “Telling a person when and how many children they can have violates just about every core value we possess in a free society.” Precisely! Individuals have a right to their own lives and deserve the liberty to pursue their own happiness as long as they accord equal liberty to others.

Further, Istvan rightly asks, “who wants the government handling human breeding when it can't do basic things like balance its own budgets and stay out of wars?” His suggestion that a United Nations agency handle the matter is laughable. Further, Istvan’s description of irresponsible parents describes the behavior of most politicians, only they ruin entire countries, not just their own children. Do you really want to hand these dangerous authoritarians power to control the most intimate aspects of our lives?

Dying for love?

But while Istvan is wrong, his conservative critics are even worse. Wesley Smith objects to Istvan’s entire enterprise because “Transhumanism is selfish, all about me-me, I-I. It’s [sic] goal is immortality for those currently alive, and the right to radically remake themselves and their progeny in their own image.”

Yes, exactly! The essence of morality is “I.” Ethics exists to allow individuals to pursue their own happiness, flourishing, and fulfillment in life. To achieve these goals, we must use reason to guide our lives. We must pursue productive achievements. And we should accord to others the equal right to pursue their own happiness.

And what of our progeny? Smith offers the words of Leon Kass: “In perpetuation, we send forth not just the seed of our bodies, but also the bearer of our hopes… If our children are to flower, we need to sow them well and nurture them, cultivate them in rich and wholesome soil, clothe them in fine and decent opinions and mores, and direct them toward the highest light.”

Okay, fine. But here’s the zinger. “If they are truly to flower, we must go to seed; we must wither and give ground.”

What? If parents love their children they must die? My parents are 82 years old. I love them and want them to be around as long as possible. Damned selfish of me? And I’m an older father of very young fraternal twin girls. I want to live to see them graduate college, grow in careers, perhaps make me a grandfather, and much more.

But with or without kids, I want to live because I love my creative work, because I love to live in a world of achievers and to celebrate their achievements.

The future is now

Transhumanists today strive to be such achievers. Through their efforts our progeny could live in a world without Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, clinical depression, dementia, diabetes, and cancer, a world in which lives are not only longer—perhaps never-ending—but healthier.

Smith reveals a fundamental moral error when he declares that “we owe duties to our posterity and not just ourselves.” But Transhumanists do offer incalculable goods for future generations.

Economist Walter Williams once quipped, “What have tomorrow's Americans done for today's Americans?” This witticism gets to the fact that each of us must pursue our own values and happiness in order to create the greatest meaning in our own lives. Out of love we help our children as best we can but they, too, will need to find their own meaning.

There are still many serious discussions to have concerning the Transhumanist enterprise. For example, does that enterprise take away from current human exceptionalism and dignity? I say “No.”

But for love of self as well as love of our children and of what the future offers, we should embrace the Transhumanist goals.
Hudgins is director of advocacy and a senior scholar at The Atlas Society.

For further information:

*Edward Hudgins, “Book Review: Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler.” ISkeptic, April 24, 2013.
*William Thomas, Transhumanism: How Does it Relate to Objectivism?


Olivia's picture

What a thread this has turned into, it's brilliant.

Terry, this Brahms is new for me, a week ago, or so..... the second Brahms piece to take me by surprise and make its way into my daily fuel, nay arsenal! So beautiful! So emotionally profound and eternal.

Lindsay, great juxtaposition. The best. Only a human being can get the Brahms, only a sub-animal can get the Slayer, any healthy animal would have the instinct to flee!

Of course there is great value to be had in all scientific and technological advances, but only when they are used for good. My gripe on this thread is that the movement philosophically and politically associated with spearheading the advances you are seeing value in is completely ignorant of an objective concept of the good. And that makes them dangerous.

So salient. Thank you. A thing to be hypervigilant about when half the earth is Planet of the Apes.


tvr's picture

Yes, that was not quite the improvement I was looking for.

Brahms and Blasphemy

Lindsay Perigo's picture



tvr's picture

Yes, I know. LOL. What I mean is, has anyone (worthwhile) sung it in Italian or French? German to me, like Japanese, is not the most pleasant language to listen to. Hence why I asked if I was blaspheming Smiling Don't get me wrong, it is beautiful to listen to as is, and hands down the most beautiful German vocals I have ever heard. Thanks for posting the lyrics. Equally intense.


Lindsay Perigo's picture

German (Goethe)! Not a romance language:

Aber abseits wer ist's?
Im Gebüsch verliert sich sein Pfad;
hinter ihm schlagen die Sträuche zusammen,
das Gras steht wieder auf,
die Öde verschlingt ihn.

But who is that apart?
His path disappears in the bushes;
behind him the branches spring together;
the grass stands up again;
the wasteland engulfs him.

Ach, wer heilet die Schmerzen
dess, dem Balsam zu Gift ward?
Der sich Menschenhaß
aus der Fülle der Liebe trank!
Erst verachtet, nun ein Verächter,
zehrt er heimlich auf
seinen eigenen Wert
In ungenügender Selbstsucht.

Ah, who heals the pains
of him for whom balsam turned to poison?
Who drank hatred of man
from the abundance of love?
First scorned, now a scorner,
he secretly feeds on
his own merit,
in unsatisfying egotism.

Ist auf deinem Psalter,
Vater der Liebe, ein Ton
seinem Ohre vernehmlich,
so erquicke sein Herz!
Öffne den umwölkten Blick
über die tausend Quellen
neben dem Durstenden
in der Wüste!

If there is on your psaltery[3]
Father of love, one note
his ear can hear
then refresh his heart!
Open his clouded gaze
to the thousand springs
next to him who thirsts
in the wilderness!


Jules Troy's picture



tvr's picture

Of course there is great value to be had in all scientific and technological advances, but only when they are used for good. My gripe on this thread is that the movement philosophically and politically associated with spearheading the advances you are seeing value in is completely ignorant of an objective concept of the good. And that makes them dangerous.


tvr's picture

What an emotionally intense Brahms piece, Lindsay. Is it sung in a romance language by any chance? Or is it a blasphemy for me to ask?

Your explanation makes perfect sense. One's mental digitization of life is meant to enhance and serve to record the analogue experience. Not to replace it, nor to escape it, and certainly not to deteriorate/corrupt it.

Transhumans seem to advocate for an entirely digital post-human age as the ultimate goal. But to be human is to be both digital and analogue, and it is only the analogue experience of life that makes it worth living, ultimately.


Jules Troy's picture

Linz I still do not see an issue with enhancing one's life despite ones genetic makeup.  It does boil down to philosophy.  For example the idea of being able to live to be 300 would abbhor religious people of all persuasions because they would look at it as unnatural, against god and the work of the devil, fine by me let them die, the sooner the better.

As for the Pomowankers, progressives etc, often they lead destructive lifestyles and die off early and miserably by drug overdose, obesity, etc etc etc.  These people would disqualify themselves by their own lack of sense of life too.  Another form of natural de-selection as it were.

The only real problem will be implementation.  Government being government will bow to the outcries of these same people and make it illegal thereby infringing on people's right to choose for themselves what to do with their own body.


Lindsay Perigo's picture

Perspicacious post as always. Your question:

Why can't science and technology just be kept as the branches of knowledge that they are, recognized for the wonderful benefits they provide man, without turning them into the be-all and end all?

... I think is answered thus: some intelligent people, notwithstanding their intelligence, prefer not to confront the reality of Ayn Rand's "drooling beast." Being intelligent, they reject the idea of a Satan, but they overlook the secular reality of an active evil at work, in men's chosen premises (perhaps because they share them in ways they wouldn't care to admit). Science and technology become a form of escapism: all will be well when men can select the characteristics they want future men to have. It's another form of the rejection of free will—it's all in our genes, don't you see, so we just need to manipulate the genes better?! Whereas the actual problem is here and now and real—men can have this:

or this:

... and they go out of their way to prefer the latter. It's not a matter of genes; it's a matter of conscious, deliberate, pomowanking evil. OrgOism will not address this. Ayn Rand did. She would not recognise OrgOism.

The value of it as I see it

Jules Troy's picture

Some people Objectivists included may have such a zest for life that being able to prolong one's health beyond the "natural order" of things could coincide with objectivist ethics rather nicely.  If through medical advances one could physically remain let us arbitrarily pick "30" as a physical age for as long as one wanted to live I see no issue with this.  I would of course dump the whole übermensch crapola that transhumanist ethos embraces.  As long as one is productive, healthy and living a joyful life?  Heck yeah that could give one the extended time one may want to pursue goals that were previously unattainable .  For example I for one would love to be able to amass enough wealth to "retire" and enjoy doing photography for the next however many years!

Post-humanity: Transhumanism's Ultimate Goal

tvr's picture

Wikipedia, in its opening description of what transhumanism is, states that transhumanists "speculate that human beings may eventually be able to transform themselves into beings with such greatly expanded abilities as to merit the label "postman"".


Where religion teaches that man is flawed and his state cannot be overcome during this life by any means, and Objectivism teaches that man is not flawed and his state is perfectly fine as it is, provided that is he doesn't default on it his responsibility to think, Transhumanism teaches, like religion, that man is flawed, but that his less-than-adequate state may be overcome by technological improvement. This view completely misses the point of what it means to be human, which is that it is a moral state of being, not an intellectual or technologically defined one.

Again, Nietzsche comes to mind when I think about this movement's underlying ethics:

"I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?"

From what I have read of it, Transhumanism seems to me like it is just another religion, albeit without a God, however wanting to one day be able make man himself God. And it shares with religion a focus on a "post-man" existence.

Why can't science and technology just be kept as the branches of knowledge that they are, recognized for the wonderful benefits they provide man, without turning them into the be-all and end all?

Ha ha

tvr's picture

Yes, Olivia, my bad. We agree.


Olivia's picture

Agreed, that's why I wrote it.


tvr's picture

You wrote:

"I want the choice to be sacrifical, if I want... there are a few people on this Earth I would lay down my life for."

Agreed. But this is precisely a sentiment that I find is at odds with Istvan's 3 Laws of Transhumanism.


Olivia's picture

Intelligent Design, by humans. If the world isn't drawn into another Dark Age it looks as if this is the future.

Admittedly I haven't read Istvan's book, but a moral code that places not only achieving omnipotence (!) but the speed of one's achieving it as being more important than safeguarding value in the universe does not strike me as being a recipe for a "bright future".

I agree, but it does have great benefits medically for the human life span. But who wants a longer life span if you're living on Planet of the Apes? (As Gregster calls Jihadists. Eye)

I want the choice to be sacrifical, if I want... there are a few people on this Earth I would lay down my life for.

Transhumanism: Nietzsche Revisited?

tvr's picture


Wikipedia states that Istvan's Three Laws of Transhumanism are:

1) A transhumanist must safeguard one's own existence above all else.
2) A transhumanist must strive to achieve omnipotence as expediently as possible—so long as one's actions do not conflict with the First Law.
3) A transhumanist must safeguard value in the universe—so long as one's actions do not conflict with the First and Second Laws.

Admittedly I haven't read Istvan's book, but a moral code that places not only achieving omnipotence (!) but the speed of one's achieving it as being more important than safeguarding value in the universe does not strike me as being a recipe for a "bright future".

How is his formula not echoing Nietzsche’s "rebellion against altruism", as Ayn Rand called it, effectively calling for replacing sacrifice of the self to others by the sacrifice of others to the self?



Lindsay Perigo's picture

I agree that breeding shouldn't be licensed.

It should be banned! Eye

Except in your case, of course, Ed. How are your two little beauties, btw?

Both breeding and voting should be severely restricted in the transition to Galt's Gulch, otherwise there could be no transition. Allowing sub-humans (such as rappers and their fans) to vote and reproduce is suicide. I fear the world will be submerged/destroyed by filth before genetics has the chance to be of any use. It's a values thing. When a majority in an unbridled democracy such as America has become are in thrall to anti-values, there's little hope.

Very simple solution

Jules Troy's picture

Who are having more than 2 kids these days.  Rich people who can have as many kids as they want because they pay for them, and welfare recipients because on welfare the more kids you have the more money the government gives you.

So at the very least modify the welfare program and tell them " We only pay X amount for a family based on 2 kids, middle class families only have two because that is all they can afford, so in kind that is all we will pay you".  A better idea in my opinion is to get rid of welfare altogether and watch how fast the legs snap shut!

Three Better Ways than the Gov't Licensing of Parents

Kyrel Zantonavitch's picture

Ed -- I essentially agree with all of your points. Even in a Welfare State like America or Western Europe, licensing parents is basically a bad idea. We can find a better way. Maybe just enforce child abuse laws much better. The main solutions to poor parenting, of course, are to: (1) generally uplift our Western culture/lifestyle; (2) directly enhance parenting skills; and (3) radically cut back on collectivist, altruist Welfare Statism in gov't.

Thanks and mommy thoughts

Ed Hudgins's picture

Jules - Thanks for your kind words? Glad my sense of life is appreciated on Sense Of Life Objectivists!

Kyrel - I generally agree that we have serious problems with the welfare state rewarding irresponsible individual and forcing the rest of us to pick up the bills. But I don't think that authoritarian control freaks would do anything but serious damage to liberty controlling childbirth. People like us would likely be banned from having kids since we would obviously pass along our selfish values to our little ones. I also agree that many mothers--there are usually no fathers in the home--are raising the monsters who we see looting stores in Ferguson and making major parts of our cities unlivable. But I'm not sure how the law would work to go after mothers of are not raising their kids correctly. Remember, we have regimes today that send police to shut down little girls' lemonade stands for not having all the proper licenses to run a retail food operation. The politicians and DAs who send the police out on such raids are as stupid as they are malicious.

But yes, there is a real problem that Zoltan Istvan is identifying.

Licensing Mommy?

Kyrel Zantonavitch's picture

Interesting, provocative discussion from Ed Hudgins and Zoltan Istvan! Smiling Here's my quick view:

Licenses are inherently tyrannical. In a libertarian society they wouldn't exist (except perhaps as issued by big corporations to their private business franchisees). You never need gov't's permission to behave in various ways.

Still, Istvan's proposal seems to have merit on two accounts: 1) Every gov't on the planet today is largely collectivist and totalitarian. One person's pain, failure, and poverty belongs to all. The Welfare State sees to it that everyone is responsible and everyone pays. So why should bad parents be allowed to weigh down society with kids they can't take care of? This coerces everyone else into doing the job for them via gov't tyranny.

In a related reason: 2) Some pregnant women are such obviously rotten people and guaranteed bad mothers that for them to give birth to a kid they're only going to abuse, make miserable, and turn into a social predator, is an objective crime. The police, in effect, should follow the woman to the hospital maternity ward and then arrest her the moment she displays her atrocious and criminal parenting. That kid has rights and isn't hers to perpetrate crimes upon. But why should society have to wait? That isn't efficient or smart. Just being pregnant with no money or parenting skills is prima facie evidence of a crime, and the potential mother should arguably be arrested and ordered to abort right away after an expedited trial.

I generally disagree with Zoltan's suggested proposal, but I think he has a case to be made.

The better solution, however, seems to be to allow parents the right to procreate at will, and assume they're innocent (and competent and responsible) until proven guilty. But the moment they start abusing and criminally mistreating their infants, society and gov't should throw mom and dad into jail and fine them. Repeat offenses should quickly force them to put up their kids for adoption and perhaps forbid future parenting.

Damn Ed!

Jules Troy's picture

That is about the best article on sense of life that I have ever read!  Well done !

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