Sexual Liberation and the Emergence of Transhumanism
August 30, 2017 | Published first in Crisis Magazine
Sexual liberation and transhumanism share an anthropology. Both view the human person as an emergent phenomenon, and as something malleable. Both view the self as sovereign, the will as ultimately answerable to nothing other than its own prerogatives. Exploring the intersection between these two movements requires me to give an account of technology. In speaking of “technology” I am broadly concerned with the instrumental mentality, with that modern edifice which—to paraphrase Heidegger—puts to nature an unreasonable demand, and which both sexual liberation and transhumanism recapitulate in their attitudes toward the human body. Technology is mechanistic (reductively focused on efficient causation), utilitarian (reasoning by a calculus and willing to treat persons as means to an end), and voluntaristic (taking the exercise of will as the measure of value). The starting premise of sexual liberation is a mechanistic, utilitarian, and voluntaristic theory of the human. Transhumanism is this theory taken to its logical conclusion.
At the root of the connection between sexual liberation and transhumanism is the political ideology of liberalism. Thomas Pfau is interrogating the core assumption of liberalism when he asks, “Can one plausibly identify as the Archimedean point for a just and ethical community a being defined above all by its claim to autonomy from all other such individuals and aspiring to live its life within a cocoon of economic, political and personal rights and preferences?” This is what I have in mind when I speak of liberalism, that political ideology for which “the only viable conception of human agency [is] constitutively self-enclosed, self-seeking and self-legitimating.” Sexual liberation and transhumanism are characteristically liberal in that they share these same background assumptions about what humans are. Liberation in the modern sense is the attempt to make this particular picture of the human being a reality.
Transhumanism is distinguished from other liberation movements by its explicit technophilia and its frankly eschatological aims. Transhumanists believe technology, not God, to be the path to transcendence. They expect the rapid advance of computer technology to make it possible, sooner or later, to upload our minds onto more robust hardware. They subscribe to a theory of mind that regards the brain as essentially a computer, and human consciousness as essentially the most sophisticated computer program in existence. Artificial Intelligence, when it is achieved, will be reverse-engineered consciousness. And if we can reverse-engineer consciousness then it will be a simple matter to build brains that don’t suffer from the design flaws evolution has so far failed to correct. The most glaring flaws, which we should urgently attempt to fix, are our vulnerability to harm and our finite life spans. Our bodies are just flimsy containers for transporting our minds, and human suffering is a result of the fact that we haven’t yet managed to devise more durable and efficient containers for our selves.
Transhumanists know above all else that they don’t want to die. If humans die, then transhumanists don’t want to be human. They want to construct the means to opt out of humanity. If the rest of the human race is reasonable then they would join in the exodus. Transhumanists don’t think humans are worthless, they think that humans have worth only insofar as we reach beyond humanity towards the post-human future that computers herald. Humans are valuable and interesting and right just to the extent that they desire to cure themselves of their humanity. This means, first and foremost, liberating our minds from the limits imposed by our bodies.
How Liberal Sexual Ethics Make Possible Transhumanism
Cartesianism, then, is a recognizable correspondence between transhumanism and sexual liberation. Robert P. George has frequently made the point that liberalism, particularly in its sexual-liberationist mode, is inseparably entangled with self-body dualism. According to the sexual liberationist you have a body, which justice demands you be at liberty to make use of in whatever way you see fit. Your body is your property, and sexual freedom consists in doing what you want with the body that you own. This is why, for liberals, consent is the only non-arbitrary limitation upon what anyone does with their genitals, failure to abide by the rules of consent the only reasonable criterion of sexual misconduct. Dignity is a superstition, unless it is understood merely as an articulation of the importance of consent, a different way of talking about liberty.
A liberal could not make sense of Robert Spaemann’s claim that “Dignity is … the transcendental ground for the fact that human beings have rights and duties. They have rights, because they have duties.” Sexual freedom comes to mean freedom from any conception of dignity, and any attendant duties, that would place constraints on the satisfaction of desire.
Liberalism, remaining officially neutral on the subject of ultimate goods, serves to enshrine preference satisfaction as the ultimate good. Liberalism can’t help but privilege rights over duties and so undermines, even to the point of erasure, the conception of human dignity out of which duties arise. By making preference sovereign, liberalism communicates what we might call a proto-transhumanist anthropology. It says, humans are what they desire to become. You are what you want.
There is another way that liberal sexual ethics opens the path to transhumanism. A sexual morality based upon the single criterion of consent, a sexual morality that sees coercion as the only kind of misconduct, will be one according to which sex can only be privately regarded as a relationship of love. For all public intents and purposes, on the consent/coercion conception of sexual morality, sex must be seen as a relationship of power. And if the procreative act is reducible to an exercise of power, then there is no logical obstacle to regarding procreation as an engineering problem. The creation of human beings becomes a field of scientific advancement, where efficiencies may be sought by outsourcing the operations of our reproductive organs or bypassing biological functions altogether. Hence transhumanism. The liberal understanding of sex sanctions the pursuit of mastery over natality, and it is a short step from desiring control over natality to desiring control over mortality. Transhumanists explicitly conceive of the two as linked; their goal to defeat death is frequently parsed as a goal to manipulate life.
Technological Society is Inherently Revolutionary
This is hardly surprising if we recall that modern revolutions are characteristically total: they seek to transform society root-and-branch, to dictate everything from origin to destination. But the inherently technological nature of modern liberalism’s spirit of revolution is not often appreciated. Here liberalism’s ostensible neutrality again works to obfuscate the underlying reality. Heidegger points out something similar at the beginning of The Question Concerning Technology: “Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.” The liberal conceit of value-neutrality conceals the fact that the logic of liberalism is technological. How is liberalism technological in this strong sense (inherently technological), and not merely in the weaker sense that it has proven accommodating to technocratic planners and helped to facilitate technological innovation? As Michael Hanby explains it,
if knowledge of nature is really engineering, then the truth of this knowledge is essentially whatever is technically possible. But since the ultimate limits of possibility can only be discovered by perpetually transgressing the present limits of possibility, a technological view of nature and truth commences an interminable revolution against every antecedent order or given limit. A thoroughgoing technological society will therefore establish revolution as a permanent principle, paradoxically giving it the stability of an institutional form.
If knowledge is power, then truth is possibility and politics is revolution. Modern liberalism embodies this syllogism. It is a kind of institutionalized revolution. It is exactly the kind of order we should expect to arise from a thoroughgoing technological society.
Ours is the kind of society that Neil Postman described as Technopoly, a society so wedded to technological reason that alternatives are rendered invisible, a society in which technological reason comes to form the horizon of all legitimate public discourse. In Hanby’s words, “the exigencies of technology and technological reason determine what it means for us to think.” All legitimate political acts are, then, attempts to advance the possible—progressive, in other words. With this in mind we can see how the Sexual Revolution is an extension of the technological mindset.
But the connection is more specific still, as Hanby suggests when he argues that the Sexual Revolution is “the technological revolution … applied externally to the body and internally to our self-understanding.” Sexual liberation entails the adoption of a technological attitude to the human person, an attitude that instrumentalizes the body, renders it mere biology, brute matter to be manipulated by the will. Sexual liberation treats both the human body and the social ecology as raw material to be shaped to match our designs and serve our desires.
Mark Shiffman describes transhumanism in exactly these terms:
[Transhumanism] comes about when our project of mastery turns its attention to our own bodies. They come to be treated as raw material, resources available to satisfy our free individual preferences. Our will to transcend nature through projects of mastery mounts a rebellion against the natural constraints of the organic human body, harnessing the power of technological innovations to render it the instrument of our arbitrary will.
He could just as well have been describing the Sexual Revolution. Indeed, he goes on to note that the “aggressive assertion of bodily self-ownership is becoming the new normal, with the status of a fundamental right.”
Nowhere is this “right” more abused than in the production and consumption of pornography, and a proper understanding of the significance of pornography will allow one to recognize transhumanism as pornographic. Carl R. Trueman makes the case that “Pornography is an anti-historical medium and thus it disrupts human identity at what is its most basic level, the history within which it is formed. It focuses on the pleasure of the moment and makes it a contextless event, without even the past-present-future of real human relationship.” Along with all of the wounds it inflicts on individuals and their personal relationships, pornography must also be understood as culturally lethal, since it “cultivates an understanding of the human self which is profoundly disconnected from historical context.” Transhumanists knowingly pursue what pornographers unwittingly achieve: the disruption of human identity at its most basic level, and the escape from history into a contextless singularity.
How Liberal Failure Affects Marriage and Children
The destruction of sexual sanity manifested in pornography is surely one of the greatest moral failures of liberalism, and among its other abject failures we may count its failure to reverence both the institution of marriage and the special moral status of children.
Wendell Berry observes that “Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now … a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.” It’s no coincidence that marriage should mutate in this fashion within liberal societies, given that the assertion and defense of rights is the very form of liberal politics.
Anthony Esolen has written that “We should be thankful that [pedophiles] are still considered monstrous. But in contemporary America that condemnation rests on sentiment and not on moral reasoning.” He points out what liberals, by virtue of their voluntaristic understanding of sexual ethics, fail to comprehend “the fact that a child cannot give genuine consent is not in itself morally decisive.”
Mainstream culture in the liberal West is a culture that largely reduces the institution of marriage to a financial transaction, a culture that cannot on its own terms generate any compelling justifications for its condemnation of those who violate children, and a culture that evidently fails to appreciate the profoundly nihilistic character of pornography and the catastrophe that is its industrialization.
Technopoly: Technology Over the Human, Will Over Nature
Trueman believes developments of this kind show that what we have is not truly a culture but rather an anti-culture (borrowing a term from the sociologist Phillip Rieff). Each of these signs of anti-culture is evidently an outcome of the Sexual Revolution. Esolen also notes that “It is hard for those who do not think about the essences of things to judge actions and not actors.” Not thinking about the essences of things is characteristic of technological reason, wherein what matters is not what a thing is but how it can be used. This is what leads Michael Hanby to the conclusion that there is “a disincentive to understanding, an inducement to thoughtlessness, at the heart of our prevailing form of reason.” To surrender to technology, just as to surrender to sexual license, is to abandon the possibility of discovering transcendent truth. Both sexual liberation and transhumanism are blind to the historical, philosophical, and theological foundations that make truth humanly attainable. Both movements devote their energies to engineering a world where truth is no longer necessary, where the givenness of the world we inhabit is entirely subverted. This is surely what makes an anti-culture: the labor to erase every trace of an order that demands reverence for permanent things (the marriage bond, parenthood, the sexual lineaments of the soul…).
In its accommodation of a revolutionary ideology of sexual liberation, or, more generally, in its amounting to a technocratic project, liberalism makes us amenable to the effacement of nature and denial of reality that finds its apogee in the misanthropic fantasies of the transhumanists. When this technocratic project evolves into Technopoly, then it becomes possible to explicitly affirm and even zealously preach the priority of the technological over the human, the priority of will over nature. Once technological reason becomes the official measure of publicly acceptable discourse then it becomes uncontroversial, even mandatory, to reject human nature and eagerly anticipate a post-human future.
Technopoly is a description of modern anti-culture. As such, Peter Thiel, a transhumanist who rejects “the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual,” is wrong to think that the future of civilization has now come down to “a deadly race between politics and technology.” It’s rather that we are witnessing an increasingly destructive onslaught by technologized politics upon Western civilization’s traditional culture. That is necessarily also an attack upon the image of man as created, fallen, and intrinsically valuable, and the substitution of another image in which Man is a promethean rebel, the subject of projects, and fast approaching his own obsolescence.
Transhumanism has been called an “extinctionist project.” At a conference in Sydney several years ago I met an enthusiastic transhumanist, and when I mentioned this term to her she eagerly assented to it. She was perfectly happy to declare herself an advocate for the extinction of the human race. As she put it, “there is nothing distinctive or supreme about being human.”
Sexual liberation rests on the same dismissal of any substantive conception of human dignity that provides the basis for transhumanism’s misanthropy. The same denial of dignity that allows one to treat sex as a realm of options, as the domain not of God-given nature but of self-willed identity, allows one to dismiss other fundamental aspects of the human condition, to dismiss the very notion of the human condition, as petty, pointless, and fraudulent.
The Moche civilization of northern Peru, now extinct, are reported to have practiced a particular form of protracted human sacrifice.
In archaeology and anthropology, “excarnation” is the term used to refer to the ritual removal of flesh from bodies in preparation for burial. The practice is thought to date from prehistoric times, and many cultures have engaged in it, by a variety of different means. The Moche had a unique take on it. The Moche pioneered pre-mortem excarnation. They would flay the faces of sacrificial victims, slicing off the nose and removing all the skin above the lower lip, as well as cutting out the tongue. These mutilated individuals would be kept alive as long as possible. Their difficulty eating meant that they became horribly emaciated, like walking skeletons. For the remainder of their short and undoubtedly painful lives, they were worshipped as gods.
The Moche could not have practiced this barbarity without providing themselves with some compelling justification. We are wrong if we think that an advanced civilization cannot fall victim to the same delusions. Our advancement may even breed such delusions.
This society told itself that it was right and necessary to remake Man. And so it committed itself to the worship of death.