Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Friday, December 18, 2009

Arma virumque cano

Beneath Adam’s post “On Lizardman and Liberalism,” commenter Will throws down the gauntlet: “[F]ind one transhumanist who thinks we should be allowed to embed nuclear weapons in our bodies.” I for one am ready concede that I know of no such case. But I’m moved to wonder, why not? Why should a libertarian transhumanist like Anders Sandberg — who believes that “No matter what the social circumstances are, it is never acceptable to overrule someone’s right to ... morphological freedom” — be unwilling to defend the right of an individual to embed a nuclear weapon? Assuming Sandberg would not be so willing, two alternatives occur to me. Either, like many people, he is more decent than his principles would lead one to believe, and/or he has not explored the real implications of his principles.

To some, this case may seem absurd — why would anyone want to turn himself into a bomb? Why indeed? But turning oneself into a bomb is already a reality in our world. And the underlying moral relativism of Mr. Sandberg’s absolute prohibition is of a piece with the progressive moral “wisdom” that asserts “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” So if indeed Mr. Sandberg would flinch at the implantation of a bomb of any sort, it might be because he is living off moral capital that his own principle is busy degrading. He may be more decent than his principles, but his decency may not survive his principles.

Painting by Charles Bittinger of an atomic test at Bikini Atoll; courtesy U.S. NavyThe commenter Will steps into the breach with his own guiding idea: “Most transhumanists would probably advocate something along the lines of ‘complete morphological freedom as long as it doesn’t violate the rights of other conscious entities’” (emphasis added). But I don’t see how from this libertarian perspective the implantation of a bomb (properly shielded, if nuclear) violates the rights of any conscious entities any more than would carrying about a phial of poison. Will and I can agree that the use of that bomb in a public space would be a Bad Thing. But nothing in Will’s principle (other than a little fallout, perhaps) would prohibit some transhuman of the future from implanting the bomb, hopping into a boat, sailing to the mid-Atlantic outside of the shipping lanes, making sure there are no cetaceans nearby, calling in his coordinates to the by-then doubtless ubiquitous surveillance satellites, and going out in a blaze of glory on whatever will be the equivalents of Facebook or YouTube. Sounds potentially viral to me. Surely the right to blow oneself up under carefully controlled circumstances does not represent the aspirations of any large number of transhumanists, but surely their principles would require them to defend even this minority taste.


  1. Hey cool, a frontpage response to my comments (and the transhumanist ideals backing them up) on that last post, I'm flattered! For what its worth, I do think libertarians have a tendency to oversimplify a complex issue when it comes to individual rights. I think you could find at least one circumstance where Mr Sandberg would restrict morphological freedom if given the choice. Forget nukes, what if we invent a universe destroying device? Should it be regulated? In the most extreme, reductio ad absurdum case you can find exceptions to almost any liberty based argument.

    But to just leave it there and dismiss the philosophy of Sandberg and others would be absurd (and isn't what I see here at all, just to be clear). For many libertarians concepts of rights and consent reconcile the apparent contradiction of advocating complete freedom and still restricting it in some cases. This solves the basic philosophical problem, but is insufficient to guide policies, since we can't predict people's actions, especially when it comes to disruptive technology. To answer your question from the perspective of at least one transhumanist, I'd be pretty happy with the person in your story blowing him/herself up if no-one else was going to be harmed, but of course the problem is making sure he does it in the middle of the ocean instead of the middle of a big city.

    This particular issue, then, comes down to the ethics of prior restraint as much as the more familiar bioconservative/transhumanist debate. Of course our beliefs about freedom and liberty feed back into the prior restraint argument, but the point is that its not about the intrinsic morality of nuclear weapons, or even about the shorthand (for people who don't believe in intrinsic morality) of cultural context and embedded values. It's complex, more than a simple academic debate. I imagine this is why you write for this blog; you may disagree with transhumanists about what to do with technology but you recognize its potential impact on society, and you're adding your own point of view as to how we should manage that.

  2. "Why should a libertarian transhumanist like Anders Sandberg [...] be unwilling to defend the right of an individual to embed a nuclear weapon?"

    Because the reason that implanting nuclear weapons would be bad is that nuclear weapons are too dangerous to be owned by individuals. Body modification has nothing to do with it. You can insert body modification into a contrived hypothetical, but it's not doing any of the explanatory work: the scenario works just as well, and for the same reasons, if we talk about an individual merely owning a nuclear weapon.

    You might as well ask why a freedom-of-the-press advocate would be unwilling to defend the right of an individual to break into your house and start hitting you with a rolled-up newspaper. And the answer is that the newspaper isn't the problem.


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