A Philosopher's Blog

Body Hacking I: Aesthetics

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on March 21, 2016

Back in my graduate school days, I made some extra money writing for various science fiction and horror gaming companies. This was in the 1990s, which was the chrome age of cyberpunk: the future was supposed to be hacked, jacked, and bionic. The future is now, but is an age of Tinder, Facebook, and cat videos. But, there is still hope of the cyberpunk future: body hackers are endeavoring to bring some cyberpunk into the world. The current state of the hack is, to be honest, rather disappointing—but, great things arise from lesser things and hope remains for a chromed future.

Body hacking, at this point, is fairly minor. For example, some people have implanted electronics under their skin, such as RFID chips. Of course, my husky also has an implanted chip. As another example, one fellow who is color blind has a skull mounted device that informs him of colors via sounds. As one might imagine, body hacks that can be seen have generated some mockery and hostility. Since I owe cyberpunk for a few crates of ramen noodles and bags of puffed rice, I am obligated to come to the defense of the aesthetics of body hacking.

While some point out that philosophers have not given body hacking the attention it deserves and claim that it is something new and revolutionary, it still falls nicely under established moral systems. As such, body hacking is a new matter for applied ethics—but does not seem to require a new moral system or theory to handle it. This can, of course, be disputed. However, I will address the moral concerns about the aesthetics of body hacking by the simple application of established moral theory.

The aesthetic aspects of body hacking fall under the ethics of lifestyle choices, specifically those regarding choices of personal appearance. This can be shown by drawing easy and obvious analogies to established means of modifying personal appearance. The most obvious modifications are clothing, hairstyles and accessories (such as jewelry). These, like body hacking, have the capacity to shock and offend people—perhaps by what is revealed by the clothing or the message sent by it (including literal messages, such as T-shirts with text and images).  Unlike body hacking, these modifications are on the surface, thus making them somewhat different from true body hacking.

As such, a closer analogy would involve classic cosmetic body modifications. These include hair dye, vanity contact lenses, decorative scars, piercings, and tattoos. In fact, these can be seen as low-tech body hacks—precursors to the technological hacks of today. Body hacks go beyond these classic modifications and range from the absurd (a man growing an “ear” on his arm) to the semi-useful (a person who replaced a missing fingertip with a USB drive). While concerns about body hacking go beyond the aesthetic, body hacks do have the capacity to elicit responses similar to other modifications. For example, tattoos were once regarded as the mark of a lower class person, though they are now general accepted. As another example, in the past men (other than pirates) did not get piercings unless they were willing to face ridicule. Now piercing is passé.

Because the aesthetics of body hacking is analogous to classic appearance hacks, the same ethics applies to these cases. Naturally enough, people do vary considerably in their ethics of appearance. I, as veteran readers surely suspect, favor John Stuart Mill’s approach to the matter of the ethics of lifestyle choices. Mill argues that people have the right to interfere with liberty only to prevent a person from harming others—a rather reasonable standard of interference which he justifies on utilitarian grounds. Mill explicitly addresses the ways of life people chose: “…the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow; without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong.”

Mill’s principle nicely handles the ethics of the aesthetics of body hacking (and beyond, but I will get to that in a later essay): body hackers have the moral freedom to hack themselves even though such modifications are regarded as aesthetically perverse, foolish, or wrong. So, just as a person has the moral right to wear clothing that some would regard as too revealing or dye his hair magenta, a person has the moral right to grow a functionless ear on his arm or implant blinking lights under her skin. But, just as a person would not have a right to wear a jacket covered in outward facing needles and razor blades, a person would not have the right to hack herself with an implanted strobe light that flashes randomly into people’s eyes. This is because such things become the legitimate business of others because of the harm they can do.

Mill does note that people are subject to the consequences of their choices—not interfering with someone’s way of life does not require accepting it, embracing it or even working around it. For example, just as a person who elects to have “Goat F@cker” tattooed on his face can expect challenges in getting a job as a bank teller or school teacher, a person who has blinking lights embedded in his hand can expect to encounter some challenges in employment. Interestingly, the future might see discrimination lawsuits on the part of body hackers, analogous to past lawsuits for other forms of discrimination. It can also be expected that social consequences will change for body hacking, just as it occurred with tattoos and yoga pants.

One final point is the stock concern about the possible harms of offensive appearances. That is, that other people do have a legitimate interest in the appearance of others because their appearance might harm them by offending them. While this is worth considering, there does not seem to be a compelling reason to accept that mere offensiveness causes sufficient harm to warrant restrictions on appearance. What would be needed would be evidence of actual harm to others that arises because the appearance inflicts the harm rather than the alleged harm arising because of how the offended person feels about the appearance. To use an analogy, while someone who hates guns has the right not to be shot, he does not have the right to insist that he never see guns or images of guns.

The discussion has shown that body hacking that does not inflict harm to others falls nicely under the liberty to choose a way of life, provided that the way of life does not inflict harm on others. But, as always, a person who strays too far from the norm has to be aware of possible consequences. Especially when it comes to dating and employment.


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