A Transhumanist Fault Line Around Disability: Morphological Freedom and the Obligation to Enhance [consideration]

Body shapes, or appearance, or morphology, are not free. Not in any everyday sense or pragmatically speaking. Morphology is not free to choose, it is not free in terms of being available, it is not free in that one does not just snap something on and off, and it certainly comes with a set of very tight constraints in any sense conceivable. Let us look at and excerpt and discuss a current discussion [1].

Society believes that there is a shared responsibility to remedy, fix, supplement or otherwise restore at least aspects of bodies of disabled people [1]. Society's current practice however is currently radically different from any sane, rational or practical approach: it borders the hysterical irrational [link].

That would require disabled people to cooperate. So in a contradicting trend, one also generally agrees that there exists a certain degree of 'morphological freedom' that allows (also, or, in particular, disabled) people to express a choice in how they are accepted to look. That is, they should get to say whether their deformed or dysfunctional body is the way to go, or, whether their body requires (society to support) some  type of restoration, repair or 'enhancement'. To say that is far from easy is a total understatement [link].

With that, and in that particular situation, that morphological freedom and the way society and disabled people play it out, contain two risks.

  • One is the risk of abandonment. Then, freedom to the wolves is death to the sheep.
  • Another is the risk of oppression. There, social support is coerced, values are pressed, solutions enforced [2]. Media these days exert enormous pressure within the "prosthetic arms" subject, whereas the factual basis for the mostly pretentious hype is poor of not fully absent [link].
  • Abandonment happens easily. Oppression is a more complex phenomenon.

With that, one can now examine decision making on an individual level.

There, a decision can be valued as being autonomous, correct or right, or voluntary [3].

  • An appreciation of autonomy will describe a decision's basis in critical self reflection, and in expanding on their specific development.

 . . . Autonomy is defined in various ways, but most conceptions stress the capacity for critical self-reflection in the development of value systems and plans of action. Such capacities do not merely emerge naturally, but must be developed through various processes involving educational, social, and personal resources [4].

  • A cognitivist will require a decision to be correct or right, based of course on circumstances etc.
  • A voluntarist on the other hand will require an act or decision to be freely chosen.

It is obvious that these constraints conjure up real tension fields under which we may be unable to resolve dilemmas easily.

If we adhere to, say, a well established and historically linked value system that, over decades of debate and meditation, research and soul searching, we have made our own autonomous thing, then we may feel forced to follow its imperatives - thus rendering our choice unfree, and even, given specifics, wrong.

Moreover, if autonomy is grounded on a positive and societal appraisal of liberty or freedom, then that society is not neutral.

Respect for autonomy however should respect value neutrality, and it becomes now clear that a society can not at the same time support liberty while not risking abandonment. In multicultural societies, the term autonomy cannot be built on a particular value system.

The extent to which body restorations or modifications have to be covered at all is totally unclear. In particular, it is controversial, whether the term freedom describes absence of active restrictions - such as not being imprisoned and not fearing punishment - while accepting the (natural) human condition, or whether being truly free means also to have wings to be able to fly like an eagle, to be able to swim like a whale, and whatnot.

After all, transhumanist is “a belief that the human race can evolve beyond its current limitations, especially by the use of science and technology”. A free society thus - logically, see above - does not restrict the set of thoughts of individuals as long as they are freely chosen and made autonomously.

On top of that, we need to somehow establish which action is right (or wrong) regardless of whether people chose them or not. How can the rightness of an action be abstracted from the concise circumstances in which it is made?

Transhumanists believe that we can evolve beyond our current limitations. A particular way of achieving that is by using science and technology. More specifically, human intellectual, physical and psychological capacities is to be greatly enhanced by developing and making available technologies (Transhumanist FAQ version 2.1). But transhumanist activities also include the study of ramifications, promises and potential dangers of technologies. Only by studying all that, fundamental human limitations are thought to be possibly overcome. As a negative right, morphological freedom implies that no one may force us to change in a way that we do not desire, or, prevent our change. Also, if it would be possible to fly like an eagle using technology, preventing someone to spend her time and money to change herself - body, brain, mind - in accordance with her needs would be an unacceptable interference with that basic freedom. So transhumanists beliefs contradict the source restriction.

Because there are so-called source restrictions [4]. According to Sandberg, we are not unfree when subject to traditional and contemporary human limitations. For example, by lacking wings. Now, society lacks the resources to address these newly imagined shapes and actual limitations to freedom. There is no new universal obligation to fund, buy or use eagle technology.

Universalization would require the significant further step that others ought to share that particular and peculiar transhumanist value system. A universal social obligation to enhance would require that the enhancement is likely to improve anyone's well being - not just one's own. Transhumanists thus risk Berlin's oppression problem, not abandonment.

First of all, also for transhumanist proposals, there must be room for dissent.

Second, it still is an assumption that is not proved, that these technologies are valued universally, by the sorts of beings that will invest in developing them. It then is a different question whether people who actually had such technologies would still value them. And that leads to the Chimpanzee challenge.

No one, ever, has conducted large-scale surveys to determine what technological changes to the human organism are actually desired by members of all human populations currently existing. Even less do we know what the members of all human population think they might desire if they were different beings, that is, beings who actually had these technologies.

Chimpanzee challenge: they do not know what it is like to be human, and along the very same line, we do not know what it is like to be posthuman, or, enhanced. Disability studies, research with disabled people, shows that the change does not have to be large - or in the direction of "increased" ability - for a human embodied in one particular way to "lack the practical ability to form a realistic understanding of what it would be like to be differently embodied", that is, to have a different morphology.

Examples for that exist, hence that conclusion. Sighted teachers lack a realistic understanding of partially sighted pupils' phenomenological experiences. Well educated, oral and hearing-friendly deaf persons may lack a realistic understanding of what life with a cochlear implant may be like. Generally, most humans are not good at all at projecting what different circumstances will feel like for us, let alone how these will change our values.

Hence, literature and film.

None of these risks, or the chimpanzee’s necessary ignorance, should detract from the value of the journey itself, for how can we learn to navigate such waters if none of the various willing volunteers are allowed to explore them? Even the nature of the more specific, personal, risks must be largely, though not entirely, unknown. “Here be serpents, Eve.” Not every road will lead to Utopia, and if some claim they have found it and we should follow them, how are we to know they have not just been taken in by some beguiling detour?

We cannot predict any enhancement to be valuable, not for a particular person, leave alone universally. So it is critical that the individual chooses for herself or himself. For the choice to be fully theirs, it must be a real option to refuse,reject or totally remove the technology. For removal, it is a lot better if they can at any time remove it themselves. The opportunity to enhance must be countered by the right not to change, in order to form morphological freedom.

A true enhancement, rather than just a change, will be supported by many people's uncoerced and retrospectively valued choices over time. Any hint of coercion will detract from the information content of such changes as well as their psychological acceptance.

Through the lens of transhumanist’s attempts to address disability, we have glimpsed one of the schisms fundamental to the transhumanists' movement’s history and future. At the same time - mainly, because being bodily disfigured or disabled is just as remote to the average person today as being transhumanist - the freedom possible to attain is also bipartite, split, but more emotionally speaking disjunct, for people with disfigurements, physical handicaps, and generally morphology that for whatever reason does not fit the norm.

The fault line lies between freedom as the absence of interference with people’s existing ends—a pluralist, voluntarist, liberal conception, compatible with disability studies’ models of disability—and the less compatible, partial—monistic, rationalist, objectivist—conception of freedom.

This conceptual gap has not grown with the advent of greater understanding of human psychology, neuroscience, or biotechnology. And it has not shrunk either. It has just become more material.

The confrontation between transhumanist deliberations and disability theory has practical implications for actual questions. A reflected way to address issues sometimes is lost. Visible disability may makes the average person so distressed and headless, they get a dry mouth, and become so nervous that relevant aspects tend to get lost in the process of even sitting down for a chat, or, talking. Academic laurels are so important for some to attain, that they may risk to violate higher principles in the process. The combination of both should alert us, as it may make for interesting discussions and review approaches.

So really, in modern day prosthetics and transhumanist ideations, we want to know:

  • In what way does a proposed enhancement idea make the arm amputee (you sure know what blog you are reading? it is you that clicked here, do not forget that) truly less, or truly more, dependent on society? In what way is dependency increased and in what way is it decreased?
  • In what way does a proposed idea increase, or, decrease, degrees of effective freedom, practically speaking, for a particular individual? What are concise restrictions, and what is the effective value of concise advantages? Overall costs?
  • For any people immediately concerned by some testing of new apparatuses: what were the actual realistically available options and alternatives? Were there any? What was their insurance situation otherwise? Were test subjects offered state of the art current technology where time and care was taken in order to optimize it - or had they been deprived of such options? Is there awareness about this being a real issue? Psychological and psychiatric counseling?
  • How can an arm amputee be free to decide? If pressure of society is so large to conform to norms also appearance-wise, how is the risk assessed whether a person succumbs to some manic type of attachment to gadgets? Would such an arm amputee be regarded as incapacitated in terms of reduced executive function?
  • What steps are undertaken to ensure the possibility of negative ratings by an amputee or outsider during any introduction, testing or product use? How are negative ratings interpreted openly and constructively? Was there dependence of an amputee subject on one particular lab, clinic, or care taker?  How interchangeable and exchangeable are components? How fully declared is the bodily and prosthetic installation on paper so any other laboratory can step in for repair, support, removal or replacement? How was that dependence addressed as highly problematic issue that is extremely likely to massively skew just about any result? Was a good cop bad cop, or concurrent lab setup, provided or at least attempted, for the purpose of eliciting truthful answers, or was that option ignored?
  • Transhumanism has one aspect of making technologies "available". How much in terms of actual availability can be seen in a particular proposal or presentation? Is the method detailed so it can be actually repeated elsewhere, maybe also with cheaper parts, or are only vague concepts given? If it is to be made available to people for money, is the price declared as that is often a prohibitive factor, or at least reasonable in its proposed range? Are costs - a major problem within the domain of "availability" - at least transparently declared or categorized and at the very least addressed? If insurances are to ratify the procedure or adaptation, their value system is extremely relevant: so does a comparison against existing solutions justify the functional advantages of the new system so that insurances - who often weigh function against price and health risk - will see its benefits?
  • Transhumanism prides itself in providing thoughts for the forefront of human enhancement. This includes the study of ramifications, promises and potential dangers of technologies. Are dangers of the technology cited, named, evaluated and discussed? What concise improvements were made based on past deficiencies? What past deficiencies were clearly ignored? What experiences were published? What costs do we project on such dangers?
  • How is the concept of true morphological freedom addressed in any particular proposal? What, conversely, are costs to totally reverse any situation brought upon by a transhumanist idea to a normal state? Given that we strive for morphological freedom, it is not hard to see why, for example, in terms of treating upper extremity limb loss, surgeons at the Eurohand 2008 conference in Lausanne proposed that socket based prostheses and improvement of attached technologies were the single most important strategy to pursue also because it would be by far the best for the amputee. The critical aspect was that a prosthetic can be removed quickly and in its entirety. It then can be replaced, repaired or otherwise modified without direct swap-, repair- or modification-related risk for the user. I currently have modular setups and sockets that I can switch very easily. Furthermore, there are distinct requirements to a non-prosthetic body surface; e.g., sensual life clearly benefits from - or requires - a soft stump skin and surface, for example, to just name one aspect of living morphological freedom. So, true morphological freedom also contains the option to roll back, and to fall back; it contains the aspect of compatibility across prosthetic or modification options as well.

Score points or monetary value may be assigned also for comparison between various proposals.

[1] [doi] H. G. Bradshaw and R. Ter Meulen, "A Transhumanist Fault Line Around Disability: Morphological Freedom and the Obligation to Enhance," Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, vol. 35, iss. 6, pp. 670-684, 2010.
author = {Bradshaw, Heather G. and Ter Meulen, Ruud}, 
title = {A Transhumanist Fault Line Around Disability: Morphological Freedom and the Obligation to Enhance},
volume = {35}, 
number = {6}, 
pages = {670-684}, 
year = {2010}, 
doi = {10.1093/jmp/jhq048}, 
abstract ={The transhumanist literature encompasses diverse nonnovel positions on questions of disability and obligation reflecting long-running political philosophical debates on freedom and value choice, complicated by the difficulty of projecting values to enhanced beings. These older questions take on a more concrete form given transhumanist uses of biotechnologies. This paper will contrast the views of Hughes and Sandberg on the obligations persons with “disabilities” have to enhance and suggest a new model. The paper will finish by introducing a distinction between the responsibility society has in respect of the presence of impairments and the responsibility society has not to abandon disadvantaged members, concluding that questions of freedom and responsibility have renewed political importance in the context of enhancement technologies.}, 
URL = {http://jmp.oxfordjournals.org/content/35/6/670.abstract}, 
eprint = {http://jmp.oxfordjournals.org/content/35/6/670.full.pdf+html}, 
journal = {Journal of Medicine and Philosophy} 
[2] I. Berlin, "Two concepts of liberty," Berlin, I, pp. 118-172, 1969.
  title={Two concepts of liberty},
  author={Berlin, Isaiah},
  journal={Berlin, I},
[3] T. Takala, "Concepts of “person” and “liberty,” and their implications to our fading notions of autonomy," Journal of medical ethics, vol. 33, iss. 4, pp. 225-228, 2007.
  title={Concepts of “person” and “liberty,” and their implications to our fading notions of autonomy},
  author={Takala, Tuija},
  journal={Journal of medical ethics},
  publisher={BMJ Publishing Group Ltd and Institute of Medical Ethics}
[4] J. Christman, "Saving positive freedom," Political Theory, vol. 33, iss. 1, pp. 79-88, 2005.
  title={Saving positive freedom},
  author={Christman, John},
  journal={Political Theory},
  publisher={Sage Publications}


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Cite this article:
Wolf Schweitzer: swisswuff.ch - A Transhumanist Fault Line Around Disability: Morphological Freedom and the Obligation to Enhance [consideration]; published 08/10/2014, 01:48; URL: https://www.swisswuff.ch/tech/?p=3398.

BibTeX: @MISC{schweitzer_wolf_1680064407, author = {Wolf Schweitzer}, title = {{swisswuff.ch - A Transhumanist Fault Line Around Disability: Morphological Freedom and the Obligation to Enhance [consideration]}}, month = {October}, year = {2014}, url = {https://www.swisswuff.ch/tech/?p=3398} }