IEET > Vision > Advisory Board > Marc Roux > HealthLongevity > Sociology > Philosophy > Innovation
Marc Roux   Jun 14, 2016   Technoprog  

Transhumanists, as good humanists, think the human can be perfected, both physically and morally. Any difference in humans basically is a consequence of philosophy, education, culture or law, that is to say political consensus. Transhumanists now include technology as a means of continuing human enhancement (and not as certain unenlightened commentators jokingly wrote as a substitute thereof). Notwithstanding centuries of legislation, culture, education and philosophy, progress, which the philosophers of the « Enlightenment » called Virtue, seems to be blocked by the remains of the biological condition of humans.

Originally published in french on Technoprog on Nov 12, 2015 translated by JMIacino

What predispositions block our desire for higher moral behaviors ? In the future, which new technologies will permit us to wisely modulate them ? And towards what moral enhancement? These are the issues I want to explore in the perspective of progressing towards a type of enhancement upon which depends perhaps the quality, if not the essence, of transhumanist thinking.

1. Weight of Palaeontological Influences

All constructions (social, cultural, religious, philosophic) resulting from humans living in large societies have not eradicated the factors prevailing before the Neolithic revolution, far from that (1). Our culture appears to be a varnish, or a more or less thin bark, covering the brain of Homo sapiens.

Bottom line, there’s an idea, which neurosciences will confirm sooner or later, that our strongest drives, our emotions and a large part of our feelings, are not that different than those of our species 10 000 years ago. Depending on our understanding of the theory of evolution, these changes that humans have triggered in their environment, even significant, have only caused minor genetic modifications.

Said otherwise, we are always genetically predisposed to survive according to pre-Holocene conditions, a time when humans, organized in small nomadic communities, often far from one another, had to be able to confront their perpetual uncertainties if they would have enough to eat, foul weather, other animals and all the dangers of their savage lives.

These conditions, which have prevailed for the last ten million years and which are globally those of the animal world, determine certain specific capacities. For example, fear, which in general initially provokes a reflex of paralysis, rendering the prey more discreet, is often followed by the production of adrenaline permitting the same prey either to flee as fast as possible or defend with all its force. Other emotions or physical constraints (e.g., hunger, desire to defend its offspring, etc.) can result in advantageous violence.

During the period of the first Homo sapiens, the tendency to easily become aggressive was evidently a selective advantage-a life or death question. But now, this same tendency can lead you before a court, or land you in prison or in certain countries, kill you (capital punishment).

-Geographical Limits of Empathy

Another analysis of the consequences of our moral feelings, our paleontological origins, was undertaken by two philosophers of the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute, Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Perrson (2) who consider that humans are basically incapable of being interested in persons with whom they are not in close contact. Originally, humans were only capable of having empathic feelings for their family circle, their tribe and even their clan. Beyond, distrust of foreigners.

Today, neither television nor internet has modified the basic these underlying conditions of empathy. Notwithstanding that certain of our circles are now virtual and our relations are based on the telecommunications network, our true empathic capacity is nevertheless still confined to restrained dimensions (3).

Consequently, even today our brains are inapt to even envisage peaceful cohabitation, much less to have feelings of belonging to a community of millions or billions of persons.

-Henri Laborit : Domination-Origins and Consequences

There is another theory which is of capital importance for our subject. This theory was developed several decades ago, but most of its principles have been forgotten - it is the « domination » theory.

In the 1970s, Professor Henri Laborit demonstrated by a series of experiments with laboratory rats that in a social environment created by the presence of the others but which is agonizing (e.g., threat of pain), the individuals amongst themselves adopted three types of solutions to evacuate the anxiety : fleeing (if possible) ; submission (including depression) ; or domination (exercising arbitrary power over the others).

In his famous work , entitled « Eulogy of fleeing», Professor Laborit showed that both humans as well as rats frequently adopt a submissive attitude in society( authority of the : family, school teacher, boss, chef, law, etc.), nearly without exception, all the individuals, even the most timid, the most peaceful or the most reserved, try as often as possible to regain a position of dominance(4).

To be dominant does not require a very defined authority and it does not only exists between persons who are in apparent opposition. To the contrary, we are daily dominant, nearly in an unconscious, way even in relation to people who are the closest to us (friends, spouses, children, etc.). A “nothing” can be sufficient : having the last word, being sarcastic, attenuating the humor of a joke, negligently showing contempt, etc.(5) Even the youngest children are capable of using it among themselves. Anyone who has watched less than two year old babies disputed the same toy even though several identical toys are available, understands what we are saying.

The consequences of dominance not only can be often detrimental to our social relations, they can be catastrophic : diplomatic negotiations fail because the politicians cannot control their need to dominate. Accumulating the consequence of collective dominance, nationalistic drives have lead to wars. In fact, it is not impossible that a very large part of deep seated pains which Humanity still cannot shed result from this predisposition.

The last thing that Henri Laborit said in the film « My Uncle of America » of Alain Resnais is :

« Until it is widely communicated to the people of this planet how their brain works, how they use it and until it is said that it always has been used to dominate others, there is little chance that anything changes. »

2. Intervene Neurologically

Aggressive tendency, need to be dominant, limits of empathy and and how many other factors?  Until now, the means humanists have implemented to canalize our collective tendencies of auto-destruction appear to have been vain. Western civilization has dramatically experienced it during the XX century. Even though the sum of their technical, political and social progress since the Renaissance and the « century of Enlightenment » held out hope of a future positively radiant, unthinkable barbarities resulted.

Today as yesterday, the major actors of world politics do not appear to have any faith in humanistic values. We are always under the regime of Realpolitik (, where manipulations, widespread spying, publicity propaganda, and if needed, armed action directed against civilian populations are used (6). Invoking humanitarian causes or cultural alibis no longer fool anyone.

It is possible in coming years that new solutions permitting a real improvement of social behavior can result from technical progress. During centuries, our capacities to technically intervene on our moral predispositions were empirical and derisory. Their use were nearly always dangerous and often catastrophic. Recourse to different drugs, notably by the shamans, is without any doubt, thousands and thousands of years old and the trepanation has been known at least since Antiquity. Each of them were used until the XX century in an approach totally spasmodic. Discoveries of the electrical functioning of the brain and of the XIX century sciences resulted in the use of electroshocks: literature and the cinema are richly replete of accounts witnessing the quasi inefficiency, and often the atrocity, of these approaches.

Our capacities to neurologically intervene today and in recent decades have gone beyond the exploratory phase and have inaugurated sufficiently secure ways. They have progressed in various directions.

The psychotropic pharmacopeia has produced drugs such as fluoxetine of clorhydrate (Prozac) and methylphenidate (Ritaline) which today are used for a public which is often considered fragile (e.g., children). Even if their efficiency to improve mental health is subject to discussion (but not so much their primary purpose as an antidepressant or a psychostimulant), these molecules, more than any authorized drug, have the advantage of safely permitting widespread evaluations. (7) Microsurgery has developed miniaturized electrode systems having a thickness of a tenth of a millimeter capable of reaching the heart of the brain to stimulate more and more specific zones. Today, deep brain stimulation is capable of regulating neuronal activity so as to eliminate symptoms such as those of the Parkinson disease. It is not impossible that subsequently, analogous procedures, even less invasive, will treat other behavioral problems.

Even more promising is the realization of brain implants at the neuron level. A team has developed microprocessor interface in a broken neuron network (8). The system is capable of recovering the signal at the base of the network and restoring it beyond the damaged section. Several laboratories are working on microchips capable of doing the same thing for the primary neuron network.(9) The system will be able to modulate the signal transmitted. When we know that several teams, notably at IBM, are also working on processors which imitate the functioning of the neuron, it is not impossible to think that one day we will be able to implant complete artificial neurons (10).

Other avenues exist. The genetic genius could allow us to develop brain cells, even brain architectures better adapted to our objectives. If the most ambitious promises of the nanotechnologies are realized, we will be able to intervene, with precision, inside the nerve cells. Direct neuron interfacing will permit influencing the brain from a computer. Magnetic or electric transcranial stimulation offers the advantage of not being invasive. Certain of its results are encouraging.(11)

Finally, different empirically based technical methods aimed at improving ethics, such as neurofeedback and empathy training in virtual reality simulators, are to be mentioned.

In general, progress anticipated from neurosciences, such as technical methods derived from imaging or scanning the brain, in which all of the important scientific nations are financing massively, should provide us, during the XXI century, with more precise and efficient means of intervening than we know today.

3. What moral enhancement ?

We have come to the point where it is necessary to reply, if possible, to the difficult question: “What moral is to be enhanced?”

It is necessary to clarify that the moral to be enhanced is not the “Moral” in the sense of morals in particular. The purpose is not to focus on “moral” as noun, e.g., as a complete set of behavioral rules considered as absolutely appropriate or resulting from a certain conception of life (Larousse dictionary). The purpose is to focus on the adjective “moral”. In French, the adjective, “moral” has a double meaning: it is often used in relation to all of the social codes; it also means “thinking”. Even so, our purpose is not to limit our objective to simply increasing cognitive performances. The question is if we can identify a collective consensus beyond cultural and religious morals, to bring us closer to a just and harmonious social life. For example, Western tradition progressively gave birth to the Enlightenment, Human Rights and the so-called Universal Declaration. The nations of the world were invited to adhere to this Declaration. If many signed it for diplomatic reasons, all were not authors, and did not necessarily recognizing its true values. As formulated by the philosopher (and sinologist) François Jullien, Human Rights do not exactly express universal values but bear what he calls “universalizing”. They constitute a good basis necessary for the research of a consensus among nations (12).

Is there another way that intercultural dialogue can elucidate the idea of a moral enhancement accepted by all? On such a base, perhaps we can generally agree what it will be individually and collectively desirable to have the possibility to choose how we regulate our emotions, improve our capacity to contemplate life, develop our curiosity, our compassion, our sense of humor, our tolerance, our ability to accept uncertainty…(13).

Another factor appears certain. From notably a Western standpoint, enhancing morals is only acceptable if it is a consequence of an individual’s free choice. Based on this premise, it is out of the question to impose Morals or a particular Moral. The moral dimension referred to, its characterization as “bonnes moeurs”(i.e., the prevailing standards at a given time of decency, religion and culture of a given country or people), is only relevant if the concerned person accepts the social contract. Theoretically, in a democracy, we citizens willingly accept to be governed by law because we understand that a good law is profitable for all. Likewise, we can accept enhancement which we know will modify something basic in our biology because we anticipate an increase of happiness and personal serenity and more harmony and social justice. Therefore it is not conceivable of any coercion other than that we decide to impose on ourselves.

We must also note that this type of free and responsible choice must be valid for parents, children to be born and minors. From a transhumanist point of view, it is clear that in the context of respecting the compulsory social protection of children, it is responsibility of the parents to choose (or to accompany the choice of adolescents) to develop the potential of moral enhancement of their children.

Before articulating our conclusion, a word about “free choice”.

There may be concern about what will happen to the real freedom of conscious if a certain number of important moral behavioral parameters of a person are modified or introduced unilaterally at conception. For me, this concern results from a fantastical projection of our power of control. In fact, given the complexity of the organization of the matter and of the living, there is always a significant indefinite number of factors which escape and will continue to escape from the human desire to control (desire which is a direct reaction to our existential anxiety). The complexity as well the chaos of the biological organization have the advantage of rendering irreducible the indetermination of our life. In other words, as neither a given education or culture are sufficient conditions to trace an individual’s destiny, technologically engendered “moral enhancement” will not eradicate a person’s fundamental freedom.

To the contrary, we need to be able to envisage what  “moral enhancement” would be sought ?. What would become of human society or societies if the need to dominate is reduced, if in human relations emotional understanding and compassion became widespread, if within political organizations the elected were not principally motivated by their need to be recognized or to be powerful but by the true desire to serve their co-citizens, if in intercommunity relations, violence was not considered a solution?

In a world where technical progress allows massive violence which threatens Humanity itself to be in the hands of a smaller and smaller number of persons, moral enhancement could simply become necessary to guarantee the continuation of the common adventure.

Are moral predispositions of humans as we know them so ideal that they are untouchable? So sacred ? Is it not our education and culture which prohibits us from acting otherwise? Do we not have every motivation, individually and collectively, to improve them by all of our means?


1. James Hughes nevertheless reports an interesting hypothesis that from the first agrarian and sedentary societies, the number of the most aggressive men (high testosterone production) was diminished by social constraint, their excesses leading them to be morally and institutionally condemned. Progressively, they were no longer in a power position to transmit their genetic patrimony. Hughes, Ieet, “Enhancing virtues:Caring(Part two)” 2014

2. Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson, “Unfit for the Future-The Need for Moral Enhancement” OUP 2012

3. See for example, “The Number of Dunbar” a theory establishing the average size of communities in which we are capable of reciprocal empathy at 150 persons.

4. Henri Laborit, « Eloge de la fuite » 1976.

5. The play of Nathalie Sarraute « Pour un oui ou pour un non » in which two friends fight after one commented to the other that one day he had replied “that’s exactly right” After he bragged he won.


7.Concerning this subject, see the Opinion No 122 of the CCNE on neuro improvement (February 2014) and its recommendations. A summary and comments of this Opinion were published in this review [Link].

8. “Brain-Computer interface restores Brain Connectivity in Injured Rats”

9. ”How DARPA’s Brain Chip Could Restore Lost Memories” MIT Technology Review. “Memory Implants”.

10. “IBM Cracks Open a New Era of Computing with Brain-Like Chip:4096 Cores. 1 Million Neurons. 5.4 Billion Transistors”.

11. J. Wood, “The Ethic of Brain Boosting” in Rémi Sussan Frontière grise, p.75.

12. François Jullien, « De l’universel », Fayard, 2008

13. J. Hughes, Ieet, « Enhancing Virtues » opus cit.

Marc Roux is the chair and co-founder of the French Transhumanist Association Technoprog!


“moral enhancement could simply become necessary to guarantee the continuation of the common adventure.” And that process has already started, but from outside any existing religious or scientific milieu. Both self limited by the contraints imposed by evolution.

“For individuals prepared to think for themselves, with the intellectual integrity to shake off their existing prejudices and will explore outside the cultural box of history, who are able to stand against the tides of tribal, peer, group think, and all fashionable thought and spin, with the humility to accept correction and the moral courage to learn something new, who will TEST, discover and confirm this new insight for themselves, an intellectual and moral revolution is under way; where the once impossible becomes inevitable, by the most potent, political, progressive, Non Violent Direct Action never imagined. One able to advance peace, justice, change and progress and which the modern corporate/national security state can neither stop nor interfere with.”

Moral enhancement and evolution is an interest of mine. I would suggest we have the technology to rewrite some of the software which determines our moral outlook, and it doesn’t pick one set of morals over another. Unfortunately, the technology is either misunderstood, improperly utilized or demonized for the misuse by people in power.

This technology is religious practice, as I have argued in some of my articles from years previous.

Studies have shown that contemplative prayer and meditation increase the activity in the brain which leads to compassion and empathy. This is the disciplined meditation which sees the world as it is and our place in it, detaching ourselves from our own desires, not the fast food version touted as the newest ‘drug’ to get us through the day.

Ecstatic experiences, often spoken about as religious experience, also has a positive effect on a person’s ability to empathize with others. In spite of the ‘God Helmet’  developed by Stanley Koren, whether we can manufacture such an experience is doubtful, but we can encourage ourselves and our children to be open to such happenings.

Singing in groups has been shown to be beneficial in a large number of ways, not the least is more openness to people who share the experience or similar experience ever if we don’t know them.

One I would add, which has not been studied in any way is that a focus on something larger than oneself helps to puts personal experience and desire into context. When we become our own gods, there is little reason to change our morals.

Note none of these require a traditional theistic religion, though such religions have centuries of practice. Also note, belonging to a religion is no guarantee that a person will practice any of the above. Too often religion is the ongoing search for excuses to act badly.

One last point, epigenetics suggests that our experiences and environment changes the DNA we pass onto the next generation. Thus teaching these skills whether in a religious or other environment will affect future generation.

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: Evan Selinger on Algorithmic Outsourcing and the Value of Privacy

Previous entry: New Evidence Suggests a Fifth Fundamental Force of Nature