Printed: 2018-06-24

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

IEET Link:

Transhumanism and Moral Enhancement

Alex Nichols

Ethical Technology

October 18, 2014

With futurist thinkers supporting the notion of human upgrading through technological enhancement, what parameters are considered in respect to moral enhancement? What cross cultural barriers and variations in moral reasoning are we targeting for such upgrades? Moreover, is moral enhancement simply a term we fear delving into despite the association it arguably has to almost everything our culture produces?

We must consider how we define, evaluate, and consolidate understandings of morality if Transhumanists are encompassing a goal of exploring and improving this human characteristic. Even if we aren't immediately aware of the moral spectrum exponential technologies reach, we will only increase both the number and complexity of questions linked to ethics as our pace quickens for producing these new technologies.
Our motives to paint the external world as a reflection of our collective mind, coupled with the restless desire to connect with each other and improve human nature seems to be a driving force behind the perpetual increase in technology. The application and evidence of Moore's law found in our history and current technological trends further supports the need to have a more robust system regarding the ethical implications. Subsequently, these innovations display a sort of subtle gesture about our moral framework. Thus, our own notions of morality are conveyed in these technologies like sprouting branches from a tree and ultimately are extensions of our selves and belong to a feedback loop highlighting insights to our moral roots. 
However, this doesn't mean that our technology is predisposed to consistently yield positive results. As an example, in 1952, Edward Teller invented the hydrogen bomb. The hydrogen bomb was an upgrade from the atomic bomb, which came prior to via the work of the Manhattan Project. Equally as earth shattering as the detonation footage, was the eerie statement issued by Robert Oppenheimer attempting to grasp the implications of this invention.
"We knew the world would not be the same, few people laughed, few people cried, most peolpe were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu Scripture the Bhagavad Gita, Vishnu, is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says 'now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds'. I suppose we all thought that, one way or another. (1)
Technology is a kind of double edged sword. Evidently, you can use it to create cell phones, cars, Hubble space telescopes...and many other seemingly positive innovations. Similarly, we can build automatic weapons, explosives, engineer viruses...and so fourth. If we speak of 'enhancement' as one of the central goals for Transhumanists's visions, it is well warranted to accelerate the dive into the deep pool of themes encompassing overall moral enhancement.
To highlight the complexity of moral enhancement, let's consider the rapid progress in genetics. Imagine a world where the majority of the public would support mandatory screening of children at a young age for their likelihood of becoming psychopaths measured by their levels of empathy. How might we go about morally upgrading children and what would this entail? Moreover, should these children deemed 'at risk' be upgraded? Is it a biological reset button in the brain by the growth or removal of certain neurological structures? How then does the potential of determinism and free will interrupt this? The list goes on of moral and ethical dilemmas that would exist, and many of which are presently creeping into reality.
Technology is a reflection of our human culture. For morality, I argue that we can't take a cultural relativist stance where we halt moral judgements given cultural differences. This idea of abandoning criticisms and openly discussions on the assumption of relativism is an excuse for evading an honest conversation about both our and others conceptions of morality. This isn't to say that in light of an open conversation, moral behavior will be clearly outlined with a global template to follow.
However, just as we've dedicated thought to developing our culture in other ways, the steady weave of moral undertones reveals its shadow in many if not all our cultural expressions. With this in mind, it merits our attention to address how we are developing as moral creatures. Therefore, revamping global discussions in ethics and morality seems to only help shape a trajectory for a more refined understanding of the myriad of ways in which our extensions of ourselves and our culture (via technology) prevail or are stunted for reevaluation. 
There is always a period where a technology will appear to fit the initial purpose it was designed for. After which, we see some other uses that we might not have anticipated such as the endless list of benefits cell phones provide with instant communication and access to information. Yet, forecasting their use in vehicles such as texting and driving was something we realized later.
What does the invention of smartphones say about us ethically (if anything) and could we pinpoint the ways in which cell phones have benefited us from a moral standpoint? Naturally, this shouldn't force us to reconsider releasing technologies like cell phones, but it does justify motives for us to increase our ability to continue monitoring and putting our best efforts to anticipate potentials involved with each new innovation.
Especially with the notion of exponential trends and what that will entail us to consider with respect to more profound changes in artificial intelligence, robotics, and genetics to name a few. We don't evolve as fast as technology does, even though we might see them as extensions of our selves. We need to reconfigure out moral compass to account for as many variables linked to the production of exponential trends in technological innovation. How we can try and accommodate this is something I firmly believe deserves a great deal more attention.

Alex Nichols currently lives in San Francisco California working at Lyft. Attending the University of British Columbia in Vancouver BC, he graduated with a BA in psychology and a minor in philosophy where he studied under the tutelage of two pioneers in health and cultural psychology.


Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
IEET, 35 Harbor Point Blvd, #404, Boston, MA 02125-3242 USA
phone: 860-428-1837