Technology and the Limits of Humanity

The Ethics and Anthropology of Posthumanism

Brief summary

Technological development has started to interfere explicitly with human nature. Technologies like biotechnology, brain implants, and enhancement technologies make it possible to reshape humanity in various ways. These ‘posthumanist’ developments are highly contested, though. The current discussion about posthumanism is dominated by two positions. The utopian transhumanist movement explicitly welcomes the enhancement of homo sapiens as an inevitable step in human evolution, while dystopian defendants of human dignity fiercely oppose all attempts to fiddle with human nature. These positions find themselves in a deadlock, however, which impedes proper moral discussion. Peter Sloterdijk’s proposal, e.g., to start thinking about how to use the new ‘anthropotechnologies’ properly, rather than opposing them and placing humanity outside the realm of technology, was immediately rejected as fascist.

Time seems ripe to find a way out of this deadlock. Technological development urges us to ask ourselves how to deal with posthumanist technologies in a responsible way. And for answering this question, we need to develop a better understanding of the posthuman being we might become, and better moral frameworks to deal with this. Therefore, this research project will elaborate an anthropology and ethics of the posthuman.

To accomplish this, the project will connect posthumanism to the philosophy of technology, taking it out of the realm of science-fiction and also including everyday technological mediations of human practices and experiences which help to shape what it means to be human. Second, the project will augment the current debate with earlier critiques of humanism and approaches to the human being in philosophical anthropology and the humanist tradition. Third, the project will contribute to the ethics of posthumanism by expanding Foucault’s ‘ethics of life’ – which focuses on subject constitution – to a framework relevant for dealing with posthumanist technologies and with the urgent question of what we will make of humanity.


- philosophy of technology

- posthumanism

- ethics of technology

- philosophical anthropology

- technological mediation

1. Research Topic

Introduction: Contested Posthumanity

“Man is a rope, stretched between the animal and the Übermensch. When Friedrich Nietzsche (1883) wrote these famous words, he could not possibly foresee that they were prophetic in a very concrete and material sense. Technological development has reached a stage in which technology has started to interfere explicitly with the nature of human beings. Biotechnology makes it possible to fiddle with human genetic material. Implanted microchips enable blind people to regain some of their vision, and reactivate paralyzed limbs. And the current convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science (NBIC) promises ‘Human Performance Enhancement’, for example in the fields of perception, intelligence, and mobility.

Technological developments like these are highly contested. A good illustration of this is the debate which arose about Peter Sloterdijk’s highly contested but equally fascinating lecture ‘Rules for the anthropic garden’ (Sloterdijk 1999). Sloterdijk’s lecture is a reply to Martin Heidegger’s Brief über den Humanismus, in which Heidegger explained why the popular associations of his work with humanism were entirely wrong. Humanism, according to Heidegger, approaches the human being from the perspective of the animal: as a zoon logon echon or animal rationale – an animal with speech and reason. This continuity between human and animal, Heidegger says, ignores the radical difference between them, which he locates in the human capacity to think the ‘being’ of beings. Sloterdijk, however, reversed Heidegger’s argument. He, too, wants to get beyond humanism, but for entirely different reasons. The humanist tradition, he says, has always tried to ‘cultivate’ the human being; to ‘tame’ it with the help of texts – and in that sense, Heidegger was a humanist too. But technological developments have now made it possible to cultivate human beings in quite a different way: by literally ‘breeding’ or ‘growing’ them. And rather than shying away from the technological possibility to alter the biological constitution of the human being, Sloterdijk urges that we should take responsibility for the powers we have developed. We should get beyond the humanist preoccupation with texts, and start thinking about moral guidelines for how to use the new ‘anthropotechnologies’.

After his lecture, many German intellectuals were inflamed with anger and accused Sloterdijk of making a crypto-fascist attempt to reintroduce the eugenetic program of the Nazi’s. His proposal to explicitly shape the nature of humanity in desirable ways rather than letting it happen in implicit and uncontrollable ways, was explained as exactly the opposite of what it intended to be. And the core question Sloterdijk raised remained unanswered: how can we find answers to the question of what we want to make of humanity?

In the meantime, a new approach to ‘posthumanity’ is gaining influence: the so-called transhumanist movement. This movement proudly announces the advent of a successor of the human being. Theorists like Nick Bostrom (2005a, b) expect the arrival of a posthuman being, which will outdate homo sapiens in virtually all respects. Rather than criticizing the alteration of humanity, like Jürgen Habermas (2003) and Francis Fukuyama (2002) do, transhumanists welcome it as both an inevitable and highly desirable enhancement of the human species. Some transhumanist thinkers, like Hans Moravec (1998), even speculate about possibilities to download the contents of the human brain into a computer, and to upload it somewhere else. This utopian response to contemporary technological developments is radically different from Sloterdijk’s plea for developing ‘rules for the anthropic garden’, though. Rather than developing critical frameworks for a responsible use of the new ‘anthropotechnologies’, they approach the coming about of a transhuman being as an indisputable value in itself.

Time seems ripe to find a way out of the deadlock in this discussion between utopians and dystopians. Contemporary technological developments urge us to develop new ways of understanding the ‘posthuman’ being we are about to make of ourselves, and to develop moral frameworks to provide guidance in this process. In order to do accomplish this, two elements need to be introduced in the discussion that remain underexposed in the controversies between humanists and transhumanists. First of all, the current discussion lacks contact with the philosophy of technology; and secondly, the discussion fails to take into account earlier critiques of humanism, as developed in the work of theorists like Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze.

Technology and humanism

Because of its preoccupation with the technological-biological evolution of the human being into a posthuman being, the current discussion on posthumanism mainly focuses on science-fiction-like transhuman forms of life, and fails to see the vast variety of ways in which technologies are, already now, actively shaping and redefining what it means to be a human being. Not only biotechnological alterations of our DNA, downloads of our brain content into computers, and enhancements of our bodily functions are relevant posthumanist technologies, but also the machines which help us to make medical diagnoses and therefore inform our moral choices about life and death; the devices which help scientists to have perceptions of nature which they could not have without these devices, and which therefore inform our knowledge about reality. Our being human is profoundly interwoven with all kinds of technologies, which continually reshape what it means to be a human being.

In order to incorporate these humanity-shaping roles of technology in the posthumanism debate we can, again, connect to Sloterdijk’s Rules for the Anthropic Garden; more specifically to his distinction between two ways of ‘cultivating’ the human being: ‘taming’ and ‘breeding’. But to make this distinction relevant, we need to reverse Sloterdijk’s argument. Rather than associating the ‘taming’ of human beings with the texts of the humanities, and the ‘breeding’ of humans with technology, we need to see that the most important cultural role of technology consists precisely in what Sloterdijk calls the taming of humans – in helping to shape what it means to be human. Sloterdijk’s distinction between the texts of the humanities and the anthropotechnologies of the posthumanists overlooks the phenomenon of technological mediation. Not only interventions in the physical constitution of homo sapiens change the human being, but also technological mediations of our actions and perceptions, which help to constitute humans and reality in their mutual relations.

These roles of technology in reshaping humanity play an important role in contemporary philosophy of technology (Verbeek 2005; Haraway 1991; Ihde 1990; Latour 1993, 1994). It is precisely the lack of input from philosophy of technology that causes the ‘naturalist’ focus of current posthumanism on the evolution of homo sapiens. The predominant approach to technology in posthumanism is instrumentalist: technology is seen as a set of useful means, fulfilling all kinds of functions, and recent functionalities happen to concern the enhancement of bodily and cognitive functions and the alteration of our DNA. Such instrumentalist approaches have proven to be far too simplistic to do justice to the actual role of technology in our culture and in people’s everyday lives. Technologies rather mediate the relations between human beings and reality, and in doing so they help to shape both the ‘subjectivity’ of human beings and the ‘objectivity’ of the world in which they live their lives.

When taking these intricate connections between humans and technology into account, therefore, a richer elaboration of the concept of posthumanism becomes possible. Rather than indicating how technology takes us beyond the human, we can also understand it as indicating that we need to move beyond humanism, as a very specific way of understanding what it means to be human (Verbeek 2006). Humanism is not to be understood here as the ideology of the humanist movement, but as the specifically modernist way of understanding the human being: as an autonomous subject which has relations to a world of mute objects. For developing this broader interpretation of posthumanism, connections need to be made with poststructuralist philosophy. Long before the transhumanist movement came into being, poststructuralists like Michel Foucault already announced ‘the end of man’ (Foucault 1994). These approaches, however, did not directly focus on ways in which technology challenges humanism. The relations between poststructuralism and the philosophy of technology, therefore, require separate investigation.

On the basis of this augmentation of posthumanism with insights from the philosophy of technology and from earlier critiques of humanism, it will be possible to significantly enhance the discussion about the ways in which technology challenges humanity. Ultimately, this discussion is about the question what is to become of humanity. Answering this question requires both a descriptive and a normative line of argumentation, as I will elaborate below. First of all, the augmentations of the discussion that will be developed in the project create a basis to develop a rich ‘posthumanist anthropology’, taking into account all relations between humans and technology – ranging from mediated subjectivity to transhuman forms of life. And secondly, these augmentations open up a new realm of ethical reflection on posthumanism. In close connection to results from my current VENI research project on technologically mediated morality and the moral agency of artifacts, it will be possible to develop an ethical framework for approaching the question of how to deal with posthumanist technologies – ranging from anticipating and actively shaping technological mediations of subjectivity to deliberately intervening in our organic constitution.

2. Approach

In order to enhance the discussion about the question what is to become of humanity, three tracks will be elaborated; one conceptual, one philosophical-anthropological, and one ethical. In close connection to these three tracks, a separate PhD project will be carried out, which explicitly focuses on the philosophical analysis of specific contemporary technological developments.

1. Conceptual preparation

In order to analyze the phenomenon of posthumanism, some foundational conceptual and analytical work is indispensable. A first step in the project, therefore, is to make an inventory of all approaches to and definitions of posthumanism that have been developed. Secondly, an inventory needs to be made of all ethical approaches to posthumanism, in order to analyze their main lines of argument and their implicit definitions of posthumanism, humanity, and technology. Third, the concept of ‘humanism’ needs to be analyzed, specifically with respect to the ways in which the human being is approached and characterized in various branches of humanism. Fourth, earlier critiques of humanism, like the one developed poststructuralist theory, need to be analyzed. And fifth, but of crucial importance, an inventory has to be made of ‘posthumanist’ developments in biotechnology, nanotechnology, cognitive science, and information technology.

2. Posthumanist anthropology

A second track consists in developing a philosophical anthropology of the posthuman. The discussion about posthumanism requires careful analysis of what a posthuman being can be and how it can be understood. To realize this, the tradition of philosophical anthropology will be confronted and integrated with the philosophy of technology. At least three lines of research will be elaborated to develop a ‘posthumanist anthropology’.

First of all, posthumanism is a matter of human-technology relations. In order to understand how technology changes the human being, a connection needs to be made with philosophy of technology. In this field, many analyses have been developed of the relations between humans and technology. Don Ihde’s analysis of human-world relationship is probably the most well-known one, distinguishing relations that range from ‘embodiment’ (in which technologies function as ‘quasi-me’) to ‘alterity’ (in which they function as ‘quasi-other’), or even ‘background’ (shaping a background for human experience) (Ihde 1990). Posthumanism requires us to expand this scheme: posthuman beings do not embody technology but are a fusion of humans and technology. This new human-technology relation requires thorough philosophical investigation. Moreover, Ihde’s phenomenological analysis of the technological mediation of intentionality needs to be augmented with an analysis of posthuman intentionality. Two variants can be distinguished here: one concerning connections between human intentionality and technological intentionality, as when humans perceive reality with the help of devices; the other concerning enhancement technologies of the human brain.

Second, an analysis of the anthropological tradition and its specific characterizations of the human being is needed. The existential tradition, for instance, has extensively analyzed the phenomenon of freedom: the relation human beings have to their own being, making their existence something they need to shape themselves (Sartre 1946, Jaspers 1973, Kierkegaard 1980, Plessner 1928 – see also De Mul 2002). Both posthuman alterations of the human being and posthumanist mediations of subjectivity have major implications for the freedom of posthumanist beings. Connected to this, existential notions like mortality (Heidegger 1986) and natality (Arendt 1969) need to be analyzed in the light of posthumanism. How do birth and death structure human existence and what does their absence imply? How to deal with concepts like historicity and Geworfenheit, which appeal to a transcendent ‘origin’ of human beings which is absent for posthumans? Also, explicit connections need to be made to the small tradition in philosophical anthropology that does connect humanity and technology, ranging from Ernst Kapp’s theory of technology as projections of human bodily organs (Kapp 1877) and Arnold Gehlen’s approach to human beings as ‘Mangel-wesen’, needing technological artifacts to compensate for their poor abilities (Gehlen 1988), to the theories of human-technology relations, cyborgs and hybrids of Don Ihde (1990), Donna Haraway (1991) and Bruno Latour (1993).

A third step toward a closer understanding of the posthuman consists in analyzing the increasingly posthumanist nature of specific human faculties, like developing knowledge and making moral judgments. Scientific instruments enable scientists to perceive aspects of reality that could not be perceived without them. What ‘reality’ is, is co-shaped here by the instruments used, for which reason the resulting knowledge is not ‘purely human’. Moreover, specific nonhuman epistemic agents are developing: expert systems help medical doctors, financial advisors, and judges to make decisions, and expand their knowledge on the run. Also, our moral decisions are not the product of autonomous decision-making, but of a complex interplay between human and technological agency, as I am currently elaborating in my VENI-project ‘Technology and the matter of morality’. Moral decisions about abortion, e.g., are no autonomous choices but depend heavily on the specific ways in which sonograms and blood tests help to constitute the unborn child (Verbeek 2006). These posthuman, nonhuman, or posthumanist forms that specifically human activities take need to be investigated further in terms of how they move beyond the human being.

3. Ethics of the posthuman

The augmented interpretation of posthumanism to be developed in this project aims to improve the quality of ethical discussions about posthumanism. Rather than getting caught in the obvious discussion between utopian defenses versus dystopian rejections of modifications of the human being, I will elaborate an ethical perspective to accompany technological developments, and to adequately raise the question what we want to make of humanity. The notion of accompaniment comes from the work of Gilbert Hottois (1984; 2003), who explicitly rejects the idea of ethics as a moral system outside technological developments. Hottois starts from the idea that technological developments have a dynamics of their own, implying that ethical reflection should aim at guiding and influencing these developments, rather than blowing the whistle or pulling the emergency brake. The same intuition is behind Sloterdijk’s Rules for the Anthropic Garden, however provocatively formulated: we explicitly need to ask ourselves how to deal with our capacity to alter the human species, rather than claiming heroically but powerless that such alterations are morally unacceptable.

A posthumanist ethical framework needs to do justice to all forms of posthumanism developed in this project, ranging, again, from mediations of subjectivity to organic enhancements and modifications. Two lines need to be developed here; one pertaining to conceptualizations of the posthumanist moral agent (posthumanist ethics), the other pertaining to the ethics of how to deal with posthumanist technologies (ethics of posthumanism).

As for the first line: the project will investigate how to conceptualize the moral agency of posthuman beings. How will posthuman beings will be able to do ethics? As for the moral agency of technologically mediated subjects, this work has been done already in the VENI project mentioned above. But the moral agency of transhuman beings needs thorough conceptualization. What kind of freedom do cyborgs and enhanced human beings have? And how to understand the intentionality of implant-augmented human beings? For what beings do posthuman beings need to take responsibility? In his Cyberspace Odyssee, Jos de Mul (2002) raised this question in an intriguing way: how would posthuman beings treat us, conventional humans? Would they feel the obligation to respect us, treating both humans and posthumans as an end in themselves? Would they simply exploit us instrumentally? Or would they merely tolerate us in the name of biodiversity?

As for the second line: an ethical framework suitable for dealing with technologies that intervene in human nature will have to recognize that we cannot revert to naturalism since there is no fixed identity of the human being which can be taken as a standard. To accompany technological developments, and to adequately raise the question of what we want to make of humanity, we can take Foucault’s ethics of self-constitution as a starting point (Foucault 1984a; 1984b). For developing his ethical perspective, Foucault connects to classical Greek ethics, which revolved around attempts to shape one’s subjectivity. It can be argued that posthumanist technologies add a new dimension to such attempts, since they allow us to not only adapt our behavior but also to alter our physical constitution. The main challenge for the ethics of posthumanism is to translate these classical ethical notions of ‘shaping oneself’ and Foucault’s elaboration of them to the realm of posthumanist technologies. The ‘ethics of life’, as Foucault called it, will then have a literal elaboration: an ethics of how to deal with human life both in an existential and in a biological and physical sense. Foucault’s ‘aesthetic’ interpretation of ethics, to be sure, has a very problematic relation to mainstream ethical positions which focus on moral duties, principles, and balancing the negative and positive consequences of one’s actions. These problems will have to be analyzed and answered in order to develop the ‘ethics of life’ as a fruitful ethical perspective in moral discussions about posthumanism, and to find adequate ways to answer the question of what we want to make of humanity – be it by enhancing the human organism or by mediating human subjectivity in responsible ways.

4. PhD project

Parallel to the research project elaborated above, a PhD project will be carried out. This project will investigate the conceptual, anthropological and/or ethical aspects of posthumanism in close connection to actual technological developments. The project will investigate several contemporary developments in biotechnology, nanotechnology, cognitive science, and/or information technology from the perspective of posthumanism. In what ways and to what extent do these technologies take us beyond the human being? Do the philosophical-anthropological lines set out above make it possible to understand and interpret these developments or does the framework need to be adapted? What ethical questions are related to these developments, and what ethical approaches are appropriate here?

The aim of adding this PhD trajectory to the research project is to ensure contact with actual developments in science and technology. The PhD project will start after the first year of the project, when much of the preparatory conceptual work has been done. This conceptual work can then be taken as a starting point for the PhD project. The PhD project and the research project of the applicant will be carried out in a parallel way: the ethical and anthropological notions developed in the project of the applicant can be tested and confronted with actual developments, while the PhD project will develop new notions and approaches which can inform the project of the applicant.

The exact plans for the PhD project will be elaborated with the candidate, and part of the selection procedure will be the development of a research plan. The PhD candidate will preferably put most weight on the ethical aspects of specific ‘posthumanist’ developments, which would make it possible to make the project part of the recently installed 3TU center of excellence for ethics and technology.