Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Politics of Morphological Freedom

Morphological freedom (or prosthetic self-determination) is a discourse which designates and elaborates the idea that human beings have the right 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 expresses commitments to the value, standing, and social legibility of the widest possible (and an ever-expanding) variety of desired morphologies and lifeways. These politics tend to become especially controversial when they defend the preservation of actually desired atypical capacities and lifeways that are stigmatized as "disability" or otherwise "suboptimal," or when they defend actually desired modifications that constitute the introduction of atypical capacities and lifeways that are stigmatized as "perverse" or otherwise "unnatural."

The politics of morphological freedom and prosthetic self-determination seem legible as emerging from standard attitudes and problems associated with liberal pluralism, secularism, progressive cosmopolitanism, and (post)humanist multiculturalisms, but applied to an era of 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) 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 seem, is fraught with the quandaries that bedevil all exclusively negative libertarian accounts of freedom. The visceral, universal and hence foundational force of our intuitions about the undeniability of our own bodily “self-ownership,” for example, never actually seamlessly nor unproblematically map onto the historically specific entitlements and protocols that will claim to be derived from the foundation of this bodily self-certainty.

That we own our aging abled vulnerable pleasurable painful bodily selves incontrovertibly may be a well-nigh universally asserted insight. But just what is entailed in that assertion in the way of capacities, responsibilities, entitlements, significances will vary enormously from society to society, from place to place, from generation to generation. Such foundational gestures will tend to mobilize compensatory rhetorical projects to deny and disavow the many possible (some of them desired) alternate available formulations of entitlements and protocols compatible with the selfsame foundation. These projects to “naturalize” and hence depoliticize what are in fact historically contingent conventions through reference to the indubitability of bodily self-ownership inevitably privilege certain morphologies and lifeways and their correlated constituencies over others, and so just as inevitably eventuate in some form or other of conservative politics.

In my own understanding of the term, then, a commitment to morphological freedom should derives primarily or at any rate equally from positive commitments to diversity and to consent, conceived as public values, public goods, and, crucially, as public scenes that depend for their continued existence on supportive normative, legal, and institutional contexts the maintenance of which exact costs that must be fairly borne by all their beneficiaries.

The force of the commitment to diversity implies that the politics of morphological freedom and prosthetic self-determination will properly apply as much to those who would make consensual recourse to desired remedial or modification medicine as it does 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). Whenever the term "enhancement," for example, is treated as neutral or objective, rather than a term to express an actually desired capacity or lifeway by some one among others, in respect to some end among others, it risks underwriting parochial perfectionisms stealthed as "objective optimality."

The force of the commitment to consent seems to me to imply that the politics of morphological freedom and prosthetic self-determination 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 discussions of the idea 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 mis-information, and by basic 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 (or democratic socialism). 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 function on the one hand to encourage the exposure of vulnerable people to risky and costly experimental procedures in the service of corporate profit and military competitiveness, while on the other hand it will function to underwrite the efforts of authoritarian moralists with unprecedented technological powers at their disposal who would impose their parochial perfectionisms on a planetary scale, quite satisfied to retroactively rationalize the righteousness of even mass slaughters and mass capitulations.


Jose said...

Among other things it's an awful term. I can't see people waving placards with Morphological Freedom Now! in marches.

But I agree with you on the dangers of people (especially children) being shoehorned by therapies designed to make them optimal. We're already seeing that with some schools refusing to admit certain students unless they take Ritalin. It's a worrying trend and I think it has more to do with the commonly held perception that we should be as perfect as possible rather than an agenda that's being imposed from "above"

Dale Carrico said...

I agree with you that the term is a little gawky and awkward, but it might grow on you! Rhetoric isn't only about coming up with slogans that compel people's attention, but sometimes about trying to clarify quandaries. As I write elsewhere, I think morphological freedom is a discourse that tries to adjudicate between what are interdependent but actually often somewhat competing progressive values: diversity, consent, and universality.

Still, when I go on to argue that psychedelic experimentalists, transsexuals, body-modders, feminists fighting to keep abortion legal as well as feminists fighting to expand access to ARTs, people fighting for the standing, rights, and lives of the differently enabled (both those whose emphasis is securing the status of the differently enabled as citizens whatever their differences as well as those whose emphasis is securing access to transformative -- whether normalizing or not -- genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medicine) and so on as morphological freedom fighters I think the politics here come into sharper and more promising focus.

I agree that the example of Ritalin is a good one here. For me, both mandated Ritalin use and prohibition of Ritalin use are politically wrongheaded. What is wanted are well-informed parents with the best interests of their children in mind as they see them making recourse to safe and desired therapies when they see fit. Don't imagine, by the way, that this way of putting it implies I am insensitive to the ways in which parents are regularly pressured and propagandized into a skewed sense of their childrens' "best interests" or the ways in which BigPharma regularly skews what will eventuate from a regulatory process as "safe." My insistence on the vacuity of any scene of consent that is not informed or nonduressed has everything to do with my awareness of such quandaries.

I don't quite understand the force of the "rather" in your concluding comment: "I think it [compulsory prescription] has more to do with the commonly held perception that we should be as perfect as possible rather [emphasis added] than an agenda that's being imposed from 'above'" I would suggest that what is widely affirmed as "perfection" or "optimality" will often directly reflect the political interests of established authorities, as when modification medicine comes to be subsumed within the project of producing cheerful workers, docile citizens, or the endless replication of some minority morphology (whiteness, big-breastedness, whatever).

Jose said...

I was wondering if you would pick up on that last point. It may be true that BigPharma is pushing but I think the real driver is a new mindset amongst parents. A lot of parents nowadays micromanage their kids lives to a degree that would have been considered obsessive a few decades ago. But paradoxicaly they have less time for their children. A magic pill to make junior conform to your unrealistic expectations must be a very tempting shortcut. In this case I'd assign more blame to the customer than the salesman.