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are not that desirable since they may further increase the gap between our ability to cause great harm and our outdated moral psychology.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


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

Self-Enhancement, Well-Being, and Moral Worth

It’s been quiet in the blog – something’s been brewing… A master’s thesis, that is! Getting the thesis fresh out of the press feels great, but by no means do I feel done. There are so many new projects waiting, and I look forward to processing them here, as well.

But, just to commemorate this point in time, here’s the abstract for the thesis. The full text of the thesis can be downloaded from my academia.edu profile.

POLARIS KOI: Self-Enhancement, Well-Being, and Moral Worth
Master’s Thesis, 64 p.
Department of Philosophy, University of Turku
May 2015

This thesis is an approach to the topic of whether the trait improvements accomplished by human enhancement technologies are morally valuable as such. While the moral desirability of self-improvement appears intuitive to many, some object that technological self-enhancement does not hold equal moral worth to conventional self-improvement.

Many defenders of enhancement technologies associate their moral desirability with the well-being they are purported to improve. I will present one way of articulating how the moral worth of self-enhancement can be defended on the basis of the well-being it confers, which I term ‘the well-being thesis’. This argument defines enhancement interventions as promoting well-being and proposes that actions that increase well-being are right actions. Acts of undergoing self-enhancement are, therefore, right acts, and they also meet the other criteria for acts with moral worth.

I examine the premises of the well-being thesis and subject it to central criticism against the moral desirability of the use of enhancement technologies. This discussion draws heavily from recent debate concerning ‘moral enhancements’, a class of interventions intended to alter our moral psychology. The central arguments of this debate are expanded and applied across self-enhancements as a whole. One of my central sources is Thomas Douglas’ article “Enhancing Moral Conformity and Enhancing Moral Worth” (2014). In my analysis, the moral evaluation of self-enhancement problematizes notions of autonomy, authenticity, and the relationship of technology with the agent.

I conclude that even though the well-being thesis is relatively strong against the counterarguments based on effort, the autonomy and authenticity of the agent, hyperagency, and the role of deliberation in moral agency, its main liability appears to be its most fundamentally ethical premise that improving well-being would constitute a right-maker. This is a controversial claim; additionally, even when this premise is accepted, definitions of the concept of well-being can limit the scope of the well-being thesis.

Keywords: Bioethics, human enhancement, technology, transhumanism, well-being

Equally Smart, part II: Egalitarian Approaches for Embracing Enhanced Intelligence

This is the second part of a two-part piece on Rawls, Cohen and enhanced intelligence. In the first post, I outlined how enhanced intelligence and socioeconomical stratification are linked, and applied Rawls’ difference principle, and Cohen’s critique of it, on the issue at hand. This post introduces five enhancement distribution schemes that are compatible with the difference principle. Some of these schemes are even acceptable by Cohen’s egalitarian standards.

Egalitarian Approaches for Embracing Enhanced Intelligence

In the previous post, I discussed the question of whether enhancements only available to the elite can constitute an improvement in light of the difference principle. Perhaps intelligence enhancements, even if restricted to the wealthy, would benefit the whole society, for example if the enhanced would find ways to act in order to remove world hunger. On the other hand, could intelligence further alienate the elite from the masses, diminishing the empathy they feel for the underprivileged? I find both equally unlikely: there is no reason to assume that increased intelligence would increase empathy or sense of social duty, but neither is there any reason to assume it would diminish them.

In this post, I will offer five sketches for strategies of accepting intelligence enhancements while staying mindful of social inequalities. Some of them are stronger or more feasible than others, some require very specific circumstances; all of them are compatible with Rawls’ difference principle, and some even respond to Cohen’s concerns. I will start with schemes of adopting enhancements for a limited group of people for a number of reasons: first, any medical enhancement technique should be initially applied only to a limited number of subjects for obvious safety reasons. Secondly, should the enhancement be too costly to reach the whole population, or should it, for example, require a difficult surgery, its availability thereby being limited by the number of competent surgeons, widespread adoption of the enhancement could be beyond our means.

Meanwhile, should the enhancement be easy to administer, eventual universal availability is only a question of distribution. I will discuss widespread enhancement towards the end of this post.

Continue reading Equally Smart, part II: Egalitarian Approaches for Embracing Enhanced Intelligence

Equally Smart: Intelligence Enhancement, the Difference Principle and Egalitarianism, Part I

This is the first part of a two-part piece on Rawls, Cohen and enhanced intelligence. In this post, I will introduce the issue at hand: how are enhanced intelligence and socioeconomical stratification linked? What light do Rawls’ difference principle, and Cohen’s critique of it, shed on the issue? The second post will concern five enhancement distribution schemes, compatible with the difference principle.

Part 1: Smart Technology

Less traffic accidents. Increased GNP. Get rid of cognitive biases. Enjoy better art more profoundly. The alleged benefits of enhancing intelligence have allure, both in the lives of individuals and at a population level. But will intelligence enhancements remain a luxury, too costly for the masses to use? Would enhancement technologies inevitably inevitably lead to further stratification, or could their use improve the welfare of the worst off?

Continue reading Equally Smart: Intelligence Enhancement, the Difference Principle and Egalitarianism, Part I