Monday, January 1, 2024

Perfectionism: Towards Transhumanist Ethical Convergence?

I've been pondering over several topics during my long hiatus from posting to this blog, but one thing that has been top of mind concerns the question how transhumanists of consequentialist, deontological, and virtue-theoretic persuasions can find common ground in the interest of achieving our goals. This it seems to me is of prime importance especially given the uphill battle we are already fighting to win public acceptance.

The idea of ethical convergence has certainly been explored in other domains and from several different perspectives, but the issue for transhumanists is particularly challenging due to the end goals we are trying to reach (the so-called '3 Supers'): Super-intelligence, Super-happiness, and Super-longevity. To be sure, there are variants of all the three ethical theories in question in which these goals can function very well as motivating factors, but to achieve theoretical convergence we will need to find some common notion that we all can appeal to and that still fits within our framework of choice.

We will surely need to approach this problem from a variety of angles but one thing we can do to come up with ideas is to revisit the work of the godfather of transhumanism: namely Descartes. Even though his most influential ideas were in epistemology and metaphysics, Descartes did write some very fascinating work in ethics.

The IEP article on Descartes' Ethics sums up his main ideas here quite nicely as follows:

"the supreme good consists in virtue, which is a firm and constant resolution to use the will well; virtue presupposes knowledge of metaphysics and natural philosophy; happiness is the supreme contentment of mind which results from exercising virtue; the virtue of generosity is the key to all the virtues and a general remedy for regulating the passions; and virtue can be secured even though our first-order moral judgments never amount to knowledge."

How to characterize these theses within ethical typologies? An obvious approach is to characterize this as a sort of virtue-theoretic ethic. Indeed, this might even seem like a kind of virtue ethic par excellence, given that Descartes accords virtue itself as the highest good (in stark contrast to schools of virtue ethics in ancient philosophy and their contemporary descendants who accord that title to happiness, human flourishing, etc.).

But note also Descartes' unique understanding of what virtue is: "a firm and constant resolution to use the will well". This has a distinctly deontological (indeed almost a Kantian) ring to it, which has led Noa Naaman-Zauderer to characterize Descartes as a deontological virtue ethicist.

This is already a quite interesting development, but we should note again another point of departure Descartes' makes from classical virtue theory. I can do no better here in elaborating this point than to quote en masse from the IEP article:

"Frans Svensson (2010; compare 2019a) has argued that Descartes is not a virtue ethicist, and that other commentators have mistakenly classified him as such due to a misunderstanding of the criteria of virtue ethics. Recall that Shapiro and Naaman-Zauderer claim that Descartes must be a virtue ethicist (of whatever stripe) due to his claim that virtue is the supreme good. However, Svensson claims that virtue ethics, deontological ethics, and consequential ethics alike can, strictly speaking, admit that virtue is the supreme good, in the sense that virtue should be the goal in all of our actions (2010: 217). Descartes’ account of the supreme good, then, does not make him a virtue ethicist.

The criterion for being a virtue ethicist is that “morally right conduct should be grounded ultimately in an account of virtue or a virtuous agent” (Ibid. 218). This requires an explanation of the nature of virtue that does not depend on some independent account of morally right conduct. The problem, however, is that although Descartes agrees that virtue can be explained without reference to some independent account of morally right conduct, Descartes departs from the virtue ethicist in that he thinks that virtue is not constitutive of morally right conduct.

Instead, Svensson proposes that Descartes is committed to perfectionism. In this view, what Descartes’ ethics demands is that the moral agent pursue “everything in his power in order to successfully promote his own overall perfection as far as possible” (Ibid. 221). As such, Svensson claims that Descartes’ ethics is “outcome-based, rather than virtue-based, and it is thus best understood as a kind of teleological, or even consequentialist ethics” (Ibid. 224)."

And it is just this idea, viz. Perfectionism, that I think is worth exploring. Granted, it isn't amenable to ethical convergence as is (for one thing, it doesn't as yet make room for deontological notions of moral duties independent of outcome), but it is worth a start. For aren't we really as Transhumanists just trying to promote the perfection not only of humanity, but also also sentient beings and ultimately the universe?

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