Joao Fabiano

A Fundamental Problem with Moral Enhancement

by Joao Fabiano

Moral philosophers often prefer to conceive thought experiments, dilemmas and problem cases of single individuals who make one-shot decisions with well-defined short-term consequences. Morality is complex enough that such simplifications seem justifiable or even necessary for philosophical reflection.  If we are still far from consensus on which is the best moral theory or what makes actions right or wrong – or even if such aspects should be the central problem of moral philosophy – by considering simplified toy scenarios, then introducing group or long-term effects would make matters significantly worse. However, when it comes to actually changing human moral dispositions with the use of technology (i.e., moral enhancement), ignoring the essential fact that morality deals with group behaviour with long-ranging consequences can be extremely risky. Despite those risks, attempting to provide a full account of morality in order to conduct moral enhancement would be both simply impractical as well as arguably risky. We seem to be far away from such account, yet there are pressing current moral failings, such as the inability for proper large-scale cooperation, which makes the solution to present global catastrophic risks, such as global warming or nuclear war, next to impossible. Sitting back and waiting for a complete theory of morality might be riskier than attempting to fix our moral failing using incomplete theories. We must, nevertheless, proceed with caution and an awareness of such incompleteness. Here I will present several severe risks from moral enhancement that arise from focusing on improving individual dispositions while ignoring emergent societal effects and point to tentative solutions to those risks. I deem those emergent risks fundamental problems both because they lie at the foundation of the theoretical framework guiding moral enhancement – moral philosophy – and because they seem, at the time, inescapable; my proposed solution will aim at increasing awareness of such problems instead of directly solving them.

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“Cognitive Enhancement: Defending the Parity Principle”, St Cross Special Ethics Seminar by Neil Levy

Last Thursday Professor Neil Levy has defended his Parity Principle for analysing the ethics of cognitive enhancement at the St Cross Special Ethics Seminar. Such principle would oppose a common form of objection against enhancement which claims that there is a worrying asymmetry between enhancement and traditional means to human improvement. Conversely, Neil contends that the function is all that matters morally when comparing enhancement with traditional means and that comparing isofunctional modifications reveals that there are little unique problems with enhancement. The Parity Principle leads to a useful analysis of several proposed critiques of cognitive enhancement. Continue reading

Liberalism and inequality

by Joao Fabiano

Why inequality matters

Philosophers who argue that we should care about inequality often have some variation of a prioritarian view. For them, well-being matters more for those who are worse off, and we should prioritise improving their lives over the lives of others. Several others believe we should care about inequality because it is inherently bad that one person is worse off than another through no fault of her own – some add the requirement both persons should be equally deserving. Either way, few philosophers would argue that we should worsen the better off, or worsen the average, while keeping the worse off just as badly off, only to narrow the inequality gap. Hence, when it comes to economic inequality we should prefer to make the poor better off by making everyone richer instead of making everyone, on average or sum, poorer. Moreover, in most views it is reasonable to care more about inequality at the bottom and less about inequality at the top. We should prefer to reduce inequality by making the worse off richer instead of closing the gap between those who are already better off. I believe a closer inspection at how these equalitarian/prioritarian preferences translate into economic concerns can lead one to reject a few common assumptions.

It is often assumed that the liberal economic model, when compared to strong welfare models, is detrimental to human economic equality. Reducing poverty, equalitarianism and wealth redistribution are, after all, one of the chief principles of the welfare State. The widening of the gap between the top and the bottom is often cited as a concern in liberal States. I wish to argue that out of the various inequality statistics available, if we look at the ones that seem to be more relevant for equalitarian ethics, then strong welfare States fare worse than economically liberal States[1]. For that, I will focus on a comparison between the US and European welfare States’ levels of inequality. Continue reading

Less cooperation, please

Written by Joao Fabiano

Since the idea of enhancing human morality was proposed – and perhaps long before then – there has been a great deal of scientific research directly or indirectly inspired by the goal of improving human moral dispositions. Manipulations which result in increased levels of cooperation, prosociality or altruism are often seen as promising discoveries towards the path of developing moral enhancement technologies. The fact that increasing cooperation between individuals would be going in the wrong direction seems to be ignored. The problem moral enhancement proposes to fix is large-scale cooperation – cooperation between groups of individuals – not between individuals inside a group. Issues like global warming and nuclear disarmament arise primarily in the interaction between large groups of individuals, not in the interaction of individuals within the same group.

In actuality, humans already cooperate well inside small groups. We have evolved many emotional and cognitive mechanisms which enable us to function quite satisfactorily in the context of small cooperative groups such as the ones more frequently prominent in pharmacological research. Many have proposed local economies as the ideal design for producing sustainable management of common resources[1]. There is not that much room for improvement there.

On the other hand, when it comes to interactions between groups of different religions, nationalities and morals we can fail spectacularly. What’s more, our ability to cooperate well inside groups seems to be directly correlated with our inability for cooperation between groups. Continue reading

Effort, psychological continuity, human enhancement and superintelligence

One argument against human enhancement is that it is cheating. Cheating others and oneself. One may be cheating oneself for various reasons; because one took the easy path instead of actually acquiring a certain capacity, because once one enhances one is no longer oneself, because enhancements are superficial among others. I would like to try to develop further the intuition that “it is not the same person any more”. I will concentrate in forms of enhancement that involve less effort, are considered easier, or faster than conventional means because the cheating argument seems directed at them. In fact, most forms of non-conventional technological enhancements being proposed seem to be easier routes towards self-improvement. I will also explore how my considerations might mean trouble for any type of disruptive technology besides radical human enhancement, such as superintelligence or whole-brain emulation. Continue reading

What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There: Failure Modes on the Way to Global Cooperation

By Joao Fabiano and Diego Caleiro (UC Berkeley, Biological Anthropology)

From single-celled to pluricellular to multicellular organisms or from hunter-gatherers to the EU, the history NASA Flickrof evolutionary forces that resulted in human society is a history where cooperation has emerged at increasingly large scales. The major life transitions and, once human, the major cultural transitions have rearranged the fitness landscape of evolving entities in ways that increased the size of the largest existing coalitions. Notwithstanding, it seems that freewheeling evolution will not lead to satisfactory levels of global human cooperation in time to prevent severe risks. Nor it will lead to the preservation of human values in the long run; humans, human values, and human cooperation are in no way the end-point of evolutionary processes. Continue reading

Global surveillance is not about privacy

putin-merkel-obama-caricatureIt has now been almost two years since Snowden. It’s time for us to admit this has little to do with privacy. Global surveillance is not global only because it targets people all over the world. Global surveillance is done for and against global interests. Privacy, by contrast, is an individual right. It’s simply the wrong description level. This is not about your internet history or private phone calls, even if the media and Snowden wish it were.

Privacy is rarely seen as a fundamental right. Privacy is relevant insofar as it enables control, harming freedom, or insofar as it causes the violation of a fundamental right. But the capabilities of intelligence agencies to carry out surveillance over their own citizens are far lower than their capability to monitor foreigners. Any control this monitoring might entail will never be at the individual level; governments can’t exert direct control over individual citizens of foreign countries.


Framing this as an issue of individual privacy is a strategic move done against the interests of individuals. Continue reading

How people are wrong about cognitive enhancement and how to fix it

During my master’s research on human enhancement I did a lot of talks about cognitive enhancement to the general public. Back then I compiled a list of recurring biases I noticed during the subsequent discussions, as well as some tentative techniques to solve them. The paper “Cognitive biases can affect moral intuitions about cognitive enhancement” already explores the possible effects of some of the biases on my list: status quo bias, loss aversion, risk aversion and omission bias; besides those four, the ones that I more often came across were:

Zero risk bias
This was by far the most glaringly recurring one. It might be a mixture of status quo bias and risk aversion, but I don’t know the name of any bias in the cognitive bias literature which specifically matches it. So this might be one likely to be overlooked.wrong and dangerous
People would compare cognitive enhancer’s risks with absence of risks. If it had a risk greater than zero, they would mentally classify it as risky. However, this overlooks two things. Firstly, not taking a cognitive enhancement also has several risks. Sandberg, A., & Savulescu, J. (2011) notice how many deaths, accidents, injuries and so on are caused by decisions of cognitive deprived individuals. Secondly, most people committing this bias were already on a cognitive enhancer, which was known to be pretty risky, namely, caffeine. Continue reading

The hypocritical path of human enhancement

Performance-enhancing drugs use is widespread throughout many competitive sports and attracts a considerable amount of university students. Around 1% of the United States population has misused anabolic steroids alone. Nonetheless, most amateur and professional athletes will deny their use. Scientific research on the area has halted and several claims about their effects have no scientific basis. Most means of obtaining such drugs are not trustworthy and many people might be putting their health at risk. While it seems there would be known safer (and riskier) protocols for taking them, given that no one can publicly endorse their use most users will only guess at what’s the best protocol. It is plausibly the case many sports would simply not exist at the present level if not due to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Take bodybuilding before and after the development of modern anabolic steroids. Interestingly, even that last athlete will deny, and actually condemn, using steroids. Simply put, this area is dominated by hypocrisy and misinformation. I fear the exact same thing is happening with cognitive enhancement.

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Cognitive enhancement, legalising opium, and cognitive biases

Suppose you want to enhance your cognition. A scientist hands you two drugs. Drug X has at least 19 controlled studies on the healthy individual showing it is effective, and while a handful of studies report a slight increase in blood pressure, another dozen conclude it is safe and non-addictive. Drug Y is also effective, but it increases mortality, has addiction potential and withdrawal symptoms. Which one do you choose? Great. Before you reach out for Drug X, the scientist warns you, “I should add, however, that Drug Y has been used by certain primitive communities for centuries, while Drug X has not.” Which one do you choose? Should this information have any bearing on your choice? I don’t think so. You probably conclude that primitive societies do all sort of crazy things and you would be better off with actual, double-blind, controlled studies.

Now what if I told you that, regardless of your interest in cognitive enhancers, you have been choosing Drug Y over and over, day after day, for several years? Continue reading


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