Can morality keep up with technology?
I’ve been playing around in my mind with a postulate I picked up from a Ken Wilber audio lecture; namely, that cognitive development is necessary but not sufficient for moral development. In other words, Wilber is asserting that for a person to develop morally, it is essential for them to first develop cognitively—you cannot have an expansion of morality without first having some kind of expansion in cognition. However, just because a person develops cognitively, it does not intrinsically signify that they are going to develop morally in lockstep with their cognitive realizations.
This “necessary but not sufficient” hypothesis about cognitive versus moral development is particularly notable to me in light of my interests in futurism, generally, and synthetic cognitive enhancement, specifically (e.g., direct interfacing of computer chips and human brains in order to augment the processing and memory capabilities of the human mind). Nick Bostrom at the Future for Humanity Institute at Oxford University has some especially thorough analysis of the ethics of cognitive enhancement. (Bostrom’s work on the topic will be the subject of future posts on this blog.)
Assuming that synthetic cognitive enhancement is an inevitable element of the future of humanity (which I do, by the way, assume to be essentially inevitable), then we can resolve to some conclusions: given that expanded cognitive development is a necessary precursor for increased moral development, the augmentation of the net cognitive prowess in the human population will inherently create opportunity for an expansion in the net tonnage of human morality: more sweeping views of the deep interconnectivity of living beings, leading to more generosity and compassion for the suffering of other sentient life and greater care for the nurturing of others, with more mental power to act efficiently in response to that compassionate awareness.
This, however, is only part of the picture.
Because cognition is not guaranteed to create morality, the collective expansion of human cognition will ultimately result in both an expansion of human morality, as well as an expansion of human immorality. Just as souped up super-brains will be able to rev harder toward curing disease and eliminating poverty, the hyper-minds of the future will also be able to flex their cognitive muscle toward more deviously brilliant schemes for the usurpation of power and the indulgent stranglehold of resources.
What emerges, then, is the perspective that a morally excellent society cannot be measured only in terms of the net tonnage of morality existent in the human population. But rather that a morally excellent society must be conceived in terms of a moral ratio, or in other words, the ratio of net morality to net immorality. Expressed as a simplified abstract formula,
moral ratio = net tonnage human morality
……………….net tonnage human immorality.…
Potential yardsticks for these entities have been alluded to in previous posts, and expanded discussion of this topic will be forthcoming. (Look forward to more pyschometric fun.) Reining it back to the brain, I have to believe that furthering our understanding of the neural substrates of our emotional and cognitive lives will enrich our paradigms and expand our consensus about the character and the shape of human morality. This is a significant first step toward increasing society’s moral ratio. Further, as previously discussed on this blog, I remain optimistic that technological proliferation will ultimately yield tools and modalities for accelerating the the cultivation of prosocial human values. What exactly these tools will be…I’m still searching and pondering. (Think Omneuron meets positive psychology meets The Foundation for a Better Life.)
As a cheerful take-home, check out the admirable list of human virtues aggregated by The Foundation for a Better Life: http://values.com