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.

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.

Liveblogging the Singularity Summit

For those of you just tuning in, I’m at the Singularity Summit in New York City, and will be liveblogging the event all today and tomorrow.
We’re nearing the end of today’s lunch break, which means the Singularity Summit is already a quarter of the way over. Oh, how the good times fly. I’ve taken the opportunity to steal a seat by an outlet. My laptop’s power is decreasing exponentially (actually, just linearly, but I want to get in the spirit of things).
I’m looking around the auditorium now as people are shuffling back in and realizing that I am really overdressed. How easily I forget the ways of computer scientists. When I worked at a software company, I think I wore shorts to work.

[Two of the day’s speakers, Marcus Hutter (eating an apple) and David Chalmers (hirsute and barbate), both from Australia, entertain questions from conferencegoers during a break.]

Over lunch I chatted with a Briton here for the conference. He lives in Long Island, working as a cabin maker. I asked if he’d heard of the work of our own Matt Crawford (author of Shop Class as Soulcraft); he had indeed, and we talked at length about the problem of abstractions confronting the physical world. He told me of the problem of knots in wood. It’s funny what different types are drawn to the Singularity.

I was having some setup problems at the beginning of the conference, so I watched the first two talks but didn’t blog them. But they were, for better or worse, not of particular note. Anna Salamon gave a fairly standard “promise and peril” opening speech, only the transhumanist’s version, which is much more focused on the promise, and the peril is more along the lines of “what if we all kill ourselves?” An admittedly important question.
Anders Sandberg then gave a talk called “Technical Roadmap for Whole Brian Emulation.” I was particularly interested in this one since the second half of my own piece, “Why Minds Are Not Like Computers,” could have broadly been given this title — or at least, it laid out what a technical roadmap might look like and why we’re not close to having one yet. I was a little distracted, setting up to blog, but it seemed mostly like a hodgepodge and not really a roadmap. Nothing of note to report.
Finally, the last talk before lunch “DNA: Not Merely the Secret of Life,” by Ned Seeman, quickly seemed of little interest to me. It was sort of a low-level sidetrack from broader Singularity stuff, and you can get the gist of it from the abstract. Or you can read the commentary Adam Keiper did on Seeman’s talk at the Foresight Institute conference five years ago — which had the same title and, presumably, the same content.
And now the summit is back underway!