How to Be Human in the Digital Economy

(March 2019)

In the digital economy, accountants, baristas, and cashiers can be automated out of employment; so can surgeons, airline pilots, and cab drivers. Machines will be able to do these jobs more efficiently, accurately, and inexpensively. But, Nicholas Agar warns in this provocative book, these developments could result in a radically disempowered humanity.

The digital revolution has brought us new gadgets and new things to do with them. The digital revolution also brings the digital economy, with machines capable of doing humans’ jobs. Agar explains that developments in artificial intelligence enable computers to take over not just routine tasks but also the kind of “mind work” that previously relied on human intellect, and that this threatens human agency. The solution, Agar argues, is a hybrid social-digital economy. The key value of the digital economy is efficiency. The key value of the social economy is humanness.

A social economy would be centered on connections between human minds. We should reject some digital automation because machines will always be poor substitutes for humans in roles that involve direct contact with other humans. A machine can count out pills and pour out coffee, but we want our nurses and baristas to have minds like ours. In a hybrid social-digital economy, people do the jobs for which feelings matter and machines take on data-intensive work. But humans will have to insist on their relevance in a digital age.


The Sceptical Optimist: Why Technology Isn’t the Answer to Everything (Oxford University Press, 2015)

(Oxford University Press, 2015)

The rapid developments in technologies — especially computing and the advent of many ‘smart’ devices, as well as rapid and perpetual communication via the Internet — has led to a frequently voiced view which Nicholas Agar describes as ‘radical optimism’. Radical optimists claim that accelerating technical progress will soon end poverty, disease, and ignorance, and improve our happiness and well-being. Agar disputes the claim that technological progress will automatically produce great improvements in subjective well-being. He argues that radical optimism ‘assigns to technological progress an undeserved pre-eminence among all the goals pursued by our civilization’.

​Instead, Agar uses the most recent psychological studies about human perceptions of well-being to create a realistic model of the impact technology will have. Although he accepts that technological advance does produce benefits, he insists that these are significantly less than those proposed by the radical optimists, and aspects of such progress can also pose a threat to values such as social justice and our relationship with nature, while problems such as poverty cannot be understood in technological terms. He concludes by arguing that a more realistic assessment of the benefits that technological advance can bring will allow us to better manage its risks in future.


​Truly Human Enhancement: A Philosophical Defense of Limits

(MIT Press, 2014)

In this book I switch focus from the purveyors of radical human enhancement to the elaboration of a fully coherent position that endorses moderate enhancement while rejecting enhancement of too great a degree. I propose that attention to degrees of enhancement makes all the difference between future in which we apply technologies to our selves in ways informed by what we value and a future in which the transformation of our species is driven by the dictates of technology. I identify radical enhancement as a species of transformative change. Transformative changes alter us in ways that change what we value.

Sometimes we should endorse such changes. Sometimes we should not. I claim that certain radical enhancements should be acknowledged as the second kind of transformative change. Truly Human Enhancement addresses exciting and contentious philosophical issues ranging from the dangerous effects of too much enhancement on human identities and ways in which radical cognitive enhancement might (or might not) contribute to the advance of science.


Humanity’s End: Why We Should Reject Radical Enhancement

(MIT Press, 2010)

This book describes a collection of recent proposals to radically enhance human capacities. I examine Ray Kurzweil’s plan to make us super-smart by gradually replacing disease-prone, computationally cumbersome biological brains with electronic neuroprostheses, the aspiration of the fabulously bearded Aubrey de Grey to give humans millennial life spans, Nick Bostrom’s assertions that radical enhancement is really all we want, and James Hughes’ claim that all this enhancement will have harmonious social consequences. Some unanswered questions about the proper moral and prudential limits on human enhancement remain. These are to be addressed in a forthcoming work.


​Liberal Eugenics: In Defence of Human Enhancement

(Blackwell, 2004)

Considerably less National Socialist than its cover art seems to suggest. The book argues for a constrained prerogative to use safe available technologies to choose some of our children’s characteristics. My argumentative strategy is a standard liberal one. We come to an understanding about something novel – human cloning, human genetic enhancement – by comparing it with familiar practices. If there are no morally relevant differences then a permission to engage in the familiar practice ought to translate into a permission to engage in the unfamiliar practice.

I add my voice to a collection of liberal philosophers who find that some forms of genetic enhancement are little different from the human enhancement that comes from education. I make other moral comparisons too. The onus is on those who oppose human genetic enhancement to either show that enhancement is relevantly different from the familiar practices I discuss, or to endorse the views of the Taliban on education.


​Perfect Copy: Unravelling the Cloning Debate

(Icon, 2002)

A discussion of the science behind and ethics of human cloning. A tensy bit dated now. At the time of the book’s publication Dolly the sheep was troubled only by a mild case of arthritis. The book was translated into the world’s most significant languages – Bahasa Indonesia and Slovenian. The Slovenian edition is adorned with images of Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen whose copyright status is uncertain. The translator also seems to have spiced up my prose with scattered Bertold Brecht quotations. Thanks!


​Life’s Intrinsic Value: Science, Ethics, and Nature

(Columbia University Press, 2001)

For the discerning collector of out-of-print academic philosophy texts! This book uses the debate in environmental ethics to explore our views about the boundaries of moral value. Environmentalists encounter a problem in arguing that nonsentient, nonrational things like ecosystems might be intrinsically valuable because our assignments of intrinsic value are guided by our assignments of psychological states. Things that are psychological (sentient or rational) are morally valuable. The book presents an argument for the existence of what I call plausible naturalizations of psychological states in nature. These plausible naturalizations extend value. They license the attribution of a discounted degree of intrinsic value to ecosystems and Kauri trees.