Appearance as a Guide to Moral Character: Does Real Beauty Come from the Inside?

Michelangelo’s David

Next up in my coverage of the Alasdair MacIntyre conference is a talk by Irfan Khawaja of Felician College, addressing the question of whether we should judge moral character based on appearance. More specifically, as he puts it, “Does focal visual perception ever disclose evidence relevant to judgments about moral character, where the relevant aspect of moral character is under the agent’s control?” This question is in response to MacIntyre’s argument in Dependent Rational Animals (1999) that appearance is likely to mislead, especially when it comes to the disabled and disfigured.Khawaja outlines the major arguments for and against. On the side that a person’s appearance is not (or should not be) relevant to judging his or her character:- The projectivist argument: Believing that a person’s appearance is relevant to his character assumes that there is such a thing as good and bad appearance. But standards of beauty, and appearance more generally, are highly culturally bound, making it impossible to come up with universal norms. (I’m guessing this is called the “projectivist” argument because it claims that we wrongly project our own culture’s ideas of beauty onto others.)- The mismatch argument: Physical appearance is almost entirely a matter of natural endowment, or of circumstances beyond one’s control. People can work a little bit with what they are given, but cannot change the facts about their endowments. So moral character and natural endowments are ontologically different.- The danger argument: The notion that appearance is connected to moral character has been at the root of destructive social trends, from racism, to our modern cult of beauty, to sexual objectification, and so on.On the “pro” side:

Chief Bone Necklace
of the Oglala Lakota, 1899.

The appropriateness argument: There are virtues of social appropriateness, which include matters of dress, cosmetics, and other standards of appearance. Judging whether we comport with these standards, or fail or neglect or choose not to comport with them, is relevant to judging character. (This is the Emily Yoffe, a.k.a. Dear Prudence argument: “We care because we’re group-living social animals, and there are certain accepted codes of behavior in various settings.”)- The concomitants argument: Good character leads to happiness, which has an appearance, which can be judged visually. Likewise for bad character.- Common-belief argument: It is often thought that portraiture uniquely reveals the character of the person depicted. Consider the adage that painters show us how the face at any age may be revealed as the face the subject of the portrait deserves.Khawaja’s purposes for the talk were just to outline the terms by which we might approach the question, but he indicates briefly at the end that he doesn’t think the “pro” arguments hold up, at least not very strongly, and so we should not judge a person’s character based on his or her appearance. Or, he says, if there is some connection between the two, it is so weak that we should make sure such judgments stay in the private sphere (or spheres, as it were).

This is a dense and complicated subject, on which Khawaja has written a lengthy paper, and I haven’t given full justice to his account here — probably I’ve misunderstood parts of the argument too. That said, I think Khawaja is a bit too quick to dash the intuitive connection between appearance and character, despite having well presented the case for it. Part of what he seems to be after with this talk is something very important: the “danger” argument he described only begins to hint at just how dangerous is the idea of pre-judging, or passing final judgment, on a person’s character based on his or her appearance.Particularly relevant today is the “cult of beauty” he mentions: we assign inordinate status to people who, through no effort of their own, are born beautiful, while the plain or unattractive are disadvantaged. Something he didn’t mention in the talk that I find particularly bothersome, and that is as old as time but probably worse than usual today, is our tendency to react with distaste towards the elderly, and disgust towards the disabled. These are all reactions we would do well to shake ourselves of — but I think the answer is not to ignore our evaluations of appearance, but to teach ourselves to treat them with initial hesitance, and to learn how to better cultivate them.

First, the “concomitants” argument deserves more emphasis. It’s not just that happiness might indicate a life well lived, which can be a sign of good character. People are very good at reading facial expressions — especially within their own cultures, but many expressions have been found by anthropologists to be universally recognizable. And there are greater depths to facial expressions that strongly indicate personality, and so character. For example, there is a subtle but apparent difference between how happiness looks on the face of a person when it comes from kindness, charity, and good humor as opposed to when it comes from smugness, greed, and pridefulness. One of the functions of portraiture is to highlight the differences between these.There are many other aspects to appearance, of course, that are relevant to judging character. When you consider a word like “comportment,” it becomes clear how difficult it is to strictly separate appearance from behavior, and behavior is clearly relevant to judging moral character. At one point, Khawaja noted that he teaches criminal justice majors, and has found that law enforcement organizations and the public alike think cleanliness and neatness in appearance are related to trustworthiness in enforcing the law. But he doesn’t think this connection necessarily holds: certainly there is no reason that a person who looks scruffy or unshaved cannot be trustworthy.I asked him whether police officers should wear uniforms, and he said yes, but only so they are easily identifiable as police officers. In effect, he argues that while we do have standards of social appropriateness when it comes to appearance, we should not, at least not as a matter of policy or practice. Should doctors wear uniforms, then, I ask? He says no, but the Q&A ends before I get a chance to follow up.

U.S. Army ceremonial uniforms

I think the matter becomes more clear when you consider comportment in the military. Militaries place a strict emphasis on discipline in all aspects of appearance — neat uniforms, clean haircuts, rigid, formal salutes, and so forth. Are these merely a means of signaling conformity to the standards of a group? If so, are they superfluous to understanding and acting in accordance with those standards? Or might participating in a set of rituals exclusive to one group actually be an important means of inducing a person to actually reason and act as if he were a member of the group and its traditions? (And isn’t becoming a member of some tradition or practice crucial, on MacIntyre’s account, to exercising virtue?)Similar points can be made — though they have to be done carefully, as we will see — about the way people shape their appearances more generally, including the way they choose to dress and use cosmetics, especially as an exercise of style. These can also rightly be seen as aspects of the way individuals embrace the beauty of the human form, and display their possession of it, in all its varieties — which is something we should be attuned to and celebrate.But the more important point for this discussion is hinted at in a position MacIntyre outlines in After Virtue: appearance is never purely a matter of aesthetics. Visual perception always depends on theories — and might this not include theories about other people? Put simply: doesn’t the way a person appears change as you get to know him? At a basic level, when you come to admire or love someone, they become more pleasing in appearance, and when you come to dislike or hate someone, they become displeasing. (Deeper contours of character, one might think, could also be revealed in appearance as you get to know someone.)I would contend that these are good and just responses. In fact, they provide the basis for believing that attractiveness (and attraction) is not solely a matter of appearance. Holding this idea does justice to the notion that a person, not just in appearance but in character, can be “beautiful” or “ugly.” It takes us away from what Khawaja rightly notes is a false idea that we all do or should evaluate the beauty of others in the same way. (If this were true, it would imply, among other things, that everyone who tells his or her spouse that he or she is the most beautiful person in the world is lying, except for one.)This idea could also have the specific effect of teaching us to treat our initial evaluations of appearance to be suspect but capable of refinement, in the same way we do evaluations of character itself. Our reaction to people who are disfigured should not be to feel disgust and then decide whether to legitimize or ignore our disgust; rather, it should be to humanize our response to the person himself such that we can experience his appearance as beautiful rather than disgusting.

Andrew Wyeth, Braids, 1979.

This seems to be central to the value of portraiture — as Khawaja mentioned, and as Charles Rubin has insightfully discussed on this blog. It is not coincidental that some of the best portrait and figure painters choose as their subjects not the most conventionally beautiful human subjects, but ones that might be considered plain or unattractive. The Helga paintings of Andrew Wyeth are a particularly famous example.There is a deeper point about appearance here, both for and against the idea of linking it to moral character: probably a lot of what is at stake in a person coming to “deserve” the face he has is that people are treated as if their character were linked to their appearance, whether they deserve it or not. Naturally beautiful people probably tend to be treated better in life than others, and so are more prone in the first place to have a pleasant disposition, whereas someone who is disfigured may become bitter as a result of his likely treatment.But, of course, crucial for character is how we fare with things that are beyond our control, including our own natures. So in someone who is aesthetically beautiful, unkindness to others may indicate an exceptionally weak character, while in someone who is disfigured, affability and cheer may indicate an exceptionally strong character. (And both character traits would, and should, cause us to treat and view the person contrary to how we might otherwise be prone based on their raw appearance.)

I know you’ve been waiting for it, so here is the lesson about transhumanism: Khawaja seems to be continuing what I consider a basically noble progressive project teaching that, to paraphrase the famous line, a person should not be judged based on the color of his skin (or his immediate attractiveness) but on the content of his character. But once we say that a person’s physical form, particularly his appearance, not only can but should be a matter of his total control, we perversely then should judge a person based on superficial aspects of appearance. We can now legitimately find distaste at an ugly person for not having the good sense or the courage to slice and dice her face to conform to others’ standards of beauty. The same point applies not only to attractiveness, but to things like skin color and other aspects of race, not to mention novelties of self-modification.Social pressures that already induce people to focus excessively on the most immediate aspects of their appearance now become imperatives to exact more permanent changes on the body, whether through plastic surgery or implants or genetic modification. It’s a difficult distinction to make, but one could argue that this is the point at which a person’s concern with his or her own appearance crosses from a potentially good exercise in exploring and displaying the beauty of the human form to an implicit rejection of that form.This is not just hypothetical, but already becoming a reality. As we’ve noted here before, transhumanists like Kyle Munkittrick have celebrated Asians carving their faces up to look more like white people (a continuation of the early-twentieth-century trend in which blacks were encouraged to chemically straighten their hair so they would appear more white), while many transhumanists celebrated a young woman who self-mutilated through implants as a supposed sort of self-expression.It’s worth asking how we ought to regard the character of someone who looks aesthetically beautiful due only to non-reconstructive cosmetic surgery and other elective enhancements. If there seems to be something of a cultural distaste arising for people who look too “fake” and “plastic,” perhaps it is because we sense that there is something inauthentic — not only in their appearance but in their characters. This notion indeed seems to throw some cold water on the idea that transhumanist ambitions are truly a means of liberating the self, when it is perhaps closer to the truth to say that they shackle it.[NOTE: Prof. Khawaja has promised to send in a response to this post. I’ll put that up as a new post and add a link here when it comes through.]

Carving Whiteness into Asian Faces: A Step Back for Progressivism

One of the central beliefs of liberalism, as it is popularly formulated today, is that we should strive to tolerate people who are very different from us — even (intermingling with a much older formulation of this belief) that we should learn to appreciate and love people who are very different from us, just for who they are. This is indeed a noble aspiration, if forever elusive — and to that end, liberals stridently oppose various forms of discrimination. Transhumanists generally tend to position themselves as liberals or progressives, and accordingly, spend a lot of time wagging their fingers at racism and discrimination.Take Kyle Munkittrick, the transhumanist blogger who last month posted an essay from The New Yorker on his blog, condemning racism against Asian Americans. (Blogger Miss Self-Important had a great post on this essay.) In the post, titled, “Asian Like Me: The Race That Isn’t There,” Mr. Munkittrick notes that “Superstars and top-performers [are] being ignored because they aren’t boastful or brash,” and quotes an excerpt from the article, which claims that Asian Americans suffer in our culture for their inability to conform to American modes of behavior.Yet just two weeks earlier, Mr. Munkittrick posted a New York Times article on the boom in plastic surgery among Chinese. The excerpt he posted concludes:

The youthful patients include job applicants hoping to enhance their prospects in the work force, teenagers who received cosmetic surgery as a high school graduation present and even middle school students, most of whom want eye jobs, surgeons say.

Mr. Munkittrick affirmatively responded to the trend that the article describes: “I love China and the Chinese. Their success improves the world.” Strangely enough, Mr. Munkittrick cut off the excerpt just before it describes the unregulated, nearly meatball-surgery status of the industry as it stands in that country.Setting aside for now Mr. Munkittrick’s apparent uninterest in the immediate public health dangers of this situation, there is something more deeply perverse about his celebration. It is hardly an obscure fact that East Asian cultures in general tend to subvert the autonomy of the individual to the needs of the society. That tendency is clearly at work in the case of these surgeries. For example, the Times article notes that in China, “The No. 1 [cosmetic] operation is designed to make eyes appear larger by adding a crease in the eyelid, forming what is called a double eyelid.” The reason for this practice is explored in this related post on the blog Analyfe, discussing a chapter from the reader Sex, Self, and Society:

the scars [from the double-eyelid procedure] take over a year to heal, and there are several risks involved….In nearly every case, the women claim to have pursued the surgery to overcome stereotypes based on their features (such as sleepy, nerdy, and no fun). They opt for cosmetic surgery in hopes of becoming more employable, more well-liked, and more successful.Doctors often agree to perform the procedure without question. Disturbingly, the doctors often describe the Asian features as abnormal and perpetuate the link between those characteristics and negative stereotypes when talking to their clients….The standards of Western beauty are strong and influential, often making minorities — in this example Asians — feel inferior and less attractive than the American ideal. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, the “success” Mr. Munkittrick is celebrating is that of Chinese kids getting their faces carved up to look Western, so that they can be accepted in a world that values Western faces over Asian.—In the first half of the twentieth century, there was a widespread practice among black men called conking, in which they would undergo a painful, potentially dangerous process to chemically straighten their naturally kinky hair, so as to better fit in in a white world — especially so as to appear more humble, and, well, less black to potential white employers. Malcolm X noted in his Autobiography that when he got his hair conked, it was

my first really big step toward self-degradation…. I admire any Negro man who has never had himself conked, or who has had the sense to get rid of it — as I finally did.

It was a small but symbolic achievement of the civil rights era that the practice of conking came to be recognized and rejected as an instance of endemic racism playing out in the free choices of individuals in a minority group.One can only hope that, decades hence, we will look back with just as much sadness and regret on the practice of nonwhite people cutting up their faces and bodies to conform to Western standards. If the subjects of those surgeries do decide they’ve made a mistake, it will not be nearly as easy, cheap, or safe to reverse what they’ve done (if it is possible at all) as it was for Malcolm X to grow out his hair. And if we do reach that wiser age, it will have been in repudiation of the work of transhumanists, who, despite their self-proclaimed progressivism, represent a true step backwards from those admirable aims of modern liberalism.

Celebrating self-mutilation, Ctd.

In response to my last post about transhumanist celebration of the self-harming behavior of one young woman, tlcraig comments:
I have to say, I am tempted by the view that Lepht Anonym is simply more clear-sighted and thorough-going in her rejection of ‘the given’, or, more sharply put, her hatred of the body, than her fellow transhumanists. Like the body-builder, or the cosmetic surgery patient, she at least recognizes the necessity of risking the good that goes with our presently limited bodies in order to get FOR HERSELF the thought-to-be-possible good of a deliberately remade body. Her fellow transhumanists are willing, even eager, to risk the goods available to presently limited bodies FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS. The fact that they are willing to risk nothing themselves must be somewhat telling, no? Indeed, from the vantage point of L.A., it looks a bit like cowardice masquerading as generosity.
Of course, this is not to deny that there may be a confusion, even a kind of mental illness, behind her ‘daring’, and that the actions of the more ‘timid’ transhumanists in fact points to a prudence. But making that explicit would oblige thinking their way past ridiculous arguments like “searching on Google makes us all cyborgs already” and “aging is a disease no different than cancer”
Tlcraig is right, of course, that one could view Lepht Anonym’s behavior as simply following transhumanist principles without timidity. But now that we have an example of those principles in action, we can vividly see their shortcomings. From a theoretical standpoint, one could argue that we only consider her sort of self-modification to be caused in part by mental illness because of our outdated normative principles — or even that we’re all actually mentally ill for accepting our frail, decaying bodies. But then, as we’ve seen in this case, one becomes unable to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy states of mind — in particular, one loses the capacity to judge any self-modification behavior as unhealthy, or as motivated by unhealthy impulses.
Perhaps there is such a thing as a perfectly adjusted, psychologically balanced, and untroubled person simply deciding for philosophical reasons to cut up himself or herself. But it is striking that none of the transhumanist-friendly discussions I’ve seen about Lepht Anonym have mentioned even the possibility that her behavior might be motivated in part by disturbed psychological states, feelings of self-loathing, or suicidal ideation. Nor, of course, have they noted the easily available confirmation that her behavior actually is motivated by these things. Nor have they discussed whether this might bring into question the praising of self-modification — much less have they discussed whether it might be unethical to encourage it in this one individual.
All of this points to the conclusion that transhumanism has some profound shortcomings in its ability (and desire) to understand the human subject it claims to be so interested in bettering.

Celebrating self-mutilation

I had a look today at the disturbing, fascinating blog of Lepht Anonym, the young woman who recently caused a stir on transhumanist-leaning sites by performing various “enhancement” surgeries on herself at home. These surgeries typically involved implanting small devices in herself, such as magnets under her fingertips, meant to give her extra sensory abilities — often with medical complications resulting.
There’s actually something strangely refreshing about Anonym’s blog: it may be the only transhumanist writing I’ve seen that seems to be written by an actual person, one clearly possessed of a complicated inner life. Transhumanists usually seem to lose interest in expressing their inner lives when they give their thoughts over to the boundlessly incoherent muddle of transhumanist theorizing.
Here’s just one example of Anonym’s distinctive relationship to transhumanism:
i would very much like it if the uneducated masses who like to call me an idiot would disavail themselves of the following precepts:…
3. that you are just as much a “cyborg” as i am because you use an iPhone and wear glasses. [****] off if you are going to tell me that what i do is pointless, and i do not want to debate the definition of cybrog with any normal.
Anonym is here rejecting one of the most familiar and empty transhumanist tropes (employed just yesterday in a blog post by Philippe Verdoux, who says that “the cyborg is already among us”).
Lepht Anonym delivers a lecture.
There is much else that could be said about Anonym’s very personal chronicle. Most notable, sadly, is the confirmation, in a post dated eight days before Wired.com ran its story about her, that Anonym is a diagnosed sufferer of borderline personality disorder (BPD). One of the main symptoms of BPD is deliberate self-harm — formerly known as self-mutilation.
Transhumanists love to repeat the idea that life as we know it, inextricable as it is from aging, is inherently a state of disease (for which transhumanism is the cure). Whatever you think of the aims of that idea, it is difficult to distinguish among various diseased states as good and bad. The only easily recognizable good is resisting the disease — rebelling against the bounds of biology.
Consequently, transhumanists have no conception of any relevance to beings alive today of what it means to flourish, and neither, then, of what sorts of acts and states of mind constitute a profound lack of flourishing. And so it’s sad, if not at all surprising, to find transhumanists not only lacking the faculties to evaluate self-mutilation as the self-destructive behavior of a person in need of help, but encouraging it — both by reporting on it so enthusiastically, and by fostering a subculture in which it could be understood as a laudable act of creation and self-expression.
It’s not psychological distress: it’s “morphological freedom” through “DIY bio.” This is the terminology transhumanists use to anoint their attitude as the highest and bravest sort of enlightenment. Except, read a few of Anonym’s posts describing her self-surgeries and the complications following them, and get a sense of the motivation behind them, and those terms begin to seem like cruel euphemisms — and yet another indication that transhumanist ideology represents a step backwards, not forwards, in our betterment and self-understanding. Wired.com should seriously reexamine its decision to run this piece in the way it did. And — although I know that the moral invoked here is itself scoffed at as unenlightened — the transhumanist community should be ashamed of its role in this.
Lepht Anonym certainly has a distinctive voice and presence on her blog. I can’t help but enjoy that she has twenty-six blog posts tagged “that is illogical captain.” She can be clever, witty, and charmingly self-deprecating. Her self-description says that she “likes people,” and it shows: even in posts in which she describes her pain and confusion, there is an obvious and admirable warmth and love for her friends and family.
I hope Lepht Anonym will stick around, and will find an outlet for her energy and talents that is better for her.
UPDATE: See my follow-up post here.

Man Achieves True Clarity of Hindsight

Engadet reports that Wafaa Bilal is having trouble with the camera anchored to the back of his head. The post is a little vague, but to Laura June, it is “not really a surprise” that he should be removing the camera from the back of his head, and that the experience has been pretty painful. Still and all, she thinks the project can be judged a success if he just wanted to be known as “the guy who had a camera implanted in the back of his head.”

When Engadget contributor Sean Hollister covered the same story back in December, he was considerably more upbeat. While the version now posted is headlined “NYU prof sticks camera on the back of his head, just as promised,” the version I have archived in my Google Reader says, “Man sticks camera in the back of his head, fulfills our childhood fantasies.” The tone of the post that follows is anything but skeptical, even if there was a tongue-in-cheek aspect of the original headline. (Although if there was, why change it?)
Everything is so much clearer, after the fact!

Transhumanist self-mutilation

Wired has a story up by John Borland featuring one Lepht Anonym, who performs surgery on herself to implant various small devices intended to augment her sensory abilities. “You just have to get deep enough to open a hole and put something in,” she says. Take a minute and read this short article before continuing here, as it is one of those stories that cannot possibly be improved in the retelling.

Lepht AnonymI can’t be sure, of course, but I’m willing to bet that had such a story appeared in the news anywhere in the modern West up until very recently — the past decade at most — it would have been given a headline more like, “A Curious Case of Self-Mutilation.” But look at how readily Ms. Anonym and Mr. Borland fall into the transhumanist mindset to account for what she is doing to herself (and this despite her contempt for transhumanist theoreticians). When young people cut themselves and do not attempt to stick anything into the incision — as so many today, especially young women, do — it is still relatively obvious even in our tolerant times that they are in need of psychological assistance. That, after all, is pointless cutting, a cry for help. But let a young woman cut herself and implant some foreign and potentially toxic material into her body, and she becomes worthy of respectful attention, a pioneer. Somebody has to show the way for the next step after tattooing and piercing lose their edge, right?
“Self-mutilation” may be one of those ideas that become too old-fashioned to survive in a transhumanist-influenced future. It will be hard enough to maintain any serious idea of mutilation when the transgressive “creativity” that the artistic temperament currently unleashes against innocent canvas is turned on flesh. It might seem as if any diminishment of capacity would constitute mutilation on transhumanist assumptions, but that caveat is unlikely to survive its libertarian relativism.

In this case, however, even “doing her own thing” does not seem to be the last word. She is Lepht Anonym — left nameless — as if despite doing something so distinctive, she does not seek distinction, but rather wishes to be always in motion, to be the one who can be defined by no name. How can there be self-mutilation if one denies there is a self to do it, or do it to?

[Image: Lepht Anonym, courtesy of Wired.]

“The Visible Mark of Earthly Imperfection”

Pucker up

A while back, Boing Boing featured photographer Philip Toledano’s portraits of “extreme” plastic surgery, “A New Kind of Beauty.” After posing some stock questions about the nature of beauty in his introduction to his portraits, Mr. Toledano asks, “Perhaps we are creating a new kind of beauty. An amalgam of surgery, art, and popular culture? And if so, are the results the vanguard of human induced evolution?”

A look at the portraits suggests that if the answer to this last question is “yes,” women will evolve in the direction of having very large, perhaps in some cases enormous, breasts and very poofy lips. Men will evolve to have poofy lips, elfin looks, and/or enormous pecs. If Toledano is indeed portraying a “vanguard,” his photos are just one more reason to wonder what transhumanism’s promise to liberate us all to be just what we want to be will really mean. As a group, his subjects portray but a tiny fraction of the multiplicity of forms of human beauty that the so-called “natural lottery” already produces on a daily basis. On the other hand, maybe the extraordinary lack of imagination, diversity, and creativity shown by those Toledano has chosen to portray is really the fault of mainstream plastic surgeons, who are just too hidebound to try anything really interesting. We await the Giacometti or Brâncuşi of the human body.

But taken as a whole, the portfolio brings to mind a point made many times on this blog and well summarized by despair.com’s classic “Conformity” demotivational poster picturing a herd of zebras with this caption: “When people are free to do as they please, they generally imitate each other.”

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.