Enhancing oneself through the use of cybernetic technology is becoming a real possibility for humankind. Through advancements in cybernetics, one can potentially transform oneself into a different sort of being. But what are the ethical implications of such a transformation? If ethics is based on one’s nature, will post-human “cyborgs” operate under a different standard of ethics? Can one rationally choose to become a different sort of being? In this paper, I briefly examine the issue of whether post-human ethics is indeed possible, and also whether a human can rationally choose to become a cyborg.
I will begin by discussing the meaning of the word “cyborg”, which can be defined in many ways. The word is short for “cybernetic organism”, meaning a combination of information technology and living matter. In popular culture and science fiction, this can mean any living being that has been integrated with any sort of technology; for example, a computer containing microorganisms, a child with immunizations, or a man wearing glasses would count as a cyborg in this very broad sense. But, of course, “information technology” usually refers to computing devices, so these examples are not really cyborgs in the usual sense. In this essay, I will simply specify that a cyborg is a human who has undergone the physical addition of mechanical parts – whether computing parts or not – such that they are integrated with the human’s biological body. Thus, a human who has been augmented with computer technology is a cyborg in my sense, and so is a human with prosthetic limbs which he or she can control directly.
At first glance, it seems that the addition of mechanical parts to the human body will not result in a being with a different nature. For example, if I have my leg amputated and I wear a prosthetic leg, I doubt that anyone would consider me to be inhuman. I believe that this would still be true if I were to attach a prosthetic leg that I can control as if it were my original leg. When we see a cyborg in science fiction, however, with all robotic limbs and laser eyes, there seems to be something unnatural and even menacing about it. In fact, it seems better to call such a thing “it” rather than “him” or “her”. It seems important, therefore, to examine the extent or nature of the change that transforms a human into a cyborg in the ethically relevant sense.
The potential for a change in human nature is important to ethics, because ethics is relative to human nature. Aristotle, amongst others, has argued that ethics is intimately related to human nature, and this connection is apparent in almost any ethical theory. Both Kantians and Utilitarians, for instance, would generally agree that the way a human should act is not the same as the way a dog or an insect or a chair should “act” (or even whether it makes sense to say that such beings should act, ethically speaking, in any way at all). Thus, for any ethical theory, we must ask whether the way a human should act is the same as the way a cyborg should act. Since what one should do is relative to human nature, it seems that a change in one’s nature could necessitate a change in one’s ethics.
Of course, how one might transition from one sort of ethics to another is not obvious. In “Transcending Humanity”, Martha Nussbaum claims that a human cannot possibly choose to become nonhuman. Something that is not a human might not have the virtues of a human, and thus a new life as a different sort of thing cannot fit into the context of my life as a human. Suppose that I am a human who is courageous, loyal and physically powerful, and that for a cyborg these traits are not virtues. Can I then, as a human, choose to become such a thing? Would the prospect of living such a life have any meaning for me while I am still a human? What Nussbaum suggests is that if transcending humanity would cause one’s nature to change, then one would have no context within which to choose such a life.
So what reason could we possibly have to become “more than” human? In the article “Playing God: Technological Hubris in Literature and Philosophy”, Richard Volkman shows that we humans have an imperative to transcend our limits. He demonstrates that it is in our nature to try to become greater than we are, even to the extent of becoming godlike. This shows that we can have a reason, consistent with our nature, to become something other than human. He also shows that technology is the means by which we become greater than we are. This suggests that the use of cybernetic technology for transcendence of humanity is not just a possibility, but an inevitability.
It follows that ethics based upon human nature must be open to reasons for becoming something that is nonhuman. If becoming cyborgs is an inevitable part of our future, which will come about through human choices, then it is absurd to think that ethics will not apply to such choices. Even if the transition from human to cyborg is not inevitable, it seems to be a natural part of the human condition to desire such a transformation.
Nussbaum, Martha. “Transcending Humanity”. In her book Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Oxford University Press, 1990.
Volkman, Richard. “Playing God: Technological Hubris in Literature and Philosophy”. Proceedings of ETHICOMP2001, Gdansk, Poland.