Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Monday, December 7, 2009

On Lizardman and Liberalism

In post called “Getting Used to Hideousness,” Mike Treder makes three points. Each is provocative — and flawed.

First, he says, until relatively recently, people “with gross disabilities” or deformities “were expected to stay out of sight of the general public,” a closeting that Mr. Treder attributes to “the Victorian preference for order and rectitude.” But nowadays, he says, we have become more tolerant of people who “have shocking appearances.” (By way of example, he includes several pictures.)

Second, he moves from those whose unusual appearance was not their choice to those who intentionally alter their looks. He describes a range of body modifications — from makeup to orthodontics to plastic surgery to this sort of thing — and says that nearly everybody modifies himself in some way. He then envisions far more radical body modifications and suggests that there is no moral difference between any of them — they all alter what nature has given us, the only difference is “a matter of degree.”

Third, Mr. Treder invokes, with hope, the transhumanist doctrine of “morphological freedom.” He envisions a day when we will understand that “individuals who don’t look at all” normal will nonetheless be understood to be not freaks but “human beings with normal human feelings.”

Let me briefly respond to each of Mr. Treder’s main points in turn.

First, it is far too simplistic to say that we are becoming more tolerant of the different, deformed, and disabled in our midst. Mr. Treder includes with his post this picture — the lovely face of a smiling young girl with Down syndrome. But faces like hers are becoming ever rarer. Some 90 percent of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome are being aborted. This is not the mark of a growing tolerance or compassion; it is a silent purge, enabled by modern technology, of a class of human beings deemed unworthy of life.

Second, Mr. Treder’s argument about body modification is just a simplistic equivalency. The reasoning seems to go like this: Makeup and orthodontics and breast implants and (someday) extra arms and implanted wings are all unnatural, and so if you approve of any body modification you have no standing to criticize any other body modification.

But of course we make moral distinctions between different kinds of body modifications all the time — not based on grounds of “naturalness,” but based on the modification itself (Is it temporary or permanent? Is it external or invasive? Is it therapeutic? What is its cost?), based on the person being modified (Man or woman? Young or old? Mentally healthy?), and based on social context (What is this modification meant to signal? Is it tied to a particular cultural or social setting?). There is no simple checklist for deciding whether a bod-mod is morally licit, but we all make such judgments now, we make them for complicated reasons that reach beyond reflexive repugnance, and we will continue to make them in future eras of modification.

What Mr. Treder is really after is greater tolerance, an acceptance of people who look different. And this brings us to his invocation of “morphological freedom,” a supposed right to modify one’s body however one wishes. Like its transhumanist twin sister “cognitive liberty,” the concept of morphological freedom is an attempt to push the tenets of modern liberalism to their furthest logical extreme. In a 2001 talk elucidating and advocating morphological freedom, Swedish transhumanist Anders Sandberg stressed the centrality of tolerance:

No matter what the social circumstances are, it is never acceptable to overrule someone’s right to ... morphological freedom. For morphological freedom — or any other form of freedom — to work as a right in society, we need a large dose of tolerance.... Although peer pressure, prejudices, and societal biases still remain strong forces, they are being actively battled by equally strong ideas of the right to “be oneself,” the desirability of diversity, and an interest in the unusual, unique, and exotic.

That little taste of Mr. Sandberg’s talk exposes the basic problem of “morphological freedom” (and more generally, the fundamental flaw of any extreme liberalism or libertarianism). The problem is that extreme liberalism destroys the foundations upon which it depends.

Consider: Mr. Sandberg scorns shared social and civic values. He derides them as “peer pressure, prejudices, and societal biases” and observes with satisfaction that they are being “actively battled” by an expansion of tolerance. But tolerance is itself a shared value, one that must be inculcated and taught and reinforced and practiced. A freedom so extreme that it rejects all norms, wipes away shared mores, and undoes social bonds is a freedom that erodes tolerance — and thus topples itself.


  1. Adam

    While Dr. Sandberg is a libertarian for whom your critique may be legitimate, Mr. Treder does not reject all social norms and institutions.

    Just as this blog rightly recently criticized Michael Anissimov for not understanding the differences between flavors of bioconservative thought, your own disputations might be served by more careful parsing of the differences between libertarain transhumanists and technoprogressives.

    J. Hughes
    IEET & Humanity+

  2. Dear Mr. Hughes -

    I did not say that Mr. Treder rejects all social norms and institutions. I did quote and paraphrase him, and I quoted Mr. Sandberg. Only a careless reader would think I depicted their views as identical.

    Adam Keiper

  3. I am somewhat incredulous that you are trying to advance that argument that people should not be able to modify their bodies as they please.

    A more fruitful avenue of critique might be to accept that people will modify their bodies as they please but the excessive opportunities for the acting out of personal fantasies therein may be counterproductive for the harmony and continuity of society.

    James, I do understand the differences between different flavors of bioconservative thought. If you read the tone of Ari's post, you'll see that most of it is an emotional reaction to my indignant sacrelige and anti-theism in the comments section of my own post.

  4. I'm a little confused. You seem to be conflating the moral implications of body modifications with the modifications themselves. Making a moral argument is always a little shaky, since moral realism is bunk (perhaps you should be referring to benificiality, or harmony/continuity as Michael said), but the way you use it still doesn't make sense. A modification being temporary or permanent, cheap or costly, or internal or external is just not a moral characteristic. If, say, you implant a gun in your arm and go around shooting people, the moral character of your action comes from what you did, not whether you could go to the shop and get the gun removed at the end of the day, or even that the device in your arm was a killing machine. Morality attaches to actions not things. It makes as much sense to say that computers are evil because terrorists use them to communicate, or TV is morally wrong because it turns some people into lazy slobs.

  5. @ Mr. Anissimov - My specific objection is to the notion that “morphological freedom” is a fundamental and absolute right, one that “it is never acceptable” to override, “no matter what the social circumstances are” (emphases added to Mr. Sandberg’s wording).

    @ Will - Three quick responses: First, modifying your body is an action, not a thing.

    Second, when we make moral judgments about body modifications, the reason we concern ourselves with the nature of the modification is indeed because of the human implications of the actions preceding, during, and following those modifications. So, for instance, we might judge eye shadow (which is temporary) by a different standard than a tattoo (which is permanent) because of what each implies for and about the bearer. Or we might make certain judgments about a person willing to take the action of paying to go under the knife for purely cosmetic plastic surgery. Such judgments are rationally defensible, up to a point. And we will continue to make similar moral judgments about modifications that future technologies may make possible.

    Third, I take your last few sentences to be a statement of “technological neutrality” (along the lines of the old saw “guns don’t kill; people do”) — embracing the idea that no technological artifact has any moral status on its own. In the most superficial sense, that is true. But it’s also pretty shallow. As New Atlantis contributing editor Steve Talbott put it more than a dozen years ago:

    “Every technology already embodies certain human choices. It expresses meanings and intentions. A gun, after all, was pretty much designed to kill living organisms at a distance, which gives it an ‘essentially’ different nature from, say, a pair of binoculars....

    “Putting it in slightly different terms: Yes, our choices individually and collectively are the central thing. But a long history of choices is already built into the technology. We meet ourselves — our deepest tendencies, whether savory or unsavory, conscious or unconscious — in the things we have made. And, as always, the weight of accumulated choices begins to bind us. Our freedom is never absolute, but is conditioned by what we have made of ourselves and our world so far.”

  6. Mr. Anissimov-

    Your first two sentences are in tension with one another. If you begin with the axiom that we must “accept that people will modify their bodies as they please,” the discussion you’ve proposed about the effects of body modification on social “harmony and continuity” can never be anything but idle. Whatever the ill effects, body modifications could only be restricted by depriving people of bodily liberty — which, as per the axiom in your first sentence, we must not accept.

    Instead, we might reject your first sentence’s axiom as simplistic and instead discuss social norms. Even you have made implicit appeal to norms, suggesting that morphological expression might sometimes be “excessive” (Merriam-Webster: 'exceeding what is usual, proper, necessary, or normal') and appealing to “continuity,” which implies comporting with the past.

    As for the recent post you and Mr. Hughes mention, it is certainly fair to say I strongly criticized your post. But in characterizing my post as “emotional,” you are again dismissing my argument with a label that is not only false, but is intended to shirk engagement with the actual content of my argument. So, to repeat: It is a publicly verifiable fact that my post does not criticize you for sacrilege, just as the arguments we make on this blog do not rely on religious claims. Just because you judge your own posts to be colored by your “indignant” feelings — an implicit confession of the weakness of your reasoning — does not justify accusing your interlocutors of the same.

  7. Perhaps the managers of this blog would like to tell us exactly what kinds of morphological choices they object to.

    Like most people, I want to stay good looking and maintain youthful physiology indefinitely. I find it difficult to understand why anyone would object to these things.

    Since I am an engineer and interested in bio-engineering and funky physics, I could certainly use the 300+ IQ in order to wrap my head around the physics and mathematics that is currently over my head to develop stuff like space drive, FTL, or wormhole; if any of these things are possible. But that's just me. Most people are not into techno-geeky things like this. So, they probably do not care about the increased IQ. In fact, most people would choose good looks over increased IQ (of course, I want both).

    If you think about it calmly, what people want is quite benign. They want to be good looking and do not want to grow old. Who can object to that?

    I think IQ is over-emphasized in these internet circles. The vast majority of work, including the professions, require far more of a pleasant personality and good interpersonal relations than they do high IQ. Science and engineering require the high IQ. Law requires a good verbal IQ and the ability to think quickly on one's feet (especially trial lawyer). However, even a good lawyer requires a personality such that he or she can connect with the jurors.

    I think the 300+ IQ will be a marginal fetish thing associated with the techno-geeks and research scientists. I think most people will tend to ignore this option. I think everyone else will go for the good looks and of course everyone will go for the life extension (aging really does suck donky dicks!). In other words, the transhumanist morphological freedom thing will be largely an outgrowth of the beauty industry. This strikes me as quite benign.

    I really think we are all getting worked up here over a non-issue.

  8. @adam: Ok, I take your point that societal consequences become embedded in technology as it develops. But this is still a characteristic of society, not of the technology. It makes as much sense to say "this rock, which we've always used to bash people's heads in as a form of execution, embodies certain strong human choices and therefore merits a strong moral status". While it bugs me that you use morality as shorthand for societal implications in that way, that's just a nitpick and I think our real disagreement comes in what should be done about technology with strong societal effects.

    I'm not suggesting that restrictions should only be placed on modification after it is used, just that you recognize that in doing so you're not acting based on the modification, your acting based on, as Michael said, the societal impacts in terms of harmony, continuity, etc. This in turn means that we should restrict morphological freedom if and only if it is likely to have undesirable implications for society to an extent we deem unacceptable. That last part is important; we must distinguish between things like nuclear weapons (which we probably want to restrict, since despite the fact that nukes have no intrinsic moral status we consider their social cost too great to give everyone one and arrest them after detonation), and things like makeup (which we probably don't want to restrict, despite the fact that they have negative societal consequences in some people's eyes). It's not an easy moral brightline, but it's the only thing that really makes sense.

    But back to your original point about restrictions on morphological freedom. If you're attacking transhumanists for advocating complete and unrestricted morphological freedom, you're attacking a straw man. I challenge you to find one transhumanist who thinks we should be allowed to embed nuclear weapons in our bodies. 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". I'm guessing that as a bioconservative you have some disagreement, or at least caveat, about this, which I'm eager to hear.


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