Something in the water

"There's something in the water."

That's what we say when we observe a bunch of locals behaving in the same, odd way, but maybe it's also the answer to some of our thornier social problems.

Tap water has a host of different elements to it, including naturally occurring minerals, as well as chlorine and fluoride added by officialdom to disinfect the good drop and fortify our teeth.

It's said if you want to quietly murder a city, poison its water supply, so it follows if you want to uplift same metropolis, why not pop some anti-depressants in the drink instead?

Mass dosage of psychoactive drugs might sound ridiculous at first blanch but the concept of "morally enhancing" our population was recently aired by two professors of philosophy from England's Oxford University and the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

In their new book Unfit for the Future: The Urgent Need for Moral Enhancement, Professors Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson argue that while humanity's ability to shape its environment has accelerated wildly, our morality has failed to keep pace.

"Where our ancestors' tools shaped the few acres on which they lived, the technologies we use today have effects across the world, and across time, with the hangovers of climate change and nuclear disaster stretching far into the future.

"The pace of scientific change is exponential, but has our moral psychology kept up?"

A quick glance at human history shows it's always been easier for us to harm others than to help them. For this reason, we developed a sense of morality that makes us feel bad when we hurt the people closest to us; in our family, tribe or village.

Unfortunately, that's often where it ends. It's speculated the average human brain can only identify and empathise with around 150 people before it just gets too much for us monkeys.

However, our actions as consumers and citizens can adversely affect far more people through environmental degradation and climate change, as well as our well-documented apathy to wars, where people who don't look like us, are dying.

Humanity's tendency to focus on the near future and those closest to us also means our political leaders are loathe to force voters into painful compromises (Carbon Tax, anyone?) because we just don't feel a strong enough sense of altruism about strangers in distant lands - if we're all fat and happy.

Savulescu and Persson speculate this is where "moral enhancement" could be used in future.

"Our knowledge of human biology - in particular of genetics and neurobiology - is beginning to enable us to directly affect the biological or physiological bases of human motivation, either through drugs, or genetic selections or engineering," they write in the July/August 2012 edition of the magazine Philosophy Now.

"We could use these techniques to overcome the moral and psychological shortcomings that imperil the human species" ie. ... you don't give a crap about the environment and climate change? We'll put something in the water to make sure you do care.

Before you start screaming brave new world, consider how many human "enhancements" we already embrace - from prosthetic limbs, vaccines, drugs, surgery, as well as genetic modifications.

Others might argue better moral education is the answer but if the teachings of Buddha, Confucius, Socrates, Jesus and Kant haven't made an impression on most people already, I'm sceptical Mrs Stringbag's high school ethics class is going to cut much ice. Or save the polar ice caps from melting.

Tap water with your meal, Sir?

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