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are not that desirable since they may further increase the gap between our ability to cause great harm and our outdated moral psychology.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

Persson & Savulescu define moral enhancement in terms of moral motivation. Moral motivation, they say, is what characterizes the “garden variety virtuous person”: people who couldn’t think of harming anyone, and who characteristically like to help others out. Were all of humanity sufficiently morally motivated, they say, we could avoid the ultimate harm that even a single malicious individual might cause. To put this in comic-book terms, Persson & Savulescu are afraid of the supervillain who, having gained access to some extremely harmful advanced technology such as a mutated virus or a nuclear weapon, might destroy our very way of life.

At first sight, the pairing of motivation, which can only cause behaviour in terms of probability (one can be very motivated to act morally, yet fail to act accordingly for some reason or another), with Persson & Savulescu’s consequentialist approach appears uneasy: why adjust character traits if all we care about is the outcome? However, Persson & Savulescu argue that ultimate harm could not be prevented via policy in a liberal society. Since they believe civil liberties ought not to be constrained to the degree that preventing such an event would require, they argue that we ought to at least look into whether we could make it the case that we all want to act in a morally desirable way.

Going back to the criteria for defining moral enhancement I outlined in a previous post – distinguishing moral enhancements from other enhancements, defining moral enhancement on terms of what it means for an individual to become “more moral”, and, optionally, distinguishing moral enhancement from treatment of pathological moral shortcomings* – the kind of moral enhancement endorsed by Persson and Savulescu raises some questions.

How do Persson and Savulescu distinguish moral enhancements from other kinds of enhancements? Moral motivation enhancement, as they account for it, does not include motivating information; rather, they are unhappy with the way people, despite knowing better, lack motivation to act in accordance with what they know. Rather, moral enhancement, as accounted for by Persson and Savulescu, has to do with improving our altruism and sense of justice, and properly attuning our moral emotions: “Supposing that the dispositions of altruism and justice, whose elementary form is tit-for-tat, constitute the centrepiece of our morality, moral enhancement will consist in strengthening our altruism and making us just or fair, i.e. properly grateful, angry, forgiving, etc.” Persson and Savulescu’s account of moral enhancement as the modulation of emotions associated with moral behaviour is clear, and while there’s always a gray area (how, for example, does mood enhancement relate to this?), this group of enhancements  is sufficiently distinguished from other enhancements.


I, however, doubt there is anything specifically “moral” that is enhanced in the kind of moral enhancement. There are a number of reasons for having that doubt. One that has been under much debate is whether the kind of moral enhancement defended by Persson and Savulescu undermines our moral agency: if it deterministically causes us to act a certain way, that action is not, in an important sense, moral. Many ethicians would hold that if an agent could not have done otherwise, she is not more moral for having done what she did. There is no moral praise in necessity. However, as Persson & Savulescu argue, we do not typically hold “the garden variety virtuous person” to be any less free, and they do not argue that we be made into some kind of automata; rather, they hold that we should see if we could make that “garden variety” moral character ubiquitous.

Secondly, we can wonder whether there is anything specifically moral about the kind of behaviour brought about by the modulation of certain emotions. Can actions that are the result of  biological factors be moral in a significant sense? Is the lioness moral for feeding her cubs (or immoral if she fails to do so and goes off on her own)? Of course, it could be argued that if not, we would be hard pressed to find true moral agency, given that our capacity for moral reflection and action is itself the result of biological processes, often geared towards the survival of the individual and its offspring. But that is precisely why, in looking for examples of true moral agency, we typically look for such actions that compromise these underlying biological rationale, such as cases of self-sacrifice, often in order to show that morality does not conflate with mere prudence. But for Savulescu and Persson, it might as well: after all, the goal of moral enhancement, for them, is not some race of saintly creatures, but simply a safe liberal society where citizens can enjoy a reasonable degree of well-being.

Thirdly, one might worry that moral disposition might not succeed in ruling out causing great harm: it might even spur it. It’s commonplace for people to do disservice to each other with the best intentions. Taken into the grand scale Persson and Savulescu are worried about, what if the “supervillain” – the individual who’s gained access to technology that can cause immense harm, and is planning to use it – has the best intentions in mind? Perhaps she’s releasing a lethal mutant virus to kill all of humankind in order to help the nonhuman animals on this planet thrive. Perhaps, like the Unabomber and countless other revolutionaries, she believes her action is necessary in order to bring about a better world, or else, an act of justice that would not otherwise be meted out. One might respond that in a morally enhanced society, justice would be meted, animals would be treated with respect, and a better world would already be there: the motivating states of affairs would not be present. But even if the world really was in such a good state, consider the agent who believes otherwise.

Persson and Savulescu are well aware that moral enhancement would not suffice to wholly wipe out the chance of someone causing ultimate harm, although I read them as attributing this uncertainty more to the uncertainty of success in any medical procedure than to the case of the well-meaning villain. For this reason, they recommend increased citizen surveillance. Now, surveillance, if it can be carried out thoroughly enough, might work to help stop people from causing ultimate harm, whatever the cause. But if surveillance that thorough would be required for the ultimate goal of a safe, liberal society (insofar as big brother can be a part of the liberal society in the first place), what, then, is the role of moral enhancement in creating that outcome?

If ultimate harm is, in the end, prevented by means of surveillance, wouldn’t the benefit in moral enhancement be more about creating certain kinds of interactions, motivated by altruism and justice, among the citizenship? That may well be something worth defending, but it’s quite separate from the concern about ultimate harm. This underlines something that has been a central worry about the quest for moral enhancement – namely, that ultimate harm, while a legitimate concern in itself, is used more as a justificatory scare tactic, while the real rationale of a successful enhancement project of the kind envisioned by Persson and Savulescu has much less to do with liberalism and more to do with endorsing (or even enforcing) an ideal of citizenship and society that not all of us are comfortable with.

In summary, it appears that it is not a morality that needs to be enhanced; but rather, Persson and Savulescu think we urgently need a safe, liberal global community, and that this goal can best be achieved by modulating the motivating emotions of the individuals in order to create the kind of citizenship that is up to the task of realizing their utopia.

Central sources
Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu 2012. Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu 2008. “The Perils of Cognitive Enhancement and the Urgent Imperative to Enhance the Moral Character of Humanity.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 25(3): 162-177.
Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson 2012. “Moral Enhancement, Freedom and the God Machine.” Monist 95(3): 399–421.


*The third, optional criterion – distinguishing moral enhancement from treatment – is unnecessary for Persson and Savulescu’s argument, since they do not argue there would be a normative difference between the two. Whatever relevant methods of modulation are available, we ought to seize the opportunity, regardless of whether our shortcomings are due to pathology or not.


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Doing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Turku. My interests lie at the intersections of ability, agency, and ethics: what kinds of agents ought we to be? Is there anything normative to be said about abilities? More specifically, I'm currently interested in autonomy and self-control, disability, and human enhancement.

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