Thursday, 19 July 2012

Unfit for the Future? Persson and Savulescu on Moral Enhancement

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.


  1. I am surprised that people haven't jumped all over Persson and Savulescu for their absurd conclusions. Perhaps people are left speechless and gobsmacked. I know I am.

  2. "Unfit For The Future" is an honest intellectual piece of writing. But some of its conclusions are laughable.

    1. It's interesting that you find their conclusions "absurd" and "laughable". Perhaps they are, but can I ask which conclusions you mean exactly and why you find them so laughable?

  3. I think what the authors are proposing is ludicrous, in having the human race biomedically altered in order that we become more environmentally and ecologically conscious. Who knows where that would lead? They do concede that there might be problems, side effects and other unintended consequences. One unintended consequence our authors didn't consider is the monstrous apparatus it would take to biomedically altering the human race. By their attitude I can believe our authors are anti-corporations. Yet what they propose for the human race would require massive corporate assistance and intrusion on a grand scale because corporations would be the only institution that could muster the resources to produce and distribute the biomedical technology needed to transform the human race.

    Our authors foresee the day when the world will break out into conflict over resources. They give two examples in their book, from which this essay is drawn, of recent conflicts over resources, though not very convincingly, in the ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda. They also mention xenophobia as a reason for those conflicts, which is more the scenario than the fight over resources. In Yugoslavia the conflict that tore the country apart certainly wasn't over the scarcity of resource. It was about race, religion, bad blood and ethnicity. In Rwanda it was a similar situation, although resources may have played more of a role in that conflict. They also mention the conflict in Dafur as resource based. But Rwanda and Darfur are poor examples because these countries were and are extremely underdeveloped, having no wherewithal or sophistication to resolve disputes peacefully.

    Recent conflicts between nations over resources have mostly been economic or political, not bloody. One famous acrimonious but peaceful dispute over resources was the Oil Embargo of 1973. The last really bloody conflict over resources occurred during WW2. A major events that lead to WW2 was Europe's and America's blockading Germany and Japan from acquiring strategic resources. Both countries formed an alliance and struck back with force. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor to keep America's Pacific Fleet at bay while it expanded in Asia and trolled for resources.

    Today Japan and Germany are liberal democracies. And if you can believe the record, liberal democracies don't go to war with each other. They work out disputes and cooperate. But our authors would like to curtail liberal democracy because it expands materialism and consumerism, which they insist contributes to the degradation of the environment and depletion of natural resources. However, the authoritarianism they propose instead is more likely to increase friction and start wars. At least with liberal democracies there is a much better chance of resoling problems and discovering solutions than there is under authoritarianism. Liberalism may contribute to the degradation and depletion of natural resources. But one thing liberalism is exceptional at is developing other resources, such as human resources, resources that work to combat and improve the situation, unlike the authoritarianism our authors would like to revert to, which stifles human innovation and ingenuity in finding alternatives. History attests to this.

  4. Another thing that bothers me about P&S's argument is that they believe there are super humans and benevolent authoritarians who can do a better job of organizing the world than a system like liberal democracy. Humans are constrained and managed best by governing systems, not by benevolent dictators as P&S would have it or would prefer. Liberal democracy is so far the best system devised to constrain and channel for the best the dynamics of civilization.

    Speaking of "Unfit For The Future" and systems, communism was a governing system that grew unfit for the future, hence its collapse. One reason communism collapsed is because it was not morally fit. It did not instill good moral values in its people. For instance, nobody trusted one other under communism. Without trust we can't have cohesive, workable societies. Trust develops through people freely engaging one other. Communism ensured that people did not freely engage one other for fear of losing control.

    I fear that what P&S want for the human race is a similar authoritarian state to communism. If such a system were to engulf the world it would loose it dynamism and imagination.

  5. It seems to me that this criticism is not entirely fair, given that P&S explicitly state that replacing liberal democracy with an authoritarian form of government would be neither desirable nor feasible. They kind of flirt with the idea, but then discard it. What they argue is rather that if we want to hold on to liberal democracy - as we do and should - then given the constitutional (and actually quite obvious) inability of liberal democracy to deal with certain problems that we face today, such as climate change, and the ever increasing destruction of our natural environment, we should explore the possibility of moral enhancement. Because if people were morally "better", that is better equipped to solve those problems (by actually acting in a way that would solve them), we could both survive and retain liberal democracy. There is, of course, still the problem how to get people to morally enhance themselves. And perhaps this does, as you claim, require more authoritarianism than we (for good reasons) feel comfortable with. But does that mean that we shouldn't even think about it?