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 http://meteuphoric.wordpress.com.