Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Politics of Morphological Freedom

Morphological freedom designates a right of human beings either to maintain or to modify their own bodies, on their own terms, through informed, nonduressed, consensual recourse to, or refusal of, available remedial or modification medicine.

The politics of morphological freedom is a commitment to the value, standing, and social legibility of the widest possible (and an ever-expanding) variety of desired morphologies and lifeways. More specifically, morphological freedom is an expression of liberal pluralism, secular progressive cosmopolitanism, or (post)humanist multiculturalisms applied to an era disruptive planetary technoscientific change, and especially to the ongoing and palpably upcoming transformation of the understanding of medical practice from one of conventional remedy to one of consensual self-creation, via genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive modification.

I first encountered the term “morphological freedom” in a short paper by neuroscientist Anders Sandberg, and I have taken up and extended the term (for example here and here and here) myself in ways that may well differ in some respects from Sandberg’s initial formulation.

Sandberg defines morphological freedom quite simply as "the right to modify oneself according to one’s desires." In Sandberg’s formulation, the right to morphological freedom derives from a conventional liberal doctrine of bodily self-ownership and amounts, more or less, to a straightforward application of negative liberty to the situation of modification medicine. The political force of such a commitment under contemporary conditions of disruptive technoscientific change is quite clear: It appeals to widely affirmed liberal intuitions about individual liberty, choice, and autonomy in order to trump bioconservative agendas that seek to slow, limit, or altogether prohibit potentially desirable medical research and individually valued therapeutic practices, usually because they are taken to threaten established social and cultural norms.

But I worry that this formulation of morphological freedom, however initially appealing and sensible it may be, is fraught with the quandaries that bedevil all exclusively negative libertarian accounts of freedom. Because any universal intuitions about the indubitability of bodily “self-ownership” will radically underdetermine the specific entitlements and protocols that will claim to be derived from them, such foundational gestures will always mobilize compensatory projects to deny and disavow possible alternate formations. These projects to “naturalize” and hence depoliticize what are in fact historically contingent and vulnerable conventions will inevitably privilege certain established constituencies over others and so will just as inevitably eventuate in some form or other of conservative politics.

In my own understanding of the term, the commitment to morphological freedom derives primarily and equally from commitments to both diversity and to consent.

The force of the commitment to diversity seems to me to imply that the politics of morphological freedom will properly apply equally to those who would make consensual recourse to desired remedial or modification medicine, as well as to those who would refrain from such medicine. I disapprove of the strong bias in favor of intervention and modification at the heart of many current formulations of the principle of morphological freedom. While this bias is quite understandable given the precisely contrary bias of the bioconservative politics the principle is intended to combat, I worry that an interventionist bias will threaten to circumscribe the range of morphological and lifeway diversity supported by the politics of morphological freedom. I suspect that some will take my own foregrounding of the commitment to diversity as an effort to hijack the politics of morphological freedom with the politics of “postmodern relativism” or some such nonsense. But the simple truth is that any understanding of “morphological freedom” that prioritizes intervention over diversity will threaten to underwrite eugenicist projects prone to imagine themselves emancipatory even when they are nonconsensual, and will police desired variation into a conformity that calls itself “optimal health,” stress management, or the most “efficient” possible allocation of scarce resources (whatever wealth disparities happen to prevail at the time).

The force of the commitment to consent seems to me to imply that the politics of morphological freedom are of a piece with democratic left politics. I disapprove of the strong bias in favor of negative libertarian formulations of freedom at the heart of many current formulations of the principle of morphological freedom. Although neoliberal, neoconservative, and market libertarian formulations often appear content to describe any “contractual” or so-called “market” outcome as consensual by definition it is quite clear that in actuality such outcomes are regularly and conspicuously duressed by the threat or fact of physical force, by fraud, and by unfairness. And so, whenever I speak of my own commitment to a culture of consent I mean to indicate very specifically a commitment to what I call substantiated rather than what I would reject as vacuous consent. A commitment to substantiated consent demands universal access to trustworthy information, to a basic guaranteed income, and to universal healthcare (actually, democratically-minded people of good will may well offer up competing bundles of entitlements to satisfy the commitment to substantiated consent, just as I have offered up a simplified version of my own here), all to ensure that socially legible performances of consent are always both as informed and nonduressed as may be. I suspect that some will take my own foregrounding of the commitment to substantiated consent as an effort to hijack the politics of morphological freedom with the politics of social democracy. But the simple truth is that any understanding of “morphological freedom” that demands anything less than democratically accountable and socially substantiated scenes of informed, nonduressed consent will threaten to underwrite authoritarian moralists with unprecedented technological powers at their disposal who would impose their parochial perspectives on a planetary scale, quite satisfied to retroactively rationalize the righteousness of even mass slaughters and mass capitulations.

Crossposted at Amor Mundi

1 comment:

AnneC said...

I disapprove of the strong bias in favor of intervention and modification at the heart of many current formulations of the principle of morphological freedom. While this bias is quite understandable given the precisely contrary bias of the bioconservative politics the principle is intended to combat, I worry that an interventionist bias will threaten to circumscribe the range of morphological and lifeway diversity supported by the politics of morphological freedom.

"Interventionist bias" is a rather useful phrase, and I thank you for drawing attention to this concept so coherently. I am similarly concerned when I come across statements that clearly demonstrate a very narrow view of "optimal health", and that suggest that authorities and / or agencies ought to intervene to prevent certain states or configurations of persons from coming into being on the basis of a rather superficial understanding of these states or configurations.

Also, acknowledgement of the importance and value of diversity by no means indicates "postmodern relativism", at least not to me -- there is good scientific support for the notion of diversity being good for societies, individuals, and ecosystems alike.

Respecting and acknowledging diversity does not imply that one is somehow favoring a strict anti-interventionist position, or suggesting that nobody has any right (or obligation) to modify something away from how it ended up due to natural selection or accident. There are many cases in which interventions are almost certainly a good thing, and in which making them mandatory is probably a good thing (as in the case of immunization programs). However, this doesn't mean that an intervention is a good idea simply because it is possible, at least not in the universal sense. It's one thing to invent a modification or process and make it available to people, but it's quite another to mandate and / or legislate its use.

As far as diversity goes, one major threat to diversity seems to be a sort of intellectual laziness.

It is, after all, often easier and less complicated to destroy or eliminate something than to learn more about it and try to understand it before judging it utterly and completely.

There are certainly things that are definitely bad, and that should be treated by the most expedient means possible in all cases (pneumonia, dysentery, cancer) -- however, there are other things that exist in a much fuzzier area (at which point do we distinguish between situational depression or anxiety and something that is the result of a true chemical imbalance?).

In some ways, I think that the "interventionist bias" is driven by a sense of urgency -- which is perhaps appropriate in actual life-threatening situations, but less appropriate in situations which are merely incovenient, uncomfortable, or expensive.