Good, Better, Best


Many aspects of human nature seem to frustrate our ideal of a modern society. This is especially true of our morality. We seem to have evolved a brain with two systems relevant to moral behaviour. The first, more ancient component is automatic, judging things as disgusting or inherently wrong very quickly; the second is our slower acting higher-level thinking which has a controlled reasoned process. However the two are not independent, with our more modern system taking its cues from the more primitive part. An evolved morality does suggest that there is no absolute right or wrong, rather it promoted behaviours conducive to fitness.

World peace is unlikely when our moral intuition works on the acts/omission doctrine. This is the doctrine that differentiates between circumstances when we actively perform an action and when we neglect to do it. A person is deemed a murderer if they push a person off a bridge but isn’t if they, by omission, fail to prevent the death. The parallels to people outside of our moral circle, in the developing world, for example, are obvious.

Another serious moral shortcoming is our failure to cooperate, which is most frequently explained through the tragedy of the commons i.e. our inability to invest in the long term interest of the group owing to our rational self-interest. Global warming is one notable problem that is proving difficult to combat because of this inherent tendency.

The free-rider problem is also ubiquitous, whether it is a rich tax dodger or illegal welfare claimant. The majority of us pay a cost for some benefit while a minority piggybacks on the benefits without having to pay a thing. Hardly fair. We have evolved mechanisms to deal with such cheats, for example through indirect reciprocity, but it would be far better if there was no need.

All of this is a précis to the main topic of this post. As we gain more insights into the neurology and psychology of our morality we’ll be able to manipulate it for our own (hopefully) positive ends. This is quite clearly a controversial idea but we already treat people to make them more moral albeit in a crude way, notably chemical castration of sex offenders. Is it really wrong to stop our parochial and short sighted biases?

Julian Savulescu is one proponent of human moral bioenhancement. He argues that humanity’s future is not safe in our own hands because of our inherent moral failings. His suggestions are novel to say the least. We could look to enhance our sense of altruism and trust by manipulating oxytocin levels which would make our prospects rosier. It could also be the case that those in power create a population of exceedingly trusting sheep over which they could rule. His moral philosophy is from the utilitarian school of thought – the greater good. And this school seems most in line with an evolved morality where there are no absolutes but that’s not to say there aren’t enormous problems with it. How do we convince people to take a supplement that will change their very nature when they are opposed to it?

In Brave New World, it is the people who eschew the psychological benefits of the drug soma who are made out to lead a more authentic existence. But can we afford to live the life of savages when it could lead to our annihilation?

Author: Adam Kane, kanead[at], @P1zPalu

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