What should transhumanists think about the current storm over sexual harassment allegations that started with the Harvey Weinstein scandel and the #MeToo hashtag? No doubt, the typical response is that this is another sign that we are living in ever increasingly ‘progressive’ and enlightened times. Sexual harassment in industries such as music and film are a throwback to times in which the powerful were able to take advantage of the weak, and in particular men in a male dominated culture prey on young vulnerable women. Thankfully, the times they are a changing.
However, a few prominent voices are raising their concern that this is not something progressive, but in fact a witch hunt – a throwback to medieval standards of justice and prejudice. And indeed, the very recognition from all sides that at the heart of this is a fundamental change in (sexual) morality over the decades should raise important questions for any intelligent transhumanist who, literally, hopes to live a very long life, along with his or her fellow humans and post-humans.
Consider the following clip from popular 1970’s British TV sitcom ‘On The Buses’. The comedy centered on a group of bus conductors and their long suffering inspector. In this episode, they have agreed to play a football (soccer) match against another depot (a female group of bus conductors) :
This type of humor was typical for the time, and it’s fair to say that such antics displayed by the lecherous conductors would be considered funny, and rather normal male behaviour. Today, such behaviour would be condemned as sexual harassment without question. The conductors would not only be sacked, but they would likely be imprisoned for sexual assault. And most transhumanists would say this is a good thing, on the whole. But what about condemning and imprisoning men today for such behaviour back then, when it was more or less socially acceptable?
There might be a view amongst transhumanists that we are progressing to ever more ‘rightful’ and permanent moral certitude. As humans become better educated and enlightened, of course we can now see that crude, lecherous behaviour on the part of males is wrong. This will only become more certain and universally accepted as humans become transhuman and through technology become ever more intelligent and educated. From this point of view, there might not be anything particularly disturbing about judging unenlightened behaviour harshly from decades ago, as from a true and objective measure, such behaviour was wrong, and just as importantly, from this point on will always be considered wrong by future generations.
I think this view is wholly mistaken and gives credence to the opinion that much of present transhumanism is a mystical religion rather than a product of rationality.
Human morality has never been static on almost any issue, in any time or place for any length of time, particularly in relation to sexual matters. Perhaps there have been some near universal taboos and moral constraints, such as the incest taboo, but even here at times they have been challenged, most recently in the period of the ‘sexual revolution’ of the late 60’s and early 70’s. And why not? If the rational basis for the incest taboo is that it can lead to harmful genetic mutations, then that basis was at least undermined with the seperation of sex and reproduction that the invention of the contraceptive pill triggered (and which resulted in that ‘sexual revolution’), as well as the legalization of abortion. Yet fifty years later and five decades of more ‘progress’ and the incest taboo is arguably stronger than it has ever been in human history.
Certainly, powerful men exchanging material resources for sex with young women is a very recent taboo. It doesn’t seem to have any grounding in nature or even human anthropology, unlike the incest taboo. Can we be sure it will survive any longer than other sexual moral perogatives that seem to us today antiquated, such as laws against sodomy, or interracial sex?
Human morality is the result of a chaotic mix of conflicting human needs in transient social conditions, tempered by the near universal human capacity for compassion, and disfigured by the equally universal human talent for self-deceit and hypocricy. With regards to sexual morality, it is in particular shaped by the warring conflux of male and female sexual needs, an eternal battleground historically only kept under control by the shared desire (and social imperative) to raise children and the agreement to divide labour and responsibilities between male and female. The idea that we can predict what the society of the 23rd century will say about Harvey Weinstein from what is happening today on Twitter is like claiming to be able to predict the weather on Jupiter from looking up at the sky and observing a cloud above. Even a super post-singularity AI will likely not be able to determine a ‘correct morality’, or at least not a clear and exhaustive set of universal permanent moral rules that would be acceptable to a large group of even enhanced humans.
The past is a foreign country, they do things differently over there. Similarly, the future will be even more foreign, with moral codes we can’t even guess at. 200 years ago, Casanova was considered one of the legends of the age. He loved to seduce women, men, boys, and girls. One hundred years later, we were hanging homosexuals as baying mobs watched, spat, and threw obscenities (and other things) at the soon to be hanged condemned man. Another hundred years later, and being overly critical of homosexuality can land you in prison in many nations, whereas we do retain our disgust at those who attempt to have sex with minors, as Kevin Spacey has discovered.
A minimum hope of any transhumanist is to experience an extended lifespan. As the pace of technological progress increases, it is likely that morality will continue to change, ever faster. It is an unwarrented assumption to believe that moral progress will always be in one direction, or even that our present sense of moral progress is the correct one. In particular, it ought to deeply worry a transhumanist that people are being judged today for what they allegedly did in decades previously when society had very different morals. If you live a long enough life, even the most saintly transhumanist wil inevitably transgress some moral code of the day, especially if moral codes can not only change but flip flop so readily and frequently. Perhaps a transhumanist response might be that a stretch in prison, even a decade or two, would be insignificant in a life measured in centuries. But especially in the coming decades, as we approach longevity escape velocity and we note that prisoners generally are unlikely to recieve life extension therapy (especially sex offenders1), being judged by a baying ‘enlightened’ mob may mean the difference between an all too human death, and eternal life.
Of course, not only will society and moral norms change over the course of a radically extended lifespan, the individual himself will undergo huge changes and transformations. Thus, another transhumanist reflection upon the subject of crime and punishment in a very long life is the question of personal identity and hence responsibility over time. Naturally, most transhumanists want to remain the same subjective self over time, even over centuries. And yet the very definition of transhumanism is change, the fundamental change of one’s core (human) nature. Many intelligent people can recognize that people can change over a normal human lifetime, and hence it is or might be wrong, for example, to punish an old man for the crimes of his youth. It would surely thus be yet more unfair, or even absurd, to punish or hold responsible a transhumanist for behaviour when he had a very different mind and personality, or for deeds committed centuries ago, even if he is or feels himself to be the same person.
Conclusion : Transhumanists and longevity advocates ought to be in favour of a statute of limitations on sexual offences, and for that matter, all offences. Transhumanists should be very wary of judging the behaviour of individuals today for their behaviour in previous decades that had different moral climates. Transhumanists should recognize that witch hunts are not progressive, even if they have purportedly progressive goals, but are rather a reminder of a darker age.