Robocop and Transhumanism

robocopI’ve been thinking about transhumanism lately. In a previous post, I talked about the promise of secular immortality that transhumanism offers. But I also mentioned the potential for private ownership of persons that transhumanism poses. A movie that dramatizes this potential is the sci-fi action classic Robocop. The over-the-top violence and tongue-in-cheek cynicism of Robocop often preclude it from being taken seriously. But there are actually several philosophically relevant themes at play in the film. In addition to being a brilliant satire of 80’s corporate America, its core story is the loss and recovery of Murphy’s personhood.

Before we get to that theme, however, let’s talk about the film’s seemingly overt critique of capitalism. As mentioned, it is a satire of the corporate ‘greed is good’ culture of 80’s America. We find out that Detroit’s police force has been privatized; it’s run by a mega-corporation, Omni Consumer Products (OCP). More importantly, however, OCP seems to think that it owns its employees, even after physical death, as we see later.  Robocop raises good questions about how an anarchic-capitalist society could be organized without falling into the dystopian scenario it envisions. But the film’s critique of capitalism is perhaps more subtle than even its creators intended.

One of the strengths of Robocop is that it holds a mirror up to American society — especially the Reagan era — that ought to make us uncomfortable. Although the screenplay was written by Americans, the addition of a European director, Paul Verhoeven, gives the film a unique ‘outsider’ perspective. I suspect the satire of American commercialism is stronger on screen than it was on the page due to Verhoeven’s direction. Nevertheless, to call the film an unambiguous critique of capitalism is a bit too simplistic. It’s more correctly a critique of the corporate and state collusion that makes privatization possible. The irony of American capitalism is its reliance on state mechanisms. The lawmakers are often corporate cronies who ensure that the laws allow them to exercise ownership over an increasingly wide purview. In turn, the power of the state has to be increased to protect these ‘property’ rights. It’s a vicious cycle that leads to the loss of individual liberty.

I should say parenthetically that I’m a left-wing libertarian. I endorse the Left’s critique of corporatism; unlike the Left, however, I think that critique applies equally to the state. Robocop does a good job of critiquing monopoly capitalism, which is, of course, government and corporate collusion rather than a free market. Left-wing libertarians often express this distinction with the slogan ‘markets not capitalism’; alternatively, they talk about freed markets. Nevertheless, even the staunchest supporter of free markets will admit that some things should not be owned; persons, for example. Whether or not Murphy is a person or a product to be owned by OCP is the main philosophical focus of Robocop.

The OCP executives clearly think that Robocop is a product. Importantly, this attitude even predates Murphy’s transformation into a cyborg. In one scene, Johnson, an OCP executive, remarks that since Murphy is legally dead, they can do anything they want with him. After his transformation they refer to him as ‘product’ many times. When Robocop attempts to arrest Dick Jones in contravention of Directive 4, “Product Violation” flashes across his screen. By the way, Directive 4 is a very literal way of illustrating the point that corporations manipulate the law to their advantage. Clearly, OCP considers Robocop to be product. They resurrect him, but at the cost of his personhood. Or so they believe.

That Murphy is still a person is established when Robocop dreams of his former life. Here the film implicitly endorses the memory criterion of personal identity over time. Although this criterion is problematic in some ways, it’s generally accepted by transhumanists. In fact, one of their primary goals is to preserve our memories beyond our physical demise. In preserving the memories, they believe the are preserving the person. So, for the sake of argument, let’s grant the memory theory of identity. By this criterion, Robocop is a person; indeed Robocop and Murphy are the identical person since there is a continuity of consciousness. Interestingly, Verhoeven insisted that the dream sequence come before the “Murphy, it’s you” scene with Lewis instead of after, as originally written. This detail shows that he comes to this awareness himself, rather than being told by someone else. It also communicates the core message of the movie: nobody can fully own another human being. Despite OCP’s efforts, they do not succeed in taking Murphy’s soul.

Speaking of souls, Robocop is shot through with religious imagery. In the featurette on my DVD version, Verhoeven acknowledges several allusions to Christianity. Most obviously, Murphy dies and is resurrected. Later in the film, there’s a scene in which he appears to be walking on water. I would add that there are also several themes that could be interpreted along religious lines. As mentioned, OCP believes that it owns people, even after physical death. Traditionally, this is a prerogative enjoyed only by God. This Omni-corporation has indeed taken on this divine prerogative. Thus, the film raises the question: what happens when God is replaced by something else, in this case the corporation? Although I’m not religious, I’m wary of secularism’s attempt to replace God with something else, whether it’s the corporation or the state. The irony of modern atheism is that, having cast off the divine, it quickly seeks to fill that void with another powerful entity of its own creation. Robocop, with its grim depiction of modern society’s decay and the debunking of its so-called technocratic saviors, also touches upon this theme.

Although many consider it a juvenile movie, I find it thought-provoking. Apparently, I’m not the only one. If you want to hear the heart of Robocop expressed in song, watch this:


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