Max More, Ph.D.
Consider two alternative futures, drawn in caricature to bring out my point:
Scenario 1: The Abandonment of Self-Ownership.
09/19/98: Following serious illnesses of seven people resulting from contaminated vitamin E, The Food and Drug Administration makes all vitamins prescription-only.
12/04/98: The Council on the Future calls for an end to technological progress. The Council says the public needs relief from the stress of constant innovation, excessive choice, and pervasive uncertainty.
06/01/99: At the opening of the Museum of Modern Art exhibition "Anything Goes", spokesperson Gloria Portney explains that the artists were proclaiming the value of indulging feelings, and showing that self-discipline represses the free spirit.
11/05/2000: Several states in the USA pass initiatives holding corporations responsible for all injuries involving their products, regardless of fault. Maximum damage awards are tripled. An Economic Strategy Institute study projects a 22% drop in stock market values due to an increase in frivolous lawsuits, two millions jobs lost, and a substantial cut in economic output.
12/30/2000: Congress passes new laws raising taxes on corporate profits made from new technologies.
02/04/2001: A new Gallup poll reveals that membership in fundamentalist churches has grown 31% over the last four years. In the same period, the Church of Gaia has grown 344%. The Church of Gaia holds that humans have value only as caretakers of Mother Earth.
04/12/2001: In the UK, the Archbishop of Canterbury complains of the rapid growth of cult membership. He implores cult members to leave and join the Church of true salvation.
08/25/2002: President Gore continues his program of centralizing economic control.
07/22/2003: Top of the NY Times bestseller list: "What Would My Guru Say?"
7/15/2004: The National Association of Teachers praises the strengthening of school programs teaching obedience and how to follow rules.
06/14/2006: The Council of Economic Advisors is combined with the Federal Reserve to form a new Office of Economic Control, which will centralize decisions about production and distribution. A spokesperson admits that central control will produce less wealth than free markets, but says this move fits with the public desire to be relieved of uncertainty and change.
03/13/2007: A recent report detailing the rapid growth over the last decade in murders, thefts, and assaults, and a general decline in manners, prompted a call from Vice President Galbraith for "stronger, more far-reaching and benevolent government."
10/02/2008: At todays United Nations session on "Western Guilt and Third World Poverty" the governments of the US and the United States of Europe agreed to transfer 10% of their tax revenue to African governments next year, with that amount growing to 20% over the following five years. "We are responsible for everyones poverty" stated US representative Ralph Ehrlich.
Scenario 2: The Triumph of Self-Ownership.
1/15/98: NT Times bestseller: Dr. Nathaniel Brandens Taking Responsibility.
12/3/98: The government announces that over the next three years all state schools will be privatized. Tax breaks will be given for educational expenses, and some vouchers given for a transitional period.
06/01/99: At the opening of the Museum of Modern Art exhibition "Taking Charge of Evolution", extropic artists of many media present optimistic, scientifically-based visions of possibility and achievement.
9/17/99: The Supreme Court finds that laws against voluntary euthanasia are unconstitutional since they violate the right of self-ownership. The Courts decision asks "If the individual does not own his or her own life, what can they own?"
6/10/2000: Congress approves a plan for completely privatizing social security. Tax breaks are to be given to encourage personal responsibility for saving.
1/10/2001: The National Association of Teachers urges the expansion of critical thinking courses and the teaching of reasoning skills in all subjects. With the introduction of choice and competition in schooling, experts predict that critical thinking and effective reasoning skills will become important elements of most schools curriculums. Parents and businesses are demanding such skills to empower individuals to deal with change and complexity.
3/19/2001: The top rate of personal income tax is reduced to 24% and the lowest rate reduced to 12%. Corporate profit taxes are abolished. The Economic Research Institute forecasts an additional 2.5% annual economic growth over the next five years as investment increases.
4/14/2003: The Alliance of Fundamentalist Churches, noting the decline in religious fundamentalism, declares it a sign that the Devil has taken control and that we should expect the Second Coming very soon. The Reverend Richard Bigott calls for the public to stop their growing support of humanist, skeptic, and Extropian organizations and projects before their souls are lost forever.
7/18/2004: A Supreme Court decision, confirming recent lower court decisions, recognized a fundamental right to control ones own body. All abortion laws and drug laws are found unconstitutional. Schools and other institutions announce expanded educational campaigns to provide information about the effects of drugs helping everyone to make informed decisions about drug use.
8/12/2005: The Food and Drug Administration is dismantled. All safety and product quality ratings will be carried out on a subscription basis by private companies. Penalties for insufficient testing for safety are reviewed and consumers urged to check with the rating agencies.
3/15/2006: A Skeptic magazine poll shows that, compared with ten years ago, belief in angels is down 42%, belief in alien abductions is down 73%, and 34% fewer believe in psychic phenomena.
2/8/2007: ThinkSoft reports a 55% jump in quarterly profits due to strong sales of "Think For Yourself"its artificially intelligent software package for boosting critical thinking and personal decision-making skills.
Most of my friends and colleagues value self-ownership. This value seems like a normal part of my world. Every so often I catch a glimpse of the broader culture. These glimpses act as reminders, little surprises, that many people not only are not prepared for becoming posthuman, they still live in the Dark Ages. When I was looking for part-time teaching positions in philosophy I sent inquiry letters to colleges in my area. From one, the religious nature of which I was previously unaware, I received back a "Statement of Faith". This was to be signed by all faculty before they could be considered. Among the statements to which I would have to agree, if I were to teach there, was this one: "We believe in the fall of man and his consequent total moral depravity, resulting in his exceeding sinfulness and lost state, and necessitating his regeneration by the Holy Spirit." After recovering my composure I crossed that college off my list.
Original Sin has been a religious means of getting humans to give up psychological control of their lives to an ideology and to religious authorities. The idea that we are born sinners goes together with blind faith. Faith undermines our ability to think independentlyto own our minds. In our Christian-dominated culture these ideas continue to profoundly undermine self-ownership. Attacks on the very conditions of self-ownership come not only from the metaphysical but from the political and moral. In the 20th century, various forms of collectivismthe belief that the group (state, race, tribe, humanity) is primary over the individualhave prepared millions to relinquish their personal freedom and responsibility. Altruismthe belief that self-interest is immoral and that morality primarily and fundamentally involves serving othershas erected high barriers to ethical and psychological self-ownership. On the philosophical front, the radical skepticism that was trendy for years made confident self-direction difficult. If you cannot know anything and cannot make your beliefs more accurate, no reliable self-guidance can be possible.
Major cultural and intellectual changes will be needed before we can become posthuman self-owners. Mere abstract acceptance of extropian principles and values is not enough for a person or a culture to be extropian, to be prepared for the future. Becoming posthuman through extropian living means putting theory into practice. To live extropically we need to act extropically. Only when theory and action combine to produce an integrated life do we achieve extropic living. A powerful component of this idea-action integration is the concept of self-ownership. Self-ownership as understood here, has philosophical, psychological, and political aspects.
As an extropian, I affirm that I own my body, my mind, and my life. I hold that everyone owns himself, even though many people act otherwise and want others to control them in some way. Self-ownership as a principle provides us with a powerful concept for mastering our lives, both in the present and as we race toward a posthuman future of unprecedented possibility.
Some of the anti-self-ownership ideas mentioned abovealtruism, original sin, collectivismhave often been combined in a co-dependent relationship with another historically powerful and hugely damaging belief. This destructive idea is the assertion of mind-body dualism. Mind-body dualism takes a variety of forms. In essence though, this view asserts that the physical world is entirely separate from the world of mind, of personality, of soul. Invariably accompanying this belief is the corollary that the physical is inferior to the mental or spiritual, that the body is filthy, evil, degenerate. In Christian variations of the idea, the physical world is the realm of Satan, and the body is the locus of sinful desires that can lead to eternal damnation. In the Platonic variant, a variant that has powerfully affected western thought, including Christianity, the physical world of our experience is merely a sadly imperfect reflection of a perfect, eternal realm of Forms. In Eastern religions, mind-body dualism takes the form of seeing the body and its desires and sensations as distractions from spiritual progress. Breaking free of the endless process of reincarnation and of karma and achieving nirvana requires a detachment from the physical.
I suggest a replacement of mind-body dualism with a view of mind and body, physical and intellectual, material and spiritual as integrated. Self-ownership embraces ownership of all aspects of my self: my body, my emotions, my intellect, my values. I express my values, beliefs, and emotions in physical actions. I cannot fully own my mind unless I own my body. I cannot own my body if I give up my mind. The two are aspects of one reality and so must be considered as a whole.
Affirming self-ownership means accepting that I am free and responsible. I set my own goals, determine my own values, and guide myself. I own myself and recognize that you own yourself. Therefore I seek neither to rule nor to be ruled. As we move into the future, the complexity of life and the pace of change require us increasingly to be personally responsible, to plot our own course, to set clear goals and direct ourselves. Living an extropian life means more than thinking differently. It means living a life fit for transhumans on the brink of a revolutionary new period in the evolution of life and mind.
Through most of human history, self-ownership has not been seen as a virtue or a desirable principle (other than, in some ways, for the rulers). Psychologically and philosophically, humans have usually believed that they were owned by a god and should conform their beliefs and values to those of religious or cultural authorities. Short lifespans added to this, giving most people little time to develop a strong sense of self. Women, children, slaves, and serfs were taught obedience, not self-assertion, self-respect, or self-development.
Politically and socially, the ideas of self-ownership, individual liberty, and personal responsibility emerged only within the last two centurieseven more recently (mostly limited to the western world) for women. Even todays democracies embody the idea that we all rule each other rather than owning and ruling only ourselves.
At the present stage of human development, at least in the freer parts of the world, some degree of self-ownership has become essential. As arranged marriages disappeared, men and women could choose their partner on the basis of personally desired qualities. As a dynamic economy does away with life-long and unchanging jobs we find ourselves continually learning new skills to make a living. As we find ourselves confronted with a vast array of ideasmoral, political, philosophical, religious, artisticthe need to choose between them and find our own identity becomes increasingly acute. As the number of options, possibilities, and distractions grows, the need for clear self-direction intensifies. At the same time, as our weapons of destruction become more powerful and deadly, the value of individual liberty, personal responsibility, and respect for others becomes ever more apparent.
Extropians foresee continuing and accelerating development in technology and society, giving rise to growing complexity, proliferating choices, expanding freedoms, greater dangers. As humans become transhuman the need for self-ownership becomes more pressing and its achievement more rewarding. Perhaps a farmer or a craftsman of the 15th Century could live as well as anyone of the time with little self-ownership. A person of the 21st Century and beyond will need to embrace self-ownership in its every aspect if she is to surviveand survive with style. This essay aims to explore and integrate the various aspects of the idea.
The idea of self-ownership the concepts it contains, the values it implies, the attitudes and commitments it endorses includes philosophical, psychological, and political components. In order to understand the implications of the extropian affirmation of Self-Ownership, I will break it into six aspects:
Respect for Others
Thinking is hard work. Most people try to do as little as possible. If they can get their ideas from someone else, they will. If someone else seems to be sure they know whats right, many will follow. Intellectual systems, ideologies, cultures, can embody and sustain important insights. They can also be abused by those who want all the answers delivered to them. Even some thinkers who declare themselves to be champions of individualism and rationalism can be dogmatic. Certainly it is easier to admonish others to think critically and independently than it is to be sure we are doing so ourselves.
At the center of self-ownership we find a commitment to independent thinking. Without critical thought we will march to someone elses beat. Without independent thought, full self-ownership is impossible. Without independent thought, even the most rational philosophy becomes a barrier to new discoveries and intellectual progress. To think independently means not only questioning what we are told, but also a willingness to challenge our current beliefs.
Some individualists, especially younger ones and the emotionally underdeveloped, confuse intellectual and cultural independence with reactive rebellion. Ayn Rand labeled such persons "counterfeit individualists". (Alas, some of her followers didnt get the point.) While conformists lazily give up the reins of their minds, counterfeit individualists react against existing ideas and institutions simply to be different. But to blindly reject displays little more independence than unconsciously clinging to existing ideas. Truly independent thinkers steer a careful course between dogmatic adherence to currently established ideas and rebellious rejection of existing ideas for its own sake.
As this balancing act suggests, no simple formula exists for thinking independently and critically. Thinking for ourselves cannot mean absolutely fixed standards, for that would rule out critical thinking about the standards. Neither does independent thought imply thinking arbitrarily. That way lies not progress and independence but chaos, intellectual bankruptcy, and irrationalism. Without intellectual standards, our thinking, our values, our actions will wander aimlessly, impelled by random feelings and external influences.
Exercising our sovereign reason does require adherence to standards of critical thinking. Yet even these standards must themselves remain open to questioning. More fundamental even than accepted standards of thinking (including logic, scientific method, etc.) is a basic willingness to question our own preconceptions. We can think autonomously by identifying ourselves with intellectual progress, not with having to prove we are right. We question beliefs according to our standards, but must also be open to questioning and, if warranted, revising our standards. This "pancritical rationalism" holds everything potentially open to challenge, not out of underlying skepticism about knowledge, but out of a commitment to improving our understanding.
Philosophers may tend to emphasize critical thinking, but independent thinking also requires creative thinking. Pancritical rationalismthe holding of everything open to questioningis fostered by a creative, experimental mindset. If we develop a fertile ability to see new options, new avenues of thought, we will find it easier to detach ourselves from beliefs that are familiar but flawed. Independence of thought, then, asks of us both critical thinking and experimental, creative thinking.
The role of experimentalism reveals how the Extropian principle of Dynamic Optimism supports self-ownership. When observing and participating in discussions with other extropians, I have frequently noticed how their basic optimism encourages an openness to new and better ideas. Dynamic optimism assures us that we can do things better, improve our understanding, move forward. It opens us to new sources of information and new methods. A dynamically optimistic attitude primes us to spot opportunities for advancement and learning. Being dynamically optimistic makes us intensely creative. We become more willing to both see and try out new approaches. Optimists are more willing to take calculated risks, rather than clinging to rusty but familiar ideas. By combining optimistic, experimental, creative thinking with critical thinking, we can achieve intellectual independence.
The social framework for the future must respect individual freedom. Some transhumanists hold outdated economic and political views. H.G. Wells, for example, believed that technological and social progress would be achieved through technocracy"scientific" management of the economy, experts ordering individuals in the right direction. Even today, after the abundance of historical evidence, some statist futurists clamor for a Big Brother to lead us ahead. These future-oriented followers of Marxist mistakes have failed to understand the workings of complex systems. They have refused to understand the workings of spontaneous orders. They have refused to grasp how liberty with responsibility fosters our continued progress.
Extropians differ from other transhumanists in this respect. Extropians do not see themselves as the latest in the long, deluded line of wise rulers who will set everyone straight. Centralized control might have been feasible, though not optimal, in the simpler societies of the past. Centralized coercive direction only holds us back today. It has no place in the future. The more complex economies, societies, and technologies become, the more disastrous it becomes to control the evolving system from on high.
Coercive, bureaucratic, governmental institutions always bring unintended consequences. As economists such as von Mises and Hayek have shown, governments can never have sufficient information to accurately make predictions or control economic variables. Much knowledge of creative and productive processes is not and often cannot be communicated to central planners. Much economic activity utilizes tacit knowledge that cannot form part of a governments planning models. The developing science of complex adaptive systems shows us that faster computers and more complex models cannot overcome this factor.
How can we support the flourishing of complex systems? By recognizing the workings of spontaneous order. Spontaneous order reveals itself in numerous types of complex system. Most famously, 18th Century economist Adam Smiths metaphor of the "invisible hand" revealed how useful social results flowed from the pursuit of individual goals. Start with a basic, stable, comprehensible framework of property rights: the rule of laws, not of rulers, private property, voluntary exchange, and price signals in a free market. Allow every individual to pursue their own interests as they choose within that framework. Then sit back and observe an incredible social organism that generates growing prosperity, technological progress, and social evolution.
Spontaneous order displays itself also in biological evolution. Charles Darwin made his world-changing breakthrough in understanding after reading Adam Smith. Spontaneous order even finds a place in computing. As computer networks have become increasingly complex, instead of computational resources being centrally allocated, distributed, market-like processes are being used. Spontaneous order, not centralized direction, provides the key to the management and sustenance of complexity.
How exactly do the ideas of self-ownership, spontaneous order, free markets, and individual liberty relate to one another? I control my own mind. I decide how to think, what to think about, and for how long to think. I choose my actions, my responses, my values. I own my mind. Exercising my ownership of my mind requires physical action. Mind/body dualism makes full self-ownership impossible. A rational philosophy recognizes that the mental and normative must be embodied and expressed in the physical. My values, desires, and plans need to be translated into action. Owning my self includes owning my body. My bodythe vehicle of my mindis my most intimate private property. My mind and body are not collective resources. They are me and they are mine.
The major philosophical and religious views of the last centuries have driven a wedge between mind and body, values and actions, the intellectual and the physical. Both Buddhism and Christianity have denigrated the physical body. Fundamentalist Christians see the physical worldthe real worldas the realm of the Devil. Only the utterly non-physical world of a mythical afterlife allows us a degree of self-control and self-ownership. (Even then, our souls are finally owned by God.) In the physical world, we are pushed and pulled by devilish, fleshy forces. This view denies the possibility of self-ownership in the real world. It allows a limited self-ownership only after dying. In an extropian view, mind and body can and should work together. Ownership of my mind requires ownership of my body. And ownership of my body requires the ability to own property external to my body as an extension of me.
When I deal with other self-owners by exchanging ideas, labor, and goods voluntarily, I create and transfer private property. Private property embodies and extends self-ownership. Without private property and freedom of exchange, I cannot exercise self-ownership of mind and body.
The free market embodies the Trader Principle. In free, dynamic societies, values cannot be attained by force. If I want something, I must offer an acceptable value in exchange. (The legitimate exception is when someone chooses to give us something for nothing for their own reasons.) In a future of increased technological destructive power, it becomes even more important to move from forced transfers to voluntary trades. We need to replace conflict and parasitism with mutually beneficial exchanges. Only when an exchange is voluntary can we know that all parties involved expect to benefit.
The ideal of self-ownership explains why Extropians take positions which fit neither the left nor the right of the crude, antiquated political classification. As advocates of self-ownership, Extropians oppose both minimum wage laws and laws against pornography; we favor the right of entrepreneurs to become billionaires and the right of homosexuals to marry legally; we recognize a womans right to exercise her self-ownership to abort her pregnancy and we recognize an employers right to offer a job at any wage uncoerced by minimum wage laws; we oppose legal discrimination whether "positive" or negative; we affirm the right of each individual to use the drugs they choose, the right to end ones life when one sees fit, and the right to be cryonically suspended prior to legal death; we affirm everyones right to associate with who they please.
Is full self-ownership compatible with any role for government? Certainly government in some sense supports self-ownership. This is the sense in which actions are minimally governed by laws to protect our rights and liberty. Whether these laws need be enforced by a monolithic State is too complex an issue to discuss here. Advocates of self-ownership do not all agree on the role of the State, if any. Some think protecting self-ownership requires the State to create and enforce laws, provide national defense, and enforce rules in the case of "public goods" such as clean air. Others suspect that even these governmental functions may be better performed using voluntary exchanges in a free market by competing organizations. Several extropian thinkers have carefully explored these possibilities.
Will economic and technological forces naturally increase liberty over the coming decades? The individually empowering effects of molecular nanotechnology, distributing computing, encryption, virtual communities, improved levels of education, increased internationalization and travel, all suggest an affirmative answer. Adequately answering this question would require a book, so I will set it aside here.
What is important is that we each promote individual freedom if we wish to meet the future with a dynamic, flexible, and diverse society and economy. As we rush into the future, we gain new abilities and face new choices. We are learning new means of modifying ourselves and our environments. We will need a full recognition of the freedom to choose life extension therapies, to be suspended, to augment and modify our brains and bodies. What others feel to be natural or normal has no final say in deciding what we may do.
To live life successfully, to survive, and to flourish, personal liberty needs to be matched by personal responsibility. Responsibility strongly promotes optimal living. On a social level, liberty cannot long survive when personal responsibility is rejected.
Consider, first, how responsibility sustains liberty. A society whose members demand freedom but reject personal responsibility will soon have neither. Freedom without responsibility is license. Freedom-as-license has become a widespread aspect of our culture. It manifests itself in many ways: In desires for freedom to do anything without restraint and without cost (someone else will bear the cost); the demand for income as a right (someone else will produce the income); the expectation of guaranteed commercial success (someone else will pay the costs of government subsidies and protection from foreign and "unfair" competition).
Liberty is not license. Liberty means freedom from compulsion. It means being free to choose your own actions, make your own plans, and act on your own beliefs and values. If we wish to live a productive, rewarding life in a flourishing society we will affirm that in demanding liberty we agree to take charge of ourselves. Freedom from outside control leaves a chaotic void if not replaced by control from within.
The survival of liberty requires personal responsibility. Without this connection our political institutions become a means for the shifting of blame, for compelling others to fix our problems, and for living off the efforts of others. As responsibility declines, the political system grows increasingly oppressive and burdensome. Politicians pass more laws ordering people what to do and how to do it. Tax-funded handouts expand to support those who do not want to produce. The law increasingly allows unprincipled liability suits as the irresponsible seek an easy source of income. Government agencies take over, telling us what we can eat, what vitamins we may take, what risks we may assume, what new technologies we may use. Eventually individual choice dries up and everything not compulsory is forbidden. Every small intervention results in new problems and unforseen side effects. These lead to calls for new interventions. The road to serfdom is traversed in small steps.
If we do not take charge of ourselves we will soon find ourselves devaluing liberty. Choice can be confusing and frightening to those unused to it. It requires practice and commitment until it comes to feel natural. I remember reading about a visitor to the USA from the Soviet Union (as it was then). The writer told of how the Soviet visitor entered a drugstore looking for toothpaste. The variety of types and brands shocked him. He exclaimed how much easier it was in the Soviet Union, where the choice had been made for you. For liberty to remain attractive then, we need to foster certain qualities of character.
Practicing personal responsibility will help sustain liberty in our culture. On an individual level we benefit directly by taking responsibility. But what does responsibility involve? Which qualities of characterwhich virtuescomprise a responsible person?
The overly indulgent culture of the 1960s taught many to "let it all hang out", to "go with the flow", and to avoid commitments. While the so-called "counterculture" of the 1960s opened many minds to new ideas and ways of living, it also tended to reject many of the virtues necessary for succesful living. Fun, play, and unguided activity have important roles in our lives. But the truth is that a successful life, a life of self-ownership involves demanding virtues such as self-discipline. As we make our choices through the day we need to keep our goals and values in mind, stay focused, and resist distractions. In taking responsibility for our goals we learn the value of persistence. Most of the great achievements of the human race have required persistence and perseverance. A person who worships the moment, a culture that abandons its commitments in the face of whims and distractions, will achieve nothing.
Along with personal effort, focus, and persistence, personal responsibility involves the virtue of integrity. A person of integrity ensures that her actions conform to her values. The source of her actions lies fundamentally in her own values and goals, not in the push and pull of external circumstances. Integrity is both an ethical virtue and a psychological characteristic. An integrated personality has developed consistent and rational values. If ones values are fundamentally inconsistent or not conducive to successful living (as in an ethics of self-sacrifice or other-sacrifice), integrity becomes impossible. When ethics and reality oppose one another, one may live either successfully or ethically but not both. If one believes in an irrational ethics, seeking an optimal life will inevitably make ethical integrity impossible.
Self-ownership crucially involves owning our values. If we profess one set of values yet live according to expediency, social pressure, or the dictates of authority, we will be torn in opposing directions. Like a racehorse tethered to a stake, we will run in circles, toiling without meaningful progress.
Owning our values and living by them means exercising our intellectual and emotional autonomy. The autonomous person makes choices true to herself even in the face of external pressures. Autonomy relies not on blind rebellion or uncooperativeness but on self-direction, self-understanding, rationality, and self-control. Autonomy and rationality both require another virtue: that of honesty. Honesty means the refusal to deceive ourselves or others (except in true self-defense). Honesty means taking responsibility for the consequences of our actions. It involves a commitment to acknowledging and learning from mistakes rather than shifting blame.
Many in the modern West have come to reject traditional virtues of productiveness and creativity. Yet the self-owner recognizes the need to create values for his own life; values that may be exchanged with others to sustain himself. The self-owner, understanding the threat of the mind-body dichotomy, will not have concern only for intellectual matters. He will embrace financial responsibility. Not only will supporting oneself bring self-esteem, it will allow one to face the rapidly changing future with confidence. Besides living comfortably day by day, money will be needed to periodically learn new skills as technology drives changes in businesses and other institutions. With extended lives, we will want to take temporary retirements periodically to retrench, reflect, and retrain. Earning and saving money, along with maintaining and improving ones health, will provide the strength to glory in the tumultuous changes we can expect of the transhuman and posthuman eras. The extropian principle of Self-Ownership involves a revitalization of the virtues of productivity and creativity.
If these and other virtuous qualities of character disappear from the culture, liberty will also decline. Irresponsible people see no value in liberty and the challenges it presents. Irresponsible people will shy away from the challenges of a posthuman future, and destroy the liberty necessary to that future.
All life is self-motivated and self-directed. We can barely discern self-directed behavior in simple organisms. Single-celled organisms like the amoeba respond in supremely predictable ways to their environment. They move away from acidic environments and bright light and towards nutrition. Creatures further up the evolutionary chain show action that is increasingly generated internally. When I watch my two cats play, I see the differences in their personality. Their repertoire of behaviors is far wider and more interesting that an amoebas. (They are also more warm and furry.) Their distinct personalities are a product of their self-direction.
With the advent of human beings, with their conceptual awareness and the development of rationality and culture, we see a yet higher level of self-direction. Humans, far more than the other species we know, can be aware of the forces acting on them, both internally and externally. Humans can choose their responses. External motivators of action, whether terrain, temperature, or food sources, no longer solely determine our actions. Technology, foresight, and civilization have endowed us with flexibility in dealing with external factors. Through psychology and psychopharmacology we have achieved growing awareness of and control over internal psychological pressures. As we become posthuman, the extent of our self-direction will increase. We will both need to be more self-directing, and will have the opportunity and ability to be more self-directing.
Humans today find themselves confronted by enormously more choices than people throughout all of our history. We can choose occupations, pastimes, partners, places to live, beliefs, appearance, and so on. As we move towards a posthuman condition, the range of possible goals will continue to expand. New technologies will create new industries and call for new skills. Social change will unfold fresh ways of interacting, untried relationships, and novel economic and political structures. Intellectual developmentscientific, technological, philosophical, artisticwill expand our possible beliefs and ways of thinking. Powerful technologies will allow us to shape ourselves and our environments in unprecedented ways.
In the face of this exploding range of options, many humans have fallen into a chronic state of uncertainty. They vacillate about what to do with their lives. They feel confused about their purpose in life. They flounder around, lacking direction. Billions of humans continue to turn to religions for a sense of purpose. If we are to flourish as we move from human to posthuman, we will need to develop a strong sense of purpose. This means getting and staying clear about our goals. If we dont know where we are going, we will go nowhere. All the incredible new knowledge and technologies we are developing will have limited value if, as individuals, we cannot focus ourselves.
Since the "be here now" 1960s, self-discipline has been frowned upon in some quarters. Yet, far from being an old-fashioned quality, self-discipline is a timeless virtue. True, with superintelligent servants and nanotechnology, perhaps we will be able one day to survive without much self-discipline. But achievement, satisfaction, and self-transformation will continue to require self-control in any technological or social environment. Indeed, the more technologically-enhanced temptations enticing us, the more self-discipline we will require when we seek to achieve anything profound and significant. Self-control means keeping an eye on our destination and firmly setting aside incompatible desires and resisting distractions.
Self-discipline has sometimes received a bad reputation for good reasons: Those who want us to push for their agendas and the satisfaction of their desires may abuse the idea of self-discipline. They may persuade us to work hard for them by criticizing our resistance as "lack of self-discipline". Because of this, to achieve self-ownership, we need to combine self-discipline with rationality and self-awareness. In this context, rationality refers to a commitment to seeing the world for what it is, rather than what we or someone else wants it to be. In particular, rationality means being determined to understand ourselves. Self-awareness is the inward shining of the light of reason. Unless we know ourselvesunderstand our real desires, goals, and dreamsour self-discipline will be misapplied. Either we will discipline ourselves to advance goals decided by others, or we will discipline ourselves to pursue goals that, deep down, we may not want or which may be harmful to us.
To achieve self-direction, self-discipline needs to go hand in hand with long-term thinking. Of course "long term" will mean something different as we achieve the extended lifespans of posthumans. Even with our present one-century lifespans, long-term planning helps shape our lives and order our activities. Effective self-direction is difficult if we focus solely on the very short term. Long-term plans and lifetime goals create context within which our nearer term plans can find a place. By seeing many of our present activities as part of a plan stretching into the distant future, we foster a sense of meaning and purpose. Keeping an eye on our interests from this perspective also helps us resist those immediately rewarding activities that undermine our true interests. Seeing our lives as processes unfolding over decades and longer helps us maintain our health, wealth, and sound relationships.
Two other components of self-directionautonomous values and self-definition deserve more discussion than I can give them here. Without critical thinking about valueswithout the formation of our own values though an ongoing process of questioning, we will not be in the drivers seat of our lives. No matter how strong our self-discipline, no matter how long-term our planning, no matter how clear our sense of purpose, with uncritically held values we will fail fully to direct ourselves. Our values, to the extent to which we actually have integrity and live by them, shape our activities and how we go about them. We may possess all the other virtues of self-direction yet be guided by values passively absorbed from outside us. If our energies, our focus, our discipline, are used to further values that we have not consciously and critically evaluated, we will move ahead, but in directions potentially harmful or limiting to us. Full self-direction asks us to apply independent thinking to our values. We may end up keeping most of our current values, or we may radically revise our beliefs about good and bad, right and wrong, and what is worth pursuing. Since our values form a core part of our selves, self-direction can be fully realized only when we have challenged all our beliefs about values in the light of reason.
Self-definitionsculpting our selvesis a crucial notion in an extropian view of life. If we want to fully own ourselves, we will create and shape our own identity. We will define who we are in every aspect of our lives. Leaving it up to random forces to define who we are means relinquishing personal determination of our nature. Self-definition implies directing our personality, our behavior, our appearance, our abilities and skills. Here I am slightly overstating the ideal of self-definition: Not every aspect of our lives will be worth the effort to direct. We may be content, in less important aspects of our lives, to leave to random forces who we are and who we become. While self-owners will certainly decide on their values, their career, and their romantic partner, they may leave it up to circumstance and chance which sports or games they engage in. Even so, self-owners consciously decide which aspects of their lives are worth defining explicitly and deliberately and which do not matter. Thus, even the areas of randomness in our lives will be part of a larger extropic ordering of our selves. As we develop new technologies for modifying our bodies and minds, the range of our choice and personal influence over our identity will continue to expand.
The religious and philosophical systems of the past and present have often undercut self-esteem. They tell us that we are born in sin, due to the deeds of our forebears. They tell us that we must pay off karmic debts from past lives. They tell us that humans are evil parasites on Mother Earth. To reclaim the psychological self-ownership needed for a dynamic future of change and challenge we need to replace these ideas. To own ourselves we need a strong sense of (objectively founded) self-esteem. The self-esteem psychologist Nathaniel Branden argues that self-esteem involves two components: Self-worth and self-confidence.
Self-worth means a sense that I deserve to live, that I am worthy of life, achievement, and success. If we are to survive and flourish over decades and centuries of change, we need to uproot religious convictions and parental messages that hammer down our sense of self-worth. Only self-worth can strongly motivate us to continue living and to seek the values that make us happy and successful. If we feel unworthy of living, we will sacrifice our lives to others. Or we will lack the motivation to invest in ourselves and our future. While it is true that motivation can exist without self-esteemone may exist in order to serve a deity or a collectivethat kind of motivation will generate resentment while providing no reliable self-preservation or personal happiness. If you believe that you deserve to flourish, the prospect of an indefinitely long life of achievement and happiness will be appealing. If you believe you are not worthy of living and prospering, extended life and achievement will appear as a threat or a burden.
Self-confidence refers to a fundamental conviction that one is competent to live. Self-ownership can have little meaning in the real world without a powerful element of self-confidence. As we move towards a posthuman future of ever-increasing choice and change, confidence in oneself becomes more important. If new technologies rapidly raise new industries and tear down the old, if todays skills will be outdated tomorrow, if the cultural environment does not stay static, then we need the confidence to adapt. Life has always required the ability to adapt. As change has accelerated, we not only need to learn to adapt quickly, we need to anticipate change. Seeing how technology, the economy, and the culture are changing, we need the confidence to let go of what we are used to and prepare for what is coming. Our keywords here: Rethink, retrain, reevaluate.
Each of us feels confident in particular areas of life. You might feel confident writing a computer program. Another feels confident standing on stage. Another feels confident at negotiating. But you might lack confidence in changing a diaper, replacing your computers hard drive, or singing in tune. We cannot help but lack competence in numerous areas. Yet we can develop a solid self-confidence in living. Self-confidence means not confidence in specific areas, but a fundamental conviction that I am competent to live. I may lack a skill or ability needed to get a particular job or to solve a relationship difficulty, but I feel confident that I can acquire those skills. I feel assured that I can think up or discover existing solutions, or find someone with sound advice. We have all known people of both extremes on the self-confidence spectrum. When faced with learning a totally new skill, some will cry, shake, or back off, while others will smile, rub their hands, and jump in.
Self-owners do not expect their future to be created by others, whether gods, governments, or gurus. Self-owners display confidence in their own ability to create the future they want. Self-confidence generates persistence by giving us the power to keep trying in the face of resistance and setbacks. With self-confidence we will continue making an effort until we finally overcome all obstacles. Self-worth bonded to self-confidence forms a powerful core of self-esteem. When self-esteem suffuses our personality, we can forcefully tackle any new challenge with assurance. The future, with all its unknowns, looks like an open space of grand possibilities, not a vast seething pool of danger.
RESPECT FOR OTHERS
In our rebellious youth, seeing the foolishness in the world, we thought we could do better. We may have laughed at authority figures, or resented them, or criticized them. Every intellectually vigorous youngster strives to form a worldview better than the obviously flawed ones around them. As rebellious and questioning youth, we may have reacted with suspicion to the term "respect". Perhaps we still do. I remember the e-mail list comments of a teenage enthusiast of the ideas expounded by extropians. The subject of respect came up. This fellow pounced on the word, dismissing the idea, suggesting that it was a bad thing unsuited to independent thinkers.
When taken in one sensea sense commonly used in the past"respect" can indeed imply behavior unsuited to a self-guided, free-thinking person. This is not the kind of respect I am advocating. This is the kind of respect found in admonishments to "respect your elders" without any context. Which elders? Why respect them? Respect them no matter what they say or do? Respect becomes unhealthy when it implies a blanket acceptance of the ways and beliefs of others and a denigration of our own. If respect means acquiescing to the judgment of others while denying the value of our own judgment, it will undermine cognitive and ethical self-ownership.
Respect for others, in the sense I intend, does not mean deference to persons of status without regard to our personal evaluation of them. We find that kind of deferential respect woven into the cultures of the past. Woman respected men, serfs respected feudal lords, commoners respected nobility, slaves respected mastersor else!
What kind of respect for others will suit us to becoming posthuman? How does respect for others complement self-respect, self-esteem, self-ownership? Respect for others follows from recognizing that just as self-ownership, self-direction, personal freedom, and personal responsibility are good for us, so are they good for others. It is a recognition of the benefits of appreciating others for their abilities and potentialities.
Rational respect must be contextual: we would be foolish to grant anyone absolute respect, irrespective of their demonstrated values. Some individuals may turn out to deserve no respect or, far more likely, respect sharply limited to specific domains. Our prejudices sometimes lead us to withhold respect even before we know anything significant about a person. Perhaps we know Jerry holds political views we find distasteful. We may lose all respect for him. Yet, rationally we should not withdraw respect hastily or totally. Perhaps on further acquaintance, Jerry has many fine qualities, his political views being in error but not proving some fatal, fixed moral flaw.
Respect is rational when it recognizes reality and when it relates to our own interests. This sensitivity to reality explains why respect should be contextual. If our feeling or expression of respect does not change when evidence shows that the grounds for that respect have changed, then we are blinding ourselves to the real world. We should recognize that rationality also gives us reasons for extending initial respect to unknown persons as well as reasons to maintain some respect even when the behavior or character of others is lacking. Why is this?
Sensitivity to reality means treating things and people differently depending on their differences in reality. We kick a stone or pick a flower casually, but we hurt an animal only with strong reasons, and we kill humans only in extreme situations. Initial and underlying respect for others, others who we may not know, results from recognizing that they too are intelligent, sensitive, capable beings. Healthy individuals understand this, while psychopaths treat persons as non-persons. Bearing in mind the nature of persons, we will not withhold or lose all respect for someone because of some particular infraction, some disagreement, or superficial difference in culture, belief, gender, or race. Emotionally and intellectually advanced humansthose on their way to becoming psychologically posthumanhave refined their emotional responses. Their vision pierces emotional fogging of perception, keeping differences and dislikes in proportion. They continue to recognize, appreciate, and respect the basic nature, abilities, and potential of persons.
A hard-core rationalist will, quite reasonably, ask: Surely I can recognize and acknowledge the nature of persons as intelligent, sensitive, self-owning creatures, yet consciously set that aside if it gets in the way of my interests? It may be psychopathic to be incapable of appreciating the nature of other persons, but is it not healthy to recognize but ignore their nature if it is to my advantage?
The question is well put since, as philosophers since Hume have insisted, you cannot derive an "ought" from an "is". That is, the fact that things are a certain way (persons have a particular nature) does not in itself prove that we ought to treat them a particular way. While a full answer to this question would require a lengthy excursion into psychology, my brief answer is that treating others with respect is rational because recognizing the nature of others will be to our benefit. We will treat others with respect because we want to live our lives optimally. By treating others with respect we help to foster a culture of respect. By treating others with respect we engender respect in return. Other people, even those with whom we have differences, are potential benefactors. Giving as much respect as is compatible with protection of our interests will maximize cooperation and mutual benevolence. We will be better placed to benefit from one anothers expertise, while keeping our differences in perspective.
How do we go about respecting the self-ownership of othersphysically, emotionally, intellectually? Most of us know how to do this, even if we do not always do so in practice. Briefly, then, I suggest that encouraging an extropian culture of respect involves civility, sensitivity, generosity, effective communication, honesty, and recognizing others rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and refraining from treating others purely as means to our ends. Civility, sensitivity, and generosity together comprise benevolence. Civility oils the cogs of daily discourse, helping us to listen to and enjoy one another. It is one of the old-fashioned virtues the decline of which even an extropian futurist can lament. Sensitivity means not a soft-headed, dewy-eyed emotional gushiness, but an alert awareness of the feelings, needs, and wants of others. Generosity means not a duty to give to all and sundry, but a non-grudging willingness to help when appropriate and reasonable, and a joy in the well-being of others.
Effective communication overlaps with the components of benevolence. To communicate our ideas and wants effectively to others, and to learn what others want from us, we need to practice sensitivity to the words and body language of others. Respectful communication involves really listening. Not just waiting for someone to finish so we can make our point. It involves looking for the value in what others say, rather than only latching onto their weak points and poor expression. It means approaching communications as learning experiences, not as combat, not as point-scoring, not as domination.
Both effective communication in particular and respect in general require a high degree of honesty. Unlike absolutist moral philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, I do not see truth-telling and honesty as iron laws, never to be broken. Lying, deceit, and dishonesty, though generally detrimental to healthy living based on long-term thinking, can have a place. These are generally limited to self-protection in situations where untruth is a legitimate means of protecting oneself from unwarranted violation by others. Dealing with others honestly means recognizing that others have their own interests, goals, and desires. It means dealing with them by voluntary exchange of real values rather than by deceit, fraud, and subterfuge. Honesty allows us to put all our energies into creating and achieving, rather than into inventing and sustaining the false reality created by lies.
On its most basic level, respecting others means respecting their rights. Here I do not mean all the rights demanded today, including rights to force others to provide for us, subsidize us, or behave the way we want. I mean rights to life, to private property, and to voluntary exchange. Although crucial to respect for others, recognizing their rights cannot be the whole story. Merely refraining from violating rights is not enough to build and sustain a strong culture of respect and self-ownership. As I have argued above, rational respect involves more than hands-off. It asks of us a number of virtues and a keen awareness of the reality of others. In return, respect can deliver to us personal relationships and a culture friendly to our personal survival and well-being. Respect for others will in the future continue to have the value for us that it has had in the past. The major difference is that an extropian culture can best flourish with a rational, context-sensitive respect, not a traditional, unquestioning, blind respect.
Just as freedom without responsibility is license, self-ownership without respect for others is adolescent and dominating. If we will not recognize self-ownership for others, why should we expect it to be recognized and respected in us? Extropians seek neither to rule others nor to be ruled by others. The ideal is a culture of self-owners who recognize and celebrate one anothers self-ownership.
Humanity is still growing up. To varying degrees, depending on our culture and individual development, we still resist full self-ownership. Sometimes we think independently; other times we ignore the sovereignty of our own mind in favor of an easy deference to the minds of others. We claim to want individual freedom, yet we support political and economic systems characterized by coercion and centralization. We respond positively to the idea of personal responsibility, yet ignore it when it seems inconvenient or difficult. We affirm self-direction as a desirable, modern ideal, yet we often let ourselves drift, or yield direction to external forces. Excepting believers in original sin, we recognize the value of self-esteem, yet so many of us have too little of it. We pay verbal homage to the notion of respect for others, yet we often forget what this involves.
As our technology matures at an accelerating pace, we need to keep pace psychologically. If the gap between technological and psychological progress grows too large, we will face threats to our well-being. Becoming posthuman calls for a co-evolution of technology and human nature. Only when psychological maturity accompanies technological augmentation can we be assured that posthumans will survive and flourish as never before in the future world. By encouraging an extropic culture of self-ownership we will foster a vital aspect of posthumanity.
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Nathaniel Branden, Taking Responsibility.
Harry Browne, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World.
Gregory Burch, http://users.aol.com/gburch1/exlaw.html
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Max More, "Order Without Orderers", Extropy #7 (vol.3 no.1, Spring 1991)
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T.O Morrow, "Privately Produced Law." Extropy #7 (vol.3, no.1, Winter/Spring 1991).
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Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness.
My thanks for comments to Gregory Burch, Wade Cherrington, and Peter Voss.