By Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson
First published in Philosophy Now Issue 91, July/Aug 2012.
For the vast majority of our 150,000 years or so on the planet, we lived in small, close-knit groups, working hard with primitive tools to scratch sufficient food and shelter from the land. Sometimes we competed with other small groups for limited resources. Thanks to evolution, we are supremely well adapted to that world, not only physically, but psychologically, socially and through our moral dispositions.
But this is no longer the world in which we live. The rapid advances of science and technology have radically altered our circumstances over just a few centuries. The population has increased a thousand times since the agricultural revolution eight thousand years ago. Human societies consist of millions of people. Where our ancestors’ tools shaped the few acres on which they lived, the technologies we use today have effects across the world, and across time, with the hangovers of climate change and nuclear disaster stretching far into the future. The pace of scientific change is exponential. But has our moral psychology kept up?
With great power comes great responsibility. However, evolutionary pressures have not developed for us a psychology that enables us to cope with the moral problems our new power creates. Our political and economic systems only exacerbate this. Industrialisation and mechanisation have enabled us to exploit natural resources so efficiently that we have over-stressed two-thirds of the most important eco-systems.
A basic fact about the human condition is that it is easier for us to harm each other than to benefit each other. It is easier for us to kill than it is for us to save a life; easier to injure than to cure. Scientific developments have enhanced our capacity to benefit, but they have enhanced our ability to harm still further. As a result, our power to harm is overwhelming. We are capable of forever putting an end to all higher life on this planet. Our success in learning to manipulate the world around us has left us facing two major threats: climate change – along with the attendant problems caused by increasingly scarce natural resources – and war, using immensely powerful weapons. What is to be done to counter these threats?
Our Natural Moral Psychology
Our sense of morality developed around the imbalance between our capacities to harm and to benefit on the small scale, in groups the size of a small village or a nomadic tribe – no bigger than a hundred and fifty or so people. To take the most basic example, we naturally feel bad when we cause harm to others within our social groups. And commonsense morality links responsibility directly to causation: the more we feel we caused an outcome, the more we feel responsible for it. So causing a harm feels worse than neglecting to create a benefit. The set of rights that we have developed from this basic rule includes rights not to be harmed, but not rights to receive benefits. And we typically extend these rights only to our small group of family and close acquaintances. When we lived in small groups, these rights were sufficient to prevent us harming one another. But in the age of the global society and of weapons with global reach, they cannot protect us well enough.
There are three other aspects of our evolved psychology which have similarly emerged from the imbalance between the ease of harming and the difficulty of benefiting, and which likewise have been protective in the past, but leave us open now to unprecedented risk:
- Our vulnerability to harm has left us loss-averse, preferring to protect against losses than to seek benefits of a similar level.
- We naturally focus on the immediate future, and on our immediate circle of friends. We discount the distant future in making judgements, and can only empathise with a few individuals based on their proximity or similarity to us, rather than, say, on the basis of their situations. So our ability to cooperate, applying our notions of fairness and justice, is limited to our circle, a small circle of family and friends. Strangers, or out-group members, in contrast, are generally mistrusted, their tragedies downplayed, and their offences magnified.
- We feel responsible if we have individually caused a bad outcome, but less responsible if we are part of a large group causing the same outcome and our own actions can’t be singled out.
Case Study: Climate Change and the Tragedy of the Commons
There is a well-known cooperation or coordination problem called ‘the tragedy of the commons’. In its original terms, it asks whether a group of village herdsmen sharing common pasture can trust each other to the extent that it will be rational for each of them to reduce the grazing of their own cattle when necessary to prevent over-grazing. One herdsman alone cannot achieve the necessary saving if the others continue to over-exploit the resource. If they simply use up the resource he has saved, he has lost his own chance to graze but has gained no long term security, so it is not rational for him to self-sacrifice. It is rational for an individual to reduce his own herd’s grazing only if he can trust a sufficient number of other herdsmen to do the same. Consequently, if the herdsmen do not trust each other, most of them will fail to reduce their grazing, with the result that they will all starve.
The tragedy of the commons can serve as a simplified small-scale model of our current environmental problems, which are caused by billions of polluters, each of whom contributes some individually-undetectable amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Unfortunately, in such a model, the larger the number of participants the more inevitable the tragedy, since the larger the group, the less concern and trust the participants have for one another. Also, it is harder to detect free-riders in a larger group, and humans are prone to free ride, benefiting from the sacrifice of others while refusing to sacrifice themselves. Moreover, individual damage is likely to become imperceptible, preventing effective shaming mechanisms and reducing individual guilt.
Anthropogenic climate change and environmental destruction have additional complicating factors. Although there is a large body of scientific work showing that the human emission of greenhouse gases contributes to global climate change, it is still possible to entertain doubts about the exact scale of the effects we are causing – for example, whether our actions will make the global temperature increase by 2°C or whether it will go higher, even to 4°C – and how harmful such a climate change will be.
In addition, our bias towards the near future leaves us less able to adequately appreciate the graver effects of our actions, as they will occur in the more remote future. The damage we’re responsible for today will probably not begin to bite until the end of the present century. We will not benefit from even drastic action now, and nor will our children. Similarly, although the affluent countries are responsible for the greatest emissions, it is in general destitute countries in the South that will suffer most from their harmful effects (although Australia and the south-west of the United States will also have their fair share of droughts). Our limited and parochial altruism is not strong enough to provide a reason for us to give up our consumerist life-styles for the sake of our distant descendants, or our distant contemporaries in far-away places.
Given the psychological obstacles preventing us from voluntarily dealing with climate change, effective changes would need to be enforced by legislation. However, politicians in democracies are unlikely to propose such legislation. Effective measures will need to be tough, and so are unlikely to win a political leader a second term in office. Can voters be persuaded to sacrifice their own comfort and convenience to protect the interests of people who are not even born yet, or to protect species of animals they have never even heard of? Will democracy ever be able to free itself from powerful industrial interests? Democracy is likely to fail. Developed countries have the technology and wealth to deal with climate change, but we do not have the political will.
If we keep believing that responsibility is directly linked to causation, that we are more responsible for the results of our actions than the results of our omissions, and that if we share responsibility for an outcome with others our individual responsibility is lowered or removed, then we will not be able to solve modern problems like climate change, where each person’s actions contribute imperceptibly but inevitably. If we reject these beliefs, we will see that we in the rich, developed countries are more responsible for the misery occurring in destitute, developing countries than we are spontaneously inclined to think. But will our attitudes change?
Our moral shortcomings are preventing our political institutions from acting effectively. Enhancing our moral motivation would enable us to act better for distant people, future generations, and non-human animals. One method to achieve this enhancement is already practised in all societies: moral education. Al Gore, Friends of the Earth and Oxfam have already had success with campaigns vividly representing the problems our selfish actions are creating for others – others around the world and in the future. But there is another possibility emerging. Our knowledge of human biology – in particular of genetics and neurobiology – is beginning to enable us to directly affect the biological or physiological bases of human motivation, either through drugs, or through genetic selection or engineering, or by using external devices that affect the brain or the learning process. We could use these techniques to overcome the moral and psychological shortcomings that imperil the human species. We are at the early stages of such research, but there are few cogent philosophical or moral objections to the use of specifically biomedical moral enhancement – or moral bioenhancement. In fact, the risks we face are so serious that it is imperative we explore every possibility of developing moral bioenhancement technologies – not to replace traditional moral education, but to complement it. We simply can’t afford to miss opportunities. We have provided ourselves with the tools to end worthwhile life on Earth forever. Nuclear war, with the weapons already in existence today could achieve this alone. If we must possess such a formidable power, it should be entrusted only to those who are both morally enlightened and adequately informed.
Objection 1: Too Little, Too Late?
We already have the weapons, and we are already on the path to disastrous climate change, so perhaps there is not enough time for this enhancement to take place. Moral educators have existed within societies across the world for thousands of years – Buddha, Confucius and Socrates, to name only three – yet we still lack the basic ethical skills we need to ensure our own survival is not jeopardised. As for moral bioenhancement, it remains a field in its infancy.
We do not dispute this. The relevant research is in its inception, and there is no guarantee that it will deliver in time, or at all. Our claim is merely that the requisite moral enhancement is theoretically possible – in other words, that we are not biologically or genetically doomed to cause our own destruction – and that we should do what we can to achieve it.
Objection 2: The Bootstrapping Problem
We face an uncomfortable dilemma as we seek out and implement such enhancements: they will have to be developed and selected by the very people who are in need of them, and as with all science, moral bioenhancement technologies will be open to abuse, misuse or even a simple lack of funding or resources.
The risks of misapplying any powerful technology are serious. Good moral reasoning was often overruled in small communities with simple technology, but now failure of morality to guide us could have cataclysmic consequences. A turning point was reached at the middle of the last century with the invention of the atomic bomb. For the first time, continued technological progress was no longer clearly to the overall advantage of humanity. That is not to say we should therefore halt all scientific endeavour. It is possible for humankind to improve morally to the extent that we can use our new and overwhelming powers of action for the better. The very progress of science and technology increases this possibility by promising to supply new instruments of moral enhancement, which could be applied alongside traditional moral education.
Objection 3: Liberal Democracy – a Panacea?
In recent years we have put a lot of faith in the power of democracy. Some have even argued that democracy will bring an ‘end’ to history, in the sense that it will end social and political development by reaching its summit. Surely democratic decision-making, drawing on the best available scientific evidence, will enable government action to avoid the looming threats to our future, without any need for moral enhancement?
In fact, as things stand today, it seems more likely that democracy will bring history to an end in a different sense: through a failure to mitigate human-induced climate change and environmental degradation. This prospect is bad enough, but increasing scarcity of natural resources brings an increased risk of wars, which, with our weapons of mass destruction, makes complete destruction only too plausible.
Sometimes an appeal is made to the so-called ‘jury theorem’ to support the prospect of democracy reaching the right decisions: even if voters are on average only slightly more likely to get a choice right than wrong – suppose they are right 51% of the time – then, where there is a sufficiently large numbers of voters, a majority of the voters (ie, 51%) is almost certain to make the right choice.
However, if the evolutionary biases we have already mentioned – our parochial altruism and bias towards the near future – influence our attitudes to climatic and environmental policies, then there is good reason to believe that voters are more likely to get it wrong than right. The jury theorem then means it’s almost certain that a majority will opt for the wrong policies! Nor should we take it for granted that the right climatic and environmental policy will always appear in manifestoes. Powerful business interests and mass media control might block effective environmental policy in a market economy.
Modern technology provides us with many means to cause our downfall, and our natural moral psychology does not provide us with the means to prevent it. The moral enhancement of humankind is necessary for there to be a way out of this predicament. If we are to avoid catastrophe by misguided employment of our power, we need to be morally motivated to a higher degree (as well as adequately informed about relevant facts). A stronger focus on moral education could go some way to achieving this, but as already remarked, this method has had only modest success during the last couple of millennia. Our growing knowledge of biology, especially genetics and neurobiology, could deliver additional moral enhancement, such as drugs or genetic modifications, or devices to augment moral education.
The development and application of such techniques is risky – it is after all humans in their current morally-inept state who must apply them – but we think that our present situation is so desperate that this course of action must be investigated.
We have radically transformed our social and natural environments by technology, while our moral dispositions have remained virtually unchanged. We must now consider applying technology to our own nature, supporting our efforts to cope with the external environment that we have created.
Biomedical means of moral enhancement may turn out to be no more effective than traditional means of moral education or social reform, but they should not be rejected out of hand. Advances are already being made in this area. However, it is too early to predict how, or even if, any moral bioenhancement scheme will be achieved. Our ambition is not to launch a definitive and detailed solution to climate change or other mega-problems. Perhaps there is no realistic solution. Our ambition at this point is simply to put moral enhancement in general, and moral bioenhancement in particular, on the table. Last century we spent vast amounts of resources increasing our ability to cause great harm. It would be sad if, in this century, we reject opportunities to increase our capacity to create benefits, or at least to prevent such harm.
© Prof. Julian Savulescu and Prof. Ingmar Persson 2012
Julian Savulescu is a Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University and Ingmar Persson is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Gothenburg. This article is drawn from their book Unfit for the Future: The Urgent Need for Moral Enhancement (Oxford University Press, 2012).