The Need for Moral Enhancement

To understand humanity’s problems, revisit our origins: We’re slightly-evolved apes. In other words, evolution works slowly and our species remains burdened by biological baggage inherited from our caveman ancestors. The key insight is that our brains evolved in a much different kind of world than the one we find ourselves in now.

This simple fact – that the modern world is so unlike the primitive world in which our brains evolved – is profound: It’s the cause of humanity’s most daunting problems (for example: as detailed below, it explains why there’s starvation in the face of food enough for all, our indifference to the risks of global warming, and our economies and incentive systems that are becoming increasingly disconnected from human well-being).

Like a wild tiger attending a church service, our intelligence and default behavior are simply poorly-suited to modernity. But unlike the jungle-cat, who did not invent churches, modernity is humanity’s own invention. Over human history, we’ve continually sculpted and transformed our culture and environment, stretching our flexible (but primitive) instincts and intelligence to a breaking point.

Our manipulations of nature and our societal structures (like economies and politics) have reshaped the world and our way of life. But when natural evolution crafted our brains, it had no way of anticipating the future. So while this human-invented modernity is (for many of us) less brutal, more luxurious, and overall more wonderous, there’s a problem: The slow and steady growth of human morality lags far behind the fast and accelerating growth of our technology.

The worry is that in the limit, if we don’t find a way for our morality to catch up, the results are likely terminal. For example, take the simple question: Are we morally responsible enough to wield atomic bombs? Given that as a result of nuclear weapons, we’ve come frighteningly close to the precipice of annihilating our species, the answer seems a definitive no.

So, what’s to be done? If the alternative is potential extinction, it seems straight-forward and critical that we focus scientific resources on developing and putting into practice more effective moral teaching; and also exploring more radical approaches to more directly repair our outdated morality, perhaps even through altering our biology and the human condition.


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