Some Thoughts on Body Modification, Ethics, and Self

In response to this post I made about the intersection of disability and transhumanism, illicitlearning posted a link to a YouTube video on exactly the same subject, that discusses some facts I wasn’t aware of.

The entire video is over an hour long, so for that reason I’m not going to embed it here. I do recommend that anyone interested in ethics, body modification, transhumanism, functional changes to the body, agency, bioethics, or the ownership of the self watch it, however. It’s probably not safe for work–there are pictures and descriptions of forms of body modification some folks might not approve of–but it’s good to watch regardless.

You can find the YouTube video here.

The person in the video is Quinn Norton, a journalist who’s long been interested in both body modification and transhumanism. She’s one of the people who first experimented with subdermal rare-earth magnet implants that I talk about here.


One of the things that surprised me to learn from this video is just how profoundly fucked-up our system of bioethics–and I use the term “ethics” in there only loosely–is in this country.

We have the capability to do some really neat things, and we’re on the cusp of learning to do some even cooler things. We can, for example, exploit the brain’s plasticity to create new senses (as with the aforementioned implanted magnets) or to map one sense onto another (as with experimental devices that allow people to see by mapping images onto the tongue with electric currents).

We’re closing in on more interesting things still. For example, one area of nanotech research involves respirocytes, which are tiny machines designed to do what red blood cells do by carrying oxygen to and taking carbon dioxide away from the cells of our body. The trick is that they are thousands of times more efficient, and if they work as projected, would allow someone injected with them to do things like hold their breath for half an hour, run at full speed without breathing for ten or fifteen minutes, and even survive with their heart stopped for thirty minutes or so.

And you know what? All this stuff is considered “unethical”–and much of it is illegal.


Before I get off on the rest of this rant here, I’d like to start with a basic premise from which the entire rest of my argument against this sort of nonsense flows, and that is the value of agency.

Agency–the notion that each of us is a self-determining, self-aware individual, uniquely positioned to choose for ourselves what we do with our own bodies–is, I believe, the most basic of all moral principles, and the one from which all other moral principles flow. Things that we all agree are immoral, such as murder, kidnapping, rape, or torture, ultimately grow from the notion of agency. Each of us is responsible for the consequences of our decisions (else there can be no morality), and each of us has the ultimate right to control of our own bodies (the right which is violated when another person deprives us of our liberty or our life).

In the final analysis, I do not believe any credible system of ethics can ignore or diminish the principle that the first and most basic of all moral principles is the idea that we have the right to choose for ourselves what we do with our bodies.

So. Onward.


According to the American Medical Association’s Code of Ethics, there are many techniques and procedures that are considered “unethical” across the board. Among these are “augmentation” technologies–technologies intended or designed to provide someone with greater-than-human-normal abilities or senses.

An example? Cochlear implants. These implants are often used to cure one of the most common forms of deafness, and for this use, they are considered both legal and ethical. The implant is a tiny electronic gadget implanted deep in the ear anal, and connected directly to the auditory nerve. They’re implanted into tens of thousands of deaf patients to restore hearing.

But…

A cochlear implant which offers a deaf person some kind of new ability or functionality that a “normal” person does not have is considered unethical across the board. For example, a cochlear implant that had BlueTooth functionality, to allow its user to directly access a cell phone or a computer? Unethical. An American doctor who implanted such a thing would lose his license. A cochlear implant designed to be implanted in a person with normal hearing, to extend the range of his hearing? Also unethical.

And it gets worse.

In the United States, it is considered a breach of medical ethics for a plastic surgeon to change someone’s appearance outside the socially accepted standards of physical beauty.

Read that again and think about it. In the United States, it is considered a breach of medical ethics for a plastic surgeon to change someone’s appearance outside the socially accepted standards of physical beauty. Medical ethics are dictated by socially accepted standards of physical attractiveness. It is perfectly legal, and perfectly ethical, for a plastic surgeon to put silicone into a woman’s tits to make them bigger (because social standards of beauty favor big tits), but it is considered unethical (and in most places, illegal) for a plastic surgeon to do something like pointed ears; a surgeon who does so risks loss of his license, prison, or both.

Which is pretty damn stupid, if you ask me.


In practice, what that means is the folks who want to get many kinds of body modifications done, from aesthetic mods like pointed ears to functional mods like implanted magnets, must go to unlicensed body-mod artists without formal medical training, who are not medical doctors and who do not have access to anaesthetics, antibiotics, or other basic medical tools. All because the results either give them some functionality outside the “human norm” or take their appearance away from “socially accepted standards of beauty.”

The people who practice the art of body modification live under constant threat of legal action. In some states, such as California, they are considered “unlicensed medical practitioners” and are subject to arrest and prosecution if they are caught. In other states, such as Oklahoma, a person willing to do something as simple as tattooing must pay a $100,000 cash bond to do so legally (and that’s actually a concession to fans of body art; until 2006, tattooing was illegal everywhere in the state.

Now, you might not be into tattoos or pointed ears. Personally, I think they can look cool on the right person, but whatever. That’s not the point. The point is that we as a society have determined that you should only be able to control the way your body looks if the result is what other people would find attractive, and I frankly think that’s an appalling and immoral approach to the question of medical ethics.

Look, this is really simple. My body belongs to me; your body belongs to you. Our appearance is not subject to vote. And yet that’s exactly what we have–a system whereby if enough people think that something (big tits) is attractive, then plastic surgeons are ethically permitted to give women big tits, but if there aren’t enough people who think something else (pointed ears) is attractive, then plastic surgeons are barred from giving folks pointed ears.

It’s stupid enough to live in a society that tells people, every day, in a hundred thousand different ways, that there’s only one way you are “supposed” to look, but to write that notion into professional ethics and law is stupid beyond belief. We claim to be a society that values plurality, diversity, and individual control over our own lives, yet in the single most basic, fundamental form of individual control of all, individual control of our own bodies, we have adopted a herd mentality and then elevated that heard mentality to the level of ethical absolute.

“I like big tits, so doctors are permitted to perform dangerous and massively invasive surgery to give women big tits. I don’t like pointed ears, so doctors are not permitted to perform relatively trivial, simple procedures to give people pointed ears.” Someone explain to me exactly how this is “ethical”? When was it, exactly, that common tastes dictated ethics?

And those standards of “socially acceptable beauty” are themselves toxic and unrealistic. A lot of folks might not like the thought of people getting pointed ears, but how do you explain the saga of Melanie Berliet, an attractive 27-year-old model and Vanity Fair writer, who for her piece on cosmetic surgery visited three plastic surgeons, who complied a lengthy, expensive, and medically invasive list of “improvements” they recommended for her? A lot of people talk about how toxic and unrealistic social standards of female beauty are, but when you take it to the ludicrous extreme of thinking that a very attractive woman by ay standards could benefit from surgical “improvement,” but that functional or unconventional body modification is inherently wrong, what exactly does that say about social standards?

Folks, this is fucked up beyond all human reckoning.


A great deal of the current legal landscape regarding body modification, particularly “enhancement” and “human norms,” can be traced to the opinions of a few people, notably among them Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama.

These two people were among the eighteen appointed by George W. Bush to the president’s Council on Bioethics when Bush took office. The Council on Bioethics is an Administrative cabinet designed to advise the President on the ethical issues surrounding medicine and biotechnology, and as such its goal, at least nominally, is to act as an ethical voice in considerations including legislation, regulation, and research funding in biotechnology.

And who, exactly, are these people?

Leon Kass, the head of the Council under Bush, is an ardent foe of new biotechnology, particularly research involving human reproduction, longevity, and augmentation. He is the architect of Bush’s stem-cell research ban, and lobbied Congress unsuccessfully to pass a ban on research aimed at improving human lifespan on the grounds that death is “necessary and desirable end” and “Christians already know how to live forever.” He opposes in-vitro fertilization on the grounds that it is an affront to human dignity (an argument which I must admit makes no sense at all to me) and that it obscures moral truths about the essence of human dignity (which basically sounds like handwaving: “It seems yucky to me, so I’ll blather about moral truth to conceal the fact that I have no cogent arguments save for the fact that it seems yucky to me”).

In fact, Kass even explicitly acknowledges this “yuck factor.” He calls it “the wisdom of repugnance,” and says that anything we see as “yucky” is, on its face, inherently immoral–by which definition, things like organ transplants (derided with disgust as “doctors cutting up corpses and sewing bits of dead people into live people” when it first started to develop). Many things seem yucky when they are new, but with familiarity come to be recognized as the lifegiving boons that they are.

Francis Fukuyama is a political economist who somehow believes that his knowledge of politics and economic issues makes him fit to hold a cabinet-level position on the ethics of biotechnology. He has written a book, “Our Posthuman Future,” in which he labels transhumanism as the most dangerous idea that has ever developed. He’s also noteworthy for another popular book, “The End of History and the Last Man,” in which he argues that the progression of history is over and that free-market democracy is the ultimate of all political and social systems. He’s one of the leaders of the neoconservative movement, and was one of the architects both of the Reagan Doctrine and of the Iraq war.

Now, you might think it strange that a free-market neocon who favors individual and free-market choices would argue that people should not be free to choose to modify themselves if they want to, and that the free market should not be permitted to offer that choice. Honestly, I’ve never been quite able to wade through his logical contortions in supporting this notion, but they seem to come down to “I want modern American democracy to be the be-all and end-all of human development, and radical new biotech that offers to change human beings too much might upset that notion and lead rise to new social and political systems that I can’t even imagine, and I think that would be bad, so we should ban any new biotechnology that could upset the applecart.”

Which strikes me as being a bit like a Roman senator saying “Rome is the pinnacle of human economic and political triumph, so we should ban any new technologies that might lead folks away from the Roman model of civilization.” And that, were it put into reality, would mean that you and I would not be having this conversation, since an instantaneous globe-spanning communication network was most definitely not part of the Roman model.

What Mr. Fukuyama doesn’t realize is that history never ends. The United States is no more the end of history than the Roman Empire was, and that’s a good thing.


It seems to me that these people–tho opponents of transhumanism, the ethics board of the American Medical Association–live in a tiny, conformist world, terrified of change and intolerant of diversity. It’s ethical to change someone’s appearance, but not if the change doesn’t match conventional standards of beauty. It’s ethical to tell women that they need bigger tits and fuller lips, but it’s not ethical to let them make their own choices about their bodies. It’s ethical to implant a device to let a deaf person hear, but not if it lets him hear better than I can.

The bionic man from the TV show The Six Million Dollar Man is, under our current legislative and ethical system, considered an abomination, and the doctors who worked on him would in real life lose their jobs, even if they improved his standard of living. We should help the disabled, but not, y’know, too much.

In the United States, we have long associated “morality” with “sex.” This nation can boast such moral luminaries as Charles Keating, the anti-porn moral crusader who made movies and advised President Reagan on moral issues before embezzling $1.2 billion dollars from a savings and loan under his control, touching off a nationwide financial crisis that threatened to rob working families of their lifes’ savings…but he was deeply concerned with morality, you see.

Even in bioethics this association continues. We have a medical community whose ideas about medical ethics are predicated on the fact that any change that makes a woman more fuckable to the general population is good; any change that makes a woman less fuckable to the general population is bad.

We are also deeply fearful as a society. We shun the disabled and favor medical technology that makes them more like us–but only so long as it keeps them in their place and doesn’t make them, y’know, better than us.

At each step along the way, we construct ethical systems that are the antithesis of agency, that seek to take away control of our bodies from each individual and instead place that control at the mercy of the common, socially accepted standard of beauty.

And I think that it’s about time we start re-thinking that approach to morality.

128 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Body Modification, Ethics, and Self

  1. OK, I’ve only skimmed this so this isn’t really a valid comment, but a quick blurb anyway.

    Not being allowed to go away from physical standards of beauty – BULLSHIT

    but in terms of above-norm abilities – wouldn’t allowing this make the rich even more better off than the poor, in theory? Not to say that’s the reason for the law, but how do we overcome that argument?

    • The rich are always better off than the poor. They have better access to health care, better access to medicine, better access to education, and better access to a host of other resources that puts them at an advantage it’s difficult to overcome.

      One of the points made in the video, though, is that this technology might be embraced first by the poor, in illegal and unsanctioned ways, to give them a leg up in the job market over other working poor. That’s one potential side effect of making this sort of thing illegal.

      James Hughes, author of Citizen Cyborg, argues that making technology of this kind available only to the wealthy is a very dangerous thing to do indeed, and calls for a more democratic and accessible approach to health care in general and augmentation in specific.

      • James Hughes, author of Citizen Cyborg, argues that making technology of this kind available only to the wealthy is a very dangerous thing to do indeed, and calls for a more democratic and accessible approach to health care in general and augmentation in specific.

        Yup. That remains, to me, the most compelling argument in favor of some form of socialized medical system. It’s hardly a reductio ad absurdum to posit a scenario where augmentations provide such a significant competitive advantage that it’s impossible for anyone not already wealthy enough to afford them to improve their situation to the point where they could ever hope to. That’s a scenario that can get very ugly very quickly regardless of on which side of the economic divide you happen to fall.

        By the way, at the risk of repeating myself this is yet another brilliant post. Well done.

  2. OK, I’ve only skimmed this so this isn’t really a valid comment, but a quick blurb anyway.

    Not being allowed to go away from physical standards of beauty – BULLSHIT

    but in terms of above-norm abilities – wouldn’t allowing this make the rich even more better off than the poor, in theory? Not to say that’s the reason for the law, but how do we overcome that argument?

  3. I’m not sure this is totally a question of morality, but a question of “what is human”. You can see why religious people might object (“God’s image”; if we allow deviation from that…). But there is, overall, a question of what it means to be human. Clearly it’s not “two arms, two legs, able to reproduce with another human” or similar definitions (are all the victims of Thalidomide not human? Those who are sterile?).

    Technology allows us to take the standard human form and change it. We could cut off legs and replace them with artificial equivalents which may perform better (cf your earlier post). Add senses (although I’m not too sure that this is correct; my gut feeling is that with things like the subdermal implants we’re enhancing existing senses rather than adding new senses). Today we can’t replace an eye, but we’re getting there (eye socket camera); who knows about 10, 20 years time. Steve Austin’s bionic eye could soon be reality.

    What happens if we ever invent technology that allows “form change”; what if you could change your form into something aquatic? What would that mean to being human? How could you distinguish a human from an animal? Yeah, now we’re into the realm of SciFi (indeed, these questions form the background to “Proteus In The Underworld” by Charles Sheffield), but the distinction between that fiction and today is merely one of scope, not of essence.

    What is “human”? I think this is the question that the bioethics restrictions are really answering, and it’s being answered from a religious viewpoint. The “yuk” factor is perfectly valid when considered from this perspective.

    And I find that yukky.

    • What happens if we ever invent technology that allows “form change”; what if you could change your form into something aquatic?

      Well, there is the group from WETA workshop that made prosthetic fins for a disabled woman to make her a mermaid. I know that’s not the sort of full-scale form change you’re talking about, but combined with the respirocytes that Franklin mentioned (or some synthetic gill structure), it very well could be possible.

    • That’s pretty much what I was thinking, too. I think it’s also very easy to end up on a slippery slope — not that I think I have the answer to where to draw the line in the sand.

        • At the bottom of the slope, the complete extinction of human reproduction and possibly original biomaterials, with robots living indefinitely.

          Sure, it’s overly dramatic – but I see it being within the realm of possibility.

          That said – I’m a candidate for a cochlear implant, and I cannot make up my mind if it’s something I want or not.

          • I think there’s quite a stretch from functional or aesthetic body modification to engineering of children, and another even larger step from that to rendering people sterile. I doubt that the human procreative urge can be thwarted quite so easily.

      • We don’t draw a line. While I might question the ethics of modifying your offsping, if it’s your own body I don’t see any reason to tell you that you can’t modify it any way possible.

    • I’m not sure the “what is human” question is the right question to ask. Maybe it would be better to ask “what is a person.” I don’t think personhood necessarily needs to be coupled to humanity, though that’s a whole ‘nother conversation.

      Though really, things like the ability to breathe underwater don’t strike me as being something that changes our humanity. We can do it mechanically and nobody blinks. My sweetie is a cuborg, technically speaking; she was born with a medical condition that necessitated implanting a lot of hardware into her back to straighten her spine. Nobody would say that affects her humanity.

      Ditto with Dick Cheney’s pacemaker.

      So what is it about some changes that threaten some people’s conception about humanity? How do we even define it? Do we say “a human is a person who can’t breathe underwater?”

      And how would a Roman citizen answer those same questions? We take contact lenses, corneal implants, cochlear implants, pacemakers, implanted insulin pumps, artificial hips, IUDs, in-vitro fertilization, implanted glucose monitors, and implanted neurostimulators for granted, and don’t question whether or not these things make us any less human, but what would a Roman citizen think of them? I bet he’d be quite shocked by them. Why? Because they’re familiar to us, but not to him.

      I suspect if we reach the point where humans can have gills, the same things would apply. A citizen of that time would take it for granted, and would no more think that breating underwater would change someone’s humanity than we think wearing a scuba tank would change someone’s humanity…but it’s not familiar to us, and changing ourselves in unfamiliar ways frightens us.

      • I think we need to define terms; to me a “person” is a member of a sentient species; a “human” is a member of Homo Sapiens and is a subset of “person” (currently the two terms appear to have exactly the same members, but in the future…?). I chose “human” in my post for a reason. I didn’t use the word “humanity” because that introduces into a lot of people’s minds concepts around thought processes, attitudes, caring, sensitivity etc. These aren’t relevant to my definition of “human”; they’re part of a specific human ethical system.

        A lot of your questions are obviated by my reframing of the question as a religious question of what it means to be human and of a human being formed in God’s image. Being a “person” is a different question which doesn’t seem to have as many Christian religious connotations.

        Corrective surgery to help a body become more true to the “God’s Image” norm is clearly “good” in this religious perspective; augmentation must be evil because it exists to deviate from “God’s Image”. I’m not saying this is necessarily a conscious framing of the question on behalf of those setting the ethical standards, but that it’s a source of the “yuk” factor.

        This viewpoint wouldn’t have existed in Roman times. They had their own superstitions to overcome, instead!

        • This is one of the problems I have with the notion that religious traditions are the arbiters of morality.

          It seems to me that organized religions are, by their very nature, backward-looking. Their answers to moral questions come not from fundamental ethical principles such as agency and social responsibility, but rather from tradition. This, if anything, makes them uniquely unsuited to answer ethical questions about new technologies and new forms of human endeavor.

          • My gut response to this is “hell yeah!”. But my brain has to override and ask more questions of definition. In particular what is ethical. One definition is that something ethical fits within a moral structure. Clearly religious backed decisions are ethical.

            The conflict is that we believe that strict interpretation of religious (read: Christianity) moral codes are insufficient to handle the complexity of modern society.

            I can not, in all conscience, claim that the decisions made by the bioethics group are unethical; by their standards they are in the best interest of morality. What I will claim, instead, is that their viewpoint of morality is limited and out of date and therefore their decisions are a result of being out of touch with modern mores; what they claim is unethical is actually perfectly valid in modern society.

            Or, simply, they’re wrong because of their religious interpretation of morality.

            I dunno, maybe I’m building a straw man here; my whole argument is based on religious foundations, with no real evidence that these foundations exist. I can only point to the Bush Administration (eg abstinence based sex education) and claim my foundation is at least minimally plausible πŸ™‚

          • Well, that creates a dilemma. If you accept that any religious ethical system is indeed ethical, you’re left in a place where forced female genital mutilation, stoning adulterers, and executing men for shaving their beards are all “ethical,” and I’m not quite prepared to say that any of these things is ethical.

            I think it’s possible to construct ethical systems entirely without reference to religion or god, and on the flip side of the same coin, I think there are religious ethical systems that are horrifyingly immoral.

            As an example of an ethical belief that doesn’t need to relate to any religious standard, consider racism. Why is racism wrong? Why is it unethical to discriminate against someone because of that person’s membership in a class or group?

            I would say it’s unethical because it causes harm to that person, and also harm to the racist, and to everyone else in that society. The first surgeon to perform successful open-heart surgery, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, was black. At the time (1893), there were no non-segregated hospitals in the United States, and very, very few blacks had medical degrees at all.

            Had society continued to cling to the notion that blacks were inherently inferior to whites and therefore should not be permitted to attend medical school, his contributions to heart surgery would not have been possible. Would someone else have developed the same techniques? Sure, eventually–but how many people would have died in the interim?

            Racism is not wrong because some god says it’s wrong (and in fact, if you look at the histories of most major religions, it seems the gods are cheerful endorsers of racism), but rather because when a society decides that some group of people is inherently inferior to some other group, it cuts itself off from the potential contributions the members of the disfavored group can make, and that hurts everyone–including the bigots.

            Religions tend, i think, to construct ethical systems that do not lead, but rather follow, the various prejudices, intolerances, hatred, and whims of the people. A society springs up which hates and fears women; soon, these hatreds become enshrined in that society’s religious codes. Since religious systems tend to be backward-looking and bound by tradition, that means these particular hatreds and prejudices remain long after the society itself has changed; the Southern Baptist proclamation that the divine role of women is to “submit gracefully to the leadership of their husbands” traces back directly to the pathological hatred of women prevalent in ancient Israelite society, which despised women to an extent that’s quite difficult for me to wrap my head around.

            The same is true of many religious traditions. In effect, there is one code of morality for wealthy first-world Catholics, and quite a different code for poor third-world Catholics, for example. The Catholic church needs the money of wealthy first-worlders to survive, so while it still postures about things like contraception, it doesn’t excommunicate those who disagree. In poor, largely Catholic third world nations, on the other hand, the Catholic views on contraception contribute directly to the AIDS epidemic that is hammering those parts of the world…which I find morally reprehensible.

            Constructing a solid, workable system of ethics–one which does not rely on “An Invisible Man in the Sky Said So, So That’s It”–can be done. Such a system starts first with the notion of agency, and from there is built upon the principle of least harm, I believe.

          • I’m not sure there is a dilema. Ethics are merely a “code of conduct” based on morality. I’m not evaluating the morality of that ethical system in my postings above, merely proposing an explanation for the morality underlying the ethical system. The dilema would only exist if I believe that all moral systems were equally valid, which I most certainly do not.

            The Pope says abortion is wrong, it’s immoral; therefore any code of conduct that allows abortion is unethical. I don’t agree that abortion is immoral, therefore I don’t agree that doctors performing abortions are unethical.

            Racism is bad, in my book, because it breaks the golden rule (which may not be perfect, but I believe it’s a good foundation for an ethical system for me). A different moral system to yours, perhaps, but probably mostly compatible.

            My point was that the BioEthics committee may have based their decisions on a code of morality that was strongly influenced by their religion. By their lights it’s moral and ethical. By my lights it’s closed minded and wrong.

            Maybe I’m devaluing the word “ethical”; personally I think I’m exposing its weaknesses πŸ™‚

          • As far as foundations for ethical systems go, I’m not so sure the Golden Rule is a good place to start. Different people have different tastes, after all; if I do unto some people as I’d have them do unto me, they’d likely become exceedingly irate. πŸ™‚

            “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them” is better, but there are still large areas of ethical decisions for which it offers no guidance. That’s where the principle of Least Harm comes in.

            If you’re facing an ethical problem of large scope and complexity, the Principle of Least Harm says first, do no harm, and if that is not possible (which it sometimes isn’t), second, take the action that causes the least harm. So, for example, if you go to a country that’s suffering from a horrifying AIDS epidemic, and you know that condoms can prevent AIDS (and therefore a great deal of human suffering and misery), the principle of least harm says don’t tell these people that it’s wrong to use condoms. By adhering to an ethical system that says contraception is always wrong in all situations across the board (I’m looking at you, here, Catholics!) you create more human misery and suffering, and I’d say that’s not ethical.

          • There’s a reason I emphasised “for me” in my message πŸ™‚ One of the things I want people to do is respect my desires, within reason. Therefore I have to respect other people’s desires which takes into account their preferences. So I don’t tie up every pretty girl I meet, even though I’d like them to tie me up πŸ™‚

            To take a much more extreme variation on this; it wouldn’t work with someone who wants to be shot in the head (for example) because that’d give him moral justification to shoot other people.

            “Least Harm” doesn’t work for me because I’m a lazy and selfish. To me, “Least Harm” demands action; if I walk past a homeless person on the street and don’t help them and they die because it’s a bad winter then my lack of action (itself a decision) clearly didn’t lead to least harm. Equally, to me, it requires prescient knowledge of the consequences of every action, every decision.

            Now I don’t want people to do things that harm me, therefore I do try to minimise harm to others; my implementation of the golden rule leads to a lazymans version of “least harm”; not as strict or demanding.

            I’m not trying to build a moral system for the world; just for me πŸ™‚ There will always be gaps and grey areas; nothing is black’n’white. I deal with them as I come across them.

  4. I’m not sure this is totally a question of morality, but a question of “what is human”. You can see why religious people might object (“God’s image”; if we allow deviation from that…). But there is, overall, a question of what it means to be human. Clearly it’s not “two arms, two legs, able to reproduce with another human” or similar definitions (are all the victims of Thalidomide not human? Those who are sterile?).

    Technology allows us to take the standard human form and change it. We could cut off legs and replace them with artificial equivalents which may perform better (cf your earlier post). Add senses (although I’m not too sure that this is correct; my gut feeling is that with things like the subdermal implants we’re enhancing existing senses rather than adding new senses). Today we can’t replace an eye, but we’re getting there (eye socket camera); who knows about 10, 20 years time. Steve Austin’s bionic eye could soon be reality.

    What happens if we ever invent technology that allows “form change”; what if you could change your form into something aquatic? What would that mean to being human? How could you distinguish a human from an animal? Yeah, now we’re into the realm of SciFi (indeed, these questions form the background to “Proteus In The Underworld” by Charles Sheffield), but the distinction between that fiction and today is merely one of scope, not of essence.

    What is “human”? I think this is the question that the bioethics restrictions are really answering, and it’s being answered from a religious viewpoint. The “yuk” factor is perfectly valid when considered from this perspective.

    And I find that yukky.

  5. What happens if we ever invent technology that allows “form change”; what if you could change your form into something aquatic?

    Well, there is the group from WETA workshop that made prosthetic fins for a disabled woman to make her a mermaid. I know that’s not the sort of full-scale form change you’re talking about, but combined with the respirocytes that Franklin mentioned (or some synthetic gill structure), it very well could be possible.

  6. “According to the American Medical Association’s Code of Ethics, there are many techniques and procedures that are considered “unethical” across the board. Among these are “augmentation” technologies–technologies intended or designed to provide someone with greater-than-human-normal abilities or senses.”

    While a very interesting article, the lack of citation for that bit leaves me feeling a little weird, since it’s easy to see it “plausible folk wisdom” rather than research.

    Of course, the AMA has made fit to charge $55 for a copy of their code of ethics (um… why does that leave me feeling squicked?) so that made it a bit hard to just research it myself. I don’t particularly doubt that it’s true, but it’d be nice to have a citation when showing it to others, rather than just “Tacit said it was true” πŸ™‚

    • There are some citations suggested in the video. I looked online for citations after I watched, it, and found a lot of people talking about the AMA’s guidelines but, as you noticed, the guidelines themselves are pay-for-access.

      There are articles on the subject here (the Journal of Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine), here (National Review of Medicine; this article is published in Canada and discusses Canadain physician’s ethical dilemmas about body mods, but Canadian doctors are not prohibited from doing them); and a number of other articles I can only find abstracts for online (typically the full article requires payment). The Elective Home Surgery FAQ on BME says “The “legitimate” medical community has a remarkably limited range of elective procedures that they are able to offer without facing intense scrutiny and potentially sanctions from their peers. As such, there are a myriad of procedures (including atypical implants, transdermal implants, subincisions, silicone injections, castration, and amputation to name only a few) that are unavailable using the Western medical industry,” which is consistent with what I’ve heard elsewhere, but also doesn’t list references.

      It’s really frustrating; I spent about three hours looking for references before I started writing this post, and came up with slim pickings. I found a few interviews with anonymous plastic surgeons complaining about the restrictions, but that’s about it.

  7. “According to the American Medical Association’s Code of Ethics, there are many techniques and procedures that are considered “unethical” across the board. Among these are “augmentation” technologies–technologies intended or designed to provide someone with greater-than-human-normal abilities or senses.”

    While a very interesting article, the lack of citation for that bit leaves me feeling a little weird, since it’s easy to see it “plausible folk wisdom” rather than research.

    Of course, the AMA has made fit to charge $55 for a copy of their code of ethics (um… why does that leave me feeling squicked?) so that made it a bit hard to just research it myself. I don’t particularly doubt that it’s true, but it’d be nice to have a citation when showing it to others, rather than just “Tacit said it was true” πŸ™‚

  8. There is a really good science-fiction novel (and I am SPACING on the author/title at the moment) regarding a man with terminal lung cancer who underwent a procedure to give him experimental gills. And it worked.

    And . . . then nobody knew what to do with him. He was alive, in a tank, but he had no freedom.

    Interesting book, and it did address a number of these issues.

    (And I agree with you — I’m SUPREMELY annoyed at this. I’d like to see some regulation of procedures that are likely to cause harm to the recipients — i.e., as much as I believe in individual freedom, I don’t especially want to see people undergoing elective lobotomies to treat nymphomania or something — but I also think that the idea of plastic surgeons not being permitted to perform procedures that would take someone outside of the “attractiveness norm” is ridiculous.)

    And that plastic-surgery article is just . . . *gross* . . . I cannot believe that someone would tell that poor girl that she has “waist wads” and needs liposuction, FFS!

    — A o___O

      • I admit that I’m uncomfortable letting the U.S. government be the source of regulation, in part because of how politically biased the regulators’ appointments can be, but I’m not sure that TOTAL deregulation is the answer — because the issue, to me, is informed consent.

        If you can prove that doctors are providing full informed consent to patients who wish to undergo these procedures, then I’d reluctantly accede to even things I’d generally take issue with (such as the lobotomy) . . . but I am concerned about people being told that experimental or detrimental procedures are their only option when dealing with health issues.

        If it’s purely an issue of permission to perform elective surgery on consenting patients, I’m all for letting doctors and patients make their own choices.

        (The other issue regarding lobotomy is the idea of voluntarily putting yourself in a position where you won’t be able to care for yourself and would therefore depend on the charity of loved ones or the state — it doesn’t seem like our taxes should have to pay for someone’s lifetime care if they have deliberately rendered themselves unable to care for themselves. Then again, you could say the same thing for alcoholics or drug abusers. No easy answers there.)

        — A :/

    • I’d like to see some regulation of procedures that are likely to cause harm to the recipients — i.e., as much as I believe in individual freedom, I don’t especially want to see people undergoing elective lobotomies to treat nymphomania or something — but I also think that the idea of plastic surgeons not being permitted to perform procedures that would take someone outside of the “attractiveness norm” is ridiculous.

      The problem then becomes how one defines harm. There are no doubt people who will–with a straight face and without apparent irony–argue that deliberately taking one’s self outside cultural norms is itself “harmful.” (I’m sure you can imagine my feelings on that, but even so, they exist.)

      People get wrapped around the axle on the subject of “harm” just talking about consensual sex. When you start talking deliberate surgery, the issues will get even more muddied–at least for those people.

      Me, I say if a person is competent to make decisions and is not otherwise legally impaired, then hey, it’s his body, right?

  9. There is a really good science-fiction novel (and I am SPACING on the author/title at the moment) regarding a man with terminal lung cancer who underwent a procedure to give him experimental gills. And it worked.

    And . . . then nobody knew what to do with him. He was alive, in a tank, but he had no freedom.

    Interesting book, and it did address a number of these issues.

    (And I agree with you — I’m SUPREMELY annoyed at this. I’d like to see some regulation of procedures that are likely to cause harm to the recipients — i.e., as much as I believe in individual freedom, I don’t especially want to see people undergoing elective lobotomies to treat nymphomania or something — but I also think that the idea of plastic surgeons not being permitted to perform procedures that would take someone outside of the “attractiveness norm” is ridiculous.)

    And that plastic-surgery article is just . . . *gross* . . . I cannot believe that someone would tell that poor girl that she has “waist wads” and needs liposuction, FFS!

    — A o___O

  10. I admit that I’m uncomfortable letting the U.S. government be the source of regulation, in part because of how politically biased the regulators’ appointments can be, but I’m not sure that TOTAL deregulation is the answer — because the issue, to me, is informed consent.

    If you can prove that doctors are providing full informed consent to patients who wish to undergo these procedures, then I’d reluctantly accede to even things I’d generally take issue with (such as the lobotomy) . . . but I am concerned about people being told that experimental or detrimental procedures are their only option when dealing with health issues.

    If it’s purely an issue of permission to perform elective surgery on consenting patients, I’m all for letting doctors and patients make their own choices.

    (The other issue regarding lobotomy is the idea of voluntarily putting yourself in a position where you won’t be able to care for yourself and would therefore depend on the charity of loved ones or the state — it doesn’t seem like our taxes should have to pay for someone’s lifetime care if they have deliberately rendered themselves unable to care for themselves. Then again, you could say the same thing for alcoholics or drug abusers. No easy answers there.)

    — A :/

  11. thank you

    I for one watched the hourlong video you posted– remarkably informative. If nothing else, I’d never thought to link tongue studs, cochlear implants and cock rings, or for that matter Lasik and steroids in pro ballplayers. But it does come down to disability vs. superpowers, and what is “ethical”. What is human, really?

    I mean, Aimee Mullins’ artificial legs, with some improvements, could make her faster than Usain “Lightning” Bolt– but would she even be allowed to compete in the Olympics?

    is human more than just the bell curve of what is observed, with exceptions made for those who are exceptionally good at what we think is good?

  12. thank you

    I for one watched the hourlong video you posted– remarkably informative. If nothing else, I’d never thought to link tongue studs, cochlear implants and cock rings, or for that matter Lasik and steroids in pro ballplayers. But it does come down to disability vs. superpowers, and what is “ethical”. What is human, really?

    I mean, Aimee Mullins’ artificial legs, with some improvements, could make her faster than Usain “Lightning” Bolt– but would she even be allowed to compete in the Olympics?

    is human more than just the bell curve of what is observed, with exceptions made for those who are exceptionally good at what we think is good?

  13. Crazy Meds

    Excellent video. Thanks!

    Would you happen to know what the crazymeds website is that she spoke about. I tried crazymeds.org and a few of the obvious variants but they’re all domain traps.

  14. Crazy Meds

    Excellent video. Thanks!

    Would you happen to know what the crazymeds website is that she spoke about. I tried crazymeds.org and a few of the obvious variants but they’re all domain traps.

  15. That’s pretty much what I was thinking, too. I think it’s also very easy to end up on a slippery slope — not that I think I have the answer to where to draw the line in the sand.

  16. I am still curious about how Lasik is allowed, which often gives people better than “perfect” vision, and although it’s a surgery that corrects a “deficiency”, it is still mostly considered “elective”, and how the lizard guy got his tongue split in two and raised brow ridges with scale tattoos if anything at all that makes people “better than” or “not socially attractive” is illegal?

    • OK, just read your twitter response. So you’re saying that people have had actual implants made without anesthetic of any sort and without a medical doctor to oversee implant rejection and they survived the pain of a surgical procedure and no implant rejection issues without said medical personnel?

      • That’s pretty much it, yes. I don’t know Erik ‘The Lizardman’ Sprague, but I do know ‘Stalking Cat’ and have heard him talk about getting his modifications. It comes down to this: if they get anesthetic then it’s a medical procedure and a license is required. Otherwise, they can claim it falls in the same category as a piercing or a tattoo. (This can still be questionable depending on how pissly local law enforcement wishes to be, of course.)

  17. I am still curious about how Lasik is allowed, which often gives people better than “perfect” vision, and although it’s a surgery that corrects a “deficiency”, it is still mostly considered “elective”, and how the lizard guy got his tongue split in two and raised brow ridges with scale tattoos if anything at all that makes people “better than” or “not socially attractive” is illegal?

  18. I’m not sure the “what is human” question is the right question to ask. Maybe it would be better to ask “what is a person.” I don’t think personhood necessarily needs to be coupled to humanity, though that’s a whole ‘nother conversation.

    Though really, things like the ability to breathe underwater don’t strike me as being something that changes our humanity. We can do it mechanically and nobody blinks. My sweetie is a cuborg, technically speaking; she was born with a medical condition that necessitated implanting a lot of hardware into her back to straighten her spine. Nobody would say that affects her humanity.

    Ditto with Dick Cheney’s pacemaker.

    So what is it about some changes that threaten some people’s conception about humanity? How do we even define it? Do we say “a human is a person who can’t breathe underwater?”

    And how would a Roman citizen answer those same questions? We take contact lenses, corneal implants, cochlear implants, pacemakers, implanted insulin pumps, artificial hips, IUDs, in-vitro fertilization, implanted glucose monitors, and implanted neurostimulators for granted, and don’t question whether or not these things make us any less human, but what would a Roman citizen think of them? I bet he’d be quite shocked by them. Why? Because they’re familiar to us, but not to him.

    I suspect if we reach the point where humans can have gills, the same things would apply. A citizen of that time would take it for granted, and would no more think that breating underwater would change someone’s humanity than we think wearing a scuba tank would change someone’s humanity…but it’s not familiar to us, and changing ourselves in unfamiliar ways frightens us.

  19. OK, just read your twitter response. So you’re saying that people have had actual implants made without anesthetic of any sort and without a medical doctor to oversee implant rejection and they survived the pain of a surgical procedure and no implant rejection issues without said medical personnel?

  20. There are some citations suggested in the video. I looked online for citations after I watched, it, and found a lot of people talking about the AMA’s guidelines but, as you noticed, the guidelines themselves are pay-for-access.

    There are articles on the subject here (the Journal of Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine), here (National Review of Medicine; this article is published in Canada and discusses Canadain physician’s ethical dilemmas about body mods, but Canadian doctors are not prohibited from doing them); and a number of other articles I can only find abstracts for online (typically the full article requires payment). The Elective Home Surgery FAQ on BME says “The “legitimate” medical community has a remarkably limited range of elective procedures that they are able to offer without facing intense scrutiny and potentially sanctions from their peers. As such, there are a myriad of procedures (including atypical implants, transdermal implants, subincisions, silicone injections, castration, and amputation to name only a few) that are unavailable using the Western medical industry,” which is consistent with what I’ve heard elsewhere, but also doesn’t list references.

    It’s really frustrating; I spent about three hours looking for references before I started writing this post, and came up with slim pickings. I found a few interviews with anonymous plastic surgeons complaining about the restrictions, but that’s about it.

  21. The rich are always better off than the poor. They have better access to health care, better access to medicine, better access to education, and better access to a host of other resources that puts them at an advantage it’s difficult to overcome.

    One of the points made in the video, though, is that this technology might be embraced first by the poor, in illegal and unsanctioned ways, to give them a leg up in the job market over other working poor. That’s one potential side effect of making this sort of thing illegal.

    James Hughes, author of Citizen Cyborg, argues that making technology of this kind available only to the wealthy is a very dangerous thing to do indeed, and calls for a more democratic and accessible approach to health care in general and augmentation in specific.

  22. Just as an FYI…there’s a fairly large contingent of the deaf community who do not consider the cochlear implant ethical for *any* reason. My sister, who’s been involved in deaf education for 2 decades and is in the process of adopting a deaf child, has very strong opinions about this – particularly since it doesn’t usually produce anything resembling “normal hearing” as the hearing community understands it. I don’t know enough about the details to argue a case for or against, but I’ve certainly heard my sister go off on it a time or two. πŸ™‚

    • I’ve heard that, and it strikes me as absolutely fascinating that folks would want, for example, to have children born absent a sense, simply because it reinforces their ideas of community and culture.

      I think that culture should server human beings, not the other way around, myself. To me, there seems to be a whiff of Linux command-line philosophy (“this user interface was hard for me to figure out, so it should be hard for you too!) in that attitude. “It was difficult for us to create a community and we had to work hard to overcome many obstacles to make it happen, so other people should have the same handicaps as well!”

      • The media tends to represent deaf parents hating CIs for that reason but there’s also a huge concern about hearing parents getting CIs for their kids to ‘fix’ them rather than dealing with the hearing impairment. CIs do improve hearing but they don’t cure deafness so many children are stuck between two worlds. They aren’t usually taught sign and can experience delays in language and learning. Most deaf parents I’ve come across have ethical issues with CIs because they believe their kids would be better off learning ASL than being partially cured for something they don’t think needs to be cured in the first place.
        Unfortunately for my dreams of becoming a super sleuth using current CI technology on a normal ear would damage hearing severely.
        Sorry bout the rant but ASL is a huge interest of mine and I couldn’t resist. Twas an excellent read.

  23. Just as an FYI…there’s a fairly large contingent of the deaf community who do not consider the cochlear implant ethical for *any* reason. My sister, who’s been involved in deaf education for 2 decades and is in the process of adopting a deaf child, has very strong opinions about this – particularly since it doesn’t usually produce anything resembling “normal hearing” as the hearing community understands it. I don’t know enough about the details to argue a case for or against, but I’ve certainly heard my sister go off on it a time or two. πŸ™‚

  24. What About the Ethics of Enforcing Beauty Standards

    My partner, who was burned as a child over 60% of her body, had an interesting reaction to this post. She said:

    “Yeah, what about the ethics of multiple torturous surgeries imposed on kids in an effort to get them as close as possible to the standard of ‘normal’ appearance?”

    In my partner’s case, she had numerous surgeries over several years to fix both functional and cosmetic effects of the burns. However, at some point when she was comfortable with the results, she said “enough,” although the doctors wanted to continue to schedule procedures. To this day (30+ years later), doctors still suggest things she could do to fix this or that scar. Understand that fixing a scar in one place requires creating one in another (albeit a milder one), because the skin has to come from somewhere.

    There are also examples of doctors “fixing” congenital differences in children that have no negative functional effects, such as what is commonly done to intersexed babies.

    As you say, agency is, or should be, the most basic test of ethical validity.

    • Re: What About the Ethics of Enforcing Beauty Standards

      When I was doing some research to start writing this article, I found a profile of a person on BME who likewise had been burned as a child, and considered the scars as a form of body art rather than as something to be ‘fixed.’ (Same person, perhaps?) I have the same problem with the notion that this is not a valid choice as I have with the notion that plastic surgeons should be limited by accepted social standards of beauty: at the end of the day, one’s body belongs to one’s self, and nobody else has the right to dictate what we do and do not do with it.

  25. What About the Ethics of Enforcing Beauty Standards

    My partner, who was burned as a child over 60% of her body, had an interesting reaction to this post. She said:

    “Yeah, what about the ethics of multiple torturous surgeries imposed on kids in an effort to get them as close as possible to the standard of ‘normal’ appearance?”

    In my partner’s case, she had numerous surgeries over several years to fix both functional and cosmetic effects of the burns. However, at some point when she was comfortable with the results, she said “enough,” although the doctors wanted to continue to schedule procedures. To this day (30+ years later), doctors still suggest things she could do to fix this or that scar. Understand that fixing a scar in one place requires creating one in another (albeit a milder one), because the skin has to come from somewhere.

    There are also examples of doctors “fixing” congenital differences in children that have no negative functional effects, such as what is commonly done to intersexed babies.

    As you say, agency is, or should be, the most basic test of ethical validity.

  26. Awesome post, I had no idea that so many people oppose these things! Actually, my problem with transhumanism when I first learned about it (from you) was “But doh — it’s obvious! Why are these people banging on open doors?” And then I realized… that they aren’t. Yeah, some folks actually believe that the current capabilities of our bodies and minds are perfect as they are, and improvements should be forbidden by law… :-O
    Usually I’d say “Whatever…”, but: http://xkcd.com/154/

  27. Awesome post, I had no idea that so many people oppose these things! Actually, my problem with transhumanism when I first learned about it (from you) was “But doh — it’s obvious! Why are these people banging on open doors?” And then I realized… that they aren’t. Yeah, some folks actually believe that the current capabilities of our bodies and minds are perfect as they are, and improvements should be forbidden by law… :-O
    Usually I’d say “Whatever…”, but: http://xkcd.com/154/

  28. I think we need to define terms; to me a “person” is a member of a sentient species; a “human” is a member of Homo Sapiens and is a subset of “person” (currently the two terms appear to have exactly the same members, but in the future…?). I chose “human” in my post for a reason. I didn’t use the word “humanity” because that introduces into a lot of people’s minds concepts around thought processes, attitudes, caring, sensitivity etc. These aren’t relevant to my definition of “human”; they’re part of a specific human ethical system.

    A lot of your questions are obviated by my reframing of the question as a religious question of what it means to be human and of a human being formed in God’s image. Being a “person” is a different question which doesn’t seem to have as many Christian religious connotations.

    Corrective surgery to help a body become more true to the “God’s Image” norm is clearly “good” in this religious perspective; augmentation must be evil because it exists to deviate from “God’s Image”. I’m not saying this is necessarily a conscious framing of the question on behalf of those setting the ethical standards, but that it’s a source of the “yuk” factor.

    This viewpoint wouldn’t have existed in Roman times. They had their own superstitions to overcome, instead!

  29. We don’t draw a line. While I might question the ethics of modifying your offsping, if it’s your own body I don’t see any reason to tell you that you can’t modify it any way possible.

  30. That’s pretty much it, yes. I don’t know Erik ‘The Lizardman’ Sprague, but I do know ‘Stalking Cat’ and have heard him talk about getting his modifications. It comes down to this: if they get anesthetic then it’s a medical procedure and a license is required. Otherwise, they can claim it falls in the same category as a piercing or a tattoo. (This can still be questionable depending on how pissly local law enforcement wishes to be, of course.)

  31. At the bottom of the slope, the complete extinction of human reproduction and possibly original biomaterials, with robots living indefinitely.

    Sure, it’s overly dramatic – but I see it being within the realm of possibility.

    That said – I’m a candidate for a cochlear implant, and I cannot make up my mind if it’s something I want or not.

  32. I think there’s quite a stretch from functional or aesthetic body modification to engineering of children, and another even larger step from that to rendering people sterile. I doubt that the human procreative urge can be thwarted quite so easily.

  33. This is one of the problems I have with the notion that religious traditions are the arbiters of morality.

    It seems to me that organized religions are, by their very nature, backward-looking. Their answers to moral questions come not from fundamental ethical principles such as agency and social responsibility, but rather from tradition. This, if anything, makes them uniquely unsuited to answer ethical questions about new technologies and new forms of human endeavor.

  34. I’d like to see some regulation of procedures that are likely to cause harm to the recipients — i.e., as much as I believe in individual freedom, I don’t especially want to see people undergoing elective lobotomies to treat nymphomania or something — but I also think that the idea of plastic surgeons not being permitted to perform procedures that would take someone outside of the “attractiveness norm” is ridiculous.

    The problem then becomes how one defines harm. There are no doubt people who will–with a straight face and without apparent irony–argue that deliberately taking one’s self outside cultural norms is itself “harmful.” (I’m sure you can imagine my feelings on that, but even so, they exist.)

    People get wrapped around the axle on the subject of “harm” just talking about consensual sex. When you start talking deliberate surgery, the issues will get even more muddied–at least for those people.

    Me, I say if a person is competent to make decisions and is not otherwise legally impaired, then hey, it’s his body, right?

  35. I’ve heard that, and it strikes me as absolutely fascinating that folks would want, for example, to have children born absent a sense, simply because it reinforces their ideas of community and culture.

    I think that culture should server human beings, not the other way around, myself. To me, there seems to be a whiff of Linux command-line philosophy (“this user interface was hard for me to figure out, so it should be hard for you too!) in that attitude. “It was difficult for us to create a community and we had to work hard to overcome many obstacles to make it happen, so other people should have the same handicaps as well!”

  36. Re: What About the Ethics of Enforcing Beauty Standards

    When I was doing some research to start writing this article, I found a profile of a person on BME who likewise had been burned as a child, and considered the scars as a form of body art rather than as something to be ‘fixed.’ (Same person, perhaps?) I have the same problem with the notion that this is not a valid choice as I have with the notion that plastic surgeons should be limited by accepted social standards of beauty: at the end of the day, one’s body belongs to one’s self, and nobody else has the right to dictate what we do and do not do with it.

  37. My gut response to this is “hell yeah!”. But my brain has to override and ask more questions of definition. In particular what is ethical. One definition is that something ethical fits within a moral structure. Clearly religious backed decisions are ethical.

    The conflict is that we believe that strict interpretation of religious (read: Christianity) moral codes are insufficient to handle the complexity of modern society.

    I can not, in all conscience, claim that the decisions made by the bioethics group are unethical; by their standards they are in the best interest of morality. What I will claim, instead, is that their viewpoint of morality is limited and out of date and therefore their decisions are a result of being out of touch with modern mores; what they claim is unethical is actually perfectly valid in modern society.

    Or, simply, they’re wrong because of their religious interpretation of morality.

    I dunno, maybe I’m building a straw man here; my whole argument is based on religious foundations, with no real evidence that these foundations exist. I can only point to the Bush Administration (eg abstinence based sex education) and claim my foundation is at least minimally plausible πŸ™‚

  38. Great post and great video, thanks for all the food for thought. I was a little surprised to see a transhumanism activist squicked by furries, but I suppose everyone has their threshold. The only downside is now I’m even more impatient for the singularity to arrive…

    • Yeah, the furry thing was a little odd. A lot of folks seem squicked by furries (which is natural for any subculture, I suppose), but it does seem to me that the squick is out of proportion to the nature of the thing itself. As sexual subcommunities go, I tend to find furries to be mostly harmless, y’know?

      • I think hating on furries became a meme and has started to generate its own momentum at this point. But yeah, from my (admittedly limited) experience with them they’re actually quite pleasant and friendly.

  39. Great post and great video, thanks for all the food for thought. I was a little surprised to see a transhumanism activist squicked by furries, but I suppose everyone has their threshold. The only downside is now I’m even more impatient for the singularity to arrive…

  40. Well, that creates a dilemma. If you accept that any religious ethical system is indeed ethical, you’re left in a place where forced female genital mutilation, stoning adulterers, and executing men for shaving their beards are all “ethical,” and I’m not quite prepared to say that any of these things is ethical.

    I think it’s possible to construct ethical systems entirely without reference to religion or god, and on the flip side of the same coin, I think there are religious ethical systems that are horrifyingly immoral.

    As an example of an ethical belief that doesn’t need to relate to any religious standard, consider racism. Why is racism wrong? Why is it unethical to discriminate against someone because of that person’s membership in a class or group?

    I would say it’s unethical because it causes harm to that person, and also harm to the racist, and to everyone else in that society. The first surgeon to perform successful open-heart surgery, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, was black. At the time (1893), there were no non-segregated hospitals in the United States, and very, very few blacks had medical degrees at all.

    Had society continued to cling to the notion that blacks were inherently inferior to whites and therefore should not be permitted to attend medical school, his contributions to heart surgery would not have been possible. Would someone else have developed the same techniques? Sure, eventually–but how many people would have died in the interim?

    Racism is not wrong because some god says it’s wrong (and in fact, if you look at the histories of most major religions, it seems the gods are cheerful endorsers of racism), but rather because when a society decides that some group of people is inherently inferior to some other group, it cuts itself off from the potential contributions the members of the disfavored group can make, and that hurts everyone–including the bigots.

    Religions tend, i think, to construct ethical systems that do not lead, but rather follow, the various prejudices, intolerances, hatred, and whims of the people. A society springs up which hates and fears women; soon, these hatreds become enshrined in that society’s religious codes. Since religious systems tend to be backward-looking and bound by tradition, that means these particular hatreds and prejudices remain long after the society itself has changed; the Southern Baptist proclamation that the divine role of women is to “submit gracefully to the leadership of their husbands” traces back directly to the pathological hatred of women prevalent in ancient Israelite society, which despised women to an extent that’s quite difficult for me to wrap my head around.

    The same is true of many religious traditions. In effect, there is one code of morality for wealthy first-world Catholics, and quite a different code for poor third-world Catholics, for example. The Catholic church needs the money of wealthy first-worlders to survive, so while it still postures about things like contraception, it doesn’t excommunicate those who disagree. In poor, largely Catholic third world nations, on the other hand, the Catholic views on contraception contribute directly to the AIDS epidemic that is hammering those parts of the world…which I find morally reprehensible.

    Constructing a solid, workable system of ethics–one which does not rely on “An Invisible Man in the Sky Said So, So That’s It”–can be done. Such a system starts first with the notion of agency, and from there is built upon the principle of least harm, I believe.

  41. Yeah, the furry thing was a little odd. A lot of folks seem squicked by furries (which is natural for any subculture, I suppose), but it does seem to me that the squick is out of proportion to the nature of the thing itself. As sexual subcommunities go, I tend to find furries to be mostly harmless, y’know?

  42. I’m not sure there is a dilema. Ethics are merely a “code of conduct” based on morality. I’m not evaluating the morality of that ethical system in my postings above, merely proposing an explanation for the morality underlying the ethical system. The dilema would only exist if I believe that all moral systems were equally valid, which I most certainly do not.

    The Pope says abortion is wrong, it’s immoral; therefore any code of conduct that allows abortion is unethical. I don’t agree that abortion is immoral, therefore I don’t agree that doctors performing abortions are unethical.

    Racism is bad, in my book, because it breaks the golden rule (which may not be perfect, but I believe it’s a good foundation for an ethical system for me). A different moral system to yours, perhaps, but probably mostly compatible.

    My point was that the BioEthics committee may have based their decisions on a code of morality that was strongly influenced by their religion. By their lights it’s moral and ethical. By my lights it’s closed minded and wrong.

    Maybe I’m devaluing the word “ethical”; personally I think I’m exposing its weaknesses πŸ™‚

  43. I think hating on furries became a meme and has started to generate its own momentum at this point. But yeah, from my (admittedly limited) experience with them they’re actually quite pleasant and friendly.

  44. As far as foundations for ethical systems go, I’m not so sure the Golden Rule is a good place to start. Different people have different tastes, after all; if I do unto some people as I’d have them do unto me, they’d likely become exceedingly irate. πŸ™‚

    “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them” is better, but there are still large areas of ethical decisions for which it offers no guidance. That’s where the principle of Least Harm comes in.

    If you’re facing an ethical problem of large scope and complexity, the Principle of Least Harm says first, do no harm, and if that is not possible (which it sometimes isn’t), second, take the action that causes the least harm. So, for example, if you go to a country that’s suffering from a horrifying AIDS epidemic, and you know that condoms can prevent AIDS (and therefore a great deal of human suffering and misery), the principle of least harm says don’t tell these people that it’s wrong to use condoms. By adhering to an ethical system that says contraception is always wrong in all situations across the board (I’m looking at you, here, Catholics!) you create more human misery and suffering, and I’d say that’s not ethical.

  45. There’s a reason I emphasised “for me” in my message πŸ™‚ One of the things I want people to do is respect my desires, within reason. Therefore I have to respect other people’s desires which takes into account their preferences. So I don’t tie up every pretty girl I meet, even though I’d like them to tie me up πŸ™‚

    To take a much more extreme variation on this; it wouldn’t work with someone who wants to be shot in the head (for example) because that’d give him moral justification to shoot other people.

    “Least Harm” doesn’t work for me because I’m a lazy and selfish. To me, “Least Harm” demands action; if I walk past a homeless person on the street and don’t help them and they die because it’s a bad winter then my lack of action (itself a decision) clearly didn’t lead to least harm. Equally, to me, it requires prescient knowledge of the consequences of every action, every decision.

    Now I don’t want people to do things that harm me, therefore I do try to minimise harm to others; my implementation of the golden rule leads to a lazymans version of “least harm”; not as strict or demanding.

    I’m not trying to build a moral system for the world; just for me πŸ™‚ There will always be gaps and grey areas; nothing is black’n’white. I deal with them as I come across them.

  46. James Hughes, author of Citizen Cyborg, argues that making technology of this kind available only to the wealthy is a very dangerous thing to do indeed, and calls for a more democratic and accessible approach to health care in general and augmentation in specific.

    Yup. That remains, to me, the most compelling argument in favor of some form of socialized medical system. It’s hardly a reductio ad absurdum to posit a scenario where augmentations provide such a significant competitive advantage that it’s impossible for anyone not already wealthy enough to afford them to improve their situation to the point where they could ever hope to. That’s a scenario that can get very ugly very quickly regardless of on which side of the economic divide you happen to fall.

    By the way, at the risk of repeating myself this is yet another brilliant post. Well done.

  47. The media tends to represent deaf parents hating CIs for that reason but there’s also a huge concern about hearing parents getting CIs for their kids to ‘fix’ them rather than dealing with the hearing impairment. CIs do improve hearing but they don’t cure deafness so many children are stuck between two worlds. They aren’t usually taught sign and can experience delays in language and learning. Most deaf parents I’ve come across have ethical issues with CIs because they believe their kids would be better off learning ASL than being partially cured for something they don’t think needs to be cured in the first place.
    Unfortunately for my dreams of becoming a super sleuth using current CI technology on a normal ear would damage hearing severely.
    Sorry bout the rant but ASL is a huge interest of mine and I couldn’t resist. Twas an excellent read.

  48. Of Interest!

    And, also, this:

    The concept of constructing who it is we are and want to be is dearly important to me! I used to minorly offended by people who had optional reconstructive surgery to achieve a standard of beauty because I bought into the argument of ‘and what message are you sending to your children.. that your genetic package of beauty was not enough?’

    For some reason that faded as I got to know people who’s interior self did not align to their exterior one. Changing your flesh to match your self’s gender identity seemed entirely plausible to me.. and sometime after that.. nose jobs, and plastic surgery became acceptable to me as well. ..but it is interesting to watch/feel the process of what is acceptable shifting within me.

    My daughter is interest in doing a combo veterinarian and mechanical engineering degree to create functional prosthetics for large animals. (She was greatly inspired by the loss of kentucky derby horses that could not be saved once their legs were injured racing. Her grandmother is a double amputee who hates her prosthetic legs and the family is well aware of the difficulties of the ‘old way’ of doing things…

    I think that there is a great potential energy for changing the way the greater society thinks about things with all the current disabled veterans missing limbs and struggling with mobility. Chaos/opportunity!

    I remember one of the podcasts I listen to regularly discussing an interesting concept however… how much of our body do we need to retain to still be ‘human?’ There is an amount of emotional capacity stored in the amount of our flesh that can be lost or reduced as we lose the flesh through which our blood stream and limbic system circulates. I would like to find out more on this topic!

  49. Of Interest!

    And, also, this:

    The concept of constructing who it is we are and want to be is dearly important to me! I used to minorly offended by people who had optional reconstructive surgery to achieve a standard of beauty because I bought into the argument of ‘and what message are you sending to your children.. that your genetic package of beauty was not enough?’

    For some reason that faded as I got to know people who’s interior self did not align to their exterior one. Changing your flesh to match your self’s gender identity seemed entirely plausible to me.. and sometime after that.. nose jobs, and plastic surgery became acceptable to me as well. ..but it is interesting to watch/feel the process of what is acceptable shifting within me.

    My daughter is interest in doing a combo veterinarian and mechanical engineering degree to create functional prosthetics for large animals. (She was greatly inspired by the loss of kentucky derby horses that could not be saved once their legs were injured racing. Her grandmother is a double amputee who hates her prosthetic legs and the family is well aware of the difficulties of the ‘old way’ of doing things…

    I think that there is a great potential energy for changing the way the greater society thinks about things with all the current disabled veterans missing limbs and struggling with mobility. Chaos/opportunity!

    I remember one of the podcasts I listen to regularly discussing an interesting concept however… how much of our body do we need to retain to still be ‘human?’ There is an amount of emotional capacity stored in the amount of our flesh that can be lost or reduced as we lose the flesh through which our blood stream and limbic system circulates. I would like to find out more on this topic!

  50. I’m no transhumanist

    As a matter of fact, I usually take all the transhumanist stuff as “there will be nanopie in the sky and you’ll never die.”
    But reciprocites…
    I want.

  51. I’m no transhumanist

    As a matter of fact, I usually take all the transhumanist stuff as “there will be nanopie in the sky and you’ll never die.”
    But reciprocites…
    I want.

  52. Well, I have some ideas as to why this kind of thing makes me feel icky but I don’t want to be a big ole blabbermouth in your LJ when you don’t even know me. (I found you via someone I found via a community I moderate, fyi.)

    1. Hyper-individualism gives me the creeps. And it is so pervasive among the “progressive” and “liberal” folks that I’m beginning to wonder what the heck I spent most of my adult life identifying as a liberal for. I understand the concept of personal liberty but people seem to want it at the expense of sociality. (I think that’s a word.) There is no dichotomy between “absolute individual rights” and “hive/herd mentality.” We’re a social animal. No one with a single shred of intellectual honesty can deny that fact. It stands to reason we will seek approval from those we consider to be related to us in some way, and will also attempt to exercise influence over the decisions of those we consider related to us. It is not enough to dismiss this as “herd mentality” based in “superstition,” thereby dismissing objections to hyperindividualistic values without critically examining them. You know, once in a while someone might just know what they are talking about even if they couch it in “moral” terms. Of course we are all concerned about morality, even if we all define that term slightly differently.

    2. I also believe in the right to bodily integrity. However, I am not ignorant of the fact that people change their minds, because people themselves change, even as adults. If I were a cosmetic surgeon I would not want it on my conscience that I did something to someone that made them look inhuman and then five years from now they changed as a person and were horrified by their own appearance. I don’t really care if neocons jump on that bandwagon. I wouldn’t want to get involved in it, period, and I don’t think many doctors would. (To be clear, I’m not a doc, but IF I were, hypothetically.) People regret tattoos, but those can be removed. People regret implants, but sometimes those can be removed. If you get your eyeballs replaced by electronic devices that make you look like you have cat pupils and allow you to see through walls, and five years from now you realize you hate them and you want normal vision, or if the electronic eyeballs suddenly short out and you can’t get another surgery because it would screw your optic nerves…

    3. Which takes me to another point. There’s an awful lot of evidence out there that our present way of life will not last forever–the oil supply will crash in some way, arable land will run low, global warming will likely get out of hand, etc. If people get bizarre modifications and then life goes to hell in a handbasket and some of those modifications are technological, and they break down… living body parts can often heal, but machines can’t. We can’t even seem to invent an operating system that never crashes. (Even Linux has its moments.) Good luck finding bionic body parts that won’t. By the way? Steve Austin is a fictional character.

    I have so many other thoughts about this, like about my right to go out in public without seeing people who have been so altered that I can’t even identify their species, much less stand to look at them, to say nothing of how this kind of thing upsets little kids when it’s taken too far, and today it’s bionic ears and tomorrow it’s someone moving their penis up to their forehead or something… no, no, no. And, “transhuman”? What the hell is wrong with being human? From a purely humanistic point of view, of course, not even bringing religion into it.

    But I’ll quit… ’cause I can’t imagine this comment will be all that welcome. Sorry. But really. I wish it were as simple as black-and-white “intolerance.” I’ve seen this kind of theorizing before and to me it always signals a person who doesn’t spend much time with the rest of us in consensus reality. Maybe you should. A bit of dabbling into anthropology might help too, if you haven’t been there already–maybe you have and didn’t take the same things out of it as other people, I don’t know.

    anyway. Good luck with your cause and all that. Bye.

    • There is no dichotomy between “absolute individual rights” and “hive/herd mentality.” We’re a social animal. No one with a single shred of intellectual honesty can deny that fact. It stands to reason we will seek approval from those we consider to be related to us in some way, and will also attempt to exercise influence over the decisions of those we consider related to us. It is not enough to dismiss this as “herd mentality” based in “superstition,” thereby dismissing objections to hyperindividualistic values without critically examining them. You know, once in a while someone might just know what they are talking about even if they couch it in “moral” terms. Of course we are all concerned about morality, even if we all define that term slightly differently.

      Sure. Of course we’re social animals.

      And for decisions with tangible effects on other people, it pays to keep that in mind. The fact that we’re social animals means we need to be able to get along with one another.

      But on the flip side of the same coin, it takes more than “I don’t like what you are doing” to make a compelling argument against something. As far as morality goes, the fact remains that if I do something which has no tangible effect on you, the fact that we are social animals is not relevant; it’s not “hyper individualistic” to say that morality begins and ends with what we do to each other, not what we do to ourselves. All sin lies only in hurting others unnecessarily; all other “sin” is invented nonsense.

      I also believe in the right to bodily integrity. However, I am not ignorant of the fact that people change their minds, because people themselves change, even as adults. If I were a cosmetic surgeon I would not want it on my conscience that I did something to someone that made them look inhuman and then five years from now they changed as a person and were horrified by their own appearance.

      Why does that argument apply only to unusual body mods and not to common ones? People change their mind about things like breast implants; for example, actress Carmen Electra has been interviewed saying she profoundly regrets having her tits made bigger. So why do we say “well, people might regret it so that’s a good reason not to do it” when we talk about pointed ears, nut not about bigger breasts? Breast implants are far more surgically invasive and far more dangerous, after all.

      Honestly? I think it has nothing to do with what people might regret. I think that more guys like big tits than pointed ears, and that’s the reason breast implants are considered ethical but pointed ears are not.

      Which takes me to another point. There’s an awful lot of evidence out there that our present way of life will not last forever–the oil supply will crash in some way, arable land will run low, global warming will likely get out of hand, etc. If people get bizarre modifications and then life goes to hell in a handbasket and some of those modifications are technological, and they break down… living body parts can often heal, but machines can’t.

      If our technology fails, we have problems that go way beyond a few folks with some kind of technological body modification, even though the mods I’m talking about here aren’t technological. If our technological infrastructure collapses to that extent, three to four billion people will die.

      (continued)

    • (continuing)

      I have so many other thoughts about this, like about my right to go out in public without seeing people who have been so altered that I can’t even identify their species, much less stand to look at them, to say nothing of how this kind of thing upsets little kids when it’s taken too far, and today it’s bionic ears and tomorrow it’s someone moving their penis up to their forehead or something…

      Well, now, that’s a whole different argument, and frankly it’s an argument I’m quite disappointed in.

      The world does not owe you comfort. You do not have the right to like the way other people look.

      The exact argument you are using here is also used to say that gay people should not appear in public, that interracial couples should not appear in public, that men should not have long hair, and that women should not wear pants.

      The world doesn’t exist to make you happy with the way other people look. If you feel uncomfortable about something, that’s on you, not on them. One of the single most valuable, and most difficult, life lessons you can possibly learn is this: Just because you have some negative feeling doesn’t necessarily mean someone else did something wrong.

  53. Well, I have some ideas as to why this kind of thing makes me feel icky but I don’t want to be a big ole blabbermouth in your LJ when you don’t even know me. (I found you via someone I found via a community I moderate, fyi.)

    1. Hyper-individualism gives me the creeps. And it is so pervasive among the “progressive” and “liberal” folks that I’m beginning to wonder what the heck I spent most of my adult life identifying as a liberal for. I understand the concept of personal liberty but people seem to want it at the expense of sociality. (I think that’s a word.) There is no dichotomy between “absolute individual rights” and “hive/herd mentality.” We’re a social animal. No one with a single shred of intellectual honesty can deny that fact. It stands to reason we will seek approval from those we consider to be related to us in some way, and will also attempt to exercise influence over the decisions of those we consider related to us. It is not enough to dismiss this as “herd mentality” based in “superstition,” thereby dismissing objections to hyperindividualistic values without critically examining them. You know, once in a while someone might just know what they are talking about even if they couch it in “moral” terms. Of course we are all concerned about morality, even if we all define that term slightly differently.

    2. I also believe in the right to bodily integrity. However, I am not ignorant of the fact that people change their minds, because people themselves change, even as adults. If I were a cosmetic surgeon I would not want it on my conscience that I did something to someone that made them look inhuman and then five years from now they changed as a person and were horrified by their own appearance. I don’t really care if neocons jump on that bandwagon. I wouldn’t want to get involved in it, period, and I don’t think many doctors would. (To be clear, I’m not a doc, but IF I were, hypothetically.) People regret tattoos, but those can be removed. People regret implants, but sometimes those can be removed. If you get your eyeballs replaced by electronic devices that make you look like you have cat pupils and allow you to see through walls, and five years from now you realize you hate them and you want normal vision, or if the electronic eyeballs suddenly short out and you can’t get another surgery because it would screw your optic nerves…

    3. Which takes me to another point. There’s an awful lot of evidence out there that our present way of life will not last forever–the oil supply will crash in some way, arable land will run low, global warming will likely get out of hand, etc. If people get bizarre modifications and then life goes to hell in a handbasket and some of those modifications are technological, and they break down… living body parts can often heal, but machines can’t. We can’t even seem to invent an operating system that never crashes. (Even Linux has its moments.) Good luck finding bionic body parts that won’t. By the way? Steve Austin is a fictional character.

    I have so many other thoughts about this, like about my right to go out in public without seeing people who have been so altered that I can’t even identify their species, much less stand to look at them, to say nothing of how this kind of thing upsets little kids when it’s taken too far, and today it’s bionic ears and tomorrow it’s someone moving their penis up to their forehead or something… no, no, no. And, “transhuman”? What the hell is wrong with being human? From a purely humanistic point of view, of course, not even bringing religion into it.

    But I’ll quit… ’cause I can’t imagine this comment will be all that welcome. Sorry. But really. I wish it were as simple as black-and-white “intolerance.” I’ve seen this kind of theorizing before and to me it always signals a person who doesn’t spend much time with the rest of us in consensus reality. Maybe you should. A bit of dabbling into anthropology might help too, if you haven’t been there already–maybe you have and didn’t take the same things out of it as other people, I don’t know.

    anyway. Good luck with your cause and all that. Bye.

  54. There is no dichotomy between “absolute individual rights” and “hive/herd mentality.” We’re a social animal. No one with a single shred of intellectual honesty can deny that fact. It stands to reason we will seek approval from those we consider to be related to us in some way, and will also attempt to exercise influence over the decisions of those we consider related to us. It is not enough to dismiss this as “herd mentality” based in “superstition,” thereby dismissing objections to hyperindividualistic values without critically examining them. You know, once in a while someone might just know what they are talking about even if they couch it in “moral” terms. Of course we are all concerned about morality, even if we all define that term slightly differently.

    Sure. Of course we’re social animals.

    And for decisions with tangible effects on other people, it pays to keep that in mind. The fact that we’re social animals means we need to be able to get along with one another.

    But on the flip side of the same coin, it takes more than “I don’t like what you are doing” to make a compelling argument against something. As far as morality goes, the fact remains that if I do something which has no tangible effect on you, the fact that we are social animals is not relevant; it’s not “hyper individualistic” to say that morality begins and ends with what we do to each other, not what we do to ourselves. All sin lies only in hurting others unnecessarily; all other “sin” is invented nonsense.

    I also believe in the right to bodily integrity. However, I am not ignorant of the fact that people change their minds, because people themselves change, even as adults. If I were a cosmetic surgeon I would not want it on my conscience that I did something to someone that made them look inhuman and then five years from now they changed as a person and were horrified by their own appearance.

    Why does that argument apply only to unusual body mods and not to common ones? People change their mind about things like breast implants; for example, actress Carmen Electra has been interviewed saying she profoundly regrets having her tits made bigger. So why do we say “well, people might regret it so that’s a good reason not to do it” when we talk about pointed ears, nut not about bigger breasts? Breast implants are far more surgically invasive and far more dangerous, after all.

    Honestly? I think it has nothing to do with what people might regret. I think that more guys like big tits than pointed ears, and that’s the reason breast implants are considered ethical but pointed ears are not.

    Which takes me to another point. There’s an awful lot of evidence out there that our present way of life will not last forever–the oil supply will crash in some way, arable land will run low, global warming will likely get out of hand, etc. If people get bizarre modifications and then life goes to hell in a handbasket and some of those modifications are technological, and they break down… living body parts can often heal, but machines can’t.

    If our technology fails, we have problems that go way beyond a few folks with some kind of technological body modification, even though the mods I’m talking about here aren’t technological. If our technological infrastructure collapses to that extent, three to four billion people will die.

    (continued)

  55. (continuing)

    I have so many other thoughts about this, like about my right to go out in public without seeing people who have been so altered that I can’t even identify their species, much less stand to look at them, to say nothing of how this kind of thing upsets little kids when it’s taken too far, and today it’s bionic ears and tomorrow it’s someone moving their penis up to their forehead or something…

    Well, now, that’s a whole different argument, and frankly it’s an argument I’m quite disappointed in.

    The world does not owe you comfort. You do not have the right to like the way other people look.

    The exact argument you are using here is also used to say that gay people should not appear in public, that interracial couples should not appear in public, that men should not have long hair, and that women should not wear pants.

    The world doesn’t exist to make you happy with the way other people look. If you feel uncomfortable about something, that’s on you, not on them. One of the single most valuable, and most difficult, life lessons you can possibly learn is this: Just because you have some negative feeling doesn’t necessarily mean someone else did something wrong.

  56. trying to find your poly contract post i saw a while ago- I have some friends in oregon/wasghington state area that may need it.. help?

  57. trying to find your poly contract post i saw a while ago- I have some friends in oregon/wasghington state area that may need it.. help?

  58. Love to! Timing might be a bit tricky; I’m going to be in Reno with Shelly on Sunday and Monday, the 15th and 16th of August. She’ll be here from the 12th through the 18th. Any idea when you’ll be in town?

  59. Love to! Timing might be a bit tricky; I’m going to be in Reno with Shelly on Sunday and Monday, the 15th and 16th of August. She’ll be here from the 12th through the 18th. Any idea when you’ll be in town?

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