30 November 2014: Call for moral “bioenhancement” a moral mash

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A call to use technology to improve human morality falls short on morality, not to mention logic.

“Are we fit for the future? Making the case for moral bioenhancement” by Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson makes several outsized claims and suggests an equally outsized solution for them.

Their first argument is that “evolutionary pressures have not developed for us a psychology that enables us to cope with the moral problems our new power creates”.

This begs the question of what examples they have to support the argument. It is true we have the technological capacity to willfully destroy ourselves, and yet last time I looked civilisation still flourished. World War II created a dramatic interruption to civilisation and led to the creation of what is to date perhaps our most terrible invention – nuclear weapons – but it was followed not by Armageddon but by the United Nations, the elimination of small pox, the first landings on the moon, novels by Chinua Achebe, Harper Lee and Zadie Smith, films by Alfred Hitchcock, Gillian Armstrong and Stanley Kubrick, music by Philip Glass, Patti Smith and the Beatles, works of art by Ai Weiwei, Henry Moore and Zaha Hadid, revolutionary texts by Rachel Carson, Germaine Greer and Peter Singer. All this was brought into being by human ingenuity and applied and appreciated with the always evolving tool of human psychology.

I think the only way the authors can pretend that our psychological capacity lags behind our intellectual capacity (in all its forms), is if they ignore the ever-widening sphere of human knowledge and experience and, thanks to the Internet, its increasing relevance in our day-to-day lives.

Savulescu and Persson also argue that a “basic fact about the human condition it that it is easier for us to harm each other than to benefit each other”.

Truly? Do Savulescu and Persson, for example, practice hurting people instead of helping them? I don’t. I know almost no one who finds it easier to harm another person rather than benefitting them. This doesn’t just apply to my own family, my own community, my own town. Most people I know have at some point in their life donated time or money, experience or knowledge, to the benefit of people living in another continent, and never willingly committed any act to harm them.

I’m not denying our species is capable of gross inhumanity. The bouts of war and terrorism that flood our television screens on the evening news are testament to our capacity for violence. But those same television reports almost never cover the activities of the Red Cross or Médecins Sans Frontières, and almost never cover the work of the United Nations and its agencies in aiding developing countries all over the world.

It almost seems the authors willingly ignore the evidence indicating humans individually and collectively find it easier – physically and psychologically – to benefit and not harm one another.

The article provides one “case study” to illustrate their point that our “moral psychology” lags behind our intellectual capacity: the lack of international action over climate change. And yet this issue is the very one that has engaged and energized not only individuals and communities, but entire nations (not to mention endless news cycles). While real action has been agonizingly slow, one of the main reasons for this is the nature of the very institutions – such as the United Nations – employed to tackle the problem, institutions that were created to enable peaceful and cooperative behaviour between nation-states.

The great irony of this article, however, is that Savulescu and Persson, then claim that “our knowledge of human biology … is beginning to enable us … to affect the biological or physiological bases of human motivation”, and that this should be be done through drugs, genetic selection or engineering, or by using external devices that affect the brain or the learning process. What better example could there be of we humans using our technological capacity to harm ourselves despite our moral psychology screaming at us to cease and desist?

Who would administer these procedures? Who would receive them? Who would apologise to future generations for the loss of the full capacity of their genetic inheritance in the name of some nebulous greater good? Who would explain to future generations that as with the great 20th century evils of eugenics and forced sterilisation everything was done with the very best of intentions, coloured by our limited knowledge of human psychology, not to mention our limited knowledge of human evolution and biology?

The underlying concern of Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Perrson that our morality needs to keep pace with our technology is an example of how our morality is indeed keeping pace with our technology. Perhaps they should pause in their crusade and take an opportunity to lie down, have a nice cup of tea, and reflect instead on the possibilities of our better natures.

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