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Moral Enhancement: Do Means Matter Morally?

Abstract

One of the reasons why moral enhancement may be controversial, is because the advantages of moral enhancement may fall upon society rather than on those who are enhanced. If directed at individuals with certain counter-moral traits it may have direct societal benefits by lowering immoral behavior and increasing public safety, but it is not directly clear if this also benefits the individual in question. In this paper, we will discuss what we consider to be moral enhancement, how different means may be used to achieve it and whether the means we employ to reach moral enhancement matter morally. Are certain means to achieve moral enhancement wrong in themselves? Are certain means to achieve moral enhancement better than others, and if so, why? More specifically, we will investigate whether the difference between direct and indirect moral enhancement matters morally. Is it the case that indirect means are morally preferable to direct means of moral enhancement and can we indeed pinpoint relevant intrinsic, moral differences between both? We argue that the distinction between direct and indirect means is indeed morally relevant, but only insofar as it tracks an underlying distinction between active and passive interventions. Although passive interventions can be ethical provided specific safeguards are put in place, these interventions exhibit a greater potential to compromise autonomy and disrupt identity.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    A questionnaire among the general public and GPs revealed both groups are more reluctant towards the use of pharmaceuticals for enhancement purposes if used for purely egoistic reasons compared to socially related reasons [41]. Targeting morality may therefore be more acceptable compared to other types of enhancement due to inherent societal benefits if moral enhancement is successful. On the other hand, because our moral characteristics can be considered essential, deeply inherent traits of our personality and self-identity, enhancing such traits in oneself and/or others may be met with more reluctance compared to enhancing cognitive traits such as attention or memory [13, 42]. Riis and colleagues [42] found that out of 19 cognitive, emotional and social traits, people were least willing to pharmaceutically enhance the most morally significant traits included in the list (i.e., empathy and kindness). Also, many individuals favored a ban on pharmaceutical enhancements of empathy and kindness in others (40 % and 43 % respectively), although 7 other traits scored similar or higher (e.g., math ability and wakefulness).

  2. 2.

    We are aware of the fact that the term ‘passive’ in English typically refers to ‘inactive’ or ‘inert’, which would imply that passive interventions have no ability to change individuals, whereas active interventions do have the ability to change individuals. However, by ‘passive’ interventions we wish to refer to interventions that can bring about changes without any psychological involvement or effort on behalf of the individual, i.e., that make the individual a passive recipient [27]. Active interventions are then those interventions that need the psychological involvement or effort of the individual in question to come about. Passive/active thus refers to the involvement of the individual undergoing the intervention, and not to the potential of the intervention itself to bring about changes.

    We use the terms direct/indirect similar to other authors in the bioenhancement debate [e.g., [27, 30, 4345]. For example, Butblitz and Merkel [30] describe indirect interventions as interventions over which we have more control compared to direct interventions. Indirect interventions are mediated by “internal processes on the part of the addressee” [30: 69] whereas direct interventions are not. Hence, on this definition indirect aligns with active mental involvement on behalf of the individual, whereas direct aligns with no involvement on behalf of the individual and thus refers to changes that are passively brought about and can be described as “freedom-subverting” [44: 372]. To further clarify, passive interventions might be described as ‘freedom incompatible’ interventions, whereas active interventions might be described as ‘freedom compatible’ interventions.

  3. 3.

    Based on the neurobiology and psychology of psychopathy, the first author previously argued that both reasons-receptivity and reasons-reactivity are to a greater or lesser degree impaired in (some) psychopaths and that these impairments draw upon dysfunctional affective and cognitive processing [46]

  4. 4.

    The default mode brain network comprises a network of brain regions that are active when an individual is at rest, depicting an inward focus linked to introspection and self-referential thoughts instead of an outward focus on the world around us

  5. 5.

    Although we agree with Harris that it is not necessarily so that “those with the insight, sympathy, empathy, understanding and knowledge to have formed clear ideas of what might conduce to the good” are better at “doing good in any of the ways in which this is possible” [4: 104], it cannot but raise the odds substantially that these individuals will do good. If not, this would entail that insight, sympathy, empathy, understanding and knowledge are not essential building blocks of what it means to be a good person. Of course circumstances can still tilt the individual towards wrongdoing, but under the right circumstances, the odds of behaving in a morally good way are raised substantially.

  6. 6.

    How we can and should differentiate between normal and abnormal moral capacities or moral functioning, or how we can distinguish between average, or above- or below-average is a complex normative and empirical question. Answering these questions would require a separate paper. Yet another question is which means would be imaginable to increase moral capacities far above normal or average moral capacities, i.e., enhance morality beyond human norms [47]. We will not concerns ourselves with that latter question here.

  7. 7.

    In cases where pathological deficiencies in moral capacities are present, we might speak of moral therapy or repair, rather than enhancement. Although the treatment-enhancement distinction has been much discussed and criticized, we believe that if understood as a merely descriptive distinction, it can help to clarify the discussion.

  8. 8.

    During neurofeedback training, feedback of neural metabolic activity is brought to the attention of the participant by the use of an interactive graphic display with the aim of conditioning area specific brain processes. Several fMRI neurofeedback studies have demonstrated that humans can learn to self-regulate localized brain regions, including emotional brain regions, based on a combination of contingent feedback and mental strategies [48].

  9. 9.

    As outlined above in section 35: The interconnectedness of emotions, reasons and motives in normal moral decision-making and behavior, both from a neurobiological and experiential perspective.

  10. 10.

    See the discussion on ‘freedom to fall’ within the moral enhancement debate [4, 13, 19, 43, 4951; and others]. According to Persson & Savulescu [3], Harris fears that moral bioenhancement will “make the freedom to do immoral things impossible, rather than simply make the doing of them wrong and giving us moral, legal and prudential reasons to refrain” [4: 105]. Which basically entails that he fears that we will no longer act for reasons, but will become “mindless robots” [3: 128]. One may argue that moral enhancement, to be successful, should render an individual’s reasons and/or motives for doing good more salient, and make these play a (more) salient role in one’s decision-making processes, but should not make individuals “mindless robots”. Doing good should still remain an option, a behavior of choice, among the many options that individuals may have. Moral enhancement should therefore not curtail our ‘freedom to behave immoral’, but if successful, it will make immoral behavior less likely by, for example, making it easier to resist certain counter-moral incentives. It should provide a way to make “the unacceptable unpalatable”, not undoable [52: 170].

  11. 11.

    Because direct neuromodulation affects the entire brain (by directly stimulating part of a network in the brain that interacts with other areas and networks in the brain) subsequent psychological and personality changes may either go unnoticed by the individual in question and leave the individual without any means to reflect upon, or rationally endorse, her changed identity, or may lead one to unreflectively accept or welcome certain traits. If we take into account the way our brain works it is not unlikely that directly changing an individual’s moral dispositions (e.g., empathy, sense of justice, sense of fairness) will affect one’s entire belief system, i.e., in such a way that the individual in question does not necessarily experience a discontinuity as such.

  12. 12.

    We are aware that some interventions, such as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), can currently be applied on a do-it-yourself basis, hence without a responsible medical practitioner in charge. For reasons of patient safety and well-being, we would recommend that such interventions are regulated by legal measures for product safety and personal use (e.g., licenses for personal use involving training sessions with skilled experts) in the short-term while undergoing regulation by the Medical Devices Directive (MDD) in the long term [53].

  13. 13.

    An important question that links to these issues is whether enhanced individuals themselves should take responsibility for unwanted adverse behavioral effects. This question is not unique to the moral enhancement debate and similar problems have arising within various other treatment settings (e.g., medications for psychiatric disorders, DBS for movement disorders, psychosurgery). For example, following a cingulotomy for treatment-refractory obsessive compulsive behavior, patients may exhibit clinical disinhibition. Cases are known of such patients committing sexual offences post-operatively. Can we hold such individuals (fully) responsible for their deviant behavior? Similarly, are technologically enhanced individuals responsible for any unexpected adverse effects that may arise? For example, think of the use of moral bioenhancement within criminal justice settings, should we hold the criminal justice system or the offender responsible for adverse, unwanted behavioral effects, or both? [see, e.g., 45, 54, 55]

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Acknowledgments

The research for this paper was funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) and the Scientific Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) as part of the project Our brain as capital.

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Correspondence to Farah Focquaert.

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Focquaert, F., Schermer, M. Moral Enhancement: Do Means Matter Morally?. Neuroethics 8, 139–151 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-015-9230-y

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Keywords

  • Moral enhancement
  • Enhancement
  • Bioenhancement
  • Biomedical enhancement
  • Identity
  • Autonomy