This essay has been submitted for publication to the Journal of Posthuman Studies.
This essay is written in support of the ideas presented by Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson in their book Unfit for the Future: the Need for Moral Enhancement. I will argue that Savulescu and Persson’s arguments for moral bioenhancement should be given more serious consideration, on the grounds that moral bioenhancement will most likely be humanity’s best chance at ensuring its future ethical progress, since our current achievements in rapid ethical progress have been highly contingent on economic progress and an increasing quality of life. As a vehicle for for ethical progress, this is becoming increasingly untenable as the world enters a new period of resource scarcity brought about by the ravages of climate change. This essay will also respond to some of the claims against human genetic enhancement, and transhumanism in general, made by critic John Gray. Finally, the concluding remarks of this essay will examine a possible long-term drawback to moral bioenhancement which has not net been raised by Savulescu’s critics thus far – namely, that genetically altering future human beings to be less aggressive could unintentionally result in them becoming complacent to a point of lacking self-preservation.
Maslow and Malthus
Ethical philosophers in Steven Pinker’s camp may argue that the consideration of moral bioenhancement is absurd because moral education has apparently been sufficient enough to bring forth radical moral progress in terms of civil liberties in the 20th and 21st centuries. The 20th century heralded in never-before-seen progress in terms of the civil rights granted to women, ethnic minorities, LGBT+ people, and the working class. As Pinker points out, crime rates plummeted over the past 150 years, and so has the total number of wars being fought throughout the world. Savulescu admits that this is a valid point.
However, Savulescu’s main point of contention is that while the overall rates of violent crime have been drastically reduced, rapid advancements in technology have enabled rouge individuals to inflict more mass damage than at any other point in human history. While overall rates of interpersonal violence and warfare are decreasing, advancements in technology have exponentially increased the ability of individual actors to inflict harm on others to a greater extent than at any other point in human history. It takes just one lone Unabomber-type anarchist to genetically engineer a strain of smallpox virus in a backyard laboratory, to start a pandemic killing millions of innocent people, argues Savulescu. A statistic he constantly cites is that 1% of the overall human population are psychopaths. This means that there are approximately 77 million psychopaths alive today.
I would like to raise a further point in support of Savulescu’s argument. I would argue that the exceptional progress in ethics and civil rights that the developed world has witnessed in the last century has been the result of unprecedented levels of economic growth and vast improvements in the average quality of life. The life spans, health spans, and accessibility of food, medicine, and consumer goods seen in developed economies today would have been an unbelievable utopian dream as little as 250 years ago. One of X Prize Foundation chairman Peter Diamandis’s favorite quips is that our standard of living has increased so exponentially that the average lower-income American has a far higher quality of life than the wealthiest of robber barons did in the 19th century.
As Pinker himself points out, the first moral philosophies of the Axial Age arose when our ancestors finally became agriculturally productive enough to no longer worry about basic survival. Once they had roofs over their heads and sufficient grain stores, they could begin to wax lyrical about philosophy, the meaning of life, and the place of the individual in wider society. Arguably, the same correlation was strongly demonstrated in the post-World War II era in the developed economies of the world. Once the population’s basic needs are not just met, but they are also provided with access to higher education and a burgeoning variety of consumer goods, they’re much less likely to be in conflict with “out” groups over scarce resources. Similarly, incredible advancements in maternal healthcare and birth control played a major role in the socio-economic emancipation of women.
Our ethical progress being highly contingent on economic progress and quality of life should concern us for one major reason – climate change and the resource scarcity that follows it. The UN estimates that the world’s population will hit 9.8 billion by 2050. At the same time, food insecurity and water scarcity are going to become increasingly common. According to UNICEF, 1.3 million people in Madagascar are now at risk of malnutrition, due to food shortages caused by cyclones and droughts. There could as many as 25 million more children worldwide suffering from climate-change-caused malnutrition by the middle of this century. This is on top of the 149 million malnourished children below 5 years old, who are already suffering from stunted growth, as of 2019.
This is the worst-case scenario that climate-change doomsdayers and authors of fiction revolving around dystopian civilizational collapse keep on warning us of. There is a legitimate fear that a rapid dwindling of access to food, medical care, and clean water could lead currently progressive developed economies to descend back into pre-Enlightenment levels of barbarism. Looting and black markets for necessities could flourish, while riots break out over access to food and medical supplies. Ostensibly, worsening scarcity could encourage the proliferation of human trafficking, especially of females from desperate families. The idea is often dismissed as wildly speculative alarmist screed by a considerable number of middle-income city dwellers living in developed nations. Food shortages caused by climate change have mostly affected the sub-Saharan Africa and India, where they’re far out of sight and out of mind to most people in developed economies.
However, the World Bank estimates that 140 million people could become refugees by 2050, as a result of climate change. These populations will predominantly be from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, but it is likely that a significant percentage of them will seek asylum in Europe and America. And developed Western economies will only be spared from the worst effects of climate change for so long. North Carolina has already been afflicted by severe flooding caused by Hurricane Florence in 2018, just as it was affected by Hurricane Matthew which had struck two years earlier. Climate journalist David Wallace-Wells has gone so far as to claim that a four degree increase in global temperature by 2100 could result in resource scarcity so severe, that it will effectively double the number of wars we see in the world today.
Savulescu argues that the fact that we’ve already let climate change and global income inequality get this bad is itself proof that we’re naturally hardwired towards selfishness and short-term goals.
A Response to John Gray
As one of the most well-known critics of transhumanism, John Gray has said that it is naive to dream that humanity’s future will somehow be dramatically safer, more humane, and more rational than its past. Gray claims that humanity’s pursuit of moral progress will ultimately never see true fruition, because our proclivities towards irrationality and self-preservation will inevitably override our utopian goals in the long run. Gray cites the example of torture, which was formally banned in various treaties across Europe during the 20th century. However, this hasn’t stopped the US from torturing prisoners of war with all sorts of brutal methods, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Gray claims that this is proof that moral progress can be rolled back just as easily as it is made. Justin E. H. Smith makes similar arguments about the inherent, biologically-influenced cognitive limits of human rational thinking, although he does not explicitly criticise transhumanism itself. And Savulescu agrees with him. Throughout their argument, both Savulescu and Persson hammer home the assertion that humans have a much greater predilection towards violence than altruism.
But here Gray is making a major assumption – that future generations of human beings will continue to have the same genetically-predisposed psychology and cognitive capabilities as we currently do. Over millennia, we have been trying to adapt humanity to a task that evolution did not predispose us towards. We’ve effectively been trying to carry water from a well using a colander. We might try to stop the water from leaking out from the colander as best we can by cupping its sides and bottom with our bare palms, but Savulescu is proposing a radically different solution; that we should re-model the colander into a proper soup bowl.
It seems that Gray is overlooking some of his own circular reasoning which he uses to perpetuate his arguments against transhumanist principles and genetic enhancement. He argues that humanity will never truly be able to overcome our worst proclivities towards violence and selfishness. However, he simultaneously argues that endeavoring to enhance our cognitive capabilities and dispositions towards rationality and altruism are a lost cause that will be ultimately futile. Following Gray’s line of reasoning will effectively keep humanity stuck in a catch-22 situation where we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Gray is telling us that we need to resign ourselves to never being able to have a proper water-holding vessel while simultaneously discouraging us from considering the possibility of going to a workshop to weld the holes in our colander shut.
Windows of Opportunity
There is one final reason for which I will argue for greater urgency in considering Savulescu’s proposal seriously. Namely, we are currently have a very rare window of opportunity to execute it practically. If Gray is right about the likelihood that moral progress can be rolled back more easily than it is made, then he should acknowledge that we need to take full advantage of the current moral progress in developed economies, while we still have the chance to. Rapid advancements in CRISPR technologies and gene-editing are increasing the practical viability of moral bioenhancement without the consumption of neurotransmitters. Savulescu argues that we need to strike while the iron is hot; while the world economy is still relatively healthy and while STEM fields are still receiving billions in funding for research and development.
If nothing else, a rather intellectually sparse appeal to novelty can be made in defence of Savulescu’s proposal. Given that climate change could be the greatest existential risk humanity has ever faced in its whole history to date, we should begin considering more radical options to deal with its worst ravages. The limited faculties of rationality and altruism which nature has saddled us with have brought us millennia of warfare, genocide, radical inequality in resource distribution, and sexual violence. We keep on saying “never again” after every single cataclysmic man-made tragedy, but “again” still keeps on happening. Now is as good a time as ever to consider the possibility that humanity’s cognitive faculties are themselves fundamentally flawed, and inadequate to cope with the seemingly insurmountable challenges that lie ahead of us.
A Possible Future Negative Consequence of Moral Bioenhancement to be Considered
Multiple objections to Savulescu’s proposal have been raised by authors such as Alexander Thomas and Rebecca Bennett. I would like to raise another possible objection to moral bioenhancement, although I myself am a proponent of it. A possible unforeseen consequence of radically genetically reprogramming homo sapiens to be significantly less selfish and prone to aggression could be that this will simultaneously destroy our drive for self-improvement. One could argue that the only reason human beings have made it far enough to become the most technologically advanced and powerful species in our solar system was precisely because our drive for self-preservation and insatiable desire for an ever-increasing quality of life. You could claim that if we had just remained content to be hunter-gatherers, we would never have gotten to the level of civilization we’re at now. It’s more likely that we would have gone extinct on the savannah like our other hominid cousins, who were not homo sapiens.
Our inability to be satisfied with the naturally-determined status quo is the very reason the transhumanist movement itself exists. What happens, then, if we genetically re-dispose homo sapiens to become more selfless and less aggressive? Could this policy ironically backfire and create future generations of human beings who become complacent about technological progress and self-improvement? Furthermore, what happens if these future generations of morally bioenhanced human beings face new existential threats which require them to act urgently? What happens if they face an asteroid collision or a potential extraterrestrial invasion (although the latter seems to be far less likely)? We don’t want to end up genetically engineering future generations of human beings who are so devoid of self-preservation that they accept extinction as an outcome they should just peacefully resign themselves to. And if human beings become a space-faring species and end up making contact with a highly-advanced imperialist alien species bent on galaxy-wide colonization, our future generations will have to take up arms in self-defence.
This raises the question of whether it might be possible to simultaneously increase the human propensity towards altruism and non-violence towards other human beings, while still preserving the human predisposition towards ensuring our overall survival and well-being. If such a radical re-programming of humanity’s cognitive disposition is possible, it’s going to be a very delicate balancing act. This major shortcoming is one that proponents of moral bioenhancement have not yet formulated a plausible safety net for. Techno-utopian advocates claim that we could one day create a powerful artificial intelligence programme that will indefinitely protect humanity against unforeseen attacks from extraterrestrials or possible natural catastrophes. More serious discussion needs to be devoted to finding possible ways to make moral bioenhancement as realistically viable as possible.
The arguments put forth by Savulescu in Unfit for the Future should be reviewed with greater urgency and thoughtful consideration, and this essay has argued in favour of this appeal. We cannot take the great strides in civil rights made in the last 100 years, which have been heavily dependent on economic development and the growth of the capitalist world economy, for granted. As resource scarcity brought about by climate change looms on the near horizon, the very system which the 20th and 21st centuries’ great ethical progress has been contingent upon threatens to crumble. Gray is right in arguing that the human animal is fundamentally flawed and that repeated historical attempts at better models of moral systems have failed to truly reform humanity. And this is where Savulescu proposes a controversial answer to Gray’s resignation to humanity’s impending self-destruction. We must consider reforming the human animal itself. As the field of gene-editing and the development of impulse-controlling neurotransmitter drugs continue to show great promise, world governments and private institutions should begin to view these as viable options to creating a less short-sighted, less-aggressive, and more rational version of homo sapiens 2.0. There are only so many more global-scale man-made catastrophes that mankind can further inflict upon itself and the planet, before this radical proposal is finally undertaken as a last resort.
Sarah Lim is a fourth-year political science major at the National University of Singapore. She is a proud supporter of the transhumanist movement and aims to do her best to promote transhumanism and progress towards the Singularity.