Cyborg Liberation Front

Inside the Movement for Posthuman Rights

The potential great unifier, however, is Thomas Jefferson's notion of "happiness." For the Enlightenment thinker, the concept hardly equated to sanguinity. Instead, he was echoing Aristotle's term eudaimonia, for which "happiness" is merely a common translation. But the Sinclair version of The Politics makes clear that what we now hold as a synonym for contentment, in fact refers to the fulfillment of potential—"the state of well-being which consists in living in the exercise of all, especially the highest (i.e., rational and ethical) faculties of man."

If anything, the newcomers envisioned by transhumanists will be better equipped to pursue that kind of happiness. Kurzweil argues the newcomers will likely protect our rights by grandfathering into their society those of us who'd prefer not to be enhanced. Those people, the MOSH (Mostly Original Substrate Humans), would be free to live and love as before, to the best of their limited abilities.

Today, though, we're still in control, so posthuman rights depend on us, on how freely we let researchers work and how freely we can use and even alter our bodies and minds. Transhumanists look for inspiration to civil rights battles, most recently to the transgender and gay push for self-determination.

Illustration: Anthony Freda
Illustration: Anthony Freda

"The whole thrust of the liberal democratic movement of the last 400 years has been to allow people to use reason and science to control their own lives, free from the authority of church and state," Hughes says. "That insight and thrust has had ramifications in movements all across the world."

But transhumanists' embrace of other minorities isn't always returned. Hughes says rights groups traditionally keep a narrow focus on immediate goals and sometimes resent any cause they fear will dilute their resources. With abortion clinic workers still under siege, he says, some who advocate reproductive freedom shun the transhumanists. Gay couples who simply want to start families have already been demonized by Senator Rick Santorum as opening the way to legalized bestiality. They might not particularly like being associated with imagined cyborgs and human-animal hybrids.

One operative of the Institute for Applied Autonomy, a secretive technology group that provides robots and other gear to protesters, eyes the civil rights landscape and doesn't see many friends for the newcomers. "Most of the folks you'd normally go to are really suspicious of a lot of this technology," says this person, noting that much of the cutting-edge development in artificial intelligence has been for military and law-enforcement purposes. "You're writing this against the backdrop of a growing police-surveillance state, so it's not surprising that many folks are a bit skittish."

The key to building allies, to making the cause too important to be ignored, might be to differentiate between the relatively narrow category of humanity and the more sweeping status of personhood. But a vague mantra like "sentience freedom" won't easily supplant the primacy of "human rights."

For another approach, a metaphor drawn from Judaism may be instructive. The Torah requires that Jews carry nothing in a public place on the Sabbath. However, the Talmud allows a shared symbolic home for the Jewish community to be constructed by stringing a wire or thread around a neighborhood. Might we now expand just such an eruv for the house of humanity and human rights?

Here again, transhumanists run up against present-day obstacles, for religion itself could be used to bar the recognition of the newcomers' humanity. The language of soulfulness isn't predisposed to accepting machines. It's sensual and organic, fluid and global—ghost, spirit, waug, piuts, nephesh, nefs—all deriving from words for "breath."

More practically, the memory of the role of religious leaders in the civil rights movement of the last century has faded. The Yale event, the Transhumanist Association's first North American gathering, was overwhelmingly secular. Moreover, the biotech needed for posthuman advancement runs afoul of prohibitions against destroying fetuses. Yet there's surprising receptiveness among the religious intelligentsia.

"I would say if a creature is both sentient and intelligent, and has a moral sense, then that creature should be considered a human being irrespective of the genesis of that person," says Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University.

He finds agreement at the Catholic-run Georgetown Medical Center. "To err on the side of inclusion is the loving thing to do," concludes Kevin FitzGerald, a Jesuit priest who happens to be a molecular geneticist and bioethicist.

But they, along with an Islamic scholar interviewed for this article, hold strong reservations about the necessity and good of the transhumanist aims. Such qualms are natural. The transhumanists are forcing, with microchips and DNA, a debate on ancient and unanswerable questions, says Bonnie Kaplan, chair of Yale's Technology and Ethics Working Group, co-sponsor of the conference.

"My gut says we'll never have the answer to that question we first raised thousands of years ago: Who are we?"

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