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Morphological Freedom
Heather Bradshaw   Nov 20, 2009   Ethical Technology  

In 2003, the idea that one might have a freedom to change one’s body and brain as one liked was being discussed in relation to the Transhumanist FAQ. This idea receives much less attention in the current FAQ, where it is largely replaced by a lesser freedom to enhance. This is interesting, because morphological freedom has significant implications.

In a 2007 interview for Enhancing Me, Todd Huffman spoke about the importance of social enhancements and the social value of enhancements. Email, he pointed out, is only any use if possessed by at least two people. Similarly, it’s all very well thinking about what you, the individual, would like to enhance given that the rest of the world stays the same. But the rest of the world may be changing too, with you or independently of you.

Consider how, when you present your body in different guises, the world’s reaction to you changes. That applies to clothes, makeup and shoes, but also to body modification, body art, injury and “disability.” It seemed to me that part of the very attraction of transhumanism and human enhancement was this element of exploration of a new space of human social identity, or interaction experience.

We could perhaps, uploading permitting, experience quite different relations to the world and ourselves and our fellow people, at will.

Here’s the main character in a piece I wrote on this theme in 2004. She usually (but not always) exists as an upload, or “ephemeral,” of generally female gender. Here she is waking up in a male body she has chosen for a particular purpose:

They woke me at 0600. Two female orderlies. I couldn’t help but notice how pretty they were as they leant over me. I groaned inwardly. It was a long time since I’d used a male body and I’d forgotten just how strong the hormonal influences were. But the effect had it uses. It dulled one’s other emotional responses and gave confidence.

“Good morning, Ephem Sol,” the orderly with the larger tits said, giving me an arch smile. I moved my eyes to her name badge with difficulty.

“Morning, Extrava Cannel,” I attempted. It came out as a croak. I cleared my throat and tried again. Getting the measure of 583’s lungs, which had a volume nearly twice as large as the female body’s, was going to take a few more conscious breaths at least. 583’s voice – my voice – was deep and resonant, I discovered on the second attempt. I was going to enjoy this. Even the task ahead seemed more of an adventure than a terror with all the adrenaline and testosterone coursing round this body stimulating my mind interfaces.”

Now, there’s nothing very original about this sort of thinking, or writing, except perhaps my errors. Later in the story this character and others download not into human bodies, but into machines. Indeed, the main character gets downloaded twice into two different machines, and then, of course, falls out with herself. And the central plot revolves around assumptions made from observing the behavior of mysterious invading “bodies.”

It is the reactions of other people that are of interest in relation to morphological freedom. “Extrava” Julia Cannel is usually not a simulated being. She is part of the community’s subculture of “extravagants” who exist in resource-heavy fleshy bodies. She is uncomfortable being flirted with by a female persona in a male body. Well…how would you react? But then she raises a point about the customs arising from body type:

“I suppose,” she said. “I always find it odd that we differentiate between male and female extravs, but not between ephems…why not say ‘ephema’ and ‘ephem’?”

Ephem Angel Sol replies:

“There’s just too many variations. You’d have to know so much about a person before you knew which to use, and even then you might be wrong some days. But you’ll be glad to know I’m firmly female insim … usually.”

Angel has been having a firmly female but unconventional sexual relationship with Extrav Timothy Arnold. While embodied in the female body she uses for that she goes by the name Angela. So her identity and form of address change again. But now, instead of a romantic engagement with Trav Arnold they are going to be working together, and because of the time pressure the male body she’s using has not quite completed the growth process. In particular it lacks any hair.

Timothy was waiting for me when I came through into the reception area. His eyebrows did a quick jig at me but then he stood up and grinned.

“Well…” he said, “well…”

“What d’you think?” I grinned back, twirling round for him to see, like a child with a new dress. He laughed, “Don’t do that! It’s too confusing as it is…Angela…” That really puzzled him. He stood there frowning at me, looking uncomfortable.

“You agreed a male body would be safer,” I said, much more seriously, using my new voice to good effect. “You’ll get used to it, don’t worry.”

Timothy crossed his arms, I did the same. He shook his head, laughing again.

“You fucking hairless wonder,” he chuckled, “Angus the Hairless Wonder.” Now he guffawed.

I stepped up to him, clapped him on the shoulder.

“OK Trav, let’s go get breakfast. What’s our assignment for the day anyway?”

“Ephem Angus-fucking-hairless-wonder Sol…” he kept muttering, shaking his head so his blond mane of hair tossed pointedly as we strode down towards the canteen.

These little fictional forays hint at how central to our ways of relating, indeed to our ways of being, our bodily forms are. How we feel about people varies with their appearance, and their physique or other powers. We assess people when we meet them – are they a threat? Could they be a mate? What do they expect of me given their threat/mate status? What signals will it send if I do this or that?

But the interesting things about morphological freedom go well beyond the etiquettes of identity. A society or political unit, or even an extended kin grouping, exists in some sense to better fulfill the needs of its members. Those needs depend on body and brain morphology. Birds do not need an air industry. But some (e.g. starlings) do engage in complex social behaviors to protect themselves against larger predators. Humans too group together to collectively tackle threats. We also build to protect our weak points. Airplanes, airports, shopping malls, apartments.

What we build, not to mention how, is dependent on our morphology. I am thinking of stairs for example. Or the vision-based sign systems in airports. Or the way we identify buses, that people must use because they are visually impaired, with a number on the front which these people cannot see .Or the intellectual complexities of the democratic political system . All of these collective institutions, expressed through products we make, are rooted in morphology. Change the morphology and what happens to the existing power structures based around the institutions?

In his 2001 Transvision paper on morphological freedom, Anders Sandberg attempts to provide a rights-based argument for a right to morphological freedom. I thoroughly recommend the paper. But it relies on a property right in one’s own body. And that opens a can of legal worms. Some of those worms crawl towards intellectual property rights in gene-related discoveries.

Other worms eat away at our flesh: If we have rights in our bodies can we then legally harm or “maim” (the name of a crime in English law for many years) ourselves? No, because this would reduce a man’s ability to fight on behalf of his country, went the old legal argument (see Robin MacKenzie on somatechnics, and the full Oxford English Dictionary). Not only are human social institutions rooted in morphology, but those institutional roots also shape individual morphology. Like tree roots pushing up a pavement, the requirements of sustaining our institutions contort our morphologies.

To propagate their power, those of high institutional status lay claims on the bodies of those they exist to protect. Sometimes some members have to give their lives so the whole institution (and those in charge) can survive. Our bodies, which are, as we are embodied beings, also our selves; our experience; are not in fact ours to do as we like with, if we wish for the protection of institutions.

Morphological freedom. Subversive. Anarchist. No doubt. But also novelty inducing, educational, stimulating, a species of freedom and a source of diversity. The importance of the freedom in morphological freedom is its ability to generate biological and cultural diversity. Compare the alternative – a mere freedom to enhance. Sure, you can change your body and brain, but only in ways which will contribute to the social institutions you presently live with, in accordance with their definitions of “enhancement”. In the long term environments change, both social and physical. Cultures homogenize, solidify and stultify. Definitions become dogmas.

Hopefully technological barriers will fall and our species’ power to protect ourselves and modify the world around us will grow. Where, then, might we find novelty, ways to understand that there are other ways to model the world, ways to learn and teach about tolerance and change? Ways to escape the aging of cultures. There remains a new frontier which we should not prematurely reject.

If technologies allow us to form and reform our morphologies at will we could try out different bodies and brains – the obviously desirable and the not-so obviously desirable – and return to the original if we wished. At least some intrepid explorers might be willing to take the risks of misery, hard work and possible failure…and who knows what they might bring the rest of us back? Their contributions would be measured in enlarged knowledge and understanding of what makes lives satisfying. And it may not always be what we expected from our C21-and-a-bit perspective. We should not preclude or discourage these voyages of discovery.

Morphological freedom cuts both ways: people may choose to enhance themselves, or to reduce their power in relation to their environment. They may choose, like ascetics of old, to reduce their sensory stimulation load, to live without a sense or two, or to take on morphologies, perhaps with others, that increase the need for interdependency. These are all potential spaces for exploration. Who knows, they may even show us ways to explore Space.

These are risky explorations. Some might turn out to be desirable and beneficial, others to be deeply problematic for the explorer and society. We cannot know in advance which are which – that’s why the exploration is worth doing – but neither should we exert pressure on people to choose one way or another.

These are options that should be available for individuals to assess and try for themselves. That way we may learn something from their choices. If many drop a sense or two and stay that way by free choice, then they must find something there of value. And if others pick up a sense or two, and choose to stay that way by free choice, then we learn we have to include both in society.

Our responsibility is to ensure that their choices are as free and unbiased as possible, and that there are some reasonable safety nets in place for foreseeable dangers. Morphological freedom then benefits from being a negative freedom in Isaiah Berlin’s sense and as Sandberg defends. It is not the sort of “freedom” that it is our responsibility to encourage and promote universally, in whose name we can justify helping others to achieve it, even where they do not yet see its benefits.

But neither should morphological freedom be hidden because of its subversive, seditious possibilities. They are the whole point.

Heather Bradshaw was an IEET Affiliate Scholar 2010-2012, and is working on a thesis on enhancement and disability at the Centre for Ethics in Medicine at the University of Bristol. She is also a staffer at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.


Experience (the great philosophical bedrock, according to another IEET blogger) verifies the assertion that the world’s reaction changes to different guises. Somewhat of a paradox in a world so riddled with indifference. But to be expected in a world mezmerised by appearance and ‘crust’ values. It is this fixation on the superficial that may obscure the depth of the debate about morphological freedom.

For this new type of freedom, authored by free minds and spurred by technological innovation, might challenge the prejudiced and stereotypical reactions as conditioned and constrained by our present physical/societal state.

A state not exactly of morphological incarceration, but one constrained by fact and flesh none the less.

What the superficial lenses obscure, is that diversity is a virtue for challenging prejudice. In tandem, adaptability is a virtue which should help humans cope with the change implicit in morphological freedom.

But, as we threat/mate assess our counterparts in social interactions, so are we likely to be threatened by the seemingly infinite capacity for change heralded by this new type of freedom.

However, as the old truism goes, change might be the only constant and the sooner we see that the sooner we can embrace morphological freedom.

Upload more stimulating posts, HB!

Morphological and mindstate freedom, if taken over a certain threshold, becomes incompatible with personal identity in the form we know it. We will all merge together unless we consciously slow down the pace of technological development and legislation. It is our own choice. On the other hand, there is a need for a highly intelligent hive mind/collective consciousness if we want to minimize the global existential risks. The question is whether we shall merge into it ourselves or build it as something separate (AGI) and trust that it will tolerate the continued existence of our current shapes.

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