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Making nice: Julian Savulescu and the case for moral bioenhancement

Philosopher and bioethicist Julian Savulescu joins host Peter Mares for a conversation on the potential for moral bioenhancement through direct brain stimulation, pharmacology or genetics, and the ethical implications of such interventions.

PETER MARES
I'm Peter Mares, thanks for joining us. The idea that we can build a better society by improving human behaviour has been profoundly influential throughout history. It's a concept that is central to the world's great religions and one that has animated philosophical discussions across the centuries. Primarily there are two established ways in which we seek to enhance ethical behaviour. The first is through education, starting with the way we bring up children, teaching them from a young age to understand the difference between right and wrong. The second is through setting rules and sanctions, which may take the form of religious teachings, unwritten cultural expectations or codified laws. But the prospect of a very different form of moral enhancement is now on the horizon, one that harnesses our growing understanding of human psychology and human cognition to improve behaviour through the application of technology. This might involve the direct stimulation of neurons in the brain, for example, or perhaps administering drugs to alter the brain's chemical balance or maybe hormones to influence emotional responses. For some, the very idea of using technology to change morality amounts to a science fiction horror story. To others it could be just what's needed to rescue humanity from problems of its own making. Today's guest is at the forefront of ethical thinking about the challenges posed by advances in biomedicine. Scholar, philosopher and bio-ethicist, Professor Julian Savulescu is Director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and holds the Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford. He's also a visiting professor in the Melbourne Law School and he directs the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics and the Institute for Science and Ethics within the Oxford Martin School. He's the co-author of Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement, published by Oxford University Press in 2012. Julian Savulescu, thanks for joining me on Up Close.

JULIAN SAVULESCU
My pleasure.

PETER MARES
Before we talk about the ethical implications of moral enhancement let's talk about the practicalities. Are we still in the realm of science fiction here or are there already technologies around that might be used to improve people's moral behaviour?

JULIAN SAVULESCU
So the last 20 years has brought the study of moral psychology and moral behaviour firmly within the scientific realm and we're starting to understand the limitations that are built into virtually everyone as well as the extreme forms of morally deviant or bad behaviour. So we're starting to understand why people are as they are and also how not just changing environment or social institutions or legal institutions can influence that, but changing the very biology that underpins our behaviour as animals. Now, is this science fiction? No, it's not science fiction because it's already being employed. So, for example, for a number of years one way of modifying sexually aggressive behaviour is to reduce libido with drugs, with female hormones in men, and this is offered or is in some cases mandatory for convicted paedophiles in many parts of the world, including the United States.

PETER MARES
At its extreme this would be chemical castration or something like that?

JULIAN SAVULESCU
So chemical castration is a crude form of changing people's behaviour. There have also been attempts to reduce aggression. Now, people will think of the famous Anthony Burgess novel, A Clockwork Orange or Stanley Kubrick's film by the same name where electric shocks were administered to reduce violent, aggressive behaviour, the so-called Ludovico technique.

PETER MARES
This is a gang of thugs essentially who were treated with those shocks as a kind of aversion therapy.

JULIAN SAVULESCU
Exactly, and this was widely used in the '50s and '60s to treat criminal behaviour and also homosexuality. Even worse, people were given psychosurgery or lobotomy, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with Jack Nicholson is a famous film that depicts that kind of attempted moral improvement.

PETER MARES
So a whole section of the brain cut out in that case?

JULIAN SAVULESCU
Yeah, these were horrific experiments that led to enormous harm and distress and were clearly unethical. However, today the understanding of the generation of aggression has moved a long way beyond that understand of psychopathy and in children callous, unemotional personality condition depicted in the film We Need to Talk About Kevin. So one way in which this knowledge is being used is to improve impulse control. Most violent crimes are not premeditated. They're the result of impulsive aggression where people fail to be able to control anger or immediate response to some sort of affront or threat. So you can increase impulse control through meditation, through cognitive behavioural therapy, through neurofeedback, which is a way of getting feedback about your brain's electrical activity with some electrodes where you try and control the area of activity yourself and also by drugs. The most widely used moral enhancer in this regard is Ritalin or methylphenidate. This is a drug which is an amphetamine derivative but improves concentration and impulse control. It's given to children with Attention Deficit Disorder in part to reduce aggression. But it's also been shown in a large Swedish study to reduce violent re-offence by 30 to 40 per cent in adults with Attention Deficit Disorder. So this is, again, a crude way of affecting a morally relevant outcome.

PETER MARES
Another example might be oxytocin. It's a hormone and when used as a nasal spray that it increases trust, for example. So is that another example of potential moral enhancement, that you might use something like oxytocin to make people more trusting or more empathetic or something like that?

JULIAN SAVULESCU
Yeah, oxytocin is complicated and you're correct that it increases trust and trustworthiness, but within groups, so within your own group. It doesn't increase trust towards outgroup members. So in one interesting study when it was given to Dutch subjects it made those subjects less willing to sacrifice a single Dutch individual to save five others, so less willing to make so-called utilitarian decisions. However, it had no effect when the subjects had German or Arab names. So it has mixed effects and it might make you care more about your group and less about people outside of your group. Is that a moral enhancement? It's not clear that it straight forwardly is.

PETER MARES
It might depend on the context, mightn't it, indeed?

JULIAN SAVULESCU
Yeah, but one area where it has been used, which I think does count as a moral enhancement, is in dysfunctional couples. So in couples whose communication is broken down it's being trialled actually in Australia by Adam Guastella to try to open up couples to communicating with each other as an adjunct to couples therapy. Now, that I think is sort of a kind of moral enhancer. The thing about oxytocin, to recognise it, it's not just a nasal spray that elevates oxytocin. It's sexual intercourse, it's touch, it's massage, but it's also released by drugs which people take every day. So, for example, the oral contraceptive pill and glucocorticoids used to treat asthma, both increase the levels of oxytocin. So many millions of people are on drugs for other reasons, either contraception or the treatment of asthma, that are having effects on their moral behaviour, and this is a very important point to realise. It's not as if we live in some sort of virgin forest where our moral dispositions are optimal that they could be changed by drugs or situations around us; every day the situations that we're in, how dirty the desk is, whether someone has been kind to us previously, whether we find some money in the street, whether we have something bitter to drink, whether we're happy and what drugs we're taking for treatments of our medical conditions are affecting our moral decisions, and that's what science is starting to show us.

PETER MARES
This is quite challenging in a way, isn't it, to our own understanding of ourselves because we tend to operate in the world on a day-to-day basis secure in a belief that we make our own moral judgements, we use reason to make decisions that are based on values that we hold dear and we apply those values and our rationality to particular situations. But you're suggesting that in fact we're much more a product of our biology and our environment than we would like to think.

JULIAN SAVULESCU
Absolutely. I think many people think, exactly as you said, that our choices, particularly our moral choices, are the result of rational deliberation, reason and freedom. The science shows that while that may not be an entire myth, the place for rationality and freedom is much smaller than we realise. I'm pretty convinced by this. There was an interesting study came out of Israel a couple of years ago of judges' decision making about granting parole and it showed that the willingness to grant parole was much higher immediately after each meal, breakfast, lunch or dinner, and progressively reduced. So whether you get parole or not shouldn't be dependent on the time of your hearing in relationship to the judges' last meal. It may be that judges are too lenient early on or too harsh later on. When I start to look at the incredible limitations of human behaviour and think that people are on death row or having their lives determined by people that are implicitly racially biased – all of us are implicitly racially biased, it's a part of being a human animal, to pick out outgroup members at a subconscious level because for most of our existence they represented a threat. Now, that sort of thing infects our decisions in ways that we're not even aware of. So you start to become very pessimistic about to what degree humans are capable of implementing justice or even semi-admirable moral decisions.

PETER MARES
Yeah, and to what degree decisions being made are actually based on facts and rationality and a fair balance of judgement about the rights and wrongs of a situation and to what extent they're based on how long it is since breakfast.

JULIAN SAVULESCU
Exactly. I think that the first place to start is to acknowledge that we're not angels, that we're not somehow made in the image of a god that is capable of making perfect moral judgements. For most of human history we couldn't do any better than get a group of our peers to make decisions about whether we went to jail or not and a judge to inflict a sentence. But today we can do better than that. We can understand the factors that will influence people's decisions. So, for example, in courts we could enhance jurors' memories, we could enhance attention, we could enhance a lot of factors about the judicial process using our knowledge of science. My point is that if we have a reasonable understanding of the risks and benefits and the way in which these sort of substances act we should employ them because we're simply not good enough for most of the tasks that we face today, and we'll come onto, I guess, the really grave existential threats that our limitations pose to us.

PETER MARES
Indeed we will. But in your mind then it's not a question of whether or not these technologies will be developed and refined. That's going to happen. The challenge is how we are to use them ethically.

JULIAN SAVULESCU
Exactly. I mean, we're already modifying our behaviour morally and the question is how should we do that in the best way and what should be the ethical constraints? For another example, are antidepressants. Millions of people are on drugs like Prozac or Zoloft or Citalopram. These are drugs that increase the levels of serotonin. Now, serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain. It carries out the instructions of one part of the brain to another. The higher the levels of serotonin you have the less aggressive you are, the more cooperative you are, the more fair-minded you are, the less willing you are to sacrifice one individual for others. It's not a straight forward moral enhancer but it has morally relevant effects. So millions of people who are on antidepressants are making different choices. That's happening.

PETER MARES
I'm Peter Mares. You're listening to Up Close and in this episode we're discussing the concept of moral enhancement with philosopher and bioethicist, Professor Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. If we can potentially improve people's moral behaviour through this kind of technology then can't we also do the opposite? Can't we make people worse, make them, I don't know, better liars, better cheats, more selfish, more cruel?

JULIAN SAVULESCU
Absolutely, if you can move a behaviour in one direction you can move it in the other direction. So it's a sort of basic truth that as animals, all of our behaviour is mediated by activity in our brain. Now, whether that activity was caused by a person's free choice, whether it was caused by their upbringing or their genes or other aspects of their biology, there's a common pathway and the common pathway is through the activity of the neurones in our brain. So regardless of its origin, we can influence it in one direction or another. So, for example, there was an interesting study where using light electrical stimulation, what's called transcranial electrical stimulation, this has been shown to improve the acquisition of skills and numeracy and so on. But in one experiment a couple of years ago researchers made people better liars, they had faster reaction times, less sweating and effectively were better liars. So you could do the opposite if you stimulated a different area of the brain to attempt to make people more honest in their responses. So the point is with any great power to do good you can obviously do the opposite, and history is littered with attempts to engineer evil as well as good.

PETER MARES
But it also raises the problem of who is to determine what is a moral enhancement and what would constitute moral degradation, let's say. I mean, if we think of a judge who's handing down a sentence to a violent offender, do we want that judge to be more empathetic or more compassionate towards the person in the dock or less compassionate towards the person in the dock? I mean, that may depend on whether you're the victim of the violence or whether you're the brother of the offender.

JULIAN SAVULESCU
Yeah, I think that's a very good question and I think that's where the money is in terms of future research and thinking. We need to, first of all, identify some low hanging fruit, like impulsive, violent aggression, killing innocent people is not in the eye of the beholder, whether that's good or bad.

PETER MARES
So random violence in the pub and that sort of thing.

JULIAN SAVULESCU
So we might be able to identify some things like that. So, for example, racism, implicit racism within judicial process or other important decision making would be something that it's hard to say that that's in the eye of the beholder. In fact, in Oxford we showed, one of my D.Phil students, Sylvia Terbeck, that Propranolol reduces implicit racial bias. I mean, that's just...

PETER MARES
Propranolol is a pharmaceutical or a...

JULIAN SAVULESCU
It's a drug that's used to treat high blood pressure and anxiety. It blocks beta receptors, both in the brain and in the periphery. So archers and pistol shooters and snookers and musicians use it to reduce tremor, but it also reduces racial bias. Now, that seems to be in that sense quite a straight forward moral enhancer. It might have other effects which are, for example, less desirable. One of the other effects of beta blockers is they reduce consolidation of memory. So the US Military is using it to modify soldiers' memories of battle so they don't recall the horrific details to reduce Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and that's caused a lot of controversy. Is that good or bad? So there will be areas where there's real work to be done in thinking is this a desirable or an undesirable thing? But there will also be cases which are pretty black and white. The important point I would say though is that even in the difficult cases, the one that you mentioned about do we want our judges to be more compassionate or more dispassionate? The point is that (a) people vary in the level of compassion and (b) that level varies according to the situations that they're in and their internal physiology and so on. So unless you think the natural state of affairs is somehow the optimum, then you should try to work out what state of affairs you're aiming at and try to use science to achieve that because my basic belief is that the natural distribution, and what is naturally happening or happening as a result of just our unknowing use of technology, is not going to be the optimum. It's not as if the world is optimally placed because we have one per cent of the population being psychopaths. That just happened to be the result of evolution. All of our dispositions and the differences between us are just the result of brute chance forces in particular environmental niches. So there's huge differences in those and we have a kind of responsibility to make decisions about how dispassionate or passionate we want our judges, what kinds of sentences we want and to use our science to overcome natural variation and limitation.

PETER MARES
But there are real risks here, aren't there? I mean, you mentioned before the use of destructive, damaging treatments in the mid-20th century to treat homosexuality when homosexuality was seen as a disease. There would be some people who would argue that moral enhancement should be used to get rid of homosexuality because it's a moral crime or something morally abhorrent.

JULIAN SAVULESCU
Yeah, at the sort of basis of most scepticism of moral enhancement is a kind of ethical relativism, the idea that ethics is just relative to what a particular culture, time or group of people think is ethical. So what the Nazis thought was ethical is completely different to what we think is ethical today. But I don't believe in that kind of relativism. There is a sort of version of relativism that I believe in. I think what's right and wrong is relative to the particular facts of a situation, but it's not relative just to what people think. It's not as if we go, well, it was right in the Nazis' time to exterminate Jews but it's wrong today. We think that there are universal ethical values, and even if people don't accept them they're still right. That's what the basis of having human rights is and the universal human rights. So when it comes to homosexuality this is an example I think of ethical progress. We no longer today think that slavery, sexism, racism and discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation are things that are really ethically justifiable. It's true some people don't share that but at some point you've got to bite the bullet and say, do we accept relativism, in which case we're catapulted down the slope towards potentially what the Nazis did?

PETER MARES
I mean, if we accept relativism we're at sea morally, we have nothing to hold onto, do we?

JULIAN SAVULESCU
Exactly. So I think that it's true that we've only made modest progress and there's a lot still to be done. But there have been some achievements. This kind of focus on human equality is one of those and that's precisely the grounds in which trying to cure people of homosexuality against their will is unethical.

PETER MARES
If techniques of moral enhancement became more developed, you've talked about the low hanging fruit and using things like Ritalin to enable people to increase their impulse control and perhaps reduce random violence, that sort of thing, but if these techniques became more developed and refined, do you foresee a situation in which everyone in society might be morally enhanced rather than just particular individuals with particular problems?

JULIAN SAVULESCU
Well, I think there will be both strategic targeted enhancements, as we're seeing with paedophilia and violent aggression in criminals. Perhaps psychopathy will be another one where there will be sort of targeted interventions, and there may also be targeted interventions in key strategic decision making situations. So if you're trying to negotiate Palestinian/Israeli peace or making a major decision, you should take advantage of the knowledge of the influencers and try to optimise the environment. But then there will be general enhancements, and I think that those won't be, at least in the immediate term, everyone’s on a moral pill. I think that's unlikely to be the case. But I think that the challenge for our society is to fill the void left by the sort of recession of religion and its influence over moral education to have a secular form of moral education around inculcating values and principles that we want our citizens and our children to acquire. So, for example, values of a commitment to equality and justice, non-discrimination, an understanding of what's good for people, what makes for wellbeing, respect for rights, these kinds of things. In acquiring that sort of moral knowledge and those moral skills of deliberation, again, of thinking, of engaging a moral dialogue with others, of listening, of responding appropriately, of being prepared to revise your own moral position, of utilising relevant facts, of being able to understand others' moral opinions, empathising with other people's situation, all of these things can be enhanced by scientific means. So, for example, I think it's not impossible that children eventually will be using things like transcranial electrical stimulation to enhance not just learning of mathematical skills but learning of moral skills, of moral abilities. So that kind of thing I think, it's not going to be a sort of single intervention, it's going to be coupled with moral education that probably holds the most prospect for some sort of more universal application, at least within a society.

PETER MARES
So in your view it doesn't replace the hard work of learning to be good?

JULIAN SAVULESCU
Yeah, look, there are very few things in life or that are available that just basically make decisions for us without having some input, and most things work by enhancing the sort of activity that we - so anabolic steroids don't make you stronger. They enable you to train harder, recover more quickly from injury and from training and so get more out of training. But you have to do the training. It's the same with a lot of these moral enhancers. They won't give you moral thoughts or dispositions but they will enhance the ability to acquire the relevant moral disposition.

PETER MARES
If we were to engage in a kind of process of selective moral enhancement, let's say some people were morally enhanced to be more generous, more empathetic, less aggressive, aren't they just going to get exploited by those people who aren't morally enhanced, who are still as avaricious and greedy and exploitative as ever?

JULIAN SAVULESCU
The very idea of moral enhancement is it contributes to a morally better state of affairs. So if that were the case that wouldn't be a moral enhancement, and I think many people think of moral enhancement in very narrow terms, like the Christian idea of turning the other cheek. Now, if turning the other cheek always results in you being exploited or harmed, it's not a moral enhancement. Likewise the commitment to never killing a living being would make human existence and life virtually impossible. So moral enhancement is really a complex, a large range of qualities that together contribute to a more morally desirable state of affairs. So, for example, cognitive enhancement is a part of it, increased empathy and sympathy, commitment to justice, but also a commitment to prosecuting against injustice, of responding to intolerance or discrimination, of not allowing yourself to be exploited. So it's not the case that the meek will inherit the Earth. It's hopefully the case that the moral enhanced will inhabit the Earth, and that's a question for us to decide. The other really important point...

PETER MARES
When you say it's a question for us to decide, who is the us who's going to do the deciding?

JULIAN SAVULESCU
Well, inevitably it's human beings. We can't call up the phone and speak to God and ask him what we should do, and likewise certainly not me, I'm not the person to kind of tell you what the kind of future should be. We're stuck with ourselves and we also do have a bootstrapping problem that we're the morally limited beings that have to make these decisions and all we can try to do is to try to be morally better, try to use the technologies that we have to enhance that and do the best we can. It's not guaranteed that we're going to succeed or even get the right answers. But if you don't do that you're either going to let malevolent actors use this technology to gain significant advantages or you're going to leave it to chance and, as I've argued, I don't think that's the best way of dealing with the problems of the 21st century.The point of ethics, why it's a fascinating area to work in, is that every day all of us make ethical decisions, when we decide whether to eat meat or not, whether to drive or ride a bike, whether to leave our wife or not, whether to send our children to private school or state school, whether to give some money to some charity, whether to buy green or not. All of these are ethical decisions every day. We have to make them. It's not as if we can avoid them because to avoid them is to make an ethical decision. So we can make them better or worse. I think modern ethics is about trying to make those in the light of reasons and using both our science and some kind of evolving, secular, consensual ethic set of values. The real money in terms of this kind of issue is trying to settle on what those set of core values should be. We tried with human rights and that was a good start, but we need to think today what sort of values do we want to instil in our children and their children? We've done this. Education is in part a moral education, of trying to teach children to be a certain kind of person, a certain kind of citizen. Now it's the time to reflect on that.

PETER MARES
This is Up Close. I'm Peter Mares and I'm speaking with a world leader in the field of practical ethics, philosopher and bio-ethicist, Professor Julian Savulescu from the University of Oxford. One of the criticisms of the idea of moral enhancement is that in reducing our capacity to do evil we would diminish ourselves as human beings. That is, our very humanity lies in the cultivation of our moral sentiments, in our ability to determine right from wrong and our capacity to act accordingly. So there's an argument that moral enhancement actually poses a threat to our very freedom, our very agency as human beings.

JULIAN SAVULESCU
Yeah, well it might. So if you put a chip in somebody's brain that just made them perform certain actions or stopped them performing violent actions, the kind of aversion therapy that was described in A Clockwork Orange against people's will, that would be removing their freedom. There's no doubt about that. But if you think about the range of virtuous and vicious behaviour in people and people we think of as good people and people we think of as less good, we don't say the good people are less free and we don't say they're not free to commit evil. They are able to process information, including information about other people's emotions, and respond rationally and more meaningfully. In fact, in many cases the sorts of dispositions, like impulsivity undermine our freedom. They stop us being able to make a decision about some long term benefit in favour of just some sort of short term reward or gratification. So whether it enhances or diminishes freedom depends on the sort of moral enhancement you're talking about. There isn't sort of one rule for all of them. So something that makes people who are unempathetic able to better empathise with other people's emotion isn't removing their freedom, it's enabling them to take on a relevant consideration in moral deliberation. Whereas giving somebody a drug that reduces their libido against their will is reducing their freedom. That's true. However, even in that case if you want to take that as a way of stopping yourself from reoffending or...

PETER MARES
Because you're a violent offender, sexual offender.

JULIAN SAVULESCU
And you don't - in some cases it's the paedophiles themselves who - there was a case of one writing to Nicholas Sarkozy, the French President, asking him to castrate him so he wouldn't do these things again. Now, that's reducing your freedom in one way but overall it's enhancing your autonomy because you know that you're going to be weak or tempted or make the wrong decision and if you choose to use technology to stop yourself doing that, that actually is an autonomy enabling intervention. So again, it's not straight forward. Some of them will reduce freedom, some of them will increase freedom and some in some circumstances it enhances people's autonomy or the ability to make choices about their lives.

PETER MARES
One of the other concerns about this whole idea of moral enhancement, is that there's a kind of hubris involved here. The interaction between our genes, our environment, our circumstances, our physiology are very, very complex and it's not like you can press button X and get result Y reliably. There could be all sorts of side-effects, long term things we don't even know about yet and that even dabbling in this area we're taking incredible risks. We're sort of playing God in a way that is just too dangerous to contemplate.

JULIAN SAVULESCU
There's some value in the playing God objection. It's a reminder that often human beings jump in the water without accurately gauging the depth or the current and they often assume they know everything or they're all powerful, when in fact they're very limited in their knowledge and their power and we should be much more humble about intervening in complex systems like the environment or indeed in this case the human mind and behaviour. I think that's correct. I think we shouldn't be intervening, certainly not now. We should be doing very good scientific research. But the point is that at some point you do accumulate enough knowledge to make a reasonable decision. So, for example, in in vitro fertilisation, this is a case where you could have said, well, we'll never know the risks and we should never do this. In fact, I think it was probably done prematurely and they were lucky. But it's not the sort of thing that you could defer forever. The really important point here is that you've got to compare this not to some optimal state, but to how things are now in nature and the extraordinary limitations and variation that occurs in nature. So if you can do better than that then there's reason to do better than that. The question is will you do better or worse? Of course, when things are very complicated you're much more likely to do worse if you don't understand the system. But it can't be that you should never intervene. That would be a kind of absolutist precaution that would preclude any sort of engagement with a complex system.

PETER MARES
Now we routinely screen foetuses for things like Downs Syndrome or cystic fibrosis and so on.

JULIAN SAVULESCU
Exactly, and medicine has been all about trying to intervene in an incredibly complex organism and of course it's had horrific misadventures and things that have been thought to be effective and then been shown to be actually harmful. But overall there has been progress in medicine. Now, actually our behaviour, although it seems to be incredibly complex, we're not that different from other animals. We have an enormous cortex and a sort of cognitive ability. But, for example, our mating behaviour and our romantic relationships are pretty much the same as all other mammals. They have three phases; lust, attraction, attachment. Each of them have different biologies. You can change each of those three phases. So although we like to think of ourselves as being incredibly special and complicated and impenetrable and made in the image of God, actually we're animals and it's not out of our grasp to understand ourselves. It's just that we've spent millions of dollars and man hours or woman hours as well looking at outer space and distant stars and black holes and physics and subatomic particles and very little actually looking at why we are as we are.

PETER MARES
The bigger picture behind your book and the bigger argument is really that humankind has reached a stage of scientific development that has run ahead of our moral capacities. A classic example of this is climate change I guess, that we are now faced with the destruction of the planet for human habitation through our own actions, but we seem incapable – we know what's wrong, we know what the problem is, we know it's about the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere – but we seem incapable of acting in the interests of future generations. So is your broader argument that in fact we need to morally enhance ourselves for our very survival?

JULIAN SAVULESCU
Yeah, that is the essential theme of the book I've written with Ingmar Persson called Unfit for the Future: The Urgent Need for Moral Enhancement, is that we at least need to look at the science of morality and whether we should use this. We're not suggesting this is the cure but we're suggesting that most people, and vast amounts of money are spent looking at political, legal and social and even environmental interventions to deal with these sorts of problems. But the elephant in the room really is the human animal, and I've been very interested in looking at the human being as an animal that behaves in certain ways under certain conditions and once you start to look at the evidence we are essentially the same in terms of our disposition, psychology and biology as our hunter/gatherer ancestors. So in evolutionary terms the last 300,000 years is the blink of an eye and we haven't changed much, although we have completely changed the world in which we live in and the sort of societies in which we live in, we haven't changed much at the level of our animal disposition. So what are those dispositions? Well, we're a very violent animal. Through most of human history about 40 per cent of males died through violence up until recent times. Now, Steven Pinker has rightly argued that we're living in a much safer world in terms of direct violence than ever before. But there's still half a million murders a year and violence is still a significant problem, as is risk. Risk is ever increasing as our technology increases. Although there haven't been any nuclear wars or catastrophes so far, with the advent of biological weapons, hundreds of thousands or millions of people will be able to manufacture things like smallpox. And it only takes one in seven billion people and one per cent of that seven billion are psychopaths. So one feature is our disposition towards violence and aggression. The other one is that we, for most of human history, existed in small groups of roughly 150, the so-called Dunbar Number. So we were able to survive by cooperating with our group and looking after our family and friends and people in our group, and we often competed with other human groups and warred with them and they would often tend to free ride and we were distrustful of strangers and xenophobic. That's, again, still persisted today. Again, this priority we give to our family and friends over people outside of our group is a dominant cause of our behaviour. We also focus on the near term, what we can do tomorrow, next week, next year, but not on something 100 years' time. We're incapable of thinking about large human groups. One fascinating example of the limitations of human psychology is people will give less money or less help the more people that are in need than when there is a single individual. So you can empathise with a single individual. You can't empathise with a million individuals. This numbness to numbers is another thing which contributes to the sort of problems that we fail to solve. Again, there's a disposition to free ride, to not make sacrifices when we're not observed. So when you get to something like climate change it's what's called the tragedy of the commons. You have a fixed resource, in this case the atmosphere, that a number of people want to use and you need to restrain consumption. The way in which this was dealt with when it was just a pasture land and 150 people wanting to graze their cows is you knew each other, you trusted each other, you kept an eye on each other, you were able to pick up free riders, you were able to punish them and you saw what difference your efforts made and you were involved with the pasture in a significant way. But climate change is caused by hundreds of millions of people who are distant to each other, who don't trust each other, who don't care about each other, the effects will be in 100 years' time, not today, and largely borne by poor people in developing countries. So it's not surprising that human psychology is not set up to deal with that kind of problem. We're just not the sort of animal that is disposed to respond in the ways that the modern world requires because we're evolved animals.

PETER MARES
But if we were going to engage in some kind of moral enhancement in order to help us to deal with climate change then you're going to end up with the same first mover problem, aren't you? I mean, the problem with climate change is that any country that restricts its carbon emissions is going to pay a penalty immediately, whereas other countries will benefit at their expense. The same thing would happen that if you had a country that said, okay, we're going to engage in moral enhancement and we're going to therefore behave more ethically towards the environment and future generations and other nations didn't do the same thing, well, you just have the same problem, don't you, unless it's a universal moral enhancement?

JULIAN SAVULESCU
Yeah, that is a problem and what number of people you require to adequately address the problem is a huge issue. Sometimes people say there's no point in trying. You will never eliminate problems, you will never eliminate risks. All you can do is to try to reduce the chances or make a contribution. So if countries like the United States and Australia and Western Europe implemented programs of moral education that sought to teach people that it's not only our acts which have morally relevant effects but also what we fail to do, of teaching people about the interests and ethics of future generations and also perhaps used moral enhancement interventions to increase people's willingness to make small self-sacrifices for large benefits for other people, then maybe those countries would take a leadership role in dealing with that sort of problem and maybe you could bring other countries in on the back of that. So I think that's a strategy worth entertaining rather than saying, well, there's nothing we can do so let's just put up our hands. In fact, in Oxford what we're doing at the moment are a number of scientific studies looking at the factors that affect minimal altruism, that is the willingness to make a very small sacrifice for a large benefit for other people. Now, this is something that many people just are not even prepared to do. The classic example is they're not even prepared to donate their organs which are of no use to them when they could save seven lives. Now, how can you get people to make small, it’s not large, its’ not giving up their life or 20 per cent of their time or 10 per cent of their income, which is what Peter Singer wants to do, but just very, very small things that when everyone does them they can have a very significant effect. I'd rather live in a society where everyone did these easy rescues because I would only be called upon to make small sacrifices like giving blood or giving my organs after my death or giving small amounts of money in certain circumstances, but I could be the recipient of massive benefits, that is, I could have my life saved by a blood transfusion or an organ transplant. So trying to look at how science could encourage that sort of behaviour isn't something like making everyone angels or perfectly kind. It's just shifting a little bit, a basic trait that could have huge effects on a large scale.

PETER MARES
You talk about the risks of biological weapons and that one per cent of the world's population may be psychopaths. This raises the obvious threat of something like terrorism and the capacity for a very small number of malevolent people to do very great harm to the rest of it. But how does moral enhancement help there, because presumably your average psychopath is not going to come forward and volunteer to be given a treatment that will result in them being more empathetic?

JULIAN SAVULESCU
It's true, and as I've tried to stress, this isn't a sort of silver bullet or even maybe the dominant solution in dealing with terrorism and the threats of using weapons of mass destruction, also by other fanatics and psychopaths, not only terrorists, you'll need a very wide strategy and increasingly we've already experienced more and more surveillance and that will increase. There will be restrictions of liberty, so for example, in scientific publication of research that could easily be deployed by terrorists, screening of people in key jobs and perhaps even reduction in our democratic institutions. There will be a lot of socio-political interventions, but alongside that it may be that moral enhancement has a place. So, for example, if you could pick up every person disposed to being a psychopath in the US and in Western Europe, that's not going to deal with the global problem but it's going to reduce the risks. It's not possible ever in this kind of situation now to give people certainty. People think in terms of black and white, safety and unsafety. It's not going to be like that. There's going to be shades of grey and sometimes just reducing one part of a chain is enough to prevent a major disaster. Sometimes people say, you can never cure the world's problems because there's seven billion people. But just imagine if Al Gore had got in instead of George Bush after the Florida election. The world might be completely different. It might be much worse. But single events like that can change the direction fork of history and we can only try to make those forks go in ways that are better than just tossing a dice. The point is we've reached in terms of reproduction and genetic screening of embryos and foetuses about 20 or 30 years ago the point where we don't just have to toss a dice, but we don't just have to toss a dice with lots of things now, including human behaviour. We will be able to decide do we want to leave this to chance and to natural variation and so on or do we want to try to do better than nature?

PETER MARES
Julian Savulescu, thank you.

JULIAN SAVULESCU
My pleasure.

PETER MARES
Professor Julian Savulescu is director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and holds the Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford and is the co-author of the book Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement, published in 2012 by Oxford University Press. He's also the founder of the Open Access Journal of Practical Ethics which aims to bring discussion of moral and political philosophy to a broad audience.