Pressure to Enhance

Most enhancements that people make to themselves are in a sense ‘chosen’ by someone else. We learn a lot of skills and make ourselves attractive and organised and so on largely because we want to be employed, or befriended, or loved, and whoever it is who would do those things insists on us being educated, clean, organised, up with current events, clothed, etc.

This seems likely to continue if more radical enhancements become available. Nobody will want you unless you are a ten foot Einstein with wings. So a large effect of promoting individual rights to enhancement must be to promote others’ capacities to insist on an individual’s enhancement. It might be theoretically possible to have individual rights to modify yourself without handing others the ability to enforce modification, but it would be extremely hard to implement. Imagine trying to make it allowable to wear make up, but illegal to take make up into account when choosing a girlfriend.

It may seem like a bad thing if employers and others can ‘force’ you to modify yourself. You might wonder if it wouldn’t be better if we were prevented from modifying ourselves in any way we like, just so we aren’t immediately compelled to modify ourselves in any way someone else likes. Similarly you may argue that it better if we are legally prohibited from signing up to be slaves, so others can’t insist on us doing so in the event that we can’t pay for a doctor’s bill say. It can be nice to be prohibited from making a costly deal, as long as your bargaining companion responds by agreeing to more favourable terms rather than abandoning the trade altogether.

If you do feel that way, I think it is largely a mistake. Think about our current modifications. Is it a terrible thing that employers can choose only to employ people who are literate, or who have studied electrical engineering? Should you be forced to befriend dirty, ignorant, or naked people? It’s true there may be a cost to you if you must enhance your body to retain your job, and don’t earn a lot more for it (though this will not necessarily be the usual case). But if every time this happens it benefits the people you interact with enough to warrant the change, you would very likely be better off in such a world.

There are some cases where modifications wouldn’t make everyone better off, even on average, even though the reason to do it comes from outside. For instance sometimes people ‘enhance’ themselves to send a signal, which can be either a net gain or a net cost for society. For instance you might get a stylish new dress to demonstrate to others that you are up with fashions. This will cause others to treat you preferentially perhaps, which is good for you and bad for those who aren’t up with fashions and don’t have such a dress. It is also good for anyone who likes fashionable people, and wished to distinguish you – perhaps the audience whose admiration you were seeking. So the net effect so far is roughly whatever benefit the onlookers get in being able to distinguish you. However how much you will pay to have a signaling dress instead of any ‘timeless’ dress is not very sensitive to the pleasure others get from knowing you are fashionable. It mostly depends on how much better you will be treated than the unstylish dressers. So the net effect of all this can be negative, or positive.

In cases where it is clearly negative, you might be tempted to abolish individual rights to enhance to protect everyone from this outcome. Or you might not, because admitting that you are would suggest that you are one of those losers without a fashion sense or without the money to implant whatever other senses, who bear all the costs of the signaling status quo. So far it is uncommon for societies to prevent such displays on these grounds, and I expect that will continue for any kind of bodily modification we think of in the future.

One implication of most modifications being pressed on us from outside rather than reflecting distinctive personal ideals is that you are unlikely to face social pressure against the enhancements that you want, or at least not for long. This is assuming you will mostly want useful enhancements, which I think is reasonable. If in 1700 you imagined cars and trucks would one day be a thing people moved in because they identified with and enjoyed that style of transport you might imagine a lot more repression of car and truck owners than if you imagined they would become necessary for most people to get to work, and the land transport of choice for most items people want to buy in shops.

On the other hand, there will probably be backlash against people or companies raising their standards for who they want to employ, or insure, or deal with in any way. I expect the costs of this to be greater than any repression of lone individuals making unusual adjustments to themselves. This is partly because outside pressure will be the biggest source of pressure for people to modify themselves, and partly because the most useful modifications will probably be ones that others want you to have. Just like other people want you to be able to read, but mostly only you care whether you are a decent singer. I expect there to be more backlash against employers who require you to have telepathic internet access installed than there is now against employers requiring you to have done a course, because people are very uncomfortable about economic transactions that involve bodies in certain ways. For instance think of organ markets, paying for surrogate motherhood, and prostitution. I’m not quite sure how this works, because most jobs also involve using your body somehow, but it seems we do at least think of this squeamishness/moral rectitude as a body related issue. I expect we will see a lot of possible enhancements as body related in this way, and be revolted by the idea of being ‘forced’ to do them to make a living, or of making them for economic gain rather than for reasons of personal bodily preference.

In sum, in the future, as now, most human enhancement will be motivated by outside requirements. This pressure is largely a good thing and should be free to press in most cases. There will be less backlash against such modification than you might expect if you thought of human modifications as mostly ‘free’ personal expression. There will however be backlash against employers, for instance, exerting such pressure. This backlash will be costly. We had better support rights of people to choose what abilities the people they choose to deal with need to have, rather than for the ‘rights’ of people to decide on their own enhancements or lack thereof and insist on keeping their jobs, friends, lovers, club memberships etc. Let’s let people be free to become who they will, but also let them be free to choose who they’ll be with.

Katja Grace is a philosophy student who blogs at

16 Responses

  1. longcindia says:

    i just realised my last post didnt offer the fact that employers or any relationship may view me different because i choose a different way (say a genetic implant which boosts my iq or my physical abilities) its hard enough as it is in the year 2011 to ask yourself if augmenting yourself is right (via breast implants to gain a waitressing job to appeal to a male audience and to gain better tips.). do you have to be a perfect human (what ever that means) to get a job? (say you have to have certain skin hues or physical atrributes to to apply?) shouldnt the weight be upon the employers? if they really wanted a specific person for the job, shouldnt they pick a random person, then help them on thier way to educating and helping them to create the perfect employee? if i was given the chance to go though rigourous mental and physical training to attain a job or a persons liking then maybe it might be worth it. so long as i was able to fully realize what i and the employer or person wanted so we could fully understand each other at a plain level.

  2. longcindia says:

    i have thought long and hard about H+ and all the inequallity it MAY bring to the workplace. the questions you ask are so expert. they are problems we face now. some jobs need u to have college education or such. of course employers in the FAR FUTURE may imply this. its so hard to tell at the present time if your college degree will somehow be replaced with another subform of it. its so hard to think of what i want my career to be and how i want to live life. but isnt H+ jumping the gun? cyberpunk is still fiction right? im still unagumented right? im still HUMAN? jeez! ive thought about what you said in your article so many times even before i was aware propaganda and the troubles of puberty were real. when i thought about that circular logic (why would we care about status if other beings looked upon us different). a part of me wishes i had an in eye HUD (heads up display) or cybernetic arms or legs to perform tasks so much better. but when my employer asks me whether i prefer cognitive thinking enhancements or strength enduced boosting enhancements i will say YOU HAVE JUMPED THE GUN!!! go back to asking me whether i was a liberal or a conservative. aight.

  3. Phil Goetz says:

    One specific modification I fear is the ability to go without sleep. Increases in worker productivity inevitably accrue to the employer rather than to the worker. Once everyone can go without sleep, prices will adjust so that we need to work 20 hours days just to get by. And once we no longer need a place to sleep, apartments will be a luxury only the rich can afford.

  4. Mitchell says:

    You tread a very fine line through the murkey waters of judgement – between selection and discrimination.

    The world is intrinsically unfair. The fact that people have constructed societies around laws (a pretty safe generalization) means that, to the human condition, fairness is of paramount importance. We can’t make the world fair, but we can apply rules to our day to day dealings that reduce the frequency or proximity of the unfairness.

    This is all to say that legislation – because that’s what you’re really talking about, how we generate laws to deal with emerging transhumanist bio-augmentation – will likely continue to impose fairness. Employers are free to choose more intelligent employees (regardless of whether that Int+ is innate or genetically or chemically engineered) but I suspect it would remain illegal to set in place policies that favor augmented people over un-augmented people.

    Presumably it costs $$$ to augment, meaning that the same socio-economic stratas that facilitate economic wealth will do the same for augmentation, meaning that the best procedures (the ones with the highest social benefit, like life extension of intellect enhancement) will go to the wealthy, who will make the big money early on, and form a stratified upper class. It could be broken into, perhaps, but once there is an ageless upper class, once we have Brad Pitts THAT NEVER GET OLDER, get ready for some major social upheavals. And where you fall in the ensuing struggle will be entirely determined by who you chose to be with (i.e. limited by who you had access to be with) and who others got the opportunity to be with.

  5. mw says:

    what about genetic malware – viruses are used to splice in the code. Seems like a delivery system is buit into the process. What about optigenetic malware for mind control using light stimuli. FLourecent lights that turn off your ability to lie or blast your adrenals. etc

  6. filou says:

    the article seems nicely written but i couldn t read further the first lines cause it seems to me a bad premice, i believe in a very near future we won t enhance according to others desires (or as we say, according to the idea me make that the most common people make their idea of what is desirable .. beautifull .. according to what most people would judge desirable) but according to our own desire, our own story, our own line of thought and life in the new world love party

  7. James says:

    This article is really good. I’ve studied philosophy both academically and independently and as a result always look at Transhumanism through the eyes of a philosopher. It’s always a pleasure to read articles like this.

    I think this change will happen relatively slowly, somewhat negating the social issues around it. There has been no real backlash towards the fact sales reps pretty much always need to be drivers, and I think that by the time companies latch on to utilising the modified community for anything beyond highly specialised work, modifications and augmentation will be so common place that it won’t be an issue. Polydactyl bionic fingers crossed.

  8. Mammago says:

    I realise this isn’t a particularly relevant comment, but I happened to be watching Watchmen as I came across this article and started reading it.

    As Dr. Manhattan said, “I am tired of Earth. These people. I’m tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives.”, I got the distinct feeling that, if we interpret the word “people” as meaning “normal, mainstream people”, infatuated with celebrity gossip or preoccupied with how to behave or what to wear or the myriad other irrelevant, insipid inanities that suffuse our culture, Dr. Manhattan pretty much sums up the majority of us in the Transhumanist movement…


    • tom says:

      I would be careful, if I were you, to avoid falling into the trap of seeing yourself, and the “transhumanist movement” as necessarily superior in an a priori sense. Bear in mind, the “mainstream” you are so dismissive of is society after all.

    • @Mammago

      Yes. For example, I have a new catchphrase -“football is irrelevent”. As most men in the office continually talk about sport, I find myself increadibly frustrated that so much human effort is spent on such an irrelevant pasttime.

      If only they spent the same amount of time improving their own bodies and minds…sigh

      • Mark Plus says:

        But football serves as one of the last bastions of meritocracy in American culture. Even in the most degraded underclass communities, the men value the best competitive athletes and expect them to earn a lot more money than the less capable athletes. This shows a basically conservative value structure at odds with the values of the left. I have to wonder why we haven’t we seen an Occupy the NFL movement to speak out for the 99 percent of the athletes who don’t have the goods to earn millions of dollars.

    • Cognitively enhanced humans are more likely to have time and money to spare for worthy causes, and be able to properly consider the ethics of how we live. So assuming more people want to be good than evil, enhancement has a positive externality much like education does, quite apart from its effect of making the world less depressing for misanthropes like Dr. Manhattan or me. I expect governments to subsidize it accordingly.

    • Mark Plus says:

      Transhumanists just have a different set of insipid inanities. Someone coined the term “geek hermeneutics” to describe it.

      You know, like the transhumanists who over-analyze the latest movie or TV show with a vaguely transhumanist theme and gush about transhumanism has allegedly won over the culture.

      • James says:

        Agreed. I think maybe Cyberdyne could ditch HAL and build a suit that tears your arms off it if catches you being a massive hypocrite.

        “Big Brother is such a banal waste of time… OMG DEUS EX!”

  9. perhaps in future we will be able to have multiple bodies. if such were the case, then we’d have one that we’d wear to work, and another for lounging round the house.

    Though I can’t imagine what casual Fridays would look like.

  1. October 7, 2011

    […] the age of even more human enhancement. I have a post about this at H+ […]

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