Left, right - and wrong? Modern and post-modern critiques of transhuinanism
In spite of all normalizing efforts, in scholarly and public debates alike it is still widely believed that HE does identify a morally relevant distinction and constitutes a highly consequential fault line in the moral, social, cultural and psychic domains. But how do philosophy and social theory conceive of the puzzles that arise in this new context? We feel that we should be troubled, but why exactly?
Arguably, this vagueness is due to the fact that modernist thinking is still dominating the critical side of the intellectual establishment. In this context, the discourse develops within the polarity of freedom and equality. On the one hand, the liberal tradition views individual freedom of choice as fundamental and sees threats to this freedom mainly in the relations of individuals to the political system (Habermas 2003). On the other hand, the Marxist and socialist tradition is particularly sensitive to issues of equality and attributes the current risks to the alliance of science, technology and free trade ideology within the framework of globalized neoliberalism. In sum, lib/lab9 thinking is concerned that HE be non-coercive and equally distribute benefits. These combined lines of thought produce the social imaginary of authoritarian dystopias we so often see in science fiction. Depending on the versions adopted, these emphasize the dangers of ‘big government’, tremendously empowered by technology, or of widespread social control and commodification of the human by biotech corporations. Of course, these actors, their strategies and the related risks interweave, at least in the best plots.
All this is true, but the problem is that these narratives leave much of the story untold. For one thing, despite all possible one-sided views, both of the main vectors of modernization - state and market - are leading this new process of change. HE is developed by state as well as by private agencies - often in complex partnerships - pursuing private and public aims alike (military, educational, etc.). In addition to this, HE practices are no more regulated in socialist countries like China than in Western liberal democracies.10 The pressure for HE comes from global capitalism as well as from the political and military competition between states and larger geopolitical blocs.
From a different angle, two distinctions offer an instructive insight into this issue, namely individual/collective and expressive/instrumental. HE can pursue improved performance in various organizational environments and spheres of action, producing a new biotechnical division of labour in society, and can be deployed to shape populations endowed with certain qualities. At the same time, it can appeal to individual desires of expanded experience and border crossing into alterity - somewhat similar to what the beat and hippie generations used to seek in drugs - or to the personal quest for perfection in various forms.11 In criss-crossing these distinctions different combinations appear, each with possibly different features and effects. Table 2.1 presents some examples in a clearly non-exhaustive way. Enhancing the human as an option thus reveals a variety
Table 2.1 The variety of HE goals
Expansion of experience, psychic therapy (mood, emotions)
Changing social psychological profiles
Improving performance for personal success (work, sport, studies)
Building populations or groups with useful properties (workers, military, etc.)
of possible combinations in which different motivations, goals and processes are involved. As a consequence, different issues of freedom versus control and empowerment versus de-humanization also arise.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the political and philosophical categories of left and right become confused in dealing with this kind of problem. For example, both transhumanists and ‘bioconservatives’ often present themselves as ‘left’.
But the crucial point is that neither free choice nor equality gets to the heart of the matter. As Michael Sandel has noted (2007: 6-7), the familiar terms of moral and political discourse make it difficult to say what is really wrong with re-engineering our nature. Even if ‘good governance’ could solve the problems of freedom and equality, we would still be left with a fundamental question: is it all right to modify our nature? The hard questions concern the moral status of (human) nature, “and they are largely lost from view in the modem discourse” (Sandel 2007: 16). This causes the ‘moral vertigo’ that often accompanies such issues. Within sociology, I would rather ask why people actually aspire to HE, and what happens once we have satisfied our aspirations. But Sandel’s statement goes to the heart of the matter. In the end, the crucial difference is that between normative and a-nonnative notions of human nature.
As anticipated above, my thesis is that a conceptual framework must include the ontological dimension in order to tackle this issue adequately. However, this is precisely what most authors shy away from. For both the right and the left wing of modem thinking, ontology is often the enemy of individual autonomy, since it sets limits to what one can be or become.
Seen from this angle, post-modernist thought only intensifies the same argument. The so-called ontological turn proposed by such authors as Foucault and Latour is in fact a hymn to pure contingency.12 In this perspective, the whole world, including the human agent, appears as disposable. There are three interwoven arguments in this ontological turn: first, reality is composed of a single plane of immanence; second, the ontological and the epistemic are conflated with one another;13 and third, the humanist tradition has to be rejected because of its grounding on such a divide between knowledge and ontology, which is supposed to entail dominative implications (Pellizzoni 2015: 8). On the contrary, the indeterminacy of ‘reality’ is believed to have emancipatory implications, because agents may exploit the new combinatorial possibilities, thereby opening novel opportunities for social change. It is in this sense that agency and politics become ‘ontological’. What this really means is that they mould everything in its ontological traits. Agency really constitutes ontology. The resulting catchword is morphological freedom and the related rights.
These lines of thought clearly fail to avert the risks attached to post-human scenarios. In the first place, morphological freedom is synonymous with unbound morphogenesis applied to personal ontology. This is a perfect companion to the transhumanist idea of indefinite promotion of the distinctive qualities of human beings, above all our endless capacity for self-transcendence. The realization of the full human potential also involves embracing risk in order to enjoy the best available opportunities. Such an attitude to risk is regarded as the quintessential feature of humanity and becomes a moral imperative.14 In this context, the cautionary principle declines, and positive (not just therapeutic) eugenics is seen as the foundational science of human capital.
As a consequence, the political-ideological domain undergoes significant restructuring. The main divide becomes that between bioconservative and bioprogressive cultural and political elites. And within the bioprogressive front, egalitarian universalism is being dismissed as an obsolete ethical priority.
Ironically, modem arguments are even deployed by post-humanists against the idea of species integrity. This happens when the notion of diversity’ is taken from the social and applied to the genetic domain as if this made no meaningful difference. In this perspective, defending the integrity of the human species amounts to discriminating diversity (Juengst 2009) and being human becomes a prejudice (Savulescu 2009). The examples in which racial and gender discrimination are likened to the ‘privilege' of being human are meant to build this case. The fact that in everyday life we are all quite aware that we are not cats or ducks, and that we easily recognize our fellow humans, must be simply disregarded as a mundane illusion. More importantly, in order to uproot those ‘old’ forms of injustice it was necessary to articulate an ontology of non-discrimination. The scientific de-legitimation of the race and gender bias in Western culture has been underpinned (among other things) by ontological arguments. An allegedly similar ontology of indifference is now trying to disrupt the unity of the human species, turning into a rhetoric of boundary-crossing.
All of this is based upon the assumption that the human species as it is has no intrinsic worth and no normative status. The only value is the distinction between restricting and expanding the range of available opportunities for all. Isn’t this exquisitely modern?
Against this background, it is important to consider a few critiques of transhumanism from within the modern tradition which tend to overcome its limits and introduce more complex reflections. The well-known work by Habermas (2003) is a good case in point, and although it is much cited and discussed, its nuances are seldom noted. In considering genetic engineering (GE), Habermas wants to counter scientistic views of a technically based self-optimization of humanity on the ground of a “weak naturalism” that accepts scientific knowledge in general (93 ). He does not want the West to be perceived as made of “salespeople of instrumental reason and destructive secularization” (103). Thus he does not hide his annoyance at the “handful of freaked-out intellectuals [which] is busy reading the tea leaves of a naturalistic version of post-humanism” (Habermas 2003: 22).
This theoretical intention translates into an argument that specifies the conditions of an ethically qualified self-understanding. In a liberal society, everyone has an equal right to pursue his life project, and
eugenic programming of desirable traits and dispositions [. . .] gives rise to moral misgivings as soon as it commits the person concerned to a specific life-project or, in any case, puts specific restrictions on his freedom to choose a life of his own.
Habermas criticizes genetic manipulation precisely insofar as it has a deep disruptive influence on the capacity to be fully free and responsible in the pursuit of one’s life project (5-6).
The influence of GE is disruptive because
when adults treat the desirable genetic traits of their descendants as a product they can shape according to a design of their own liking, they are exercising a control over their offspring that intervenes in the somatic bases of another person’s relation-to-self and ethical freedom. This kind of control should only be exercised over things, not persons.
In other words, such an intervention blurs the boundary between persons and things. For this reason, such interventions should also not be regarded as part of parental rights (49). If people are genetically programmed, they cannot understand themselves as the sole authors of their life history and responsible for it. As a consequence, their whole stance towards the world could change dramatically, being deprived of its ethical orientation.
Critics of Habermas on the transhumanist side have easily responded that such a ‘control’ extends to all the people all the time. We are never the sole authors of our life history because we are all subject to the genetic lottery and to the process of socialization.15 The intended implication is clear: genetic engineering really involves nothing new. Habermas’s argument, though, is subtler than this. He is claiming that persons have a different kind of freedom toward the fate produced through the contingencies of the socialization process than they have toward the prenatal programming of their genome (14). Regular people can reflexively react to their developmental paths, review their self-understanding, and (try to) restore the balance if something has gone wrong. Socialization can be reflexively reappraised, appropriated and revised, while genetic interventions cannot (14, 62). Thus, a previously unheard-of interpersonal relationship arises when a person makes an irreversible decision about the natural traits of another person (14). Dependence is now different, because it is subtracted from the social field, that is, it is no longer something that occurs in the realm of social relations.
Habermas is not as clear in explaining the difference between depending on parents’ programming and on the genetic lottery. The point is that, contraiy to the genetic lottery, intentional programming involves a determined source of one’s genetic features. Once again, the difference lies in the type of relationships involved. Relations to chance and nature are different from relations to somebody's will.
To sum up, once the natural uncontrollability of procreation fades away, the ethical self-understanding of humanity as a whole changes (15). We might no longer understand ourselves as normative creatures, and regulate our interactions through morality and law, but by purely functional, systemic principles and bio-genetic steering mechanisms. In my view, here the idea of a-normative regulation (Archer 2016) comes to the fore, taking on a particularly deep meaning.
Such a change does not only concern individual autonomy per se but affects our cultural and moral self-understanding as members of a species. This is why the possibility of adults to modify their own genome - with an act of autonomous decision - would not clear the ground of all misgivings, since it would still entail self-objectification. It is here that Habermas tends to exceed the boundaries of a purely modernist theory. A key concept is the anthropological meaning of the unexpected. When he speaks of natality and the “expectation of the unexpected,” whereby “a new life history becomes possible on every birth” (59), the author is certainly attempting to guarantee the conditions under which the selfunderstanding of modernity - individual autonomy, authenticity and the freedom to choose and construct one’s life history - may be preserved. But he is indirectly admitting that such conditions have prerequisites that are not themselves part of the philosophical discourse of modernity. In other words, he is evoking some kind of moralization of human nature in its own right. Habermas still believes that the entities which share in such a nature must be determined "regardless of controversial ontological disputes” (33), but concludes that “the connection between the contingency of a life’s beginning that is not at our disposal and the freedom to give one’s life an ethical shape demands a more penetrating analysis” (75).16 That connection exists and is relevant because some other factor comes into the picture. If it weren't so, why should the self-understanding of modernity be preserved in the first place, in the face of a further possible progress?
The meaning of the unexpected is a red thread that links Habermas with Michael Sandel. In Sandel’s work (2007), the caution against GE lies in a problem of hyper-agency and the drive to mastery (Sandel 2007: 26-29). It is not the means but the aims pursued with GE that are subject to critique. Sandel’s point is that eugenic parenting expresses a stance towards the world that dismisses openness to the unbidden and the gifted character of human life and powers (83 and passim). The ethics of giftedness involves the idea that not everything is open to any use we may devise. The opposite attitude is criticized as an expression of hubris.
Sandel moves one step forward in articulating the meaning of the unexpected. The key concept is giftedness and the respect for the dimension of mystery that still underlies some crucial facts of life, like birth. The non-instrumental, nonobjectifying stance to the world that Habermas considers to be the hallmark of an ethical self-understanding requires a sense for giftedness. However, it must be specified what is lost when the sense of giftedness declines. Such a loss concerns the values that are essential to sustaining some qualities of human life, more precisely the non-instrumental value of human beings. The point is not just hubris but the de-symbolization of human beings and their relationships. If parents do not care for genetically programming their children, it’s because they accept their offspring regardless of the particular features these may display. In other words, the qualities children exhibit are not the reason why they are loved and valued. I think this is what Sandel means when he says that GE “corrupts parenting as a social practice governed by norms of unconditional love” (83). The same could be said of the attitude to humility, responsibility and solidarity (85-92). So, the point is about damaging non-instrumental relationships. If these aspects are not
Being human as an option 59 specified, one may cold-bloodedly argue that mastery has always been part of the human enterprise, while giftedness has no intrinsic value, since (1) its loss entails no clear consequences and (2) there is really no 'donor'. In fact, it may even be good for humans to give up whatever passive attitude may come with giftedness and embrace courage and risk as productive and progressive inclinations.
Habermas and Sandel share a common concern for humanity, and their theories gesture at something beyond the modern heritage. They bring up some important points for countering the radical post-humanist conclusions, but I believe their arguments would be more robust if they were further developed through more explicit references to societal issues and to the ontological dimension. My point is that, at this stage of evolution of human civilization, only two lines of argument can be effective in pursuing the quest for humanism:
- 1 Illustrating some social problems that would emerge in a post-human scenario, and exposing the intractable consequences they would entail
- 2 Articulating the concern for historical humanity within the symbolical resources of a given ontological discourse, challenging other cultures to do the same in their own language.
I will follow the former line in the next section and the second in the concluding section, although still in a quick and introductive way. These converge upon a single, overarching strategy which is based on the awareness that
in complex societies one culture can assert itself against other cultures only by convincing its succeeding generations - who can also say no - of the advantages of its world-disclosive semantic and action-orienting power. "Nature reserves” for cultures are neither possible nor desirable.
(Habermas 2003: 2-3)
This could be called an evolutionary proof of concept.
So, why bother?
As we have seen, doubts, fears and misgivings about HE remain rather fuzzy and hard to articulate in the modern and in the post-modern language. Critics of transhumanism are concerned about the rise of wholly instrumental relationships to the world, but they have to admit that such a relation must now be different from the old link between a stable, objective world and an equally stable human agent.
This prompts the question about ontology: why bother? This question must be asked afresh to investigate what the social dimension of reality may reveal about it. The thesis of this section is that, if the social issues resulting from HE are taken seriously, the need to steer technological change within the boundaries of historical humanity emerges as a practical and theoretical necessity.
Let us examine four prospective issues. Since these have to do with possible post-human futures, the present argument is obviously not based on field research.
What I can do is briefly illustrate a scenario, highlighting the relevant puzzles and risks. Each of the issues in question would require a book-long coverage. What I can do here is just offer a quick summary in order to make my case for the impossibility to give up personal ontology.
The ontological stratification of society’
In a future where GE and various forms of HE become a common practice, it is very likely that social stratification will be ontologically characterized. In other-words, society could be ontologically, not just socially, stratified. Transhumanists would promptly note that perfect equality - even in terms of equality of opportunity - has never been achieved in any kind of human civilization. Therefore, ontologically grounded inequality could be either prevented or managed in exactly the same terms of governance, depending on different cultural models of society. Why would ontology add anything to the usual discontents of inequality?
On the contrary, I believe that it is essential to avoid that inequality be engraved in personal ontology because that would make the obstacles to social mobility eventually insurmountable. This thesis differs from a modernist concern for HE to be equally distributing benefits, in that it holds that such a fair distribution would be hardly possible in the first place if HE were allowed to cross the boundaries of historical humanity. Every historically known society involves some kind and degree of inequality, variously legitimated by different cultural discourses. In the collective self-understanding of (Western) modernity, the imperfection of equality of opportunity may be overcome through intergenerational vertical mobility. In other words, the price usually paid for the lack of equality is some degree of friction, which can be measured in time: more inequality usually means more time required for ascending mobility. The underlying normative idea is that such a time span should be reduced as much as possible. However, if personal ontology is modified, the established constellation of social stratification may become impervious to change because enhanced individuals will enjoy further advantages and could use the time gap and the increased resources available to them in order to reinforce their position in a more definitive way than ever before in the history of social privilege. In sum, crossing the ontological thr eshold might result in a positive feedback loop, which would make social distances self-amplifying.
How would this happen? Generally speaking, in historical societies personal capacities and social resources may be distributed in such a way as to escape social reproduction much more easily than when an ontological difference is involved. More specifically, various factors must be taken into consideration. First, ontological gaps are higher to climb. If we have to do with different ontologies, it would be harder for a smart but unenhanced individual to study or work their way up the social ladder. Second, HE would make intentional, planned control of capacities and resources easier and thereby more likely. When all humans share the same basic ontology - which means they belong to the same biological species, without significant differences - intelligence as well as other skills and
Being human as an option 61 abilities cannot depend totally on social privilege. In fact, they can function as social equalizers - more or less effectively, depending on some basic conditions in the structure of society. But with deep HE, personal capacities will no longer be distributed randomly, and the privileged could appropriate even those resources which have been historically out of their reach - like being a brilliant kid raised in a poor family. It is important to add that ‘privilege’ may still stand on different grounds - from socio-economic status to ethnic group, to citizenship of advanced societies and more.
The modernist solution would be to guarantee the equal opportunity of enhancement. However, it is very unlikely that HE takes off and spreads in a homogeneous way - among different civilizations, countries, social classes and so forth. Such a level of social control could hardly be achieved. Therefore, such a solution entails an unrealistic view of the social order and of the possibilities of large-scale social planning. Once deep HE kicks off, the ‘improvement’ of (some) human beings would feed itself, producing more improvement more rapidly than un-enhanced or under-enhanced people could cope with. The speed of self-improvement would tend to accelerate, thereby widening the initial gap.
This leads to a further point. The difficulties in achieving a controlled, egalitarian development of HE would not only depend on poor planning capacities but also on cultural and psychological factors. In an ontologically stratified society, egalitarian values and value commitments would be harder to sustain. It might turn out to be difficult to socialize enhanced social groups into the belief that human dignity and rights must apply to all humans, enhanced and unenhanced alike. Those who advocate equal distribution of HE opportunities and fair relations between more and less enhanced humans are working with the hidden assumption - which to me sounds genuinely bizarre - that enhanced humans would continue to support the ideological manifesto of Western modernity.17 To assume that ontologically different beings would still consistently share in that cognitive and normative heritage means to delude oneself into thinking that post-humans should still think like humans - for which there can be no evidence whatsoever. For example, nobody could really guarantee that enhanced people would still want to keep HE open and available to all, without entry barriers - especially once they become a sufficiently powerful socio-genetic group. Moreover, enhanced humans may create a society for themselves in which people endowed with normal intelligence might be unable to navigate. This could involve the conditions to participate in the political process as well as the cognitive and physical requisites associated with certain jobs, roles or offices, down to the common interactional dynamics of everyday life. A future breed of super-intelligent people might even treat poor old humans as mentally impaired. The intractable consequences of all this for social equality and civil liberties are rather evident.
In sum, nobody knows what post-human beings will want, believe and do, and there is no compelling argument to convince them to respect non-enhanced, historical humans unless one relies on the very humanistic cultures that posthumanism wants to dismiss as the relics of a spent past. I would call this the ontological backlash, and have no idea about how it could be harnessed.
Subspeciation and social cohesion
A second issue highlights another facet of the ontological differentiation of society. The problem concerns the possibility of social integration between differently enhanced humans, and it involves an overwhelming complexity which cannot be explored here. For one thing, it is worth wondering if ontologically different social groups will still share values and commitments. Indeed, it is doubtful whether they can still have a sense for a common fate.
The temporal dimension would add to these uncertainties. If HE modifies life expectancy and the overall life span for some social groups, the coexistence of beings who inhabit very different time horizons will become highly problematic.
Important as they are, these aspects are the component parts of a bigger emergent ‘social fact’, namely the loss of the unity of the human species. The structural, symbolical and evolutionary scope of such a phenomenon can hardly be overestimated.
The question is whether or not some form of ‘smart’ governance can prevent HE from crystallizing as a privilege, promoting tolerance and pluralism in a society whose members would no longer share a common ancestry and a common ontological ground. Either central control and steering or other forms of coordinated action in the interest of enlarged humanity would present a wide range of complex issues. Should all ontological communities be granted the conditions of survival, and if so, under what conditions? How separate and how connected should they be? What degree of openness and range of diversity should be allowed? And who can represent such an entity as ‘enlarged humanity’? How can the right to life be articulated as a right of diverse, co-evolving forms of life? Reflections on these points are currently still vague and tentative.18
Inter-generational relations and human attachments
On the level of interaction, the basic grammar of human attachments is going to be profoundly affected, as parents can modify the somatic basis of their children’s relation to themselves and the world in an irreversible way. This was already discussed in the previous section, but here the point at issue is not individual autonomy but rather the social bonds that connect people of different generations, as well as relations of family, kinship and friendship. The meaning and practices of care concerning old, weak or sick people may change dramatically. Similarly, a whole set of issues would arise about socialization and child-rearing.
The biologization of the social and the self-understanding of the species
The biologization of all things social is the underlying logic that would creep in through deep HE. Many crucial practices, relationships, structures and institutions would have to be radically reconceived - social control, welfare and well-being, health, social normativity, and more.
In the end, such interventions as memory subtraction/enhancement, or bodymachine hybridization on various levels, would alter the typically human way of experiencing the world in unpredictable ways.
At the end of this summary, one might conclude that if it is hard to control the consequences of all these changes, the same applies to their emergence. In other words, the same scepticism I direct to the possibility to govern transhumanist change could well apply to the possibility to stop or steer it in advance. Indeed, deep change is happening everywhere, in uncontrollable ways. My answer is that I am not making any prediction about the odds of a positive evolution of HE -whatever “positive” means. All I’ve tried to argue is that such a big process cannot be entrusted to the lib/lab dialectic of freedom and control. Neutralizing the normative status of human nature and controlling the socially undesirable consequences (undesirable for whom?) will not work.
Thus, I have quickly illustrated a few problems arising in the social realm that would produce insoluble issues, unless some idea of personal ontology still marks the boundaries of those enhancements that are accepted as ‘human’, and re-producing a human society. These social puzzles clarify what I argued in the previous section, that criticism grounded on anti-ontological arguments can only target issues of equality and free choice. Much as these are clearly part of the problem, they do not touch the deep core of the post-human challenge. In the next section, I try to spell out a few coordinates of an ontological view that could rise to this challenge.
Conclusion. A few words on ‘how to’
This last section is unavoidably, unapologetically normative and inexcusably short. It has the limited aim to indicate a few conditions a theory of personal ontology must satisfy, if it is to avoid the pitfalls highlighted in the previous two sections.
It is instructive to start from Pellizzoni's insight, according to which
the current, unprecedented appropriation and commodification of the world [. . .] depends on a problematization which completely erases the distance between being and thinking. These are refrained as modalities internal to an all-encompassing, ever-changing and expanding will, for which the space of possibility is coextensive with the actuality of an unbounded potential.
Two points must be noted. First, the conflation of epistemology and ontology is also opposed to the main tenets of critical realism. Second, the emphasis falls on will as the operator of the instrumentalization and commodification that result from exploiting the ‘unbounded potential’ of a disposable world. The core of a critical humanism would be to find a way out of this predicament and restore ‘unattainability’.
The author goes on to argue that such a hard task may be accomplished by giving up will. In other words, the all-encompassing possessive will must be countered by an opposite will: the will of not being and not doing. Inspired by Agamben, he reclaims human impotentiality, the potential not to be, as the only way to establish an alternative form of life in a time of unchained expansion of possibilities. On one hand, this author’s idea of a critical humanism is close to my own critique of unbound morphogenesis and of “bulimic” subjectivities (Maccarini 2019: chs. 4-5). At the same time, a renewed emphasis on personal ontology seems a necessary companion to this journey. In the end, why should one choose ‘not to be’ or not to act? What should one accept to be, and what not? And why? My point is that one can only choose not to be something because s/he is something else, so it makes sense to her/him to let her/his personality, powers and identity grow along a pathway which is free, while remaining within the boundaries of human reality. Habermas's sense for the unexpected, Sandel’s ethics of giftedness, and Pellizzoni’s commitment to impotentiality are all semantics of restraint. They all imply stopping and beholding ‘something’ that must remain in the shadow of the unreachable. I agree. But the only robust reason I see for leaving part of the world out of agential reach is that such a world (or nature) has intrinsic worth. This means they all beg for an ontological foundation.
Such a statement is not contradicted by the technical capacity to manipulate anything. Rather, when it comes to human beings, the problem lies in dualistic or disembodied views of personhood.
The theories that still want to identify an ‘essence’ of personhood often revolve around some version of the inner “first person perspective” (Baker 2000). To this, a realist social theory of personal identity adds the orientation to concerns (Archer 2019). This is a reaction to the societal conditions of disposability, which wants to save personhood from bodily change but ends up aligning with those conceptions of humanity as a software with no preferred hardware - indeed with no perceived relation to any hardware. ‘The human' can be poured in whatever recipient. Such a theory of personhood turns out to be fully coherent with the notion, typical of post-humanist conceptual frameworks, of a fusion of matter and infonnation, which defines genes as carriers of information, thereby making them suitable for translation into different media - a power now enhanced by progress in computational capacity.
Post-humanists draw consistent, if radical, conclusions from this view. For example, intelligence and rationality are properties endowed with moral value, regardless of the entity that holds such properties. In other words, being a member of the human species and displaying certain properties appear as unrelated facts.19 The idea is that a subset of human qualities has indeed moral significance, but those qualities are not attributed to being human, being conceived of as reproducible in other life forms. Humans are just place holders, and “we are confused when we ascribe intrinsic value to the place holder” (Savulescu 2009: 227).20 The argument is one of misplaced concreteness. What is essentially of value in humanity is not necessarily related to the human species. We are just carriers of a ‘spirit’, of some ‘good’, which was first discovered and instantiated by human minds and rationality but can easily be detached from its original home base.
The point is not to reject this view because of the moral or psychological vertigo it may cause but to understand its implications in terms of de-, trans- and
Being human as an option 65 post-humanization. All forms of life mentioned earlier, including trans- and post-human, would be allowed in this context. Whatever its theoretical intention, the underlying challenge is clear. The pivotal issue concerns the possible unity of the various ontological layers constituting the human being. Without such unity, steering HE within the boundaries of historical humanity will be impossible.
In my perspective, the idea of a concern-oriented first-person perspective (FPP) is a crucial component of human personhood. But the uniquely human FPP is not empty or neutral. It has qualities, and indeed emerges from a whole way of being-in-the-world - in matter, time and social relations. This existential condition involves certain relationships between the body, the psychic system, social relations and the capacity of moral orientation. In other words, there are internal relations between the biological, psychic, social and cultural dimensions which constitute a human being. Thus, without our bodies we would not be human, because our FPP would be different in unpredictable and opaque ways, in principle impossible to see through. Those who wish to posit the possible emergence of non-human persons - that is, of entities endowed with a qualitatively different FPP - must make this move explicit. After all, they would still be walking on the ground of a typically human drive - that to become other-than-human.
Be that as it may, such an inner relationality is the crux of the matter. The theoretical decision to dismiss it as a wishful, “amateurish” thought (in Luhmann's words) means to accept all possible transhumanizing changes and to ignore a whole body of research which insists on the way human cognition and perception are rooted in bodily constitution, while at the same time culture and socialization tap into these very features. Subjectivity may be conceived as an emergent property of those relationships, reflexively mediated.21 Stepping out of this way of being - assuming that it is technically possible - would not be just ‘good’ or ‘bad’. What sociology can see is that it would deeply transform the human form of experience.22
All we can do, I suspect, is wait and see. If transhumanization remains so fashionable, and if its critics are unable to articulate their own unease, as well as the cultural and psychological malaise they see, in ontological terms, then new structural and cultural equilibria may silently dawn in global society. The paradoxical outcome could be a dramatic turn of the current, widespread ‘disposability’ into a ‘new indisposability’ resulting from the unmanageable dangers and catastrophes (Rosa 2018) caused by the work of the human will to master and the related hyperagency. But here again, to say this twist of fate would be ‘bad’ would be to judge by all-too-human standards. At this point we might simply give up and deal with more mundane matters, or we might finally accept that it is ultimately nonsense to want to step out of our humanity.