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Too Clever for Our Own Good?: Moral Bioenhancement and Existential Harm

By Richard Gibson
18 Oct 2022
image of woman's profile in silhouette with sun behind clouds superimposed on her mind

Knowing things is good. How do you change a tire? What’s the right combination of time and temperature to cook a turkey? Why do we call the mitochondria the powerhouse of the cell? The answers to these questions make our lives easier, enabling us to overcome challenges. But these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Over time, we’ve not only grown to understand more things about ourselves and the universe around us, we’ve also continued to discover new questions in need of answers.

But with this increase in our collective understanding comes an increase in the risks we pose to ourselves, each other, and, in extreme cases, the Earth itself. This is because each scientific, medical, and technological breakthrough brings opportunities for benefits and harm. The acquisition of knowledge is an inherently ethical enterprise characterized by what is known as the dual-use dilemma. As defined by Seamus Miller and Michael J. Selgelid:

The so-called “dual-use dilemma” arises in the context of research in the biological and other sciences as a consequence of the fact that one and the same piece of scientific research sometimes has the potential to be used for harm as well as for good.

For example, virology research is good as it means we have a greater understanding of how viruses evolve and spread through a population, enabling the development of societal and medical countermeasures like social distancing and vaccinations. However, if put into the wrong hands, such knowledge can also be used by terrorists and hostile political powers to create devastating viral weaponry or misinformation campaigns. Ultimately, every intellectual step forward brings both the potential for good and ill.

But this potential for risk and benefit has not grown steadily over the centuries; some advances prove more beneficial and some more devastating than others. For example, the creation of the plough revolutionized how we, as a species, farmed, but the negative implications of such a technological advancement are, arguably, minimal or at least nondirect.

Today, however, highly destructive technologies seem increasingly common due to our collective intellectual capacity and interconnected world. As such, even small groups can threaten existential harm.

For example, through advancements in genetics, virology, synthetic biology, or multiple other scientific disciplines, a few persons can, in principle, develop an organism or technology with the power to catastrophically ravage the planet. Moreover, with each discovery opening the door for new avenues for inquiry, there is no reason to think that this availability of potentially dangerous knowledge will subside anytime soon.

This leaves us with a problem. Suppose we continue to develop our collective cognitive capacities, enabling the discovery of even more methods through which we can come to harm ourselves or others, either through deliberate action or accident.

In that case, do we also need to enhance our ability to reason ethically to keep pace with this possibility of harm?

Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu posed this question in their 2008 article, The Perils of Cognitive Enhancement and the Urgent Imperative to Enhance the Moral Character of Humanity. In it, they argue that moral bioenhancenment (MBE) – a biotechnological intervention aimed at enriching ethical decision-making and outcomes – should be developed and distributed to close the gap between humanity’s destructive capabilities and moral faculties. The idea is that our “natural” moral abilities are ill-equipped to deal with the complex and high-stakes world created by humanity’s mental prowess. They note, however, that those most needing a greater level of ethical understanding are those least likely to take such an intervention willingly; a nefarious actor planning to use a nuclear weapon to start an apocalyptic war isn’t exactly going to be first in line for a morality pill. So, according to Persson and Savulescu, MBE shouldn’t be optional – everyone should have to take it. As they write:

If safe moral enhancements are ever developed, there are strong reasons to believe that their use should be obligatory, like education or fluoride in the water, since those who should take them are least likely to be inclined to use them. That is, safe, effective moral enhancement would be compulsory.

According to them, this is the only way to ensure we can effectively mitigate the risk of existential harm. If left up to individual choice, some persons would inevitably choose not to become morally enhanced. This refusal would, in turn, leave the potential for cataclysmic risk unaffected, as even a tiny chance is too great to be left unaddressed. Much like playing Russian roulette, even the slightest probability is substantial enough to necessitate the rejection of the possibility altogether. To ensure we eliminate the risk of ultimate destruction, every person would need MBE.

Of course, this raises both principled and practical objections.

John Harris expresses concerns that, for MBE to be effective, it would have to prevent us from acting unethically. If it didn’t, it would be an effective countermeasure to the harms Persson and Savulescu envision. However, this would mean that the intervention directly prevents us from acting in a certain way and thus inhibits our free will. This possibility worries Harris as, without the ability to be unethical, the virtue of ethical actions ceases to exist – you’re not doing right if you have no choice. Vojin Rakić takes this worry even further, exporting it from the individual to the societal, arguing that MBE would deprive persons of their ability for collective morality and, ultimately, of a vital aspect of our humanity.

But, as I have argued, perhaps MBE need not be compulsory to be effective as we develop our behavioral attitudes from those around us.

If most people take MBE willingly, then there’s reason to believe that the unenhanced would act more morally as they would be surrounded by morally aspirational individuals and would be insulated from immorality’s temptation.

Additionally, there’s the political obstacle of simply getting every nation to agree to enact such a program. Given that we argue over seemingly unequivocable matters – like the need to tackle climate change – getting every world leader on board for such a program is practically impossible.

However, these objections don’t necessarily detract from Persson and Savulescu’s observation that our intellectual capacity has outpaced our moral capabilities. Instead, they highlight the difficulties in finding a suitable solution to the problem. Ultimately, if we all behaved more ethically, the world may not be in the precarious situation it is right now. The rise of fascism, the threat of global warming, the increase in conflicts, and the general breaking down of the established liberal world order may go some way in convincing skeptics that, while compulsory MBE may not be ideal, it’s preferable to the alternative of widespread, even global, destruction.

Richard B. Gibson received his PhD in Bioethics & Medical Jurisprudence from the University of Manchester. His research interests lie at the intersection of philosophy and biology, the philosophy of law, nihilism, and normative ethics. Richard’s currently working on a series of papers examining the social, legal, and ethical implications of cryopreservation.
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