Human Enhancement and Morality: Another Day in the Asylum

The Next Big Future site links to a report released by a bevy of professors that, we are told, is to serve “…as a convenient and accessible starting point for both public and classroom discussions, such as in bioethics seminars.” The report itself may be found here. It contains “25 Questions & Answers,” many of which relate to moral and ethical issues related to human enhancement. For example,

1. What is human enhancement?
2. Is the natural/artificial distinction morally significant in this debate?
3. Is the internal/external distinction morally significant in this debate?
4. Is the therapy/enhancement distinction morally significant in this debate?
9. Could we justify human enhancement technologies by appealing to our right to be free?
10. Could we justify enhancing humans if it harms no one other than perhaps the individual?

You get the idea. Now, search through the report and try to find a few clues about what the authors are talking about when they use the term “morality.” There are precious few. Under question 25 (Will we need to rethink ethics itself?) we read,

To a large extent, our ethics depends on the kinds of creatures that we are. Philosophers traditionally have based ethical theories on assumptions about human nature. With enhancements we may become relevantly different creatures and therefore need to re-think our basic ethical positions.

This is certainly sufficiently coy. There is no mention of the basis we are supposed to use to do the re-thinking. If we look through some of the other articles and reports published by the authors, we find other hints. For example, in “Why We Need Better Ethics for Emerging Technologies” in “Ethics and Information Technology” by Prof. James H. Moor of Dartmouth we find,

… first, we need realistically to take into account that ethics is an ongoing and dynamic enterprise. Second, we can improve ethics by establishing better collaborations among ethicists, scientists, social scientists, and technologists. We need a multi-disciplinary approach (Brey, 2000). The third improvement for ethics would be to develop more sophisticated ethical analyses. Ethical theories themselves are often simplistic and do not give much guidance to particular situations. Often the alternative is to do technological assessment in terms of cost/benefit analysis. This approach too easily invites evaluation in terms of money while ignoring or discounting moral values which are difficult to represent or translate into monetary terms. At the very least, we need to be more proactive and less reactive in doing ethics.

Great! I’m all for proactivity. But if we “do” ethics, what is to be the basis on which we “do” them. If we are to have such a basis, do we not first need to understand the morality on which ethical rules are based? What we have here is another effort by “experts on ethics” who apparently have no clue about the morality that must be the basis for the ethical rules they discuss so wisely if they are to have any legitimacy. If they do have a clue, they are being extremely careful to make sure we are not aware of it. Apparently we are to trust them because, after all, they are recognized “experts.” They don’t want us to peek at the “man behind the curtain.”

This is an excellent example of what E. O. Wilson was referring to when he inveighed against the failure of these “experts” to “put their cards on the table” in his book, “Consilience.” The authors never inform us whether they believe the morality they refer to with such gravity is an object, a thing-in-itself, or, on the contrary, is an evolved, subjective construct, as their vague allusion to a basis in “human nature” would seem to imply. Like so many other similar “experts” in morality and ethics, they are confident that most people will “know what they mean” when they refer to these things and will not press them to explain themselves. After all, they are “experts.” They have the professorial titles and NSF grants to prove it. When it comes to actually explaining what they mean when they refer to morality, to informing us what they think it actually is, and how and why it exists, they become as vague as the Oracle of Delphi.

Read John Stuart Mill’s “Utilitarianism,” and you will quickly see the difference between the poseurs and someone who knows what he’s talking about. Mill was not able to sit on the shoulders of giants like Darwin and the moral theorists who based their ideas on his work, not to mention our modern neuroscientists. Yet, in spite of the fact that these transformational insights came too late to inform his work, he had a clear and focused grasp of his subject. He knew that it was not enough to simply assume others knew what he meant when he spoke of morality. In reading his short essay we learn that he knew the difference between transcendental and subjective morality, that he was aware of and had thought deeply about the theories of those who claimed (long before Darwin) that morality was a manifestation of human nature, and that one could not claim the validity or legitimacy of moral rules without establishing the basis for that legitimacy. In other words, Mill did lay his cards on the table in “Utilitarianism.” Somehow, the essay seems strangely apologetic. Often it seems he is saying, “Well, I know my logic is a bit weak here, but I have done at least as well as the others.” Genius that he was, Mill knew that there was an essential something missing from his moral theories. If he had lived a few decades later, I am confident he would have found it.

Those who would be taken seriously when they discuss morality must first make it quite clear they know what morality is. As those who have read my posts on the topic know, I, too, have laid my cards on the table. I consider morality an evolved human trait, with no absolute legitimacy whatsoever beyond that implied by its evolutionary origin at a time long before the emergence of modern human societies, or any notion of transhumanism or human enhancements. As such, it can have no relevance or connection whatsoever to such topics other than as an emotional response to an issue to which that emotion, an evolved response like all our other emotions, was never “designed” to apply.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

2 thoughts on “Human Enhancement and Morality: Another Day in the Asylum”

  1. This is hilarious. ‘Ethicists’ who just ‘forgot’ about establishing first principles.

    Altho you and I have always disagreed on whether there is an objective moral universe external to human nature, you are surely correct to expose the deliberately opaque attempt here.

  2. Our current crop of “experts on ethics” rely almost exclusively on smoke and mirrors. The biggest “expert” is the one who can strike the most convincing pose.

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