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Moral Bioenhancement, Social Biases, and the Regulation of Empathy

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Some proponents of moral bioenhancement propose that people should utilize biomedical practices to enhance the faculties and traits that are associated with moral agency, such as empathy and a sense of justice. The hope is that doing so will improve our ability to meet the moral challenges that have emerged in our contemporary, globalized world. In this paper, we caution against this view by arguing that biomedically inducing more empathy may, in fact, diminish moral agency. We argue that this type of increase in empathy would not be effective for addressing empathy’s vulnerability to the biases that can undermine moral judgment. Furthermore, doing so may undermine the important capacity to regulate empathy. We determine that if the moral enhancement project is to be a serious one, it must address these challenges.

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  1. 1.

    In this paper we focus on the role of empathy because per our interpretation of Persson and Savulescu’s argument, empathy is central to their ideas on moral bioenhancement. They do, however, include the value altruism in their argument. But in their argument (2013), Persson and Savulescu note that claims about empathy and claims about altruism are equivalent.

  2. 2.

    We might reasonably say that some partiality in empathy is morally appropriate when it comes to family and close friends, though we might also argue that such commitments should have their limits. Even if it were the case that biomedical enhancement somehow leveled out the ways in which we empathize, there is little reason to believe that it would improve our ability to discern the proper limits to empathy, or that such a leveling out would happen in a way that accords with any particular view of what is morally right.

  3. 3.

    This study finds that health care workers who frequently encounter emotional demands through their contact with suffering patients are less likely to experience burnout when they consider their patients’ emotions in terms of basic emotions, as opposed to more uniquely human emotions.

  4. 4.

    As Johanna Shapiro (2012) notes, significant medical bodies including The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education and the Association of American Medical Colleges have identified empathy as a key component in professionalism. For overviews of the literature detailing the benefits of empathy in medical practice, see Halpern (2012) and Zenasni et al. (2012).


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Correspondence to Keisha Ray.

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Ray, K., Castillo, L.G. Moral Bioenhancement, Social Biases, and the Regulation of Empathy. Topoi 38, 125–133 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-017-9468-6

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  • Moral enhancement
  • Morality
  • Empathy
  • Empathy deficits
  • Biases
  • Regulation