Review of the cyborg bill of rights 1.0

Cyborg NewtonThe Cyborg Bill of Rights 1.0 is out. Rich MacKinnon suggests the following rights:

A person shall enjoy the sanctity of bodily integrity and be free from unnecessary search, seizure, suspension or interruption of function, detachment, dismantling, or disassembly without due process.

A person shall be free (speech clause) to express themselves through temporary or permanent adaptions, alterations, modifications, or augmentations to the shape or form of their bodies. Similarly, a person shall be free from coerced or otherwise involuntary morphological changes.

A person shall be free from exploitive or injurious 3rd party ownerships of vital and supporting bodily systems. A person is entitled to the reasonable accrual of ownership interest in 3rd party properties affixed, attached, embedded, implanted, injected, infused, or otherwise permanently integrated with a person’s body for a long-term purpose.

A person is entitled to dominion over intelligences and agents, and their activities, whether they are acting as permanent residents, visitors, registered aliens, trespassers, insurgents, or invaders within the person’s body and its domain.

A legally recognized mutant shall enjoy all the rights, benefits, and responsibilities extended to natural persons.

As a sometime philosopher with a bit of history of talking about rights regarding bodily modification, I of course feel compelled to comment.

What are rights?

Artifical handFirst, what is a right? Clearly anybody can state that we have a right to X, but only some agents and X-rights make sense or have staying power.

One kind of rights are legal rights of various kinds. This can be international law, national law, or even informal national codes (for example the Swedish allemansrätten, which is actually not a moral/human right and actually fairly recent). Here the agent has to be some legitimate law- or rule-maker. The US Bill of Rights is an example: the result of a political  process that produced legal rights, with relatively little if any moral content. Legal rights need to be enforceable somehow.

Then there are normative moral principles such as fundamental rights (applicable to a person since they are a person), natural rights (applicable because of facts of the world) or divine rights (imposed by God). These are universal and egalitarian: applicable everywhere, everywhen, and the same for everybody. Bentham famously dismissed the idea of natural rights as “nonsense on stilts” and there is a general skepticism today about rights being fundamental norms. But insofar they do exist, anybody can discover and state them. Moral rights need to be doable.

While there may be doubts about the metaphysical nature of rights, if a society agrees on a right it will shape action, rules and thinking in an important way. It is like money: it only gets value by the implicit agreement that it has value and can be exchanged for goods. Socially constructed rights can be proposed by anybody, but they only become real if enough people buy into the construction. They might be unenforceable and impossible to perform (which may over time doom them).

What about the cyborg rights? There is no clear reference to moral principles, and only the last one refers to law. In fact, the preamble states:

Our process begins with a draft of proposed rights that are discussed thoroughly, adopted by convention, and then published to serve as model language for adoption and incorporation by NGOs, governments, and rights organizations.

That is, these rights are at present a proposal for social construction (quite literally) that hopefully will be turned into a convention (a weak international treaty) that eventually may become national law. This also fits with the proposal coming from MacKinnon rather than the General Secretary of the UN – we can all propose social constructions and urge the creation of conventions, treaties and laws.

But a key challenge is to come up with something that can become enforceable at some point. Cyborg bodies might be more finely divisible and transparent than human bodies, so that it becomes hard to regulate these rights. How do you enforce sovereignty against spyware?


Dragon leg 2Why is a right a right? There has to be a reason for a right (typically hinted at in preambles full of “whereas…”)

I have mostly been interested in moral rights. Patrick D. Hopkins wrote an excellent overview “Is enhancement worthy of being a right?” in 2008 where he looks at how you could motivate morphological freedom. He argues that there are three main strategies to show that a right is fundamental or natural:

  1. That the right conforms to human nature. This requires showing that it fits a natural end. That is, there are certain things humans should aim for, and rights help us live such lives. This is also the approach of natural law accounts.
  2. That the right is grounded in interests. Rights help us get the kinds of experiences or states of the world that we (rightly) care about. That is, there are certain things that are good for us (e.g.  “the preservation of life, health, bodily integrity, play, friendship, classic autonomy, religion, aesthetics, and the pursuit of knowledge”) and the right helps us achieve this. Why those things are good for us is another matter of justification, but if we agree on the laundry list then the right follows if it helps achieve them.
  3. That the right is grounded in our autonomy. The key thing is not what we choose but that we get to choose: without freedom of choice we are not moral agents. Much of rights by this account will be about preventing others from restricting our choices and not interfering with their choices. If something can be chosen freely and does not harm others, it has a good chance to be a right. However, this is a pretty shallow approach to autonomy; there are more rigorous and demanding ideas of autonomy in ethics (see SEP and IEP for more). This is typically how many fundamental rights get argued (I have a right to my body since if somebody can interfere with my body, they can essentially control me and prevent my autonomy).

One can do this in many ways. For example, David Miller writes on grounding human rights that one approach is to allow people from different cultures to live together as equals, or basing rights on human needs (very similar to interest accounts), or the instrumental use of them to safeguard other (need-based) rights. Many like to include human dignity, another tricky concept.

Social constructions can have a lot of reasons. Somebody wanted something, and this was recognized by others for some reason. Certain reasons are cultural universals, and that make it more likely that society will recognize a right. For example, property seems to be universal, and hence a right to one’s property is easier to argue than a right to paid holidays (but what property is, and what rules surround it, can be very different).

Legal rights are easier. They exist because there is a law or treaty, and the reasons for that are typically a political agreement on something.

It should be noted that many declarations of rights do not give any reasons. Often because we would disagree on the reasons, even if we agree on the rights. The UN declaration of human rights give no hint of where these rights come from (compare to the US declaration of independence, where it is “self-evident” that the creator has provided certain rights to all men). Still, this is somewhat unsatisfactory and leaves many questions unanswered.

So, how do we justify cyborg rights?

In the liberal rights framework I used for morphological freedom we could derive things rather straightforwardly: we have a fundamental right to life, and from this follows freedom from disassembly. We have a fundamental right to liberty, and together with the right to life this leads to a right to our own bodies, bodily sovereignty, freedom of morphology and the first half of the right to organic naturalization. We have a right to our property (typically derived from fundamental rights to seek our happiness and have liberty), and from this the second half of the organic naturalization right follows (we are literally mixing ourselves rather than our work with the value produced by the implants). Equality for mutants follow from having the same fundamental rights as humans (note that the bill talks about “persons”, and most ethical arguments try to be valid for whatever entities count as persons – this tends to be more than general enough to cover cyborg bodies). We still need some justification of the fundamental rights of life, liberty and happiness, but that is outside the scope of this exercise. Just use your favorite justifications.

The human nature approach would say that cyborg nature is such that these rights fit with it. This might be tricky to use as long as we do not have many cyborgs to study the nature of. In fact, since cyborgs are imagined as self-creating (or at least self-modifying) beings it might be hard to find any shared nature… except maybe the self-creation part. As I often like to argue, this is close to Mirandola’s idea of human dignity deriving from our ability to change ourselves.

The interest approach would ask how the cyborg interests are furthered by these rights. That seems pretty straightforward for most reasonably human-like interests. In fact, the above liberal rights framework is to a large extent an interest-based account.

The autonomy account is also pretty straightforward. All cyborg rights except the last are about autonomy.

Could we skip the ethics and these possibly empty constructions? Perhaps: we could see the cyborg bill of rights as a way of making a cyborg-human society possible to live in. We need to tolerate each other and set boundaries on allowed messing around with each other’s bodies. Universals of property lead to the naturalization right, territoriality the sovereignty right universal that actions under self-control are distinguished from those not under control might be taken as the root for autonomy-like motivations that then support the rest.

Which one is best? That depends. The liberal rights/interest system produces nice modular rules, although there will be much arguments on what has precedence. The human nature approach might be deep and poetic, but potentially easy to disagree on. Autonomy is very straightforward (except when the cyborg starts messing with their brain). Social constructivism allows us to bring in issues of what actually works in a real society, not just what perfect isolated cyborgs (on a frictionless infinite plane) should do.

Parts of rights

Alternative limb projectOne of the cool properties of rights is that they have parts – “the Hohfeldian incidents“, after Wesley Hohfeld (1879–1918) who discovered them. He was thinking of legal rights, but this applies to moral rights too. His system is descriptive – this is how rights work – rather than explaining why the came about or whether this is a good thing. The four parts are:

Privileges (alias liberties): I have a right to eat what I want. Someone with a driver’s licence has the privilege to drive. If you have a duty not do do something, then you have no privilege about it.

Claims: I have a claim on my employer to pay my salary. Children have a claim vis-a-vis every adult not to be abused. My employer is morally and legally dutybound to pay, since they agreed to do so. We are dutybound to refrain from abusing children since it is wrong and illegal.

These two are what most talk about rights deal. In the bill, the freedom from disassembly and freedom of morphology are about privileges and claims. The next two are a bit meta, dealing with rights over the first two:

Powers: My boss has the power to order me to research a certain topic, and then I have a duty to do it. I can invite somebody to my home, and then they have the privilege of being there as long as I give it to them. Powers allow us to change privileges and claims, and sometimes powers (an admiral can relieve a captain of the power to command a ship).

Immunities: My boss cannot order me to eat meat. The US government cannot impose religious duties on citizens. These are immunities: certain people or institutions cannot change other incidents.

These parts are then combined into full rights. For example, my property rights to this computer involve the privilege to use the computer, a claim against others to not use the computer, the power to allow others to use it or to sell it to them (giving them the entire rights bundle), and an immunity of others altering these rights. Sure, in practice the software inside is of doubtful loyalty and there are law-enforcement and emergency situation exceptions, but the basic system is pretty clear. Licence agreements typically give you a far

Sometimes we speak about positive and negative rights: if I have a negative right I am entitled to non-interference from others, while a positive right entitles me to some help or goods. My right to my body is a negative right in the sense that others may not prevent me from using or changing my body as I wish, but I do not have a positive right to demand that they help me with some weird bodymorphing. However, in practice there is a lot of blending going on: public healthcare systems give us positive rights to some (but not all) treatment, policing gives us a positive right of protection (whether we want it or not). If you are a libertarian you will tend to emphasize the negative rights as being the most important, while social democrats tend to emphasize state-supported positive rights.

The cyborg bill of rights starts by talking about privileges and claims. Freedom of morphology clearly expresses an immunity to forced bodily change. The naturalization right is about immunity from unwilling change of the rights of parts, and an expression of a kind of power over parts being integrated into the body. Sovereignty is all about power over entities getting into the body.

The right of bodily sovereignty seems to imply odd things about consensual sex – once there is penetration, there is dominion. And what about entities that are partially inside the body? I think this is because it is trying to reinvent some of the above incidents. The aim is presumably to cover pregnancy/abortion, what doctors may do, and other interventions at the same time. The doctor case is easy, since it is roughly what we agree on today: we have the power to allow doctors to work on our bodies, but we can also withdraw this whenever we want

Some other thoughts

Nigel on the screenThe recent case where the police subpoenad the pacemaker data of a suspected arsonist brings some of these rights into relief. The subpoena occurred with due process, so it was allowed by the freedom from disassembly. In fact, since it is only information and that it is copied one can argue that there was no real “disassembly”. There have been cases where police wanted bullets lodged in people in order to do ballistics on them, but US courts have generally found that bodily integrity trumps the need for evidence. Maybe one could argue for a derived right to bodily privacy, but social needs can presumably trump this just as it trumps normal privacy. Right now views on bodily integrity and privacy are still based on the assumption that bodies are integral and opaque. In a cyborg world this is no longer true, and the law may well move in a more invasive direction.

“Legally recognized mutant”? What about mutants denied legal recognition? Legal recognition makes sense for things that the law must differentiate between, not for things the law is blind to. Legally recognized mutants (whatever they are) would be a group that needs to be treated in some special way. If they are just like natural humans they do not need special recognition. We may have laws making it illegal to discriminate against mutants, but this is a law about a certain kind of behavior rather than the recipient. If I racially discriminate against somebody but happens to be wrong about their race, I am still guilty. So the legal recognition part does not do any work in this right.

And why just mutants? Presumably the aim here is to cover cyborgs, transhumans and other prefix-humans so they are recognized as legal and moral agents with the same standing. The issue is whether this is achieved by arguing that they were human and “mutated”, or are descended from humans, and hence should have the same standing, or whether this is due to them having the right kind of mental states to be persons. The first approach is really problematic: anencephalic infants are mutants but hardly persons, and basing rights on lineage seems ripe for abuse. The second is much simpler, and allows us to generalize to other beings like brain emulations, aliens, hypothetical intelligent moral animals, or the Swampman.

This links to a question that might deserve a section on its own: who are the rightsholders? Normal human rights typically deal with persons, which at least includes adults capable of moral thinking and acting (they are moral agents). Someone who is incapable, for example due to insanity or being a child, have reduced rights but are still a moral patient (someone we have duties towards). A child may not have full privileges and powers, but they do have claims and immunities. I like to argue that once you can comprehend and make use of a right you deserve to have it, since you have capacity relative to the right. Some people also think prepersons like fertilized eggs are persons and have rights; I think this does not make much sense since they lack any form of mind, but others think that having the potential for a future mind is enough to grant immunity. Tricky border cases like persistent vegetative states, cryonics patients, great apes and weird neurological states keep bioethicists busy.

In the cyborg case the issue is what properties make something a potential rightsholder and how to delineate the border of the being. I would argue that if you have a moral agent system it is a rightsholder no matter what it is made of. That is fine, except that cyborgs might have interchangeable parts: if cyborg A gives her arm to cyborg B, have anything changed? I would argue that the arm switched from being a part of/property of A to being a part of/property of B, but the individuals did not change since the parts that make them moral agents are unchanged (this is just how transplants don’t change identity). But what if A gave part of her brain to B? A turns into A’, B turns into B’, and these may be new agents. Or what if A has outsourced a lot of her mind to external systems running in the cloud or in B’s brain? We may still argue that rights adhere to being a moral agent and person rather than being the same person or a person that can easily be separated from other persons or infrastructure. But clearly we can make things really complicated through overlapping bodies and minds.


I have looked at the cyborg bill of rights and how it fits with rights in law, society and ethics. Overall it is a first stab at establishing social conventions for enhanced, modular people. It likely needs a lot of tightening up to work, and people need to actually understand and care about its contents for it to have any chance of becoming something legally or socially “real”. From an ethical standpoint one can motivate the bill in a lot of ways; for maximum acceptance one needs to use a wide and general set of motivations, but these will lead to trouble when we try to implement things practically since they give no way of trading one off against another one in a principled way. There is a fair bit of work needed to refine the incidences of the rights, not to mention who is a rightsholder (and why). That will be fun.

Review of Robin Hanson’s The Age of Em

Em the wildIntroduction

Robin Hanson’s The Age of Em is bound to be a classic.

It might seem odd, given that it is both awkward to define what kind of book it is – economics textbook, future studies, speculative sociology, science fiction without any characters? – and that most readers will disagree with large parts of it. Indeed, one of the main reasons it will become classic is that there is so much to disagree with and those disagreements are bound to stimulate a crop of blogs, essays, papers and maybe other books.

This is a very rich synthesis of many ideas with a high density of fascinating arguments and claims per page just begging for deeper analysis and response. It is in many ways like an author’s first science fiction novel (Zindell’s Neverness, Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief, and Egan’s Quarantine come to mind) – lots of concepts and throwaway realizations has been built up in the background of the author’s mind and are now out to play. Later novels are often better written, but first novels have the freshest ideas.

The second reason it will become classic is that even if mainstream economics or futurism pass it by, it is going to profoundly change how science fiction treats the concept of mind uploading. Sure, the concept has been around for ages, but this is the first through treatment of what it means to a society. Any science fiction treatment henceforth will partially define itself by how it relates to the Age of Em scenario.


The Age of Em is all about the implications of a particular kind of software intelligence, one based on scanning human brains to produce intelligent software entities. I suspect much of the debate about the book will be more about the feasibility of brain emulations. To many people the whole concept sparks incredulity and outright rejection. The arguments against brain emulation range from pure arguments of incredulity (“don’t these people know how complex the brain is?”) over various more or less well-considered philosophical positions (“don’t these people read Heidegger?” to questioning the inherent functionalist reductionism of the concept) to arguments about technological feasibility. Given that the notion is one many people will find hard to swallow I think Robin spent too little effort bolstering the plausibility, making the book look a bit too much like what Nordmann called if-then ethics: assume some outrageous assumption, then work out the conclusion (which Nordmann finds a waste of intellectual resources). I think one can make fairly strong arguments for the plausibility, but Robin is more interested in working out the consequences. I have a feeling there is a need now for a good defense of the plausibility (this and this might be a weak start, but much more needs to be done).


In this book, I will set defining assumptions, collect many plausible arguments about the correlations we should expect from these assumptions, and then try to combine these many correlation clues into a self-consistent scenario describing relevant variables.

What I find more interesting is Robin’s approach to future studies. He is describing a self-consistent scenario. The aim is not to describe the most likely future of all, nor to push some particular trend the furthest it can go. Rather, he is trying to describe what, given some assumptions, is likely to occur based on our best knowledge and fits with the other parts of the scenario into an organic whole.

The baseline scenario I generate in this book is detailed and self-consistent, as scenarios should be. It is also often a likely baseline, in the sense that I pick the most likely option when such an option stands out clearly. However, when several options seem similarly likely, or when it is hard to say which is more likely, I tend instead to choose a “simple” option that seems easier to analyze.

This baseline scenario is a starting point for considering variations such as intervening events, policy options or alternatives, intended as the center of a cluster of similar scenarios. It typically is based on the status quo and consensus model: unless there is a compelling reason elsewhere in the scenario, things will behave like they have done historically or according to the mainstream models.

As he notes, this is different from normal scenario planning where scenarios are generated to cover much of the outcome space and tell stories of possible unfoldings of events that may give the reader a useful understanding of the process leading to the futures. He notes that the self-consistent scenario seems to be taboo among futurists.

Part of that I think is the realization that making one forecast will usually just ensure one is wrong. Scenario analysis aims at understanding the space of possibility better: hence they make several scenarios. But as critics of scenario analysis have stated, there is a risk of the conjunction fallacy coming into play: the more details you add to the story of a scenario the more compelling the story becomes, but the less likely the individual scenario. The scenario analyst respond by claiming individual scenarios should not be taken as separate things: they only make real sense as part of the bigger structure. The details are to draw the reader into the space of possibility, not to convince them that a particular scenario is the true one.

Robin’s maximal consistent scenario is not directly trying to map out an entire possibility space but rather to create a vivid prototype residing somewhere in the middle of it. But if it is not a forecast, and not a scenario planning exercise, what is it? Robin suggest it is a tool for thinking about useful action:

The chance that the exact particular scenario I describe in this book will actually happen just as I describe it is much less than one in a thousand. But scenarios that are similar to true scenarios, even if not exactly the same, can still be a relevant guide to action and inference. I expect my analysis to be relevant for a large cloud of different but similar scenarios. In particular, conditional on my key assumptions, I expect at least 30% of future situations to be usefully informed by my analysis. Unconditionally, I expect at least 10%.

To some degree this is all a rejection of how we usually think of the future in “far mode” as a neat utopia or dystopia with little detail. Forcing the reader into “near mode” changes the way we consider the realities of the scenario (compare to construal level theory). It makes responding to the scenario far more urgent than responding to a mere possibility. The closest example I know is Eric Drexler’s worked example of nanotechnology in Nanosystems and Engines of Creation.

Again, I expect much criticism quibbling about whether the status quo and mainstream positions actually fit Robin’s assumptions. I have a feeling there is much room for disagreement, and many elements presented as uncontroversial will be highly controversial – sometimes to people outside the relevant field, but quite often to people inside the field too (I am wondering about the generalizations about farmers and foragers). Much of this just means that the baseline scenario can be expanded or modified to include the altered positions, which could provide useful perturbation analysis.

It may be more useful to start from the baseline scenario and ask what the smallest changes are to the assumptions that radically changes the outcome (what would it take to make lives precious? What would it take to make change slow?) However, a good approach is likely to start by investigating robustness vis-à-vis plausible “parameter changes” and use that experience to get a sense of the overall robustness properties of the baseline scenario.

Beyond the Age of Em

But is this important? We could work out endlessly detailed scenarios of other possible futures: why this one? As Robin argued in his original paper, while it is hard to say anything about a world with de novo engineered artificial intelligence, the constraints of neuroscience and economics make this scenario somewhat more predictable: it is a gap in the mist clouds covering the future, even if it is a small one. But more importantly, the economic arguments seem fairly robust regardless of sociological details: copyable human/machine capital is economic plutonium (c.f. this and this paper). Since capital can almost directly be converted into labor, the economy will likely grow radically. This seems to be true regardless of whether we talk about ems or AI, and is clearly a big deal if we think things like the industrial revolution matter – especially a future disruption of our current order.

In fact, people have already criticized Robin for not going far enough. The age described may not last long in real-time before it evolves into something far more radical. As Scott Alexander pointed out in his review and subsequent post, an “ascended economy” where automation and on-demand software labor function together can be a far more powerful and terrifying force than merely a posthuman Malthusian world. It could produce some of the dystopian posthuman scenarios envisioned in Nick Bostrom’s “The future of human evolution“, essentially axiological existential threats where what gives humanity value disappears.

We do not yet have good tools for analyzing this kind of scenarios. Mainstream economics is busy with analyzing the economy we have, not future models. Given that the expertise to reason about the future of a domain is often fundamentally different from the expertise needed in the domain, we should not even assume economists or other social scientists to be able to say much useful about this except insofar they have found reliable universal rules that can be applied. As Robin likes to point out, there are far more results of that kind in the “soft sciences” than outsiders believe. But they might still not be enough to constrain the possibilities.

Yet it would be remiss not to try. The future is important: that is where we will spend the rest of our lives.

If the future matters more than the past, because we can influence it, why do we have far more historians than futurists? Many say that this is because we just can’t know the future. While we can project social trends, disruptive technologies will change those trends, and no one can say where that will take us. In this book, I’ve tried to prove that conventional wisdom wrong.

Limits of morphological freedom

Alternative limb projectMy talk “Morphological freedom: what are the limits to transforming the body?” was essentially a continuation of my original morphological freedom talk from 2001. Now with added philosophical understanding and linking to some of the responses to the original paper. Here is a quick summary:

Enhancement and extensions

I began by a few cases: Liz Parrish self-experimenting with gene therapy to slow her ageing, Paul Erdös using drugs for cognitive enhancement, Todd Huffman exploring the realm of magnetic vision using an implanted magnet, Neil Harbisson gaining access to the realm of color using sonification, Stelarc doing body modification and extension as performance art, and Erik “The Lizardman” Sprague transforming into a lizard as an existential project.

It is worth noting that several of these are not typical enhancements amplifying an existing ability, but about gaining access to entirely new abilities (I call it “extension”). Their value is not instrumental, but lies in the exploration or self-transformation. They are by their nature subjective and divergent. While some argue enhancement will by their nature be convergent (I disagree) extensions definitely go in all directions – and in fact gain importance from being different.

Morphological freedom and its grounding

Cool tattooMorphological freedom, “The right to modify one’s body (or not modify) according to one’s desires”, can be derived from fundamental rights such as the right to life and the right to pursue happiness. If you are not free to control your own body, your right to life and freedom are vulnerable and contingent: hence you need to be allowed to control your body. But I argue this includes a right to change the body: morphological freedom.

One can argue about what rights are, or if they exist. If there are such things, there is however a fair consensus that life and liberty is on the list. Similarly, morphological freedom seems to be so intrinsically tied together with personhood that it becomes inalienable: you cannot remove it from a person without removing an important aspect of what it means to be a person.

These arguments are about fundamental rights rather than civil and legal rights: while I think we should make morphological freedom legally protected, I do think there is more to it than just mutual agreement. Patrick Hopkins wrote an excellent paper analysing how morphological freedom could be grounded. He argued that there are three primary approaches: grounding it in individual autonomy, in  human nature, or in human interests. Autonomy is very popular, but Hopkins thinks much of current discourse is a juvenile “I want to be allowed to do what I want” autonomy rather than the more rational or practical concepts of autonomy in deontological or consequentialist ethics. One pay-off is that these concepts do imply limits to morphological freedom to undermine one’s own autonomy. Grounding in human nature requires a view of human nature. Transhumanists and many bioconservatives actually find themselves allies against the relativists and constructivists that deny any nature: they merely disagree on what the sacrosanct parts of that nature are (and these define limits of morphological freedom). Transhumanists think most proposed enhancements are outside these parts, the conservatives think they cover nearly any enhancement. Finally, grounding in what makes humans truly flourish again produces some ethically relevant limits. However, the interest account has trouble with extensions: at best it can argue that we need exploration or curiosity.

One can motivate morphological freedom in many other ways. One is that we need to explore: both because there may be posthuman modes of existence of extremely high value, and because we cannot know the value of different changes without trying them – the world is too complex to be reliably predicted, and many valuable things are subjective in nature. One can also argue we have some form of duty to approach posthumanity, because this approach is intrinsically or instrumentally important (consider a transhumanist reading of Nietzsche, or cosmist ideas). This approach typically seem to require some non-person affecting value. Another approach is to argue morphological freedom is socially constructed within different domains; we have one kind of freedom in sport, another one in academia. I am not fond of this approach since it does not explain how to handle the creation of new domains or what to do between domains. Finally, there is the virtue approach: self-transformation can be seen as a virtue. By this perspective we are not only allowed to change ourselves, we ought to since it is part of human excellence and authenticity.


Limits to morphological freedom can be roughly categorized as practical/prudential, issues of willingness to change/identity, the ethical limits, and the social limits.

Practical/prudential limits

Safety is clearly a constraint. If an enhancement is too dangerous, then the risk outweighs the benefit and it should not be done. This is tricky to evaluate for more subjective benefits. The real risk boundary might not be a risk/benefit trade-off, but whether risk is handled in a responsible manner. The difference between being a grinder and doing self-harm consists in whether one is taking precautions and regard pain and harms as problems rather than the point of the exercise.

There are also obvious technological and biological limits. I did not have the time to discuss them, but I think one can use heuristics like the evolutionary optimality challenge to make judgements about feasibility and safety.

Identity limits

Design your bodyEven in a world where anything could be changed with no risk, economic cost or outside influence it is likely that many traits would remain stable. We express ourselves through what we transform ourselves into, and this implies that we will not change what we consider to be prior to that. The Riis, Simmons and Goodwin study showed that surveyed students were much less willing to enhance traits that were regarded more relevant to personal identity than peripheral traits. Rather than “becoming more than you are” the surveyed students were interested in being who they are – but better at it. Morphological freedom may hence be strongly constrained by the desire to maintain a variant of the present self.

Ethical limits

Beside the limits coming from the groundings discussed above, there are the standard constraints of not harming or otherwise infringing on the rights of others, capacity (what do we do about prepersons, children or the deranged?) and informed consent. The problem here is not any disagreement about the existence of the constraints, but where they actually lie and how they actually play out.

Social limits

There are obvious practical social limits for some morphological freedom. Becoming a lizard affects your career choices and how people react to you – the fact that maybe it shouldn’t does not change the fact that it does.

There are also constraints from externalities: morphological freedom should not unduly externalize its costs on the rest of society.

My original paper has got a certain amount of flak from the direction of disability rights, since I argued morphological freedom is a negative right. You have a right to try to change yourself, but I do not need to help you – and vice versa. The criticism is that this is ableist: to be a true right there must be social support for achieving the inherent freedom. To some extent my libertarian leanings made me favour a negative right, but it was also the less radical choice: I am actually delighted that others think we need to reshape society to help people self-transform, a far more radical view. I have some misgivings about the politics of this, prioritization tends to be nasty business, it means that costs will be socially externalized, and in the literature there seem to be some odd views about who gets to say what bodies are authentic or not, but I am all in favour of a “commitment to the value, standing, and social legibility of the widest possible (and an ever-expanding) variety of desired morphologies and lifeways.”

Another interesting discourse has been about the control of the body. While in medicine there has been much work to normalize it (slowly shifting towards achieving functioning in one’s own life), in science the growth of ethics review has put more and more control in the hands of appointed experts, while in performance art almost anything goes (and attempts to control it would be censorship). As Goodall pointed out, many of the body-oriented art pieces are as much experiments in ethics as they are artistic experiments. They push the boundaries in important ways.

Touch the limits

In the end, I think this is an important realization: we do not fully know the moral limits of morphological freedom. We should not expect all of them to be knowable through prior reasoning. This is a domain where much is unknown and hard for humans to reason about. Hence we need experiments and exploration to learn them. We should support this exploration since there is much of value to be found, and because it embodies much of what humanity is about. Even when we do not know it yet.

Transvision 2014

My talk from TransVision 2014 is now up:

Indeed, all of the talks are there – thanks!

Some talks of note: Gabriel Dorthe’s talk introduced a nice taxonomy/map of transhumanism along the axes argumentation/fantasy and experimentation/speculation. It goes well together with James Hughes’ talk (not up when I write this) where he mapped out the various transhumanisms. David Wood gave a talk where he clearly mapped out concerns about inequality; not sure I agree with all parts, but it was a good overall structure for thinking.

Laurent Alexandre made a great talk where among other things he pointed out how medical ethics may be dead (in the Nietzschean ‘God is dead’ sense) and being replaced by code. Francesco Paolo Adorno argued that immortality and politics are opposed; I disagreed rather profoundly, but it is a good talk to start a conversation from. Marina Maestrutti gave a talk about the shift in transhumanism from a happy cyborg to pessimistic virtue-culturing: she has a good point, and I share some of the misgivings about the moral enhancement project, yet I do think the “xrisk is paramount” argument does hold water and might force us to be a bit less happy-go-lucky about emerging tech. Vincent Billard gave a talk about why to become posthuman; I think he is short-selling the arguments in the transhumanist literature and overstating how good anti-enhancement arguments are, but his use of David Benatars arguments that it may have been better to never have been born to (through an act of philosophical jiu-jitsu) argue in favor of posthumanity made me cheer!

Maël le Mées demonstration of the comfort organs from the Benway Institute was hilarious.

We have gone a long way with the conference from 20 guys in a hotel cellar in Weesp.

Contraire de l’esprit de l’escalier: enhancement and therapy

Public healthYesterday I participated in a round-table discussion with professor Miguel Benasyag about the therapy vs. enhancement distinction at the TransVision 2014 conference. Unfortunately I could not get in a word sidewise, so it was not much of a discussion. So here are the responses I wanted to make, but didn’t get the chance to do: in a way this post is the opposite of l’esprit de l’escalier.

Enhancement: top-down, bottom-up, or sideways?

Does enhancements – whether implanted or not – represent a top-down imposition of order on the biosystem? If one accepts that view, one ends up with a dichotomy between that and bottom-up approaches where biosystems are trained or placed in a smart context that produce the desired outcome: unless one thinks imposing order is a good thing, one becomes committed to some form of naturalistic conservatism.

But this ignores something Benasyag brought up himself: the body and brain are flexible and adaptable. The cerebral cortex can reorganize to become a primary cortex for any sense, depending on which input nerve is wired up to it. My friend Todd’s implanted magnet has likely reorganized a small part of his somatosensory cortex to represent his new sense. This enhancement is not a top-down imposition of a desired cortical structure, neither a pure bottom-up training of the biosystem.

Real enhancements integrate, they do not impose a given structure. This also addresses concerns of authenticity: if enhancements are entirely externally imposed – whether through implantation or external stimuli – they are less due to the person using them. But if their function is emergent from the person’s biosystem, the device itself, and how it is being used, then it will function in a unique, personal way. It may change the person, but that change is based on the person.

Complex enhancements

Enhancements are often described as simple, individualistic, atomic, things. But actual enhancements will be systems. A dramatic example was in my ears: since I am both French- and signing-impaired, I could listen to (and respond to) comments thanks to an enhancing system involving three skilled translators, a set of wireless headphones and microphones. This system was not just complex, but it was adaptive (translators know how to improvise, we the users learned how to use it) and social (micro-norms for how to use it emerged organically).

Enhancements need a social infrastructure to function – both a shared, distributed knowledge of how and when to use them (praxis) and possibly a distributed functioning itself. A brain-computer interface is of little use without anybody to talk to. In fact, it is the enhancements that affect communication abilities that are most powerful both in the sense of enhancing cognition (by bringing brains together) and changing how people are socially situated.

Cochlear implants and social enhancement

This aspect of course links to the issues in the adjacent debate about disability. Are we helping children by giving them cochlear implants, or are we undermining a vital deaf cultural community. The unique thing about cochlear implants is that they have this social effect and have to be used early in life for best results. In this case there is a tension between the need to integrate the enhancement with the hearing and language systems in an authentic way, a shift in which social community which will be readily available, and concerns over that this is just used to top-down normalize away the problem of deafness. How do we resolve this?

The value of deaf culture is largely its value to members: there might be some intrinsic value to the culture, but this is true for every culture and subculture. I think it is safe to say there is a fairly broad consensus in western culture today that individuals should not sacrifice their happiness – and especially not be forced to do it – for the sake of the culture. It might be supererogatory: a good thing to do, but not something that can be demanded. Culture is for the members, not the other way around: people are ends, not means.

So the real issue is the social linkages and the normalisation. How do we judge the merits of being able to participate in social networks? One might be small but warm, another vast and mainstream. It seems that the one thing to avoid is not being able to participate in either. But this is not a technical problem as much as a problem of adaptation and culture. Once implants are good enough that learning to use them does not compete with learning signing the real issue becomes the right social upbringing and the question of personal choices. This goes way beyond implant technology and becomes a question of how we set up social adaptation processes – a thick, rich and messy domain where we need to do much more work.

It is also worth considering the next step. What if somebody offered a communications device that would enable an entirely new form of communication, and hence social connection? In a sense we are gaining that using new media, but one could also consider something direct, like Egan’s TAP. As that story suggests, there might be rather subtle effects if people integrate new connections – in his case merely epistemic ones, but one could imagine entirely new forms of social links. How do we evaluate them? Especially since having a few pioneers test them tells us less than for non-social enhancements. That remains a big question.

Justifying off-label enhancement

A somewhat fierce question I got (and didn’t get to respond to) was how I could justify that I occasionally take modafinil, a drug intended for use of narcoleptics.

There seems to be a deontological or intention-oriented view behind the question: the intentions behind making the drug should be obeyed. But many drugs have been approved for one condition and then use expanded to other conditions. Presumably aspirin use for cardiovascular conditions is not unethical. And pharma companies largely intend to make money by making medicines, so the deep intention might be trivial to meet. More generally, claiming the point of drugs is to help sick people (who we have an obligation to help) doesn’t work since there obviously exist drug use for non-sick people (sports medicine, for example). So unless many current practices are deeply unethical this line of argument doesn’t work.

What I think was the real source was the concern that my use somehow deprived a sick person of the use. This is false, since I paid for it myself: the market is flexible enough to produce enough, and it was not the case of splitting a finite healthcare cake. The finiteness case might be applicable if we were talking about how much care me and my neighbours would get for our respective illnesses, and whether they had a claim on my behaviour through our shared healthcare cake. So unless my interlocutor thought my use was likely to cause health problems she would have to pay for, it seems that this line of reasoning fails.

The deep issue is of course whether there is a normatively significant difference between therapy and enhancement. I deny it. I think the goal of healthcare should not be health but wellbeing. Health is just an enabling instrumental thing. And it is becoming increasingly individual: I do not need more muscles, but I do benefit from a better brain for my life project. Yours might be different. Hence there is no inherent reason to separate treatment and enhancement: both aim at the same thing.

That said, in practice people make this distinction and use it to judge what care they want to pay for for their fellow citizens. But this will shift as technology and society changes, and as I said, I do not think this is a normative issue. Political issue, yes, messy, yes, but not foundational.

What do transhumanists think?

One of the greatest flaws of the term “transhumanism” is that it suggests that there is something in particular all transhumanist believe. Benasayag made some rather sweeping claims about what transhumanists (enhancement as embodying body-hate and a desire for control) wanted to do that were most definitely not shared by the actual transhumanists in the audience or stage. It is as problematic as claiming that all French intellectuals believe something: at best a loose generalisation, but most likely utterly misleading. But when you label a group – especially if they themselves are trying to maintain an official label – it becomes easier to claim that all transhumanists believe in something. Outsiders also do not see the sheer diversity inside, assuming everybody agrees on the few samples of writing they have  read.

The fault here lies both in the laziness of outside interlocutors and in transhumanists not making their diversity clearer, perhaps by avoiding slapping the term “transhumanism” on every relevant issue: human enhancement is of interest to transhumanists, but we should be able to discuss it even if there were no transhumanists.