Radically Transformative Virtue Ethics

by John Holbo on January 23, 2019

I have an idea that there is sort of a hole in the ethics literature. I could be wrong! So tell me where I’m wrong.

The idea is this: transhumanism is virtue ethics. But no one seems to call it that. “Man remaining man, but transcending himself.” That’s Huxley, introducing transhumanism, and it specifies a delicate virtue balance to be maintained, if I make no mistake. Yet ‘virtue ethics’ is associated with conservative opposition to this sort of radical change option. (Here is Steve Fuller saying so. Not that him saying so proves it is so. But he says exactly what I expect lots of people to say, and it was the first Google hit.)

It’s like there’s this open question: what sort of people should there be? [Amazon – damn, Glover used to offer it free from his personal site, but it appears to have evaporated.] And ‘virtue ethics’ names only views that answer conservatively. Virtue ethics says: the sort we’ve already got. A subset of that.

Why not also call it ‘virtue ethics’ if the answer is: some new sort we haven’t got yet?

It isn’t mysterious that virtue ethics is associated with conservative attitudes towards virtue, given its connection with natural law thinking and grumpy old After Virtue and a bunch of other stuff. But that ought to be regarded as a contingent link.

Glover has an epigraph from Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men:

“To romance of the future may seem to be indulgence in ungoverned speculation for the sake of the marvellous. Yet controlled imagination in this sphere can be a very valuable exercise for minds bewildered about the present and its potentialities. Today we should welcome, and even study, every serious attempt to envisage the future of our race; not merely in order to grasp the very diverse and often tragic possibilities that confront us, but also that we may familiarize ourselves with the certainty that many of our most cherished ideals would seem puerile to more developed minds. To romance of the far future, then, is to attempt to see the human race in its cosmic setting, and to mould our hearts to entertain new values.”

What a weird book, Last and First Men. But you know what it’s about? Virtue ethics. It’s about what sort of men there should be. The advantages and disadvantages of different sorts of men for life. The ‘cherished ideals’ that are experimentally challenged, on behalf of other hypothetical prospects, are ideals of virtue: what might constitute flourishing life?

Sorry about leaving you out, ladies! That’s a mistake that proves Stapledon’s larger point. There he was, trying to romance in the craziest way possible, yet it’s still ‘men’, all down the line. In his defense, the final generation is so crazy, you can’t say he didn’t think outside the box:

“The most advanced humans of all, essentially a perfected version of the 17th species. A race of philosophers and artists with a very liberal sexual morality. “Superficially we seem to be not one species but many.” (One interesting aspect of the Eighteenth Men is that they have a number of different “sub-genders,” variants on the basic male and female pattern, with distinctive temperaments. The Eighteenth Men’s equivalent of the family unit includes one of each of these sub-genders and is the basis of their society. The units have the ability to act as a group mind, which eventually leads to the establishment of a single group mind uniting the entire species.). This species no longer died naturally, but only by accident, suicide or being killed.”

You might object that these aren’t very controlled thought-experiments. But I think you have to grant that, in spirit, it’s not Jeremy Bentham’s mummified corpse blasted into space, to float over every subsequent generation, providing normative guidance – or Kant. We should imagine these ‘men’ in action, living their lives, so as to judge whether that seems like ‘flourishing’, or else an awful wrong turn or dead-end. (See also: H.G. Wells, The Time Machine. And a ton of other, later SF.)

The reason why a lot of weird SF works well as fiction is because it’s loose experiments in weird virtue ethics.

Two last points. Fukayama, denouncing transhumanism. “Transhumanism’s advocates think they understand what constitutes a good human being, and they are happy to leave behind the limited, mortal, natural beings they see around them in favor of something better. But do they really comprehend ultimate human goods?”

This sounds like a classic description of virtue ethics. The philosopher – call him Aristotle – presumes to be able to recognize a good human being, when he sees one. He doesn’t have some ultimate, Platonic or Benthamic benchmark, the Form of the Good, against which he measures this solid, good fellow!

Is that so dangerous? To think you know a good man – or woman – when you see one?

Final point. When Andrea Long Chu wrote an op-ed about how her new vagina won’t make her happy, there was a big, conservative freak-out about how twisted it was that she thinks she should be able to opt for this surgery even if she doesn’t have a doctor’s note, testifying that her hedonic levels are likely to rise, not fall, after the operation (or whatever the note should say.) But one of the core concepts of virtue ethics is that flourishing shouldn’t be mistaken for bare hedonics, or even preference satisfaction. (And one of the stock horrors of modern ethics is supposed to be handing these life decisions to doctors, with their hedono-meters, or whatever.) Chu’s idea – right or wrong – is that she can’t flourish any other way. This is the kind of life she needs to live, let the happiness chips fall where they may. That is a perfectly familiar, virtue-ethics-y sort of thought. Yet virtue ethics is associated with conservative opposition to radically transformative ideas about … virtue.

So that’s a weird way to restrict use of ‘virtue ethics’.

There’s no way this hasn’t been pointed out already. Everyone knows Nietzsche is kinda virtue-ethics-y, and his Overman isn’t exactly a conservative option, transformatively. No one thinks progressives can’t possibly engage in virtue-signalling, because ‘virtue’ is for conservatives. But a lot of the talk about virtue ethics seems to skew presumptively conservative. Like the only models have to be actual, not merely possible.

Who has written about this?



Scott P. 01.23.19 at 5:56 am

Am working my way through “The Last and First Men”. A very remarkable book. Dated in many ways, its ambition is breathtaking, and there are a lot of really interesting ideas. I feel it clearly influenced later writers like Asimov and Niven. Also my new candidate for most unfilmable science-fiction novel of all time (beating out “Foundation”).


Adam Roberts 01.23.19 at 7:51 am

Isn’t Nietzsche the first transhumanist? I mean, quite specifically according to his own philosophy but also in the broader cultural sense that he’s to whom eg Simon and Schuster look when they want a name for their transhuman. Seems odd to bracket Nieztsche with virtue ethics. But what do I know?


John Holbo 01.23.19 at 8:07 am

“Isn’t Nietzsche the first transhumanist?” Nah, you’re thinking of Jesus.


John Holbo 01.23.19 at 8:08 am

Who the hell knows?

But why do you think it’s strange to call Nietzsche ‘virtue ethics’? Just because it’s associated with natural law stuff?


nastywoman 01.23.19 at 8:31 am

”The philosopher – call him Aristotle – presumes to be able to recognize a good human being, when he sees one”.

Sorry that I believed -(at the Hitler-Baby-Threat) – that –
”it is one of the easiest thing in life to identify narrow minded morons and a…holes or generally ”terrible people” on first side –
WE not only pretend to know –
We ALL know” –

That might have been a… mistake? –
And only ”Philosophers”
know everything –
about this ‘virtue ethics’ – thing?
-(and it even… rhymes?)


SusanC 01.23.19 at 8:41 am

That was a reaaly interesting post.

In both Christianity and Buddhism, thete’s an idea that we can recognize good when we see it. (And in the Buddhist variant, our ability to recognize the good when we see it suggests that we have the potential to be good).

But … what if we are fundamentally mistaken about what the good is? Maybe we all ought to be maximizing the amount of nutmeg. (Cf. Kendall Walton) Attempting to deduce what the good is starting from the axioms of Euclidean geometry ain’t going to work. (Cf Plato’s Meno, Wittgenstein)


Roland Papp 01.23.19 at 9:15 am

Existentialism, I believe, already lays claim on philosophies related to redefining what man can be on radical new grounds. But of course if you argue that this transformation brings about universal virtues, which are to be accepted by all men, as the foundation of morality, and that the good is solely defined by what these newly virtuous men please to do, and your argument is sound, then sure. The fact that transhumanism aims at creating better men, if “better” is defined on some other grounds than the character of men, it is not virtue ethics. “What sort of men should there be” is not the right question. “On what grounds should I decide what sort of men are better” is.


J-D 01.23.19 at 10:15 am

Maybe we all ought to be maximizing the amount of nutmeg.

If the aim is to kill everybody, why proceed in such a roundabout fashion?


Phil 01.23.19 at 10:17 am

IANAP, but it seems to me that one big part of Aristotle’s approach is to take endoxa – common knowledge, received ideas, the kind of thing his audience was already thinking – and try to make sense of it/them, discarding contradictions and putting received ideas of virtue into some kind of order. So his project (and those which follow on from it) certainly “skews conservative”, in the sense that it asks what tends to promote human flourishing given what we (he and his audience) know about what it is to be human and given what we already assume about what it is to flourish.

But then, if those two provisos amount to a conservative skew, we’re all conservatives. Aristotle believed that slaves were subhuman and that women were inferior to men; we know that those beliefs are flat wrong, which means that our set of givens about the nature of being human is different from (and better than) his. We still have givens & refer back to them. Flourishing, same thing: Andrea Long Chu’s assertion of a human right to “the negative passions — grief, self-loathing, shame, regret” is precisely a challenge to her audience’s assumptions about what constitutes flourishing.

In short, I think your argument is drifting between “here’s how we can flourish, given that both ‘we’ and ‘flourish’ already mean something different from what they mean in your Dad’s virtue ethics” and “here’s how we could flourish, if we were different from how we are and if ‘flourish’ consequently meant something different”. But the first of these is virtue ethics but not transhumanism (AFAICS), and the second is transhumanism but not virtue ethics.

And now I need to stop, because the word ‘flourish’ is starting to look really weird.


John Holbo 01.23.19 at 10:50 am

Phil, your point is reasonable but doesn’t seem (to me) to contradict mine. It is totally understandable that a lot of conceptions of virtue ethics – a lot of methods – skew conservative. As to Chu and negative passions: well, I don’t know that it is even such a challenge, construed broadly. “Man does not seek happiness, only the Englishman seeks that.” Or however Nietzsche put it. The idea that life is strife and suffering and necessary turmoil. I’m not saying Chu is a Nietzschean. But the idea that you are picking a path in life – some identity you want to be yours – and you aren’t doing it because you think it will make you ‘happy’, per se, doesn’t seem all that strange or brain-bending even. Because virtue ethics isn’t all that strange. The idea that your life needs to contain certain elements to be complete. Not feelings but things – events, patterns. Aristotle would not have admitted that eudaimonia could be miserable. But the idea that a good life could yet be a sad one is not so paradoxical. Anyway, it wasn’t Chu’s point that she would be more miserable, so it’s not exactly like she’s wallowing in it. It’s like: if sunshine and happiness aren’t on the table, I’ll take identity and a sense of authenticity and meaning. Something like that.

Roland makes a good point about how existentialism horns in at this point. Isn’t existentialism virtue ethics now? Admittedly we are suffering a hazardous degree of conceptual spread. But I think existentialism – often, not always – falls more in the post-Kant line. Freedom.


Raven Onthill 01.23.19 at 11:20 am

Not sure I follow the entire question (I have just worn myself out being a tourist and serious concentration is beyond me) but it does strike me that Graydon Saunders, in his on-going Commonweal series of novels, addresses the question of “What sort of people should there be?” but he is a strong consequentialist, or perhaps is working with these ideas in dialogue.


M Caswell 01.23.19 at 11:25 am

Some medieval writers thought they could read off of given, Aristotelian human nature certain capacities and activities we didn’t have, but ought to have. And from this, they inferred that God would grant us these perfections through grace. This is what happens when the blessed ascend to paradise, but even more so when their bodies are resurrected and glorified.

It’s more a case of radically perfecting nature, rather than swapping out a given nature for a preferable one, but it is virtue ethics, I think, and certainly transhuman.


Phil 01.23.19 at 11:53 am

I’m not exactly disagreeing with you, John – I think you (and ALC) have some powerful & challenging points, but they mostly remain within virtue ethics; you (and she) are just expanding the circle of endoxa. Admittedly, the argument takes a bit of a turn when the stock of “received ideas of what is right” is opened up to include the liberal idea that every individual is the best judge of what is right for her, which is where ALC seems to be going with her reference to “bare want”. But we can (if we want) avoid that turn by interpreting her argument – as you do – as counterposing the virtue of “authenticity and meaning” to the less compelling positive of a mere absence of discomfort, or even a mere absence of self-loathing and shame. (Alternatively, we could just say that we live in a world where “every individual is the best judge of what is right for her” is a received idea of the right, and whaddayagonnado. Not sure how much could be saved of virtue ethics on that assumption, though.)

Anyway, I think my point to begin with was that the transhumanist thing is a red herring, and takes you somewhere you don’t need to go – and, philosophically speaking, can’t go; we’re all human here. If a posthuman could speak, we couldn’t understand it/him/her/them.


Shimon Edelman 01.23.19 at 12:55 pm

Both ethics and transhumanism are central concerns of the best Eastern European sci-fi: the works of Stanisław Lem and of the Strugatsky brothers. In much of it, the bottom line, such as it is, seems to be in line with Phil’s closing remark: “If a posthuman could speak, we couldn’t understand it/him/her/them.”


SusanC 01.23.19 at 2:36 pm

Suppose we take as a premise that there have been so far only a small number of Buddhas. A project that envisages that someday everyone might be enlightnesed is a kind of transhumanism.

Maybe the disagreement is just about what means are acceptable to achieve this end.


Sophie Jane 01.23.19 at 2:46 pm

@Phil If a posthuman could speak, we couldn’t understand it/him/her/them.

And yet we’re able to communicate with cats and dogs to a significant extent – or even with wild animals, if you want examples that don’t get us hung up on the questions of domestication. Which is to say that I think this is a bit of cop out – or at least a case of human-exceptionalism.


oldster 01.23.19 at 3:29 pm

I think I disagree?

Classical virtue ethicists have a view about what’s explanatorily prior to what. Virtuous *behavior* is virtuous because it is the way that virtuous *people* behave: the character-type is explanatorily prior to the action-type. And virtuous character or disposition is virtuous because objects of the kind in question have a particular function: the function of a knife is to cut, so a virtuous knife will be one of such a character or disposition as to cut *well*. A virtuous human will be one of such a character or disposition as to perform the human function *well*. And one knife is a *better* knife than another knife, if it is better at cutting, if it more completely performs the function of a knife.

Can we push it back a further step, and ask what explains the knife’s having the function of cutting, or the human’s having the function of living in this way rather than that? Not much, according to the classical picture, and perhaps not at all: the functions so specified are partly or wholly definitive of the kind-terms so specified. Having the function of cutting is simply what it is to be a knife (most of what it is, or all of what it is); having the function of living that way (pointing at a virtuous person’s life) is simply (most of/all of) what it is to be a human being. The explanatory chain bottoms out in the kind-term and its essence.

“But we could build better human beings! Or things better *than* human beings, that are in some sense recognizably successors to them!”

Sure, knock yourself out. But note that the word “better” here can no longer be the virtue-ethical term. We can judge one knife to be better than another, because we hold fixed the definition of knives and their function, and assess their performance with respect to that function. All virtue-ethical applications of “good,” “better,” and so on are kind-relative, and presuppose the function against which the performance is assessed.

But if you attempt to judge between kinds, then you either produce nonsense (“this sonata is better than this knife!”) or you produce good sense, by using the term in a non-virtue-ethical way: perhaps the sonata is more productive of pleasure than the knife is. That’s a perfectly comprehensible sense of “better.” But it’s a hedonistic one, rather than a virtue-ethical one.

So too with the claim that we could create a better human, or a new animal better than humans. That’s a perfectly comprehensible claim, provided that we are using “better” in a non-virtue-ethical way.

You know all this, John, better than I do, since you actually study and teach that lot (that’s one of your functions). So I mention it only to suggest that you should probably redescribe your project. It sounds to me as though you want a non-virtue-ethical foundation for the stage at which you design your successor species. And then once you have a newly-defined species with its own essence and function, you can return to using a virtue-ethical “better” for judging between members of the species and judging their actions.

I, for instance, would like the successors to humans to have wings as well as feet, because flying will produce a great deal of pleasure and utility. But were I a virtue-ethicist, then I would think it nonsense to say that current humans are *vicious* for our inability to fly, or that we would be more *virtuous* humans if we could fly, or that we would be *better* performing the function of humans if we could fly. Flying is no part of the function of humans at all, so being able to do it well is not a virtue of humans. Among the better-than-humans, some will be better fliers than others. That second “better” is virtue-ethical; that first one cannot be.

But I have been speaking out of turn, and should leave it to my betters to correct me.


ccc 01.23.19 at 3:32 pm

@John Holby OP: “But that ought to be regarded as a contingent link.”

Agree, but isn’t it already? Moral philosophy textbooks seem to characterize the core of virtue ethics quite thinly and not as a necessarily conservative view. Similarly see https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/

But maybe I’m wrong. If I am then here is a thread for you to pull: Elizabeth Anscombe was both conservative and often given credit for kicking off the modern revival of virtue ethics with her 1958 “Modern Moral Philosophy”.

Another thought: it might be worth taking a comparative look at the trajectory of “dignity” in relation to transhumanism. Since some tend to assume “dignity” is an conservative-laden notion. There is a lot of interesting writings on transhumanism and dignity from around 10 years ago, in the wake of Leon Kass and the President’s Council on Bioethics.
Some links: Nick Bostrom https://nickbostrom.com/ethics/dignity.html and the Council’s report with essays https://bioethicsarchive.georgetown.edu/pcbe/reports/human_dignity/index.html I’d say Bostrom and others at the time did a quite good job reclaiming (or co-claiming, or de-exclusivizing if those were words) “dignity” to make it fit with transhumanism.


LFC 01.23.19 at 4:40 pm

One of the few things I know (or thought I knew) about virtue ethics is that Murdoch is associated with it, and she wasn’t a conservative; it’s true that she also wasn’t a radical (of the left variety) except for a few years in her youth.


Timquick 01.23.19 at 6:29 pm

So, at least some virtue ethicists say this much (Nussbaum, at least), that their account of virtue is specifically virtue for humans limited in the many ways we are – for example, mortal – and that immortals might well have different virtues and vices. The trouble, I have, is that realistic transhumanism isn’t likely to be uber-transy. For example, we have extended human life a lot already and no doubt will extend it further, but the idea that in the next, I don’t know, say, 1,000 years, we will produce immortal people, seems, again, I don’t know?, preposterous? And there just is no shortage of ethicists dealing with the ethics of people leading longer lives. I don’t see anything wrong with transhumanists’ virtue ethics, in other words, but, I suspect, it will be even less relevant in the conceivable future than, say, the ethics of AIs making first contact with aliens.But I am always interested in what you have to say, John. So, thanks as always.


Gareth Wilson 01.23.19 at 9:13 pm

In the film Tommorowland, a child invents a personal jetpack and is asked what its purpose is. He doesn’t claim any practical application, just that seeing a person fly past wearing it would convince people the world was an amazing place. I always thought there was a flaw in that reasoning.


mpowell 01.23.19 at 9:15 pm

I think I have a similar take as Timquick here. I agree with John that there does seem to be a gap, but maybe this corresponds to a lack of demand/need? Since we can’t really do much do make humans much different (for now), how many arguments in this direction are really needed? There are plenty of arguments for transitioning transgender people and then you have the people on the other side of that argument as well.


Gareth Wilson 01.23.19 at 10:45 pm

Number 21 was supposed to be a reply to number 17.


John Holbo 01.23.19 at 10:53 pm

“Sure, knock yourself out. But note that the word “better” here can no longer be the virtue-ethical term. We can judge one knife to be better than another, because we hold fixed the definition of knives and their function, and assess their performance with respect to that function. All virtue-ethical applications of “good,” “better,” and so on are kind-relative, and presuppose the function against which the performance is assessed.

But if you attempt to judge between kinds, then you either produce nonsense (“this sonata is better than this knife!”) or you produce good sense, by using the term in a non-virtue-ethical way: perhaps the sonata is more productive of pleasure than the knife is. That’s a perfectly comprehensible sense of “better.” But it’s a hedonistic one, rather than a virtue-ethical one.”

I don’t really agree. I think we need to consider what happens when – as H.G. Wells put it – ‘the frame gets into the picture’. The picture is a portrait of a handsome, winning fellow (let’s say.) But what if the world is changing – the frame? Then what is virtuous changes. I agree with your sketch of what virtue ethics involves. Character-type explanatorily prior to action-type. Virtue ethics for a changing world won’t be like your great-great-great-grandpa’s virtue ethics.


PatinIowa 01.23.19 at 11:08 pm

Holbo @ 3 “Nah, you’re thinking of Jesus.”

Nah, you’re thinking of Plato:

“…when he looks at Beauty in the only way that Beauty can be seen – only then will it become possible for him to give birth not to images of virtue (because he’s in touch with no images), but to true virtue [arete] (because he is in touch with true Beauty). The love of the gods belongs to anyone who has given to true virtue and nourished it, and if any human being could become immortal, it would be he.”
― The Symposium


John Holbo 01.23.19 at 11:41 pm

Maybe we’re thinking of Eve.


Jonathan Burns 01.23.19 at 11:45 pm

Unless you become as a little child you’ll think you know the answers already, or you’ll have dismissed the answers as fraudulent and resigned yourself to banality.

What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a question that science fiction addresses more seriously than any non-transcendent, mimetic literature, when it bothers.

You ask the question, and they hand you a menu, tinker tailor, soldier, sailor. Or a dollhouse. But that isn’t quite the answer you hoped for. You see all these adults around you and you listen. They are serious, they are engaged, they are part of something important, they speak compellingly in terms you barely comprehend. They have dignity, mastery, glamour, ambition; above all, they are adult.

Marriage as an example. Married people have passed through a rite into a new state. They have solved the mystery of the opposite sex, through love. They are making their own home. They will be parents, they will be part of the human continuity. Or, maybe you’ve recoiled from the bitterness of miserable marriages you’ve seen, and want to create a radical alternative. But the positive example still captivates most young minds at some point.

If this feeling of adulthood as an enchantment is virtue ethics, then it’s virtue that you are fiercely motivated to learn. If it points to deontology, to the realities of the grown-up condition, then you want to learn that too.

Thomas M. Disch once wrote off SF as a branch of children’s literature. As a Catholic he should have been ready for the riposte, “Yeah, and religion too”

Now I used to hang around on Orion’s Arm, a transhumanist worldbuilding site. They were dead serious. Their keynote was supercession of humanity by AI and post-human entities. The initative would no longer be ours, we would be incidental to incomprehensible purposes. My response, when they asked for feedback, was that there was too much 1950s utilitarianism in what most posters were contributing. Where was the cleverness, the seductive power, the firmer grasp on truth, the adulthood of all those striving, Dyson-sphere-building titans?

See, I’m not buying that higher-level virtue would be incomprehensible. We have built into us an instinct to emulate adulthood, and a capacity for enchantment with it. We would not simply hit the wall of transcendent purpose and bounce. We’d keep trying. And transcendent beings, well able to understand us, would find ways to engage with the attempt.

I wouldn’t claim that we always appreciate virtue when we see it. But if we never did, then rationality would have to do all the work of ethical formation, from childhood on. When I think how ridiculous that it, I also see how it’s ridiculous to oppose rationalism and the virtue ethics, as if one side should win. It’s obvious that parents teach their children good behaviour and rationality together, as well as opening their eyes to the facts of the world.


Matt 01.24.19 at 12:00 am

And virtuous character or disposition is virtuous because objects of the kind in question have a particular function: the function of a knife is to cut, so a virtuous knife will be one of such a character or disposition as to cut *well*. A virtuous human will be one of such a character or disposition as to perform the human function *well*. And one knife is a *better* knife than another knife, if it is better at cutting, if it more completely performs the function of a knife.

If I read this correctly, the most virtuous knife would be a Culture knife missile.

By extension, the most virtuous human would be an agent of Special Circumstances.

Yes, I think that’s correct.


nastywoman 01.24.19 at 2:44 am

– and about this ”vagina-thing” – and as the 17th century was mentioned – here is the suggestion (again) ”watching” –
(less ”reading”) –
– the Favourite where the vagina of Queen Anne gets some nice treatments – which isn’t the only reason a lot of (American) viewers ask about ”Transformative Virtue Ethics”.

Like – was there something like ”being gay – or ”a Lesbian” in the 17th century? –
and was it… ”bad” – or NOT virtues?

– and I would love to post a picture but how is that done here?
– especially since a historian -(or was it a Psychotrist?) answered the question by explaining that it might be the wrong question as – in the 17th century ”women giving nice treatments to other women vaginas” wasn’t necessarily associated with any type of ”virtue ethics” –
(or any type of ”moral or immorality” stuff) –

It was just done when it was convenient – like servicing some male or other human – (or even ”nonhuman”) parts.

And how… ”transformative” – without getting transformed into our current (still ”verklemmte”) reality – at all?


oldster 01.24.19 at 2:56 am

JH: “But what if the world is changing – the frame? Then what is virtuous changes.”

We’re in total agreement on that point. If we shift our attention from knives to gas-cookers, then what is virtuous changes, from cutting-ability to heating-ability. So too, if we shift our attention from humans to frogs, then what is virtuous changes, from rationality (let’s pretend) to the ability to hop and catch flies.

And so too, if we shift our attention from the human species to some successor species, then what is virtuous for that successor will be different from what is virtuous for humans. If we can make the shift slowly enough that there is the appearance, not of replacing one species with a distinct species, but of the slow alteration of an underlying continuant species, then it will also appear that one virtue has not been replaced by another, but rather that some continuant virtue has been altered. I agree with all that.

What I am asking is rather this: in what sense can you say that the successor species is *better* than the present species? Or that the actions of its members are *better* than the actions of some humans today? And I answer: in the same sense that one can say that a really excellent frog is better than a really excellent human being, or a knife. Which is to say, in some non-virtue-ethical sense (or no sense at all, nonsense, if you restrict yourself to virtue ethical assessments.)

Sorry to be repeating myself, and sorry to be tiresome.


Kiwanda 01.24.19 at 5:01 am

As too often happens, I don’t quite understand the point of the OP. What does a theory of normative ethics that “emphasizes the virtues, or moral character”, have to do with “the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations”? What constitutes a good person doesn’t seem closely related to the question of whether we can get wings, or a spare heart, or live indefinitely, or chlorophyll in our skin. The sense in which Andrea Long Chu’s life improves after transition, even if it isn’t *happier*, doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with whether she is a good person or not.

I understand this a little better if the transhumanism is restricted to “evolving beyond our current moral character”, something like enlightenment being available in pill form, although not really.

But the question “what sort of people should there be?” is already difficult enough without superbrains around. Cochlear implants apparently are most effective when used by children far too young to make a choice about them; but do deaf people really need “fixing”? I have the impression that hormone treatments assisting transition are more effective pre-puberty; is this a choice children should be making for themselves? Suppose a magic pill were invented which simply removed gender dysphoria; I would hope that taking such a pill would be regarded as a choice for a person to make for themselves, but I wonder if the existence of such a pill would be universally regarded as a good thing.


Jared Harris 01.24.19 at 7:58 am

Fascinating discussion. Lacking historical knowledge of this part of philosophy, a naive question occurs to me: Where does the virtue / function of the knife or frog come from?

The function of knives is chosen / judged by us so can be called “derived”. The virtue of the frog is defined by its success in filling its niche(s) so can be called “original” or “ecological”.

We don’t stably fit into either of these. Our virtues / functions were defined by our niches but we’ve (collectively) gotten so powerful that we now have to take responsibility for controlling how we affect those niches; they can no longer define our virtues. And treating people “as means merely” is the antithesis of virtue but improving self and others is certainly virtuous — in many ways our function.

Transcending our origins and previous understandings of our own virtue / function has become a *necessary* part of our virtue. Aristotle would have considered attempting to control the climate to be hubris but now rejecting that option has become self-indulgence. We must be prepared to continually transcend our self-definitions, or we will fail as the stewards of our fate.

None of which tells us what our self-transcending virtue / function *should be* or even *could be*. But I read Holbo not as expecting us to have that answer, but rather looking for work that may eventually propose answers.


oldster 01.24.19 at 3:18 pm

In order to avoid repeating myself, I’ll try a different tack. My hope is that it will prompt you to say more about why you find the comparison to virtue ethics illuminating.

“It’s like there’s this open question: what sort of people should there be?…. And ‘virtue ethics’ names only views that answer conservatively. Virtue ethics says: the sort we’ve already got.”

The question, “what should people be like?” is ambiguous between a question about a species and a question about individuals. It might be asked of the species (how should the human species be configured?) Or it might be asked of individuals (what should Pat be like? What should Shelly be like?).

As I had understood it, virtue ethics only asks the question of individuals. And its answer (sc. “Pat should be like the fullest, most perfect manifestation/instantiation of the human species”) relies for its content and coherence on scrupulously avoiding the species question. We have to pretend that the species-question is settled in order to answer the individual-question.

It’s not that virtue ethics asks the question, “what should the human species be like?,” and then answers it conservatively. Rather, it never asks that question at all. It only asks, “what should the human individual be like?”

Differing answers to *that* question are then treated, by virtue ethics, as competing factual claims about a (roughly) scientific question. Asking whether a virtuous human life requires monogamy or polyamory is structurally analogous to asking whether the giraffe needs to ingest Vitamin B6 or can synthesize it endogenously. It’s not a request for new design proposals; there is already a fact of the matter, which sufficient knowledge of the species will reveal.

Conservative and revisionary answers within virtue ethics (e.g. “there must be male/female family units!” vs. “we must have compulsory polyamory and communal creches for the offspring!”) then boil down to methodological disputes about anthropology; how to do the empirical research, what counts as evidence, what counts as refutation of a hypothesis, when were allegedly decisive experiments actually confounded by extraneous factors, etc.. The conservative side says that history has shown that The Way We Have Always Done It is the true guide to our natures; the revisionary side insists that historical contingencies have led us to misunderstand human nature.

Good lord. Even I find me boring. I’ll stop now.


David Duffy 01.25.19 at 10:57 am

“What to man is the ape,” says Zarathustra, ” a joke, and a sore shame; so shall man be to Beyond Man, a joke, and a sore shame.” We can set no limit to human potentialities; all that is best in man can be bettered ; it is not a question merely of producing a highly efficient industrial machine, or a paragon of the negative virtues, but of quickening all the distinctively human features, all that is best in men, all the different qualities, some obvious, some infinitely subtle, which we recognise as humanly excellent.
…eugenics comes at an appropriate time, when our civilisation is already sadly
acknowledging that the great bar to progress lies in human imperfection; for the first time it is made possible that humanity itself may improve as rapidly as its environment.



Anarcissie 01.25.19 at 4:52 pm

A lot of this strikes me as idolatry. Some build idols out of sticks and stones, others out of piles of words. You don’t get to say what ‘Man’ or ‘human’ or ‘the Good’ is, in an absolute sense, because you don’t have the capacity. Unless you’re in direct, instantaneous, two-way communication with the gods, or something like that. But if not….


Lobsterman 01.28.19 at 5:02 am

Isn’t the fundamental belief of conservatism that some of us are people and some of us are not?

Seems like that’d thread the needle of virtue ethics. Women aren’t people, non-cisgendered people aren’t people, they can’t have virtue.

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