Right to own, modify our body

As we brace for quantum changes in humans -- from chemical structure to brain -- it’s time to debate morphological freedoms

By Author Pramod K Nayar   |   Published: 30th Nov 2018   12:12 am Updated: 29th Nov 2018   9:46 pm

The 21st century’s single most dangerous minefield lies in bioethics. Take one instance here. While the vast majority of the world’s populations, particularly in the Global South and among the working classes (and let us never forget women), fights on a daily basis for fundamental freedoms to be recognised as humans, developments in biomedicine and accompanying philosophies in the advanced world began discussing morphological freedom.

No, this is not a variety of linguistic freedom (where morphology is the study of words), but ‘one’s right to one’s body, not just self-ownership but also the right to modify oneself according to one’s desires’, as transhumanist thinker Anders Sandberg defined it. In the next few years, as the human race prepares itself for quantum changes in its form, from chemical structure to the brain, this will throw up debates on morphological freedoms.

Right to Modify

The foundational assumption driving the idea of morphological freedom is fairly simple: any fundamental rights, such as the rights to freedom and life, require that our bodies be free. Following from this right to one’s body arises the right to modify it as well. When we pay attention to this set of arguments about freedoms as invested in the body, we also see that the right to happiness has also been translated as the right to adorn and thus modify one’s body: from ornaments to cosmetic surgery.

Some such forms of morphological freedoms have been in practice in various cultures, and different forms of enhancements too, although not all members of a society have had the freedom not to have their noses pierced, hair braided or feet shaped in accordance with the acceptable norms of beauty in that culture.

Those who believe in a ‘natural’ human form proceed from the assumption that there is an unalterable ‘core’ of human identity, which is a problematic assumption at best. Thus, for those who see piercings and other modifications as ‘unnatural’, there is a serious question as to whether there is something like a natural body at all, given that even posture training and education (which often includes sports) are forms of enhancement that are built on the idea of morphological freedom.

Clothing, styles of speech, even the phones we carry are extensions of ourselves, and integral to the way we wish to be perceived by the world. To clothe one’s body in certain ways is an expression of what we are, and what we wish to be seen as. Morphological freedom is linked to, and an extension of, this same age-old practice. We express ourselves in our transformations as well. Makeover cultures are an instance of this morphological freedom.

Rights and Wrongs

Certain enhancements and pharmacological interventions, such as eye surgery or even coffee, amplify a variety of human functions, from vision to alertness. The difference between reparative enhancement – to restore, say, normal motor abilities – and elective enhancement for, say fairer skin colour, has generated both controversy and debate.

Those who advocate complete morphological freedom could very well argue that the nature of their complexion is a determinant of their social acceptance and hence their sense of self-worth and, therefore, is constitutive of their freedom to happiness.

Understandably, discussions of morphological freedom raise ethical questions, which could be domain specific (such as the medical ethics of enhancement). Access to such technologies (such as costs, insurance), the rise of new norms of acceptable looks and the risk of a class divide between those who possess such freedoms and those who do not, with the latter being reduced to new forms of slavery, are three areas of concern. (The Young Adult quartet of Pretties, Uglies, Specials, Extras by Scott Westerfeld is an exploration of the theme of morphological freedom.) The ones who continue to possess ‘older’ morphologies, that is unmodified bodies, are likely to have their bodies treated as the instruments of labour that benefit the morphologically free.

To regulate morphological freedom, as Sandberg notes, is to ensure legal and social protections for those who wish to modify themselves, those who don’t, and those who are differently bodied. It requires, and can enable, changes in healthcare and insurance sectors as well for instance, the necessary technologies being made available to those whose bodies function at less than optimal efficiency for a happy life, and which therefore require modifications.

When an individual falls short of species-typical features – whether in terms of height or ability – it hampers her/his social and professional success, and psychological well-being, which then may demand morphological changes.

Ethical Concerns

The problem occurs when morphological freedom involves stem-cell and germ-line modifications. These inheritable changes determine the morphology of future generations too, and this has troubling ethical concerns. Clearly, here, the idea of morphological freedom hinges on an idea of individual autonomy that may well be at odds with a social order’s commitment to open futures for the next generation.

The emphasis on individual autonomy – which assumes all humans are capable of rational thought – in the case of advocates of morphological freedom effaces the unevenness it introduces into, say, social competition and justice. This unevenness, generated by performance-enhancing medication, is what sports governing bodies try to restrict: an athlete running with morphologically modified limbs and body chemistry alters the probability of victory for the non-modified ones.

Commentators such as Andy Miah have noted the tensions between social and individual concerns in domains such as morphological freedom, alongside therapeutic and non-therapeutic choices over modifications and enhancement. Bodily self-determination, bodily freedom for the other, care for bodily individuality and bodily-constituted communities, argues Silke Schicktanz, writing in Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine, ought to be our core bioethical concerns. Thus French artist Orlan (http://www.orlan.eu/) who undertakes extensive plastic surgery to alter her appearance as an aesthetic practice would then be very far, in terms of this debate, from an acid attack victim who requires reconstructive surgery to even move her facial muscles.

Morphological freedom, a far cry for many, will become the subject of debate across the world in the next decade. Ethical and moral regulators around research in the area are an absolute necessity. Educating people on what this freedom and enhancement means, short-term and long-term, is of equal import.

(The author teaches at the Department of English, University of Hyderabad)