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Moral Enhancement

July 26, 2012

Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson in Philosophy Now:

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.  (…)

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.  (…)

There are three other aspects of our evolved psychology which have similarly emerged from the imbalance between the ease of harming and the difficulty of benefiting, and which likewise have been protective in the past, but leave us open now to unprecedented risk:

1. Our vulnerability to harm has left us loss-averse, preferring to protect against losses than to seek benefits of a similar level.

2. We naturally focus on the immediate future, and on our immediate circle of friends. We discount the distant future in making judgements, and can only empathise with a few individuals based on their proximity or similarity to us, rather than, say, on the basis of their situations.

3. We feel responsible if we have individually caused a bad outcome, but less responsible if we are part of a large group causing the same outcome and our own actions can’t be singled out. [More]

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