moral enhancement

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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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

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

Emergence’s devil haunts the moral enhancer’s kingdom come

It is 2025. Society has increasingly realised the importance of breaking evolution’s chains and enhancing the human condition. Large grants are awarded for building sci-fi-like laboratories to search for and create the ultimate moral enhancer. After just a few years, humanity believes it has made one of its most major breakthroughs: a pill which will rid our morality of all its faults. Without any side-effects, it vastly increases our ability to cooperate and to think rationally on moral issues, while also enhancing our empathy and our compassion for the whole of humanity. By shifting individuals’ socio-value orientation towards cooperation, this pill will allow us to build safe, efficient and peaceful societies. It will cast a pro-social paradise on earth, the moral enhancer kingdom come.

I believe we better think twice before endeavouring ourselves into this pro-social paradise on the cheap. Not because we will lose “the X factor”, not because it will violate autonomy, and not because such a drug would cause us to exit our own species. Even if all those objections are refuted, even if the drug has no side-effects, even if each and every human being, by miracle, willingly takes the drug without any coercion whatsoever, even then, I contend we could still have trouble.

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How to Stop the Medical Killing Spree

According to a recent study, around 350 patients die in Australian hospitals every two weeks. The figure would be expected to be much higher in the UK.

Prof Jeff Richardson, from Monash University, appropriately said, “The issue of adverse events in the Australian health system should dominate all others. However, it would be closer to the truth to describe it as Australia’s best kept secret.”

I have a personal interest in this issue. My father died as a result of a “preventable hospital error.” He was having a routine imaging procedure of his liver and bile ducts and a major artery was hit. The bleeding was not recognised til too late and he bled to death. (The autopsy report claimed he died of a heart attack! The heart eventuyally does stop when there is not enough blood.)

So what is the answer? Current debate is focussed on improving systems. Mandatory reporting of incidents, immunity from prosecution for those who report, etc.

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