July 5, 2022

Can you morally enhance a hoodie?

A Google search for “London+riots+bioethics” yielded nothing of any value. But future discussions about how to respond to mass hooliganism may well require bioethicists. At least that is what a debate between two leading utilitarian bioethicists in the journal Bioethics suggests.

A Google search for
“London+riots+bioethics” yielded nothing of any value. But future discussions
about how to respond to mass hooliganism may well require bioethicists. At
least that is what a debate between two leading utilitarian bioethicists in the
journal Bioethics suggests.

The topic is “enhancement”, the effort to extend
artificially the capabilities of the human body and brain. Mild enhancement
includes the consumption of alcohol and caffeine, but enthusiasts look forward
to using neuroscience, biotechnology and nanotechnology to endow humans with “superhuman”
powers. It is “one of the most significant areas of bioethical interest in the
last twenty years”, according to John Harris, one of the disputants.

In view not only of the London riots, but
of wars and genocides, which seem to be an ineradicable blight on human
history, wouldn’t moral enhancement be a good idea? The notion is more radical
than it seems. The traditional view of morality assumes free will. How can biological
improvements make people more moral?

However, this is the contention of Julian
Savulescu, an Australian who is a professor of practical ethics at Oxford,
together with a colleague, Ingmar Persson of Göteborg University, in
Sweden. He believes that we ought to do all in our power to make people morally
better – more altruistic and more empathetic – using all the genetic, chemical,
neurological and surgical means at our disposal. This is an argument which he
has been pursuing for some time.

He feels that the need for moral
enhancement is urgent because destructive technology is outpacing our moral
capacity to use it with restraint. We could end by blowing up the planet. Traditional
methods of moral enhancement – parenting, socialisation, education, group
dynamics – are simply not enough. Savulescu and Persson do admit that the
techniques may not be available for a long time.

Harris expresses his scepticism in the
February issue of Bioethics
. The only reliable ways to morally enhance people
are the traditional ones, he says. Besides, Savulescu is too grimly pessimistic
about science and seems “to argue that efforts to improve cognitive powers and
capacities should be put on hold until moral enhancement is perfected,
infallible, and made not only universally available but comprehensively
mandatory”. In the meantime, using cognitive enhancement (Harris is a fan) we
could solve many of the smaller problems which bedevil our lives.

In an
early online article
in the same journal, Savulescu and Persson rebut
Harris’s critique. They deny being so pessimistic that they would refuse to
take advantage of the benefits of cognitive enhancement. “But if it takes moral bioenhancement, these should
also be sought and applied, alongside the cognitive means. The future of life
on Earth might well hinge upon the adoption of this policy.”

No doubt some boffins in
the British government would like very much to slip some chemical moral
enhancement agents in the London water supply at the moment.

Michael Cook
bioethics
Julian Savulescu
moral enhancement