October 14, 2009

Limits to the biolibertarian impulse

I've often said that transhumanism is supported and strengthened by three basic impulses, namely the upholding of our reproductive, morphological and cognitive liberties. Should any one of these be absent, the tripod cannot stand.

We transhumanists stand divided on any number of issues; put us in a room together and you're guaranteed to get an argument. But one aspect that unites virtually all of us is our steadfast commitment to biolibertarianism -- the suggestion that people, for the most part, deserve considerable autonomy over their minds, bodies and reproductive processes.

Granted, conceptions of what is meant by biolibertarianism varies considerably. I'm sure there are many transhumanists who feel that any state involvement in the development, regulation and implementation of transhumantech is completely unwarranted. But a number of transhumanists, including those of us who are affiliated with the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), believe there's more to it than that.

Safety checks

Indeed, these technologies are far too powerful to be left to unchecked market forces and the whims of individuals. Most companies and people can be trusted with such things, but there's considerable potential for abuse and misuse...things like the availability of dangerous and unproven pharmaceuticals, irresponsible fertility clinics, or parents who want to give their children horns and a devil's tail. Not cool. This is why the state will have to get involved.

Without safety and efficacy the biolibertarian agenda is facile. I strongly agree that we should allow market forces to drive the development of transhumantech, but state involvement will be necessary to ensure that these technologies are safe, effective and accessible. And in addition, governments will also need to ensure that individuals aren't harming themselves or others with these technologies.

All this said, I'll restate an earlier point: transhumanists tend to hold the biolibertarian conviction that informed and responsible adults have the right to modify their minds and bodies as they see fit and to reproduce in a way that best meets their needs. The state has no business telling people what they should look like, how they should reproduce or how their minds should work. Governments should only intervene in extreme cases, particularly when the application of these biotechnologies lead to abuse and severely diminished lives.

The need for tolerance

But even this is tricky. What do we mean by a 'dimished' life or self-inflicted harm? Who are we to decide which choices are permissable and which are not?

The key, in my opinion, will be to remain informed and open-minded. It will be important to understand why individuals choose to modify themselves in certain ways -- and accept it. We may not always agree, but we'll often need to tolerate.

And in so doing we'll be in a better position to uphold the rights of individuals to shape their lives and experiences as they best see fit.


ioscode said...

I can see where choices of parents onto children, and what is made available to people in the market would need to be regulated, but I don't see there being much you can do to stop people from doing what they want with their own body and mind. People abuse themselves in all kinds of ways now, do you think that having new ways to abuse yourself would result in new laws that say you can't do certain things? You seem to have argued both for the side of regulation, and freedom here. Was that a progression of thought leading to a conclusion at the end, or an ongoing deliberation?

George said...

No firm conclusions at the end -- just wanted to suggest that we should err on the side of personal liberty and avoid knee-jerk reactions to seemingly radical self-modification.

iteration one said...

It bothers me that you include keeping people from harming THEMSELVES as a legitimate regulation. So much of the horror of today's world comes from that concept.