“Moral Bioenhancement” and Academic Blindness


David DeGrazia, professor at George Washington University, has written a peer-reviewed paper for the Journal of Medical Ethics on “Moral Bioenhancement” (MB). The suggestion is to “encourage or require” advanced technologies, including genetic and embryonic “selection” to enhance the moral status of the human race. I learned about this through William Briggs’s excellent blog.

I am struck by DeGrazia’s frequent use of “we,” as in,

The specific questions to be addressed in what follows are these: (2) In view of pluralism about moral values, what sorts of changes, if any, may we confidently and responsibly count as moral improvements? …. (4) What do our reflections suggest about what we should value in moral behaviour? …

In order to consider the possibility of MB intelligently, and not just open-mindedly, we must ask what a moral improvement, regardless of its means, would consist in….

Amid this diversity of views about what morality requires, how can we determine what sort of change should count as a moral improvement? It is not enough to speak of greater conformity with appropriate moral norms, or the insight or motivation that conduces towards such conformity, if we have no idea which moral norms are appropriate. Without knowing the criteria of right (or morally best) action, according to the present challenge, we can’t know what counts as greater insight into what is right or what motivational factors would help us do what’s right….

Somehow he never gets around to identifying who “we” are. It’s a rather stunning omission, in view of one item he includes on his list of traits for which MB would be indicated, and which “all reasonable persons can agree represent moral defects:”

Inability to grasp subtle, complicated details that are of undeniable moral relevance (eg, the ways in which affluent persons benefit economically from the legacies of colonialism and slavery and from current injustices such as treaties with dictators or strongmen who disserve their country-people), a failure of insight

In that light we have to ask about professors who suggest that “we” require the use of high-tech MB, through which powerful persons, benefiting from the legacies of heavy funding and (presumably in this case) political power, would be granted moral power over our species. What is to prevent that “we” from carrying out the usual injustices associated with such unequal power? Who are the “we” whom we could trust with this?

I am often amazed at some people’s blindness to their reflections in their own mirrors.

Other notes of interest:

  • The widespread destruction of embryos (beyond the 55 million already killed in the U.S. over the past 40 years, just for perspective) might be instrumentally valuable in reducing the “threat of truly massive harm,” according to DeGrazia.
  • “All reasonable persons” would agree that this, too, is a moral defect worthy of MB: “Lesser forms of moral cynicism that make one more likely than a good person to be corrupted, to cheat on taxes, not to bother to contribute what one agrees is one’s fair share, etc—a more ordinary failure of motivation”
  • As is this: “Weak will or susceptibility to temptation.” (Anyone here feeling especially safe from being MB’ed now?)

The paper includes a lengthy discussion of human freedom. I doubt the author would dispute that it’s inadequate to its purpose; it’s barely an introduction. That’s of little interest to me, though, in the context of a proposal so blithely willing to take the reins of massive, asymmetrical power over other human beings in the name of moral enhancement.

I close with this quote from near the end of the paper, which perhaps explains it all:

In the absence of a deity who will give us this better world, it is up to us human agents to attain it. Without a substantial improvement in moral behaviour, we are highly unlikely to do so; indeed, there is a good chance that things will get much worse due to our growing destructive power.

No deity? Then it really might be hopeless (though of course I disagree with the premise). One of the more hopeless things about it is that there are academics like DeGrazia who don’t know that MB represents “growing … power,” and that there’s no good way to keep “destructive” out of that equation.

Update 2/11/13: A related item at Uncommon Descent, concerning an Oxford professor’s suggestion that parents have an ethical responsibility to “select” better children