Would You Take A “Jesus Pill”?

Expanding on our theme of love in an information culture and the role of technology to enhance our relations, Ron Cole-Turner considers the provocative transhumanist suggestion that artificial enhancement provides a viable means to redress current moral shortcomings. Would such a means be acceptable if our underdeveloped morality potentially imperils the human species? If a method of moral enhancement becomes technically feasible, would we really find this an agreeable ‘solution’ (to use on ourselves or others) anyway? 


WOULD YOU TAKE A “JESUS PILL”?

by RON COLE-TURNER

What I am about to say may not be entirely fair to transhumanists.  They say they like human enhancement across the board.  But my guess is that of all the possible forms of human enhancement, moral enhancement will prove to be the least liked.

Of course there is the question of technical feasibility.  Is there really a pill that can make me a better person morally?  Not just smarter or stronger.  But better in the sense that my moral inclinations will be more compassionate, empathetic, and altruistic.  Really?  Some argue that we are well on our way toward the creation of pills or brain stimulation techniques that could actually do this even for me.  But let’s leave the feasibility question aside for now.

A more important question is this: If I were a transhumanist, would I really want to be a better person morally?  Perhaps it’s my particularly gloomy brand of Christian realism that’s clouding my judgment here, but I am not sure how many people really want to be better morally.

The irony, of course, is that most of us wish we lived in a world where everyone else was better morally.  Think of all the rude, inconsiderate, racist, self-centered people out there.  Don’t you wish you had a pill that could “cure” them?  My world would be much nicer if they were better.

To their credit, transhumanists like Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson1 are developing this argument in an important way.  They claim that given the growing power of technology, morally unenhanced people can be much more than an irritation.  They can be catastrophically dangerous.  Humanity must get on with moral enhancement before it is too late.

What they are arguing makes sense.  We have Paleolithic brains and Star Wars weapons.  We no longer huddle in caves around fires to avoid a nasty climate.  Our fires are so big and ubiquitous that we change the climate with our carbon emissions.  No longer do we live in isolated clusters.  Quote Ron Cole-TurnerWe encroach constantly and loudly on each other.  Morally, we are not equipped for survival in a technological age.

So—in what might be the ultimate evolutionary feedback loop—do we use technology to adapt ourselves morally to the environment we have created?  In essence, Savulescu and Persson argue that we must adapt or die.  We must enhance the better angels of our nature, boosting the human capacity for compassion before our nuclear-armed xenophobic anxieties kill us all.

Some fear that morally enhancement comes at the expense of human freedom.  Enhanced people might have a heightened moral proclivity to be empathetic.  Does that mean they are not free to be cruel?  Perhaps.  Does that mean they are actually less free?

I will leave it to philosophers to sort this out.  I will say, however, that the loss-of-freedom objection to moral enhancement may not prove very persuasive among religious people.  Consider a comment by the 4th Century Christian theologian, Gregory of Nyssa: “For the perfection of human nature consists perhaps in its very growth in goodness.”  Becoming better morally is what life is all about.  It is not a loss of freedom or of anything else that is humanly important.  To be more loving is to be more fully human, able to live more completely as a creature in the image of a loving God.

But let’s try to show a little empathy here for our transhumanist friends.  Is it fair to say that while they might argue for moral enhancement in general, they really don’t want it personally?  Is it right to think that what they really want is to live in a world where everyone else is kinder and more altruistic?  Here again, my own Christian viewpoint brings me up short.  It’s not just transhumanists who might feel this way.  All of us do.  It may sound all sweet and church-like to say that becoming better morally is what life is all about.  As a platitude, that actually sounds true.  But becoming better morally is the one thing we don’t want…not really, not when we are being painfully honest with ourselves.

So what am I to say?  If I had a pill sitting here in front of me, and I knew that without any side-effects, taking the pill would make me 5% less self-absorbed and 5% more empathetic, would I put it into my mouth?   Call it a “Jesus pill” if you like.  Would I really swallow the pill?  Would I want to live in a world filled with others who haven’t taken it?

Come back one more time to the transhumanists.  As much as I like reading them and admire their courage in saying what others think but won’t say, there is something that bothers me about them.  They advocate human enhancement through technology.  They claim that we can and should go beyond the biological limits of our humanity.   OK.  That’s not what worries me.  What I find worrisome is their underlying assumption that enhancing myself is a good thing.  Is it really good to enhance or expand the self that I am? quote Ron Cole-Turner Is that not the very definition of egotistical self-aggrandizement?

Is more of me a good thing?  One need not be religious to be worried about where this could lead.  Again, to be fair, perhaps the transhumanists are merely saying out loud what others secretly believe:  My only real problem is my limits.

But then along comes these transhumanists who argue for moral enhancement.  I am still not convinced that they will really want it for themselves, mostly because I am convinced that human beings in general are not really interested in being more empathetic (I know…that gloomy Christian realism thing again).

We must, however, give them their due.  And so I will say: God bless the transhumanists who are arguing for moral enhancement.  Perhaps more than anyone else, they see how extreme our present danger really is.  According to Savulescu and Persson,

“Modern technology provides us with many means to cause our downfall, and our natural moral psychology does not provide us with the means to prevent it. The moral enhancement of humankind is necessary for there to be a way out of this predicament.”

Some religious folks will counter: Well, I thought that was the job of religion.  It is supposed to make us better people.  That may be.  So far our track record is not exactly encouraging.  Recently I have become downright distressed at polling data showing that frequent religious attendance correlates with lack of concern about climate change and with voting for a presidential candidate not especially known for showing empathy.

I would like to think that if the great religions of the world just did their job, no high-tech moral enhancement would be needed.  We would all be really nice.  But that’s not going well, and so I am open to other suggestions.

NOTES

  1. See “Moral Enhancement” at Philosophy Now:  Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson argue that artificial moral enhancement is now essential if humanity is to avoid catastrophe.

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