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Moral Bioenhancement and Free Will: Continuing the Debate

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 May 2017


This article continues and expands differences I have with Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu concerning issues of moral bioenhancement and free will. They have criticized my conception of voluntary moral bioenhancement, claiming that it ignores the extent to which freedom is a matter of degree. Here, I argue that freedom as a political concept (or as one that is analogous to a political concept) is indeed scalar in nature, but that freedom of the will is to be understood as a threshold concept and therefore not as subject to degree. Consequently, I contend, by asserting that freedom is a matter of degree, that Persson and Savulescu have not undermined my arguments favoring voluntary moral enhancement. In addition, I add three further arguments against compulsory moral bioenhancement.

Special Section: Enhancement and Goodness
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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I have discussed a number of the issues that are taken up in the article with John Harris, Ingmar Persson, Julian Savulescu, James Hughes, Harris Wiseman, Nick Agar, Rob Sparrow, Thomasine Kushner, and Mary Rorty. I thank all of them for the valuable comments they have made.The article is being published in the framework of the activities of project III41004 of the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technological Development of the Republic of Serbia.



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5. I accept the definition of “ultimate harm” as an event or series of events that make worthwhile life on this planet forever impossible (See note 1, Persson, Savulescu 2008, at 74.).

6. See note 3, Rakić 2014, at 35.

7. See note 4, Rakić 2014.

8. See note 2, Rakić 2014.

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12. See note 9, Persson, Savulescu 2014.

13. “Free will” and “freedom of the will” are used interchangeably throughout this article.

14. See note 2, Rakić 2014.

15. See note 9, Persson, Savulescu, 2014.

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29. The mentioned findings have also been critically assessed by some authors. A discussion of these critiques is beyond this article’s scope.

30. See note 2, Rakić 2014.

31. See note 2, Rakić 2014, at 249–250.

32. See note 2, Rakić 2014.

33. See note 16, Savulescu, Persson 2012, at 412–4.

34. Again, this does not limit our free will or our illusion of it “to some degree.” As shown in the second section of this article, the very fact that compulsory moral bioenhancement is externally manipulated, even if this manipulation is limited to a small number of acts we are disabled from performing, already means that it deprives us of what we experience as our free will.

35. These political decisions would be mediated through laws.

36. The “god machine” that Savulescu and Persson have in mind leaves open the possibility of individuals voluntarily connecting to it (see note 16, Savulescu, Persson 2012, at 414). That is quite different, however, from the voluntary moral bioenhancement that I am supporting. Once people are connected to the “god machine” they cannot opt out anymore. They are permanently subjugated to its will. Only the initial act is voluntary. The rest is compulsion. If some people were misled to believe that being connected to the “god machine” would benefit them (we know of plenty of examples from our history in which people were misled to believe in various totalitarian ideologies), their subjugation to the will of the “god machine,” because it would be irrevocable, would have permanent detrimental consequences. Hence, it is clearly not consonant with voluntary moral bioenhancement of the type I discuss.

37. In an article criticizing Savulescu and Persson’s conception of the “god machine,” Rob Sparrow invokes Philip Pettit’s comparison of the subjection of our will to the “god machine” with the subjection of the slave to a powerful master. Even if this master is benevolent, subjection remains what it is (Sparrow R. A Reply to Savulescu and Persson on ‘Moral Enhancement.’ Journal of Applied Philosophy 2013;31:23–32, at 27). Sparrow also contends that democratic institutions and an educated citizenry are the best safeguard against moral bioenhancement programs being hijacked by authoritarian governments (Sparrow 2013, at 28).

38. Persson, I, Savulescu, J. Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2012, at 42–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

39. See note 2, Rakić 2014.