Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Human and animal moral enhancement

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A few days ago I was sent a link to this fascinating talk on human moral enhancement featuring John Harris and Julian Savulescu. The debate concerns whether we should enhance the capacity of humans to make moral decisions, i.e., whether we should make people more moral, using technology, if we can. I was asked if I would spread the word about the talk, and I’m going to do that both because it’s an interesting debate between two interesting philosophers, and because it touches on issues that I’ve found interesting to think about in my own research. So, here’s the link:

I wrote above that the talk touches on question of interest to me, which might puzzle some readers given that my area of research focuses on non-moral beings.[1] Significant parts of the argument for granting greater moral consideration to non-human animals rely upon drawing analogies between humans lacking moral agency and non-human animals. At the same time, there are arguments that we should make humans lacking autonomy into autonomous beings if we can. Thus, you see arguments from J.S. Mill that we should provide education to children in order to improve their rational capacities. More interestingly (to me anyway), you see claims in the literature on political theory and disability rights that we have duties to distribute resources to enable cognitively impaired humans to become more autonomous.[2] If we are to do this, then one question that arises is: do we do so because humans cannot function as equals in society without autonomy, or do we do it because autonomy is an objective good. If autonomy is an objective good, then is it only an objective good for humans? If we answered that last question in the negative, then we might find ourselves wondering if we might, in some circumstances, have duties to make moral beings of non-human animals. Thus, the arguments for the moral enhancement of humans addressed by Harris and Savulescu might also be applicable to non-humans too. One place to begin answering these sorts of  questions is with Sarah Chan’s paper on the subject: ‘Should we enhance animals’. I think these are fascinating questions – I hope that maybe you do too now.

[1] I refer to non-human animals as non-moral beings (moral patients) for simplicity – in fact, I think there’s a good argument to be made that some non-human animals, such as dolphins and chimps, might well possess some degree of moral agency (much as I think my children do).

[2] See, for example, Sophia Isako Wong, “Duties of Justice to Citizens with Cognitive Disabilities,” Metaphilosophy 40, no. 3-4 (2009): 383.


Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

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