Unfit for the Future: The need for moral bioenhancement

Professor Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford

Co-presented with The Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine (VELiM)

7 May

The greatest problems of the 21st century - climate change, environmental degradation, terrorism, poverty, global inequality, mass migration, depletion of resources, infectious diseases, abuse and neglect of children – are predominantly the result of human choice and behaviour. The greatest problems humanity now faces are not the result of external threat, but are the result of human choice. They are caused by human moral limitations.

Human moral psychology has been shaped by its evolutionary history. It is characterized by aggression, restricted altruism, partiality to kin and in-group members, hostility and disregard of out-group members, bias towards the near future and limited co-operation including free riding. These dispositions have generated common sense moralities which are characterized by strong prohibitions against harming in-group members, few requirements for beneficence or aiding, especially out-group members, a causal sense of responsibility which places greater weight on the consequences of acts in the near future, affecting in-group members, with little consideration given to the foreseeable consequences of omissions.

These dispositions and articulated moral norms expose humanity to unprecedented threats in the modern world of advanced technology and global community. Liberal democracy increases the threat our limited moral dispositions pose to our survival and flourishing. I will focus on terrorism, global poverty and climate change. I argue that we should not rest content with our current strategies for addressing these problems. I argue that we should look to not only policies tailored to our moral limitations, but to altering the biological dispositions which contribute to these limitations. I sketch briefly how this might be possible. I argue that research into human moral bioenhancement is an urgent priority.

Julian Savulescu

Professor Julian Savulescu holds the Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford. He is the Director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics within the Faculty of Philosophy. He is Director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, which is one of three strategic centres in biomedical ethics in the UK funded by the Wellcome Trust. He is also Director of the Institute for Science and Ethics (which is one of the 10 founding Institutes within the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. He is also Principal Investigator for a major Arts and Humanities Research Council grant on Cognitive Science and Religious Conflict, and Co-Investigator of an Economic and Social Research Council grant on Geoengineering.

He is a recognised world leader in the field of practical ethics. He is author of over 250 publications. He is Editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics and founding editor of Journal of Practical Ethics, an open access journal in Practical Ethics to be launched in 2013. His book, co-authored with Ingmar Persson, Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement was published by OUP in July 2012.