Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement. Ingmar Persson & Julian Savulescu. Oxford University Press.
The core thesis of Unfit for the Future is that human morality evolved to allow cooperation and altruism in small groups, but that we today face challenges requiring extensive global coordination. Challenges such as weapons of mass destruction and climate change require both individual humans and nation-states to make various kinds of sacrifices for the benefit of all, but it is currently very unlikely to get everyone to actually make such sacrifices. Humans do have moral emotions such as a sense of justice and fairness that cause them to willingly make sacrifices in order to benefit those they know, but international cooperation requires trusting and helping faceless strangers – and humans have also evolved to be naturally suspicious or even xenophobic towards people outside their tribe. Since traditional moral education isn’t enough to overcome these challenges, we need to engage in “moral enhancement” and alter our biological moral dispositions.
The tone of the book is very academic and rational: there are few if any appeals to emotion, and logical reasoning from first principles is almost purely the style of argument. This makes the authors’ train of thought relatively clear to follow, though it also makes for a rather dry reading, and things are occasionally expressed in needlessly convoluted ways.
The best part of the book is the explanation of the coordination challenges involved with international cooperation, of why rational self-interest isn’t enough to overcome the challenges, and how our commonsense morality has evolved to solve some of these problems. The reader is assumed to already be mostly on board with the notion of risks from climate change and WMDs: some time is spent on explaining these risks, but probably not enough to sell the topic as a really extreme one for someone new to it.
Surprisingly, the book spends relatively little time (one chapter) talking about actual moral enhancement, and few concrete enhancement methods are proposed. Rather, there are a few examples of developing technologies that could be useful for moral enhancement, and a suggestion that more research be dedicated to developing more enhancement methods. Some criticisms of moral enhancement are discussed and argued against. The book concentrates on establishing the need for moral enhancement, not on proposing specific enhancement methods.
The main weakness of the book is that it does not always seem to engage with the strongest possible opposing arguments. A minor thesis that’s offered is that we should be ready to give up our privacy in order to prevent terrorists with WMDs, because of the untold damage that those terrorists could cause. The authors move to dismiss people having any moral right to privacy in only four (!) pages, and do so by considering two possible defenses for privacy: that violating privacy requires violating property rights, and that having one’s privacy violated makes one uncomfortable. The former is rendered irrelevant by the possibility of privacy violations that do not violate property rights (such as mind-reading devices or scanners that could see and hear through walls). The latter is rejected on the grounds that if you could forbid people from knowing something about you simply because it made you feel uncomfortable, “you could acquire very extensive rights against others just by being extremely sensitive about what others think of you”.
Leaving aside the fact that the latter argument is excessively simplistic, there is no absolutely no discussion of the fact that privacy gives people the chance to do harmless things for which they might nonetheless be discriminated against. Homosexual acts are the classic example, but even if one made the (false) assumption that liberal democracies – in the context of which the authors mostly frame their discussion – no longer exhibited homophobia, there are plenty of more examples to be found. Perhaps a person became sexually aroused by looking at (entirely non-sexual) pictures of children or animals, or enjoyed violent pornography, but would nevertheless never harm a soul. Ironically, a major part of the authors’ argument is that it is easier to destroy than to create, and that we find potential harms to be more pressing than an equivalent amount of potential gain. It is exactly because of such reasons that people who were thought to be possibly dangerous would be harshly and unfairly discriminated against – because even if the risk of them actually harming anyone would be small, few people would be willing to take that risk.
Nor do the authors discuss the fact that a lack of privacy could lead to excessive self-censorship, with even people who wouldn’t be discriminated against for acting according to their desires restricting their behavior just in case (again, the potential for harms outweighing the potential for gains). And once people could perfectly observe the behavior of everyone else, and see that everybody was acting conservatively, then even behavior that was previously within normal bounds might be come to be seen as suspicious, leading to an ever-more conformist, cautious, and unhappy society. The human suffering of such a development gives reason to believe in a strong moral right to privacy, and the suffering in question might easily outweigh the suffering from even several nuclear terrorist attacks. But aside for briefly mentioning that a fear of terrorism might cause some ethnic minorities to be unfairly discriminated against, the authors consider none of this.
It might also be somewhat distracting for some that the authors are clearly left-wing, which leads them to occasionally make ideological claims which are not very well-defended. For example, the authors briefly mention prevailing economic inequality as an example of one of humanity’s moral failings, citing differences between the poorest and richest nations as well as the poorest and richest people within some Western countries. None of the arguments for economic inequality of this form not necessarily being a bad thing are addressed. Fortunately, for the most part the left-wing digressions are minor points, and possible disagreement with them does not detract from the book’s major theses.
Overall, the book makes a nice argument for its core thesis, but could have been made much stronger by improving the strawmannish discussion of privacy, removing or better supporting ideologically contentious points, making the risk from WMDs better argued for, and by spending more time discussing moral enhancement itself, not just the need for it.
Why do modern-day liberals (for example) generally consider it okay to say "I think everyone should be happy" without offering an explanation, but not okay to say "I think I should be free to keep slaves", regardless of the explanation offered? In an earlier age, the second statement might have been considered acceptable, while the first one would have required an explanation.
In general, people accept their favorite intuitions as given and require people to justify any intuitions which contradict those. If people have strongly left-wing intuitions, they tend to consider right-wing intuitions arbitrary and unacceptable, while considering left-wing intuitions so obvious as to not need any explanation. And vice versa.
Of course, you will notice that in some cultures specific moral intuitions tend to dominate, while other intuitions dominate in other cultures. People tend to pick up the moral intuitions of their environment: some claims go so strongly against the prevailing moral intuitions of my social environment that if I were to even hypothetically raise the possibility of them being correct, I would be loudly condemned and feel bad for even thinking that way. (Related: Paul Graham's What you can't say.) "Culture" here is to be understood as being considerably more fine-grained than just "the culture in Finland" or the "culture in India" - there are countless of subcultures even within a single country.
Social psychologists distinguish between two kinds of moral rules: ones which people consider absolute, and ones which people consider to be social conventions. For example, if a group of people all bullied and picked on one of them, this would usually be considered wrong, even if everyone in the group (including the bullied person) thought it was okay. But if there's a rule that you should wear a specific kind of clothing while at work, then it's considered okay not to wear those clothes if you get special permission from your boss, or if you switch to another job without that rule.
The funny thing is that many people don't realize that the distinction of which is which is by itself a moral intuition which varies from people to people, and from culture to culture. Jonathan Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion of his finding that while the upper classes in both Brazil and USA were likely to find violations of harmless taboos to be violations of social convention, lower classes in both countries were more likely to find them violations of absolute moral codes. At the time, moral psychology had mistakenly thought that "moving on" to a conception of right and wrong that was only grounded in concrete harms would be the way that children's morality naturally develops, and that children discover morality by themselves instead of learning it from others.
So moral psychologists had mistakenly been thinking about some moral intuitions as absolute instead of relative. But we can hardly blame them, for it's common to fail to notice that the distinction between "social convention" and "moral fact" is variable. Sometimes this is probably done for purpose, for rhetorical reasons - it's a much more convincing speech if you can appeal to ultimate moral truths rather than to social conventions. But just as often people simply don't seem to realize the distinction.
(Note to international readers: I have been corrupted by the American blogosphere and literature, and will therefore be using "liberal" and "conservative" mostly to denote their American meanings. I apologize profusely to my European readers for this terrible misuse of language and for not using the correct terminology like God intended it to be used.)
For example, social conservatives sometimes complain that liberals are pushing their morality on them, by requiring things such as not condemning homosexuality. To liberals, this is obviously absurd - nobody is saying that the conservatives should be gay, people are just saying that people shouldn’t be denied equal rights simply because of their sexual orientation. From the liberal point of view, it is the conservatives who are pushing their beliefs on others, not vice versa.
But let's contrast "oppressing gays" to "banning polluting factories". Few liberals would be willing to accept the claim that if somebody wants to build a factory that causes a lot of harm to the environment, he should be allowed to do so, and to ban him from doing it would be to push the liberal ideals on the factory-owner. They might, however, protest that to prevent them from banning the factory would be pushing (e.g.) pro-capitalism ideals on them. So, in other words:
Conservatives want to prevent people from being gay. They think that this just means upholding morality. They think that if somebody wants to prevent them from doing so, that somebody is pushing their own ideals on them.
Liberals want to prevent people from polluting their environment. They think that this just means upholding morality. They think that if somebody wants to prevent them from doing so, that somebody is pushing their own ideals on them.
Now my liberal readers (do I even have any socially conservative readers?) will no doubt be rushing to point out the differences in these two examples. Most obviously the fact that pollution hurts other people than just the factory owner, like people on their nearby summer cottages who like seeing nature in a pristine and pure state, so it's justified to do something about it. But conservatives might also argue that openly gay behavior encourages being openly gay, and that this hurts those in nearby suburbs who like seeing people act properly, so it's justified to do something about it.
It's easy to say that "anything that doesn't harm others should be allowed", but it's much harder to rigorously define harm, and liberals and conservatives differ in when they think it's okay to cause somebody else harm. And even this is probably conceding too much to the liberal point of view, as it accepts a position where the morality of an act is judged primarily in the form of the harms it causes. Some conservatives would be likely to argue that homosexuality just is wrong, the way that killing somebody just is wrong.
My point isn't that we should accept the conservative argument. Of course we should reject it - my liberal moral intuitions say so. But we can't in all honestly claim an objective moral high ground. If we are to be honest to ourselves, we will accept that yes, we are pushing our moral beliefs on them - just as they are pushing their moral beliefs on us. And we will hope that our moral beliefs win.
Here's another example of "failing to notice the subjectivity of what counts as social convention". Many people are annoyed by aggressive vegetarians, who think anyone who eats meat is a bad person, or by religious people who are actively trying to convert others. People often say that it's fine to be vegetarian or religious if that's what you like, but you shouldn't push your ideology to others and require them to act the same.
Compare this to saying that it's fine to refuse to send Jews to concentration camps, or to let people die in horrible ways when they could have been saved, but you shouldn't push your ideology to others and require them to act the same. I expect that would sound absurd to most of us. But if you accept a certain vegetarian point of view, then killing animals for food is exactly equivalent to the Holocaust. And if you accept a certain religious view saying that unconverted people will go to Hell for an eternity, then not trying to convert them is even worse than letting people die in horrible ways. To say that these groups shouldn't push their morality to others is to already push your own ideology - which says that decisions about what to eat and what to believe are just social conventions, while decisions about whether to kill humans and save lives are moral facts - on them.
So what use is there in debating morality, if we have so divergent moral intuitions? In some cases, people have such widely differing intuitions that there is no point. In other cases, their intuitions are similar enough that they can find common ground, and in that case discussion can be useful. Intuitions can clearly be affected by words, and sometimes people do shift their intuitions as a result of having debated them. But this usually requires appealing to, or at least starting out from, some moral intuition that they already accept. There are inferential distances involved in moral claims, just as there are inferential distances involved in factual claims.
So what about the cases when the distance is too large, when the gap simply cannot be bridged? Well in those cases, we will simply have to fight to keep pushing our own moral intuitions to as many people as possible, and hope that they will end up having more influence than the unacceptable intuitions. Many liberals probably don't want to admit to themselves that this is what we should do, in order to beat the conservatives - it goes so badly against the liberal rhetoric. It would be much nicer to pretend that we are simply letting everyone live the way they want to, and that we are fighting to defend everyone's right for that.
But it would be more honest to admit that we actually want to let everyone live the way they want to, as long as they don't things we consider "really wrong", such as discriminating against gays. And that in this regard we're no different from the conservatives, who would likewise let everyone live the way they wanted to, as long as they don't do things the conservatives consider "really wrong".
Of course, whether or not you'll want to be that honest depends on what your moral intuitions have to say about honesty.
1: The self as something arbitrary. Essentially the view I held at the time of writing this post from 2007. I thought that there is no inherent reason to think that the consciousness that now inhabits my brain will be the same one as the one inhabiting my brain tomorrow. Our minds and bodies change all the time: what's the thing that makes the me of today the same as the me of 20 years ago? Certainly one can come up with all sorts of definitions, but from a scientific point of view they're all unnecessary. One simply doesn't need to postulate a specific consciousness, a soul of sorts, in order to explain human behavior or thought. Noting that our memories create an illusion of continuity, and that this illusion is useful for maintaining useful things such as the self-preservation instinct, is more than enough as an explanation.
A thought experiment in philosophy asks: if you stepped into a Star Trek-style transporter, that disassembled you into your component parts and reassembled you somewhere else (possibly from different raw materials), would it still be you or would you it be killing you and creating a copy of you? Another: if the neurons in your brain would be gradually replaced with ones running in a computer, and the original brain was then shut down, would it still be you? Yet another: if you had been translated into software, and then fifteen copies of that mindfile were made and run, would they all be you?
To all of these questions, "the self as something arbitrary" replies: there's no inherent reason why they wouldn't be you. The difference between them would be less than that between you now, and you tomorrow. Of course, for psychological reasons, it is necessary for us to still believe to some degree that we're still the same person tomorrow as we are today. For this purpose, we're free to use pretty much any criteria we prefer: it's not like one of them would be wrong. One such criteria, suggested by Derek Parfit, is Relation R: psychological connectedness (namely, of memory and character) and continuity (overlapping chains of strong connectedness). This works fine for most purposes.
In practice, while I had this view, I tended to forget about the whole thing a lot. The illusion is built into us quite strongly, and the intellectual understanding of it is easy to forget.
2: The self as lack of personal boundaries. Upon reading Ken Wilber's No Boundary, I realized the following. Suppose that I choose to reject any criteria creating a relation between the me of now and the me of tomorrow, seeing them all as arbitrary. It follows that all consciousness-moments are separate beings. But symmetrically, one can take this to imply that all consciousness-moments are the same being. In other words: there is only one consciousness which experiences everything, instantiated in a wide variety of information-processing systems.
This point of view also gains support from noting that to a large degree, our behavior is determined by our environment. The people you hang around with have an immense impact on what you do and what you are. I might define myself using the word "student", which signifies a certain role within society - studying at a university ran by other people, from books written by others, my studies funded by money which the state gets by taxing my country's inhabitants. Or I might say that a defining aspect of myself is that I want to help avert existential risk. This is so because I happened to encounter writings about it at an appropriate point in my life, and it is a motivation which is constantly reinforced by being in contact with like-minded folks. On the other hand, it is a drive which is also constantly weakened by the lures of hedonism and affiliating with people who don't think such things are truly that important.
I'm only exaggarating a little if I say that basically everything in our personality is defined by our environment, and particularly the people within our environment. Change the environment I'm in, and you quite literally change what I am. Certainly I have lots of relatively stable personality traits that affect my behavior, but my environment defines the meaning those traits take. If I change my environment, I'll also change my own behavior. Looked at in this light, the self/non-self boundary becomes rather arbitrary and somewhat meaningless.
So now I was presuming that there was only one consciousness, instantiated in every possible body. All of these bodies and instantiations, taken together, make up a vast system that is me. I (in the sense of the specific brain-body now writing this) am part of the system in the same way that individual cells are parts of my body, or individual subprocesses in my brain are parts of my psyche. My personal accomplishments or my personal pride don't really matter that much: what matters is how I contribute to the overall system, and whether parts of the system are harmonious or conflicted between each other. Doing things like befriending new people means forging new connections between parts of myself. Learning to know people better means strengthening such connections.
Thinking like this felt good, and it worked for a while. But I had difficulty keeping up that line of thought. Again, the illusion of separateness is built strongly into us. On an intellectual level, I could easily think of myself as part of a vast system, with only a loose boundary between me and not-me. But since each brain can only access memories of being itself, and is strongly biased towards thinking itself separate, this was hard to really believe in on an emotional level. Frequently, I found myself thinking of myself as separate again.
3: The self as how the algorithm feels from the inside. The next step came when I realized that the notion of a consciousness experiencing things is an unnecessary element as well. Instead of saying that there are lots of different consciousnesses, or one consciousness instantiated in a lot of bodies, we can just note that we don't really need to presume any specific entity which observes various sensations. Instead, there are only the sensations themselves. A "consciousness" is simply a collection of sensations that are being observed within an organism at a specific time.
Putting this another way: there are a variety of processes running within our brains. As a side-effect of their functioning, they produce a stream of sensations (qualia, to use the technical term). There is no observer which observes or experiences these qualia: they simply occur. To the extent that there can be said to be an observer or a watcher, each sensation observes itself and then ceases to exist.
Of necessity, all of the qualia-producing algorithms we know of are located within information-processing systems which have a memory and are in some way capable of reporting that they have subjective experiences. Humans can verbalize or otherwise communicate being in pain; dogs can likewise behave in ways that sufficiently resemble our is-in-pain behaviors that we presume them to have qualia. As an animal's resemblance to a human grows smaller, we become more unsure of whether they have qualia. In principle, my computer could also have qualia, but if so it would have no way of reporting it, and I would have no way of knowing it. Because an entity needs to be able to somehow communicate having qualia in order for us to know about it, we've mistakenly began thinking that all qualia must by nature be observed by a consciousness. But the qualia observe themselves, which is enough. There is no Cartesian Theater, but rather something like multiple drafts.
So there is no "me" in the continuity of consciousness sense, nor is there any unified consciousness which experiences everything. Instead there are only ephemeral sensations, which vanish as soon as they've come to existence (though if eternalism is right, every moment may exist forever, and there may be an infinite number of copies of each "unique" sensation if multiverses are real). This may seem like a very unsettling theory from a psychological point of view, as it would seem like it'd make it harder to e.g. care about the next day. While both "the self as something arbitrary" and "the self as a lack of personal boundaries" allowed one to construct a definition of self extending in time - even if one acknowledged to be arbitrary - this view makes that rather impossible.
And at first, it was rather unsettling. After a while, however, I managed to come to grips with it. The important point to note is that even if there is continuity of consciousness, the concept of "me" still makes sense. It's simply referring to the information-processing system in which all of these algorithms are running. I can still meaningfully talk about my experience or about making plans. I'm simply referring to the experiences which will be produced by the algorithms running within this brain, and the plans which that brain will make. And there is no reason why I shouldn't feel pleasure from anticipation of future experiences, if those are good experiences to have.
I desire to reduce the number of negative qualia in the world and increase the number of positive ones. Positive qualia are correlated with positive feedback within the information-processing system; negative qualia, with negative feedback. In other words, the system/organism will tend to repeat the things it felt good about, as it gets wired to repeat those behaviors. (Though one should note here that the circuits for "wanting" and "liking" are actually different.) It is good for me to feel good about doing and behaving in ways which will make me more likely to achieve these goals. It is good for me to feel pleasure from the anticipation of doing good things, for this will cause me to actually do them. It is also good for me to feel happy: not only does feeling happy instead of unhappy make me more capable of doing things, it also directly serves my goal of increasing the amount of positive qualia in the world. This line of thought seems like a very successful way of fitting together utilitarianism and virtue ethics, the process of which I began a year ago and which has considerably contributed to my increased happiness of late.
Again, this is easy to think about on an intellectual level, but we're wired to think differently. I've been having more success consistently training myself to think like this than I had with the previous theories, however. Of course, I still frequently forget, but I'm making progress. Various meditation traditions seem to be aimed at helping grok something like this at an emotional level, and I'm dedicating an hour a day to meditation practice aimed at following the progression described in this book. I haven't really gotten any results so far, though.
I was going to also write more about the nature of suffering and how these shifts in thought have helped me become happier and suffer less. However, looking at how long this post got, I think I'll do that in a separate post.
There are at least two possible ways of avoiding this fate. The first is simply having children later. Even if nobody died of aging, there would still be diseases, accidents and murders. People who've looked at the statistics estimate that with no age-related death, people would on average live to be a thousand before meeting their fate in some way. Theoretically, if everyone just waited to be a thousand before having any kids, then population growth would remain on the same level as it is today.
Of course, this is completely unrealistic. Most people aren't going to wait until they are a thousand to have kids. But they might still have them considerably later than they do now. The average age for having your first child has already gone up as lifespans have grown. If you're going to live for a thousand years, why rush with having kids as soon as possible?
Currently there is (at least for women) an effective maximum cap on how high the age for first childbirth can grow, since once a mother's age grows beyond 35 or so, the probability for birth defects goes up radically. However, current reproductive technology has already made pregnancies over the age of 50 a real possibility. At the moment, this frequently requires egg donation, but a rudimentary ability to produce eggs from stem cells may not be that far away, certainly a lot closer than RLE. By the point that we have RLE, we'll likely also have the ability to produce new sperm and eggs from a person's own cells. Combined with an overall better condition of the body brought about by RLE, this seems like it could increase the maximum age for pregnancy indefinitely. With that, the average age for a first birth going up at least a couple of decades doesn't seem all that unrealistic.
Besides the average age for having kids going up, there's the possibility of larger family groups. Must we necessarily have a norm for children being the kids of exactly two adults? As a personal example, my best friend has a daughter who's two years old right now. I've been over there helping take care of the girl a lot, enough to make me feel like she's part of my family as well. Even if I never had children of my own, I already feel something resembling the feelings related to having a child of your own. In addition to growing attached to the children of your close friends, polyamory is also gradually becoming more common and accepted. With romantic relationships involving more than two people we also get children with more than two parent-like figures. Many have a strong desire to pass on their genes, something which can be helped with e.g. the recent creation of 3-parent human embryos.
So with both the prospect of having kids later and a child having more than two parents, I really don't think that the population problem is as hard to solve as some people make it out to be. It should also be noted that it's not like scientists are going to develop RLE one day, and then the next, blam, everyone lives forever. Rather, the technology will be developed in stages. In the early stages, there are going to be a lot of people who have grown far too frail to be helped, and it might take a long time before we hit acturial escape velocity, so there might simply be an e.g. 10-year bump on people's lifespan and then 20 years could pass before the next major breakthrough.
The treatments may also not be affordable for everyone at first, though it needs to be noted that governments will have a huge incentive to subsidize the treatements for everyone to reduce the healthcare costs of the elderly and to push back the age for retirement. A 2006 article in The Scientist argues that simply slowing aging by seven years would produce large enough of an economic benefit to justify the US investing three billion dollars annually to this research. The commonly heard "but only the rich could live forever" argument against RLE does not, I feel, take into account the actual economic realities (amusingly enough, as its supporters no doubt think they're the economically realistic ones).
So we're going to get a slowly and gradually lengthening average lifespan, which at first probably won't do much more than reverse the population decline that will hit a lot of Western countries soon. The replenishment rate required to keep a population stable is about 2.1 children per woman. The average fertility rate in a lot of industrialized countries is well below this - for instance, 1.58 in Canada, 1.42 in Germany, 1.32 in Italy, 1.20 in Japan and 1.04 in Hong Kong. The EU average is 1.51. Yes, in a lot of poor countries the figures are considerably higher - Niger tops the chart with 7.68 children per woman - but even then the overall world population growth is projected to start declining around 2050 or so.
To give a sense of proportion: suppose that tomorrow, we developed literal immortality and made it instantly available for everyone, so that the death rate would drop to zero in a day, with no adjustment to the birth rate. Even if this completely unrealistic scenario were to take place, the overall US population growth would still only be about half of what it was during the height of the 1950s baby boom! Even in such a completely, utterly unrealistic scenario, it would still take around 53 years for the US population to double - assuming no compensating drop in birth rates in that whole time.
We've adapted to increasing lifespans before. Between 1950 and 1990, the percentage of population over 65 almost doubled in Sweden, going from 10.3 to 18.1. (In the United Kingdom it went up from 10.7 to 15.2, in the US from 8.1 to 12.6, and in the more-developed countries overall it went from 7.6 to 12.1.) The beauty of economics is that like all resource consumption, having children is a self-regulating mechanism: if a growing population really does exert a heavy strain on resources, then it will become more expensive to have children, and people will have less of them. The exception is in the less industrialized countries where children are still a net economic benefit for their parents and not a cost, but most of the world is industrializing quickly. Over the last fifty years, the gaps between the rich and poor have gotten smaller and smaller, to the point where people are calling the whole concept of a first world/third world divide a myth. I see no reason to presume that radical life extension and indefinite youths would pose us any problems that we couldn't handle, at least not on the overpopulation front.
For anyone curious, this was mostly an English recap of some of the life extension-related discussion I covered in my 2009 book Kehittyvä ihmiskunta. If you can't read Finnish but were wondering what I wrote in that book, well, now you know a bit.