The longevity industry has the ability to transform biology, append the body, overcome disease, and slow down aging. Its critics argue that this science only benefits the privileged, that it put humans above other life-forms and that it lacks ethical principles. These heavy-handed allegations ignore the vision and values at the core of this complex movement, argues Natasha Vita-More. Read 'The irrationality of transhumanists' here.
Many consider extending life beyond the maximum lifespan to be unnatural. Despite this, biomedical research is advancing in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease with new therapies for preserving health and extending life. Rather than turning a blind eye, society needs to be informed about these advances and to understand their benefits and consequences.
Transhumanism is a philosophy and a worldview which advocates for the ethical use of technology and evidence-based science to improve the human condition and alleviate suffering. The fundamental condition of humanity is twofold: One aspect is the vulnerable biology and aging cells which cause disease. The other is the unequal social barriers which leave people unhealthy and impoverished. Transhumanists have made influential contributions to the fields of science and technology and provided foresight about artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and biotechnology. Transhumanists have also produced visionary ideas about the potential benefits and existential risks of science. Understanding risks is central to Transhumanism’s philosophy and is on par with its futuristic vision of human evolution.
As a global society and within diverse governing structures, people ought to have the right to determine how they want to live.
Criticizing longevity by politicizing it as a socio-economic privilege is misleading. And those opponents who suggest that transhumanism wrongly favours humans over other life-forms further misunderstand the transhumanist vision. These heavy-handed, mistaken mindsets ignore the overriding transhumanist respect for human potential and for the future. Rather than react to exaggerated fears, the transhumanist approach over a span of 40 years has been to respond to the qualified, serious fears with qualified, serious investigations. The best defense is knowledge—a powerful offence that engages a mindfulness about humanity’s future. This characteristic of practical optimism, along with the erudition of many transhumanists in their respective fields, has accelerated the worldview of transhumanism as a largescale movement.
Transhumanist advocacy for health and longevity will benefit all people and the symbiotic ecology of all life systems. As a global society and within diverse governing structures, people ought to have the right to determine how they want to live, for how long, and if they want to opt in or out of biomedical anti-aging therapies. The decision-making regulations must be impartial, equitable, and include a person’s legal ownership of body and mind. While these might seem to be questions for the distant future, in truth these issues are current because AI is already being used in medicine and anti-aging databases. This immediately triggers concerns about privacy and makes the right to bodily ownership an imperative and immediate concern.
The Principles of Transhumanism
I suggest that transhumanism offers accountability at its core, as it proposes life-promoting principles and values. Transhumanism recognizes the need for inclusivity, plurality, and continuous questioning of our knowledge, as we are a species and a society that is forever changing. While transhumanists do have some varied epistemological and metaphysical views, we all agree that science and technology, when used wisely, will improve our lives. In recognizing diverse characteristics of humanity, and that sapience may take other forms, the transhumanist framework suggests principles and rights such as the Proactionary Principle, new strategies for understanding risk, and the right of morphological freedom.
Natasha Vita-More debates longevity vs. wellbeing with Henry Marsh and Sarah Wootton
Morphological freedom means that a person might choose to modify their body and ought to have the right to do so. Similarly, a person who does not want to modify their body ought not to be coerced to do so. Morphological freedom is a civil right which could support or infringe on a person’s right for biomedical intervention. Biomedical intervention for infertility by vitro fertilization was once judged to be immoral, but today more than 5 million people throughout world started life as a sperm and an egg in a petri dish. Body modification is not just for cosmetic refinement, it a necessary field in plastic reconstructive surgery for modifying congenital deformities, disfigurement caused by arthritis and the cognitive malfunctions of dementia. It is also a select choice for infertility, bodily injuries, and sex reassignment surgery.
Moral freedoms allow people to determine their religious beliefs, social standards, gender identification, and sexual orientation. We also need freedoms to protect a person’s right to life. The right to science, including biomedical interventions to disease, is not a new right. It was first recognized in 1948 in Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An extension of the right to science, morphological freedom exemplifies the use of scientific discovery for anti-aging and longevity sciences and offers a starting point for building consensus on governing laws that promote responsible scientific and technological advancements to protect life.
The Proactionary Principle
For any form of freedom to function as a right within society, tolerance and equity are needed and the right of personhood or agency must be protected. The impartiality of decision-making practices, especially in regard to rights and freedoms, is well-protected in the longevity industry. Despite this, the Precautionary Principle is often used to regulate biomedical innovation that might have undesirable side-effects. In practice, that principle is strongly biased against technological innovation by placing the burden of proof on the innovation. By contrast, The Proactionary Principle places the burden of proof on the current practices as well as the innovations by proposing “an inclusive, structured process for maximizing technological progress for human benefit while heightening awareness of potential side-effects and risks” (More, 2013).
The Proactionary Principle urges participants to actively consider all the consequences in the use of biomedical interventions. Through this process - while apportioning precautionary measures to the real threats we face - the Proactionary Principle appreciates the crucial role played by technological innovation and recognizes humanity’s ability to remedy any undesirable side-effects.
Meeting health needs must be an iterative process of development, adjustment, and transformation.
As a brief and uncomplicated example: If you are in good health but want to build muscular strength you might start looking into stem cells. You delve in a bit deeper and discover that this type of stem cell therapy has not been approved by regulators. Prioritizing the risks—that if there is a chance that the stem cells might cause a tumor rather than cure the torn ligament or build musculus fibers—you decide not to do it. However, if you are elderly and suffering from dementia, the risk vs. reward of opting for an untested cure is much more favourable. In the anti-aging therapy decision-making process, there should be diverse input, a clear understanding of risks and benefits, and reassessing as new biomedical breakthroughs arrive.
Humans have needs. We can agree on this. What these needs are, how needs are met, and how they are allocated causes disagreement. But we can identify that the fundamental need is to be healthy. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs is a valuable, humanistic example of human needs and formative in understanding why health is the first need. But health is a continuous need and a model for meeting our needs cannot be stacked or linear. Identifying and meeting needs must be an iterative process of development, adjustment, and transformation.
It is a fact that people are living longer, birthrates are on the decline, the world population growth rate is showing signs of decelerating, and biomedical therapies, nanomedicine, and AI are significant in offering alternatives to aging. Transhumanism suggests that humanity has a responsibility to help alleviate human suffering that occurs on multiple levels and stages.
The Potential of transhumanism is that the worldview recognizes the complexity of the world around us and offers impartial understanding to issues that are imperative to know about and, when necessary to take immediate action. Immediate action is taken every day to be healthy and stay alive. This fundamental need for humanity ought not to cause a mischaracterization of why people do this and that they want to continue doing it as long as possible. While transhumanism was written into a philosophy in 1990, within a few years it became a worldview, and within a few decades became a global movement; it has not swayed from a search to understand humanity, the world we live in, and the relationship between our imagination, problem-solving, and inventions to overcome the odds.