The moral problem with artificial moral enhancement
Michael De Dora
Posted on January 10, 2014
In their new book, Unfit for the Future, philosophers Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson argue that “the future of our species depends on our urgently finding ways to bring about radical enhancement of the moral aspects of our own human nature.”
While I have not yet read their book, according to reviews the authors’ basic argument goes something like this: Our morality is a product of evolution and its basic components were formed when we were hunter-gatherers living in small communities. We now live in a global society, in which our actions increasingly influence the lives of countless people around the world, as well as future generations. Yet we are still equipped with this narrow, limited, often harmful hunter-gatherer morality. So, must radically enhance our morality — and this enhancement must be scientific, because traditional efforts, such as moral education, have failed to make the changes (the authors believe are) necessary for long-term survival.
It doesn’t appear Savulescu and Persson call for specific types of moral bio-enhancement. Rather, they are highlighting a problem and suggesting an invigorated and determined exploration of science and medicine to address it.
You’ve probably had someone tell you “Here, take this medicine/treatment, it will make you feel better.” What the authors envision is something more like this: “Here, take this medicine/treatment, it will make you a better person.”
Sounds straightforward, right? Well, there are myriad problems, from scientific (can this actually happen?) to economic (how much will it cost?) to metaphysical (can we agree on what is ethically desirable?). But, these aside, there are also serious moral concerns with artificial moral enhancement. I’ve posted about some of these previously, but in a new interview with the Irish Times, Bert Gordijn, a professor and director of the Institute of Ethics at Dublin City College, highlights at least one I had not previously considered:
“…if people are morally deficient in the first place why would they be interested in biological ways of influencing their morality?”
In other words: if people don’t care very much about improving their morality right now, why would the invention of some new morality medicine suddenly change their feelings? In which case the proposed artificial moral enhancement would likely help only those who don’t actually need much help — the people who are already generally moral and feel the desire to be more moral.
Of course, we could force people to take morality medicine. But then, as Gordijn points out, “it would be highly problematic because it would infringe on respect for autonomy, and in a more general way on human dignity.” I suppose that’s quite the dilemma for a true utilitarian: force people to take morality medicine and have a flourishing society, or leave it to people to decide but have less decent society — possibly even a wretched one. Good thing I’m not a true utilitarian.
So, if morality medicine isn’t the promising possibility it’s cracked up to be, if it truly suffers from serious moral concerns, what can we do to improve our morality?
For one, we can stick with what we’ve got: education and legislative nudges. As Gordijn also points out: “Traditionally there have been other means of influencing our morality: education and also legislation. If you have a good legislative framework and a good social environment, people will develop the right habits and it will become the natural thing for them to do, the right thing to do.”
But obviously the status quo, even a dedicated push within the same framework, will not please Savulescu and Persson, who seek urgent, radical moral enhancement.
So here’s a radical suggestion: teach ethics in high school. In fact, I say teach ethics in middle school and elementary school. And if that isn’t helping in a decade or two, perhaps by then scientists and philosophers will have figured out how to address all the problems with morality medicine. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.