Mother Knows Best
A short story
I know it’s got to be done. Even so, I still feel bad about it. If it were up to me, we would cancel the whole thing. Fortunately, it’s not. It’s up to Mother, and Mother knows best.
It all started when we finally realised that climate change was real and that the consequences were going to be pretty bad. If we didn’t act right away and completely changed the way we lived, we would see more and more deadly heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, landslides, devastating storms and floods, and they would soon become much worse than they already were. Air pollution would rise to levels never seen before, making it difficult to breathe, and we would be hit by new diseases that would spread more easily. Large areas of the planet would turn into deserts and become inhabitable, resulting in mass migration, civil unrest and further bloodshed. Many would starve.
Scientists told us that this was definitely going to happen if we didn’t act and that we had to drastically cut fossil fuel emissions to stand any chance of preventing it. And although we had no good reason not to believe those predictions and warnings, governments found it hard to convince people to radically change their behaviour and to put up with policies that demanded considerable sacrifices from them. In theory we knew the situation was serious and what we had to do, but since it was likely going to affect mostly other people (those living in poorer countries and those succeeding us), we weren’t bothered all that much and largely ignored the problem. Attempts by various well-meaning parties to make people care enough to do what was needed failed repeatedly, until it finally became clear that we just couldn’t do it.
The problem, you see, was human nature, our atavistic stone age moral psychology that evolved many thousands of years ago when we still lived in small groups and didn’t have to worry about future generations or people living in other parts of the world. We had been mentally shaped by evolution for a world that no longer existed, a world in which all that mattered basically happened here and now. We were not made to deal with global problems because we weren’t made to take any serious interest in them. Yet since our very survival depended on it, we knew this had to change, meaning that we had to change, that we had to become something new, something that was better equipped to protect itself from ultimate harm. And because desperate times call for desperate measures, the governments of the most powerful nations joined forces and launched a comprehensive programme of moral bio-enhancement that used a clever combination of hormone treatments, electromodulation and genetic engineering to change people’s moral outlook, making us all more willing to do the right thing even when doing so required considerable personal sacrifice. Obviously, not everyone liked the idea of being morally upgraded in that way, but people were given no choice. There was simply too much at stake to allow anyone to opt out.
And it worked. Once the upgrade was complete, widespread support for previously unpopular measures to combat climate change was all but guaranteed. Everybody was now eager to get on board and do whatever it took to turn things around and make sure that we would not soon end up with no world to live in, or no world that was worth living in. People stopped eating meat, commercial air travel was abandoned, only electric cars were still used, running, like everything else, exclusively on hydro, geothermal and solar energy, and the use of fossil fuels was banned.
As a result, the situation quickly improved. We had solved a major life-threatening problem. Did we do the right thing, though? We thought we had, and it sure looked that way, but then again, we had just learned the hard way that we were not always the best judges when it came to deciding what was best for ourselves and others. We still aren’t. Not only do we often act irrationally; we also feel and think irrationally. The way we look at the world and what is happening in it, what we value and what not, suffers from numerous biases and cognitive distortions, which in turn influence the way we act. We often hold beliefs not because they are true, but because, for some reason or other, we wish them to be true, or because they confirm other beliefs that we are not quite ready yet to give up, or because they make it easier to cope with what is happening to us, or simply because they are part of our evolutionary heritage and genetic makeup. Sure enough, through being morally upgraded we had managed to get rid of some of our natural biases, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t any others, ones that were less easily detectable and that we weren’t even aware of yet. That’s the trouble with unconscious biases: because you are not conscious of them, you can never be sure you don’t have them, and if you don’t know you have them, you cannot fix them.
All this caused great concern: moral bio-enhancement had given us the firm will to do what we thought was right, but what if we were still mistaken about what actually was right? To be certain we weren’t still getting things wrong, we needed more than just moral enhancement. What we needed was someone in charge who was completely objective and impartial, someone who was free of all human weaknesses and who could, for that reason, be relied upon to make the best decisions for everyone involved. That was the only way to make absolutely sure we no longer engaged in any harmful and ultimately self-destructive behaviour. Yet since we already knew that no human could ever be trusted to make moral decisions with complete impartiality and objectivity, the best computer scientists, mathematicians, and AI and machine learning engineers were approached and asked to team up and develop the perfect artificial moral advisor, an intelligent machine that would infallibly identify the most beneficial and least harmful course of action for all of us. This is how ‘Mother’ was created, the world’s first (and now most likely last) Moral Threat Eradicator.
From Mother we learned that the greatest moral threat we faced was not, as we had previously believed, the threat of extinction. It was, in fact, quite the opposite. Everything we had done before we did because we felt that nothing could be more important than ensuring the survival of the human species. Human life was precious, we thought, a gift to be treasured and protected.
As it turned out, we couldn’t have been more wrong. Life, more often than not, is hell, Mother informed us, and even the very best of lives contained so much pain, suffering and unhappy moments that it would have been far better for each one of us if we had never come into existence. If we hadn’t, we would not have missed the few good things that life has on offer, but we would have been spared all the pain of living. It might not seem to us that way, but that’s because we weren’t seeing things clearly. Our unwillingness to accept or even notice that life was most definitely not worth living was just another trick that natural evolution had played on us to keep us in line, yet another irrational bias that we needed to disregard if we wanted to do what was right, which was to stop reproducing and bringing new people into the world.
This was rather unexpected. Naturally, people were shocked at first and tried to contest Mother’s assessment, but eventually reason prevailed. No-child policies were introduced all over the world and infractions were severely punished. And since people were still very keen to do what was right, they really did their best to comply. But it was awfully hard, much harder than before, when we had to change many of our consumerist habits to combat climate change. That had been easy in comparison. Birth rates decreased dramatically, of course, but it was not enough to put an end to the misery that is human existence.
When people kept getting born, it became clear that more decisive action was needed to put an end to human suffering once and for all. If we couldn’t stop reproducing, Mother pronounced, the only remaining option was to end it all right here and now. And since even with the best intentions we were unlikely to commit collective suicide, this time Mother herself was going to take all the necessary steps to ensure that we would not shy away again from getting the job done. We haven’t been told how it is going to happen, but we know it’s going to be very soon. By the end of the day, we will all be dead.
Mother says it’s for the best.
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Michael Hauskeller is Professor of Philosophy and Head of the Philosophy Department at the University of Liverpool, UK. He specializes in moral and existential philosophy, but has also done work in various other areas, most notably phenomenology (the theory of atmospheres), the philosophy of art and beauty, and the philosophy of human enhancement.
His publications include Biotechnology and the Integrity of Life (Routledge 2007), Better Humans? Understanding the Enhancement Project (Routledge 2013), Sex and the Posthuman Condition (Palgrave Macmillan 2014), The Palgrave Handbook of Posthumanism in Film and Television (ed. with T. Philbeck and C. Carbonell, Palgrave 2015), Mythologies of Transhumanism (Palgrave Macmillan 2016), Moral Enhancement. Critical Perspectives (ed. with L. Coyne, Cambridge University Press 2018), and The Meaning of Life and Death (Bloomsbury 2019). His most recent book is The Things that Really Matter. Philosophical Conversations on the Cornerstones of Life (UCL Press, 2022).
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Cover image by Tandem X Visuals on Unsplash.