Book review: Unfit for the Future

Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement. Ingmar Persson & Julian Savulescu. Oxford University Press.

The core thesis of Unfit for the Future is that human morality evolved to allow cooperation and altruism in small groups, but that we today face challenges requiring extensive global coordination. Challenges such as weapons of mass destruction and climate change require both individual humans and nation-states to make various kinds of sacrifices for the benefit of all, but it is currently very unlikely to get everyone to actually make such sacrifices. Humans do have moral emotions such as a sense of justice and fairness that cause them to willingly make sacrifices in order to benefit those they know, but international cooperation requires trusting and helping faceless strangers – and humans have also evolved to be naturally suspicious or even xenophobic towards people outside their tribe. Since traditional moral education isn’t enough to overcome these challenges, we need to engage in “moral enhancement” and alter our biological moral dispositions.

The tone of the book is very academic and rational: there are few if any appeals to emotion, and logical reasoning from first principles is almost purely the style of argument. This makes the authors’ train of thought relatively clear to follow, though it also makes for a rather dry reading, and things are occasionally expressed in needlessly convoluted ways.

The best part of the book is the explanation of the coordination challenges involved with international cooperation, of why rational self-interest isn’t enough to overcome the challenges, and how our commonsense morality has evolved to solve some of these problems. The reader is assumed to already be mostly on board with the notion of risks from climate change and WMDs: some time is spent on explaining these risks, but probably not enough to sell the topic as a really extreme one for someone new to it.

Surprisingly, the book spends relatively little time (one chapter) talking about actual moral enhancement, and few concrete enhancement methods are proposed. Rather, there are a few examples of developing technologies that could be useful for moral enhancement, and a suggestion that more research be dedicated to developing more enhancement methods. Some criticisms of moral enhancement are discussed and argued against. The book concentrates on establishing the need for moral enhancement, not on proposing specific enhancement methods.

The main weakness of the book is that it does not always seem to engage with the strongest possible opposing arguments. A minor thesis that’s offered is that we should be ready to give up our privacy in order to prevent terrorists with WMDs, because of the untold damage that those terrorists could cause. The authors move to dismiss people having any moral right to privacy in only four (!) pages, and do so by considering two possible defenses for privacy: that violating privacy requires violating property rights, and that having one’s privacy violated makes one uncomfortable. The former is rendered irrelevant by the possibility of privacy violations that do not violate property rights (such as mind-reading devices or scanners that could see and hear through walls). The latter is rejected on the grounds that if you could forbid people from knowing something about you simply because it made you feel uncomfortable, “you could acquire very extensive rights against others just by being extremely sensitive about what others think of you”.

Leaving aside the fact that the latter argument is excessively simplistic, there is no absolutely no discussion of the fact that privacy gives people the chance to do harmless things for which they might nonetheless be discriminated against. Homosexual acts are the classic example, but even if one made the (false) assumption that liberal democracies – in the context of which the authors mostly frame their discussion – no longer exhibited homophobia, there are plenty of more examples to be found. Perhaps a person became sexually aroused by looking at (entirely non-sexual) pictures of children or animals, or enjoyed violent pornography, but would nevertheless never harm a soul. Ironically, a major part of the authors’ argument is that it is easier to destroy than to create, and that we find potential harms to be more pressing than an equivalent amount of potential gain. It is exactly because of such reasons that people who were thought to be possibly dangerous would be harshly and unfairly discriminated against – because even if the risk of them actually harming anyone would be small, few people would be willing to take that risk.

Nor do the authors discuss the fact that a lack of privacy could lead to excessive self-censorship, with even people who wouldn’t be discriminated against for acting according to their desires restricting their behavior just in case (again, the potential for harms outweighing the potential for gains). And once people could perfectly observe the behavior of everyone else, and see that everybody was acting conservatively, then even behavior that was previously within normal bounds might be come to be seen as suspicious, leading to an ever-more conformist, cautious, and unhappy society. The human suffering of such a development gives reason to believe in a strong moral right to privacy, and the suffering in question might easily outweigh the suffering from even several nuclear terrorist attacks. But aside for briefly mentioning that a fear of terrorism might cause some ethnic minorities to be unfairly discriminated against, the authors consider none of this.

It might also be somewhat distracting for some that the authors are clearly left-wing, which leads them to occasionally make ideological claims which are not very well-defended. For example, the authors briefly mention prevailing economic inequality as an example of one of humanity’s moral failings, citing differences between the poorest and richest nations as well as the poorest and richest people within some Western countries. None of the arguments for economic inequality of this form not necessarily being a bad thing are addressed. Fortunately, for the most part the left-wing digressions are minor points, and possible disagreement with them does not detract from the book’s major theses.

Overall, the book makes a nice argument for its core thesis, but could have been made much stronger by improving the strawmannish discussion of privacy, removing or better supporting ideologically contentious points, making the risk from WMDs better argued for, and by spending more time discussing moral enhancement itself, not just the need for it.

5 comments

  1. Regarding a hypothetical future world with zero privacy (and no other major disruption relative to our time), an interesting question is to what extent some groups of people would manage to find ways for plausibly deniable secret communication and conniving. I can imagine various ways in which this could be done even under constant audio-video surveillance of every square inch of Earth’s surface, and even if all this information is a matter of permanent public record.

    This suggests an interesting scenario in which vast power is held by an elite of brilliant secret communicators, who are ostensibly just following the same rules as everyone else.

  2. David Airth

    I found the premise of the book interesting. But it also got under my skin, the part about being morally unfit for the future. Has humankind ever been morally fit for the future? What also bothered me about it is its talk about artificial moral enhancement and the added authoritarianism to get us there. (We have already been there with communism.) As I view it, any moral enhancement we have achieved in the past has come through experience, more convincingly than through government dictates or fiat as our authors seem to want.

    I was particularly distressed by the authors’ attitude towards liberal democracy. If they took my view they would appreciate its ascendency and triumph over communist authoritarianism as a moral win for humankind. After all, as a governance liberal democracy is the result of an enlightenment, of open societies being best at reflecting the needs and aspirations of humankind. One thing that liberal democracy does well, better than any other system, is cultivate and accumulate human capital. Such capital will be needed in the future to discover solutions and new technologies to make life more sustainable.

    Liberal democracy has also worked to defuse one of the characteristics our authors say has hindered humankind’s moral enhancement, tribalism. Liberal democracy has fought tribalism and its isolationism through secularism and pluralism with remarkable success.

    One thing our authors don’t seem to have any clue about is the economic consequences of what they propose. That is because they have not interested in such rudimentary fundamentals, like most academics. If the methods they propose came to pass there would be such economic and social upheavals that any further advancement of humankind would have to take a distant back seat.

    I never was very interested in morals. But this book really got me going.

  3. Joao Lourenco

    I don’t think it is the case that any plausible ideology (left or right) would sate that a big social inequality isn’t bad. Research on this seem to overly point out that inequality tracks violence, low human development, economic instability and so on. This point doesn’t need arguing.
    The book doesn’t mention many concrete ways for moral enhancement because there aren’t none. The purpose of the book is precisely to foster research on that area. Savulescu and others (myself included) are currently perusing this line of research, but nothing concrete has come up yet.

  4. On the self-censorship harm, it may be argued that the authors are suggesting a position that is, prima facie, very radical (vast censorship and no rights to privacy). If they want to increase the range of opinions of their target readers, presenting the most radical case may be prolific in that people may be directed towards that extreme point from their original view, though the pulling strength won’t be enough to get readers to plunge the whole way.
    In other words, sometimes the pragmatically optimal opinion to argue for is much more radical than the one you actually want people to get to, article names being the primary example.

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