4. Principles and priorities

This page contains the opening portion of Chapter 4 from
Sustainable Superabundance: A universal transhumanist invitation

tam graphic 4

4. Principles and priorities


(Author’s narration of Chapter 4 – 53 min 29 sec – click here for a downloadable version)

It’s time to explore more deeply the set of values that underpin and motivate the Transhumanist Invitation.

This chapter sets out a number of fundamental principles, and reviews some high-level illustrations and implications. The seven chapters that follow apply and extend this set of values in each of seven spheres of human life where sustainable superabundance can bring profound transformation.

Statements of values are often viewed with suspicion. Words and deeds often diverge. There’s frequently a big discrepancy between a formal set of stated values, and the actual factors that seem to motivate people’s behaviour. But on other occasions, values that are powerfully felt can, indeed, change the conduct of individuals and communities. Values can inspire extraordinary courses of action. It depends in part on whether the values are embraced wholeheartedly, or merely given lip service.

The values and principles set out below are intended to meet a number of criteria. They are intended to be credible – fitting with everything we have determined to be the case about humanity and the universe. They are intended to be desirable – matching positive inclinations that we already find deep in our souls. They are intended to be universal – applicable to everyone, leaving no-one behind. And they are intended to be actionable: they should inspire practical real-world changes in how humanity cooperates to accelerate the advent of sustainable superabundance.

These values and principles are, moreover, intended to be liberating. Although they define constraints, and may appear to restrict our liberty, they can enable greater diversity, greater creativity, and greater all-round human flourishing. By helping us keep the bigger picture fully in mind, they can liberate us from domination by the short-term mundane concerns of daily life that often impinge on us and diminish us. And they will summon our best energies, empowering us to overcome the oppression from the vested interests and toxic belief systems that stand between us and our true potential.

Ten core principles

Society needs new top-level goals. Society should no longer prioritise above all else economics metrics such as the Gross Domestic Product or the Employment Rate.

After all, we humans cannot live by bread alone. Nor do we live just to work. These factors – the nourishment we consume, and the work we undertake – are means to an end, but are not ends in themselves.

Instead, here are a number of principles that merit being at the core of decision systems. To give them a name, they can be called “the ten core principles” or “the ten transhumanist principles”.

First, the recognition that the future can be radically better than the present: the present circumstances of humanity should by no means be regarded as the desirable pinnacle of evolution. A wonderfully improved future lies ahead of us, provided we recognise that possibility, and take appropriate actions.

Second, the prioritisation of human flourishing: prefer actions that lead to the increase of human flourishing. Flourishing involves happiness, but there is more to flourishing than happiness. Flourishing involves energy and nourishment, but there is more to flourishing than energy and nourishment. Flourishing likewise encompasses but extends beyond creativity, intelligence, health, collaboration, and awareness. Over time, our understanding of the conditions and possible expression of human flourishing will surely evolve and improve. That’s as it should be.

Third, the fundamental importance of human individuality: individual flourishing should not be sacrificed or subordinated to collectivist goals. Society should protect and elevate all members of society. Individuals should never become cannon-fodder in service of some tribal, national, ethnic, religious, or ideological quest.

Fourth, the principle of active neighbourliness: treat others in the way we would ourselves like to be treated, if we were in the same situation. Rather than keeping quiet about impending dangers about to befall someone, or major opportunities they are about to miss, we should find the way to speak up, just as we would ourselves like to be alerted to these dangers or opportunities in an equivalent circumstance.

Fifth, the generalisation of the previous principles beyond present-day humans: prefer actions that lead to the increase of flourishing of consciousness. To the extent that animal or artificial minds possess core attributes of consciousness, these minds deserve at least some of the same care and support as human minds. This care includes possibilities for growth and development, and the reduction in needless suffering.

Sixth, the generalisation to longer timescales, thereby highlighting sustainability: avoid actions that reduce the possibilities for future flourishing. Our plans need to enable, not only flourishing today, but also flourishing tomorrow (and the days and years that follow).

These six principles, as stated, leave many questions unanswered. They define a broad envelope that can accommodate a multiplicity of different viewpoints. That diversity is, itself, something to cherish. Hence a seventh core principle: nurture and tolerate diverse opinions within the overall transhumanist framework.

Here’s an eighth core principle: where different viewpoints within the overall envelope clash in terms of action to be taken, it is up to the community as a whole to deliberate and reach agreement. This is where the practice of superdemocracy comes to the fore.

Next, the principle of preferring objective data: to help resolve clashes between different ideas, priority should be placed on pursuing and publishing objective data relevant to decisions, rather than simply accepting the say-so of would-be authorities.

Finally, as a tenth core principle: in deliberations between conflicting insights, no book, thinker, or tradition should be given any absolute priority. Society needs to remain open to current favoured ideas and methods being superseded. Of course, respect can be shown to books, thinkers, or traditions with good track records as sources of insight. But that respect should be tempered with caution. Runs of success can come to an end – especially in new circumstances or new contexts.

In summary, the ten recommended core principles are: radical progress, human flourishing, individuality, neighbourliness, consciousness, sustainability, diversity, superdemocracy, objective data, and openness. These principles complement and support each other. Together, they set the framework for humanity to advance into the era of sustainable superabundance.

The limits of technocracy

To illustrate a number of the core principles just mentioned, consider the notion of technocracy – respect for decisions by domain experts.

Other things being equal, it’s sensible to pay attention to viewpoints from reputed domain experts. For example, in a sailing boat blown into unfamiliar turbulent waters by a storm, the recommendations of seasoned navigators deserve more attention than the opinions of a first-time sailor. For matters of an individual patient’s health, expert doctors are more trustworthy than lifestyle advice found in mass distribution horoscope columns.

However, all viewpoints should be subject to query and analysis. Experts are often wrong.

Moreover, the fact that someone is an expert in one domain does not entail any special priority applies to their viewpoints in other domains. An expert sailing navigator gains no authority in a different field, such as medical treatments, just by virtue of their sailing expertise.

As it happens, decisions frequently involve the intersection of several different domains. A decision that appears sound from one perspective may be recognised as inadequate when other perspectives are introduced. If we listen only to experts from the first perspective, we risk reaching a bad decision.

Even when someone is an undoubted technical expert in a given domain, it’s worth investing time and effort in explaining to the general public the reasoning behind their recommendations. Key decisions should be communicated openly and collectively understood, rather than being forced onto uncomprehending recipients.

Accordingly, there are major limitations to the concept of delegating hard decisions to domain experts. The ideal of technocracy needs to be subordinated to the ideal of superdemocracy – the involvement of the entire community in the process to reach decisions.

To be clear, in a superdemocracy, domain experts are respected and valued. Any society that ignores or denigrates the best insights of, for example, scientists, engineers, project managers, or change management experts, risks major failures in the initiatives it pursues. But whilst these experts should influence the decisions, they shouldn’t dictate any outcomes. The outcomes should be decided collaboratively, respecting the principles of openness and diversity.

The limits of science

As another important example of the interplay between the core principles proposed above, consider science.

 

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There’s more to democracy than voting

Suppose that the UK held another referendum on the subject of Brexit. Suppose that the numerical result was essentially the same as before: around 52% voting for the UK to leave the EU, and around 48% voting for the UK to remain.

In that case, would that referendum prove to have been a massive waste of time and money?

My answer: not necessarily. Such a vote could actually lead to the healing of the nation, rather than to continued divisiveness and chaos.

politics chaos or healing

It all depends, not on the numerical result, but on the calibre of the arguments raised during that referendum.

If supporters of Leave came forward, during the campaign, with arguments that were less contestable and more compelling than before, this could lead to a healing of the nation. People who voted for the other option in the referendum might still feel disappointed. But they could accept that there were sound arguments in favour of the side that won. And, unlike the case of the first Brexit referendum, they could move forward, reconciled to the outcome. They could tell themselves they had lost a fair battle.

A similar conclusion could apply if, in a variant potential future scenario, it were Remain that won the second referendum, even if just by a narrow margin. Again, there’s no inherent reason why that conclusion would lead to ongoing bitterness. Again, it depends, not on the numerical result, but on the calibre of the arguments raised during the campaigns.

Not just a re-run

Various critics of the idea of a second referendum are doubtful that anything positive could arise from a new round of campaigning. It would just be a re-run of the previous campaign, they say, perhaps with a few people changing their minds. Nothing essentially new could arise. Forget healing. We would just get more chaos.

But I give a much more positive assessment to the idea of a second, better, referendum.

For one reason, people have learned a great deal in the intervening 30 months. Opinions which could be seen as plausible two years ago, have long since been shown up as deeply wrong. As an example, consider the now thoroughly discredited claim that it would be “the easiest deal ever” to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU (witness “EU trade deal ‘easiest in human history'” and “All the times David Davis said that Brexit was simple”.) On such matters, we’re all wiser now.

But more fundamentally, it’s now widely recognised that it’s in everyone’s interest to cool down the debate, rather than letting matters be inflamed further.

The falsification principle

As a step away from ideology to objectivity, participants in the debate should start by reflecting long and hard about which circumstances would cause them to change their minds. This is in line with the falsification principle of science: people aspiring to scientific methods should set out in advance which experimental findings would cause them to seriously rethink their currently favoured theories.

Therefore, people favouring Remain should describe the circumstances that would cause them to consider switching to Leave instead. In this way, they would identify the potentially strongest arguments in favour of Leave. For example, to my mind, the strongest argument in favour of Leave would be if the structural weakness of the eurozone were shown to be likely to lead to huge financial chaos, of a sort that the UK could best hope to escape by being outside of the EU altogether.

Likewise, people favouring Leave should describe the circumstances that would cause them to consider switching to Remain instead. For example, they might be prepared to alter their vote if they gained confidence in the flexibility and genuineness of EU reform proposals.

Debate participants unable to set out such a “falsifying circumstance” would have to acknowledge they are driven by ideology, rather being open to new findings.

Preparing to build bridges

In parallel, participants in both sides of the debate need to set out proposals for how the UK could unwind from any state of internal hostility after the campaign was concluded.

To this end, supporters of Remain need to acknowledge that many on the Leave side are profoundly ill at ease with what they see as the direction of social development. More than that, Remain supporters need to be ready to commit to a credible programme to address key causes of this alienation, including the bitter perception many people have of being “left behind”.

Similarly, supporters of Leave need to acknowledge that many on the Remain side are profoundly ill at ease with the potential unravelling of processes of multilateral decisions, in a post-Brexit race-to-the bottom world of increasing deregulation.

Towards superdemocracy

That’s the vision – the vision of a better politics being expressed in a better referendum.

It’s a vision that goes beyond democracy-as-counting-votes. It’s a vision of emerging superdemocracy (to use a term that has featured in the last two Transpolitica books – Transcending Politics and Sustainable Superabundance).

Is this vision credible? Or are we doomed to a politics dominated by feelings of vengeance and obliteration?

That is, is a second referendum likely to lead to even greater chaos, or to healing?

Personal leadership

To an extent, the answer will be influenced by the personal qualities of the people leading each side of the debate. Do these people have high personal integrity? Are they open to learning? Are they able to build bridges? Do they have high emotional intelligence? Or are they, instead, obsessive and self-serving?

The answer (chaos or healing) will also depend on how the media conducts itself. Is the media looking for high drama? Will it seek out and amplify the most inflammatory soundbites? Or will it show restraint and care?

To my mind, everyone who cares about the future of the UK has to get behind the processes of healing, rather than the processes of chaos.

That means a commitment to debating honestly – to considering the merits and demerits of different arguments fairly, rather than with a partisan spirit.

This also means a commitment to building bridges – to discovering shared common values, even with people who express views very differently to our own.

It won’t be easy. But the cost of failure would be enormous.

Image source: “Big Ben at Sunset” – Photo by M N on Unsplash

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