A couple of weeks ago Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu published a book on moral enhancement: Unfit for the Future. The Need for Moral Enhancement, Oxford University Press 2012. With its 139 pages it is rather a short book and it doesn't add much to the argument that the two authors have been making in various papers since the publication of "The Perils of Cognitive Enhancement" in the Journal of Applied Philosophy four years ago. However, despite my scepticism about the human enhancement project in general and the prospects of moral enhancement in particular, I cannot find much fault with the authors' argument, which is developed with the utmost care, and even with an uncharacteristic dose of modesty. The idea is actually very simple (and very neatly captured in the title of the book): we are constitutionally unable to deal with the problems that we face today - with global terrorism, mass starvation in countries that we euphemistically call developing, environmental destruction, and climate change. Liberal democracy doesn't help, on the contrary: it makes matters worse because it can only ever allow popular policies, and the restrictions that we would have to impose on ourselves in order to save the planet for future generations and non-human animals are never going to be very popular as long as we are morally so restricted as we are. Thus we tend to believe that we are morally responsible only for what we actively cause, not what we merely allow to happen. Our altruism is usually limited to people that are nearby (in space and time), and we are emotionally unaffected by large numbers, so we can stomach the starvation of millions easier than the starvation of one person right on our doorstep. So as it stands, we really are about to mess it up and before long it will be too late to do anything about it, so what we need to do, if we can, is improve our moral dispositions and find a way to overcome the deficiencies that are part of our evolved nature. As much as I would like to find fault with this diagnosis, it is probably correct.
What is remarkable about the book, though, given that Savulescu used to be one of the foremost proponents of the human enhancement project, is the authors' emphasis on the great dangers of modern scientific technologies (including those that would allow moral enhancement) and their willingness to renounce the kind of enhancement that we are by now used to see described as immensely desirable, such as life extension or cognitive enhancement, as at best trivial and hardly worth pursuing. Savulescu published an article in the Times Higher Education a few months ago, in which he warned of the dangers of synthetic biology, which promptly led to him being denounced as a bioconservative and bioluddite by angry readers, which is quite ironic really. Anyway, in "Unfit for the Future", Persson and Savulescu describe in detail various "catastrophic misuses of science", real and possible, and affirm the idea that the human organism is well-adapted and should therefore better not be interfered with (an idea that has been ridiculed, among others, by Allen Buchanan as well as Nick Bostrom). Research "into the possibility of extending human longevity beyond the 120 years or so now thought feasible" is presented as an example of "arguably misguided research" (131), and much of the other contemporary enhancement research is declared to be "governed by the selfish interests of the rich, which aggravates global inequality and harms the interests of future generations." (ibid.) So it seems that we are witnessing a remarkable turn in the attitudes of some of those ethicists who formerly tended to praise enhancement technologies for the many benefits they would bring us. Another recent example is the former liberal eugenicist Nicholas Agar who turned bioconservative with his latest book, "Humanity's End".
Still I am not sure that I agree with all the claims being made in the book, for instance the claim that there actually is no right to privacy (which would stand in the way of a yet more extensive state surveillance of citizens). Persson and Savulescu believe that individual liberty needs to be curtailed, and perhaps they are right, but I find it hard to accept that. Individual liberty is a very important thing, and we should not part with it all too easily. I'm also more sceptical of the possibility of moral enhancement. Persson and Savulescu identify altruism and a sense of justice as the core moral dispositions, which "always issue in a morally correct treatment of the individuals to whom they are directed" (108). Yet it is pretty clear that those dispositions can contradict each other, for instance in the ultimatum game, where it is the case that the more altruistic the responder feels disposed, the less they are willing to articulate and enforce a sense of justice (because this would require punishing and thus harming the other for their unfair proposal). Generally speaking, though, the authors are well aware of the problems that we would have to face if we really wanted to morally enhance people, but they argue that if that is the only chance we have to turn things around and prevent a catastrophe, then we should at least explore the option. Again, this is probably right.