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are not that desirable since they may further increase the gap between our ability to cause great harm and our outdated moral psychology.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

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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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!

To Prove a Point: Trans* Narratives in Philosophical Writing, part I

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

The second part of this post is here.

I recently gave a short introduction to moral bioenhancement at a multidisciplinary Philosophy of Technology reading group. The conversation soon shifted to definitions of enhancement as a whole. When I was explaining how the welfarist account of enhancement avoids the problems in defining disease involved in distinguishing enhancement from the treatment of disease, I got to witness the following contributions to the discussion:
Sociologist: Like those sex changers! They go through the sex change and then their well-being improves.
Engineer: And if their well-being doesn’t improve, they change again. That has happened in Sweden!

As I facepalm in dismay and say something about moving back to the topic of enhancement, the sociologist rushes to stress that this really is relevant for the discussion at hand: what is the purpose of healthcare – should it treat disease or, more broadly, improve well-being? I agree. It is relevant. But there were things that disturbed me.

First, it was apparent that my co-conversants were not aware there was a transgender person in the room, or that they were talking to him. This was not even a possibility. Transgender people were something “out there in the world”, discussed as a curious phenomenon. While I read the sociologist as trying to expand the argument at hand to defend wide accessibility of medical interventions for trans* individuals (and the engineer as discrediting trans*identities as passing phenomena best suited to be the butts of his jokes), “the sex changers” were clearly something other, foreign, peculiar. To be accepted, sure, by any liberal standards; but also, only relevant to those present insofar as they proved a point.

Second, while their wording of choice was not in itself a huge problem – should merely terminology be off, it can simply be corrected – it was a telltale sign of something else, namely that neither had actually familiarised themselves with the phenomenon they were discussing. Nevertheless, they were purporting to claim it as evidence for their views. A marginalised group was used as a narrative to lend evidence to a debate among the privileged social majority – without the privileged having bothered to even google it.

Third, as the binary, mythic verbalisation of transitioning as “the sex change” (that can even be redone!) as if there was a single medical intervention that somehow magically turned the binary on/off switch of gender to the other end of the spectrum, resulting in a change from maleness to femaleness or vice versa, gave away – they were discussing a phenomenon that did not exist (other than in their tabloid-fueled imaginations).

While this was a single case, in the context of informal discussion, it was not an isolated incident. The three problems I outline above are ones that are often present in public discussion about trans* issues, and they also appear in academic debates:

Continue reading To Prove a Point: Trans* Narratives in Philosophical Writing, part I

Trans* and Queer Bioethics

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

I was excited to read Annika Thiem’s piece on Queering Philosophy in The Philosopher’s Eye. Thiem raises questions about the relationship of philosophy and queer theory: what kind of a place does queer theory have within philosophy, and how can it inform and improve philosophy as a whole?

During my BA studies in Comparative Literature, queer theory (and feminist theory in general) was one of the best recognized approaches to the study of literature, which draws heavily from continental philosophy as a whole. By contrast, as I jumped over to another faculty and to the Department of Philosophy, firmly grounded on the analytic school, feminist perspectives were marginal at best. I have since reflected on how the differences in methodology and discourse could be bridged, in order to pursue analytic philosophy in a manner that is mindful of the work done in the context of gender studies. Plenty of this work is relevant to issues in analytic philosophy – and not just in questions pertaining to applied ethics, although this appears to be among the most obvious applications. Relatedly, a recent special issue of the The Hastings Center Report was themed around LGBT* Issues in Bioethics. This is an important field of inquiry given that, firstly, problematic assumptions abound as to to what extent medical sciences are relevant to understanding gender and sexuality; and more urgently, there are widespread deficiencies in trans* health care, just to name two.

Thiem suggests that a starting point for applying a queer theoretical understanding to philosophy needs to be “to reject the rhetorical gesture that renders queerness as something that “is studied only out of personal interest” or something studied “objectively” from a distance”. This rejection of false “objectivity”, of course, is relevant to any topic in applied philosophy: it would be sloppy thinking to treat being a member of any group, whether minority or majority, as disqualifying one from pursuing philosophical inquiry on topics pertinent to that group. This appears evident on some topics: after all, medical ethics ought to be researched by medical doctors and researchers without medical training alike. However, the topics of gender and sexuality are under such polarized discussion that attitudes conflating persons with their arguments (as well as with straw men) abound. A recent article on The Guardian springs to mind, in which Matt Haig, a male feminist writer, upon sharing his intention to write a book about masculinity, received Twitter criticism accusing him of “mansplaining feminism”.

Continue reading Trans* and Queer Bioethics

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