What do we need if we need moral enhancement?

Since the start of the moral enhancement debate in 2008, longtime human enhancement advocates Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu have argued that we urgently need to be morally enhanced. The capacities natural selection has endowed humans with may have served the species adequately in the past, but the coupling of our moral psychology with advanced technologies spells disaster. The point was elaborated in Persson & Savulescu’s 2012 book, Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement. Curiously, before the moral enhancement debate it was standard for human enhancement proponents to advocate for intelligence enhancements as a “golden standard”, an example of an enhancement that could benefit any life plan. However, Persson and Savulescu now argue that intelligence enhancements are not that desirable since they may further increase the gap between our ability to cause great harm and our outdated moral psychology. For the same reason, fast technological progress was typically heralded as a harbinger of hope among the pro-enhancement crew, while Persson and Savulescu have since argued that the risks of new technologies often outweigh the gains. As a positive outcome of these provocative stances, the discussion has since spurred many enhancement proponents to spell out more clearly which enhancements they deem valuable, and why.

The bulk of the subsequent criticism that the book received echoed the criticism their argument had received in the preceding years, such as, worries about totalitarianism. Persson and Savulescu, worried about the fact that certain technologies make it possible for single individuals to cause global disasters, argue for restrictions to privacy and citizen liberties. However, their preference for liberal democracy over totalitarianism is precisely why they endorse moral enhancement: they believe the only way to ensure safety within a liberal democracy with the currently available technology is to improve the moral psychology of the citizens. They argue that we should research possibilities for doing so biomedically, since they are unimpressed with the track record of conventional education.

In this blog post, I won’t say much about the technological feasibility of moral enhancement, the probability of global catastrophe, or about the ethical problems concerning mass enhancement, such as whether people can be obligated to undergo enhancements. My focus will be on the concept of moral enhancement as used by Persson and Savulescu: what do we need if we need moral enhancement? What changes in human abilities are they advocating, and how are these changes moral enhancements?

Continue reading What do we need if we need moral enhancement?


Ethics and Neuroscience of Self-Control in 2016

Next spring, I’ll be co-coordinating “Improving Ourselves as Moral Agents”: Ethics and Neuroscience of Self-Control cluster group, hosted by the Philosophy unit at the University of Turku and made possible by a prize from the Philosophy and Science of Self-Control research project. The cluster group is comprised of a reading group and a series of three interdisciplinary workshops.

Check out turkuselfcontrol.wordpress.com for more details on how to participate and the CFP for our first workshop!

Enhancing Understanding of… Moral Enhancement

This post is first in a series of posts about the concept of moral enhancement.

Last week was Enhancing Understanding of Enhancement, a conference jointly organized by CSB and Hastings Center. The two-day conference was packed with interesting papers. My paper, “How Are Enhancements Moral?”, set two criteria for a meaningful definition of moral enhancement, then arguing that moral reasoning enhancements as well as moral conformity enhancements have difficulty meeting both. Below, I’m expanding on the first part of my paper: how moral enhancement, “in the true sense of the word”, should be defined.

Problems in Defining Moral Enhancement
Moral enhancement is an ambiguous term that, broadly defined, refers to using enhancement technologies in order to improve the subsequent conduct or moral psychology of the enhanced. Moral enhancement is in need of conceptual clarification for a number of reasons: Continue reading Enhancing Understanding of… Moral Enhancement

Accounting for the Relationship of Autonomy and Ability

I gave a presentation, provocatively titled “Does Disability Decrease Autonomy?”, at the Justice and Political Psychology symposium (University of Turku, October 15th through 16th). My aim was to sketch out the kinds of abilities that individual-centered, rationality-based accounts of autonomy present as prerequisites for the capacity for autonomy, and then to problematise that taxonomy from the point of view of relational autonomy.

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Trans* Authenticities and Created Selves

This is the last of three posts on trans* issues in philosophy.

What makes us such special snowflakes? Is there an authentic essence within us, something inherent, to be discovered and expressed? Or are our personal identities self-created? This utmost mystery can be solved by appeal to trans*people!

I jest, of course, but the joke isn’t far from a wealth of discourse. Underlying it is the valid insight that people often perceive their gender identity to be one of the cornerstones of who they are. From this, some deduce that the question of whether trans*people, before and after transitioning, are the same person, can shed light on questions of identity. Since we change in so many ways, what aspects of us persist to such degree as to serve as grounds for the continuity of self?

Central to this sort of inquiry into identity is an effort to deduce whether gender is one of the things that allow us at 5 years old to be identified with us at 35: since we change in so many ways throughout life, what aspects of us determine identity – i.e., persist to such degree as to serve as grounds for the continuity of self? This is where discerning between numerical identity and narrative identity, as described by David DeGrazia in Enhancement Technologies and Human Identity (2005), is helpful. Put briefly, numerical identity is the concern of whether an object is still the same object after certain changes: is the oak the same entity as the acorn it grew from? However, most of the time when we talk about our identity, we talk about narrative identity: in other words, our self-conception. Core values, relationship, autobiography, that sort of thing.

In figuring out whether gender is one of those, we apparently need to solve whether transgender people actually change genders or whether they are “born that way”. If the latter, then the existence of transgender people does not exclude gender from the set of central numeric identity-determining traits.

Now, this is by no means a trivial course of inquiry. Especially since a growing consensus defines gender to be at least partly socially constructed, should gender nevertheless remain at the core of personal identity in the sense that it would determine numerical identity, this could mean that our numerical identities are, to an important degree, socially determined. That would be an interesting finding. However, what we’re normally getting at by placing gender at the core of personal identity is the notion that there are some core traits to narrative identity, changing which would result in inauthenticity. A number of controversies spring to mind, such as the infamous Dolezal debate and the transability phenomenon, boiling down to the same question: are there traits that we are not permitted to endeavour to change without sacrificing our authenticity?

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Self-Control: Only All Good for the Privileged

Whether it’s getting an education, improving your dietary habits, getting some exercise or going for improved efficiency, altering your life begins and ends with self-control. But for some, this comes at a steep price.

For life hackers, it’s about making the changes as efficient as possible: reaping maximum benefits for minimum efforts. For members of the quantified self movement, it’s about monitoring yourself in order to create a scheme of self-improvement tailored to your body and your needs. For the average reader of the self-help article in a magazine, it might just be about quitting smoking or getting the laundry done.

Self-help gurus agree that the best way to change one’s life is the one that doesn’t require more self-control than necessary. Indeed, many have grown to view self-control as a finite resource, and the phenomenon of “running out of it” has a term of its own: ego depletion. For this reason, habit formation is encouraged: once you’re accustomed to a certain way of acting, you no longer need to push yourself to do it. It gets easy. One caveat though – for that habit to be formed, it’s that much more important that self-control is maintained during the first three(ish) weeks that it takes to instil a new habit.

But while most address self-control as an internal property of people – one that can be learned and cultivated, but a property of the person, nonetheless – there’s a factor to it that is often overlooked: money.

Continue reading Self-Control: Only All Good for the Privileged

To Prove a Point: Trans* Narratives in Philosophical Writing, part II – a How-To!

The first part of this post can be found here.

Here are a few pointers as to how to use trans* examples in philosophy. They draw from Jacob Hale’s Suggested Rules from the 90’s, which remain relevant despite the dated terminology.

Seven Tips for Proving a Point with a Little Help from Trans*people
(without our heads getting bruised from all the headdesking)

Continue reading To Prove a Point: Trans* Narratives in Philosophical Writing, part II – a How-To!