How will we ascribe status to human life in a ‘post-human’ world? Steve Fuller FRSA argues we need to start taking the profound questions that arise from post-humanism seriously if we are to ensure more than the few will benefit.
‘Humanity 1.0’ consists of those autonomous but sociable individuals that we normally imagine ourselves to be. It is the being that our laws have been traditionally designed to empower and protect. Talk of ‘Humanity 2.0’ may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but we are already there. For example, we are mentally prepared to extend the idea of ‘health’ beyond the capacities of the normal human body. Indeed, we are prepared to extend it in two rather different senses. To see what I mean, imagine a two-question survey that might be conducted on the future priorities for provision by the National Health Service:
1. By responding to this survey, you will be covered by the NHS. Now name your two most ‘significant others’ who reside in this country and whose basic health needs should be covered by the NHS. You are not limited to humans in your answer (i.e. animals and androids may be named).
2. Various mental and physical ‘enhancements’ are regularly introduced into the market, subtly altering our default settings for normal health. At what level of market saturation for these products should the NHS make them as readily available as eyeglasses and hearing aids?
Of course, we live in tight budgetary times, but even in the best of times we would be unable to honour everyone’s requests. So on what basis do we make choices? To be sure, there are many imponderables but I would like to propose the following hypotheses, which only serve to heighten the problem with defining Humanity 2.0.
In the case of the first question, homo sapiens would constitute less than 100% of the list of significant others; perhaps significantly less, if people take the question seriously. This suggests that we need to re-focus not only health provision but also medical research, as well as open up medical research budgets to, say, engineers in the business of repairing and enhancing androids.
In the case of the second question, the various enhancements would alter our sense of what it means to live a fulfilling and meaningful human life. There may be some unexpected and even perverse results. Would the overall effect be to assign less value to the lives of those who, by choice of by fate, are unenhanced or unenhanceable?
Moreover, some may wish to enhance their animal and android companions, whilst others may wish to turn ‘enhanceability’ into a threshold for a fulfilling life, below which public health provision may be withdrawn. The two wishes might even work in concert to raise the moral status of some animals and androids above some humans. Peter Singer opened the door to this way of thinking when he proffered sentience as the threshold for moral relevance in defence of animal welfare.
The NHS is a useful concrete site for thinking about Humanity 2.0 because, as the cornerstone of Britain’s welfare state, it gave a very clear sense of the quality of life to which everyone was committed on behalf of everyone. The ‘everyone’ of course was understood to be all and only members of homo sapiens, the vast majority of whom would contribute to the funding of the NHS through their taxes. Humanity 2.0 is about possibly redrawing that boundary and all the implications this has for health policy, public policy more generally and broader social and economic relations.
If you still think that it is premature to take these matters seriously, I would ask you to keep three considerations in mind. First, even though Humanity 2.0 is still in its infancy, people are already voting with their feet to get into it. The best indicator is the increasing amount of time that people spend in non-face-to-face, non-human communication. This trend may be most easily seen in the increasing number of single-person households. But even in more ‘normal’ social arrangements, the time spent both with animals and in front of computer-based devices implies a radical, albeit relatively quiet, transformation of the terms in which the bonds of our social life are being forged. One does not need to join in the jeremiads of Susan Greenfield and Sherry Turkle, to think it is probably true that our cognitive and emotional ties are in the process of substantial re-wiring.
Second, both public and private agencies are devoting increasing resources to the ‘anticipatory governance’ of Humanity 2.0. This involves inviting people to test-drive innovative lifestyle-changing goods and services by participating in focus groups, citizen juries, scenario construction, wiki media and virtual reality. The underlying principle here is that any misgivings that people might have about such innovations – whatever their basis – may be rectified before the products come on stream. In any case, people will have begun to expect the regular appearance of, say, ‘enhancement’ technologies, and may even call for them to come sooner.
Consider finally, the unravelling of the social contract that underwrote the NHS and the rest of the post-war welfare state – ‘Humanity 1.0’ if you will – is signalled in the failure of modern political ideologies to capture the imaginations of the vast majority of people, not least the young. Yet, the resurgence of fundamentalist movements focussed on race and religion points to an appetite for rethinking the boundaries of social and moral concern. At the same time, the ease with which people can opt out of any collective engagement with social welfare issues – the various flavours of ‘privatisation’ on offer today – suggests that a strong political vision will be needed to ensure that the identity of Humanity 2.0 doesn’t simply turn into a perverse aggregate effect of many narrowly self-interested decisions.
Steve Fuller (BA, MPhil, PhD, DLitt, FRSA) holds the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. He is the author of eighteen books, most recently Humanity 2.0: What It Means to Be Human Past, Present and Future (Palgrave Macmillan). He will speak at the RSA on 6 October 2011 about Humanity 2.0.
View a series of short video talks from Steve Fuller, introducing Humanity 2.0.