August 1, 2018 … The age of the downloadable gun formally begins.
So says the website of Defense Distributed, a nonprofit that creates and publishes blueprints for 3-D printed weapons. Cody Wilson — the founder of Defense Distributed, a libertarian and one of the 15 most dangerous people in the world according to Wired magazine — put up plans for a printable gun in 2013. Called “the Liberator,” it was a single-shot pistol made mostly of plastic. Shortly after the blueprints were put online the State Department ordered them removed, citing a possible violation of firearm export rules. Wilson sued, and in June the State Department decided to settle his case, winning him the right to put the plans back online — while also recouping nearly $40,000 in legal fees from the U.S. government.

Gun-rights advocates are celebrating the settlement as “the end of gun control,” in the words of Fox News columnist John Lott Jr.

That may seem hyperbolic, if only because a gun is one thing that is not hard to buy in America. While a printed, largely plastic gun may be able to slip past some metal detectors and won’t carry a serial number, the designs are still inferior to conventional firearms, and 3-D printers are still expensive and rare. It’s almost certain that the next mass shooting will be carried out the old-fashioned way.

But while the Liberator may seem like little more than an after-school project for libertarians, it’s the first sign of how 3-D printing — and other rapidly developing tools like synthetic biology — could empower individual rogue actors while eroding the ability of the government to maintain a monopoly on violence.

As the technology continues to develop, it may not be long before far more devastating weapons could be manufactured at home by 3-D printers, or before DIY biohackers could create dangerous viruses in their garages. Push far enough into the future and we may reach a time when almost any individual could have the ability to unleash a weapon that could end the world. And if we reach that point, we’re as good as done.

The Stanford political scientist James Fearon had a thought experiment he outlined in a 2003 talk, back when the global population was closer to 5 billion. He imagined a time where each person had the ability to destroy the world by pushing a button on their cell phone:

“How long do you think the world would last if five billion individuals each had the capacity to blow the whole thing up? No one could plausibly defend an answer of anything more than a second. Expected lifespan would hardly be longer if only one million people had these cell-phones, and even if there were 10,000 you’d have to think that an eventual global holocaust would be pretty likely. 10,000 is only two-millionths of five billion.”

Fearon’s argument—which I found in the 2015 book The Future of Violenceis that the conditions that have kept us un-blown-up so far are twofold. One, until the nuclear age, no weapon existed that could cause planetary catastrophe. And two, once those weapons existed, they were largely controlled by governments that, whatever else their faults, generally didn’t want to see the world destroyed.

Since the introduction of nuclear arms, we’ve avoided annihilation because these weapons require rare elements and rare expertise, both of which constrain access. Almost 63 years after Hiroshima, fewer than 10 countries possess a nuclear arsenal, and after years of trying, no terror group has yet managed to build or steal a nuclear bomb and use it.

That isn’t because terrorists don’t want nuclear weapons, any more than the relative success of nuclear non-proliferation suggests that world leaders are uniformly peace-loving. It’s because nuclear weapons are something that, by their nature and their expense, can be controlled by the state. Their continued existence is an ongoing existential threat to the human race, one that may still get us in the end, but if nuclear weapons were as easy to obtain and use as an AR-15, we’d have gone extinct years ago. It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of people would never use them, just as the vast majority of 3-D printed gun enthusiasts wouldn’t use their weapons to commit mass murder, just as the vast majority of biohackers wouldn’t abuse CRISPR. There are enough omnicidal maniacs out there that one, sooner or later, would press that button.

What Fearon highlighted is an extreme version of a collective action problem. If everyone eventually gains the power to potentially end the world, and governments are largely helpless to stop them, then the continued existence of the world depends on the collective action of all of us — all 7.4 billion and counting — to actively choose not to destroy the world.

Of course, no such omnicidal button exists, and it’s entirely possible that the technology that could create one will never be developed, or will be kept under tight control by governments. (Although given how difficult it is to prevent the spread of digital data — witness the losing battle against malware — that may eventually demand the kind of intrusive state surveillance that would make civil libertarians revolt.) But there’s a less extreme collective action problem that poses an existential threat to humanity today. It’s called climate change.

Climate change is, essentially, the sum of all our decisions. Our decisions to use fossil fuels. Our decisions to travel by car or jet. Our decisions to support politicians who deny the reality of global warming and work to thwart action to address it. And most of all, our decisions to prioritize the comfort of the present at the cost of the future.

It’s not that any of us consciously want to screw over the generations to come with hotter temperatures and more extreme weather. It’s that we’re each pursuing what we perceive as our individual good, the good of our family and close circle — the good of now. And through our collective actions, we create the catastrophe that is climate change, which will fall most heavily on the generations to come.

You can’t really blame us, according to Julian Savulescu. We are acting the way we evolved to act — biased towards the near future and the nearby, reluctant to sacrifice for the sake of those we’ll never meet and who have yet to exist. And that worked well enough for 10,000 years of civilization — until today, when this global village has the power to destroy itself through new weapons, through biotechnology, and through climate change.

“Our morality and our moral dispositions evolved to stop us from killing ourselves within our small group and to make sure that we cooperated with our small group,” says Savulescu, the Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford. “But they didn’t evolve to provide benefits to strangers or to deal with large numbers of individuals at risk. All those features mean we’re particularly badly placed to deal with large statistical threats like the use of biological weapons or global collective action problems like climate change.”

Essentially Savulescu believes that we “lack the moral capacities to deal with the sort of world we’ve created for ourselves.” Fortunately, he has a solution.

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.