With Professor Julian Savulescu

26 July 17

Should embryos be edited to create enhanced humans? Should we use genetic technology to grow organs in pigs that can be used in human transplants? And if so, at what stage does a human become a pig? Should we prolong or shorten a life of pain? And while we are at it, if administering a drug to convicted violent criminals will stop them reoffending, who would be against that?

Professor Julian Savulescu is the Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, and Resident Thinker at Deakin University in 2015. According to Prof. Savulescu, while ethics has long been considered an adjunct to progress in science and technology, it’s rarely thought of as an answer in itself to any of the world’s big problems, such as mass migration and bioenhancement.

But, a serious rethink of our morals and ethics could quite literally save mankind and the planet, he says.

‘The problem is, we’ve reached a critical moment of technological advance and globalisation with very limited moral development,’ says Prof. Savulescu.

‘Religion and other forms of moral development were fit for purpose 1,000 years ago but are not fit for the sort of challenges we face today.’

‘The problem is, we’ve reached a critical moment of technological advance and globalisation with very limited moral development,’

According to Prof. Savulescu, it’s not surprising that our ethical and moral development hasn’t kept pace – it’s never really had to.

‘Humans are just accidents of evolution that have resulted from certain pressures and certain environments,’ he explains. ‘Nature designs us to live long enough to reproduce – that’s it.’

‘We are essentially biologically and psychologically the same as our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Hunter-gatherers travelled in groups of around 300. They evolved to live in groups, to care about their family and friends and their own tribe. They often had to compete with other tribes for resources and sometimes they would cooperate.

‘All our morality was developed around those sorts of environments that aren’t what we live in now.’ 

Prof. Savulescu adds that the pressures of globalisation and outdated, useless ethics have created a perfect storm.

‘What we are seeing around the world and in Australia are people’s xenophobic biases. Now you can overcome these. When you have a lot of wealth and a lot of cooperation between groups, people overcome them. But when people are under stress, those biases tend to dominate behaviour.’

‘We need to rethink morality,’ says Prof. Savulescu. ‘What we should aspire to is a common morality that we can sign up to, that is inclusive of, but incorporates and transcends all social and religious groupings’. His ethics research has included projects on bio enhancement – improving people’s moral behaviour through modifying their biology. ‘Essential to any discussion on a new morality,’ says Prof. Savulescu, ‘is biology’.

Although redefining a society’s moral code may not be the quick fix many would hope for, Prof. Savulescu says it is our best chance for survival.

‘When we look at the great problems of today – issues like migration, the threat of bioenhancement and poverty – the solutions we are choosing are just Band-Aids. A new tax or a restriction on immigration, for example, doesn’t really address what sort of beings we are and how we should live.’

‘What we are seeing around the world and in Australia are people’s xenophobic biases. Now you can overcome these. When you have a lot of wealth and a lot of cooperation between groups, people overcome them. But when people are under stress, those biases tend to dominate behaviour.’

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