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Moral Bioenhancement Through Memory-editing: A Risk for Identity and Authenticity?


Moral bioenhancement is the attempt to improve human behavioral dispositions, especially in relation to the great ethical challenges of our age. To this end, scientists have hypothesised new molecules or even permanent changes in the genetic makeup to achieve such moral bioenhancement. The philosophical debate has focused on the permissibility and desirability of that enhancement and the possibility of making it mandatory, given the positive result that would follow. However, there might be another way to enhance the overall moral behavior of us humans, namely that of targeting people with lower propensity to trust and altruism. Based on the theory of attachment, people who have a pattern of insecure attachment are less inclined to prosocial behavior. We know that these people are influenced by negative childhood memories: this negative emotional component may be erased or reduced by the administration of propranolol when the bad memory is reactivated, thereby improving prosocial skills. It could be objected that memory-editing might be a threat for the person’s identity and authenticity. However, if the notion of rigid identity is replaced by that of extended identity, this objection loses validity. If identity is understood as something that changes over time, moral bioenhancement through memory-editing seems indeed legitimate and even desirable.

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    It might be useful here to give an operational definition of emotions as states provoked by elements counting as rewards or punishments, which have special functions. Rewards are what one wishes for, punishments are what one wants to avoid. An emotion can be the happiness triggered by a compliment or a caress, or the fear provoked by an angry face. Emotions serve to activate automatic and endocrine responses; to ensure the flexibility of behavioral ones; and to give facts and situations a positive or negative connotation (Rolls 2005). I am aware that the debate on emotions is open, and that this definition is not universally shared.


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The author thanks both the reviewers for their helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Andrea Lavazza.

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Lavazza, A. Moral Bioenhancement Through Memory-editing: A Risk for Identity and Authenticity?. Topoi 38, 15–27 (2019).

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  • Attachment theory
  • Internal working model
  • Propranolol
  • Reconsolidation
  • Rigid identity
  • Extended identity