The Ethics of Human Rights (52): Human Rights, Transhumanism and the Singularity

The word “transhumanism” covers a lot of different things, but it’s fair to say that it expresses the belief that in the (near) future, the human condition will fundamentally change and we will be able to overcome human limitations such as aging, dying, moving etc. Technology, science, medicine and psychology will allow us to become posthumans, “Humanity+”, “H+” or “>H”. Biotechnology, brain science, computer technology, robotics, nanotechnology etc. will make a “controlled and assisted evolution” of humanity possible. The word “singularity” marks – somewhat pompously – the hypothetical event occurring when technological progress has reached the stage after which the future will be qualitatively different, and humanity will become something else – perhaps even an immaterial species, uploadable unto computers.

Whether or not transhumanism is more than techno-utopia, science fiction or a pseudo-religion, it’s worthwhile to ask what the possible implications are for human rights. Will posthumans still need human rights? One can indeed view human rights as solutions to human shortcomings, and when these shortcomings disappear, then so will human rights – an immaterial human will not need a right against torture or against poverty.

Of course, a lot will depend on the specific nature of the posthuman or transhuman future, and that’s where transhumanists have widely different opinions. The implications for human rights are enormous when you believe that in the posthuman future, human minds or human consciousness can be transferred to a computer (“mind uploading“). The uploaded mind can then reside in a computer or “internet”, inside (or connected to) a humanoid or non-humanoid robot, or even inserted into another biological body, replacing its brain (perhaps through cloning). If people no longer need their physical bodies, they obviously also no longer need certain rights that serve the requirements or correct the deficiencies of the physical body: the right to food or shelter, the right to a certain standard of living and the right to physical security and bodily integrity become meaningless.

If that is true (a big “if”), then transhumanism can be seen as a technological solution to human rights problems. Compared to human rights, transhumanism is then a far better way to solve certain problems of the human condition.

However, even if this is the future, it’s not certain that posthumans won’t need any human rights. Not even the extreme vision of posthumanity in which humans become totally free of their biological bodies and live “inside computers” will make human rights totally superfluous, although maybe these rights will have to be framed in another way. The right to life would then have to become something like “the right not to be deleted”. A right not to suffer poverty would become a right to basic usage of the network or CPU. A right to non-discrimination would be rephrased as a right to equal access to and equal usage of human enhancement technologies. Etc.

And finally, it’s also possible to view transhumanism as intrinsically hostile to human rights and as the playground for the already privileged. The narcissistic self-improvement of transhumanism can shift attention away from social justice. A lot of transhumanism is about the improvement of human bodies at the individual level, not the improvement of social, political or economic structures. The focus is also on technology rather than politics or law, and a love of technology shouldn’t obscure the real effectiveness of politics and law when it comes to protecting people’s human rights, and neither should it obscure the dangers inherent in technology (technology can be a tool for oppression and inequality; technological body modifications can be an expression and solidification of oppressive body ideals; and there are environmental concerns about technological development).

More posts in this series are here.


4 thoughts on “The Ethics of Human Rights (52): Human Rights, Transhumanism and the Singularity”

  1. Good, thought-provoking post. Perhaps once the move toward in-computer living becomes a stampede, we will need the right to choose to remain our flesh-and-blood, warts-and-all selves.


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