While body hacking is sometimes presented as being new and radical, humans have been engaged in the practice (under other names) for quite some time. One of the earliest forms of true body hacking was probably the use of prosthetic parts to replace lost pieces, such as a leg or hand. These hacks were aimed at restoring a degree of functionality, so they were practical hacks.
While most contemporary body hacking seems aimed at gimmickry or rather limited attempts at augmentation, there are some serious applications that involve replacement and restoration. One example of this is the color blind person who is using a skull mounted camera to provide audio clues regarding colors. This hack serves as a replacement to missing components of the eye, albeit in a somewhat odd way.
Medicine is, obviously enough, replete with body hacks ranging from contact lenses to highly functional prosthetic limbs. These technologies and devices provide people with some degree of replacement and restoration for capabilities they lost or never had. While these sort of hacks are typically handled by medical professionals, advances in existing technology and the rise of new technologies will certainly result in more practical hacks aimed not at gimmickry but at restoration and replacement. There will also certainly be considerable efforts aimed at augmentation, but this matter will be addressed in another essay.
Since humans have been body hacking for replacement and restoration for thousands of years, the ethics of this matter are rather well settled. In general, the use of technology for medical reasons of replacement or restoration is morally unproblematic. After all, this process is simply fulfilling the main purpose of medicine: to get a person as close to their normal healthy state as possible. To use a specific example, there really is no morally controversy over the use of prosthetic limbs that are designed to restore functionality. In the case of body hacks, the same general principle would apply: hacks that aim at restoration or replacement are generally morally unproblematic. That said, there are some potential areas of concern.
One area of both moral and practical concern is the risk of body hacking done by non-professionals. That is, amateur or DIY body hacking. The concern is that such hacking could have negative consequences—that is, the hack could turn out to do more harm than good. This might be due to bad design, poor implementation or other causes. For example, a person might endeavor a hack to replace a missing leg and have it fail catastrophically, resulting in a serious injury. This is, of course, not unique to body hacking—this is a general matter of good decision making.
As with health and medicine in general, it is generally preferable to go with a professional rather than an amateur or a DIY endeavor. Also, the possibility of harm makes it a matter of moral concern. That said, there are many people who cannot afford professional care and technology will afford people an ever-growing opportunity to body hack for medical reasons. This sort of self-help can be justified on the grounds that some restoration or replacement is better than none. This assumes that the self-help efforts do not result in worse harm than doing nothing. As such, body hackers and society will need to consider the ethics of the risks of amateur and DIY body hacking. Guidance can be found here in existing medical ethics—such as moral guides for people attempting to practice medicine on themselves and others without proper medical training.
A second area of moral concern is that some people will engage in replacing fully functional parts with body hacks that are equal or inferior to the original (augmentation will be addressed in the next essay). For example, a person might want to remove a finger to replace it with a mechanical finger with a built in USB drive. As another example, a person might want to replace her eye with a camera comparable or inferior to her natural eye.
One clear moral concern is the potential dangers in such hacks—removing a body part can be rather dangerous. One approach would be to weigh the harms and benefits of such hacking. On the face of it, such replacement hacks would seem to be at best neutral—that is, the person will end up with the same capabilities as before. It is also possible, perhaps likely, that the replacement attempt will result in diminished capabilities, thus making the hack wrong because of the harm inflicted. Some body hackers might argue that such hacks have a value beyond the functionality. For example, the value of self-expression or achieving a state of existence that matches one’s conception or vision of self. In such cases, the moral question would be whether or not these factors are worth considering and if they are, how much weight they should be given morally.
There is also the worry that such hacks would be a form of unnecessary self-mutilation and thus at best morally dubious. A counter to this is to argue, as John Stuart Mill did, that people have a right to self-harm, provided that they do not harm others. That said, arguing that people do not have a right to interfere with self-harm (provided the person is acting freely and rationally) does not entail that self-harm is morally acceptable. It is certainly possible to argue against self-harm on utilitarian grounds and also on the basis of moral obligations to oneself. Arguments from the context of virtue theory would also apply—self harm is certainly contrary to developing one’s excellence as a person.
These approaches could be countered. Utilitarian arguments can be met with utilitarian arguments that offer a different evaluation of the harms and benefits. Arguments based on obligations to oneself can be countered by arguing that there are not such obligations or that the obligations one does have allows from this sort of modification. Argument from virtue theory could be countered by attacking the theory itself or showing how such modifications are consistent with moral excellence.
My own view, which I consistently apply to other areas such as drug use, diet, and exercise, is that people have a moral right to the freedom of self-abuse/harm. This requires that the person is capable of making an informed decision and is not coerced or misled. As such, I hold that a person has every right to DIY body hacking. Since I also accept the principle of harm, I hold that society has a moral right to regulate body hacking of others as other similar practices (such as dentistry) are regulated. This is to prevent harm being inflicted on others. Being fond of virtue theory, I do hold that people should not engage in self-harm, even though they have every right to do so without having their liberty restricted. To use a concrete example, if someone wants to spoon out her eyeball and replace it with a LED light, then she has every right to do so. However, if an untrained person wants to set up shop and scoop eyeballs for replacement with lights, then society has every right to prevent that. I do think that scooping out an eye would be both foolish and morally wrong; which is also how I look at heroin use and smoking tobacco.
One of the stereotypes regarding teenagers is that they are poor decision makers and engage in risky behavior. This stereotype is usually explained in terms of the teenage brain (or mind) being immature and lacking the reasoning abilities of adults. Of course, adults often engage in poor decision-making and risky behavior.
Interestingly enough, there is research that shows teenagers use basically the same sort of reasoning as adults and that they even overestimate risks (that is, regard something as more risky than it is). So, if kids use the same processes as adults and also overestimate risk, then what needs to be determined is how teenagers differ, in general, from adults.
Currently, one plausible hypothesis is that teenagers differ from adults in terms of how they evaluate the value of a reward. The main difference, or so the theory goes, is that teenagers place higher value on rewards (at least certain rewards) than adults. If this is correct, it certainly makes sense that teenagers are more willing than adults to engage in risk taking. After all, the rationality of taking a risk is typically a matter of weighing the (perceived) risk against the (perceived) value of the reward. So, a teenager who places higher value on a reward than an adult would be acting rationally (to a degree) if she was willing to take more risk to achieve that reward.
Obviously enough, adults also vary in their willingness to take risks and some of this difference is, presumably, a matter of the value the adults place on the rewards relative to the risks. So, for example, if Sam values the enjoyment of sex more than Sally, then Sam will (somewhat) rationally accept more risks in regards to sex than Sally. Assuming that teenagers generally value rewards more than adults do, then the greater risk taking behavior of teens relative to adults makes considerable sense.
It might be wondered why teenagers place more value on rewards relative to adults. One current theory is based in the workings of the brain. On this view, the sensitivity of the human brain to dopamine and oxytocin peaks during the teenage years. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is supposed to trigger the “reward” mechanisms of the brain. Oxytocin is another neurotransmitter, one that is also linked with the “reward” mechanisms as well as social activity. Assuming that the teenage brain is more sensitive to the reward triggering chemicals, then it makes sense that teenagers would place more value on rewards. This is because they do, in fact, get a greater reward than adults. Or, more accurately, they feel more rewarded. This, of course, might be one and the same thing—perhaps the value of a reward is a matter of how rewarded a person feels. This does raise an interesting subject, namely whether the value of a reward is a subjective or objective matter.
Adults are often critical of what they regard as irrationally risk behavior by teens. While my teen years are well behind me, I have looked back on some of my decisions that seemed like good ideas at the time. They really did seem like good ideas, yet my adult assessment is that they were not good decisions. However, I am weighing these decisions in terms of my adult perspective and in terms of the later consequences of these actions. I also must consider that the rewards that I felt in the past are now naught but faded memories. To use the obvious analogy, it is rather like eating an entire good cake. At the time, that sugar rush and taste are quite rewarding and it seems like a good idea while one is eating that cake. But once the sugar rush gives way to the sugar crash and the cake, as my mother would say, “went right to the hips”, then the assessment might be rather different. The food analogy is especially apt: as you might well recall from your own youth, candy and other junk food tasted so good then. Now it is mostly just…junk. This also raises an interesting subject worthy of additional exploration, namely the assessment of value over time.
Going back to the cake, eating the whole thing was enjoyable and seemed like a great idea at the time. Yes, I have eaten an entire cake. With ice cream. But, in my defense, I used to run 95-100 miles per week. Looking back from the perspective of my older self, that seems to have been a bad idea and I certainly would not do that (or really enjoy doing so) today. But, does this change of perspective show that it was a poor choice at the time? I am tempted to think that, at the time, it was a good choice for the kid I was. But, my adult self now judges my kid self rather harshly and perhaps unfairly. After all, there does seem to be considerable relativity to value and it seems to be mere prejudice to say that my current evaluation should be automatically taken as being better than the evaluations of the past.
The mass murder that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary school has created significant interest in both gun control and mental health. In this essay I will focus on the matter of mental health.
When watching the coverage on CNN, I saw a segment in which Dr. Gupta noted that currently people can only be involuntarily detained for mental health issues when they present an imminent danger. He expressed concern about this high threshold, noting that this has the practical impact that authorities generally cannot act until someone has done something harmful and then it can be rather too late. One rather important matter is sorting out what the threshold for official intervention.
On the one hand, it can be argued that the relevant authorities need to be proactive. They should not wait until they learn that someone with a mental issue is plotting to shoot children before acting. They certainly should not wait until after someone with a mental issue has murdered dozens of people. They have to determine whether or not a person with a mental issue (or issues) is likely to engage in such behavior and deal with the person well before people are hurt. That is, the authorities need to catch and deal with the person while he is still a pre-criminal rather than an actual criminal.
In terms of arguing in favor of this, a plausible line of approach would be a utilitarian argument: dealing with people with mental issues before they commit acts of violence will prevent the harmful consequences that otherwise would have occurred.
On the other hand, there is the obvious moral concern with allowing authorities to detain and deal with people not for something they have done or have even plotted to do but merely might do. Obviously, there is rather serious practical challenge of sorting out what a person might do when they are not actually conspiring or planning a misdeed. There is also the moral concern of justifying coercing or detaining a person for what they might do. Intuitively, the mere fact that a person could or might do something wrong does not warrant acting against the person. The obvious exception is when there is adequate evidence to establish that a person is plotting or conspiring to commit a crime. However, these sorts of things are already covered by the law, so what would seem to be under consideration would be coercing people without adequate evidence that they are plotting or conspiring to commit crimes. On the face of it, this would seem unacceptable.
One obvious way to justify using the coercive power of the state against those with mental issues before they commit or even plan a crime is to argue that certain mental issues are themselves adequate evidence that a person is reasonably likely to engage in a crime, even though nothing she has done meets the imminent danger threshold.
On an abstract level, this does have a certain appeal. To use an analogy to physical health, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a condition occurring, then it make sense to treat for that condition before it manifests. Likewise, if certain factors indicate a high risk of a person with mental issues engaging in violence against others, then it makes sense to treat for that condition before it manifests.
It might be objected that people can refuse medical treatment for physical conditions and hence they should be able to do the same for dangerous mental issues. The obvious reply is that if a person refuses treatment for a physical ailment, he is only endangering himself. But if someone refuses treatment for a condition that can result in her engaging in violence against others, then she is putting others in danger without their consent and she does not have the liberty or right to do this.
Moving into the realm of the concrete, the matter becomes rather problematic. One rather obvious point of concern is that mental health science is lagging far behind the physical health sciences (I am using the popular rather than philosophical distinction between mental and physical here) and the physical health sciences are still rather limited. As such, using the best mental health science of the day to predict how likely a person is likely to engage in violence (in the absence of evidence of planning and actual past crimes) will typically result in a prediction of dubious accuracy. To use the coercive power of the state against an individual on the basis of such dubious evidence would not be morally acceptable. After all, a person can only be justly denied liberty on adequate grounds and such a prediction does not seem strong enough to warrant such action.
It might be countered that in the light of such events as the shootings at Sandy Hook and Colorado, there are legitimate grounds to use the coercive power of the state against people who might engage in such actions on the grounds that preventing another mass murder is worth the price of denying people their freedom on mere suspicion.
As might be imagined, without very clear guidelines and limitations, this sort of principle could easily be extended to anyone who might commit a crime—thus justifying locking up people for being potential criminals. This would certainly be wrong.
It might be countered that there is no danger of the principle being extended and that such worries are worries based on a slippery slope. After all, one might say, the principle only applies to those deemed to have the right (or rather wrong) sort of mental issues. Normal people, one might say in a calm voice, have nothing to worry about.
However, it seems that normal people might. After all, it is normal for people to have the occasional mental issue (such as depression) and there is the concern that the application of the fuzzy science of mental health might result in incorrect determinations of mental issues.
To close, I am not saying that we should not reconsider the threshold for applying the coercive power of the state to people with mental issues. Rather, my point is that this should be done with due care to avoid creating more harm than it would prevent.