Advisory Board

Professor Nicholas Agar

Nicholas Agar, Ph.D. is a philosopher, an author, and professor of ethics at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand who is interested in the broader human significance of technological progress.

Nick’s main research interests are in the ethical implications of the digital revolution, the meaning of technological progress, and the ways in which genetic and cybernetic technologies may change us.

Nick earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy of Mind from from the Australian National University. He earned his Master’s Degree of Arts from the Victoria University of Wellington, and his Bachelor’s Degree of Arts from the University of Auckland. He has been teaching at Victoria since 1996.

He is the author of Humanity’s End: Why We Should Reject Radical Enhancement, the Truly Human Enhancement: A Philosophical Defense of Limits, and most recently of How to be Human in the Digital Economy, all published by the MIT Press.

Nick has written extensively on the debate about human enhancement. His first significant contribution was the 2004 book Liberal Eugenics: In Defence of Human Enhancement. In it, Nick defends the idea that parents should be allowed to enhance their children’s characteristics. It gets away from fears of a Huxleyan Brave New World or a return to the fascist eugenics of the past.

It is written from a philosophically and scientifically informed point of view. It considers real contemporary cases of parents choosing what kind of child to have. It uses ‘moral images’ as a way to get readers with no background in philosophy to think about moral dilemmas. It provides an authoritative account of the science involved, making the book suitable for readers with no knowledge of genetics. It creates a moral framework for assessing all new technologies. The framework would exercise the same kinds of control over harmful genetic choices that it currently does over choices about how to raise children.

Later work clarified Nick’s philosophical focus on enhancement. The 2010 book Humanity’s End: Why We Should Reject Radical Enhancement argued against the doctrine of radical enhancement sometimes identified with the transhumanist movement. Nick claims that enhancement is a good thing that it is nevertheless possible to overdo. He argues against radical enhancement, describing its destructive consequences.

Nick examines the proposals of four prominent radical enhancers: Ray Kurzweil, who argues that technology will enable our escape from human biology; Aubrey de Grey, who calls for anti-aging therapies that will achieve "longevity escape velocity"; Nick Bostrom, who defends the morality and rationality of enhancement; and James Hughes, who envisions a harmonious democracy of the enhanced and the unenhanced.

Nick argues that the outcomes of radical enhancement could be darker than the rosy futures described by these thinkers. The most dramatic means of enhancing our cognitive powers could in fact kill us; the radical extension of our life span could eliminate experiences of great value from our lives; and a situation in which some humans are radically enhanced and others are not could lead to tyranny of posthumans over humans. Humanity’s End was a 2011 Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title.

In his 2013 book Truly Human Enhancement: A Philosophical Defense of Limits, Nick presents a nuanced discussion of human enhancement that argues for enhancement that does not significantly exceed what is currently possible for human beings. He is making a case for improvements to attributes and abilities that do not significantly exceed what is currently possible for human beings. He argues against radical human enhancement, or improvements that greatly exceed current human capabilities.

Nick explores notions of transformative change and motives for human enhancement; distinguishes between the instrumental and intrinsic value of enhancements; argues that too much enhancement undermines human identity; considers the possibility of cognitively enhanced scientists; and argues against radical life extension. Making the case for moderate enhancement, Nick argues that many objections to enhancement are better understood as directed at the degree of enhancement rather than enhancement itself.

Moderate human enhancement meets the requirement of truly human enhancement. By radically enhancing human cognitive capabilities, by contrast, we may inadvertently create beings ("post-persons") with moral status higher than that of persons. If we create beings more entitled to benefits and protections against harms than persons, Nick writes, this will be bad news for the unenhanced. Moderate human enhancement offers a more appealing vision of the future and of our relationship to technology.

The 2015 book The Sceptical Optimist: Why Technology Isn’t the Answer to Everything was a departure from Nick’s focus on the debate about human enhancement. Nick challenges the techno-optimist view that expects great things from technological progress for human flourishing. He describes it as “radical optimism”. He describes a phenomenon called hedonic normalization that leads us to significantly overestimate the power of technological progress to improve our well-being.

We overlook hedonic normalization when we suppose that because we would be unhappy to find ourselves permanently transported back in time to the middle ages that people living back them must have been miserable too. The same distortions apply when we imagine a future with cures for cancer and colonies on Mars. Technological progress may make us happier but not nearly so much as we imagine it.

This has implications for our collective prioritization of technological progress. Nick 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.

In his 2019 book How to be Human in the Digital Economy, Nick continues his defense of human values and experiences. Nick responds to the challenge from automation and artificial intelligence to human work and agency. Nick argues for 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.

List of Nick’s published books:

Watch In Robots we Trust. Listen to A Philosopher for the Digital Age: Dr Nicholas Agar.

Read Careful how you treat today’s AI: it might take revenge in the future. Read The social solution to automation and Is there a social solution to automation? Read his contributions to Slate.com.

Read more from Nick at his homepage section Online Writings, where you can find short articles like Don’t Trust Economists about the Future of Work, Reflections on Chatbot, Don’t Worry about Superintelligence, Treat Robots like Yo-Yo Ma’s Cello, ​Why Techno-Optimism is Dangerous, The High Price of Long Life, and Designer Babies: Ethical Considerations among others.

Visit his Homepage, Wikipedia profile, Philipaper.org profile, Google Scholar page, Victoria University of Wellington page, and Center for the Study of Bioethics page. Follow him on Twitter.