Making Humans Morally Better Won’t Fix the Problems of Climate Change

Guest Post by Bob Simpson, Monash University

Re: Climate change, cooperation and moral bioenhancement

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has repeatedly said that greenhouse gas emissions increase the likelihood of severe and irreversible harm for people and ecosystems. And in his State of the Union address in 2015, Barack Obama emphasised these problems, saying that climate change poses the greatest threat to humanity’s future. We’ve come to expect pronouncements like these. Political leaders and transnational policy institutions both have an important role to play in implementing the measures needed to address threats from climate change – measures like international economic agreements, energy sector reform, and technological research.

By contrast, we wouldn’t expect advocates of biotechnological human enhancement to be proposing solutions to climate change. What does human enhancement have to do with oceanic warming or greenhouse gas emissions? According to people like Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu, who advocate “moral bio-enhancement”, these things are in fact related. They say that we should be finding ways to use biotechnological interventions to make people more trusting and altruistic towards strangers, and hence more willing to make personal sacrifices – like, say, dramatically reducing their carbon footprint – in order to cooperate in global policies aimed at mitigating the impact of climate change.

To some this may sound like a totalitarian brave new world. For Persson and Savulescu, though, where the survival of human life as we know it is at stake, taking the steps needed to make people more cooperative and less destructive – both in this area, and in relation to other grave dangers, like political extremists getting their hands on bioweapons that could unleash super-pandemics – is the lesser of two evils. And if their proposal sounds like pure sci-fi speculation, we should bear in mind (a) that there is already evidence that commonly used pharmaceuticals, such as SSRIs, as well as less widely used but readily available substances, such as oxytocin, have significant effects on our moral dispositions; and (b) that many states already use biotechnological interventions in the criminal justice system to try to prevent criminal wrongdoing, e.g. through the ‘chemical castration’ of sex offenders. Before too long, moral bioenhancement might be on the menu of policy options whether we like it or not.

In our paper “Climate change, cooperation, and moral bioenhancement”, myself and my co-authors, Toby Handfield and Pei-hua Huang, question an aspect of Persson and Savulescu’s proposals that has been overlooked up until now. There’s an implicit theory of social cooperation that underpins their proposals for moral bioenhancement, as a solution to selfish non-cooperation in relation to climate change problems. And the theory is probably a mistaken one. It rests on an intuitively plausible presumption, namely, that if we want people to be more cooperative in solving complex social problems, we need to strengthen their elementary pro-social dispositions – e.g. their tendency to be trusting and generous towards others (particularly strangers) – and/or reduce their elementary anti-social dispositions – e.g. their tendency to exclude or punish others. But there are good reasons to think that such interventions would be more of a hindrance than a help to cooperative problem-solving. The problem, in short, is that cooperation doesn’t only result from people showing trust and generosity to each other. In a society where most people are instinctively trusting and generous, it’s easier for hostile or manipulative people to take advantage of others and further their own selfish aims at the expense of the group’s interests. To make cooperative problem-solving work, societies need a balance between the expression of elementary pro-social attitudes like trust, alongside the expression of much less warm-and-fuzzy instincts, e.g. monitoring people for bad behaviour, punishing wrongdoing, and excluding people whose trustworthiness is in doubt.

Because of this, boosting people’s tendency to trust others, by itself, is likely to be dangerous. The limits on our willingness to be trusting and generous towards strangers shouldn’t be viewed as a deficiency in any simple sense. They’re part of a subtle equilibrium in social dispositions which makes cooperation sustainable. These claims about the danger of boosting trust are supported by evolutionary theories of how cooperative behaviour emerged, and was adaptive, for our genetic ancestors. They’re also supported by economic experiments that show how decisions to trust are sensitive to the strategic risks of being exploited as a result of being too trusting. They’re also supported by game theoretic modelling which suggests that among a population of unusually-trusting agents, the strategic benefits of exploiting others are greater than in a population where trust is less readily extended.

There’s no doubt that our ability to address problems of climate change would be greater if we could figure out ways to make large communities of strangers more cooperative. But the bioethicists’ radical proposed solution – moral bioenhancement to make us more trusting – isn’t a promising route to follow in pursuing this goal.