Published on
14 June 2006

Transhumanism, Biotechnology and Slippery Slopes

By: Dr. Michael McNamee


Dr. Michael McNamee is Reader in Philosophy at the School of Health Science, Swansea University, Wales Seminar on Wednesday 14 June 2006

Formerly, when religion was strong and science weak, men mistook magic for medicine; now, when science is strong and religion weak, men mistake medicine for magic.

Thomas Szasz (1973:115)

1. Introduction:

No less a figure than Francis Fukuyama recently labelled Transhumanism as ‘the world’s most dangerous idea’. Such an eye-catching condemnation almost certainly denotes an object worthy of serious consideration especially given the centrality of biomedical technology to its aims. In this paper I consider Transhumanism (TH) as an ideology that seeks to evangelise its human-enhancing aims. Given that the label TH covers a broad range of ideas, I distinguish moderate from strong conceptions of TH and find the latter more problematic than the former. I also offer a critique of Boström’s (2005) position. I discuss various forms of slippery slope arguments that might be used against TH and highlight one particular criticism, moral arbitrariness, that undermines both forms of TH

2. Technology: some conceptual preliminaries

It is easy to think of technology as a modern social practice and to assume a particular kind of technology (such as computer technology) to represent a paradigmatic example.  Nye (2006) ties technology to tool-making but reminds us of the narratives in which our appreciation of those tools are rested.  For example,

In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Queequeg, a South Sea harpooner visiting Nantucket, was offered a wheelbarrow to move his belongings from an inn to the dock.  But he did not understand how it worked, and so, after putting all his gear into the wheel barrow he lifted it on to his shoulders. Most travellers have done something that looked equally silly to the natives, for we are all unfamiliar with some local technologies.  This is another way of saying that we do not know the many routines and small narratives that underlie everyday life in other societies. (2006: 6)

I like this example because it reminds us of the importance of locating our views historically but also brings to mind a less manipulative conception than the kind which those opposed to radical biotechnologies conjure up. The term ‘technology’ derives from the Greek work techne which refers to the kind of skill (practical knowledge) involved in making things. By logos is meant a form of reasoning aimed at understanding the nature or form of things. Although we think of the term as a modern one, it was in fact first coined by Aristotle (Mitcham, 1979) but his meaning for it was the technical skills of rhetoric; literally the techne of logos (Kass, 2002: 31).

It is not uncommon, however, in everyday talk to slide the concept of science together with the concept of technology. Today philosophers of science clearly distinguish theory generation (science) and its application (technology). We could say that the domain ‘biotechnology’ can be taken to include the theoretical knowledge, practical knowledge, as well as the instruments and products which bring about the ends of any given group (such as politicians or entrepreneurs) or social practice (such as agriculture or medicine).

One salient characteristic is its ‘means-end’ structure. Technology is the means utilised to pursue chosen ends. It follows from this that technology is, in a sense, neutral. It is neither good nor bad in itself.  Rather, its normativity is typically governed by the uses to which it is put.

Wikipedia notes the following:

Of the many different definitions available, the one formulated by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity is one of the broadest:

Biotechnology means any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use. (Article 2. Use of Terms)

Biotechnology can also be defined with: ‘Biotechnology is the manipulation of organisms to do practical things and to provide useful products.’ ( accessed 6.6.06)

While such global definitions are useful as a starting point, they fail to distinguish ethically important characteristics of different forms of practice that fall under the heading ‘technology’.  Keekok Lee (2003) helpfully marks the following distinction in the application of science in the form of technology whose goals are:

i. Explanation
ii. Prediction
iii. Control

It is the last of these aims that I want to pick up on in relation to any ethical evaluation of technologies.  Nye, a historian of technology, arrives (far too swiftly for my liking) at a softer conclusion about the relations between technology and human kind. He writes:

Stonehenge suggests the truth of Walter Benjamin’s example that ‘technology is not the mastery of nature but of the relations between nature and man’. (2006: 7)

We find more classical sources that are to be interpreted less generously. Francis Bacon (1562-1626) is well known for his remarks on the development of scientific and technological methods whose aim would be ‘to relieve man’s estate’ (i.e., of suffering/vulnerability) and likewise René Descartes (1596-1650) had wanted ‘to use this knowledge (…) for all the purposes for which it is appropriate, and thus make ourselves, as it were, the lords and masters of nature’. Of course, as C.S. Lewis pointed out in his essay, ‘The abolition of man’, every time we hear the phrase ‘mastery of nature’ we ought to be alerted to the fact that it is some particular group that is doing the mastering for its own reasons and in light of its own version of the good, rather than the good of humanity (whatever that might look like). Again, Lee distinguishes the types of control thus:

i. Weak: avoid the occurrence;
ii. Strong: prevent occurrence.

And the facets comprising weak or strong control technological control of nature (or for my present concerns ‘human nature’) range from theoretical knowledge, through practical knowledge and skills, to instruments and products.  I want now to focus on the application of strong and weak control of human nature in the ideology called ‘Transhumanism’.

3. What is Transhumanism (TH)?

While researching more generally the nature and purposes of technology in medicine I was often surprised to find fact and fantasy fused together in ethics, medicine and philosophy journals and web sites (e.g., Boström, 2004; 2005; 2005a). Key sites of contestation include the very idea of human nature, the place of embodiment within medical ethics, and more specifically the systematic reflections on the place of medical and other technologies in conceptions of the good life.  A reflection of this situation is captured by Dyens (2001: 8) who writes

What we are witnessing today is the very convergence of environments, systems, bodies, and ontology toward and into the intelligent matter. We can no longer speak of the human condition or even of the posthuman condition.  We must now refer to the intelligent condition.

I wish here to evaluate the contents of such dialogue and to discuss, if not the death of human nature, then at least its dislocation and derogation in the thinkers who label themselves ‘Transhumanists’.

One difficulty for critics of TH is that a wide range of views fall under its label (see the official web page of the World Transhumanist Association at Not merely are there idiosyncrasies of individual academics, but there does not seem to be an absolutely agreed-upon definition of Transhumanism. One can find not merely substantial differences between authors (cf. Boström, 2004; 2005, 2005a, and More, 1996; 2005) and disparate disciplinary locations (and, therefore, nuances) of their exhortations, but subtle variations in the offerings of its chief representatives1.  While it is to be expected that any ideology transforms over time, and not least in response to internal and external criticism, one is left with the problem of identifying a robust target (which stays still long enough in these web-driven days for it to be located properly) without constructing a ‘straw man’. For the purposes of targeting a sufficiently robust and substantial target I identify the writings of one of its clearest and intellectually most robust proponents, the Oxford philosopher and co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association, Nic Boström, who has written recently of Transhumanism’s desire to make good the ‘half-baked project’ that is human nature (2005).

Before specifically evaluating Boström’s position it will be best to offer a global definition of Transhumanism and to locate his among the range of views that fall under the heading.  We will then have a clearer idea of the kinds of position to which TH stands in direct opposition. One of the most celebrated advocates of TH is Max More on whose website one can read, ‘no more gods, no more faith, no more timid holding back.  The future belongs to posthumanity’.

( Specifically, More asserts:

‘Transhumanism’ is a blanket term given to the school of thought that refuses to accept traditional human limitations such as death, disease and other biological frailties. Transhumans are typically interested in a variety of futurist topics, including space migration, mind uploading and cryonic suspension. Transhumans are also extremely interested in more immediate subjects such as bio- and nano-technology, computers and neurology. Transhumans deplore the standard paradigms that attempt to render our world comfortable at the sake of human fulfilment. (2005,

Strong TH advocates see themselves engaged in a project the purpose of which is to overcome the limits of human nature . Whether this is the foundational claim, or merely the central claim, is not clear. These limitations – one might describe them simply as features of human nature since the idea of labelling them limitations is itself to take up a negative stance towards them – concern appearance, human sensory capacities, intelligence, lifespan, and vulnerability to harm. According to the extreme TH programme, technology can be used vastly to enhance a person’s intelligence, to tailor appearance according to desire, to lengthen life-span perhaps to immortality, and vastly to reduce vulnerability to harm. This can be done by exploitation of various kinds of technology including genetic engineering, cybernetics, computation and nanotechnology.  Whether technology will continue to progress sufficiently, and sufficiently predictably, is of course quite another matter.

Recruitment or deployment of these various types of technology, they argue, can produce selves who are intelligent, immortal, etc., but who are not members of the species homo sapiens. Their species-type will be either ambiguous, e.g., if they are cyborgs (part-human, part-machine), or will lack any common genetic features with human beings if they are wholly machines. A legion of labels covers this possibility; one finds in Dyen’s recently translated book a variety of cultural bodies of whom perhaps the most extreme are cyberpunks:

a profound misalignment (…) between existence and its manifestation. This misalignment produces bodies so transformed, so dissociated, and so asynchronized, that their only outcome is gross mutation.  Cyberpunk bodies are horrible, strange and mysterious (think of Alien, Robocop, Terminator, etc.), for they have no real attachment to any biological structure. (2001: 75)

Perhaps a reasonable claim is encapsulated in the idea that such entities will be ‘posthuman’2. Extreme TH’s strongly support such developments.

At the other end of TH is a much less radical project, which is one simply of using technology to enhance human characteristics, e.g., beauty, life-span, resistance to disease, etc. In this less extreme project, there is no necessary aspiration to shed human nature or human genetic constitution, just to augment it with technology where possible, and where desired by the individual.

4. Who’s in favour of TH?

At present it seems to be a movement based mostly in North America, though there are some adherents from the UK.   Among its most intellectually sophisticated proponents is Nick Boström.  Perhaps the most outspoken supporters of TH are people who see it simply as an issue of free choice. It may simply be the case that moderate TH’s are, at core, libertarians .  In that case TH merely supplies an overt technological dimension to libertarianism. If certain technological developments are possible, which they, as competent choosers, desire, then they should not be prevented from acquiring the technologically driven enhancements they want. One obvious line of criticism here might be in relation to the inequality that necessarily arises in relation to scarce goods and services distributed by market mechanisms (see Buchanan et al., 2000).  I will elaborate this point later.

So, one group of people in favour of the TH project see it simply as a way of improving their own life by their own standards of what counts as an improvement. For example, they may choose to purchase an intervention which will make them more intelligent, or even extend their life by 200 years. (Of course it’s not self-evident that everyone would regard this as an improvement.) A less vociferous group see the TH project as not so much bound to the expansion of autonomy (notwithstanding our criticism that that will necessarily be effected only in the sphere of economic consumer-choice) as one which has the potential to improve the quality of life for humans in general. So, for this group, the relation between TH and the general good is what makes TH worthy of support. For the other group, the worth of TH is due to its connection with their own conception of what is good for them, with the extension of their personal life choices.

5. What can be said in its favour?

Of the many points that may be said in favour of TH, I note three. First, TH seems to facilitate two aims which have commanded much support. The use of technology to improve the lot of humans is something we pretty much take for granted. Much good has been achieved with low-level technology in the promotion of public health. The construction of sewage systems, clean water supplies, and so on, is all work to facilitate this aim, and is surely good work – work which aims at, and in this case achieves, a good. Moreover, a large portion of modern biomedical enterprise, too, is another example of a project which aims at generating this good.

Second, proponents of TH say it presents an opportunity to plan the future development of human beings, the species homo sapiens. Instead of this being left to the evolutionary process and its exploitation of random mutations, TH presents a hitherto unavailable option: tailoring the development of human beings to an ideal blueprint.  Precisely, whose ideal gets blueprinted is a point I shall address later.

Third, in the spirit of work in ethics which makes use of a technical idea of personhood, the view that moral status is independent of membership of a particular species (or indeed any biological species), TH presents a way in which moral status can be shown to be bound to intellectual capacity, rather than to human embodiment as such or human vulnerability qua embodiment (Harris, 1985).

6. What can be said against?

Critics point to consequences of TH which they find unpalatable. One possible consequence feared by some commentators is that in effect TH will lead to the existence of two distinct types of being, the human and the posthuman. The former might (will?) be incapable of breeding with the latter and will be seen as having much lower moral standing. Given that, as Buchanan et al. note (2000: 94-5), much moral progress, in the West at least, is founded on the category of the human in terms of rights claims, if we no longer have a common humanity, what rights – if any – ought to be enjoyed by transhumans? This can be viewed as a criticism (we poor humans are no longer top of the evolutionary tree) or simply as a critical concern that invites further argumentation. I shall return to this idea at the end of this paper, by way of identifying a deeper problem with the open-endedness of TH that builds upon this recognition.

In the same vein, critics might argue that TH will expand inequalities between rich and poor. The former can afford to make use of TH whilst the latter won’t be able to. Indeed we might come to think of such persons as deficient, failing to achieve a new heightened level of ‘normal functioning’ (see Buchanan et al. 2000: 98-9). In the opposing direction, critical observers might say TH is, in reality, an irrelevance, since so few will be able to make use of the technological developments even if they ever manifest themselves. A further possibility is that TH could lead to the extinction of humans and posthumans. For things are just as likely to turn out for the worse as for the best (consider those who favour a ‘precautionary principle’).

One of the deeper philosophical objections comes from a very traditional source. Like all such utopian visions, TH rests upon some conception of the good. So while humanism is founded on the idea that man is the measure of all things and that his/her fulfilment is to be found in the powers of reason extolled and extended in culture and education, so, too, TH has a vision of the good; albeit one loosely shared. For one group of TH’s, the good is the expansion of personal choice. Given that autonomy is so widely valued, why not remove the barriers to enhanced autonomy by various technological interventions? Theological critics especially, but not exclusively, object to what they see as the imperialising of autonomy.  Elshtain (2005) lists the three c’s: choice, consent, control. These, she asserts, are the dominant motifs of modern American culture.  And there is, of course, an army of communitarians ready to provide support in general moral and political matters (Bellah, et al., MacIntyre, Sandel, Taylor and so on). One extension of this thought is to align such valorisation of autonomy into the field of economics. For one may as well be motivated by economic concerns as by moral ones where the market is concerned.  As was noted earlier, only a small minority are likely to be able to access this technology (despite Boström’s naïve disclaimer for democratic TH) so it will never be prioritized in the context of artificially scarce public health resources.  One other population attracted to TH will be the elite sports world, fuelled by the media commercialisation complex – where mere mortals will get no more than a glimpse of the transhuman in competitive physical contexts.  There may be something of a double-binding character to this consumerism. The poor, at once removed from the possibility of such augmentation, pay (per view) for the pleasure of their envy.

If we argue against the idea that the good cannot be equated with that which people choose simpliciter, it does not follow that we need to reject medical technology outright. Against the more moderate TH’s, those who see TH as an opportunity to enhance the general quality of life for humans, it is nevertheless true that their position presupposes some conception of the good, of what kind of traits are best to engineer into humans (disease-resistance or parabolic hearing?), and they disagree about precisely what ‘objective goods’ to try to select for installation into humans/posthumans.

Some radical critics of TH see it as a threat to morality per se (Fukuyama, 2003; Habermas, 2003). This is because they see morality as necessarily connected to the kind of vulnerability which accompanies our human nature. Think of the idea of human rights and the power this has had in voicing concern about the plight of human beings. As was noted earlier a transhuman might be thought beyond humanity and neither enjoying its rights nor its obligations. Why would a transhuman be moved by appeals to human ‘solidarity’? Once the prospect of posthumanism emerges, then the whole of morality is thus threatened because the existence of human nature itself is under threat.

One further objection voiced by Habermas (2003) is worthy of note. This is that interfering with the process of human conception, and by implication human constitution, deprives humans of the ‘naturalness which so far has been a part of the taken-for-granted background of our self-understanding as a species’, and ‘getting used to having human life biotechnologically at the disposal of our contingent preferences cannot help but change our normative self-understanding’. (2003: 72)

On this account, our ‘self-understanding’ would include, for example, our essential vulnerability to disease, ageing, and death. Suppose the strong TH project is realised. We are no longer thus vulnerable: immortality is a real prospect. Nevertheless, conceptual caution must be exercised here – even TH’s will be susceptible in the manner which Hobbes noted. Even the strongest are vulnerable in their sleep. But the kind of vulnerability TH seeks to overcome is of the internal kind (not Hobbes’s external threats). I am reminded of Woody Allen’s famous remark that he wanted to become immortal – not by doing great deeds – but, more simply, by not dying. This will result in a radical change in our ‘self-understanding’, which will have a normative element to it. Most radically this may take the form of a change in what we view as a good life . Hitherto a human life this would have been assumed to be finite. It is suggested by TH that now even this might change with appropriate technology and the ‘right’ motivation.

Need it be the case that the changes in self-understanding presented by TH (and genetic manipulation) represent a change for the worse? As noted above, it may be that the technology which generates the possibility of TH can be used for the good of humans, e.g., to promote immunity to disease, to increase quality of life, and so on. Is there really an intrinsic connection between acquisition of the capacity to bring about TH and moral decline? Perhaps Habermas’s point is that moral decline is simply more likely once radical enhancement technologies are adopted as a practice which is not intrinsically evil or morally objectionable. But how can this be known in advance? This raises the spectre of slippery slope arguments.

But before discussion of slopes, let us merely note that the kind of approach (whether characterized as ‘closed-minded’ or ‘sceptical’) Boström appears to dislike is one he calls ‘speculative’.  He dismisses as speculative the idea that offspring might think themselves lesser beings, commodifications of their parents’ egoistic desires (or some such).  Nonetheless, having pointed out the lack of epistemological standing of such speculation he invites us to his own apparently more congenial position:

We might speculate, instead, that germ-line enhancements will lead to more love and parental dedication. Some mothers and fathers might find it easier to love a child who, thanks to enhancements, is bright, beautiful, healthy, and happy. The practice of germ-line enhancement might lead to better treatment of people with disabilities, because a general demystification of the genetic contributions to human traits could make it clearer that people with disabilities are not to blame for their disabilities and a decreased incidence of some disabilities could lead to more assistance being available for the remaining affected people to enable them to live full, unrestricted lives through various technological and social supports. Speculating about possible psychological or cultural effects of germ-line engineering can therefore cut both ways. Good consequences no less than bad ones are possible. In the absence of sound arguments for the view that the negative consequences would predominate, such speculations provide no reason against moving forward with the technology. Ruminations over hypothetical side-effects may serve to make us aware of things that could go wrong so that we can be on the lookout for untoward developments. By being aware of the perils in advance, we will be in a better position to take preventive countermeasures. (2003:498)

Following Boström’s speculation then, what grounds for hope exist (cf. Faustus and Oppenheimer)? Beyond speculation, what kinds of arguments does Boström offer?  Well, most people might think that the burden of proof should fall to the TH’s .  Not so, according to Boström. Assuming the likely ‘enormous’ benefits, he turns the tables on this intuition – note that he does so not by argument but by skilful rhetorical speculation. I quote at length for accuracy of representation:

Only after a fair comparison of the risks with the likely positive consequences can any conclusion based on a cost-benefit analysis be reached. In the case of germ-line enhancements, the potential gains are enormous. Only rarely, however, are the potential gains discussed, perhaps because they are too obvious to be of much theoretical interest. By contrast, uncovering subtle and non-trivial ways in which manipulating our genome could undermine deep values is philosophically a lot more challenging. But if we think about it, we recognize that the promise of genetic enhancements is anything but insignificant. Being free from severe genetic diseases would be good, as would having a mind that can learn more quickly, or having a more robust immune system. Healthier, wittier, happier people may be able to reach new levels culturally. To achieve a significant enhancement of human capacities would be to embark on the transhuman journey of exploration of some of the modes of being that are not accessible to us as we are currently constituted, possibly to discover and to instantiate important new values. On an even more basic level, genetic engineering holds great potential for alleviating unnecessary human suffering. Every day that the introduction of effective human genetic enhancement is delayed is a day of lost individual and cultural potential, and a day of torment for many unfortunate sufferers of diseases that could have been prevented. Seen in this light, proponents of a ban or a moratorium on human genetic modification must take on a heavy burden of proof in order to have the balance of reason tilt in their favour. (2004: 498-9, emphasis added)

Now, one way in which such a ‘balance of reason’ might be had, is in the idea of a slippery slope argument.  To that I shall now turn.

7. TH and Slippery Slopes

A proper assessment of TH requires consideration of the objection that acceptance of the main claims of TH will place us on a slippery slope. Yet, paradoxically, both proponents and detractors of TH might exploit slippery slope arguments in support of their position. It is necessary therefore to set out the varieties of argument that fall under this title in order that I can better characterize arguments for and against TH.  I shall therefore note three such attempts (Schauer, 1985; Williams , 1995; and Walton, 1992) but argue that the arbitrary slippery slope (Williams, 1995) may undermine all versions of TH, though not every enhancement proposed by them.

Schauer offers the following essentialist analysis of slippery slope arguments.  A ‘pure’ slippery slope is one where a ‘particular act, seemingly innocuous when taken in isolation, may yet lead to a future host of similar but increasingly pernicious events.’ (1985: 361-2) Abortion and euthanasia are classic candidates for slippery slope arguments in public discussion and policy making.  However, against this, there is no reason to suppose that the future events (acts or policies) down the slope need to display similarities – indeed one might propose that they led to a whole range of different, though equally unwished for, consequences. The vast array of proposed enhancements by TH’s would not be captured under this conception of a slippery slope because of their heterogeneity3.

The excessive breadth principle can be subsumed under the letter of Bernard Williams’s distinction between (i) horrible result and (ii) arbitrary result slippery slope arguments. According to Williams, the nature of the bottom of the slope enables us to determine under which category a particular argument falls.  Clearly, the commonest form is the slippery slope to a horrible result argument. Walton (1992) goes further in distinguishing three types: (1) thin end of the wedge or precedent arguments; (2) sorites arguments; (3) domino effect arguments.  Importantly, these arguments might be used not only by antagonists but also by advocates of TH. But I shall not consider them here4.

In what ways can slippery slope arguments be used against TH? What is wrong with TH? Or, better, is there a point at which we can say TH is objectionable? One particular strategy adopted by proponents of TH falls clearly under the aspect of the thin end of the wedge conception of the slippery slope. While some aspects of their ideology seem aimed at unqualified goods, there seems to be no limit to the aspirations of TH since they cite the powers of other animals, and substances, as potential modifications for the TH. While one can admire the sonic capacities of the bat, the elastic strength of lizards tongues, the durability of Kevlar in contrast to traditional construction materials used in the body (e.g., bones), their transplantation into humans is, to use Kass’s celebrated label, ‘repugnant’.

While not all TH’s would support such extreme ‘enhancements’ (if that is indeed what they are) less radical advocates employ justifications that are based on up-front therapeutic lines with the more Promethean aims less explicitly advertised5. One can find many examples of this manoeuvre.  Take for the purposes of illustration the Cognitive Enhancement Research Institute in California.  Prominently on the front page of its web site ( one reads, ‘Do you know somebody with Alzheimer’s disease?  Click to see the latest research breakthrough’. The mode is simple: therapy by front entrance, enhancement by the back door. Borgmann (1984: 36), in his discussion of the uses of technology in modern society, observed precisely this argumentative strategy more than twenty years ago:

The main goal of these programs seems to be the domination of nature. But we must be more precise. The desire to dominate does not just spring from a lust of power, from sheer human imperialism. It is from the start connected with the aim of liberating humanity from disease, hunger, and toil and enriching life with learning, art and athletics.

Who could want to deny the powers of viral diseases that could be genetically treated? Might one want to draw the line at the transplantation of non-human capacities (sonar pathfinding), in vivo fibreoptic communications backbone, or anti -degeneration powers? (These would have to be non-human ex hypothesi.) Or consider the scope of technological ‘enhancements’ that one leading proponent of TH, Natasha Vita More, expounds:

A transhuman is an evolutionary stage from being exclusively biological to becoming post-biological. Post -biological means a continuous shedding of our biology and merging with machines. (…) The body, as we transform ourselves over time, will take on different types of appearances and designs and materials. (…)

For hiking a mountain, I’d like extended leg strength, stamina, a skin-sheath to protect me from damaging environmental aspects, self-moisturizing, cool-down capability, extended hearing and augmented vision (Network of sonar sensors depicts data through solid mass and map images onto visual field. Overlay window shifts spectrum frequencies. Visual scratch-pad relays mental ideas to visual recognition bots. Global Satellite interface at micro-zoom range).

For a party, I’d like an eclectic look – a glistening bronze skin with emerald green highlights, enhanced height to tower above other people, a sophisticated internal sound system so that I could alter the music to suit my own taste, memory enhance device, emotional-select for feel-good people so I wouldn’t get dragged into anyone’s inappropriate conversations. And parabolic hearing so that I could listen in on conversations across the room if the one I was currently in started winding down. (Vita More, 2000 html)

Notwithstanding the difficulty of bringing together TH under one movement, the sheer variety of proposals merely contained with Vita More’s catalogue means that one cannot determinately point to a precise station at which one can say, ‘Here, this is the end to which we said things would naturally progress’. But does this pose a problem?  Well, it certainly makes it difficult to specify exactly a ‘horrible result’ that is supposed to be at the bottom of the slope. Equally, it makes it extremely difficult to say that if we allow precedent X it will allow practices Y or Z to follow since it is not clear how these later practices are (if at all) connected with the precedent.  So it is not clear that a form of precedent-setting slippery slope could be strictly used in every case against TH though it may be applicable in some.

Instead of objecting to Pn on the grounds that Pn is itself morally objectionable (i.e., to depict a horrible result) one might instead, after Williams, object that the slide from P to Pn is simply morally arbitrary where it ought not to be. And this is quite literally, what is troublesome.  It seems to me that this criticism applies to all categories of TH though not necessarily all enhancements proposed by its proponents. Clearly, the somewhat loose identity of the movement – and the variations between strong and moderate versions – makes it difficult to sustain this argument unequivocally. Still, ‘What is wrong with arbitrariness?’, the TH might fairly ask. Let us take one brief example. There are aspects of our lives where, as a widely shared intuition, we might think that in the absence of good reasons we ought not to discriminate among people arbitrarily. Healthcare might be considered precisely one such case.  Given the ever-increasing demand for public health -care services and products it could be argued that access to them ought typically to be governed by publicly disputable criteria such as clinical need, or potential benefit, as opposed to individual choices of an arbitrary or subjective nature. And nothing in TH seems to allow for such objective dispute, let alone prioritization. Of course, TH’s such as More find no such disquietude.  His phrase ‘No more timidity’ is a typical token for Tranhumanist slogans.  While we all applaud advances in therapeutic medical technologies such as those from new genetically based organ regeneration to more familiar prosthetic devices, here the ends of the interventions are clearly defined medically and the means regulated closely. This is what prevents TH’s adopting a sorites type slippery slope.  But in the absence of a telos, of clearly and substantively specified ends (beyond the mere banner of ‘enhancement’) I suggest that the public, medical professionals and bioethicists alike, ought to resist potentially open-ended transformations of human nature.  For, if all transformations are in principle ‘enhancements’ then surely nothing is. Thus, it seems one strong argument against TH generally – the arbitrary slippery slope – presents a challenge to TH to show that all of what are styled TH enhancements are imbued with positive normative force and not merely the technological extensions of libertarianism whose conception of the good is merely an extension of individual choice and consumption.

In the following section, I want to offer two lenses which might be used to view the power behind these potentially radical transformations. For it is often said that genetic engineering and other forms of biotechnology are ‘Promethean’ in their aims.  The extent to which that Prometheanism (to coin an unforgivably ugly word) illuminates more the perils or the promise of attempting to control nature is a moot point. What is also problematic in the ascription of Promethean aims is the very contestedness of the myth of Prometheus itself.

8. Whose Prometheus: that of Hesiod or Aeschylus?

‘What is the myth of Prometheus?’, some might ask. I think the better question is, ‘Whose myth of Prometheus should we concern ourselves with?’.  I take my cue from Conacher’s (1980) account and also from Kerenyi’s (1963), although I do not even attempt to do justice to their accounts here. I merely use them for my own purpose of providing lenses to view the unrestrained enhancement ideology of Tranhumanism which, it seems to me, can find an easy footing in the unreflective pools of sports technology.

First, let us say that there is no single Greek account of Prometheus’ deeds. There are at least two sources and even among these sources there are variations.  The two sources, in chronology, are Hesiod and Aeschylus. In Hesiod there are two accounts: Theogeny and Works and Days.  And the only full text from Aeschylus is Prometheus Bound though we know it to be part of a trilogy (with Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Firebringer).

Theogeny is Hesiod’s account of the beginning of the world.  The Titans (giants) challenged Zeus and the Olympian Gods for the supremacy of the world.  Works and Days is said to be a similar account but one which celebrates the ideas that labour is the universal lot of mankind but that those willing so to do can just get by.  This is important to appreciate in order to evaluate the act for which Prometheus became (in)famous.  Acting against his fellow Titans, he sided with Zeus and his cunning aided the victory of the Gods. In consequence he was honoured by Zeus and seems to have had some kind of dual nature: both God and mortal. Sometimes the two are simplistically dichotomised; Zeus as power, Prometheus as cunning reason or intellect (Conacher, 1980).

This is not the place for Classical exegesis even if I were capable of it. Notwithstanding this, Prometheus is said to have stolen fire and to have cheated the Gods out of their proper share of a sacrifice. Which came first is not always clear as there are different interpretations. But both acts, according to Kerenyi, evidence the claim that Prometheus is of deficient character. He writes:

Prometheus, founder of the sacrifice, was a cheat and a thief: those traits are at the bottom of all the stories that deal with him. The meaning of his strange sacrifice in which the gods were cheated out of the tasty morsels is simply this: that the sacrifice offered up by men is a sacrifice of foolhardy thieves, stealers of the divinity round about them – for the world of nature that surrounds them is divine – whose temerity brings immeasurable and unforeseen misfortune upon them. (1980; xxii)

A little amplification is in order.  Both Prometheus (often translated as ‘foresight’) and his somewhat bungling brother Epimetheus (sometimes translated as ‘aftersight’) set out on Zeus’s orders to fashion creatures to populate the earth. Lacking wisdom (or ‘foresight’) Epimetheus fails to consider what qualities are necessary as he goes about making the ‘animal kingdom’.  Prometheus fashions mortals in the vision of the Gods.  Epimetheus having used all his gifts from Zeus has failed to clothe them and Prometheus watches full of pity as they shiver in the cold nights. It is here that, rebelling against Zeus’s authority, Prometheus sides with mankind, and steals fire – hidden in a fennel stalk. The mortals are thereby warmed.

In order to appease and honour Zeus, Prometheus reveals his disrespectful cunning. He offers him an ox.  In one half he hides the bones with a rich layering of fat which appears on the surface to be the greater and more desirable share. Under the entrails of the animal he hides in the other skin all the good meat. Zeus, apparently understanding the deception as part of the unchanging fate of mankind, accepts the lesser share.

By way of punishing Prometheus and all mortals, he withheld fire from mortals6. The hubris of Prometheus is reflected in his punishment: he is to be chained to a tree on Mount Caucasus where an eagle will eat at his liver all day only for it to be replenished over night, and for the cycle of suffering and humiliation to continue the next day, and so on.

In Aeschylus we get a different interpretation of events, one that is more sympathetic to Prometheus.  First, there is a more optimistic conception of ‘human initiative’ (Conacher, 1980: 13). A further aspect of this lies in the fact that hope is hidden from men in Hesiod (‘fortunately’. it is said in Hesiod, or rather ‘for their sakes’) whereas in Aeschylus it is one of the gifts from Prometheus. As Conacher puts it:

To put the point in the broadest possible terms, the Hesiodic Prometheus, by his deceptions and frustrations of Zeus in his relations with man, is presented (however ‘artificially’) as the indirect cause of all man’s woes; the Aeschylean Prometheus, on the other hand, by his interventions on behalf of man, is presented as the saviour of mankind, without whom man would have ceased to exist and with whose help he progresses from mere subsistence to a state of civilization. (ibid)

Aeschylus does this by suppressing the sacrifice deception and by transforming the fire-stealing act into one of daring rather than of hubris. For without the deception there is no occasion for the withholding of fire which is the consequent punishment.  For fire is seen not merely as the warmth that forestalls the chill of the night but – more importantly – as the precondition of craft, trade, and even of civilization.

What has this to do with TH? Well, it should be clear that some advocates of weak TH might well find widespread support for their therapeutically engineered ends. As we have seen medical and other technologies have unquestionably enhanced the lot of humanity.  And to neglect the controlling power of biotechnology would be to commit a folly of luddite proportions. To embrace it naively, to fail to consider deeply the intrinsic limits of human nature, would be more dangerous.  The lenses with which we evaluate biotechnology had better be focused on scientistic hubris at least as much as its alluring promise of dismissing certain conditions, diseases or illnesses.  But the very idea of utilising technology to remove the vulnerability of the human condition from humanity is surely one to be wary of in all its forms.

9. The limits of TH arguments for medical technology and practice

Already we have seen the misuse of a host of therapeutically designed drugs utilised by non-therapeutic populations for enhancements.  Consider the non-therapeutic use of human growth hormone by non-clinical populations. Such is the present perception of height as a positional good in society, Cuttler et al. (1996) report that the proportion of physicians who recommended GH treatment of short non-GHD children ranged from 1% to 74%. This is despite its contrary indication in professional literatures such as those of the Pediatric Endocrine Society and considerable doubt as to its efficacy (Vance and Mauras, 1999). Moreover, there is evidence to support the view that recreational body builders will utilise the technology given the evidence of their ab/use of steroids and other biotechnological products (Grace et al. 2001; 2003). Finally, the sphere of elite sport, which so valorises embodied capacities that might be found elsewhere in greater degree, precision, and sophistication in the animal kingdom or the computer laboratory, that biomedical enhancers may latch onto the genetically determined capacities and adopt/adapt them for their own commercially driven ends.

The arguments and examples presented here do no more than to warn us of the enhancement ideologies, such as TH, which seek to predicate their futuristic agendas on the bedrock of medical-technological progress aimed at therapeutic ends, and secondarily extended to loosely defined enhancement ends.  In discussion and in bioethical literatures, the future of genetic engineering is often challenged by slippery slope arguments that lead policy and practice to a horrible result.  Instead of pointing to the undesirability of the ends which TH leads I have pointed out the failure to specify their telos beyond the slogans of ‘overcoming timidity’ or Bostrom’s (2004: 10) exhortation that the passive acceptance of aging is an example of ‘reckless and dangerous barriers to urgently needed action’ in the biomedical sphere. Perhaps we would do better to consider other all-too-human frailties such as violent aggression, wanton self-harming, and so on, before we turn too readily to the richer imaginations of biotechnologists.

This paper is a revised version of McNamee, M.J. and Edwards, S.D. (2006) ‘Medical technology, Transhumanism, and Slippery Slopes’ Journal of Medical Ethics (in press).


Russell Wilcox: I would like to start my response by thanking Dr. McNamee for tackling this subject because there are so few academics in the UK who have dealt with the phenomenon of transhumanism or biotechnical manipulation with anything like the moral and ethical seriousness it deserves. I found especially fascinating the way Dr. McNamee showed how in this area ostensibly different ideologies actually build upon and complement one another. For example, he quoted Bacon’s famous ‘to relieve man’s estate’ and Descartes’ encouragement that ‘men should become the lords and masters of nature’. Something which Mary Midgley has long been at pains to point out is that Bacon also used the much more violent imagery of raping and deflowering nature. I do not think that it is any accident then, that the spawn of the Baconian-Cartesian vision has led to some really quite alarming consequences.

When speaking to an audience who are not versed in the relevant literature on this issue, it is important to emphasise quite how common are the employment of the notions of over-class and under-class. This has been explicitly propagandised and endorsed by academics in America like, for example, Lee M. Silver of Princeton University (author of Remaking Eden), who speaks of, and endorses, the creation of the ‘gene-rich’ and the ‘gene-poor’.

The point about technology being neutral is, of course, an old chestnut. Heidegger long ago undermined its claim to serious intellectual respect with his famous, if some-what impenetrable, Essay on Technology. He showed there, conclusively to my mind, that when one adopts a technological stance towards the world, a particular environment of norms and beliefs is necessarily presupposed and created. This environment has an enframing effect which conditions people, not just with respect to their attitudes towards nature but also in terms of what they expect to obtain from it. As such, a whole battery of beliefs, prejudices, wants and desires are instilled in people as part of the ‘natural’ intellectual, emotional and social atmosphere which they imbibe from their earliest years. This is what we find in our current situation, where much of popular culture has filtered down powerfully, though subtly, into the conditioning depths of our cultural and cortical substrates.

Going back to the ideological roots of transhumanism, I was particularly drawn to Dr. McNamee’s linkage of transhumanist ideology with that of libertarianism. As such, it shows itself to be the logical outworking of a departure which began in the Middle Ages with William of Ockham: the voluntarist idea whereby God could act in a purely arbitrary manner, unfettered by any rational side constraints. Developing from this view was the idea that reason was not an integral part of God’s character. What was required was merely to look at His will and obey – a sort of divine fiat – with no sense of it being bound up with a rational framework.

This notion of absolute sovereignty was quickly transposed into the absolute sovereignty of the monarchy during the Protestant Reformation and then taken a stage further to the individual. The notion of unfettered individual autonomy is the result. This notion suggests that one has a will which is unconstrained by any rational side constraints or any notion of a stable, rationally comprehensible nature. Consequently, the rightness of something is what results from the clash of autonomous wills. Effectively, what results is a Nietzschean ‘Will to Power’ whereby the gene-rich are the most powerful because they have the most physical and material benefits: a sophisticated version of ‘might is right’.

The problem with this is that there is a constant stream of rhetoric, often, as with Bostrom, intelligently and sometimes elegantly-put rhetoric, surrounding this notion of overcoming the constraints that have traditionally been imposed on humanity, but with little discussion of its most profound dangers. The question I would pose here is: who is doing the overcoming? Is it the self? If it is, what is ‘self’? Defining ‘self’ is precisely what the promoters of the ideology of transhumanism do not want to do because when one defines the self, one starts moving into the territory of nature which is what it is thought should be overcome. It completely ignores, or by-passes the fact that to facilitate any comprehensible notion of autonomy or freedom, certain conditions have to be observed and respected. License is quite different to autonomy; autonomy is the notion of control, that one is not merely determined by exterior forces and that one has the capacity to go beyond the material world (which in a sense is the world of determinism).

If one operates with the Nietzschean Will to Power, the will is constantly concerned with extending itself beyond itself, with removing the fetters and side constraints: an impossible and self contradictory endeavour. As we heard, Dianz speaks of the idea of increasingly merging human being with the machine, a seemingly wonderful prospect because machines can do so much more compared with humans. The problem with this is that a machine is not part of the self which is trying to extend its autonomy. As such, the more one replaces the self with the machine, the more one becomes a machine, no longer remaining the self which one is trying to enhance.

Bostrom says that there is a great burden of proof upon people who want to ‘stop progress’; that it is mere speculation that things are going to get worse if society embraces the transhumanist project. Meanwhile, he ignores the tacit knowledge embodied in traditional moral norms and standards, which have been broadly similar across societies and across times prior to the modern industrial era. Is it not naïve in the extreme to believe that this huge pool of tacit practical knowledge can just thrown off without any unforeseen detrimental consequences? To my mind, the burden of proof rests squarely upon the Bostroms of this world rather than, as he suggests, upon the Dr. McNamees.

General Discussion

Dr. Ariberto Fassati: I would like to know what you think about the idea that we can interfere with nature without being bounded by any limits. Our bodies are the result of millions of years of evolution and I suggest that we do not realise that there are limits to what we can do.

For example, we are now able to detect embryos which exhibit signs of defects and eliminate these embryos at an early stage. However, in vitro fertilization (IVF) has many problems; some of them technical but it has also emerged that embryos produced by the IVF process are fundamentally different from those produced naturally. This can also be seen in cloning where the process perturbs the embryo and affects how the resultant adult organism develops later on.

What this does in effect, is to fix one problem but create a whole host of other problems. I think there may be a fundamental mistake based on ignorance and overestimation of what man can do. It is very important that people like us who work in the field make this clear to people who do not.

Dr. Michael McNamee: I think that that is quite right. You implied reference to appropriate sources of critique. The first would be intrinsic. This is very clear in genetic transfer technology today as it is riddled with problems. Secondly, assuming that current technological progress continues at the same rate, the effects of interactions between genes and the environment is mind-boggling and should not be underestimated.

On the other hand, artificial heart pumps (which are relatively commonplace today) would have been unthinkable forty or fifty years ago. I do not, therefore, think that taking a stance that something just cannot be done – that it is just ignorant technologising – is appropriate.

I do appreciate difficulties in the technical aspects of genetic manipulation and in trying to control interactions between genes and the environment. Nonetheless, you must accept that the use of insulin to assist longevity, or of mind altering drugs to boost memory, would have been unthinkable only fifteen years ago.

Dr. Ariberto Fassati: But you will have to pay a price for that because you are manipulating fundamental biological mechanisms like aging or cancer, which are the result of million of years of biological evolution.

Prof. Dennis O’Keeffe: I have enjoyed this paper very much, especially as it is part of a field about which I know very little. This relates to the ongoing problem of the expertocracy, as I like to call it. There is no doubt that we have reaped evident benefits from specialised expertise which has developed from advanced division of labour. There have, however, also been deadly results when groups of self-selecting experts have launched us in absurd directions. The growth of Communism, Fascism and Nazism in free societies provides clear examples of this, as do notions like ‘progressive education’.

One of the things these so-called experts often do is to attempt to sell the message that they can somehow transcend the pithiness and pains of the human experience. It seems to me that transhumanism is an attempt to duck out of living a human life and of acting under conscience, or of attempting moral improvement (which must not be politicised else it degenerate into some terrible dystopia).

The results would, I think, be appalling. It has been made clear by our speaker and discussant that it is extremely dangerous. I hope it does not get taken much further forward because I am sure (as a trained economic historian) that it will not affect just a small group of people. If it happens at all, it is going to happen to everybody and the mutations that could emerge from that are unthinkable.

Dr. Michael McNamee: At a paediatric clinical ethics class to which I contributed yesterday in one of the biggest hospitals in Wales, we reproduced a Clinical Ethics Committee. We took two real-life cases from the previous year and tried to replicate the process of determining whether to not to allow admissions into the paediatric Intensive Care Unit.

It struck me that in regard of these two cases (as well as the other ten which we had discussed prior to them), the vast majority of the ethical issues had been produced by technology. Many were cases of premature live-births (between twenty-five and thirty weeks) which would simply not have occurred before the recent introduction of new technology.

I was introduced there as the ‘ethical expert’ and that is a description I do not like. Many people have started to call people like me ‘ethicists’ and it is the ‘-ist’ or ‘-ism’ that I find problematic. Expertise is an authority of means or techniques; ethics, if anything is about ends. Clearly, there are no ‘experts’ there.

Prof. Dennis O’Keeffe: Absolutely. Everyone knows there are people with very little education who are superlative morally.

Dr. Michael McNamee: That is the difference between wisdom and technical expertise. The real questions for transhumanists should be: does this make life richer? Will it make life more meaningful? Will it make life more worthwhile or valuable? These are not technical questions. They do not admit of expertise but rather of wisdom.

Prof. John Henry: Do you think we are giving the transhumanists too much sway by gracing them with a name and calling them an ideology when they do not even have a clear sense of identity of what they themselves are? I would say that a common denominator of the transhumanists is that they have ‘Prozac deficiency’; they are dissatisfied, perhaps disappointed, perhaps disillusioned and almost certainly depressed. They just do not appear to be happy with their lot.

Technology is a separate issue as it has to be bounded by ethics that are absolutely clear. It appears that transhumanists as a movement are not satisfied with their lot as human beings and are in fact rejecting humanity.

Dr. Michael McNamee: I should say that I used the word ‘ideology’ when I first wrote an earlier draft of this paper for delivery elsewhere, and that I was asked to take it out because it is regarded as a deprecative term.

Your Prozac metaphor is interesting because it is, if you like, an obvious case of biotechnology. Is it not making life better for a whole group of people? That raises a question: Is life all about how it feels on the inside? There is no doubt that Prozac users feel happier, and there is incontrovertible evidence for it. Nonetheless, is life being made richer or just more endurable? It is that kind of ethical vocabulary that I want to put at the heart of the debate rather than just look at technical solutions to a bio-medically labelled problem.

Drugs have so saturated our consciousness that they are seen as the obvious solution to medical problems. I could give a non-medical frame to your Prozac metaphor and suggest it is just a social problem that could be solved with some support and perhaps proper counselling. As such, I wonder if the metaphor is suitable to describe this movement.

Secondly, you really should not underestimate how intellectually capable these people are. People like Bostrom and Anders Sandburg are first-rate philosophers and it would be most dangerous to write them off prematurely.

Jana Tutkova: I would like to supplement the last contribution with my own experience. I have been working in the campaign against human cloning and assisted reproduction and three years ago in Oxford I participated in a debate on cloning between a pro-life speaker and a Raelian cloning advocate. This representative of the Raelian sect was speaking of achieving the prolongation of life by means of cloning when new bodies could be created and the human consciousness (which is depicted to be in a sort of liquid form) could be transferred from the old body to the new. This may seem to be very much in the realm of science fiction but though difficult to clone new ‘human bodies’ now as he was claiming this could be a question of few hours or days in a very short time.

I feel this is related to what was said earlier with regard to the importance placed on maximising the quantitative aspect of life rather than the qualitative expansion of it. There was a vote at the end of that debate and while all but four students were on the side of the pro-life speaker, I thought of what preceded any slippery slope that we have had with issues like abortion and homosexual marriages. The public has been gradually brainwashed into accepting abortion or assisted reproduction when they were all mostly against it in the beginning.

In the U.K., there is a significant push coming from people in parliament, the media, the scientific community and the government for the legalisation of reproductive cloning of human beings for extreme fertility cases. This seems to be the same kind of ‘salami tactics’ as we had for abortion not so long ago. In this relentless quest for scientific advancement, human-animal hybrids are being experimented with and are justified, for example, by the claim that there are not enough human eggs to be used for cloning.

Dr. Michael McNamee: There is a naïve and clearly problematic assumption that life is good, and that therefore more is better. Perhaps I could try provoking my medical colleagues by asking: if at the end of life you experience very little quality, is prolongation of life a good thing?

In a way, the problem of suffering cuts to the heart of Christian as well as medical ethics. Could struggling through disease with loved ones be ennobling, and actually make life richer? Or would it just make life infinitely more miserable?

To a naturalist (and all transhumanists are such), suffering is intrinsically evil and not to be endured. Avoidance or prevention of it by technological control has to be a good thing for them. The opposing school of thought suggests that there is at least some experience of suffering that might enrich life, not in a simple contrasting value sense where one cannot really know what is good at the same time as what is bad, but rather that it may elicit human capacities and moral virtues such as courage. This, I think is a serious challenge to the naturalists and transhumanists who write off the experience of suffering as intrinsically bad.

Richard Sear: You cautioned a moment ago against the danger of writing off some forms of transhumanism and suggested that far more intellectual respect should be afforded to the arguments advanced by the proponents of some of these forms. Ironically, might not some forms of transhumanism be simply yet another manifestation in our own age of a perennial human tendency (perhaps in a lapsarian sense) to want to escape being human? This is common with nominalists and is something we have seen throughout history. Do we not, as humans, struggle with the urge to be other than human? Two classic examples – from different sources – spring to mind immediately. Firstly, Diogenes the Cynic rejects the human civilisation embodied in the Athenian polis and lives outside the city in a dustbin. Secondly, the rejection of the idea of living on the land in the building of the Tower of Babel (in order to reach the heavens).

Wittgenstein makes perhaps the same point in a very different context. He does not engage explicitly with an Aristotelian -Christian philosophical heritage, but talks (in his later writings) about the constant rejection of the physical as completely futile and utterly wrong-headed. He laments our tendency to run up against the bars of our ‘cage’ as a metaphor representing our refusal to accept the fact that we are physical bodies. He goes on further to make the point that our physical nature (although he does not use the word ‘nature’) is a valuable and important one. I wonder if you agree that this tragic irony exists at the heart of (at least some forms of) transhumanism.

Dr. Michael McNamee: Yes. Let me just add something to your point. Some people asked me about Promethean aims, so I looked up the story of Prometheus and found two radically different approaches. Humans were banned from using fire by Zeus because he thought that it would give them the tools of industry and make them lazy. Prometheus then smuggled fire from Heaven using a stalk of fennel and gave it to humanity.

At this point in the tale, there are two points of view: Hesiod’s account says that this is utter hubris; Prometheus had no right to give mortals that of which they were deprived by Zeus. Prometheus is punished for this by being strung up on a tree where an eagle flies down everyday to eat his liver which regenerates each night.

On the other hand, Aeschylus celebrates the human cunning and the intelligent operation of Prometheus’ practical reasoning. After all, humanity would not have arts, trades, crafts or indeed civilisation without the aid of fire.

My point here is that if you zoomed in on weak transhumanism, you might adopt a version of Aeschylus’s approach wherein widely accepted moral norms can be abided by and valuable social goals achieved. The stronger form of transhumanism, however, smacks to me of Hesiod’s hubris. The idea that one can overcome nature and reach all the good things which are supposed to be ‘extra-human’ is just folly.

Russell Wilcox: I want to go back to the idea of the tendency to try to escape being human. You are quite right on that because that was the point at which the semi-stable medieval world view started to crumble. There is nothing wrong with trying to transcend our physical limitations. The problem is attempting to satisfy transcendental urges by things that are not transcendental, i.e., the physical material world. At the same time, the traditional religious or philosophical conception of transcending the physical by adhering to the transcendentals is not at all deprecatory of the physical world. It is just the idea of putting things in their correct place and of enjoying physical goods in their due proportion.

Peter Adams: There was an article a few years ago by the Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems which went by the title of ‘Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us’. In that article, he explained that he had never thought that he would face any ethical problems as a computer scientist. Nevertheless, he was learning about the new technology which you have been describing and he suddenly saw that this was actually much closer on the horizon than he ever thought.

In my view, this paper was a call to scientists to talk about these issues before getting caught up in the excitement of developing this technology because it has serious implications. After listening to you, I wonder if the philosophers and scientists are in contact at all. Are the scientists getting deeper input from an external source, as they should be? The scientific community that I know tends to work away – moving from one project to the next – without stopping to think too much about the implications of their work.

Dr. Michael McNamee: To be quite honest, I am not sure. The description you gave of the scientific community is an accurate one, certainly in the U.K. and probably in continental Europe. However, the situation is starting to change slightly, and mirroring in this the state of affairs pertaining in the U.S.A. where groundbreaking research that has commercial potential is moving very quickly out of the university system into industry.

I am not sure about the extent to which ideas migrate. A lot of people are simply being seduced by websites and fancy talk. On the other hand, I have discovered an American website (I used it in my paper, with the source cited) which advertises a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Before you know it, you are brought into a transhumanist agenda because memory enhancement technology is central to their package. I was reading earlier today about two research scientists in the university system who improved the memory of mice by radical genetic intervention. They did not just go out to set up a company – they set up two competing companies!

Clearly, there is a commercial link to the scientific community. I really do not know if there is interaction by it with a more philosophical or abstract way of thinking.

What worries me more is that therapeutic agenda are being used, if not to normalise, then at least to give authority to other more suspect and debatable ends. The distinction of therapeutic enhancement is nowhere as clear as people think it is, and we have accepted all sorts of enhancements to human nature without expressing qualms. Any of us travelling to a third-world country would take the jabs advised without considering that these are clearly taking him beyond species-typical functions.

Looking for categorical distinctions to condemn any transhumanist enhancement as morally problematical will not do because there is already widespread acceptance of certain transformations.

Prof. Dennis O’Keeffe: I believe the project in question aspires to change our moral and intellectual nature and that would most certainly amount to deadly hubris, as we should not then have to fight on our own to be good. We would be under (as T.S. Eliot suggested) a system so perfect that no one had to be good anymore.

Dr. Michael McNamee: One of the things that Russell Wilcox pointed out very nicely was explicit disavowal of declaring a blueprint by the transhumanists…

Prof. Dennis O’Keeffe: Do you believe the transhumanists? I think they have their agenda all right, from what I have heard this evening.

Dr. Michael McNamee: I can only speak for the ones I have met who are all decent upstanding people. I would not take them necessarily as indicative of the rest of that community.

Dr. Andrew Hegarty: A thought occurred to me as you were speaking: are there any taboos left? Could it be part of the problem that in our society, there is a sense now that ‘anything goes’? In the past, I feel, some restraint was built in with regard to technology, and to what might be regarded by the odd crank as progress. There was certainly a strong shared sense that some things were quite unacceptable.

Dr. Michael McNamee: I am not sure it has been completely destroyed but its sphere of influence has certainly been radically reduced.

Russell Wilcox: There tends to be a disappearance of moral constraints. The danger is that this all gets whipped into a market dynamic (as Prof. O’Keeffe suggested) because the logic of a market is not a personal logic, it is an impersonal logic which it is impossible to contain.

The director of the Royal Institution, Prof. Susan Greenfield is interesting on this. While she comes from a secular atheist stand-point, she is clearly someone who is intellectually and morally engaged. She wrote a – somewhat maligned – book called Tomorrow’s People in which she raised a number of concerns about the way technology is manipulating the biological person, both externally and internally.

There are scientists who are starting to realise that there are problems here and the important thing is to try and encourage them as much as possible as a counterweight to those who just want to make a quick buck.

Closing remarks by Dr. Michael McNamee: I should just like to say by way of clarification that this is not strictly the kind of work that I generally do. This paper originated in a lecture a colleague and I gave on a M.A. course, and it has not come out of any longstanding research.

I have been trying to write on ‘Virtue Ethics’ for a long time. It strikes me that the greater emphasis on autonomy – the idea that man is the sole master of his own destiny and that he alone determines the ends and shape of that life –, along with the advance of technology, almost renders unnecessary the cultivation of virtue. From a moral angle, I regard that as a bizarre proposition.


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  • Sternglantz, R.  ‘Raining on the Parade of Horribles: Of Slippery Slopes, Faux Slopes, and Justice Scalia’s Dissent in Lawrence v. Texas’ University of Pennsylvania Law Review , 153 University of Pennsylvania Law Review 2005 153: 1097-1120.
  • Vance, M.L., and Mauras, N.  ‘Growth hormone therapy in adults and children’ New England Journal of Medicine 1999 341, 16: 1206-1216.
  • Walton, D.N. Slippery Slope Arguments, Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.
  • Williams, B.A.O. ‘Which slopes are slippery’ in Making sense of humanity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995: 213-223
  • World Transhumanist Association at
  1. See for example Boström’s web site, in Oxford
  2. The extent to which PH is synonymous with TH is not clear.
  3. Moreover, as Sternglantz (2005) notes, Schauer undermines his case when arguing that greater linguistic precision would undermine the slippery slope and that indirect consequences often bolster slippery slope arguments. It is as if the slippery slopes would cease in a world with greater linguistic precision or when applied only to direct consequences. These views do not find support in the later literature. Schauer does, however, identify three non-slippery slope arguments where the advocate’s aim is to (a) show that the bottom of a proposed slope has been arrived at; (b) show that a principle is excessively broad; (c) highlight how granting authority to X will make more likely that an undesirable outcome will be achieved. It is clear that (a) could not properly be called a slippery slope argument in itself, while (b) and (c) often play some role in slippery slope arguments.
  4. See instead McNamee, M.J, and Edwards, S.D. (2006) ‘Medical technology, transhumanism and slippery slopes’, Journal of Medical Ethics, in press.
  5. I should say that by Promethean I intend Hesiod’s more deprecatory account not Aeschylus’s more favourable version. See McNamee, M.J. (2005) ‘Transhumanism, technology and the moral topography of sports medicine’ (‘Transhumanizem in moralna topografija sportne medicine’ translated in Slovenian) Borec,  57, 626-9, where I set out in more detail the separate accounts.
  6. There is some ambiguity as to whether mortals had fire before. Conacher (1980; 12) is in no doubt that Prometheus stole it back for them which entails their prior possession of it.  I ignore here Hesiod’s misogynistic account of the first punishment intended for Prometheus where Zeus has Hephaestus  fashion woman from fire, namely Pandora whose jar contains all the portents for the suffering of mankind.