Can Humanity Be Saved by Biomedical Moral Enhancement?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Sept. 5 2012 12:54 PM

The Six-Point Inspection: Should You Read Unfit for the Future, Automate This, or This Machine Kills Secrets?

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Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, is one of the stars of Andy Greenberg's This Machine Kills Secrets.

Photo by LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

Each month in “The Six-Point Inspection,” Future Tense and Zócalo Public Square take a quick look at new books that are changing the way we see our world.

Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement by Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu

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The nutshell: Human societies have grown larger, more diverse, and more technologically complex, and as a result, our moral compasses are no longer up to the task of guiding us, argue Oxford University’s Persson (a philosopher) and Savulescu (an ethicist)—and we’re in danger of destroying ourselves. The severity of the problem demands an equally severe solution: biomedical moral enhancement and increased government surveillance of citizens. 

Literary lovechild of: George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Peter Singer’s The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology.

You’ll find it on your bookshelf if: You’ve always wanted to head up your own Stanford Prison Experiment.

Cocktail party fodder: One moral enhancement Persson and Savulescu suggest has potential is oxytocin (“the cuddle hormone”), which is naturally elevated by sex and touching. It can be administered by nasal spray—and some studies suggest it may increase people’s levels of trust, even if not everyone is on the oxytocin love train.

For optimal benefit: Pick this book up whenever commanded by the empathy chip that the government implanted in your prefrontal cortex.

Snap judgment: Persson and Savulescu make a credible case for why we’re in moral crisis—not least because of what they propose to do about it.

The nutshell: Algorithms conquered Wall Street, and now they patrol our airports, play poker, help us decide whom to date, and control the music we hear. According to writer and engineer Steiner, though, programmers are just getting started.

You’ll find it on your bookshelf if: You rooted for Deep Blue over Kasparov.

Cocktail party fodder: OKCupid has analyzed 35,000 couples from its site and discovered that the question that best signals the potential for relationship longevity is: “Do you like horror movies?”

For optimal benefit: Use this book to convince your stubborn kid to bag the economics major in favor of computer science. Or just program a compliant robot replacement.

Snap judgment: Aaron Sorkin proved that computer programming could be dramatic on screen, and Steiner does the same on the page.

The nutshell: Forbes writer Greenberg gained the trust of the world’s most talented (and devious) computer hackers when he published a cover story on WikiLeaks in 2010. He expands the tale of the rise and fall of Julian Assange, and the programmers and whistle-blowers who paved the way for him.

Literary lovechild of: Daniel Ellsberg’s Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers and Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. (Morozov is a fellow with the New America Foundation, which is a partner in both Future Tense and Zócalo Public Square.)

You’ll find it on your bookshelf if: You go by the pseudonym KrashFockR.

Cocktail party fodder: In 2010, Barack Obama’s first year as president, 76.7 million documents were classified, compared with 8.6 million in 2001, the first year of George W. Bush’s presidency.

For optimal benefit: Delete the diary you were keeping on your computer. And anything else on your computer. Or maybe just toss your computer to the bottom of the ocean.

Snap judgment: Computer hackers haven’t been made into heroes like this since Stieg Larsson created Lisbeth Salander—and luckily Greenberg shares a bit of Larsson’s flair for suspense, too.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Sarah Rothbard is managing and books editor of Zócalo Public Square.