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Moral bioenhancement: the only alternative to global totalitarianism and the destruction of humanity


Many existential threats can stand in the way of humanity's long-term existence and prosperity: natural disasters, such as the eruption of a supervolcano or the fall of a huge asteroid; complex processes that are partially influenced by humans, such as climate change; or purely anthropogenic risks, such as the failure to cooperate in solving common problems, the overexploitation of shared natural resources (the tragedy of the commons), or the misuse of biotechnology to create and intentionally use deadly pathogens. These are existential threats that can annihilate all the values that humans have already created and that they and their descendants may create in the future. Therefore, they cannot be overlooked in moral philosophy in general and in bioethics in particular. As researchers have pointed out, an existential catastrophe would result in a loss of values that has never before occurred in human history, so preventing and mitigating it is the most important imperative our species has ever faced.

We can imagine the solution to preventing natural threats in the form of applying certain technologies that have already been created (we can recall NASA's asteroid orbit deflection test) or may be created in the future. But how are we going to deal with anthropogenic risks, i.e., the potentially catastrophic results of human actions? Let's look at this problem in more detail, relying on several studies and supplementing them with some other ideas and our own considerations[1][2].

The problem of "ultimate harm," the establishment of global totalitarianism, and the "tragedy of the commons"

There are many scenarios where existential threats can be created by a single individual or a small group of people (terrorist organizations, apocalyptic cults). Causing “ultimate harm” is becoming more and more realistic with the advancement of technology. Particular attention should be paid to the problem of producing new pathogens in “basement labs” that can be easily created and moved (but we should not forget that the potential threats do not end with this).

An illustrative example of the accessibility of biological weapon creation is the scientific work published in 2018 by a group of Canadian researchers on recreating the causative agent of the horsepox virus, the closest relative of smallpox, which is one of the most deadly diseases in the history of humanity. The cost of this project is estimated at about $100,000. The researchers sought to create a new, even safer, vaccine against smallpox. However, a significant part of the scientific community was critical of this study and accused the journal PLOS One of allowing the publication of work that could help terrorists in the creation of bioweapons[3]. And back in 2011, virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka was conducting experiments to create a flu vaccine. He was trying to recreate the strain of the virus that preceded the 2009–2010 epidemic to see how the virus had changed over the course of 4 years. As a result, he modified it so that it became resistant to human immunity. Of course, his work began to be criticized because humanity would be helpless if the virus leaked out of the lab[4]. Also, in 2023, in California, an illegal medical lab that contained about 1,000 mice, hundreds of unknown chemicals, refrigerators and freezers, vials of biohazardous materials, including blood, incubators, and at least 20 infectious agents, including SARS-CoV-2, HIV, and the herpes virus, was shut down[5]. This shows that covert experiments on dangerous pathogens by private subjects are implementable.

Certainly, the potential threats do not end with this one. For example, there is a fear that in the near future, drones will become very cheap, and everyone will be able to buy them en masse or produce them in their basements, including for combat purposes. If they are made autonomous, operating according to a predetermined program without real-time control by an operator, this will make it safer for the people using them (who will be difficult to track) and impossible to stop them through the suppression of radio signals. Such a practice, if it becomes widely used by individuals and groups with violent intentions, would effectively make war a normal state of society, and the line between peace and war would be blurred[6].

This problem seems unsolvable without drastically expanding surveillance and reducing individual freedoms, which would inevitably turn even fairly liberal states into totalitarian dictatorships. In addition, there is a claim that the risk of global catastrophes that are very distant in time, such as climate change, may require a high level of cooperation and unity of purpose among people that democratic and liberal societies cannot achieve because of the relaxed system of international deliberation and decision-making. This means that the totalitarian world has a better chance to cope with such threats if they and the methods of their solution are identified.

It should also be mentioned that the totalitarianism of the future will be extremely resilient compared to any historical example. The development of the understanding of social and psychological mechanisms, as well as means of surveillance, to the point of creating molecular nanotechnology, will completely eliminate private space from the gaze of the state. Increasing longevity will help alleviate leadership succession crises; one will not be able to count on a dictator simply dying sooner or later. Also, the biotechnology of the future could be used in unethical ways to brainwash people. At least considerations in such a direction already exist. For example, a study from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, suggests using oxytocin (by spraying it into the air) for police and military purposes, including scenarios in which people who are protesting or rebelling against the authorities must be stimulated to build trust and make agreements[7]. Of course, the efficacy of such an idea is debatable, but we will not rule out the scenario that totalitarian regimes of the future will resort to similar practices that will work.

Finally, we should not forget such a phenomenon as the “tragedy of the commons.” If some resources are shared, such as the world ocean, the atmosphere, national parks, or pastures, some people will overexploit them because the costs of such behavior are distributed to all members of society instead of being passed entirely to those who engage in such exploitation. In addition, the present generation, by overexploiting resources, may leave future generations without them. Among the possible solutions to this problem are the following options, not all of which are good, but they were chosen because of the lack of alternatives: abandoning the very idea of common use of resources, including their complete transfer to private ownership (private and enclosed property will seldom be overexploited, as the losses will be paid by concrete people), limiting the birth rate, and making it mandatory for all users of a common resource to participate in a democratic process of coordinating their actions[8][9]. But perhaps we should also look at the people themselves, who tend to overexploit resources, openly and intentionally ignoring the interests of others. Why would anyone, for example, dump toxic waste into the environment when it is common knowledge that this will cause serious harm to the ecology and even to the health of others? We will answer this question a little later.

The idea of moral bioenhancement and researchers' views on it

There can only be one alternative to global totalitarianism and the destruction of humanity: moral bioenhancement, which implies the use of biomedical technologies for the moral improvement of people. This procedure does not necessarily mean changing the very nature of a human being, which, as we will see a little later, is simply not necessary. Hovewer, many of the authors who promote this solution have proposed unreasonable practical implementations of it, involving exactly such a change. Most likely, this happened due to unawareness or a lack of understanding of the violence inhibition mechanism theory, which states that the average and healthy individual has an inner resistance to harming other people and that only a minority of individuals with psychopathic predispositions do not have it[10][11].

Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu focus too much on criticizing liberal states. Based on their inability to justify in front of society and implement a program of moral bioenhancement, these authors lean towards rather authoritarian positions, as noted by Vojin Rakic and Milan Cirkovic. However, their proposal to create on a voluntary basis “morally enhanced post-persons” is also rather unreasonable. They strongly emphasize that the decisions and actions of post-persons should be considered superior to those of ordinary people because of their higher moral status. This also seems like an authoritarian stance, especially considering that although they describe post-persons as not inclined to harm ordinary people, it is allowed in certain situations where post-persons would consider it the right thing to do. And to allow such a thing would literally contradict the presence of a biologically enhanced morality, if such a morality is to be equated with a strongly expressed and fully functioning violence inhibition mechanism.

These authors also did not identify a concrete direction for moral bioenhancement. Although the first two authors note that enhancing the function of the serotonergic and oxytocin systems increases the human propensity for altruism and empathy, it has not been noted that even now, many people demonstrate this propensity strongly. These authors fall back on the parochial altruism hypothesis, according to which, biologically, humans are only adapted to live in very small societies and, in more global terms, have rather weak morality. However, this view will only be partially true if we take into account the violence inhibitor theory, according to which there are still mechanisms of aggression inhibition at the level of intraspecies interactions, not only intragroup ones. The other two authors make a clear distinction between ordinary people and bioenhanced post-persons, as if there is no single person whose morality we could take as a standard.

A standard of better morality

As a standard of better morality, one can easily take people without violence inhibitor dysfunction and primary psychopathy traits. These people are capable of strong empathy and guilt. Even if they harm another person in some way, they will accept responsibility for it without shifting it to the circumstances or the victim. These people will not lie and manipulate others for personal benefit through the deterioration of their well-being. And there are plenty of people with these characteristics. According to non-criminal and non-psychiatric samples, more than 80–90% of people have low levels of psychopathy[12][13][14][15]. Also, many studies, including anthropological and military ones, confirm that the average and healthy individual has a strong inner resistance to committing violence[16][17].

The real problem with the weak morality of current human society is the presence of psychopathically predisposed individuals who, because of the violence inhibitor dysfunction, have no inner resistance to harming others and have underdeveloped moral emotions, including empathy and guilt. It is these individuals who, when striving for high social positions, such as CEO of a company or politician, have no moral problems with “going over the heads” of competitors and others they can profitably exploit. For example, while in society there are no more than 1% of individuals who meet the criteria for clinical psychopathy, among CEOs there are already from 3% to 21% of them[18]. Politicians cannot be expected to do well either; despite the lack of reliable statistics, practically any expert in the field of sociopathy/psychopathy/antisocial personality disorder would not dispute that there is a higher percentage of psychopathically predisposed individuals among them than in society as a whole[19].

These individuals, who, having a high social position, pursue purely personal benefits and tolerate causing harm to others, are most likely to be the main obstacle to the establishment of good coordination between different societies in solving global problems. They are the ones who care the least about the appropriate use of shared resources. And it is they who, when faced with the need to solve some problems, would rather resort to coercion and total surveillance than promote a moral bioenhancement program.

A proposal for moral bioenhancement in psychopaths and the categorical imperative

According to Elvio Baccarini and Luca Malatesti, psychopathic individuals require moral bioenhancement, and moreover, mandatory bioenhancement is permissible[20]. Psychopathic individuals do have a rational preference for living in functional cooperative societies. Although they are prone to manipulations, lies, and even violence, they do not wish to be victims of such behavior from others. As research shows, they react to a dishonest deal with an even greater desire to punish the person who offered it than other people. Despite their problems with moral emotions, they still have the ability to feel outrage.

It can be stated that they expect other people to follow social norms and morals. But the preference to cooperate with those who will never behave antisocially toward them or harm them also means that psychopaths have reason to prefer moral bioenhancement for other psychopaths, at least those they will inevitably encounter on their path. And, according to Kant's categorical imperative and universalization principle, when you prescribe something to other people, you must also prescribe it to yourself if you share with them the same characteristics essential for this prescription. So, psychopaths have to prescribe moral bioenhancement for themselves.

If some psychopaths, after reading the reasoning presented here, begin to unconditionally deny that they have a preference for moral bioenhancement for other psychopaths, then they should imagine a situation in which someone wants to harm them and has a realistic possibility of doing so, and the only possible option to prevent them from being harmed in this scenario is to resort to moral bioenhancement. Of course, for anyone who cares about their own well-being, the choice would be obvious. In any situation, rational people, regardless of what they think is better for solving problems than moral bioenhancement, will still find it more acceptable than doing nothing and allowing themselves to be harmed.

The covert moral bioenhancement and the question of human freedom

It is important to briefly mention the idea that if a moral bioenhancement program is to be mandatory, it must also be covert. According to Parker Crutchfield, the overt application of such a program will result in some individuals avoiding it, creating the need for some forms of punishment that restrict their freedom and reduce their well-being. At the same time, the covert application of appropriate therapy will not lead to such consequences and is therefore the most humane option. Furthermore, if safe therapy is available, it is not a violation of the individual's freedom. People who have undergone moral bioenhancement are not made less free than others, nor are they forced to carry a greater moral burden than that which everyone else is already obliged to carry[21].

Of course, as Baccarini and Malatesti point out, psychopathy can provide various benefits to the individual, and its treatment can take them away. However, the use of punishments for violent crimes may completely prevent individuals from implementing many of their plans and exclude them from social life. In turn, moral bioenhancement leaves individuals with a wide freedom of action to implement their plans, imposing only some restrictions. So, moral bioenhancement is preferable to punishments.

At the end, it is worth noting that psychopathic individuals have no reason to fear or resist moral bioenhancement. If they do not currently have the desire to harm other people in practice, then nothing will change in their lives; there will only be a guarantee that such a desire will never arise in the future. If they have such a desire, they should be afraid of punishments for its implementation, which can completely destroy their lives and plans, rather than moral bioenhancement, which will simply bring a small number of moral norms into their psyche. And if they cannot see their lives without committing violence, if it is an important value for them, then they must realize that they are a great threat to everyone else, and it is reasonable not to ask them if they are willing or unwilling to undergo the procedure of moral bioenhancement.

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Last modified: 2024/04/29 18:43 by Volunto

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