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are not that desirable since they may further increase the gap between our ability to cause great harm and our outdated moral psychology.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?

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