DIY enhancement: morphological freedom or self-harm?
by Anders Sandberg
Lepht Anonym is a DIY biohacker, extending her body and senses through implantation of home-made cybernetics in her own kitchen. (YouTube video of her lecture) Most of her work is about extending the sense of touch, using implanted magnets to acquire “magnetic vision” and (hopefully) an implanted version of the northpaw magnetic sense system besides the “usual stuff” of RFID implants.
She is critical of regular transhumanism, which she thinks is all talk. This is the real deal: “You just have to get deep enough to open a hole and put something in,” she says. “It’s that simple.” Of course, she has ended up in the hospital a few times. A new kind of self-harm all right-thinking people ought to save her from, or a valid form of self-expression that should be protected?
While self-experimentation has a long history in science (where it has not always been done wisely or for purely scientific reasons) and its ethics has been debated, individual biomedical self-experimentation is less well studied. Many patients certainly vary their medications or take alternative cures to their doctors’ exasperation; this is likely a combination of the desire to control one’s own health and assumptions about having more accurate information about the current health state than the doctor. DIY surgery is different in that it is not purely instrumental: the goal is rarely a practical purpose but often has elements of exploration and self-expression. It is not too different from artistic expression, and indeed some performance artists such as Orlan and Stelarc have used body modification in their work.
When interviewed, people involved in the body modification subculture often describe the reasons for modifying themselves as self-expression or even spiritual. There is no practical purpose to their changes, yet the changes may be experienced as valuable by the recipients. People involved in DIY cybernetics often talk about exploring new domains: rather than merely enhancing an existing sense, a new sense would enable experiencing a world that we normally do not have access to and do not know much about. Whether there would be practically or aesthetically valuable results of this is impossible to tell before doing the experiment.
I have elsewhere argued that our right to pursue individual life projects and our right to our lives imply a right to morphological freedom. However, this is like other rights, not unlimited. There are legitimate limits of morphological freedom when it causes harm to others or harm to oneself.
DIY surgery is unlikely to produce any direct harm to others. It might be argued that self-experimentation harm other people by (potentially) ending up in hospital and costing tax money, but as she points out she is also a taxpayer and “the service is meant to help all people, not just people with tragic accident-related injuries.” If NHS costs were a valid argument, it would probably be an even bigger argument against alcohol, many sports and riding motorbikes. As long as self-experimentation is not a major popular movement it does not seem like a good argument.
She also denies she does it compulsively or “likes pain”. My experience with people who do DIY surgery is that they generally try to reduce their pain, but given the lack of painkillers suitable for surgery available to the public they have to make do with what they can get. Similarly they try to reduce risks: having a friend nearby to help in case of fainting, disinfecting the wound, using the most biocompatible materials they can find. There have been debates within the bodymodification community about whether certain practices (such as uvular piercings) shouldn’t be done because they are overly risky. This suggests that at least these people are making risk-benefit estimates in a rational way, despite the benefit being subjective.
If DIY biotech had been something like deliberate self harm (DSH) the point would have been to experience the pain. However, the distinction might not be total. According to one model of DSH it serves as a coping mechanism to regulate stress, pain and other aversive emotional states by being in control. This might be entirely compatible with seeking control over one’s body through enhancement. However, DSH appears to occur due to a plethora of motives, ranging from reducing feelings of dissociation by having the pain make one feel real, to induce a dissociative state distracting from other sources of anguish, to religious rites. While it is not hard to imagine DSH expressed through DIY biotech, it appears hard to argue that DIY biotech is invalid for this reason. Desiring to self-experiment is not in itself evidence of a mental pathology.
That is not to say that such surgery is advisable. But there exists many morally allowable or even desirable actions that might be inadvisable in many situations – speaking one’s mind against a dominant religion, spending all of one’s savings on charity or dedicating a life to pursuing a particular aesthetic goal might risk bad consequences, yet be both moral and admirable. The pursuit of (to others) strange life projects, radical attempts at self-expression or self-transformation, the exploration of new domains of experience might be deeply rewarding and even societally important (just consider how free artistic expression is viewed as very valuable, even when artists suffer for their art). The problem is that risks and benefits cannot be judged in the usual manner, since the benefits might be subjective and idiosyncratic.
A possible test of the validity of the self-experimentation would be if it would still take place if there was an option where it could be supervised (or even done by) a medical professional, with complete pain relief. If it was merely attention-seeking or a pathological desire for pain, then there would be little incentive for getting proper medical support (except for the use of the professional as an audience rather than for their skills). If the goal was to achieve enhancement or self-expression through self-experimentation, then I think the professional support would be welcome. It would of course also reduce the risks to the self-experimenter, give an outside second opinion, and add the possibility of properly documenting the procedure.
The key issue is whether the self-experiment furthers a person’s life projects. Some experiments do not help living an authentic life since they might be due to peer pressure or groupthink. Some experiments fail because they are based on erroneous assumptions about what they will do. Others fail because they impair the ability to live the desired life, for example by having a high degree of risk or interfere with other parts of the life project. They could possibly also affect the openness of life: an experiment that condemns the person to living a particular life ever after, regardless of how they change their mind about the valuableness of that life, seems problematic.
There are people pursuing self-modification that I think fail these aims. The voluntary trepanation movement might be an example, since the reasons for doing fairly risky (even with medical supervision) surgery in this case do not seem commensurable with the risk, and in addition might be based on a flawed theory. However, I do not think it is beyond the pale, just slightly on the wrong side of the rational decision boundary.
But implanting magnets? That poses far smaller risks, is not based on problematic medical assumptions and might conceivably allow new forms of experiences. It is still inadvisable to do it in the kitchen, it would be better with medical assistance, and there is value in discussing and anchoring attempts at enhancement in society, but I think Lepht Anonym is engaged in a legitimate project of exploration. She might be freaking out the mundanes and annoy the transhumanists with stunts that could backfire PR-wise, but this is just like how freedom of expression allows us to say outrageous or regrettable things. We should not expect freedom of morphology to be any tamer.