Are humanists the new racists?

Our last post, simply a picture of a joyous Audrey Hepburn leaping in the air with the title “Does Anybody Seriously Think We Can Do Better than This?,” provoked a long comment thread. Michael Anissimov posted a comment (and then reposted it on his own blog with a short response to it):

Our evaluations of “goodness” are not objective truths, just subjective facts about the structure of our own minds. The opportunity to modify and enhance those minds will vastly increase the space of things we can understand and appreciate. This will allow us to create new forms of attractiveness and wonder that we lack the facilities to appreciate now.

Commenter Brendan Foht notes that Mr. Anissimov’s line of argument “is at the crux of the most radical aspects of transhumanism,” and neatly explains its contradiction:

When ‘goodness’ is made completely contingent on the structure of our historically/biologically conditioned minds, we make room for the possibility of new kinds of goodness, if we alter the historical or biological conditions that structure our minds…. [But] if our concepts of goodness are structured by our current situation, what reasons could we… have for choosing new kinds of goodness?

The paradox Foht points out is a fundamental one for transhumanists. They face the necessary task of destroying existing value systems, but they always seem to attempt this task by neutralizing values as such, declaring them arbitrary, contingent, publicly unsettleable, a matter of personal choice, etc. The problem is that the value systems they are attempting to set forth as higher alternatives are then necessarily also undercut. As I’ve noted before (here and here), if transhumanists succeed in removing the reasons we shouldn’t embrace some modification, they then leave us without any reasons why we should. In short, the inherent problem with arguing for relativism is that you can’t convince anyone it’s better.
Oh, yeah, he went there
Transhumanists are not truly relativists, however; they just have a warped value system, the deep incoherence of which often leads them to fall back on relativistic arguments in place of direct arguments for why their goods ought to replace normal human ones. If they were truly relativists, their writing would not betray the high-minded moral posturing that it does. Take this part of the same comment from Mr. Anissimov (as continued in his re-posting of it):
[E]ven though I’m favor of morphological freedom (rather than the morphological fascism that I have to look and think a certain specific way, the way it’s been for over 200K years) [that] doesn’t mean that I discourage people from rejecting transhumanism entirely and living only among other humans…. Today, for instance, there are some people that only choose to live among their own race, for fear that race-mixing leads to irrevocable societal chaos. It is only natural to fear that species-mixing in a society could lead to problems, but I’ll bet that some combinations of species could lead to a harmonious equilibrium.
Yes, I went there…. Conservatives seem to often believe in the hypothesis that [the] more we’re alike, the better we can get along. Liberals argue that we can get along despite our diversity.
I guess that makes us “morphological fascists.” Which one of the Futurisms bloggers do you suppose is morphological Mussolini? Or is it that we’re the morphological equivalent of racists, and Mr. Anissimov is the morphological Martin Luther King?
It’s hard to know where to begin with this sort of uninformed and unserious argument, teeming with straw men. You might start by wondering who are the people that Mr. Anissimov claims fear living among other species — even though we have always lived among other species. (The problem, of course, is that transhumanists want to create new species of such higher intelligence than ours that they might relate to us in ways akin to how we relate to dogs, cows, or mosquitoes.) You might also wonder what his comment has to do with Charles Rubin’s original question of whether “we can do better” than that image of Audrey Hepburn, a picture that Rubin says shows us “not the peak of human history or existence, but…does show us a peak of human experience.”
What Mr. Anissimov seems to be getting at is that to affirm the unsurpassable beauty of the Hepburn photo is to commit a sort of discrimination, or species-racism. He wants to turn Rubin’s question on its head: To say that we couldn’t do better is to say that a member of any other species would be less beautiful, which is the same as saying that a member of any other race would be less beautiful.
But the actual history of the fight against racism reveals a picture very different from the one he implies, in which people somehow came to appreciate that race is contingent and so we should not begrudge each race for appreciating its own as best. On the contrary, Martin Luther King and others fought for equality by illustrating our commonality rather than our differences — by demonstrating that all races are equally human, possessing of equal human dignity, and so ought to be treated with equal respect. We can “get along despite our diversity” because we are human, in a way that, say, we should not expect humans and insects to get along despite their diversity.
Finally, I can’t resist noting Mr. Anissimov’s goofily self-congratulatory depiction of transhumanism as the sort of thing that kids will experiment with, perhaps when they go off to college: “I do, however, think that children should be able to do what they want with themselves after a certain age, and I doubt that Christian conservative parents will be able to stop their curious and neophilic children from embracing transhumanist technologies.” This brings to mind the following comic, which he would seem to have to think should be taken seriously (click to enlarge):

Our Doppelgängered Future?

David Foster Wallace → Russell Crowe?

The gentle Facebooking reader will likely have noticed the news-feed trend of last week. No, it’s not posting the color of your bra in ostensible support of breast-cancer awareness (older readers will remember that one). I first noticed it myself when the faces on my news feed seemed both more familiar and more attractive. It turns out that it was all due to the latest Facebook fad: updating your profile picture to match your “celebrity doppelgänger.”

One friend’s doppelgängered profile picture was accompanied by a comment that she suspected the trend to be a product of “wishful thinking.” And how. David Foster Wallace’s words from the dawn of the 1990s seem truer than ever:

Because of the way human beings relate to narrative, we tend to identify with those characters we find appealing…. When everybody we seek to identify with for six hours a day [of TV watching] is pretty, it naturally becomes more important to us to be pretty, to be viewed as pretty. Because prettiness becomes a priority for us, the pretty people on TV become all the more attractive, a cycle which is obviously great for TV. But it’s less great for us civilians, who tend to own mirrors, and who also tend not to be anywhere near as pretty as the TV-images we want to identify with…. This very personal anxiety about our prettiness has become a national phenomenon with national consequences…. The boom in diet aids, health and fitness clubs, neighborhood tanning parlors, cosmetic surgery, anorexia, bulimia, steroid-use among boys, girls throwing acid at each other because one girl’s hair looks more like Farrah Fawcett’s than another … are these supposed to be unrelated to each other? to the apotheosis of prettiness in a televisual culture?

One wonders how the transhumanist is to contend with such a problem. The libertarian transhumanist, especially, admits into his moral vocabulary little beyond the individual will. It is the locus of all human action; any collective action is only properly constituted contractually.

What then of the influence of popular culture — whether in average people’s everyday anxiety over the gulf between their looks and the looks of the pretty people they almost could be but are not, or in their actual efforts to bridge that gulf? The libertarian can deny such anxiety by proudly affirming that the individual will exercises itself autonomously, but as Wallace indicates, this is a woefully inadequate account of the way people think and make choices about their appearances (see: Nadya Suleman/Angelina Jolie).
The only other option is to affirm the supreme rights of the individual will in exercising its personal choices of expression, irrespective of whether those choices are truly autonomous. Every person can and should make himself — including his body — into whatever he freely chooses to be. This is the mantra behind morphological freedom. The numbers of people who go to drastic measures, starving themselves, going under the knife, etc., are surely then by virtue of their expressiveness the freest of all, and cosmetic technology a force for their liberation. Jocelyn Wildenstein is to be heralded as the Frederick Douglass of the morphological emancipators.
Because the libertarian transhumanist view admits of no normativity, neither can it admit of pathology. Libertarian transhumanists must claim to celebrate all morphological choices equally. In practice, of course, they do not celebrate them equally, for their ideology has its own qualitative distinction in the virtue of choice: It favors those “expressions” that seem to be freer — that is, those that have departed more from the given. Libertarian transhumanists seem vaguely aware of and mostly fine with this internal contradiction. But there is a deep irony in the fact that their embrace of morphological autonomy as liberation from cultural conformity commits them to celebrating choices that are so transparently made by unhealthy wills succumbing to the grip of cultural norms.

(See also this wonderfully-titled post by blogger Miss Self-Important: Your radicalism bores me and your liberation weighs me down.)

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.