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Does Climate Change Justify Engineering a New Type of Person?

Out of concerns for the environment, and especially due to climate, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle recently announced [1] their intention to have no more than two children. Some believe this is not sufficient and have committed to “BirthStrike [2],” that is, to not reproducing at all. And a select few consider [3] humans such a profound threat to Mother Nature that only “hopeful alternative to the extinction of millions of species of plants and animals is the voluntary extinction of one species: Homo sapiens … us.”

As if the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement was not radical enough, yet other thinkers doubt that human beings are sufficiently capable of thinking and acting in the ways necessary to avoid catastrophe and propose remaking human nature itself.

According to Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu, humans are unfit for the future [4]. Our psychology and morality evolved from social and environmental conditions unlike those we now face, and we are “not by nature equipped … to cope with the moral problems” of our situation. Our common sense moral theories are defunct and our commitment to liberal democracy retrograde. Fortunately, they argue, those very technologies which threaten our well-being also provide the pharmacological and genetic means to engineer the “moral bioenhancement” needed to alter (they say “enhance”) our moral motivations and capacities.

Humans just aren’t up to the task, but luckily we can engineer a new kind of human being.

Unfortunately, there is a chicken-and-egg sort of problem here, for “only beings who are morally enlightened, and adequately informed about the relevant facts, should be entrusted” with the “formidable technological powers” able to engineer our moral enhancement. That is, we need humans to be engineered so as to have enough enlightenment to properly engineer the new humanity. The power of bioehancement is too dangerous to be entrusted to those not already fashioned as angels. Dystopia awaits.

Still, the situation is so dire, they claim, that there “is not enough time for human beings to undergo the requisite degree of moral enhancement” possible through ordinary ethics and virtue formation, and so we must fervently pursue the techniques of the needed “moral boost.” However this happens, the ordinary person simply cannot be trusted to make the right decisions, let alone to make them through democratic means. The future, and the happiness of future generations, depends on boosting the moral abilities of people-as-they-are-now, and the objections of people-as-they-are-now do not particularly matter, because they are too morally dull to be entrusted with the decision. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, it’s said, and you can’t guarantee the future of enhanced-persons without running a bit roughshod over the rights and desires of unenhanced persons.

Now, while this sounds like science fiction, these people are in earnest, which ought to prompt us to remind ourselves—and them—about some basic moral principles.

First, it is never morally licit to do evil in order to bring about good consequences or avoid bad consequences, no matter their extent. Second, it is never morally licit to treat a person as merely an object or a problem or a resource, for each and every person is intrinsically valuable and ought to be treated as such.

Even in the face of danger or emergency, the fundamental guide in ethics is the personalist principle. That is, persons have intrinsic rather than merely instrumental value, and it is never right to treat persons simply as instruments, even if in the “service” of other persons. We may not violate one person for the well-being of another; in fact, we may not violate one person even for the well-being of many others. There is no higher value to be safeguarded and cherished than the person, and we ought to sacrifice all lower instrumental values to the intrinsic good which persons are.

Of course, it follows, then, that we have duties to other people, including the duty to not directly act against their well-being. Now, even if you are skeptical about climate change and the threat of environmental destruction, the duties we have (or don’t have) to future generations remains an interesting issue. Do I have duties to a person who does not exist (yet), since they are not actually a person? On the other hand, if my actions do violate the well-being of a person who will exist in the future, does it matter than they do not yet exist, since they will exist when my actions harm them?

That is a genuine problem to consider. However it is best resolved, it remains true that we may not, we must not, violate the freedom and integrity of any person, and any proposal that we do so must be rejected as morally impossible.