The other day, I got a link to an essay by my friend, colleague, and long-form argument partner Steve Fuller, which he’d recently published in the journal Sociology of Science and Technology. It was quite interesting and provocative.
It does have Steve’s typical overstuffed style, which can be either a detriment or a benefit. I think it’s usually a benefit, though it can tip into detrimental at a moment’s notice.
Fuller writes with such a density of knowledge on display that you can easily see real links that exist between some intuitively far-distant ideas. So reading his work is a good way to blow your typical intuitions about human knowledge to bits. But a reader can also be overwhelmed by all the parallelisms and connections that he can make between so many different domains of knowledge.
Steve’s essay is called “Political and Legal Prolegomena to an Extended Republic of Humanity, or Transhumanity: Lessons from the Difficult History of Human Rights.” A bit of a long one. But it is a fascinating piece, and if you want a really trippy, densely packed long-read today, do check it out.
I’m thinking of writing a longer-form reply at the SERRC later this Spring. But I’m still packed with deadlines and obligations. Here are some initial thoughts, jumbled and scrambled, after reading Steve’s essay over the weekend.
I’ve never really been a fan of what’s called “moral extension” in animal rights theory. I devote a few pages to mocking it and Peter Singer’s general perspective and politics in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. In a way, I think it doesn’t go far enough to build a truly ecologically sustainable, harmonious, and prosperous human civilization.
In another way, moral extension and the broader animal rights perspective go too far in the wrong direction. Steve is on target with his own critiques in this essay. I say so, because he seems to agree with my own point – there’s a frustrating category mistake in animal rights thinking.
In my own perspective, the whole point of building an ecologically-informed ethics (and any moral systems that develop out of that ethical foundation) is to create and share a self-conception of being integrated with the whole world. Being unable to separate yourself from any act of ecological destruction, absolve yourself of responsibility, and numb yourself to its pain.
Animal rights thinking, as Steve and I contend in our different ways in our different publications, tends to keep humanity and non-humans in categorically separate places. Animals remain our Other, segregated in their wilderness sanctuaries so they can live in peace.
On top of that, animal rights philosophies make animals an inferior Other because we’re the only creatures capable of enough ethical thought and moral reflection to opt out of relationships of predation – ecological cruelty. We can’t make wolves and pigs into vegans, so we separate them from humanity in places where they can roam free and live according to their own natures.
Steve also addresses the transhumanist approach to animal rights, centred around uplift – the cognitive enhancement of animals, whether through mechanical technology or genetic engineering. Uplifted animals can join the human community in a more active sense, and so we can extend humanity to a true confederation, of a sort.
And I’ve never been too big on transhumanism either, for a wide variety of reasons that I don't really have the space to go into right now. But this question of animal rights and uplift makes the reasons very clear. Steve says so himself, which is another area were we agree.
Animal uplift is a kind of new cross-species imperialism. It’s the contention that you can only be intelligent or civilized in one very particular and singular way, and that all other forms of intelligence are inferior. Who says that in becoming more like humans, a creature is being “uplifted?” Well, humans do most of the time. Sounds a bit egotistical if you ask me.
So what might I do with these jumbled thoughts over the next couple of months? All I’d really want is to add another perspective to the mix. Animal rights theory and transhumanism are both very humanistic, and both are narratives of progress.
I’d like to express some of the ideas that I brought up in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity to present a narrative of progress that’s decidedly not humanist, but that is thoroughly optimistic and hopeful. Mixing in all these ideas critiquing animal rights and transhumanism that I’ve brought up here.
It might be interesting to read. Which is the best any writer can do, really.