Moral Enhancement

Mandatory Morality: When Should Moral Enhancement Be Mandatory?

By Julian Savulescu

Together with Tom Douglas and Ingmar Persson, I launched the field of moral bioenhancement. I have often been asked ‘When should moral bioenhancement be mandatory?’ I have often been told that it won’t be effective if it is not mandatory.

I have defended the possibility that it could be mandatory. In that paper with Ingmar Persson, I discussed the conditions under which mandatory moral bioenhancement that removed “the freedom to fall” might be justified: a grave threat to humanity (existential threat) with a very circumscribed limitation of freedom (namely the freedom to kill large numbers of innocent people), but with freedom retained in all other spheres. That is, large benefit for a small cost.

Elsewhere I have described this as an “easy rescue”, and have argued that some level of coercion can be used to enforce a duty of easy rescue in both individual and collective action problems.

The following algorithm captures these features, making explicit the relevant factors:

Algorithm for Moral Bioenhancement
[modified from JME 2020]

Note that this applies to all moral enhancement, not only moral bioenhancement. It applies to any intervention that exacts a cost on individuals for the benefit of others. That is, when can the autonomy or well-being of one is compromised for the autonomy or well-being of others. This algorithm creates a decision procedure to answer that question.

Indeed, this algorithm was developed to answer the question, in the COVID pandemic: when should vaccination be mandatory? 

But it applies to any social co-ordination problem when risks or harms must be imposed to achieve a social goal. Examples include public health meaures (e.g quarantine or vaccination), environmental policies (e.g. carbon taxes), taxation policies more generally, and others.

Can large harms (including, in extreme cases, death) ever be imposed on individuals to secure extremely large collective benefits (such as continued existence of humanity)? According to utilitarianism and many forms of consequentialism, it can be justified. But we need not answer this question to consider the moral justification for imposing small risks or harms for large collective benefits. We should all agree, whatever our religious or personal philosophical perspectives, that small risks or harms should be imposed for large social benefits (this is the second account below (absolute threshold)). After all, that is what justifies mandatory seat belt laws, speed limits and taxation. And it could justify mandatory moral enhancement, such as moral education, and moral bioenhancement, should that ever be possible, if the risks or harms were equivalent and the benefits as great.

Proportionality: Relative or Absolute?

One way to think about “easy rescue” is whether the proportionality of sacrifice to benefit should be relative or absolute? In a previous paper with Alberto Giubilini, Tom Douglas and Hannah Maslen, I discussed relative thresholds vs absolute thresholds. Peter Singer holds a relative threshold view which stipulate that large individual costs are justified when the benefits for others is proportionately larger. On a threshold account, there is un upper limit to the magnitude of the cost you can impose on individuals for the collective benefit, even if beyond that threshold the cost would be proportionate to the benefit. For example, on the relative account it would be permissible to impose death on an individual to save significantly more, because it is proportionate. Or extreme effective altruists might argue that you should give, say, 70% of your income to save people in a poverty-stricken country. On the absolute threshold account, the individual cost is not justified if it is above a certain threshold (so, for example, we could set the threshold much lower than the famous “kill one to save many” examples, even if it is relatively proportionate, because death is too large a cost for an individual).

Thanks to Alberto Giubilini for helpful comments

Neurointerventions, Disrespectful Messages, and the Right to be Listened to

Written by Gabriel De Marco

Neurointerventions can be roughly described as treatments or procedures that act directly on the physical properties of the brain in order to affect the subject’s psychological characteristics. The ethics of using neurointerventions can be quite complicated, and much of the discussion has revolved around the use of neurointerventions to improve the moral character of the subjects. Within this debate, there is a sub-debate concerning the use of enhancement techniques on criminal offenders. For instance, some jurisdictions make use of chemical castration, intended to reduce the subjects’ level of testosterone in order to reduce the likelihood of further sexual offenses. One particularly thorny question regards the use of neurointerventions on offenders without their consent. Here, I focus on just one version of one objection to the use of non-consensual neurocorrectives (NNs).

According to one style of objection, NNs are always impermissible because they express a disrespectful message. To be clear, the style objection I consider does not appeal to the potential consequences of expressing this message; rather, it relies on the claim that there is something intrinsic to the expression of such a message that gives us a reason (or reasons) for not performing an action that would express this message. For the use of non-consensual neurocorrectives, this reason (or set of reasons) is strong enough to make NNs impermissible. The particular version of this objection that I focus on claims that the disrespectful message is that the offender does not have a right to be listened to.

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Harnessing the Power of Moral Identity to Improve Morality

Written by Doug McConnell

Over the last 25 years there has been an explosion of psychological research investigating the influence of ‘moral identity’ on agency with a recent meta-analysis of 111 studies concluding that people’s moral identity has as much of an effect on agency is either their moral emotion or powers of moral reasoning (Hertz & Krettenauer, 2016). Although the mainstream view of moral psychology is that moral self-concept plays a significant role in moral agency, the practical ethical implications of this view remain underexplored. Here, I argue that one of those implications is that, in situations where we need to improve morality, such as decision-making in the boardroom, consumer behaviour, and reform of criminal offenders, we should do so (in part) by developing people’s moral identities. Indeed, in many cases, changes to moral identity have the potential to efficiently deliver relatively large moral improvements. Continue reading

Video Series: Tom Douglas Defends the Chemical Castration of Sex Offenders

The Minister of Justice in the UK wants to dramatically increase the use of chemical castration in sex offenders to reduce their risk of reoffending.Dr Tom Douglas (University of Oxford) argues that offering chemical castration to sex offenders might be a better option than current practices to prevent sex offenders from reoffending (e.g. incarceration), and responds to concerns about coercion and interfering in sex offenders’ mental states (e.g. by changing their desires).

Mindfulness and morality

Every day, for about thirty-five minutes, I sit cross-legged on a cushion with my eyes shut. I regulate my breath, titrating its speed against numbers in my head; I watch my breath surging and trickling in and out of my chest; I feel the air at the point of entry and exit; I export my mind to a point just beyond my nose and pour the breath into that point. When my mind wanders off, I tug it back.

The practice is systematic and arduous. In some ways it is complex: it involves 16 distinct stages. When I am tired, and the errant mind won’t come quietly back on track, I find it helpful to summarise the injunctions to myself as:

  • I am here
  • This is it

I alternate the emphases: ‘I am here’: ‘I am here’; ‘I am here’; ‘This is it’; ‘This is it’; ‘This is it.’

I note (although not usually, and not ideally, when I’m in the middle of the practice) that each of these connotations presumes something about the existence of an ‘I’. This is less obvious with the second proposition, but clearly there: ‘This’ is something that requires a subject. Continue reading

From Self-Interest to Morality: How Moral Progress Might Be Possible

One of the most stunning successes I have personally seen in my life is the emergence of the Effective Altruism movement. I remember when Will Crouch (now MacAskill) first presented 80 000 hours to our Graduate Discussion Group and Toby Ord was still a grad student. From their ideas a whole movement has emerged of brilliant young people galvanised into doing good. We are getting the brightest, best people of the current generation coming to Oxford to engage with the Centre for Effective Altruism. Almost every grad student I come across has some connection. Well done Will and Toby, and all those others who have contributed to establishing this movement

So I guess I should not have been surprised when during my visit to Harvard this week, a student contacted me from EA to give an ad hoc talk. I discovered there were cells all over the world and the movement had spread way beyond Oxford.

Anyway, I gave an impromptu talk and predictably there were many questions I could not answer satisfactorily. One the issues I covered was the need to create a new basic (or minimal) secular morality. This is necessary not only to decide what the goals of moral bioenhancement should be (my favourite current pet topic), but indeed how education should be revised and society ordered. Every society has a set of normative commitments. Ours are outdated, archaic and unfit for the challenges of a globalised, interconnected and technologically advanced world.

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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

The Ethics of Compulsory Chemical Castration: Is Non-Consensual Treatment Ever Permissible?

By Jonathan Pugh

Tory Grant, the justice minister for New South Wales (NSW) in Australia, has announced the establishment of a task force to investigate the potential for the increased use of anti-libidinal treatments (otherwise known as chemical castration) in the criminal justice system. Such treatments aim to reduce recidivism amongst sexual offenders by dramatically reducing the offender’s level of testosterone, essentially rendering them impotent. The treatment is reversible; its effects will stop when the treatment is ceased. Nonetheless, as I shall explain below, it has also been linked with a number of adverse side effects.

Currently, in New South Wales offenders can volunteer for this treatment, whilst courts in Victoria and Western Australia have the discretion to impose chemical castration as a condition of early release. However, Grant’s task force has been established to consider giving judges the power to impose compulsory chemical castration as a sentencing option. Notably though, New South Wales would not be the first jurisdiction to implement compulsory chemical castration in the criminal justice system. For instance, Florida and Poland also permit compulsory chemical castration of sex offenders.

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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

‘Competitive Altruism’ – Why attractive women are the most successful fundraisers

By Nadira Faber

Why do humans help others even when it is costly and nothing is to be expected in return? This question has not only developed into a classic in different empirical disciplines, but is also of high interest for fundraisers like charities who would like to know how to increase donations.

A study recently publish in Current Biology gives interesting real-life evidence for why people help that might sound like a paradox at first: ‘competitive altruism’.

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