I interviewed Julian Savulescu not long ago for my forthcoming book on existential risk. Savulescu is a bioethicist, originally from Australia — you can hear it in his twang. He’s best known for the principle of “procreative beneficence” — the idea that parents have a putative moral obligation to use the best tools available, including genetic screening and other biotechnology innovations, to select children with traits like higher intelligence and better memories, on the grounds that this will give the child the best chance of having the best life. This is both very controversial and, I’m willing to bet, exactly what will happen as our understanding of the genes underlying traits like intelligence and our ability to manipulate those genes improves.
But I wanted to talk to Savulescu because of a book he wrote with Ingmar Persson of the University of Gothenburg called Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement. Savulescu and Persson argue that technological development has put us at risk of what they call “Ultimate Harm,” otherwise known as the end of the world. To prevent Ultimate Harm, ultimate measures can be justified. And given that technology will increasingly give all of us the power to inflict Ultimate Harm — either quickly and individually in the case of bioterrorism or slowly and collectively in the case of climate change — what needs to change is us. If the world will blow up if just one of us pushes the self-destruct button — or if all of us won’t stop pushing the climate change button — than what we need are human beings who can be trusted not to push that button. What we need are better people.
“I think that we’re at this point where we need to look at every avenue,” says Savulescu. “And one of those avenues is not just looking to political reform — which we should be doing — but also to be looking at ourselves. We’re the ones who cause these problems. We’re the ones who make these choices. We’re the ones who create these political systems. No one wants to acknowledge the elephant in the room, and that is that human beings may be the problem, not the political system.”
Making people better people is what professors of practical ethics do, at the University of Oxford or elsewhere. It’s what moral educators of both the spiritual and the secular variety have done for eons, and it’s what parents try to do — with more or less success — through the act of parenting. And judged over the span of history, we’re doing a decent enough job. In books like The Better Angels of Our Nature, the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has shown that rates of violence have plummeted over the centuries. In general, our circle of moral sympathy and the value we place on human rights has grown over time. You are almost certainly a more moral person than your great-great-great-grandparents.
The problem, as Savulescu sees it, is that while we’re getting better, we’re not getting better fast enough. “There’s this growing mismatch between our cognitive and technological powers and our moral capacity to use them,” he says. As that gap grows, we leave ourselves increasingly vulnerable to Ultimate Harm at our own hands. So Savulescu believes that we should use that technological power to give our moral capacities a quick boost — a moral bioenhancement.
As Savulescu sees it, the same cutting-edge biotechnology that poses an existential risk could one day be used to engineer more ethical and more moral human beings. As we learn to identify the genes associated with altruism and a sense of justice, we could turn them up in the next generation, creating children who would innately possess the wisdom not to use that terrifying bioweapon, who would see the prudence in curbing their present-day consumption to ensure that future generations have a future. (They also might be more apt to do their chores.) The options for self-destruction would still exist, but our morally bioenhanced offspring would be too good to choose them. “We have to decide what kind of people we want,” Savulescu says. “It’s not something we’ve begun to embrace because we have this sort of liberal neutrality, this relativism about morality that says, ‘Wow, we can’t really decide which moralities are better than the others.”
The objections to Savulescu’s arguments come fast and furious. I can already see the Fox News chyrons: “Oxford academic wants to genetically engineer your children to be Al Gore.” It’s legitimate to ask who, exactly, would decide what is right and what isn’t in this brave new world. As history has shown, what we think of as ethical and moral shifts over time. If the Elizabethans had possessed the power of engineering morality into their children, bear-baiting — tormenting bears to death in a pit — might still be considered a wholesome pastime. So might torturing priests.
Robert Sparrow, a bioethicist at Monash University in Australia, argues that Savulescu and Persson are simultaneously extremely pessimistic about our ability to use politics to solve the problems that technology has created, and extremely optimistic about the ability of genetic engineering and pharmaceuticals to form a more perfect citizen. He also notes the “not-inconsiderable problems involved in applying [moral bioenhancement] to ‘hundreds of millions’ of people without presuming or licensing an authoritarianism that would most likely render the project moot.” We’d be more moral and we’d be more likely to survive — but we wouldn’t be free.
Savulescu disagrees. He cites studies showing that criminal behavior drops markedly in adults with ADHD who are put on drugs like Ritalin. That’s moral bioenhancement of a sort. “It enables them to exercise more control over their life and also promotes their own well-being,” Savulescu argues. “I don’t think that undermines freedom. It enhances freedom. I think this kind of immediate conclusion that any sort of biological intervention undermines freedom is just silly. It’s important also to recognize that our freedom is restricted all the time. We have laws that are coercive and if biological intervention meant that you weren’t going to become a psychopath, well, that might be worth giving up that freedom.”
Savulescu’s argument is tempting. Many American parents already put intensive effort into shaping the kind of person their child will be, from strict controls on diet among mothers-to-be to, yes, prescriptions for behavioral modification drugs like Ritalin. (Over 3 million American children are currently taking ADHD drugs.) Jennifer Doudna, who helped invent the gene editing technology CRISPR, told Medium in a recent interview that members of her team have already been approached about making designer babies. And of course when we choose a person to have a child with, we’re making a decision that will irrevocably if indeterminately shape the product of that relationship. One thing many parents don’t seem terribly worried about is the possibility that our children’s freedom might somehow be impaired. Savulescu’s moral bioenhancement would be a big next step — and a step we don’t currently have the ability to take, at least not as he fully envisions it — but would it really be that out of line with what we’re already doing?
Maybe there’s something about fiddling with how we make moral decisions that seems particularly problematic. To make a child taller, faster, smarter — nature does this already through the genetic lottery. We know that our genes will influence how tall we grow or how athletic we become. But whether or not we are a good person — surely that should be our choice. It would be absurd to praise an adult for being tall, but if morals could be genetically influenced the way height is, would it be just as absurd to praise them for being good?
Savulescu is a professor of practical ethics, and his practical interest here is saving the world, from the threat of climate change or bioterrorism or whatever abusable technology our rapidly developing cognitive powers might dream up next. The age of the downloadable gun is just the latest sign of the age of escalating existential risk.
“The problem with technology is that you can’t wind it back, and you can’t just avoid it,” he says. “It brings this enormous responsibility, but I don’t think people realize that. They think they can avoid responsibility by deciding to do nothing or by trying to ban things, and I think that’s the wrong choice.”
Robert Sparrow is right about one aspect of Savelscu’s vision: he is profoundly pessimistic about our ability to enact the kind of political change that might save us from us. As my conversation with Savulescu ended, I realized what his argument reminded me of: the case for climate geoengineering. (Which makes sense, given that Savulescu is a co-director at an Oxford research program that examines the social issues around the subject.) Implicit in the idea that we may one day need to undertake large-scale, potentially irreversible engineering of the climate are two beliefs. One, climate change will present a clear existential threat to humanity. Two, despite that, human beings will be unable or unwilling to enact the political and personal changes needed to turn things around. It is a radical and second-best solution to human failure.
So it is with Savulescu’s moral bioenhancement. We are hurtling toward a future where new technologies will empower the individual as never before. As of August 1, we’ll have the power to download and print a weapon that can kill—and the government can do little to stop us. Soon enough, millions of people may have the power to use genetic engineering and editing to create virulent new pathogens that could threaten whole populations, even the entire human race. One day — maybe around the same time — parents will have the power to pick and choose the genetic makeup of their children, seizing control over what was once a random toss of the genetic dice. As we are, that power is a recipe for existential catastrophe. We will need to be better, or we will be gone.