Beyond Humanism

Humanity is broken. Our species is chained to a multitude of abusive relationships: with technology, with art, with entertainment, with religion, with the concepts of power and identity, even with each other. Ultimately, those conflicts are merely symptoms of a more nefarious disease, the one at the heart of the most shattered relationship of all: the one with our species’ soul.

So often, our elected and self-declared leaders pontificate about “morality,” but have no satisfying answers when pressed on what that means. Instead, they’ll invariably fall back on religious or philosophical paradigms that are, more often than not, iniquitous and outdated, or they’ll offer some insubstantial mutterings about “doing the right thing”—without any specificity on who or what decides what the “right thing” is. Thus, that enigmatic “right thing” ends up being a byproduct of the speaker’s personal beliefs, desires, and/or objectives. And the world burns because of it. People suffer because of it.

It’s time for humanity to reject this kind of ethical buffet. We must unilaterally decide upon a definition for what constitutes morality, and I would argue that the foundation upon which to build that definition is the concept of suffering. It’s quite simple: actions that create suffering are immoral; those that do not are neutral; and those that relieve, mitigate, or alleviate suffering ought to be considered the apex of our new morality.

“But,” you might argue, “that is how we define morality!” If that’s so, then humanity has proven itself an immoral species, because it not only seems to delight in the creation of suffering, both to others of its own species and to the sentient life with which it shares an existence, but imposes political systems, religions, and social structures to perpetuate that suffering. Think of all the activities that vast stretches of society—even the supposedly “enlightened” and “humanistic” Western ones—deem “immoral” even though no suffering is created by them, all the putatively “right” ones that are destroying our planet and sending despair and anguish rippling through human hearts. There is no rational way to argue that a man loving another man, and manifesting that love sexually, is creating suffering. (And, to head off any nonsensical, bigoted arguments, revulsion does not constitute suffering, except that said revulsion is, for the revulsed person, a spiritual disease.)

But to deny those two men the right to express their love is, verily, to create suffering. To treat humans with suspicion or antipathy because of the color of their skin, the land they or their forebears came from, the cultural garb they wear, or the gods they pray to (or lack thereof), is to create suffering. And to turn a blind eye to the sociopolitical and economic systems that codify that discrimination, to blithely rationalize it while profiting from it, is to perpetuate that suffering.

In the preface to the essay anthology The Transhumanist Reader, and again in her handbook Transhumanism: What is it?, Natasha Vita-More notes that transhumanism originated as a worldview advocating the ethical use of technological and scientific advancement for the improvement and enhancement of humanity (transhuman-ism, or “beyond human”), but also as a new philosophy, a modernization of Enlightenment Humanism (trans-humanism, “beyond humanism”) taking into account new discoveries in fields like neuroscience, quantum physics, and the like, presenting a bulwark against the monopoly of postmodernism in academia but not, explicitly, a rejection of it, and even an affirmation of some of its principles. As transhumanism permeates the popular consciousness, so too does it evolve. And, I would argue, it isn’t finished.

Because, if our species is to undergo a transcendence, it must begin with our souls (if such phenomena indeed exist), our conscience. Before we start thinking about merging minds with machines, we’d best fix those frayed algorithms in our heads. Before we chase radical life extension, let’s build a world worth living a thousand years in. Let’s call it the Moral Singularity. Is it achievable? Not now, maybe not before Ray Kurzweil’s 2045 prediction of a technological singularity. But in time, yes, I think it is. Perhaps I’m an incurable optimist, even a bit delusional. And, no, I don’t think “technology will solve our problems.” That’s a naïve assertion, and one dreadfully lacking in nuance. Technology is a tool; just as one can use an axe to chop wood for the family’s winter fire, so too can one use that axe to chop off his neighbor’s head and steal his firewood. The correct statement is this: I believe humans can, should—and verily, must—make use of technology as a tool to solve its problems and diminish suffering. If, as the character of Nerses Nouskajian in my novel Aethyr, I may be so bold, I dare say technology is the channel to humankind’s apotheosis. But only if we utilize it wisely and justly. Only if we escape the moral quagmire we’re drowning in.

Yes, humanity is broken. But I refuse to believe it’s damaged beyond repair.

© 2019 Sean E. Kellly