Moral Enhancement – Are we morally equipped to deal with humanities grand challenges? Anders Sandberg

The topic of Moral Enhancement is controversial (and often misrepresented); it is considered by many to be repugnant – provocative questions arise like “who’s morals?”, “who are the ones to be morally enhanced?”, “will it be compulsory?”, “won’t taking a morality pill decrease the value of the intended morality if it skips the difficult process we normally go through to become better people?”, “Shouldn’t people be concerned that use of enhancements which alter character traits might consumer’s authenticity?”

Humans have a built in capacity of learning moral systems from their parents and other people. We are not born with any particular moral [code] – but with the ability to learn it just like we learn languages. The problem is of course this built in facility might have worked quite well back in the Stone Age when we were evolving in small tribal communities – but doesn’t work that well when surrounded with a high-tech civilization, millions of other people and technology that could be
potentially very dangerous. So we might need to update our moral systems and that is the interesting question of moral enhancement: can we make ourselves more fit for a current work?Anders Sandberg - Are we morally equipped for the future?
Humans have an evolved capacity to learn moral systems – we became more adept at learning moral systems that aided our survival in the ancestral environment – but are our moral instincts fit for the future?

Illustration by Daniel Gray

Let’s build some context. For millennia humans have lived in complex social structures constraining and encouraging certain types of behaviour. More recently for similar reasons people go through years of education at the end of which (for the most part) are more able to morally function in the modern world – though this world is very different from that of our ancestors, and when considering the possibilities for vastly radical change at breakneck speed in the future, it’s hard to know how humans will keep up both intellectually and ethically. This is important to consider as the degree to which we shape the future for the good depends both on how well and how ethically we solve the problems needed to achieve change that on balance (all things equal) benefits humanity (and arguably all morally relevant life-forms).

Can we engineer ourselves to be more ethically fit for the future?

Peter Singer discussed how our circles of care and compassion have expanded over the years – through reason we have been able to expand our natural propensity to act morally and the circumstances in which we act morally.

We may need to expand our circle of ethical consideration to include artificial life – considering certain types of software as moral patients.

So, if we think we could use a boost in our propensity for ethical progress,

How do we actually achieve ideal Moral Enhancement?

That’s a big topic (see a list of papers on the subject of ME here) – the answers may depend on what our goals and  preferences. One idea (among many others) is to regulate the level of Oxytocin (the cuddle hormone) – though this may come with the drawback of increasing distrust in the out-group.
Since morality depends on us being able to make accurate predictions and solve complex ethical problems, ‘Intelligence Enhancement‘ could be an effective aspect of moral enhancement. 

Morality is dependent on us being able to predict what’s going to happen when we do something. So various forms of intelligence enhancement might be very useful also for becoming more moral. Our ability to control our reactions that allow our higher-order values to control our lower order values is also important, that might actually require us to literally rewire or have biochips that help us do it.Anders Sandberg - Are we morally equipped for the future?

How we decide whether to use Moral Enhancement Therapy will be interesting – it may be needed to help solve global coordination problems; to increase the likelihood that we will, as a civilization, cooperate and cope with many known and as yet to be realised complex ethical quandaries as we move through times of unprecedented social and technological change.

This interview is part of a larger series that was completed in Oxford, UK late 2012.

Interview Transcript

Anders Sandberg

So humans have a kind of built-in capacity of learning moral systems from their parents and other people we’re not born with any particular moral [code] but the ability to learn it just like we can learn languages. The problem is of course this built-in facility might have worked quite well back in the Stone Age when we were evolving in small tribal communities – but doesn’t work that well when surrounded with a high-tech civilization, millions of other people and technology that could be potentially very dangerous. So we might need to update our moral systems. And that is the interesting question of moral enhancement:

  • can we make ourselves more fit for a current work?
  • And what kind of fitness should we be talking about?

For example we might want to improve on altruism – that we should be coming to strangers. But in a big society, in a big town – of course there are going to be some stranger’s that you shouldn’t trust. So it’s not just blind trust you want to enhance – you actually want to enhance ability to make careful judgements; to figure out what’s going to happen on whom you can trust. So maybe you want to have some other aspect, maybe the care – the circle of care – is what you want to expand.

Peter Singer pointed out that there are circles of care and compassion have been slowly expanding from our own tribe and their own gender, to other genders, to other people and eventually maybe to other species. But this is still biologically based a lot of it is going on here in the brain and might be modified. Maybe we should artificially extend these circles of care to make sure that we actually do care about those entities we ought to be caring about. This might be a problem of course, because some of these agents might be extremely different for what we used to.

For example machine intelligence might produce more machines or software that is a ‘moral patient’ – we actually ought to be caring about the suffering of software. That might be very tricky because our pattern receptors up in the brain are not very tuned for that – we tend to think that if it’s got a face and the speaks then it’s human and then we can care about it. But who thinks about Google? Maybe we could get super-intelligences that we actually ought to care a lot about, but we can’t recognize them at all because they’re so utterly different from ourselves.

So there are some easy ways of modifying how we think and react – for example by taking a drug. So the hormone oxytocin is sometimes called ‘the cuddle hormone’ – it’s released when breastfeeding and when having bodily contact with your loved one, and it generally seems to be making us more altruistic; more willing to trust strangers. You can kind of sniff it and run an economic game and you can immediately see a change in response. It might also make you a bit more ego-centric. It does enlarge feelings of comfort and family friendliness – except that it’s
only within what you consider to be your family. So we might want to tweak that.

Similarly we might think about adding links to our brains that allow us to think in better ways. After all, morality is dependent on us being able to predict what’s going to happen when we do something. So various forms of intelligence enhancement might be very useful also for becoming more moral. Our ability to control our reactions that allow our higher-order values to control our lower order values is also important, that might actually require us to literally rewire or have biochips that help us do it.

But most important is that we need the information we need to retrain the subtle networks in a brain in order to think better. And that’s going to require something akin to therapy – it might not necessarily be about lying on a sofa and telling your psychologist about your mother. It might very well be a bit of training, a bit of cognitive enhancement, maybe a bit of brain scanning – to figure out what actually ails you. It’s probably going to look very very different from anything Freud or anybody else envisioned for the future.

But I think in the future we’re actually going to try to modify ourselves so we’re going to be extra certain, maybe even extra moral, so we can function in a complex big world.

 

Related Papers

Neuroenhancement of Love and Marriage: The Chemicals Between Us

Anders contributed to this paper ‘Neuroenhancement of Love and Marriage: The Chemicals Between Us‘. This paper reviews the evolutionary history and biology of love and marriage. It examines the current and imminent possibilities of biological manipulation of lust, attraction and attachment, so called neuroenhancement of love. We examine the arguments for and against these biological interventions to influence love. We argue that biological interventions offer an important adjunct to psychosocial interventions, especially given the biological limitations inherent in human love.

Human Engineering and Climate Change

Anders also contributed to the paper “Human Engineering and Climate Change” which argues that cognitive, moral and biological enhancement could increase human ecological sustainability.

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Adam Ford
– Science, Technology & the Future: http://scifuture.org

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