In the last few years, the apocalypse has fascinated Hollywood: films like The War of the Worlds, I am Legend and The Happening may not have been major hits, but they are evidence of an ingtriguing undercurrent of cultural dread. And not only in Hollywood, but also in science – and bioethics. A couple of years ago astrophysicist Stephen Hawking concluded that “The long-term survival of the human race will be safe only if we spread out into space, and then to other stars. This won’t happen for at least 100 years so we have to be very careful. Perhaps, [in the meantime] we must hope that genetic engineering will make us wise and less aggressive.”
In the latest issue of the Journal of Applied Philosophy, bioethicist Julian Savelscus and Ingmar Persson discuss Hawking’s challenge. They see it as a dismal scenario of humanity’s cognitive development outpacing its moral development. “Cognitive enhancement by means of drugs, implants and biological (including genetic) interventions could thus accelerate the advance of science, or its application, and so increase the risk of the development or misuse of weapons of mass destruction.” In short, in scenarios familiar to fans of Batman movies, some seriously bad dudes could trash the whole world with nuclear weapons, bioweapons, or nanotechnology.
Eventually the solution, Savulescu and Persson feel, must surely be “moral enhancement” through genetic engineering or drugs. They point to research which shows that altruism and fairness are genetically determined. Unfortunately, “A moral enhancement of the magnitude required to ensure that this will not happen is not scientifically possible at present and is not likely to be possible in the near future.”
However, they contend, should it ever become possible on a mass scale, everyone must be enhanced: “If safe moral enhancements are ever developed, there are strong reasons to believe that their use should be obligatory, like education or fluoride in the water, since those who should take them are least likely to be inclined to use them. That is, safe, effective moral enhancement would be compulsory.” ~ Journal of Applied Philosophy, August