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The Role of Emotion Modulation in Moral Bioenhancement Debate


This paper aims to analyze technical and internal aspects of one particular type of human moral enhancement, i.e. enhancement of moral motivation via direct emotion modulation. More precisely, it challenges the assumption that modifying certain emotions will have the results desired by the advocates of this theory. It is argued that neuropsychological understanding of the role and function of emotions, as well as of underlying cognitive mechanisms, might be relevant for the discussion about biomedical enhancement of moral capacities. Moreover, typical claims about direct emotion modulation seem to be contradicted, or at least seriously challenged, by available neuroscientific data. Particular attention is paid to the theory that emotions are evolved and functionally specialized programs whose task is to coordinate other adaptive mechanisms of human psychology in order to promote one’s fitness. If this view of emotions is plausible, it can be argued that several difficulties for moral bioenhancement theory ensue. Neuroscientific and evolutionary-psychological perspective seem to indicate that emotions don’t fulfill necessary requirements to serve as the vehicles of moral enhancement and it should, therefore, take into account role and function of entire cognitive modules associated with moral decision-making.

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  1. 1.

    It is worth bearing in mind, as one of the reviewers of this journal correctly observed, that MBE is in principle problematic idea which entails disturbing claims about maladapted human morality. Nevertheless, it seems worth asking whether modifying emotions would actually have the result desired by proponents of MBE. Since the latter is the exclusive goal of this paper, general ethical permissibility or justification of MBE will not be discussed.

  2. 2.

    Possible examples of counter-moral emotions are a strong aversion to certain racial groups and an impulse towards violent aggression (Douglas 2008, p. 231).

  3. 3.

    It is generally assumed that enhancement procedures go beyond restoring health and are supposed to be applied to “normal” individuals, boosting their capacities above some species-typical standard. MBE discussed here, therefore, is about the application of biomedical means to healthy individuals (although findings relevant for this debate are mostly from medical cases of abnormalities which predispose for immoral behavior).

  4. 4.

    Moral psychology can be simply understood as psychology of a moral agent. Persson and Savulescu do not provide its explicit definition, but they clearly understand it as a combination of common-sense morality and some related psychological dispositions (explained in more detail later in this article).

  5. 5.

    This notion of altruism includes benevolence and Persson and Savulescu believe that altruism conceived in this way must be central to morality since “morality requires the setting aside of our own interests for the sake of others, though to what precise extent is a matter of controversy” (2015, p. 349). It is important to note here that altruism can be seen as an insufficient foundation of morality, but this point will be further elaborated in the final section.

  6. 6.

    This means that collectives in which the pattern of reciprocal reactions (driven by emotions such as anger, remorse, guilt, pride, admiration, contempt or forgiveness) is widespread are most successful in terms of survival and reproduction (2008, p. 169). For example, recognizing needs in kin increases inclusive fitness, whereas cooperation and reciprocating can increase chances of individual survival, which is why altruistic emotions were selected in the course of evolution. The sense of justice and fairness is based on the feeling of anger or contempt at those who do not reciprocate (free-riders), gratitude or admiration to those who do, guilt for not doing right to someone, shame for not being able to properly reciprocate or retaliate, etc.

  7. 7.

    Whereas Persson and Savulescu discuss the possibility of increasing altruism, Thomas Douglas’s proposal is focused on biomedical attenuation of counter-moral emotions that tend to interfere with sound moral reasoning, sympathy and other plausible candidates for “morally good motives” (Douglas 2013, p. 2). The implications of emotion attenuation are not to be discussed per se in this paper, but they do fall within the “emotion modulation” scope and, accordingly, the same conclusions apply to them too.

  8. 8.

    Other examples of psychological mechanisms causing lack of moral motivation in the current environment are: “(1) a bias towards the near future, according to which we heavily discount the importance of events in the more remote future, (2) an altruism which is restricted to kin and a small circle of acquaintances, (3) an incapacity to sympathize with larger numbers of people, (4) an act-omission doctrine, according to which it is harder to justify causing harm than letting harm occur which functions as a bar against the greater easiness of causing harm and (5) a conception of responsibility as causally based, according to which we are responsible for an effect in proportion to our causal contribution to it, so that our responsibility is proportionally diluted when we cause things together with other agents” (Persson and Savulescu 2015, p. 338).

  9. 9.

    To be fair to the authors it must be said that they eventually express the doubt that emotion modulation will do the job necessary for moral enhancement. However, they don’t elaborate the difference between emotions and mechanisms or the other problematic aspects of emotions which will be discussed further on.

  10. 10.

    Although there are many relevant sources within this field, the focus of this paper will mostly be directed to a couple of capital works by J. Tooby, L. Cosmides and R. Nesse who enjoy a special reputation in the field and their work perfectly fits the needs of this discussion. However, for more topic related overviews check e.g. Lewis et al. (2008) or Al-Shawaf et al. (2015).

  11. 11.

    As one anonymous reviewer of this journal observed, the vexed relationship between the mind and the brain might be invoked. Since deeper analysis of this complex philosophical problem is not within the scope of this discussion, the reader is asked for a maximally neutral and naturalistic understanding of the terms in question: “The brain is a machine designed to process information […] one can define the ‘mind’ as a set of information-processing procedures (cognitive programs) that are physically embodied in the neural circuitry of the brain. For cognitive scientists, ‘brain’ and ‘mind’ are terms that refer to the same system (Cosmides and Tooby 2000, p. 97).

  12. 12.

    Tooby and Cosmides explain that “sleep and flight from a predator require mutually inconsistent actions. When such or similar condition or situation of an evolutionarily recognizable kind is detected, a signal is sent out from the emotion program that activates the specific constellation of subprograms appropriate to solving the type of adaptive problems that were regularly embedded in that situation, and deactivates programs whose operation might interfere with solving those types of adaptive problems” (2008, p. 118).

  13. 13.

    A profitable read on this topic is The Moral Psychology Handbook by Doris et al. (2010), especially chapters number two and four.

  14. 14.

    However, it remains an open question whether emotions motivate us to act morally in the absence of a moral judgment or as a consequence of a moral judgment—i.e. moral emotions are emotions that are either constitutive of moral judgments or causally related to moral judgments in a special way (Prinz and Nichols 2010, p. 119).

  15. 15.

    Prinz and Nichols note that it is possible that empathy and sympathy are not emotions, but rather capacities that enable experiencing other people’s emotions. They, also, emphasize that anger and guilt count as the most important emotions in Western morality.

  16. 16.

    For example: “Contempt arises when people violate community norms, such as norms pertaining to public goods or social hierarchies. Anger arises when people violate autonomy norms, which are norms prohibiting harms against persons. […] [E]motions such as self-righteousness, gratitude, admiration, and elevation, [which] may serve as rewards for good behavior” (Prinz and Nichols 2010, p. 122).

  17. 17.

    This point can be associated with prevailing disagreement about what constitutes morality and which mechanisms comprise our moral psychology. Some aspects of this discussion can be found in Shook (2012) and Specker et al. (2014).

  18. 18.

    What Tooby and Cosmides mean by evolutionarily recurrent situation in this context is “a cluster of repeated probabilistic relationships among events, conditions, actions, and choice consequences that endured over a sufficient stretch of evolutionary time to have favored some variant designs over others. Many of these relationships were probabilistically associated with cues detectable by humans, allowing psychophysical triggers to activate the task-appropriate program” (2008, p. 117).

  19. 19.

    This understanding of moral emotions and underlying cognitive mechanisms corresponds well with the views that emotions serve as “moral intuitions” or “heuristics”. Whereas heuristics are generally understood as cognitive shortcuts enabling faster decision-making. Although they are very useful in most cases, they often lead to systematic errors in cognitive reasoning, i.e. to cognitively biased choices. Respectively, emotions govern automatic, intuitive judgments which can be unreliable rules in moral decision-making.

  20. 20.

    According to Stich et al. (2010, pp. 154–155): “a behavior (or a behavioral disposition) is evolutionarily altruistic if and only if it reduces the inclusive fitness of the organism exhibiting the behavior and increases the inclusive fitness of some other organism. […] It is logically possible for an organism to be evolutionarily altruistic even if it is entirely devoid of mental states and thus can’t have any ultimate desires”. It could be argued that MBE via emotion modulation would affect precisely this type of altruism (“devoid of mental states”) which does not seem as a sufficient foundation of morals.

  21. 21.

    An additional example of effective administration of pharmaceuticals in dealing with disorders which predispose for immoral behavior is that, e.g., anti-libinal drugs reduce sex drive in compulsive sex offenders. These drugs make it easier for persons to do the right thing and resist doing the wrong thing.

  22. 22.

    Similar results were found in studies on neurotransmitter serotonin. For example, Crockett et al. (2013) showed that serotonin regulates retaliatory motives in costly punishment. Depletion of serotonin reduces fairness and increases punishment for behavior directed towards oneself, but it can promote fair behavior in the group. This study also showed context-dependent effects of serotonin on social behavior. These findings have similar implications for the discussion on MBE as in the case of neurotransmitter oxytocin.

  23. 23.

    This study also showed that in competing situations humans display parochial altruism because it had a strong survival function (De Dreu et al. 2010). Such example of limited or constrained reaction strongly supports the thesis about evolutionary biased tendencies which could become aggravated through emotion manipulation.

  24. 24.

    For some interesting critical observations of evolutionary psychology, see: Confer et al. (2010) and Panksepp (2000) or for more fundamental overview check Buss (2005).


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I would like to express my gratitude to anonymous reviewers of the journal Topoi, to my supervisors Tomislav Bracanović and Javier Rodríguez Alcázar, as well as to Petar Bodlović for their valuable comments and insights on earlier versions of this article.  This paper is, also, partially a product of the following research project ​FFI2016-79000-P.

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Correspondence to Karolina Kudlek.

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Kudlek, K. The Role of Emotion Modulation in Moral Bioenhancement Debate. Topoi 38, 113–123 (2019).

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  • Biomedical moral enhancement
  • Emotions
  • Evolutionary psychology
  • Moral motivation
  • Persson/Savulescu