The Morality of the Body
Huxley’s tale reminds us that our moral concepts are developed in vivo, not in vitro. And they are rooted in the very “we” attitude that is threatened by the careless pursuit of mastery. When we envisage situations that involve a reshaping of human nature, so that all those features that traditional morality was designed to regulate–aggression, fragility, the dread of oblivion; love, hope, the thrill of desire–either disappear or are transformed entirely, then we conjure worlds that we cannot understand and that do not in fact contain us. Were we, like Huxley’s savage, to find ourselves washed up on these imagined shores, we should be as disoriented and unconsoled as he. The right to life is not a right to immortality but a right to live and die unmolested, a right to pursue the projects that mortals naturally assume, all of which are predicated on their transience. To speak of a “right to life” in a world where life is freed from the conditions that make it meaningful is to lift the concept from the context that provides its sense.
Even if immortality lies forever beyond our reach, the progress of biotechnology has created moral problems of a kind that place their own strain upon the ordinary conscience. Cosmetic surgery, organ transplants, mood-enhancing drugs–all such things have begun to change our conception of the body and its relation to the self. It is often complained against Descartes that he made so radical a distinction between mind and body as to make it impossible to understand how there could be any connection between them. But even Descartes protested that “I am not merely lodged in my body as a pilot in a ship”–implying that there is an intimacy of connection here that makes it entirely natural to say of my body that it is not mine but me. Can we still say that when so much that happens to my body happens by my own design?
On the other hand, the idea that both body and brain are property is gaining ground. Cosmetic surgery (on which Americans spend approximately $10 billion a year) and mood-enhancing drugs make it possible for people to alter their bodies and brains, to appear with new faces and even new personalities, and yet somehow retain that core of self-identity that enables them to say these new bodies and new characters are “theirs.” In these and other ways, there arises a separation between self and body of a kind that might lead us once again to entertain ideas of “untrammeled freedom.” And the new world of enhanced bodies and shriveled selves will be one dominated by the “I” attitude–a world in which the “we” attitude has retreated into silence. Imagine a race of humans who can not merely live forever but also alter their physiognomy and even their fundamental character at will, who can reëngineer their bodies, taking spare parts from others or from embryos, perhaps growing embryos for the purpose. Maybe, since children will be a threat in any case in the world to which these people belong, human embryos will be bred only for spare parts and never allowed that “right to life” that Aubrey de Grey promises to all of us forever. Without doubt these new humans will strive to outdo one another in beauty, strength, cheerfulness, and all the other features that bring success in life–and will, with time, become equally successful, which means, of course, not successful at all.