Report from the ASBH Conference: Julian Savulescu’s Moral Bioenhancement Project

I am in Atlanta for the annual meeting of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. Last night’s (Thursday’s) first plenary address was given by Julian Savulescu of Oxford University, entitled “Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Bioenhancement.” He argued that “The greatest problems of the 21st century—climate change, environmental degradation, terrorism, poverty, global inequality, mass migration, depletion of resources, infectious diseases, abuse and neglect of children—are predominantly the result of human choice and behavior rather than the result of external threats. They are caused by human moral limitations.”

He detailed some of the contributors to our problems. The first was technological advances, which have led us to do things like develop weapons of mass destruction. He went on to assert that evolution had shaped human moral psychology such that it is “characterized by aggression, restricted altruism, partiality to kin and in-group members, hostility toward and disregard of out-group members, bias toward the near future, and limited cooperation.” These characteristics were (supposedly) evolutionarily adaptive when we were out living in small groups on the African plains. Because we are no longer in that situation, our morals don’t work anymore. Science has shown us that biological factors affect our moral reasoning; therefore, since evolution hasn’t caught up with present realities, we should “look at altering the biological dispositions that contribute to these [moral] limitations, and make research into human moral bioenhancement an urgent priority.”

Savulescu got part of it right. He denied moral relativism. (!) He acknowledged that human depravity is the reason for our problems. Many circumstances, physical and otherwise, affect our moral reasoning: upbringing, social background, whether or not we have a stomach ache, whether we slept well last night. Our inability to deal wisely with or even control our technology is a huge problem.

Therefore, it seems at least a little naive to assume that a new technology, designed and implemented by these same depraved humans whose moral reasoning may be adversely affected by various conditions, will magically solve the problems that technology has posed for us.

As Neil Postman pointed out in Technopoly, every technology carries embedded within itself an idea, a set of assumptions of which we are barely conscious, but which nonetheless directs our thinking and affects how we view the world. Also, while we are quick to consider what we gain from a new technology, we rarely reflect on what we lose. The ideology embedded in Savulescu’s technological project seems to be a materialistic, deterministic, biology-based understanding for human moral behavior. What is lost is a full, complex view of human responsibility, behavior, and motivation, the understanding that although we are fashioned from dust, we are also infused with the breath of life from God.

Savulescu reminded me of the Conditioners in Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Despite Savulescu’s stated denial of moral relativism, he has chosen particular moral values that he regards as important, and dismissed the rest as evolutionary blind alleys. He embraces a view of humanity and human moral behavior that go well outside what Lewis calls the Tao, the realm of objective value that forms the basis for traditional morality. As Lewis wrote,

For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. In all ages, no doubt, nurture and instruction have, in some sense, attempted to exercise this power. But the situation to which we must look forward will be novel in two respects. In the first place, the power will be enormously increased. Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted . . . But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.

The second difference is even more important. In the older systems both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by the Tao—a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart. They did not cut men to some pattern they had chosen. They handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly. This will be changed. Values are now mere natural phenomena. Judgements of value are to be produced in the pupil as part of the conditioning. Whatever Tao there is will be the product, not the motive, of education. The conditioners have been emancipated from all that. It is one more part of Nature which they have conquered. The ultimate springs of human action are no longer, for them, something given. They have surrendered—like electricity: it is the function of the Conditioners to control, not to obey them. They know how to produce conscience and decide what kind of conscience they will produce. They themselves are outside, above. (The Abolition of Man, Chapter 3, para. 7-8)


During the question-and-answer session after Savulescu’s talk, audience members were quite confrontational, asking appropriate questions such as, who determines who gets morally bioenhanced, and on what basis? Is this to be done in a coercive manner? Savulescu’s simplistic explanations for the causes of moral behavior were also vigorously challenged. Savulescu seemed to backpedal a bit under the attack.

The second plenary session, which immediately followed, was a deeply meaningful, moving, at one point tearful, tribute to Edmund Pellegrino. It is difficult to state how great was the contrast between the two sessions.

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Steve Phillips
7 years ago

Did Savulescu address at all where he gets his own concept of what is right and wrong if evolution is the source of mankind’s moral concepts, but those moral concepts are wrong?

Susan Haack
7 years ago

In re-reading your quote from Lewis I was struck by the comment about “old birds teaching young birds to fly. This will be changed.” How prescient! With the loss of respect for authority as well as for the wisdom of experience (where there is no technological wizardry), promulgated in part by the rapid rise in technology which has captured youth in its insidious web, there is no longer any “handing over what we have received.”