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are not that desirable since they may further increase the gap between our ability to cause great harm and our outdated moral psychology.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

Plenty of ink has been spilled over the first lines of literary masterpieces. It appears every great novel has an equally epic opening line. I was inspired to check how some central works in contemporary analytic philosophy fare in the art of beginning.

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
“In this introductory chapter I sketch some of the main ideas of the theory of justice I wish to develop.”
Rawls is not even trying. I presume he has pareto optimal reasons not to.

Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
“Philosophers usually think of their discipline as one which discusses perennial, eternal problems–problems which arise as soon as one reflects.”
Generic, but promising.

Robert Nozick: Anarchy, State, and Utopia
“Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).”
Well, that’s an attempt. I’m not sure whether I should add or subtract points for using parentheses within the first full sentence of a text.

And the winner is…
Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons
“Like my cat, I often simply do what I want to do.”
Full points for this one. Cat mentioned within the first three words. That’s hard to beat.

What I Read In The Summer: Charles Taylor

Those summer days are over, but one can always reminisce. This is part of a series of posts on my summer reading. Just add ice cream.

The critics of modern individualism are many, and Charles Taylor is one of the more articulate ones. The Ethics of Authenticity (1992) is a slim yet powerful volume. Many of its core theses have been discussed in more bredth in Sources of Self (1989); The Ethics of Authenticity, however, remains lucid despite its more distilled form.

Taylor makes an effort to analyze, interpret and evaluate the modern search for authenticity. He supports the quest for personal authenticity while criticizing its individualist side. For Taylor, leading an authentic life is not a solo effort, but rather a form of engaging with the society.


What I Read in the Summer: Joseph Raz

Those summer days are over, but one can always reminisce. This is part of a series of posts on my summer reading. Just add ice cream.

A quick poll around my circle of friends reveals that the perfectionist philosopher Joseph Raz has none of the sex appeal Karen Barad (in my previous post) does. Maybe that’s because Raz makes no attempt to blow your mind with metaphysics or to connect their theory with groundbreaking science. As John Danaher has remarked in his blog, Raz’s writing is dull. At times it’s boring the point of despair. I can only be grateful I was reading his monograph, The Morality of Freedom, in the summer, sipping one home-made ice latte after another in an effort to stay awake. Which, I think, was well rewarded: Raz’s argument against state neutrality was one of the more interesting views I’ve come across lately.

What? Freedom without state neutrality? How is this plausible? Will this bearded old fellow be able to pull this off?

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What I Read in the Summer: Karen Barad

Those summer days are over, but one can always reminisce. I’ll be writing up a series of posts on my summer reading. Just add ice cream.

The new materialist theorist Karen Barad has a remarkable fandom among the gender studies majors in my circle of friends. It’s easy to remark why: coming from the background of hard science, she portrays both the unknown and the familiar types of learnedness to my queer buddies in the humanities. One described her as lucid, important, and among their principal influences in queer studies; another said they would not even try to understand everything and preferred to just dig it. Make of my friends’ statements what you will. Barad calls her philosophy ‘agential realism’; I read her monograph, Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007), in an effort to understand it, at least in part.

Barad’s philosophy is an ambitious one. She takes theorists and philosophers like Bohr, Foucault, Butler and Haraway, and basically alters their work only enough that she can stick an universal quantor in front of everything she deems worthwhile. This is because her theory is an attempt at capturing the universal, at finding a metaphysics that would explain both quantum mechanics and feminist struggle, among other phenomena.

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