Moral agential neuroenhancement (MANE) can transform us into better people. However, critics of MB raise four central objections to MANEs use: (1) It destroys moral freedom; (2) it kills one moral agent and replaces them with another, better agent; (3) it carries significant risk of infection and illness; (4) it benefits society but not the enhanced person; and (5) it’s wrong to experiment on nonconsenting persons. Herein, I defend MANE’s use for prisoners of war (POWs) fighting unjustly. First, the permissibility of killing unjust combatants entails that, in cases where MANE is equally or more likely as termination to reduce moral recidivism in unjust combatants, then MANE is morally justified. Second, the relevant infections and illnesses caused by MANE are less bad than death, so MANE leaves unjust POWs better off than the alternative. Third, just as incarceration is often permissible despite benefitting society but not the incarcerated, the same holds for unjust POWs. Fourth, we should accept a broader construal of “benefit” that includes moral benefits. Thus, 3 and 4 are false when applied to unjust POWs. Fifth, medical experimentation likely to help nonconsenting persons is sometimes permissible. Because MANE is likely to help unjust POWs irrespective of their consent or lack thereof, its use is permissible. Sixth, basic principles of proper medical care support the use of MANE on unjust POWs as pro tanto morally obligatory. I conclude that militaries should therefore begin to employ MANE for unjust POWs.
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I’m grateful to an anonymous reviewer at Neuroethics for pointing these out.
This latter argument builds on Sarah Carter’s  defense of moral biotherapy. I explain and explicitly build on Carter’s view in the “Targeting Moral Enhancement” section.
Cf. Earp et al.  for the original definition.
My thanks to an anonymous reviewer for making this point.
Brian Earp  cautions that neurochemical interventions are unlikely to work if administered involuntarily, but rather “would most likely foster states of mind that allowed one to engage with the moral domain in a more productive or insightful way”. Experimental technologies like ADIs, however, often work involuntarily about as well (and for the same reason) as a gun to the head.
Cf. Holoyda , who confirms the usefulness of psychedelic drugs on recidivism:
Though Timothy Leary’s research failed to identify a link between psychedelic use and a reduction in criminal recidivism, more recent studies support his hypothesis that psychedelic drug use may reduce an individual’s risk for engaging in violence and other anti-social behavior.
For a highly imaginative variant of this thought experiment, see Savulescu and Persson .
This isn’t a defense of chemical castration tout court, or even a defense of chemical castration as a condition of early release for just any prisoner. Unlike forced sterilization of (predominantly) Black women in the United States, anti-libidinal interventions bear a special relation to the crime committed, namely, sexual assault and its prevention. For more on the disturbing history of eugenics and forced sterilization, see Cohen , Bruinius , and Tännsjö . For a review of the legal scene at the zenith of eugenics, see Donovan .
Cf. Hereth , at 69.
Cf. Hereth , at 71.
Combatants subject to immediate termination upon resuming their belligerent status are very unlikely to choose or be allowed to resume their belligerent status. They are, as it were, ‘dead in the water’ and unfit for combat.
War criminals arguably deserve punishment, if anyone does, but war criminals comprise only a small fraction of unjust combatants. However, another reply is available in the case of war criminals. Either a war criminal’s just deserts include punitive MANE, or they don’t. If they do, then pursuing punitive MANE as an alternative to incarceration is permissible (and, by premise 7, obligatory). If they don’t, we should ask why. My best guess is that some would prefer war criminals’ punishment to be very bad for them and MANE feels like getting off cheap. However, there’s a sense in which MANE is very bad for them: it modifies their allegiances and threatens severe harm for noncompliance. To appease readers for whom MANE is inadequate by their retributive lights, I recommend pursuing both MANE and some other form of punishment (either concurrently or in some preferred temporal order).
See also my response to Objection 9 below.
The 1998 film Saving Private Ryan portrays a similar case: U.S. Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies) spares German soldier ‘Steamboat Willie’ (Joerg Stadler), who later returns and fatally wounds Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and is subsequently killed by Upham.
Alternatively, we can say that General’s defensive action satisfies necessity notwithstanding their moral responsibility for its necessity, and thus General’s defensive action is all-things-considered morally permissible. However, even this alternate route reaches the same destination. Because General is morally responsible for the necessity of their own defensive action (i.e., responsible for unjust threats to others), their prior actions necessitating defensive action were impermissible. Perhaps worse, consider that General bears greater responsibility than Sergeant for Sergeant’s unjust threats. After all, it’s because of General’s actions that Sergeant poses an unjust threat: Absent General’s actions, Sergeant would have remained disarmed. So, justice seems to require that General carry the lion’s share of moral liability–a conclusion that nobody welcomes (at least not for their own generals).
Can we justify releasing Sergeant on liberty grounds? That is, does Sergeant’s right or interest in being free justify letting them go, knowing that they will abuse their liberty? No, because it’s not solely Sergeant’s choice to be later threatened (justifiably or not) by just combatants but also our choice (and we can’t justify our choosing it), and Sergeant’s liberty interests take a back seat to the interests of the nonliable parties she would threaten if released.
Cf. Thomsen , 208–211. Thomsen describes a parallel medical justification in the following passage:
Given that the State characterized as these individuals as a biological threat, it should come as no surprise that the State would use a medical tool to assist in mitigating or removing the threat to the greatest possible extent. In this context, fMRI is more than a form of lie detector. It is a tool used to diagnose a threat to the State in the same way that a physician utilizes a blood test to diagnose a threat to the body .
My thanks to Tom Douglas for comments that improved my formulation of Therapy.
Does routine medical treatment of unjust POWs require their consent? Consider force-feeding techniques applied at Guantánamo Bay: They keep patients alive and arguably constitute medical treatment, as they do in anorexia force-feeding treatments [102,103,104], but many condemn these practices [105, 106] and others recommend DBS as an alternative . I lack the space to explore this question here. For now, I concede the possibility that the Best Therapy Argument’s success is parasitic on the Recidivism Reduction Argument’s success, as averting unjust harms typically does not require consent.
What if the probabilities are distinct but close? That is, suppose Prisoner’s odds of being justifiably killed or incarcerated are 10% with MANE and 15% without MANE. Would the smallest of improved odds justify imposing invasive MANE interventions on Prisoner without their consent? It might, given the severe badness of death or long-term imprisonment.
None of this is to say that dependency is, itself, bad–an ableist conclusion . Rather, it’s to say that causing others to be dependent upon us entails duties to care for them.
I don’t have space to defend this claim here. However, if repatriation risks are sufficiently serious, then morally improved enemy POWs might qualify as refugees the enhancing state is obligated to accept under refoulement principles. See Blake and Hereth .
During the Middle Ages, noblemen prisoners of war within Christendom would promise to remain hors de combat in exchange for release. The prospect of dishonoring oneself by breaking this oath, as well as the threat of retaliation, proved effective in ensuring promise-keeping. For more, see Buchan . My thanks to Michael Gross for this historical example of establishing a process for symmetrical benefitting during war.
I am indebted to Michael Gross for suggesting this important application.
Cf. Quong , at 28.
For an applied perspective from a military surgeon, see Taylor .
For a challenge to this view, see Bayne and Levy .
Thanks to Tom Douglas for encouraging me to address this objection more explicitly.
For a critique, see Bazargan-Forward .
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Thanks to Tom Douglas, Michael Gross, Jonathan Moreno, Nick Evans, Paul Tubig, and Erika Versalovic for comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Special thanks to the 2021 Minerva Research Initiative grant “The Ethics of Warfighter Participation in the Development and Testing of AI-Driven Performance Enhancements” for funding it.
This paper was funded under a grant by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, award number FA9550-21–1-0142.
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Hereth, B. Moral Neuroenhancement for Prisoners of War. Neuroethics 15, 15 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-022-09482-2
- Moral neuroenhancement
- Moral treatment
- Prisoners of war
- Military ethics