Human Dignity Beyond Sentiment: Part 4, The Transhuman Threat

A simple way to state the Nietzschean threat from Part 2 is that it's perfectly reasonable to use hierarchy to organize social life, ranking people by worth, endowment, or ability. Human nature even seems to push us toward just such evaluations and rankings. That we resist and recoil at this vision, however, reveals just how Christian our social and moral imaginations have become, believer and non-believer alike.

But what if abilities and endowments could be changed or modified?

As discussed in Part 1, one reason we need human dignity is because it secures human worth and value irrespective of talents or abilities. You must be treated with love and care no matter your IQ, high, medium, or low. A Nietzschean world would rank you, but a Christian world would not. This was the Great Conversion of the West, how Christianity dismantled and replaced the Nietzschean ranking that governed Greek and Roman morality and political theory.

In short, dignity is necessary because talents and abilities are various, tempting us into rankings of worth. But what if talents and abilities could be changed?

I'm grouping that prospect under what I'll call the transhuman threat. But included here is also the eugenic threat, along with all types of radical human enhancement.

What if, for example, we could pick the IQ or beauty or athleticism of our children? What if, in some future world, physical and mental augmentations become available and able to improve your IQ or physical abilities?

This might seem like the stuff of science fiction, but it's closer around the corner than you'd think. The world is already divided in who gets access to certain medical procedures, prosthetics, psychotropic medications, and other technologies (think Stephen Hawking's speech software), all of which enhance psychological and physical functioning. During COVID-19 we've lamented how some school children didn't have access to technological resources as much as their richer peers. A smartphone in your hand isn't a chip in your head, but it's close and getting closer. Genetic testing and engineering is already here and growing fast in its capabilities, too fast for our moral and political debates to keep up. Aborting babies with disabilities, eugenics-lite, is becoming standard practice in some nations. 

The point to be observed in all this current and future technology, the prospect of human enhancement, is that it brings the Nietzschean threat in through the back door. We're not ranking human persons in a crude sort of way, dumb people to the left, smart people to the right. We are simply making people "better." And who doesn't want to be better? But "better" implies "worse," a ranking of worth. An enhanced human being, a transhuman or a post-human, is better than a mere human, especially if that mere human is disabled or lacking in some natural endowment or ability.

We can even envision all this playing out in the domain of fashion and preferences. Blue eyed children are all the rage this year, because that's what the celebrities are choosing down at the Birth Store.

Basically, when the human person becomes modifiable they will be judged by what they "could be," rather than what they are, warts and all. And the greater the enhancements the greater the contrast and rankings. The supersmart will outpace the dull and adopt an increasingly paternalistic attitude toward them, if not outright hostility and loathing.

None of this will happen quickly. It'll be a slow burn, each advancement seen as good and welcomed at the time, a contribution to greater human flourishing. Like switching your glasses for contact lenses. But the journey will involve a gradual introduction of a ranking of worth, the slow dismantling of human dignity, the Christian belief that, no matter your innate endowment or abilities, you possess inviolate and inestimable value and worth. No enhancement or loss of IQ, beauty, or physical ability makes you better or worse than any other. Human dignity is metaphysically secured, immune from any transhuman or eugenic metrics.

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