(Longer than usual) Argument 5 – ‘A Man is real, not made of steel’

The Earth it moves too slow, But the Earth is all we know, We pay to play the human way, Twist away the gates of steel; A man is real that’s how he feels.

‘Gates of Steel’, Devo*

The subject of a seminar I attended today was ‘moral enhancement’.  As part of a wider project on transhumanism (a set of ideas concerned with the central notion of ‘enhancing’ humans biologically**, resulting eventually in ‘posthumans’, free of the supposed biological flaws of current humans), Michael Hauskeller*** wanted to examine the specific proposals to make changes to human biology to make them (us) more moral.

Many transhumanists believe that if you cognitively enhance humans (make them smarter) then this will be accompanied by an enhanced morality – more intelligence will make good (or better).  But there are several problems with this, as Hauskeller explained.

Firstly, there is no intrinsic or necessary connection between cognitive enhancement and moral enhancement.  If we suppose that there is no such thing as Moral Truth, or objective morality, an enhancement of intelligence will not help humans to know better what is moral.  If, on the the other hand, there are absolute moral facts, out there waiting to be discovered, they will not be accessible or discernable in the same way scientific facts could be said to be.  So again greater intellectual capabilities will not help.

Secondly, vastly improved intelligence will lead to a superior elite of cognitively enhanced humans, an elite that will feel that this intrinsic intellectual superiority justifies the use of non-post-humans as a means to their own ends, in much the same way humans justify the exploitation of non-human animals.

Thirdly, for many transhumanists, whose goal is the removal of boundaries that restrict ‘what we can do or be’, morality is one such obstacle.  Therefore if anything, cognitive enhancement may be directly opposed to moral enhancement.

Some of the more thoughtful transhumanists (so not one of the many charlatans that the transhumanist movement is populated with, Ray Kurzweil, your ears should be burning) such as Julian Savulescu, have recognised these problems.  Not only does moral enhancement not accompany cognitive enhancement, but that cognitive enhancement (along with other enhancements) makes the consequences of immoral behavioural even more potentially dire.

Rather than abandon the transhumanist project, Savulescu and collaborators are trying to rescue it with another enhancement – moral enhancement.  The idea behind moral enhancement is that the biology of humans can be changed to make us more altruistic, more just, fairer, less aggressive etc.

A number of of different experiments are used by Savulescu to demonstrate that this can be done.  However, even if the limitations of those experiments (and the interpretations of them) are cast aside for one moment, Hauskeller points out that the traits supposedly modified in these experiments – trust, aggression, cooperation and acceptance/unacceptance of unequal outcomes – are only moral in certain contexts.  In some situations, if not most, being more of any of these traits would be immoral.  Hauskeller gave the example of living in a dictatorship, where trust in the dictator, cooperation with the regime and unwillingness to act in an aggressive manner against its agents would be deemed immoral by most reasonable people.

So simple biological engineering the emotional states of humans to make them more or less likely to behave in certain ways is not a recipe for moral enhancement.

An allied argument is that whether a morally ‘correct’ action follows from the morally enhanced human’s new tendencies depends entirely on what moral philosophy you hold.  Wryly using the example of the torture-happy Jack Bauer from the TV series ’24’, Hauskeller noted that while a utilitarian might approve of his methods of ‘getting results’, a Kantian certainly would not.  Moral enhancement doesn’t offer any way out here, as all it can do is enhance a behavioural tendency.  If that tendency is to act in a ruthless utiltarian way, the utilitarians would be delighted (Dick Cheney would have a joy-induced coronary) while the rest of the world hold their heads in their hands.

There are many other issues brought out by Hauskeller and in the following discussion, which I do not have the space to go into here (though I may pick up on some of them in future posts), so I will finish with Hauskeller’s conclusions, and a brief recounting of perhaps the most relevant contribution from the floor for the politically-minded.

Concluding the presentation of his arguments, Hauskeller noted that as moral enhancement ignores the complexity of our moral judgments as well as providing a thoroughly reductionist view of moral goodness, it cannot do the job Savulescu wants it to.  For me, the unspoken implication, I suspect shared by a room full of people (the vast majority philosophers and sociologists) exhibiting varying degrees of hostility to the idea of transhumanism, is that transhumanism is therefore holed below the waterline.

While Hauskeller’s presentation was very much a philosophical analysis, Michael Morrison made an argument from a sociological perspective.  He observed that transhumanism is an essentially neoliberal project in that it takes a perceived social problem and posits and technological, individualised fix.  The enhancement of what he termed ‘shallow, vacuous’ broad brush categories such as ‘trust’ simultaneously operate as openings for investment opportunities as well as holding out the possibility of ‘improved, optimised, more productive neoliberal subjects’.

I agree with Michael.  The supposition that we need to re-engineer our biology to make us more moral is not only mistaken on its own terms, as Hauskeller demonstrated, but it completely ignores the fact that moral beliefs and the actions (or inactions) based on them do not occur in a vacuum, any more than levels and natures of intelligence and physical prowess do.  Our biology is involved, to be sure, but the social, cultural, economic and physical environments we find ourselves in and help to build and continually transform are critical, and cannot be separated out from out from the narrowly ‘biological’.  Who could pretend that altering (better, transforming) social conditions in certain ways could not bring about generalised improvements in intelligence, health and moral behaviour?

As a Marxist and a socialist, I can see the possibility of a society where the development of the highest faculties of intelligence, physical condition and morality are fostered both individually and collectively – for both individual and collective benefit.

In those circumstances we might perhaps start to think of small ways that we can ‘enhance’ certain attributes by means other than the social, cultural, environmental or educational.  But we need to remember that as social animals our biology is not something fixed by genes at birth, but our minds and our bodies are dynamic, ever changing in inextricably-linked complex interactions with the social milieu in which we are immersed from birth.

The sort of transhumanist, enhancement rhetoric involving the chemical or genetically engineered improvement of a narrow, static conception of our ‘biology’ is likely to cut across attempts and arguments we make to enhance humanity by fundamentally changing the social conditions.  We should therefore reject it.  Let’s not ‘enhance’ the human to better suit ‘society’, let’s enhance society to better suit humanity.

*Yes, my cultural references are largely TV and pop music, but good TV and great pop music.

**For example, making humans smarter, stronger, healthier, even immortal.

***Disclosure – Professor Hauskeller is involved in my supervision as a research student at Exeter University.  However, my general agreement with the arguments he presented at the seminar is not as a result of this.  Not only do I doubt that he will ever read this post (I will not make him aware of it), but I am not a creep or a sycophant.

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