Enhancement and the Conservative Bias


Nicholas Agar argues that we should avoid certain ‘radical’ enhancement technologies. One reason for this is that they will alienate us from current sources of value by altering our evaluative outlooks. We should avoid this, even if enhancing will provide us with novel, objectively better sources of value. After noting the parallel between Agar’s views and G. A. Cohen’s work on the ‘conservative bias’, I explore Agar’s suggestion in relation to two kinds of radical enhancement: cognitive and anti-ageing. With regard to both, there are reasons to doubt Agar’s empirical predictions about the severity of the evaluative changes we will undergo. Nonetheless, there is some force to the argument as applied to cognitive enhancement; in particular, radical cognitive enhancement may endanger our current valuable relationships with our loved ones. However, even if we find this a plausible worry for radical cognitive enhancement, it is not plausible for even radical anti-ageing enhancement, because the change Agar predicts will not affect our core motivations in the way that cognitive enhancement threatens to.

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  1. 1.

    He has defended more moderate enhancements elsewhere (2004).

  2. 2.

    A related criticism is found in Hauskeller (2011, 2013, 163–181), who suggests that the relentless pursuit of enhancement involves a failure to be properly grateful for what we have already. He cites Voltaire’s (borrowed) aphorism that ‘the better is the enemy of the good’ (2013, 175).

  3. 3.

    Kolodny (2003) argues that love cannot be explained by any non-relational feature of an individual.

  4. 4.

    C.f. Williams (1973).

  5. 5.

    See e.g. Levy (2011), responding to concerns outlined in Elliott (2003).

  6. 6.

    See Powell 2015; Danaher Forthcoming for other defences of enhancement from a conservative perspective. Buchanan (2012, 26-51) also offers various considerations for why enhancement may serve a preservative effect in an environment that is constantly changing.

  7. 7.

    I make this assumption simply because Agar argues, passim, that ‘we’ should fear and reject radical enhancement. Since he makes no reference to particular circumstances, values (other than ‘human values’), I assume this ‘we’ is supposed to be global.

  8. 8.

    Indeed, Hauskeller (2011) doubts that we can ‘believe that what makes Mozart great is entirely comparative, that there is nothing of intrinsic value in his music’. If this is right, our alienation from current sources of value may be less extreme than Agar supposes.

  9. 9.

    Again, this concern is echoed in Hauskeller (2013, 177) who worries that ‘There will…always be the possibility of something being even better than what we’ve got’.

  10. 10.

    Perhaps you think that certain features of a beach will eventually become such that they cannot be improved. If so, imagine that the improvements continually approach, but never quite reach, perfection, i.e. that the significance of the differences between each stretch become smaller as one goes on.

  11. 11.

    Interestingly, in his more recent work, Agar does not pursue this line of argument, instead developing the moral case. Still, since its only mention (2013, 113–114) is to refer back to the argument in Agar (2010), I will assume that Agar considers that prior discussion to be relatively complete and that he continues to endorse it.

  12. 12.

    For a more detailed explication of this kind of view, see Bradley (2009).

  13. 13.

    See, e.g. Slovic (1987); Tversky and Kahneman (1974); Weinstein (1987).

  14. 14.

    Bhattacharya and Simpson (2014) offer for a similar criticism in greater detail.

  15. 15.



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Correspondence to Ben Davies.

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Davies, B. Enhancement and the Conservative Bias. Philos. Technol. 30, 339–356 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-016-0245-z

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  • Human enhancement
  • Conservatism
  • Value
  • Cognitive enhancement
  • Ageing