Whether moral bioenhancement is necessary depends on the strength of premise 5, the purported impotence of other means, to which we will turn in the final section. Let us, for now, assume that a safe morality pill that alters humankind’s mental structure for the better is found. Should we use it? Well, assuming that it is powerful enough to avert genocide or ultimate harm: yes. But what about less serious concerns? The use of moral bioenhancers yields several legitimatory problems that any persuasive proposal has to overcome, especially if it involves state-run or mandatory enhancements of citizens.
Moral Relativity and Overlapping Consensus
Any argument in favor of moral enhancement presupposes the possibility of identifying the moral good, which evidently touches upon key controversies in metaethics and normative ethics. Is it always good to be less aggressive or to feel more empathy with others? Probably not—the moral goodness or badness of aggression or empathy is likely to depend, first, on the particular context and, second, on the moral theory one endorses. Proponents attempt to meet the challenge from moral relativity in several ways.
Rather than directly ‘implanting’ controversial beliefs, such as the utilitarian calculus or the categorical imperative, Persson and Savulescu seek to enhance moral motivation or sensitivity to moral reasons, so that people are more likely to feel motivated by them. However, enhancing the fittingness between moral reasons and moral motivation nonetheless presupposes knowledge of what counts as a moral reason. They try to solve this problem by invoking rather uncontroversial elements, such as enhanced altruism, or a ‘sense of justice’, and sometimes a common-sense morality, one that is, as they say, “reflected in the moral norms of leading religions, like the Golden Rule of Christianity, which has equivalents in other world religions. We rely on this moral core when we give our children moral education, and we suggest it could be relied on for the purposes of moral bioenhancement” (Persson and Savulescu 2015, 53). DeGrazia employs a similar idea. The problem of determining the right values is not particular to bioenhancements; parents or teachers face them every day. One should, he writes, “[s]tick to improvements that represent points of overlapping consensus among competing, reasonable moral perspectives” (DeGrazia 2014, 364, his italics).
But there are problems with such views of a common-sense morality or an overlapping consensus among moral perspectives. To illustrate their dubiousness, consider some of DeGrazia’s suggestions for dispositions which, according to him, all reasonable perspectives would conceive as moral defects and fitting candidates for elimination: antisocial personality disorder, moral cynicism, narcissistic personality disorder, self-absorption, prejudice against the interests of those outside one’s group of identification, inability to focus on unpleasant realities, weak will, inability to find creative solutions to difficult problems involving competing interests and values, and an inability to grasp subtle details that are of undeniable moral relevance (DeGrazia 2014, 364). These and other dispositions may have detrimental effects on moral behavior. Yet, it is anything but clear that all or even many instantiations of such dispositions fall under an overlapping consensus among competing moral views. Notably, not even enhancing altruism is unanimously believed to be morally good. Ethical egoism, for instance, has a respectable tradition within moral philosophy (cf. Shaver 2015) and remains, for better or worse, one of the major views on common-sense morality, most clearly seen in economic matters. Or consider DeGrazia’s suggestion to regard prejudice against the interests of those outside one’s group of identification as a clear example of an undeniable moral defect. To be sure, the statement of this ‘defect’ would need to be fleshed out more clearly to determine its moral quality. But we expect a hard time convincing dyed-in-the-wool communitarians that favoring one’s own group is clearly morally wrong and rightly described as a ‘prejudice.’ So, we fear that the overlapping consensus might turn out to be a rather narrow one.
State Enforcement and Neutrality
But even when we suppose, for the sake of argument, a minima moralia exists—would this permit states to administer bioenhancements? By confining the scope of values it enforces to those within the overlapping consensus, states might not run afoul of their duty to neutrality. Even more, the possibility of altering moral views may make one inclined to recast the issue of neutrality. For the idea of neutrality, since the day of Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1689/2010), has resulted from the seemingly unavoidable fact of moral pluralism. Political liberals such as Rawls and Larmore emphasize that disagreements about value, unlike scientific disagreements, remain contested—there simply is no factual matter that could be solved so that the disagreement about values would vanish (cf. Larmore 2005; Rawls 2005). Neutrality is a response to the challenge of forming a unified state in the face of insurmountable disagreement over substantial matters. Insofar as these disagreements can be resolved by moral interventions, the question arises whether states ought to be neutral? Why not favor a particular (e.g. majority) position and offer anyone else moral bioenhancement? Put differently, the question is whether pluralism or neutrality are first order principles, good for their own sake, or second order principles, instrumentally good to install a peaceful order among disagreeing citizens (cf. Paulo 2016).
Moreover, the real and profound problem that DeGrazia and others fail to address is where the legitimacy to “reduce or eliminate” those beliefs outside of the overlapping consensus arises from, particularly in citizens who do not wish to change their views. If they hold moral views outside of the realm of reasonable doctrines—to take a provocative one: racism—the state may, perhaps, discriminate against those views through anti-racist campaigns, or implement education policies that impede such opinions being formed in the first place (and, uncontroversially, ban racist actions). However, beyond that, the crucial question DeGrazia oversteps is this: Why is it legitimate to target the emotional dispositions of an outspoken racist? The right to hold opinions, including racist ones, without interference is among the most fundamental rights (Art. 19 Universal Declaration of Human Rights). It is usually not understood to be conditional upon the beliefs of others or upon whether it stands the test of reasonableness (Bublitz 2016a). What proponents need to provide is an argument to override this guarantee. The figure of the overlapping consensus does not seem to be the right place to look for it. In fact, to invoke it as a justification for interferences with basic rights would reverse the argumentative role it is supposed to play in political philosophy. The overlapping consensus limits state authority, i.e., state powers are legitimate only if justifiable to views within the consensus. But it does not, in turn, impose duties on citizens to only hold views within the consensus. It is one thing to reject justifying immigration policies vis-a-vis racists but a completely different matter to oblige a racist to reject racism. Policing views outside of the scope of the overlapping consensus is a politically highly dangerous proposal.
Moral Bioenhancement and Democratic Legitimacy
This leads us to a general worry about the compatibility of the moral bioenhancement project with democracy. Freedom of opinion, we suggest, is a political right necessary for democratic legitimacy. If the state alters moral opinions, it undermines the very legitimacy on which it is grounded (Bublitz 2016b; Paulo and Bublitz 2016). Persson and Savulescu show that a democratic political order might increase the problem of morally deficient individual minds exponentially: if psychological deficiencies befall a majority of the electorate, majoritarian rule will likely let bad individual decisions accumulate and prevail over more reasonable views. That motivates Persson and Savulescu’s intriguing solution: governments should alter the psychological traits of citizens through moral bioenhancement. A different mindset of the electorate may afford the implementation of urgently needed drastic, yet unpopular, policies. Enhanced voters may, for instance, be more supportive of measures to tackle global warming or to elect a ‘green’ government. Of course, as a large majority is needed, this entails changing the minds of citizens against their will. At the same time, however, they disavow installing an authoritarian regime: “In our view, the solution to the mega-problems of today, if there is one, lies not in a shift to an authoritarian type government, but in moral enhancement of the citizens in democracies” (Persson and Savulescu 2014, 8). Accordingly, they portray state-driven moral bioenhancement of the electorate as a democratic solution.
However, such a strategy would hardly observe the limits of democracy. Recall the famous opening passage of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, where he outlines the key task of political philosophy: to inquire into the legitimacy of government “taking men as they are and laws as they can be made to be” (Rousseau 1762/2002, 155). Taking people as they are is a cornerstone of democratic thought—Persson and Savulescu’s moral bioenhancement proposal, in contrast, reverses this idea. If governments, through moral bioenhancement, severely manipulate the will of individuals—and thereby, of the people as a whole—a circular relation ensues. Government is not representing the will of the people but vice versa. Thus, a government that manipulated the will of the people could not be grounded in democratic legitimacy—even if it did so for noble reasons. Proponents of large-scale, state-driven and partially mandatory moral bioenhancement should, thus, be clear that they advocate a non-democratic order (Paulo and Bublitz 2016).
Moral Education Versus Bioenhancement
Proponents of moral bioenhancement commonly try to defuse worries about legitimacy by drawing analogies with traditional moral education. They argue that if traditional moral education is desirable, so is moral bioenhancement (premise 7). Biomedical means are allegedly not relevantly different from traditional forms of moral education, which are universally accepted, be it through parents or religious or public institutions such as kindergartens or schools. However, we think there are a number of important disanalogies: for one, the education of children differs normatively from educating adults. Parents—and, subsidiarily, the state—have a duty to support the development of children, including education in moral matters. Not educating children amounts to a failure of discharging this duty. There is, however, no relevantly similar duty to educate adults. On the contrary, the relation between adults is one of equals. Adults can reject involuntary education as paternalistic. The analogy thus presupposes what it seeks to establish: that a duty to educate exists with respect to adults.
Moreover, moral education is a very complex matter. Urging one’s infant time and time again not to pull the dog’s tail is very different from trying to convince a teenager to follow the Golden Rule. The infant is less likely to respond to carefully presented arguments. In the pre-conventional stages of moral development, to use Kohlberg’s terminology, the child is more likely to learn through sanctioning, obedience and, later, self-interested cooperation. Persson and Savulescu seem to have those stages in mind when comparing traditional and biomedical moral enhancement: “For those of us who are content with the empirical knowledge of common sense and science, it is surely evident that when small children are taught language, religion, basic moral rules, or whatever, this education is just as effective, irresistible, and irrevocable as biomedical intervention is likely to be” (Persson and Savulescu 2015, 52). We doubt that this stipulation is true and that teaching basic moral rules is “effective, irresistible, and irrevocable.” Children are individually different, respond differently to their environment and, even though parents are enormously influential and often manipulative, every act of teaching is an attempt that can fail. As Michael Hauskeller correctly observes, education is not simply “injecting knowledge, beliefs and behavioural dispositions into an empty container and then, once it is filled, sealing it for good so that it cannot get out again” (2016). Children make up their own minds more and more, in correspondence with their increasing developmental stages. To be sure, children can be drilled and morals imprinted. But these forms of education, at least in the later developmental stages, are themselves worrisome and pedagogical scholarship has been discussing other, more dialogical forms for decades (on the problem of children’s autonomy and state neutrality, see Callan 2004; Fowler 2015).
The central difference between biomedical and traditional means is that the latter are set in the “space of reasons”, whereas biomedical means bypass it. Children are taught to play by the rules of reason and, as soon as they are cognitively able to do so, moral education is primarily an exchange of reasons and reflection, of arguments and counterarguments. To an increasing extent during development, children are taught—and should be encouraged—to make up their own minds. The more capacities a child acquires, the more parental education turns into an attempt of persuasion rather than mindless imprinting (Sparrow 2014). At some point, usually in the post-conventional stages of moral development, children might even successfully convince their parents or teachers of a moral rule they did not endorse. So biomedical means bypass individual reason and self-control, while traditional moral education usually respects them. Furthermore, an argument by analogy from manipulative forms of education seems to miss its target. Does the fact that there are manipulative and indoctrinative forms of education, inevitably due to children’s development, provide any argument in favor of expanding and increasing these forms beyond the inevitable? We do not think so. The education analogy thus does not hold.
Neutral Moral Insight?
Changing others’ opinions and beliefs through reasons and argument rather than biomedical means is also preferable for epistemic reasons. Any metaethical position has to concede that moral views can be subjected to rational critique and should be revisable in light of better arguments, which implies a certain “open-ended normativity” of moral discourse (Buchanan 2012). Effective biomedical forms that confer moral “insights” or form certain virtues, however, suggest a fixed and contained view of the moral realm. Instead of an open-ended normativity, the search for moral truth is concluded and revisions in light of new arguments or changed circumstances are likely impeded. This relates to a problem recently pointed out by Parker Crutchfield (2016). Suppose a specific moral belief in an individual is changed through biomedical means and that the person is aware of her new beliefs. Proponents of moral bioenhancement may say she has acquired a new moral insight. The problem is, however, that the person does not have new reasons for having formed that belief, as it has not been generated by evidence or argument. Furthermore, no emotional experience—such as the unexpected loss of a loved one—has led to the change. In other words, the enhanced person lacks any form of justification for her newly acquired belief. She may even realize that she has acquired a new belief that is not warranted. This poses the epistemological question whether this new belief really is a belief strictu sensu (or merely a different mental state, such as a vague seeming). As rational beings, we are interested in justified beliefs. Moreover, it might well be the case that moral beliefs acquired without justifying reasons are less likely to motivate behavior than beliefs acquired in a traditional way.
In this section, we have reviewed some of the central problems of legitimacy that moral bioenhancement projects, which seek to impose moral values or beliefs upon citizens in non-communicative or non-rational ways, have to face: the challenge of relativity; missing legitimatory grounds; problems of democracy if states alter the will of the people. The often invoked analogy with moral education cannot defuse these worries. These problems cast premise 7—the parity principle—into serious doubt.