Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson argue that artificial moral enhancement is now essential if humanity is to avoid catastrophe.
For the vast majority of our 150,000 years or so on the planet, we lived in small, close-knit groups, working hard with primitive tools to scratch sufficient food and shelter from the land. Sometimes we competed with other small groups for limited resources. Thanks to evolution, we are supremely well adapted to that world, not only physically, but psychologically, socially and through our moral dispositions.
But this is no longer the world in which we live. The rapid advances of science and technology have radically altered our circumstances over just a few centuries. The population has increased a thousand times since the agricultural revolution eight thousand years ago. Human societies consist of millions of people. Where our ancestors’ tools shaped the few acres on which they lived, the technologies we use today have effects across the world, and across time, with the hangovers of climate change and nuclear disaster stretching far into the future. The pace of scientific change is exponential. But has our moral psychology kept up?
With great power comes great responsibility. However, evolutionary pressures have not developed for us a psychology that enables us to cope with the moral problems our new power creates. Our political and economic systems only exacerbate this. Industrialisation and mechanisation have enabled us to exploit natural resources so efficiently that we have over-stressed two-thirds of the most important eco-systems.
A basic fact about the human condition is that it is easier for us to harm each other than to benefit each other. It is easier for us to kill than it is for us to save a life; easier to injure than to cure. Scientific developments have enhanced our capacity to benefit, but they have enhanced our ability to harm still further. As a result, our power to harm is overwhelming. We are capable of forever putting an end to all higher life on this planet. Our success in learning to manipulate the world around us has left us facing two major threats: climate change – along with the attendant problems caused by increasingly scarce natural resources – and war, using immensely powerful weapons. What is to be done to counter these threats?
Our sense of morality developed around the imbalance between our capacities to harm and to benefit on the small scale, in groups the size of a small village or a nomadic tribe – no bigger than a hundred and fifty or so people. To take the most basic example, we naturally feel bad when we cause harm to others within our social groups. And commonsense morality links responsibility directly to causation: the more we feel we caused an outcome, the more we feel responsible for it. So causing a harm feels worse than neglecting to create a benefit. The set of rights that we have developed from this basic rule includes rights not to be harmed, but not rights to receive benefits. And we typically extend these rights only to our small group of family and close acquaintances. When we lived in small groups, these rights were sufficient to prevent us harming one another. But in the age of the global society and of weapons with global reach, they cannot protect us well enough.