In this paper, I critically assess transhumanist philosophy and its influence in bioethics by turning to resources in the work of Michel Foucault. I begin by outlining transhumanism and drawing out some of the primary goals of transhumanist philosophy. In order to do so, I focus on the work of Nick Bostrom and Julian Savulescu, two prominent contributors to this thinking. I then move to explicate Foucault's work, in the early iterations of the Abnormal lecture series, on the concept of vile sovereignty. Foucault used the concept of vile sovereignty to critique psychiatric witnesses that had been utilized in mid twentieth-century French courts of law. Turning back to transhumanism, I analyze transhumanist discourse on the basis of Foucault's vile sovereignty. Transhumanists promote human enhancement in a way that rejects the body—especially the disabled body—and pose the question of what lives are worth living, as well as attempt to answer it. I conclude that because of the undeserved influence and ableism of transhumanism, it is important for feminist philosophers, philosophers of disability, and other disability scholars, who collide at the nexus of bioethical debate (especially with regard to reproductive technology and the body), to work together to intervene upon transhumanist discourse.

Discourses of truth that provoke laughter and have the institutional power to kill are, after all, in a society like ours, discourses that deserve some attention.

—Michel Foucault, Abnormal


In this paper, I critically assess transhumanist philosophy and its influence in bioethics by turning to resources in the work of Michel Foucault. I begin by outlining transhumanism and drawing out the crucial suggestions of the transhumanist philosophical movement and thus its contribution to debates regarding the ethics of human enhancement. I focus on the work of Nick Bostrom and Julian Savulescu, two prominent contributors to this thinking, in order to call attention to two main issues stemming from transhumanist thinking that are specifically related to enhancement: first, the transcendence of embodiment and, second, selection against stigmatized and unwanted traits associated with disability. In turn, I move to explicate Foucault's work in the early iterations of the 1974-75 lecture series that he gave at the Collège de France which was subsequently published in English as Abnormal (2003). Foucault's investigations into the construction of criminal abnormality therein can illuminate the construction of bodily abnormality in bioethics discourse to which, I argue, transhumanism contributes. Foucault describes how an abnormal subject was constituted in French courtrooms through penal discourses that simultaneously took on the appearance of truth and claimed authority in life and death cases, operating illicitly through the inspiration of fear and the use of outmoded science. I parallel Foucault's analysis of French courtrooms in my own analysis of transhumanism.

Critique of transhumanist philosophy is important for feminist philosophy of disability and other forms of disability scholarship insofar as transhumanist philosophy has troubling implications for persons with disabilities and women. The affirmation and extension of traditional humanism embedded in transhumanism's vision of the future supports traditional hierarchies between body and mind and among capabilities. Cognitive ability, for example, is considered uniquely important to the good life—especially if it can be relieved of interference from a body vulnerable to injury and death—and the addition of capabilities is linked tightly to increased well-being. Philosophers of disability and feminist theorists should work in tandem to critique transhumanism for these assumptions, especially insofar as they become evidence to support investment in research and technology to be used upon the body (cf. Garland-Thomson 2002; Rohrer 2005; Wendell 1996). Because of its assumptions regarding the importance of capability in general and cognitive capability in particular, transhumanism seems philosophically at odds with disability rights and the aims and goals of the disabled people's movement. I do not wish to claim, however, that the relationship between transhumanism and the disabled people's movement is a simple matter. Gregor Wolbring, a well-known disabled scholar and activist, for example, identifies as a transhumanist (Wasserman 2012). Indeed, as David Wasserman notes, transhumanist thinkers invoke members of the disability community as representative of the forefront of the potential and promise of new technologies because many of these people use assistive technology and prosthetics and, furthermore, because the community embraces human bodies in a variety of forms and other kinds of human variation (ibid.). Given the transhumanist goal of adding to or increasing capabilities and its invocation of the disability community as uniquely friendly to or dependent upon technology, controversy surrounding the ethics of radical human enhancement implicates disabled people in a key role. Yet, as Wasserman suggests, the proliferation of enhancement technologies might exacerbate existing prejudices by promoting value hierarchies among capabilities rather than, as Wolbring hopes, alleviating prejudices through difference (ibid.). 1


Transhumanist philosophy focuses on the development and potential achievements of evolving technology and the possibility of enhancing current human capabilities (Bostrom 2005b, 8). It would be accurate to classify transhumanism as a type of applied ethics, given its concern with the practical implications of technology and possibilities for its future use for improving human life. According to the "Transhumanist Declaration" (Appendix to Bostrom 2005b), which was penned in 1998 as a founding document of the World Transhumanist Association, transhumanists recognize that technology has the power to impact human life in a fundamental way that would "redesign" it. Transhumanists believe that although new technologies, particularly technologies made possible by genetics, robotics, information, and nanotechnology (the "GRIN" fields) are risky, they should be welcomed because of their potential to improve human life, rather than avoided or shunned because of "technophobia" (ibid.; cf. Garreau 2005, 115). Global society should invest time and research into technology designed to improve cognition, in anti-aging techniques, in reproductive technology, and in life suspension techniques such as cryogenics (all of which are cited in the Transhumanist Declaration) in order to understand both the risks and possibilities of these technologies. Ultimately, what individuals stand to gain, according to transhumanists, is the "use of technology to extend their mental and physical (including reproductive) capacities and to improve their control over their own lives" (Bostrom 2005b, Appendix). In sum, the Declaration claims that transhumanists "seek personal growth beyond our current biological limitations" (ibid.). It seems that for transhumanists, only two reactions to inevitable scientific innovations—that is, passivity and activity—are possible, with the latter reaction preferable because (or so it is claimed) the technology has the potential to ameliorate or eliminate human suffering, while the former reaction—namely, passivity—should be rejected because it may increase or at least extend human suffering.

Nick Bostrom, Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Future of Humanity Institute and the Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology at Oxford University, is one of transhumanism's chief proponents and co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association. For Bostrom, transhumanism stands for the "radical extension of human health-span, eradication of disease, elimination of unnecessary suffering, and augmentation of human intellectual, physical, and emotional capacities" (2003, 5). In a 2005 essay, Bostrom traces a history of transhumanism. Taking literary epics, ceremony, and religion as a guide, he notes that cultures around the world have long bemoaned death and sought immortality. He regards Renaissance humanism and the exercise of the intellect encouraged by the Age of the Enlightenment as primary precursors of today's transhumanist point of view because, like transhumanism, both of these historical frames emphasized "intellectual rigor" and relied upon empiricism and human judgment to investigate the world and its possibilities, rather than upon the acceptance of dogma (Bostrom 2005b, 2). As Bostrom notes, Francis Bacon argued that one should consider "all things possible" and that science should be used to "achieve mastery over nature in order to improve the living condition of human beings" (ibid.). In short, Bostrom argues that "transhumanism has roots in rational humanism"—in other words, the philosophy of transhumanism locates its heritage in the aforementioned influences of intellectual history.

Among the ideas of these historical periods that continue to be promulgated is the far-reaching belief that the human is an object of nature to be conquered. Bostrom writes (2005b): "In the 18th and 19th centuries we begin to see glimpses of the idea that even humans themselves can be developed through the appliance of science." It is Immanuel Kant's motto "Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own intelligence!" (4; cf. Wolfe 2009, xiv) to which Bostrom finally turns. Nevertheless, Bostrom simultaneously distinguishes transhumanist aims from the nineteenth-century figure of Friedrich Nietzsche's "overman," noting that Nietzsche did not have "technological transformation" in mind. As Bostrom (2005b, 4) explains:

Despite some surface-level similarities with the Nietzschean vision, transhumanism— with its Enlightenment roots, its emphasis on individual liberties, and its humanistic concern for the welfare of all humans (and other sentient beings)—probably has as much or more in common with Nietzsche's contemporary J.S. Mill, the English liberal thinker and utilitarian.

Transhumanism looks forward to, and promotes, a future where technology reshapes the human being as it is now conceived. In accordance with Bostrom's vision, this reshaping would be directed toward improvement of human beings in terms of their capabilities, in addition to (and in harmony with J.S. Mill) improvement in degrees of human happiness.

Max More (1990), another transhumanist leader, has this to say about transhumanism:

Transhumanism is a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values. (quoted in Humanity + 2012)

Transhumanism's hoped-for, reshaped, human being is often referred to as the "posthuman." To be posthuman, according to transhumanists, is to inhabit a state generally considered to be not only a departure from everyday human qualities, but rather also radically better than, or transcendent of, humanity as we know it (Bostrom 2008). As journalist Joel Garreau puts it, posthumans would "no longer be unambiguously human by our current standards" (Garreau 2005, 231-232, as quoted in Wolfe 2009, xiii). As the "Transhumanist FAQ," a collectively-authored document, puts it: "Posthumans could be completely synthetic artificial intelligences, or they could be enhanced uploads … or they could be the result of making many smaller but cumulatively profound augmentations to a biological human" (Humanity + 2012). It is clear that this transhumanist vision of the posthuman is framed by human-machine hybridity. 2

Transhumanism and Posthumanism

Transhumanism's sense of the term posthuman is not the only contemporary meaning of the term. Transhumanism's posthuman is not equivalent, for instance, to the critique or concept used in critical animal studies to challenge philosophical investments in, or the moral relevance of, traditional species boundaries. For example, in What is Posthumanism? Cary Wolfe (2009) strongly distinguishes transhumanism from the critical posthumanism he endorses. Wolfe draws this line precisely because of the humanism that Bostrom identifies as the "roots" of transhumanism, a sense of "posthumanism [that] derives directly from ideals of human perfectibility, rationality, and agency" (xiii). Wolfe, drawing upon posthumanist critique to target these ideals, shows that the positive "aspirations" of humanism are "undercut by the philosophical and ethical frameworks used to conceptualise them" (xvi). Among these aspirations are better treatment of nonhuman animals and persons with disabilities; as Wolfe sees it, however, these projects cannot get off the ground due to the confining "normative subjectivity" of humanism (xvi-xvii). When Wolfe compares posthumanism to transhumanism, he writes: "posthumanism in my sense isn't posthuman at all—in the sense of being 'after' our embodiment has been transcended—but is only posthumanist, in the sense that it opposes the fantasies of disembodiment and autonomy, inherited from humanism itself" (xv).

Outside of animal studies, a version of posthumanism has been attributed to Foucault because of his remark that the human being, as it is known to us in the contemporary world, is a recent invention that may soon be left behind or die out (Foucault 1973, 386-87). Foucault's sense of posthumanism would amount to the recognition that discourse and power relations always shape human identity, which can shift and be refashioned. Unlike Bostrom, who appears to consider the intellect to be trapped in the body (an inheritance from Plato, who suggested the same thing about the soul), Foucault believed that the soul was the "prison of the body" (Foucault 1979, 30). Arnold Davidson, in his introduction to the Abnormal lectures, explains that Foucault provides a "historical analysis" and "political history" of the body by focusing on the way that the concepts of the psyche and personality came about, contributing to "gradation from normal to abnormal" in the classification of bodies (Davidson, in Foucault 2003, xix). Because transhumanism lacks Foucault's insight that beliefs about what the human being is can impact acceptance and rejection of particular bodies, the former philosophy could serve to further advance the construction and support of notions of abnormality that are themselves in turn used to exclude certain bodies from political and social privileges.

Despite rallying around a vision of the posthuman, transhumanism conflicts with the ironic cyborg utopia first imagined by Donna Haraway in 1985. Haraway, another philosopher of posthumanism, is the author of "The Cyborg Manifesto" (1991), an iconic essay of political ironism in which she imagines border crossings that break oppressive dualisms and acknowledge that human beings are already chimeras and cyborgs. Wolfe identifies Haraway's legacy as the "cyborg" strand of posthumanism and claims that although transhumanism takes cues from her work, it does not much resemble the spirit of Haraway's attempted intervention (xiii). For transhumanism looks forward to a time when posthumans arrive; by contrast, Haraway's work argues that distinctions which uphold the figure of the human as autonomous, whole, and rational have already broken down.

Insofar as feminist philosophers are concerned to critique the vision of the human as autonomous or as a carrier of pure rationality, we should be concerned to critique transhumanism. Transhumanism wields humanism, turning the boundless rationality once thought to conquer nature back upon human beings to reshape them. What emerges would not be a hybrid that has no origin (as Haraway envisioned) and would not be a being outside of the dualities that privilege men over women and culture over nature, including the human/animal, organism/machine, and physical/non-physical divides (Haraway 1991, 151-153). Instead, transhumanists envision an extension of capabilities further into space and time and the multiplication and maximization of autonomy and intellect. Katherine Hayles, a proponent of her own type of posthumanism, critiques transhumanist Hans Moravec in the following way:

When Moravec imagines 'you' choosing to download yourself into a computer, thereby obtaining through technological mastery the ultimate privilege of immortality, he is not abandoning the autonomous liberal subject but is expanding its prerogatives into the realm of the posthuman. (Hayles 1999, 287; cf. Wolfe 2009 xv)

Though radical forms of posthumanism that contribute to feminist projects like Haraway's ironic political myth exist, transhumanism's posthuman is not among these. Transhumanism uncritically adopts the tenets of classical humanism and thus its imagined "cyborg" does not celebrate difference, but rather celebrates the maximization and optimization of familiar valued traits such as cognitive ability. This celebration informs and supports existing hierarchies (cf. Humanity + 2012). The pleasures imagined for posthumans in transhuman utopian literature are also an example of the extension of the present. Posthuman pleasures claimed for transhumanist futures are often hyper-realized versions of current desires, as in Bostrom's (2008) "Why I Want to be a Posthuman When I Grow Up," where he suggests that posthumans will enjoy intensely pleasurable music, friendships, and multi-player games.

Transhumanist Strategies

Now that I have laid out the basic tenets of transhumanism, I turn to a critical discussion of the specific views of Bostrom and Savulescu and the enhancement strategies of transcending the biological (Bostrom) and negative genetic selection (Savulescu). Tackling the number and variety of enhancements suggested by transhumanist scholars is beyond the scope of this paper. I have chosen to focus on these two figures and these particular issues because Bostrom and Savulescu are both influential scholars whose primary suggestions have special interest for feminist philosophers of disability and other feminist disability scholars, given the conceptual and concrete implications of these suggestions for women and persons with disabilities. 3

Bostrom (2008) promises a future of increased happiness—that is, a future that not only holds increased pleasures, but is also increasingly moral and politically just—if only we invest in enhancement technologies. He bases his argument primarily upon increased opportunity ranges and the unknown potential of increased intellectual capacity. Because the posthuman is an erstwhile human with radically increased capacities, Bostrom argues, the opportunity range of a posthuman is larger in scope than the opportunity range of a human. These ranges can be represented by two concentric circles, with the posthuman opportunity range encompassing that of the human. Bostrom thereby contends that posthumanism should be pursued.

According to Bostrom, posthuman life is, by definition, unknowable to humans as we exist now because it involves the attainment of new capacities and, thus, new insights. Yet, Bostrom argues that the posthuman state is something better, offering pleasures and fulfillments worth pursuing (2004, 2008, 112). He writes (as if from the future): "[Posthumans] love life every instant. Every second is so good that it would blow our minds had their amperage not been previously increased" (2010, 8). Bostrom's frequent rhetorical strategy is to invoke a utopia. This fact has not gone unnoticed among other scholars, or even Bostrom himself, who seems to embrace the term (for example, Hauskeller 2012, Bostrom 2010). Bostrom (2010, 2) contrasts an unknowable future of intense happiness with today's world, describing in dismal terms today's world in which suffering is taken for granted:

Every way you turn it's the same: soot, casting its veil over all glamours and revelries, despoiling your epiphany, sodding up your white pressed collar and shirt. And once again that familiar beat is audible, the beat of numbing routine rolling along its tracks. The commuter trains loading and unloading their passengers … sleepwalkers, shoppers, solicitors, the ambitious and the hopeless, the contented and the wretched … like human electrons shuffling through the circuitry of civilization.

Readers are thus exhorted to promote a transhumanist vision of the future: "In the attic of your mind, reserve a drawer for the notion of a higher state of being. In the furnace of your heart, keep an aspiring ember alive. I am summoning this memory of your best experience—to what end? In the hope of kindling in you a desire to share my happiness" (Bostrom 2010, 3; cf. 5).

Bostrom describes human bodies as fragile houses unfit for continued bliss and happiness (2010, 2). He writes: "it is not well to live in a self-combusting paper hut! … One day you or your children should have a secure home. Research, build, redouble your effort!" (5). Relying on utopian rhetorical strategy, Bostrom also feeds the fantasy of a disembodied intellect in search of a better home from which it can operate and experience life. This trapped intellect appears to be the real posthuman that awaits release. The human body is rejected as vulnerable and a moral imperative (echoed, as we shall see, in the work of Savulescu) is introduced according to which one ought to provide new sorts of bodies—that is, bodies without vulnerabilities—for one's children.

Though Bostrom says merely that there are unknown good and better things in wait, he flags pursuit of these unknowns as a moral obligation (e.g. Bostrom 2010, 5 above; Harris 2009; Savulescu 2001). Transhumanism is informed by the strong desire to avoid the suffering of disease and pain, as well as by the moral urgency derived from the sense that death is unjust and society is culpable for its failure to address its victims. Yet, in order to achieve rhetorical goals, current suffering may be overstated (Bostrom 2004, 2005a). Bostrom writes (2010, 87): "What is Guilt in Utopia? Guilt is our knowledge that we could have created Utopia sooner." In Bostrom's work, and in its promise of immortality or decelerated aging, transhumanism represents the fantasy of wish fulfillment and therefore, from Karl Mannheim's point of view, is decidedly utopian (Mannheim 1991, 184). Bostrom specifically denigrates the body and (implicitly) dependence as part of his program of human enhancement, as evidenced by his description of the self-combusting paper hut and the goals of transhumanism to augment and protect a disembodied intellect by way of technology. Feminists, in various ways, have theorized the dependency at the heart of human life and subjectivity (e.g. Fineman 2002; Fraser and Gordon 2002; Kittay 2002; Nussbaum 2002; and Oliver 2002). Feminist thinkers argue that although interdependence is universal, the material conditions of social life disguise the dependence of some people and showcase or expose the dependence of other people. Bostrom works from the assumption that subjectivity sans dependence or interdependence is normal and preferable, while deviance from this norm is to be avoided.

I turn now to Julian Savulescu, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Medical Ethics and director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. Savulescu's work, like Bostrom's, is motivated by moral urgency; he claims that humans must enhance themselves morally or face extinction because of moral ineptitude (2009, cf. Persson and Savulescu 2010, 2012). Savulescu (2001) argues that parents are responsible for choosing future children on the basis of particular traits in order to secure greater happiness and freedom for them—or at least provide the best chances at happiness and freedom. For Savulescu, in other words, parents have a moral obligation, when they reproduce, to select for the traits that will contribute to the best chances for the best life of their offspring (415). Given existing technology, this means selective abortion on the basis of the presence of certain traits uncovered via prenatal diagnosis or a combination of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Savulescu argues that the latter method is psychologically preferable (416).

Savulescu likens the reasoning involved in the selection of embryos to playing the Wheel of Fortune; he believes that, no matter how weak the link between genotype and expected eventual quality of life, a parent should select the embryo, of available embryos, with the best traits (2001, 414). This reasoning applies, for instance, to cognitive ability, which he argues is essential to living a good life on most major versions of moral living. According to Savulescu, most moral conceptions of how to live a good life are based in or could be improved with maximized cognition (419-420). This reasoning applies to myriad other traits also, including traits for asthma and bad tempers, which could affect quality of life (417, 420). He admits, furthermore, that if society favors men, then parents have good moral reason to select embryos based on their sex (male) (423). Such decisions, he thinks, do not impact equality or justice issues, because before the impact of these decisions is felt on the level of the population there would be emergent reasons (i.e., intense gender disparity) that would change the direction of moral obligation (ibid.). Savulescu and others argue that "eugenic" genetic selection is the best way to achieve human enhancement (for instance, see Savulescu, Hemsley, Newson, and Foddy 2006). Although Savulescu believes procreative liberty is a right which competes with the obligation ("procreative beneficence") to select for the best or better traits (Savulescu 2001, 425; cf. Savulescu 2002), he makes clear that genetic markers for disability are among the traits targeted as worse and to be avoided by those who are morally conscientious (Savulescu 2008).

Both persons with disabilities and women have reasons to be suspicious of Savulescu's argument for procreative beneficence. First, Savulescu's focus on eliminating undesirable traits biologically obscures the ways in which disability is social; that is, his work both naturalizes and calls for the elimination of disability. Disability, viewed through procreative beneficence, becomes a genetic trait which can be screened out or turned off by way of reproductive decision-making in the form of genetic selection (Tremain 2013, 22). Second, feminist bioethicist Christine Overall (2012) points out Savulescu's disturbing failure to refer to the women who would receive the IVF treatments that are at the heart of the principle of procreative beneficence. She writes:

In his discussions of the PPB [principle of procreative beneficence] Savulescu shockingly does not even refer to women; he writes almost exclusively of "couples" and occasionally of "single reproducers." But the PPB, if adopted, would weigh far more heavily on women than on men, for, as Savulescu points out, achieving procreative beneficence in his sense necessitates the use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis after IVF. His ideal is that every potential mother would be required to undergo this process. (125)

Overall (2012) points out that IVF is a major intervention on a woman's body that amounts to a high-risk medical experiment for both the mother and the child. IVF also carries significant risks for the fetus stemming from the likelihood of "multiples" brought by the procedure itself and, when combined with pre-implantation diagnosis, cannot guarantee an improved life for a potential child. As Overall notes, furthermore, IVF is extremely cost-prohibitive and becomes less effective as women age (126-127). She writes: "Thus, acting on procreative beneficence turns out not to be beneficent at all, either for prospective mothers or for their future children" (127).

Within Overall's (1987) related feminist work on sex selection, she has distinguished between preferences and practices. Overall seeks to draw attention away from individual preferences for male offspring, which may or may not be sexist (she argues that such preferences are not "easy to justify" [2012, 232, n. 6]) and toward the social practice of sex selection—which contributes to sexism in culture (Overall 1987, Ch.2; cf. Callahan 1995, 135-136). In other words, where Savulescu focuses on the morality of individual choices, Overall wants to focus on the politics of stigmatizing practices. In parallel with Overall, I want to refocus attention away from individual preferences against unwanted traits, which preferences themselves may or may not be ableist, and toward social practices such as negative genetic selection and beliefs that can contribute to ableism. But this distinction seems faulty, especially given the feedback loop between individual preferences and stigmatizing social practices. How can we focus attention on stigmatizing practices and cultural attitudes without evaluating the morality of agents?

The work of Foucault on biopolitics and normalization can assist in this project and also provide possible routes for philosophical examination of transhumanism more generally. Some uses of reproductive technology, Overall writes, may involve the "presupposition … that we can ensure that only high-quality babies are born, and that 'defective' fetuses can be eliminated before birth. The foetus is treated as a product for which 'quality control' measures are appropriate" (Overall 1993, 58). Foucault's notion of biopolitics is meant to capture and discuss precisely this type of presupposition and the normalizing force—which distinguishes between normal and abnormal traits and bodies—that it represents. For Foucault, biopolitics focuses on the "species body" and involves the "supervision" of "propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary" (Foucault 1990, 139). Foucault's (2003) work in the Abnormal lectures is part of his legacy of biopolitics. Accordingly, my examination and evaluation of transhumanist thought, which is informed by feminist philosophy and philosophy of disability, focuses on a culture of stigmatization and its expression in bioethics, not on individual decision-making about the addition of capabilities or selection of traits. My investigation bears out Overall's insights and desire to separate individual moral agency from aggregate social practices, without losing the ability to discern stigma where and when it appears and is fed.

Psychiatry: Foucault's Vile Sovereign and the Production of the Abnormal

In this section, I exploit the explanatory power of Foucault's notion of vile sovereignty (introduced in the Abnormal lectures) in order to critique transhumanism as ableist, that is, as prejudiced against and oppressive to persons with disabilities. Foucault's concept of vile sovereignty reveals that ideas can be powerful because of their problematic features—i.e., for the very reasons that make the idea bad, such as the use of wish-fulfillment and fear (in the case of transhumanism, the desire for utopia and fear of vulnerability). Foucault's work on vile sovereignty can re-characterize transhumanist arguments in terms of their shortcomings, including support for the fissure between normal and abnormal.

In the early lectures of the Abnormal series, Foucault sketches the outline of a notion of sovereignty he describes as "vile" or, variously, "grotesque" and "despicable" (2003, 11, 12, and 13). This variety of sovereignty is under-theorized in the secondary literature on Foucault. Since the concept of the vile sovereign has not been fully explored, I outline it here. Vile sovereignty inaugurates Foucault's research into the products of normalization in the Abnormal lectures, that is, his research into the development of the figure of the abnormal from the monster, to the mentally defective criminal, through to the mad, the possessed, and so on. The relationship between vile sovereignty and the production of abnormal subjects makes it acute for an analysis of the discourse of bioethics that is informed by (feminist) philosophy of disability.

To express some of vile sovereignty's details, Foucault uses the term ubu-esque, which refers to the central character of Alfred Jarry's Ubu roi, a late nineteenth-century play (Foucault 2003, 11, 28 n. 20). Earmarking what Foucault could mean by "ubu-esque" helps set the scene for Foucault's commentary on the vile sovereign. Ubu roi, rambunctious and crude (the first line of the play is, simply, "Merdre!"), was not well received when it debuted in 1896 at the Theatre de l'Oeuvre (Hemming 2009). The plot focuses on the buffoonery, cruelty, and cowardice of Pere Ubu (Papa Turd), who becomes king via murder (Jarry 1896/1953; Foucault 2003, 28, n. 20). King Turd rules through and with his vileness. Readers of Shakespeare's royalty plays will recognize in King Turd the character of the "discredited sovereign" or the problem of the "sovereign's infamy" that Jarry's Ubu roi is meant to satirize (Foucault 2003, 13).

In addition to King Turd, two examples of vile sovereignty that Foucault provides will be useful for filling out the remainder of the concept. First, a historical example: the ancient Roman "charlatan" dictator (Foucault 2003, 13). Foucault notes that this figure is later repeated in Mussolini; in Mussolini, "power provided itself with an image in which power derived from someone who was theatrically got up and depicted as a clown or a buffoon" (ibid.). Second, a modern example: the hapless low-level bureaucrat who, despite endless inadequacies, wields the power of the overarching bureaucracy in the scratching of his pen (in Foucault's phrasing, this is "Ubu the pen pusher" [12]). To round out this particular image of the bureaucrat, recall the film Brazil (1985 Gilliam), in which the absolute power of a tyrannical government is meted out through dusty offices that feature broken equipment and disoriented staff. A central feature of vile sovereignty, then, is that despite the discredited aspects of the sovereign figure, power nevertheless flows through and beyond the figure. In other words, the vile sovereign acts as a node of power despite vice, excesses, or failings. Foucault explicitly draws out what he means by grotesque in reference to the vile sovereign: "I am calling 'grotesque' the fact that, by virtue of their status, a discourse or an individual can have effects of power that their intrinsic qualities should disqualify them from having" (Foucault 2003, 11, emphasis added). King Turd is a vile sovereign because although his malice and buffoonery should deny him his role, he nevertheless continues to operate within his unearned status. In parallel, Ubu the pen pusher—the bureaucratic turd—is a haphazard point of application, but transfers power nonetheless.

Foucault (2003, 12) suggests that power which is expressed through and by the vile sovereign can even be magnified by the discredited character of the sovereign. He describes the mode thusly: "Ubu-esque terror, grotesque sovereignty, or, in starker terms, the maximization of effects of power on the basis of the disqualification of the one who produces them" (emphasis added). In other words, the discredited figure of power at work in these various situations is no "accident" (12) and can be seen as "absolutely inherent" to the operation of power. On that note, Foucault does not name vile sovereignty in the hope that so doing can dismantle it. He does not believe identification of "the abject, despicable, Ubu-esque or simply ridiculous is a way of limiting its effects." Instead, he names vile sovereignty in order to communicate the strength or the "inevitability" of a normalizing force that can operate "even when in the hands of someone who is effectively discredited." He argues that this force can still function, even "at the extreme point of its rationality," with "full rigor" (13).

Foucault presents vile sovereignty to his students so that he can adequately describe psychiatric expert opinion requested by the justice system in France in the mid-twentieth century. He focuses on cases ranging from 1955 to 1974 (2003, 15). In these cases, expert opinion effectively determines whether or not a defendant has committed a crime, despite the fact that the psychiatric authors of the written opinions that Foucault studied self-consciously refuse the role of expert by explicitly deferring to the judges (2, 4). These opinions were meant to attend to the question of a defendant's mental ability to be held responsible for a crime (25). Yet, the psychiatric witnesses who provided their opinions to the court in fact acted as judge and jury in criminal trials that could end in the death penalty (36). In the case of these witnesses, there was slippage between, on the one hand, evidence that the individual on trial had the capacity required to be held responsible and, on the other, evidence that the individual actually was guilty. Psychiatric descriptions of a defendant's mental state and personal history created room for the introduction of a criminal or abnormal nature that gave rise to the crime and to which the crime could be attributed.

Foucault records the "puerile" language of psychiatric expert testimony and justifications for their characterizations of defendants through the realm of fear (2003, 36). Through the use of facile observations regarding character (such as "Don Juanism" and "psychologized immaturity" [15]) and schoolyard descriptions of a defendant's childhood background and "psychology" ("laziness, pride, stubbornness and nastiness" [33]; "he cut the heads off cabbages" [36]), the criminal other was established for punishment by the court (21-23). The psychiatric testimony maximizes the power of the court to punish. The witnesses double the criminality of the defendant in question by drawing up a history of the defendant and "[showing that] the individual already resembles his crime before he has committed it" (19). For example, Foucault notes, "when they are asked to assess a delinquent psychiatrists say, 'After all, if he has stolen, it is basically because he is a thief'" (16). In this way, the judgment is produced ahead of the court's decision and a new arena for regulation appears: the criminal pre-history, a whole range of characteristics that are not illegal, but nevertheless become punishable. To reiterate, we see that although psychiatry is claimed to (merely?) provide insight into the defendant's capability to be held responsible, it determines and builds the criminality of the defendant. In this way, psychiatry contributes to the creation of an abnormal subject.

Foucault argues that in these cases, which took place between 1955 and 1974, the justice system is "conferring unrestrained power on the parody … of scientific discourse," although this parody is "recognized as such" (2003, 14). Expert testimony in the cases appeared to Foucault as if it were "a text from the eighteenth century," that is, "absolutely detached from the psychiatric knowledge of our time" (37). Vile sovereignty, then, points to the special, "supralegal" status and scientific gloss given to the vile psychiatric expert testimony in juridical discourse, as well as to its power over questions of life and death (6, 11). Foucault calls these experts "medico-legal" (1) and the discourse "the psychiatric-penal Ubu" (14). These psychiatric experts and their expert discourses, ultimately, in combination, produce the abnormal subject.

Foucault points to three primary properties at work in these Ubu, pseudo-scientific discourses which set them apart from other legal questions and narratives: first, "the power to determine, directly or indirectly, a decision of justice that ultimately concerns a person's freedom or detention, or, if it comes to it…life and death" (Foucault 2003, 6). Second, the discourses are afforded undeserved "scientific status" that gives them the "function" of "discourses of truth," i.e., "discourses expressed exclusively by qualified people within a scientific institution." Third, these discourses are the sort "that make one laugh" (ibid.). The description of the defendant as a small nasty child or as playing in a schoolyard, when it appears within the courtroom scene of capital punishment, causes laughter (although not merriment). In conclusion, Foucault writes: "At its extreme point, where it accords itself the right to kill, justice has installed a discourse that is Ubu's discourse, it gives voice to Ubu science" (14). The complex relationship between justice and the puerile storytelling of the witnesses produces a grotesque discourse that plays the role of truth.

Vile Sovereigns of Bioethical Debate

The problematic features of transhumanist discourse have the potential to prop up its authority in questions of life and death, as did the schoolyard logic of the pseudo-psychiatry that the expert witnesses whom Foucault analyzed used. In that case, Foucault noted that the power of the psychiatric witnesses was maximized through its disqualification (Foucault 2003, 12). Perhaps, then, the appeal of transhumanism, in an echo of the appeal of psychiatric discourse used in the French courts, lies in its rhetoric and play with wish-fulfillment and fear; i.e., precisely those features that make transhumanist arguments bad arguments. In this section, I apply Foucault's notion of vile sovereignty to transhumanist argumentation by showing the ways in which transhumanism fits the profile of the vile sovereign.

Transhumanism mimics three features of vile sovereignty that Foucault identified as key elements in its grip on power. First, transhumanism, like the vile sovereign, claims the authority to adjudicate questions of life and death; in particular, transhumanism entertains the question of what lives are worth living. Bostrom's valorization of a wider opportunity range is built on his belief that current opportunity ranges are limiting and dismal; he supports a hierarchy of capability that metes out well-being on the basis of capability, and thus makes implicit claims about what lives are worth living. The question of what lives are worth living is also connected to Savulescu's claim that genetic selection is the appropriate path to human enhancement. Transhumanism would in this regard preclude the existence of certain unwanted types of individuals based on genetic profiles, taken before birth, that are designed for the purposes of human enhancement (Carlson 2002, 207-209). By way of genetic profiles, a link is forged between a fetus and existing, stigmatized communities. Because these communities are not valued in society, their existence is not desirable on Savulescu's view and should be avoided as a matter of reproductive obligation. Social stigma against persons with disabilities is thus both naturalized to the body and selected against. In this sense, transhumanism has taken up the task of regulating what lives are worth living, which is the power to decide matters of life and death—the first feature of vile sovereignty.

Transhumanism has influence within bioethics and enjoys status as a philosophical and academic movement. But this status is undeserved: undeserved status is the second feature of vile sovereignty that Foucault outlined. Savulescu's principle of procreative beneficence is an example of the undeserved status of transhumanist argumentation. Despite his failure to address the burden that his version of reproductive responsibility places upon women (which, as I have shown, Overall details), his work on procreative beneficence is widely cited. Transhumanism's status more generally is undeserved because of its puerile preoccupations and utopianism. I contend that transhumanism is puerile because of its adolescent fantasies of power. The promise of transhumanism is tied up in its delivery of a future that resembles a video game with power-ups and multiple lives (Geraci 2012). Recall, for instance, Bostrom's fantasy of improved multi-player games in a transhumanist future. Indeed, some transhumanists, like Natasha Vita-More, who holds meetings for transhumanist enthusiasts within the online social platform of Second Life, affirm video games as a way to attract new recruits to transhumanist goals (Geraci 2012, 749). Against the insights of feminist and disability theorists, furthermore, transhumanists focus on the protection and extension of autonomy, believing that morality and justice are bolstered when physical and mental strength are increased. Transhumanists are also committed to an unjustifiably negative view of the present and an unwarranted view of the possibilities of future technology. These two extremes of rejection and agitation are the hallmarks of utopian thinking. In addition, transhumanist thinking plays with fear, just as Foucault's psychiatric witnesses did when they referred to, and built, the concept of a criminal nature. In short, transhumanism enjoys undeserved status in philosophical discourse. Indeed, transhumanism can therefore be read as an Ubu science, a vile sovereign with influence over the politics of life that nevertheless requires the exploitation of common fears of death, illness, and disablement to operate. Transhumanism enjoys influence in the field of bioethics in the form of prolific publications, references in academic works across multiple fields, and the platform of academic institutions from which its "intrinsic qualities" should "disqualify" it (Foucault 2003). Among these intrinsic qualities are the use of utopian rhetoric of hope and fear to stoke super-humanist fantasies and the failure of transhumanists to draw from, or contend with, the work of either feminist or disability theorists, despite its implications for women and persons with disabilities.

Finally, the utopian elements of transhumanist discourse inspire laughter or disbelief—the third feature Foucault outlined for vile sovereignty. For example, Bostrom claimed in a televised speech: "death is a big problem. … So far, most people who have lived have also died" (2007). His insistence that we consider mortality a moral problem and agree that we have an urgent responsibility to avoid it caused laugher to erupt among the audience at the event where he gave the speech and in my classroom when I showed the clip. Meanwhile, Bostrom's near-parody of utopian writing in pieces like "Letter from Utopia" (2010) and "Why I Want to Become a Posthuman When I Grow Up" (2008) seems designed to elicit laughter (Bostrom's parody should recall Foucault's reading of psychiatric testimony as parody [Foucault 2003, 14]).

Before turning to the conclusion of this paper, I want to explore another way that Foucault's structure of vile sovereignty is useful in the investigation of transhumanism. In his parable "The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant (2005a)," Bostrom figures death as a murderous dragon waiting for its victims on the outskirts of a city. The whole community is forced to pay tribute to this monster, which salivates endlessly for human flesh. The tribute comes from all parts of the community, sparing no family, and grief always follows. The leaders of the city, and many of the people within it, have become so accustomed to the rule of this monster that they offer no resistance. Cartloads of individuals are sent to the dragon every day. Bostrom describes the desire of some members of the community to slay the dragon, a desire that is undercut by established powers. The hero of Bostrom's story is the one who finally hatches a plan to slay the dragon (namely, death). When we consider Bostrom's parable, we should notice the ideological struggle in the city in particular. Who objects to the desire of the transhumanist to defeat death, aging, and the illnesses that are tied to them? Taken literally from the fable, the objector is the status quo—the mayor, the one who is complacent (ibid.). But, a better interpretation of the "enemy" of transhumanism is the disabled body itself, which—if not rejected—stymies the plan of enhancement. I draw this conclusion in part on the basis of Savulescu's argument in support of negative genetic selection as the best mode of enhancement, in addition to his further contention that if humans do not enhance, they face extinction. Death in the abstract becomes the disabled subject in particular, which must be rejected to achieve goals of immortality. The dragon, which represents death on the most general level, brings with it the need to defend and arm the human body. So, the fleshly human body is the target of transhumanism due to its vulnerability to death. If the (traditionally, that is, unenhanced) abled body is figured as constraint and vulnerability to death, the (traditionally) disabled body likely symbolizes an even greater degree of unwanted constraint and vulnerability to death.

Indeed, disability is a special subject of concern for transhumanism. Common human capabilities are not, for transhumanists, the endpoint of human progress, but rather a shaky beginning. Transhumanists reject the normative concept of species-typical functioning, as many disability rights activists and theorists have done. So, it appears, transhumanists do not value the disabled body less than the normal body; rather, they consider all bodies to be in some sense deficient. This position seems to be an improvement upon the view that although the species-typical body is acceptable, bodies that deviate from that determination are not; I maintain, however, that the transhumanist point of view in fact rejects the disabled body and is therefore likely to increase stigma against persons with disabilities for two reasons. First, transhumanism plays upon fears of disablement. Transhumanist thinkers emphasize the fragility of the body and its susceptibility to risk. Taking Bostrom's image of the body as a paper-hut together with Savulescu's focus on pre-natal or pre-implantation genetic profiles of fetuses—which makes the fetus a site of statistical risk—I argue that the risk involved in the refusal of transhumanist aims is the risk of disablement (cf. Waldschmidt 2005 on statistic risk and prenatal screening; Tremain 2006). Prenatal screening makes a disabled body the symbol of a feared outcome and a stand-in for death. Disability comes to be perceived as the outcome of our complacent posture toward death and "technophobia," rather than as a complex interrelationship between the body, social structures, and social norms. Second, the transhumanist point of view endorses a hierarchy of value and well-being among lives on the basis of capabilities; that is, the greater the number of capabilities, the better the life. Disability theorists have worked to disentangle well-being from capability, arguing that the lack of a particular capability should not be assumed to diminish overall well-being (for example, Asch 2003, 318).

Bostrom combines Kant's aforementioned motto, which exhorts readers to have courage to use intelligence, with Bacon's imperative of mastery, and thereby encourages the pursuit of mastery over the body as an object of nature by way of a floating rational capacity. As Michael Hauskeller notes, for utopian transhumanists, "[bodies] seem to prevent us from being entirely autonomous" (2012, 43). The division between intellect and body and the possibility of intellectual release from the body through technology recalls age-old hierarchies between body and mind. These hierarchies have served, and continue to serve, as rationales for the devaluation of persons with disabilities, especially persons with cognitive disability. Relatedly, Bostrom commits transhumanism to an "emphasis on individual liberties," which casts humans in an atomistic light and downplays or devalues human interdependence. Atomistic conceptions of the human are rightly targets for disability theory, as they too tend to devalue the lives of those with disabilities (Bostrom 2005b, 4; see again Wolfe, above, on "the fantasies of disembodiment and autonomy"). The transhumanist vision of the future strenuously advocates the radical curtailment of human dependence and vulnerability, rather than the embrace of these features as shared or as a starting point for ethics (as feminists and disability theorists increasingly do).

In short, in a twist of the concept of vile sovereignty, the symbolic disabled body becomes a vile sovereign for transhumanist bioethics insofar as it represents the line between life and death and so has undeserved power over the fate of human beings. The dragon, a vile sovereign whose tribute is undeserved, must be slayed. Though Bostrom's parable paints the dragon as a symbol of death itself, the dragon that threatens transhumanism is actually the disabled body.

Combating Ableism in Bioethics

Transhumanism has attempted to base some elements of moral philosophy on a hierarchy of value among different lives. This hierarchy of value is precisely what stands at issue between feminism and disability theory and should be addressed in order to strengthen each of these discourses. I will point to two examples of this collision.

First, Judy Rohrer (2005) points to the parallel tensions between traditional, liberal notions of choice and disability analysis in the cases of euthanasia and reproductive choice. With regard to euthanasia, there is an assumption that persons with disabilities should seek this solution while able-bodied persons should be rehabilitated and receive counseling (so that they can be brought to recognize the value of their lives). Disability theorist and activist Harriet McBryde Johnson writes: "choice is illusory in a context of pervasive inequality. Choices are structured by oppression. We shouldn't offer assistance with suicide until we have the assistance we need to get out of bed in the morning and live a good life" (Johnson 2003, 74, quoted in Rohrer 2005, 58). The negative evaluation of the quality of life of people with disabilities justifies the choice to end one's life through euthanasia if one experiences disability. It is, in short, assumed that disabled persons would choose to terminate their lives (Peace 2012).

Second, with regard to genetic selection against persons with disabilities, there is a strong conflict between "choice," as it is commonly understood, and the justice claims forwarded by disability activists who see societal endorsement of genetic selection as akin to eugenics. Rohrer writes: "The intersection of 'choice' with the valuation of a disabled life provokes a clash that rocks our rhetoric and takes us back into active theorizing about whose humanity is supported and valued and under what circumstances" (Rohrer 2005, 58, emphasis added). In order to accomplish this active theorizing, that is, theorizing awake to systematic oppression, feminist philosophers of disability and other feminist disability theorists need to meet transhumanists—who support and value a certain version of humanity—head-on and challenge their expertise and influence within bioethics. As a first step, vile sovereignty can aid feminist disability scholars in understanding transhumanism as a normalizing force in bioethics, just as it aided Foucault in analyzing psychiatric expertise as a normalizing force in mid twentieth-century courts of law in France.

In sum, transhumanism enjoys influence in bioethics and has advanced arguments in regard to which particular human traits are required for a life of quality. These arguments affect all people whose lives (by virtue of gender, nationality, age, etc.) are taken to be inherently less valuable than the lives of other people, but they especially affect the fate of persons with disabilities. Thus, transhumanism is an important target for feminist philosophers of disability and disability theorists. To contribute to this effort, I have shown that transhumanism shares features with Foucault's vile sovereign. Hence, Foucault's work would help us identify what is objectionable in transhumanist discourse.

Thank you to Kelly Oliver and Shelley Tremain for their mentorship and for reading earlier drafts of this essay. I also appreciate the input of the audience and panel members at the 2012 meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, who heard a version of this paper. Finally, I am grateful to the anonymous readers for DSQ, whose insightful comments improved the final product tremendously.


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Melinda Hall is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Stetson University. She specializes in bioethics and continental philosophy and her research interests include the intersection of contemporary bioethics and disability studies, the ethics of human enhancement, and social constructions of disability. She received her PhD in Philosophy from Vanderbilt University; her dissertation developed a critique of the notion that enhancement—especially the genetic selection of one's offspring—is a moral obligation. Her work is also published in the International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics.


  1. For more on Wolbring and similar perspectives, see the forthcoming documentary Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement.
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  2. Human-machine hybridity is already a reality in the use of prosthetics, computers, handheld devices, assistive technologies, and other complex technological systems upon which most of us rely every day. For more obvious examples, look to world-class athletes Oscar Pistorius and Aimee Mullins. Although it may thus be argued that we are already, in a sense, "posthuman," in this context I am concerned with investigating transhumanist promotion of a special future posthuman, a posthuman so increased in capacities that it would be difficult to assign the word "human" to this being at all. I do so to establish the contrast between the dream of a non-existent, utopian being and the implications of that dream for existing persons.
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  3. Both Bostrom and Savulescu are influential bioethics scholars. It should be noted that besides their own numerous publications, the two are widely cited in other scholarly works. A cited reference search utilizing both the Social Sciences Citation Index and Arts & Humanities Citation Index in Thomson Reuters' Web of Knowledge database yields 1,575 academic works that cite Savulescu on a wide range of topics from ethics to social issues. Works that cite Savulescu include (but are not limited to) 1,111 peer-reviewed articles, 85 book chapters, and 22 books. This secondary literature offers a wealth of support to Savulescu's views compared to the views of the relatively "fringe" Bostrom, cited (according to a search conducted via the same constraints) in 148 academic works on topics that range from ethics to social issues. Works that cite Bostrom include (but are not limited to) 120 peer-reviewed articles, 17 book chapters, and 8 books. But, Bostrom features largely in the work of mainstream bioethicists, like Nicholas Agar. In his recent book Humanity's End: Why We Should Reject Radical Enhancement, Agar (2010) dedicates an entire chapter to the work of Bostrom. Agar also references Savulescu on the topic of enhancement for elite sports (201). Agar also cites Bostrom in Liberal Eugenics: In Defence of Human Enhancement (2004). Transhumanism as a movement has also received considerable scholarly attention. For example, Hastings Center Report published a piece by Agar on transhumanism in 2007 and subsequently gave space to replies from both transhumanist James Hughes and Bostrom, with a reply from Agar (Agar 2007a and 2007b). In addition, the most recent (December 2012) issue of Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science, a journal published by Wiley-Blackwell with an impact factor of 0.274, published 4 articles on transhumanism as part of a special issue.
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