December 8, 2021

Protecting the world through moral bioenhancement

It should be compulsory but secret, argues an American bioethicist

The co-existence of large numbers of Very Bad Hombres and readily available means of mass destruction is seen by a number of bioethicists as a grave threat to the future of humanity. About a decade ago, some of them began to speculate about whether it might be possible to create a world of order, peace and virtue through what they termed “moral enhancement” or “moral bioenhancement”. The idea was to make people altruistic and pacific by spiking the water supply, vaccinating them or adding agents to air conditioning systems in public buildings.

Whether this is feasible or not is still unknown, although some chemicals show promise. In the meantime, bioethicists are busy discussing the whys and wherefores. The stakes are not trivial. As they see it, with nuclear weapons, biological weapons and, more recently, the threat of hostile artificial intelligence, on the horizon, humanity lives under a sword of Damocles.

The latest contribution to the swelling volume of literature on the topic comes in an early on-line article in Bioethics by Parker Crutchfield, of Western Michigan University medical school. Assuming that this is the situation, he asks, should moral enhancement be compulsory? And if it were to be compulsory, should it be kept secret from the population? He answers Yes to both questions.

Crutchfield contends that the whole population should be inoculated against evil because a single bad hombre can do immense harm:

Where it used to require an extraordinarily coordinated effort to cause ultimate harm, now, or in the near future, it only takes one person. Thus, moral bioenhancement ought to be compulsory for everyone.

Of course, this assertion comes with some caveats – that moral bioenhancement is actually cost-effective, will prevent “ultimate harm” and is safe. But we need to acknowledge that a voluntary system will simply not work:

I'm skeptical [he writes] that voluntary moral bioenhancement is up to the task. People who volunteer for moral bioenhancement are not those about whom we should be most worried: It's those who have no interest in being better people that should worry us.

Assuming that these conditions are met, should the population be informed that they have been morally bioenhanced? Given the stubborn resistance to relatively inconsequential “enhancements” such as a measles vaccine or fluoridated water, it is likely that compulsory moral bioenhancement would face stiff opposition.

… if the moral bioenhancement program were overt, inevitably some people would refuse or otherwise fail to receive the intervention. Because the program is compulsory, however, policies would be required to compel such people to undergo the intervention. These policies would take the form of isolation (e.g., preventing dissenters from fully participating in society), taxes or fees as penalties, or, in severe cases, imprisonment. All of these methods of compulsion restrict liberties.

On balance, therefore, with due respect to the values esteemed by a democratic society, covert moral bioenhancement will be necessary, Crutchfield argues. And apart from transparency, it supports liberal values:

A covert program better promotes equality, because by keeping the program covert to everyone, the program ensures that all participants are treated equally. It is totally impartial.

In an age of aggressive media investigations and whistleblowers, it might hard to keep such a program under cover. But Crutchfield says that this does not impugn his reasoning:

Keeping a covert program covert would be a challenging obstacle. But just because it would be a challenging obstacle doesn't mean that my argument is unsound.

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