Turn On, Tune In, Recycle

Anyone familiar with environmentalist literature of the past decades will immediately recognize the form of Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu’s argument in Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement. The structure of such books, going at least as far back as Rachel Carson, goes like this:

We face the following existential threats to life on earth . . . (extended discussion).

After this comes a tour of the ways in which current modes of thinking and/or current institutions are inadequate to address those threats, if not outright contributing causes.

The conclusion: we therefore need some radical revision of our present normal ways of doing things that the author is happy to supply.

In the case of Persson and Savulescu, the existential threats are global climate change, environmental degradation, and weapons of mass destruction. Our “common sense morality,” bequeathed us from our evolutionary history, and our liberal democratic institutions, are inadequate to dealing with these threats, if not contributory causes. And the radical solution to the problem we need to consider is what they call “moral enhancement,” meaning in particular (but not exclusively) “biomedical means of moral enhancement”—that is, using drugs or genetic engineering to help us make better moral decisions.

I say radical, but in their Introduction, our authors imply that what they present is by no means radical. They are merely getting biomedical moral enhancement “on the agenda” rather than providing “any definitive and detailed solution to the mega-problems we discuss.” Biomedical moral enhancements, they admit, may or may not be “more effective than traditional means of moral enhancement, or than various kinds of social reforms,” but the former are worth looking at because “many people reject them out of hand for untenable reasons.” Their main point, they say, is that “liberal democracies are in need of moral enhancement to deal safely with the overwhelming power of modern technology.”

That power is the main problem standing in the way of using “common sense morality” to head off “Ultimate Harm” to the planet (capital letters in the original). As a product of our evolutionary development, our common sense is no match for technological power exercised on a global scale with potentially devastating consequences.

Common sense (or “folk morality”) is a curious thing as our authors present it. They reconstruct it more on the basis of psychological research than the anthropological or historical studies one might expect would be used to support an argument about evolution. It is premised on a Hobbesian picture of the harms that result from competition for scarce resources, and a Lockean picture of natural rights.

So it turns out that our evolutionary development has bequeathed us a very “modern” moral understanding, despite being informed by very non-modern conditions of small societies and highly limited powers over nature and other human beings. And despite the fact that the authors make clear that they hold no brief for the truth of this morality, they still think it best (perhaps following John Stuart Mill?) to make folk morality even more modern by shifting from a Lockean, rights-based presentation of it to a more utilitarian outlook of benefits and harms.

In any case, common-sense morality turns out to be focused on more or less immediate harms to people who are close to us. We need instead a moral perspective that takes seriously long-term harms, as well as harms to people who are very far from us in space and time. To put it another way, we require a more effective and empathic sense of global egalitarianism, one perhaps extending even beyond the human species. So long as rich liberal democracies are populated by people who cannot see beyond the short-term advantages of those closest to them, we will not accept the economic sacrifices that will be necessary to reduce First World consumption (and increase Third World consumption) in order to save the environment, nor will we accept the social sacrifices of privacy that are necessary in order to protect us from WMDs in the hands of rogue nations or terrorist groups (a point the authors do not develop with the thoroughness of their environmental discussions).

For Persson and Savulescu, then, moral enhancement means in part a great shift in the focus of our moral attention. While they do not discuss in any detail instances where such a shift has taken place in the past, we know that such things are possible (think of slavery). But by making folk morality our evolutionary heritage, they up the ante considerably. Since we are not “just” talking about transitory social norms, our authors seem to be suggesting that any such shift is likely to encounter very substantial psychic resistance. We are being asked to adhere to a morality that we are not “built” for.

So our authors are open to the possibility that we will have to be rebuilt. They give more than lip service to traditional forms of moral enhancement such as teaching and social pressures, and do so within a framework that stresses (accurately) how imperfect such techniques are.  Yet such imperfections cast doubt on the ability of traditional methods to ward off Ultimate Harm. At the same time, our authors reject any imputation that they are seeking to turn human beings into moral robots programmed in accordance with the requirements of a green surveillance state. They propose instead that they are simply interested in investigating how we might biologically “move the needle” such that all people can have the same motivation and will to do the right thing as those who, without enhancement, have the strongest motivation and will.

We could even be more free as a result of such enhancement were it to give us a greater ability to overcome the “urges” that so often make us do what we know is wrong. And in any case, if all of our moral “choices” are in fact not so much free as determined by material causes anyway, then biomedical moral enhancement would make us “more often, perhaps always, causally determined to do what we take to be good.”

With one eye on an audience of academic philosophers, Persson and Savulescu have written a book that is rigorously argued within the context of its assumptions. While at times it reverts to professional philosopher inside baseball, it is for the most part clear and engaging enough for the intelligent lay reader. I’m not sure they realize how much of a “genre” book they have written, which is to say how much their main points—for example, liberal democracy’s shortcomings in trying to deal with environmental destruction—are not novel.

This failure to be more self-conscious about their precursors could be significant. It is at least worth noting that, in terms of environmental damage and weapons of mass destruction, the world has been on the eve of destruction for well over 50 years now. Since we are still ticking along, contrary to the expectations of writers like Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, and Paul Ehrlich (to say nothing of the Union of Concerned Scientists), it might have been worthwhile for Persson and Savulescu to reflect on where apocalyptic arguments such as theirs are likely to go wrong, and how it is that liberal democracies have actually managed to introduce significant programs of environmental protection and remediation.

But I will not insist on the point, as it is possible that maybe this time things are different and Ultimate Harm is indeed just around the corner. And while the authors rely on Garrett Hardin—using his concept of “the tragedy of the commons” to suggest (much as he did) the inadequacies of liberal democracy—it is doubtless too much to expect Oxford academics to be overly familiar with American environmentalist authors.

Somewhat more troubling is their apparent ignorance (if citations are any indication) of the work of Hans Jonas, whose body of work, culminating in The Imperative of Responsibility (1979), presents a far more thoughtful and nuanced argument than theirs about the changes required in our ethical thinking by the fact of our unprecedented powers over nature. As Jonas is widely regarded (rightly or wrongly) as one of the Ur-thinkers of what has come to be called “the precautionary principle” (which they do discuss), and a seminal thinker for Green parties in Europe, this omission is just strange, the sort of thing one might have expected an editor or external reader to catch.

Still, granting their dire vision of the future, it indeed seems hard to see how moral enhancement in some sense of the term would not be necessary to meet the challenge. If we are doing the wrong things, we will have to be more willing and able to do the right things. Knowing the right things to do to address climate change and WMDs does not really seem to be the problem, as far as Persson and Savulescu are concerned. In their view, the redistributionist, consumption-reducing, and surveillance solutions are relatively obvious once we see the limits of folk morality. Yet the traditional modes of moral improvement, while undeniably powerful, are still slow and uncertain, and must be won again generation by generation. The authors seem more distressed than not about this truth of natality, and compare it unfavorably with the way in which science can consistently build on itself as time goes by.

Hence the attraction of solving the problem of the deficit of better motives once and for all with a pill, or a tweak to the genome. So the authors discuss how there already are drugs available that seem to influence moral choice in the right, broadly-speaking empathic, direction. That is designed to make plausible their recommended research program into “moving the needle” of moral choice. They describe the goal at one point as creating men who will behave more like women in their regard for others.

But they do not share with us any thoughts they might have about getting the drug(s) that such research might uncover into the general population on the scale necessary to produce the right results within otherwise normal, majoritarian liberal democratic decision-making. What would be needed, presumably, would be either a global program of biomedical intervention, or even one reserved for the wealthy societies from which they believe the greatest sacrifices will have to come. Our authors, although impressed by the capacity of authoritarian regimes to get things done, remain more or less true to (their understanding of) liberal democracy. Hence, they write,

morally enhancing the majority of people in modern democracies is certainly a huge task . . . since the discovery of effective techniques of moral bioenhancement still lies far ahead, it is difficult to envision what form a large-scale application of them should assume.

Given that the book is premised on the urgent necessity of avoiding the, with capital letters, Ultimate Harm, one should be permitted to doubt that something that “lies far ahead” could actually make a difference. Is the book after all a philosopher’s exercise in the exposure of “untenable reasons” more than anything else?

Perhaps this seemingly crucial omission seems less telling in the context of the intensive regulatory regime established by the European Union. But even in the United States, there are arguable precedents that might have been discussed in relation to any drug-based intervention that might come about as a result of the research they recommend. One thinks of fluoride in water supplies, iodine in salt, niacin in bread, requirements for vaccination. That some of these precedents have evoked controversy has not stopped them from being very broadly adopted, which would surely be good news for our authors.

Precedents for widespread genetic engineering are obviously harder to find, although the nearest analogs—that is, state-sponsored eugenics programs—are hardly encouraging. For the most part, our authors remain prudently silent about the genetic engineering component of the research program.

Of course, none of the public health precedents I have listed involved anything like the psychotropic drug about which they are hypothesizing. But perhaps they might be heartened by the recent research letter in Journal of the American Medical Association suggesting that already nearly 17 percent of American adults filled a prescription for a psychiatric drug in 2013, a large majority of whom were long-term users of such medication.

The cynical view that some significant number of these drugs are cures looking for diseases could give our authors hope that someday, with the proper drug available from big pharma, there would be widespread diagnosis of a condition called, say, Global Empathy Deficit Syndrome (GEDS). But even then, the drug use would be voluntary, the user able to make decisions about tolerating the seemingly inevitable side effects of drugs taken in a, we hope, carefully dose-controlled manner—none of which seems likely to be true for our imagined morally enhancing psychotropic additive.

Hence, while the authors acknowledge a bootstrapping problem, they don’t really do so in the most serious way. That is: even if we imagined an effective psychotropic with an absolute minimum of undesired side effects, and even if we imagined that it could be delivered in a way that neither overdosing nor under-dosing was a problem, we would still have to imagine morally unenhanced people accepting the ubiquitous introduction of this drug in order to save the world—morally unenhanced people, that is, whose genetic predispositions limited their ability to behave in the altruistic way necessary to save the world.

So while Persson and Savulescu acknowledge that any reform program will require traditional moral education, they do not really explain why those enlightened enough by traditional means to accept such moral bioenhancement in the first place would not be ready to make the very sacrifices that our authors believe moral bioenhancement would help them choose. It is as if people would say, “I cannot agree to reduce my standard of living but I can agree to be dosed with a chemical that will make it easier for me to agree to reduce my standard of living.” Unless you think that is a plausible scenario, you might end up wondering just who will make the decision to dose the public, and how transparent it will be.

This dilemma leads me to conclude by asking a question that I cannot shake off, ungenerous though it is. Namely, is biomedical moral enhancement really ultimately about saving the planet at all, given the bootstrapping problem, and given that it is a long-range solution for an urgent problem?

In an unusually unqualified and strong endorsement of biomedical moral enhancement’s use, as opposed to research into it, our authors bluntly point to a different context entirely. “It is our view that some children should be subjected to moral bioenhancement, just as they are now subjected to traditional moral education.” Who are the “some” children who need more than being “subjected” to traditional moral education? After discussing how all children are morally educated without their consent, and hence how an involuntary moral bioenhancement would be no novelty, Persson and Savulescu conclude:

It is quite unlikely that later in life the morally bioenhanced individuals will regret the fact that they have undergone this treatment, since otherwise they might have been criminals who would have been punished and condemned by society.

Note well: Terrorism holds the potential for Ultimate Harm, yet the word they chose here is “criminals.” In a time of al Qaeda and ISIS, why would two writers who otherwise worry about weapons of mass destruction be so enthused about involuntary bioenhancement of youthful potential criminals? Are they aware that they are singing the old, familiar eugenics song, identifying children somehow marked as having the potential for criminality as “unfit for the future”?