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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

The Fragility of Moral Traits to Technological Interventions

J. Fabiano
Neuroethics 14, 269–281 (2021). 


I will argue that deep moral enhancement is relatively prone to unexpected consequences. I first argue that even an apparently straightforward example of moral enhancement such as increasing human co-operation could plausibly lead to unexpected harmful effects. Secondly, I generalise the example and argue that technological intervention on individual moral traits will often lead to paradoxical effects on the group level. Thirdly, I contend that insofar as deep moral enhancement targets higher-order desires (desires to desire something), it is prone to be self-reinforcing and irreversible. Fourthly, I argue that the complex causal history of moral traits, with its relatively high frequency of contingencies, indicates their fragility. Finally, I conclude that attempts at deep moral enhancement pose greater risks than other enhancement technologies. For example, one of the major problems that moral enhancement is hoped to address is lack of co-operation between groups. If humanity developed and distributed a drug that dramatically increased co-operation between individuals, we would likely see a paradoxical decrease in co-operation between groups and a self-reinforcing increase in the disposition to engage in further modifications – both of which are potential problems.

Conclusion: Fragility Leads to Increased Risks 

Any substantial technological modification of moral traits would be more likely to cause harm than benefit. Moral traits have a particularly high proclivity to unexpected disturbances, as exemplified by the co-operation case, amplified by its self-reinforcing and irreversible nature and finally as their complex aetiology would lead one to suspect. Even the most seemingly simple improvement, if only slightly mistaken, is likely to lead to significant negative outcomes. Unless we produce an almost perfectly calibrated deep moral enhancement, its implementation will carry large risks. Deep moral enhancement is likely to be hard to develop safely, but not necessarily be impossible or undesirable. Given that deep moral enhancement could prevent extreme risks for humanity, in particular decreasing the risk of human extinction, it might as well be the case that we still should attempt to develop it. I am not claiming that our current traits are well suited to dealing with global problems. On the contrary, there are certainly reasons to expect that there are better traits that could be brought about by enhancement technologies. However, I believe my arguments indicate there are also much worse, more socially disruptive, traits accessible through technological intervention.