The Problem – You Don’t Have to Defend Transhumanism This Year
It has come to my attention that this year’s Lincoln Douglas resolution is breeding uneasiness among rank-and-file debaters and parents in the NCFCA. Of course, almost everyone is uneasy about new resolutions, because, well, they’re new. But the present distress goes beyond standard concerns about definitional vagueness or bias: some have questioned whether it is even morally permissible to defend the Affirmative position…
In the context of innovation, the proactionary principle ought to be valued above the precautionary principle.
Here is the crux of the problem: the Proactionary Principle was originally developed by Max More, an unabashedly transhumanist philosopher and founder of the Extropy Institute, the first explicitly transhumanist think tank in the world. More’s seminal article on the subject, “The Proactionary Principle,” was published in an anthology titled The Transhumanist Reader. Here is the book’s description:
The rapid pace of emerging technologies is playing an increasingly important role in overcoming fundamental human limitations. Featuring core writings by seminal thinkers in the speculative possibilities of the posthuman condition, essays address key philosophical arguments for and against human enhancement, explore the inevitability of life extension, and consider possible solutions to the growing issues of social and ethical implications and concerns.1
That is pretty unsettling. (It is a little comforting that the book includes a few essays contra transhumanism. But only a little.) It has prompted some parents to ask, “By defending the affirmative position, is my child defending transhumanism? And is that not tantamount to, for instance, defending abortion in a debate round?”
Before I answer that question, let me be clear: you should object to being forced to defend antibiblical ideas in your rounds. True, developing as a debater requires engaging with — and even (or especially) formulating arguments for — viewpoints that you do not hold. But whether we agree with the ideas we defend or not, we are still representing the merits (real or imagined) of those ideas to our community. And we are not and should not be in the business of promoting antibiblical ideas. Playing devil’s advocate is one thing; mobilizing thousands of highly intelligent, highly motivated students to defend abortion in public for eight months is another.
But there is good news. You can make it through this entire competitive season without making a single argument in defense of transhumanism, and you don’t have to twist your definitions or forego the best sources to do it. Here’s why.
The proactionary principle is neutral toward transhumanism.
Despite its close historical ties to the transhumanist movement, the Proactionary Principle has nothing at all to say about transhumanism. But don’t take my word for it. Here is More himself on the question:
I should note that the Proactionary Principle applies to all a complex decisions involving technology, not just those with obvious relevance to transhumanist concerns. In other words, it is not a transhumanist-specific decision method.2
The arguments Moore presents in support of the Principle are entirely independent of his stance on transhumanism. I would be comfortable presenting every single one of them to a community judge.
Why, then, does More think the Proactionary Principle supports transhumanism? In order to understand the answer to this question, we need to take a closer look at what the Principle says and what it does not.
The Proactionary Principle is not a particular moral claim; rather, it is a general rule for rational decision-making. Roughly, it says that the burden of proof ought to lie with those who want to restrict innovation, rather than with those who want to accelerate it. The Principle does not define what counts as a good reason to restrict innovation. All it says is that the opponents of innovation are obligated to provide one. So the Principle can count either for or against a given kind of innovation, depending on what one considers to be a good reason for restricting it. Allow me to illustrate.
Here is an argument against transhumanism that starts from the Proactionary Principle:
(1) Innovation should be restricted when and only when it poses a demonstrable threat to mankind. [This is a version of the Proactionary Principle.]
(2) Transhumanism is an innovation that poses a demonstrable threat to mankind. Therefore,
(3) Transhumanism should be restricted.
Our real disagreement with More is not whether premise (1) is true. It is whether premise (2) is true. We believe, for biblical and theological reasons, that transhumanism displaces faith in Christ as the ultimate foundation of salvation, freedom, wisdom, joy, and life. From our perspective, that is a decisive reason to restrict transhumanist innovations. In other words, it is enough to meet the burden of proof stipulated by the Proactionary Principle. Since More does not share our theological convictions, he would disagree that we can meet that burden. But that has nothing to do with whether the Proactionary Principle is true.
Here is another way to put it. The Proactionary Principle tells us how we should assess potential costs and benefits. It does not say anything about what counts as a cost or a benefit. That is left to the judgement of the people applying the principle. Someone like More would consider the triumph of transhumanism a benefit. So for him, the Proactionary Principle supports transhumanism. But we would consider it a rather dire cost. Ergo, the Proactionary Principle does not support transhumanism. That is where the disagreement lies, not with the Proactionary Principle itself.
Even transhumanists are right about some things.
Perhaps the last section did not totally alleviate your worries. Even if the Proactionary Principle is theoretically neutral toward transhumanism, it is the brainchild of transhumanists. And we should distance ourselves as far as possible from transhumanism. Right?
Maybe. It depends what we mean by “distance.” If we mean that we should stand firmly against transhumanist philosophies and practices, that is one thing. If we mean that we have absolutely nothing to learn from philosophers who are also transhumanists, that is another. Acknowledging that Max More might be right about the Proactionary Principle is not the same as endorsing his worldview. Thomas Jefferson redacted large portions of the Bible; Martin Luther was probably an anti-semite; nearly every great philosopher in western history prior to the 19th century believed that women and people of color were their intellectual and moral inferiors. And they were all geniuses who made enormous contributions to the development of modern civilization. If you can learn something about political philosophy from Jean-Jaques Rousseau, you can learn something about decision theory from Max More.
Defending transhumanism is a terrible strategy anyway.
This probably doesn’t need to be said, but: writing a transhumanist constructive is not going to win you debate rounds in the NCFCA anyway. In fact, it probably wouldn’t win you many debate rounds in the NSDA, or anywhere else. By far the best examples of proaction are innovations that have existed for decades, like air travel, the internet, and pharmaceuticals. Each of these technologies came with enormous risks, and each has been abused at one time or another. But each has brought lasting positive change to the world as well. Entrepreneurs — including socially and theologically conservative ones — have been living by the Proactionary Principle for centuries. Transhumanists are just the latecomers who gave it a name.
-Noah McKay is one of our Lasting Impact! Coaches. He has been coaching for a number of years, coaching individual students, camps, and clubs. Schedule a one on one COACHING SESSION with him today! Noah is an NCFCA Speech and Debate alumnus currently pursuing graduate studies in philosophy through the University of Edinburgh. During his time in Speech and Debate, Noah was a regional champion and national finalist in both Lincoln Douglas debate and apologetics. In 2017 (his senior year), Noah won first place in moot court and Best Advocate at two out of three national opens, and became one of only a dozen students to receive the “Iron Man Plus” award for simultaneously competing in five speech events, debate, and moot court at the National Championship. Since graduating high school, Noah has earned a B.A. in philosophy, presented original research at multiple academic conferences, and coached Lincoln Douglas debate for five years. Noah resides in the city of St. Louis, Missouri with his wife, Alexandra, who is pursuing her MA in marriage and family therapy at St. Louis University. He enjoys good coffee (especially with Alexandra), morning runs, and watching his students succeed.
-If you are looking for more helpful information on the 2021-22 NCFCA LD Resolution, we encourage you to check out the Lasting Impact! LD Guide.
1 The Transhumanist Reader, ed. Max More and Natasha Vita-More (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013). 2 Max More, “The Proactionary Principle,” in The Transhumanist Reader, ed. Max More and Natasha Vita-More (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 259