Tag Archives: genetic engineering

Transhumanism: What is it? and Why don’t people like it?


In “Human Genetic Enhancements” (2012), Bostrom lays out some of the arguments in favor of genetic enhancements.  While he explicitly states that his arguments draw from the movement known as transhumanism, he does not respond to criticisms of transhumanism itself as much as he does to arguments against genetic enhancements.  In this post, I will outline some background information on transhumanism and an interesting debate between Francis Fukuyama and Bostrom.

According to Max More, a prominent supporter of transhumanism, it is a group of ideas that “refuses to accept traditional human limitations such as death, disease and other biological frailties” (from McNamee & Edwards 2006).  It does not restrict itself to genetic engineering, but also space colonization, artificial intelligence, etc.  (Bostrom gives some interesting information in a few YouTube interviews, such as this one). It can take one of two forms: strong transhumanism or weak transhumanism.  Both strong and weak transhumanists advocate using technology to enhance humanity (e.g. in appearance, intelligence, lifespan).  Strong transhumanists differ in arguing that we should use technology to become a new species (McNamee & Edwards 2006).

Because of the radical nature of its stronger supporters, transhumanism seems to have a rather dystopian connotation.  But the basic aim, to improve the human condition through technology, is not so far-fetched.  After all, improving technology is an important part of public health.  This is salient if one considers examples like sewage systems and clean water supplies (McNamee & Edwards 2006).  By and large, though, the term ‘transhumanism’ is more concerned with higher-level technology like genetic engineering (2006; Bostrom 2012).

Criticism of transhumanism has been vociferous.  In a 2004 Foreign Policy report, eight  public intellectuals wrote on what they considered “the world’s most dangerous ideas” that will have to be confronted in the future.  Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist, wrote his article on transhumanism.  He gives two main arguments against transhumanism.  The first is that our political right to equality presupposes that there is a fundamental human essence that transcends sex, class, or race.  That is to say, all members of the human species are afforded equality.  In a sense, the post-humans that transhumanists advocate for throw a wrench in our conception of equality by changing the fundamental human essence (cf. Bostrom 2012 112-113).

The second argument against transhumanism is that it seems to gloss over the two-sided nature of human characteristics.  “Our good characteristics” Fukuyama says, “are intimately connected to our bad ones” (2004).  What is seen as a negative trait in one context could be a positive one in another.  For instance, we may consider violence and aggression a negative characteristic in itself, but it is useful when we need to defend ourselves.  The biggest risk, he says, is that we do not really know how intricately these characteristics are intertwined. Transhumanists take it upon themselves to determine what is good or bad in a human.  We do not know the results of meddling with our biology in such a way (Fukuyama goes so far as to say that we cannot know).

In response to Fukuyama’s article, Bostrom (2004) argues that the Fukuyama’s argument is flawed.  He argues that evolutionary biology has revealed that there can be no distinctive “human essence”, because the human gene pool is not fixed.  Even if there were a human essence, he argues that this is not an argument for post-humans contradicting the basis to equal rights.  On his view, transhumanism does not advocate for creating beings that lack moral agency (or somehow transcend it), which he considers more fundamental to our rights than our essence.

Works Cited

Fukuyama, Francis. 2004. “The World’s Most Dangerous Ideas: Transhumanism” Foreign Policy 144: 42-43.

Bostrom, Nick. 2004. “Transhumanism: The World’s Most Dangerous Idea?” Foreign Policy.

Bostrom, Nick. 2012. “Human Genetic Enhancements: A Transhumanist Perspective” in   Arguing About Bioethics, ed. Stephen Holland. 105-115. New York: Routledge.

McNamee, S.D. and M.J. Edwards. 2006. “Transhumanism, Medical Technology and Slippery Slopes”, Journal of Medical Ethics 32.9: 513-518.

The role of equal access in genetic enhancement: A contradiction.

In “The Case Against Perfection: What’s Wrong with Designer Children, Bionic Athletes, and Genetic Engineering”, Michael J. Sandel asks us as readers to consider the inherently present repercussions of allowing genetic enhancement to run rampant in our society. While many of his arguments and counterarguments are sound, I found there to be a glaring inconsistency that arose in Sandel’s contemplation of the relevancy of social structure and class in genetic enhancement.

In his section on memory enhancement, Sandel brings up the point that many people worry about the danger of cognitive enhancement leading to two different classes of human beings: those with access to these enhancements, and those without. He even goes so far as to posit that this unfair distribution might, if the cognitive enhancement were to become evolutionary, lead to the division of humanity into two subspecies – enhanced versus natural. This argument is quite an interesting one, as it asks us to picture a futuristic world far removed from our own. Sandel asks “is the scenario troubling because the unenhanced poor would be denied the benefits of bioengineering, or because the enhanced affluent would somehow be dehumanized?” (Holland loc. 2999). He illegitimizes this as a core argument for the immorality of genetic engineering by saying that “the fundamental question is not how to ensure equal access to enhancement but whether we should aspire to it in the first place.” (Holland loc. 2999).

Later in the essay, in his argument on our societal meritocracy, Sandel argues that genetic enhancement would ruin our perception of giftedness as just that – a gift that we are fortunate to have, and would instead encourage the mindset that our new genetically-enhanced abilities are entirely our own, leading us to feel no sense of gratitude for our abilities or sympathy toward those people without our abilities. The contradiction upon which this post is centered stems from Sandel’s claim here that “A lively sense of the contingency of our gifts – a consciousness that none of us is wholly responsible for his or her success – saves a meritocratic society from sliding into the smug assumption that the rich are rich because they are more deserving than the poor.” (Holland loc. 3241). The rather obvious implication here is that genetic engineering would lead to a stratification of society based on the “haves” and the “have-nots”. This dualist idea of “the rich and the poor”, those who can afford genetic enhancement and those who cannot, is strikingly similar to the argument he presented earlier and promptly dismissed.

While both of these arguments speak to the importance of class consideration in the development of an educated opinion about the ethicality of genetic enhancement, I am troubled by Sandel’s dismissal of the first point while taking seriously the second, as the two are very closely related: he uses the same foundation of argument, that genetic enhancement polarizes social structure, to make each point. Why is there a discrepancy in his consideration of these two points? He struck the first point from his core argument because the question on which he was focusing was not “how to ensure equal access” (loc. 2999), but in the second point, which is mentioned near the very end of the article, he points to inequality of access as a serious ethical consideration. It seems to me that, for the sake of consistency, Sandel needs to reconsider his view on the importance of ensuring equal access to genetic enhancement. Is provision of equal access a part of the fundamental question of the morality of genetic enhancement?


Sandel, Michael J. “The Case Against Perfection: What’s Wrong with Designer Children, Bionic Athletes, and Genetic Engineering.” Arguing About Bioethics. Ed. Stephen Holland. London: Routledge, 2012. Loc. 2935-3263. Kindle Edition.