Bioethics ISSN 0269-9702 (print); 1467-8519 (online) Volume 29 Number 4 2015 pp 233–240
CONCEPTUAL AND PRACTICAL PROBLEMS OF MORAL ENHANCEMENT BIRGIT BECK
Keywords moral enhancement, moral theory, biomedical enhancement
ABSTRACT Recently, the debate on human enhancement has shifted from familiar topics like cognitive enhancement and mood enhancement to a new and – to no one’s surprise – controversial subject, namely moral enhancement. Some proponents from the transhumanist camp allude to the ‘urgent need’ of improving the moral conduct of humankind in the face of ever growing technological progress and the substantial dangers entailed in this enterprise. Other thinkers express more sceptical views about this proposal. As the debate has revealed so far, there is no shared opinion among philosophers (or scientists) about the meaning, prospects, and ethical evaluation of moral enhancement. In this article I will address several conceptual and practical problems of this issue, in order to encourage discussion about the prospects of (thinking about) moral enhancement in the future. My assumption is that (i) for the short term, there is little chance of arriving at an agreement on the proper understanding of morality and the appropriateness of one single (meta-)ethical theory; (ii) apart from this, there are further philosophical puzzles loosely referred to in the debate which add to theoretical confusion; and (iii) even if these conceptual problems could be solved, there are still practical problems to be smoothed out if moral enhancement is ever to gain relevance apart from merely theoretical interest. My tentative conclusion, therefore, will be that moral enhancement is not very likely to be made sense of – let alone realized – in the medium-term future.
Recently, the debate on human enhancement has shifted from familiar topics like cognitive enhancement and mood enhancement to a new and – to no one’s surprise – controversial subject, namely moral enhancement. Some proponents from the transhumanist camp allude to the ‘urgent need’1 of improving the moral conduct of humankind in the face of ever growing technological progress and the substantial dangers entailed in this enterprise. Other
thinkers express more sceptical views about this proposal.2 As the debate has revealed so far, there is no shared opinion among philosophers (or scientists) about the meaning, prospects, and ethical evaluation of moral enhancement. First and foremost, an estimation of this subject presupposes an understanding of what the term ‘moral enhancement’ refers to. Apart from the fact that there is no generally accepted definition of enhancement to
I. Persson & J. Savulescu. The Perils of Cognitive Enhancement and the Urgent Imperative to Enhance the Moral Character of Humanity. J Appl Philos 2008; 25(3): 162–177; I. Persson & J. Savulescu. Unfit for the Future? Human Nature, Scientific Progress, and the Need for Moral Enhancement. In J. Savulescu, R. ter Meulen, & G. Kahane, editors. Enhancing Human Capacities. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell; 2011. pp. 486– 500.
J. Harris & S. Chan. Moral behavior is not what it seems. PNAS 2010; 107(50): E183. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1015001107; S. Chan & J. Harris, Moral enhancement and pro-social behaviour. J Med Ethics 2011; 37(3): 130–131; J. Harris. Moral Enhancement and Freedom. Bioethics 2011; 25(2): 102–111.
Address for correspondence: Dr. Birgit Beck, Center for Advanced Study in Bioethics, Geiststraße 24-26, 48151 Münster, Germany. Tel.: +49 251 83–23578 Email: [email protected]
Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd
date,3 it appears that conceptual problems arise from disagreement on the right understanding of morality, ‘properly so-called’. However, if we want to enhance moral conduct, we need to know what exactly it is that the target features to be enhanced consist of. As could be expected, there are different answers to that question depending on the presupposition of rival (meta-)ethical theories. Moreover, even if one single understanding of morality were to be agreed upon, there might still be practical problems concerning the implementation of moral enhancement in society. Such problems include insufficient knowledge regarding the empirical basis and functions of moral behaviour, as well as claims regarding individual autonomy and social justice. In the following, I will address several conceptual and practical problems regarding this issue in order to encourage discussion about the prospects of (thinking about) moral enhancement in the future. My assumption is that (i) for the short term, there is little chance of arriving at an agreement on the proper understanding of morality and the appropriateness of one single (meta-)ethical theory; (ii) apart from this, there are further philosophical puzzles loosely referred to in the debate which add to theoretical confusion; and (iii) even if these conceptual problems could be solved, there are still practical problems to be smoothed out if moral enhancement is ever to gain relevance apart from merely theoretical interest. My tentative conclusion, therefore, will be that moral enhancement is not very likely to be made sense of – let alone realized – in the medium-term future.
CONCEPTUAL PROBLEMS: WHAT COUNTS AS MORAL ENHANCEMENT? As Thomas Douglas rightly points out, ‘[t]here is clearly scope for most people to morally enhance themselves.’4
This is undeniably true. However, what is less clear is the way this noble endeavour should be accomplished. Douglas gives a formal definition of moral enhancement which, in his view, has the advantage of being compatible with any reasonable moral theory. According to his proposal, an intervention counts as moral enhancement if it improves a person’s moral motives: A person morally enhances herself if she alters herself in a way that may reasonably be expected to result in her having morally better future motives, taken in sum, than she would otherwise have had.5 He thereby understands motives as ‘psychological – mental or neural – states or processes that will, given the absence of opposing motives, cause a person to act.’6 A moral enhancement, he explains, will expectably alter a whole set of a person’s motives, rather than just one single motive, and it may, but need not, be brought about by biomedical means.7 As Douglas himself admits, however, there is a caveat to this view: notably, ‘there is little agreement on which motives are morally good and to what degree’,8 which depends on the moral theory one prefers, and ‘both what counts as a good motive and what counts as an improvement in one’s motives will be different for different people, or people performing different roles.’9 In other words, there might be no objective standards10 for the evaluation of an intervention as an effective moral enhancement. Instead, this estimation might depend on prevailing normative parameters in various social contexts.11 Moreover, one could ask if sets of motives are the proper target of enhancement measures, given that either moral judgement12 or moral conduct (or both) are to be improved. Even the best motives do not guarantee successful reasoning, nor do they necessarily lead to morally desirable outcomes. Finally, to influence a person’s 5
While the standard treatment/enhancement distinction faces wellknown problems regarding the vagueness of concepts of health and disease, normality, etc., the welfarist definition (cf. J. Savulescu, A. Sandberg & G. Kahane. Well-Being and Enhancement. In Savulescu, ter Meulen, Kahane, editors, op. cit. note 1, pp. 3–18, 7) cannot provide a differentiated notion of enhancement. In the first place, if ‘enhancement’ by definition referred to anything (subjectively and/or objectively) evaluated as increasing ‘the chances of leading a good life’, it would be unintelligible how enhancement could be at all objectionable. Moreover, taking the welfarist definition for granted, it would only be possible to deem intervention as enhancement after its beneficial effects had been assured, so that the welfarist definition is (again) begging the question. Eventually, assuming the welfarist definition, it is the underlying theory of a good life upon which it depends whether intervention is to count as enhancement. Therefore, the presumption of rival ethical concepts does not allow for a consistent notion of enhancement. Any concept of ‘moral enhancement’ relying on the welfarist definition certainly inherits all these difficulties. 4 T. Douglas. Moral Enhancement. J Appl Philos 2008; 25(3): 228–245, 230.
Ibid: 229. Ibid. 7 Other means may include more traditional ways of moral enhancement like education. Cf. J. Harris. ‘Ethics is for Bad Guys!’ Putting the ‘Moral’ into Moral Enhancement. Bioethics 2013; 27(3): 169–173, 172. 8 Douglas, op. cit. note 4, p. 230. 9 Ibid: 231. 10 The need for objective standards is emphasized by F. Santoni de Sio, H. Maslen & N. Faulmüller. The Necessity of Objective Standards for Moral Enhancement. AJOB Neurosci 2012; 3(4): 15–30. 11 J.R. Shook. Neuroethics and the Possible Types of Moral Enhancement. AJOB Neurosci 2012; 3(4): 3–14. 12 In his various comments on the topic of moral enhancement, John Harris seems to focus primarily on the importance of moral judgement rather than moral conduct. Cf., e.g. Harris, op. cit. note 7, p. 172. These two concerns, however, appear to refer to different levels of argumentation. Improving moral judgement, therefore, could be seen as an improvement in the capacity to engage in normative ethical theorizing, without a necessary effect on one’s moral personality, agency, conduct, etc. Such an improvement might accordingly count as ethical enhancement, rather than moral enhancement. Cf. Shook, op. cit. note 11, p. 8. 6
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Conceptual and Practical Problems of Moral Enhancement motives effectively, it might be necessary to provide a precise theory regarding the nature and function of motives – for instance, a theory of mental or neural states or processes and their efficiency to cause actions – in order to find the suitable point of application for the respective enhancement measures. Douglas does not adopt an explicit position regarding these conceptual questions, let alone does he state an elaborate theory of mind and action. But to be fair, it has to be kept in mind that his argumentative aim is rejection of the ‘Bioconservative Thesis’,13 as he calls it, which claims that enhancement is morally impermissible under all circumstances. If appreciable moral enhancement were actually achievable, this fact would obviously thwart the Bioconservative Thesis. As William Kabasenche points out, ‘[w]hen the ultimate target is properly understood, there can be no real doubt about the value of a project of moral enhancement.’14 However, different opinions concerning the target in question appear to prevail. As an example for moral enhancement, Douglas proposes attenuation of ‘counter-moral emotions’15 like racial bias16 or the tendency to express unreasonably violent aggression, which are likely either to interfere with good motives or to provide or be bad motives themselves. In his view, reducing such emotions, without much doubt, leaves the person with better moral motives overall. Therefore, Douglas makes the following claim: [T]here are some emotions such that a reduction in the degree to which an agent experiences those emotions would, under some circumstances, constitute a moral enhancement.17 In this weak formulation, his assertion seems quite uncontroversial. Douglas himself, however, raises a possible objection to his thesis: ‘[N]othing which alters only emotions could truly give an agent better motives. The only thing susceptible of moral appraisal is, it might be argued, the will.’18 Moral judgement and behaviour, from this point of view, are dependent on rational reasoning and the formation of a strong will to adhere to the moral law; emotions are thus considered to be irrelevant as far as morality is concerned.19 Douglas does not respond to 13
Douglas, op. cit. note 4, p. 228. Cf. also T. Douglas. Moral Enhancement Via Direct Emotion Stimulation: A Reply to John Harris. Bioethics 2013; 27(3): 160–168, 161. 14 W.P. Kabasenche. Moral Enhancement Worth Having: Thinking Holistically. AJOB Neurosci 2012; 3(4): 18–20, 20. 15 Douglas, op. cit. note 4, p. 231. 16 See http://www.understandingprejudice.org/iat/ [Accessed 11 October 2013]. 17 Douglas, op. cit. note 4, p. 231. 18 Ibid: 232. 19 Such a view is certainly contested by emotivist or other noncognitivist moral theories as well as by more recent results of empirical research. See M.A. Schroeder. Noncognitivism in Ethics. London: Routledge; 2010; J. Decety, K. Michalska & K.D. Kinzler. The Contri-
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this view, regarding it as counter-intuitive and implausible. There are, however, proponents of a rationalist moral theory who do claim a strong relationship between the will and morality.20 From the perspective of this position, although emotions might not be dismissed entirely,21 moral enhancement, ‘properly so-called’, requires more than an adjustment towards pro-social behaviour or more empathy with others. Quite the contrary, Sarah Chan and John Harris argue; advancement of these traits might eventually lead to counterproductive outcomes, in that it diminishes moral reasoning, therefore, promoting ‘less moral and more anti-social’22 decisions and actions. Harris argues with reference to Peter Strawson,23 for example, that a reasonable amount of negative reactive attitudes is appropriate in many circumstances24 and that interfering with people’s ability to express the right reactions to harm or injustice, for instance, would not at all turn them into better persons from a moral point of view. Richard Dees joins this criticism: We need a standard of morality that entails the judgment that, for example, making people more trusting makes them morally better before we can conclude that a drug like oxytocin makes people more moral. In truth, of course, becoming more trusting as such does not make a person morally better – too much trust is morally irresponsible.25 Obviously, the opinion that altering emotional dispositions will be conducive to moral enhancement cannot be considered to be a unanimous view. This assumption depends on the ethical and meta-ethical groundwork from which the issue is addressed. Under the presumption of cognitivism, rationalism, and universalism as criteria of adequacy for moral theory, the promotion of pro-social bution of Emotion and Cognition to Moral Sensitivity: A Neurodevelopmental Study. Cereb Cortex 2012; 22(1): 209–220. DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhr111. 20 Harris, op. cit. note 2, 7; W. Simkulet. On Moral Enhancement. AJOB Neurosci 2012; 3(4): 17–18. 21 Cf. Chan & Harris, op. cit. note 2, p. 130. 22 Ibid: 131. 23 Cf. Harris, op. cit. note 2, p. 105; P. Strawson. Freedom and Resentment. In: Freedom and Resentment and other Essays. London: Methuen; 1974. pp. 1–25. Concerning this matter, Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu, drawing on evolutionary psychology, refer to a set of emotions which constitute the basis for a tit-for-tat strategy. Cf. I. Persson & J. Savulescu. Unfit for the Future. The Need for Moral Enhancement. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2012. pp. 33 ff. 24 Douglas, op. cit. note 13, p. 166, acknowledges this point. 25 R.H. Dees. Moral Philosophy and Moral Enhancements. AJOB Neurosci 2011; 2(4): 12–13, 13. Meanwhile, the hype about oxytocin as a possible means for moral enhancement seems to have declined as it has turned out that the beneficial attitude of being more affectionate towards others appears to apply basically to in-group-members. Cf. C.K. de Dreu et al. Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism. PNAS 2011; 108: 1262–1266. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1015316108. See also T. Baumgartner et al. Oxytocin Shapes the Neural Circuitry of Trust and Trust Adaptation in Humans, Neuron 2008; 58: 639–650.
emotions and attitudes may well have some influence on people’s behaviour, but it cannot account for moral enhancement.26 However, these presuppositions are also not consentaneously shared,27 and, as empirical research proceeds, philosophical theorizing might be encouraged to change. In any case, there are further conceptual proposals to be considered. In recognition of the fact of ethical pluralism, John Shook28 gives an account of moral enhancement based on two, in his view, widely shared assumptions which he terms ‘minimal moral naturalism’29 and ‘minimal moral commonsensism’.30 These premises account for the belief that morality is an evolutionary human capacity31 which requires no ‘supernatural’ faculty, for example, no strong metaphysical conception of free will, and which can therefore be subject to empirical investigation by both biological and social sciences. Furthermore, despite the actual lack of consensus on a proper understanding of morality and at the risk of provoking relativistic objections, Shook claims that basic standards or key features of morality32 are shared by people around the world to a sufficient degree to account for moral universalism. On this basis, Shook is confident that morality ‘possesses enough stable functions and features across human societies to be amenable to interdisciplinary research without waiting upon philosophers to decide what morality really is.’33 With these preliminaries granted, he introduces a list of five points with possible target features for moral enhancement.34 These include 1) moral sensitivity or appreciation, 2) moral decision-making, 3) moral judgements, 4) moral intentions, and 5) moral will-power. According to Shook’s point of view, improvement of at least one of these capabilities – whatever they may consist 26
Cf. Harris, op. cit. note 7, pp. 171 f. M.J. Crockett et al. Reply to Harris and Chan: Moral judgment is more than rational deliberation. PNAS 2010; 107(50) E 184. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1015402107; J. Harris. What It’s Like to Be Good. Camb Q Healthc Ethics 2012; 21: 293–305. 28 Shook, op. cit. note 11. 29 Ibid: 4. 30 Ibid: 5. Persson & Savulescu, op. cit. note 23, p. 12 seem to introduce roughly the same idea by referring to ‘common-sense morality’. 31 There is a related debate about the evolutionary origins of morality which centers around the question if pro-social behaviour of, e.g. higher primates (or, for that matter, human infants) is to be considered as morality proper or only a kind of ‘proto-morality’. Cf. F. de Waal. The Age of Empathy. Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. New York, NY: Harmony Books; 2009; P.S. Churchland. Braintrust. What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 2011; J.K. Hamlin, K. Wynn & P. Bloom. Social evaluation by preverbal infants. Nature 2007; 450: 557–559. 32 Shook, op. cit. note 11, p. 4 lists ‘basic moral norms regarding cleanliness, caring, fairness, cooperation, conflict resolution, and the like’. See also J. Haidt. The Righteous Mind. Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. London: Allen Lane; 2012. 33 Shook, op. cit. note 11, p. 4. 34 Ibid: 5 f. 27
in full detail – (other things being equal) can be considered to be a suitable mechanism for moral enhancement. However, Shook’s suggestion has also raised criticism for failing to provide a more holistic account of ‘virtuous agency’.35 Due to Shook’s refusal to provide a systematic connection between the elements on his list, just ‘tightening one screw’ in a moral agent’s repertoire of behavioural pattern might possibly lead to unwelcome results: ‘But what if heightened moral appreciation, in the absence of stronger moral decision making or of an increased capacity to act rightly, leads to a kind of paralysis?’36 Obviously, there has to be a certain balance of a person’s virtuous skills to ensure proper moral conduct. Furthermore, Kabasenche expresses scepticism regarding the use of biomedical means for the advancement of ‘mature moral agency’,37 as well as concerning ‘the success or overall value of engineering virtues’.38 Shook himself discusses some possible objections to his thesis and the items on his list, but he does not seem to be too concerned with aiming for an objective account of morality in the first place. Instead, he appears to be content with providing a framework for a practical ‘trial-anderror’ strategy of moral enhancement.39 As a result, any intervention empirically regarded as conducive to morality within a particular cultural setting will count as moral enhancement ex post facto. There are no superordinate normative standards of evaluation. From a conceptual perspective, however, this might seem unsatisfying.40 Moreover, from a practical point of view, it might appear dubious whether such an experiment is apt to ‘make the world a better place’. Indeed, Shook is far from expecting such a beneficial development. He rather seems to believe that anything which can be done will be done. Accordingly, he characterizes his own position as ‘enhancement cynicism’.41 As we have seen, there are competing concepts of morality and moral conduct which complicate a definition of moral enhancement and the assessment of suitable target features for moral enhancement measures to be applied.42 Contingent on the underlying 35
Kabasenche, op. cit. note 14, p. 19. Ibid. 37 Ibid: 20. 38 Ibid. 39 Cf. Shook, op. cit. note 11, pp. 9–12. 40 Santoni de Sio et al., op. cit. note 10, criticize to the effect that, without the presumption of an objective moral theory, there can be no coherent concept of enhancement understood as improvement, but rather only the assessment of value-neutral modification. However, it appears that, from a subjective or even inter-subjective point of view, various modifications can nevertheless be evaluated as improvement. 41 Shook, op. cit. note 11, p. 12. 42 Moreover, we have not yet scrutinized possible means for moral enhancement in detail. Concerning this matter, Persson & Savulescu, op. cit. note 23, p. 107, mention ‘drug treatment and genetic engineering’ as possible means for ‘moral bioenhancement’, as they term it. Regarding 36
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Conceptual and Practical Problems of Moral Enhancement meta-ethical43 and ethical44 framework, concepts of moral enhancement comprise the advancement of moral judgement or moral conduct (or both) by influencing moral motives, moral reasoning, morally relevant emotions, or moral virtues, or a combination of these items. In addition, even if efficacious moral enhancement seems to be a good thing at first glance, there is no agreement whatsoever on the question of whether such enhancement should be morally permissible, mandatory, or rather forbidden on the basis of weighty moral reasons.45 Up to now, there appears to be no generally accepted solution for these intricacies. Before scrutinizing more practical concerns, I will now briefly point out some further conceptual puzzles which are referred to in the debate on moral enhancement, apart from the right definition of morality.
CONCEPTUAL PROBLEMS: METAPHYSICAL PUZZLES One objection John Harris has repeatedly emphasized is that moral enhancement (at least in the version suggested by Thomas Douglas, Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu) would very likely undermine our freedom.46 In this regard, it is worth investigating which kind of freedom is at stake. There appear to be at least three possible candidates for an appropriate concept of freedom in the context of moral enhancement: freedom of the will, personal autonomy, and political liberty. In a paper entitled ‘From Illusory to Real Freedom’,47 the German philosopher Michael Schmidt-Salomon points out the importance of making a distinction between freedom of the will and freedom of action. The former, understood in the strong libertarian sense of a metaphysical counter-causal ability, strikes him as a hopelessly incoherent concept which should be dismissed the suggestion of a ‘genetic virtue project’, see M. Walker. Enhancing genetic virtue. A project for twenty-first century humanity? Politics Life Sci 2009; 28(2): 27–47, and the critical commentary by N. Agar. Enhancing genetic virtue? Politics Life Sci 2010; 29(1): 73–75. 43 The respective meta-ethical assumptions provide the preliminary decision for moral realism/moral anti-realism, cognitivism/noncognitivism, objectivism/subjectivism, and universalism/particularism. 44 This level of argumentation sets the course for the target features to be enhanced according to the presumption of a particular moral theory (such as ‘deontology’, ‘consequentialism’, ‘virtue ethics’, or ‘minimal moral commonsensism’). 45 However, John Harris emphasizes that he, as a liberal, does not recommend interdiction of moral enhancement. Cf. Harris, op. cit. note 7. 46 Harris, op. cit. note 2, 7, 27. 47 M. Schmidt-Salomon. Von der illusorischen zur realen Freiheit. Autonome Humanität jenseits von Schuld und Sühne. In K.P. Liessmann, editor. Philosophicum Lech. Die Freiheit des Denkens. Wien: Zsolnay; 2007. pp. 179–218 [translation by the author].
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for good reasons.48 Adopting a compatibilist position, he insists that freedom worth having is to be explained in terms of personal autonomy, which he calls ‘inner freedom of action’.49 In Schmidt-Salomon’s view, this capacity consists in the absence of insurmountable internal compulsions with which the person is not able to identify positively. For the sake of avoiding conceptual entanglement, such a notion of autonomy, according to SchmidtSalomon, should not be labelled ‘freedom of the will’. Moreover, he expresses the conviction that it would be useful to exclude the ‘principle of alternate possibilities’ from an understanding of autonomy, for even if a moral person is in a strict sense not able to do otherwise (in the sense of acting immorally),50 this in no way restricts her autonomy as long as this seeming ‘coercion’ is not perceived as such due to its perfect fit with the moral person’s beliefs, intentions, and emotional condition, i.e. with her personality.51 Therefore, it appears to remain a matter of dispute whether ‘moral compulsion undermines free will’,52 as William Simkulet states, and whether the ‘freedom to fall’53 emphasized by John Harris must be understood as a necessary requirement for personal autonomy (which Persson and Savulescu and, recently, Douglas54 deny). After all, would you not prefer to be pretty sure that your friends are, under all circumstances, not able to betray you or anyone else seriously because of the ‘compulsion’ by their moral personalities? Have you ever seriously tried to do something deeply immoral (or simply to deliberately leave the restaurant without paying the bill) in order to prove freedom of the will? This suggestion appears to be absurd, and I doubt whether it is practicable. A closely related topic is the need for clarification regarding a 48
These good reasons presumably consist in the metaphysical burdens of justification which one has to assume in order to advocate a libertarian concept of free will. 49 Schmidt-Salomon, op. cit. note 47, p. 192. 50 This literal inability to act in an immoral way certainly resembles John Stuart Mill’s idea of the ultimate sanction for morality which he calls the ‘internal sanction’. Cf. J.S. Mill. Utilitarianism. In M. Warnock, editor Utilitarianism and On Liberty, Malden: Blackwell; 2003; pp. 181–235, 204: ‘The internal sanction of duty, whatever our standard of duty may be, is one and the same – a feeling in our own mind; a pain, more or less intense, attendant on violation of duty, which in properly-cultivated moral natures rises, in the more serious cases, into shrinking from it as an impossibility’ [emphasis added]. Persson & Savulescu, op. cit. note 23, p. 113 refer to this phenomenon as ‘something that is psychologically or motivationally out of question’. 51 Cf. Schmidt-Salomon, op. cit. note 47, p. 212. The philosophical puzzle underlying this assumption is, of course, the notion of authenticity. 52 Simkulet, op. cit. note 20, p. 18. 53 Harris, op. cit. note 2, p. 111. 54 Cf. Douglas, op. cit. note 13, pp. 165 f. However, his reference to the theistic defence of freedom of the will against the argument from evil does not appear to be very helpful regarding the conceptual clarification of a suitable concept of freedom in the debate on moral enhancement. Cf. Harris, op. cit. note 7 for a reply to Douglas’ paper.
suitable concept of moral or legal responsibility55 in the absence of a strong metaphysical notion of free will. There have indeed been attempts to provide a differentiated theoretical framework of human responsibility on compatibilist or even impossibilist grounds56 which could be adopted usefully in the proceeding debate about moral enhancement. Concerning the maintenance of ‘humane ethics and politics’,57 it is paramount in SchmidtSalomon’s view to place emphasis on ‘real existing freedom of action’,58 i.e. personal autonomy, as well as on individual rights regarding political liberty, instead of overstretching an outdated metaphysical concept of free will. It appears plausible to assume that the same holds true for the debate on moral enhancement. Therefore, what is really alarming appears to be Persson and Savulescu’s outlook on the need for severe restrictions on civil rights, such as the legal right to privacy59 and freedom of speech,60 instead of the mixed blessings provided by a hypothetical Frankfurtian ‘God machine’.61 There is one more conceptual issue worth mentioning, although I do not intend to provide any suggestion for its solution. As has already been mentioned above in the context of the presentation of Thomas Douglas’ conception of moral enhancement, there might be the need for a conceptual clarification of the status of mental properties and moral properties respectively. Richard Dees, for example, emphasizes the ‘fundamentally social nature of morality’.62 John Harris does likewise, concluding that knowledge of brain states or neuronal chemistry has no share whatsoever in the solution of ‘complex philosophical, ethical, legal and social questions’.63 A fortiori, it could be argued that a possible influence on morality via an alteration of brain states and neuronal chemistry has to be considered as doubtful, at the least. It might simply be a category mistake to assume that morality depends on or is, least of all, constituted by single individuals’ mental states.64 This objection, however, might in turn be chal-
Cf. Harris, op. cit. note 7, p. 172. See M. Stier. Verantwortung und Strafe ohne Freiheit. Paderborn: mentis; 2011. 57 Schmidt-Salomon, op. cit. note 47, p. 194. 58 Ibid: 214. 59 See J.C. Bublitz & R. Merkel. Crimes Against Minds: On Mental Manipulations, Harms and a Human Right to Mental SelfDetermination. Crim Law and Philos 2012. DOI: 10.1007/s11572-0129172-y. 60 Cf. Persson & Savulescu, op. cit. note 23, ch. 4. 61 I. Persson & J. Savulescu. Moral Enhancement, Freedom, and the God Machine. The Monist 2012; 95(3): 399–421. 62 Dees, op. cit. note 25, p. 13. 63 J. Harris. How narrow the strait: The God Machine and The Spirit Of Liberty. Camb Q Healthc Ethics, in press to be published Vol. 23, No 3. July 2014. 64 Following Putnam, it could, e.g. be assumed that morality is ‘not in the head’. Cf. H. Putnam. The Meaning of ‘Meaning’. Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science 1975; 7: 131–193. 56
lenged as empirical science proceeds.65 Up to date, in any case, there appears to be no promising way of providing an a priori solution to that question. So far, it has become clear that, apart from the challenge to come up with a concept of morality everyone might agree upon, further philosophical puzzles have to be considered in the context of moral enhancement, including the clarification of notions of freedom, autonomy, authenticity, agency, responsibility, and problems traditionally corresponding to philosophy of mind, such as the mind-body-problem and the status of mental or propositional content respectively. Once all these conceptual obstacles have been overcome, one still has to engage in questions concerning the implementation of moral enhancement in society.
PRACTICAL PROBLEMS: SCIENCE, SOCIETY, JUSTICE, AND THE DOOM OF HUMANKIND The first question usually worth considering is that of cui bono? Who is likely to profit from moral enhancement and has an interest in its implementation? Compared to cognitive or mood enhancement, it is not readily conceivable that people would be eager to give biomedical means a try, given that new technologies always involve unknown risks. Accordingly, there must be high benefits in order to lead to the acceptance of such measures. According to Persson and Savulescu, the members of the human species, especially those in the wealthier parts of the world, are in desperate need of moral enhancement ‘in order to ensure the survival of human civilization in the longer run.’66 This incentive seems quite convincing.67 However, the prospect of widespread administration of moral enhancement requires, first and foremost, common agreement with Persson and Savulescu’s diagnosis. The popularity of this deeper insight may be doubtful, however, for although everyone might be happy to agree that there is a need for everyone else to enhance herself 65
Results of recent empirical psychological and neuroscientific research indicate that moral knowledge and behaviour depend on a complex integration of emotional responses, theory of mind, and more abstract reasoning, gradually changing with age and comprising several neuronal circuits which are not ‘specialized’ to the accomplishment of moral tasks. Cf. Decety et al., op. cit. note 19; L. Young & J. Dungan. Where in the brain is morality? Everywhere and maybe Nowhere, Soc Neurosci 2010. DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2011.569146. 66 Persson & Savulescu, op. cit. note 23, p. 121. 67 It should be noted, however, that even if all of us are very likely to agree on this point, so far there has been no self-sufficient justification to the claim stated by German philosopher Hans Jonas that there is a categorical metaphysical imperative to ensure the further existence of humankind. Cf. H. Jonas. Das Prinzip Verantwortung. Versuch einer Ethik für die technologische Zivilisation, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp; 2003. p. 8.
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Conceptual and Practical Problems of Moral Enhancement
morally, some might be reluctant to admit their own moral shortcomings.68 One specific problem which may arise is that the enhancement of apparently moral judgement and conduct might make things even worse: in order to provide an example for catastrophes which should be prevented by means of moral enhancement, Persson and Savulescu frequently refer to terrorist attacks. However, the problem with (at least ideologically motivated) terrorists is that they are under the impression of acting on morally justified grounds and pursuing morally laudable goals. Causing them to abide even more by their morality (or, for that matter, their religious beliefs) would foil the whole purpose of moral enhancement. Certainly, it can be argued that terrorists have the wrong moral convictions from the start, but then the argumentation gets stuck again with the conceptual and normative justification of morality.69 In addition, there might be misuse, as is usually the case with any technology. Leaving those problems aside, let us assume that we all know by and large what morality is and what moral conduct requires and that there are actually some sensible persons who are aiming to improve their moral capabilities in some respect or other. John Shook gives the example of a vegetarian who might wish to ‘ensure that temptations to eat meat would not overwhelm his or her moral intent to be kind to animals.’70 Under the assumption that there are actually people like this vegetarian, is a consumer demand for moral enhancement to be expected? Will there be a market for moral enhancement, as Shook predicts? In his role as a self-appointed ‘moral enhancement cynic’, Shook forecasts that ‘[i]gnorance about the precise mechanisms involved in moral agency and conduct will not halt experimental moral enhancement.’71 To that effect, the pharmaceutical industry will be quick to offer remedies for various moral deficiencies, such as weakness of the will or lack of sympathy. In order to push the marketing of those substances, he proposes giving them catchy labels like ‘Sensitiva’ for a substance for the enhancement of moral appreciation, ‘Prudentia’ for a substance advancing thoughtfulness, ‘Ethicale’ for supporting moral belief, ‘Benevolium’ for enhancing moral intention, or ‘Prokrasia’ for the enhancement of moral will power.72 On the one hand, ‘generic moral
enhancers’73 will support people to act reliably on their internalized moral values and principles – whatever they may consist in. On the other hand, there will be ‘morphic moral enhancers’74 which can be used to install completely new or revised moral beliefs in subjects. According to this scenario, there will be efforts to overcome social problems by auxiliary means of (autonomously chosen) pharmaceutical devices as long as they are considered to be ‘safe and effective’75 as is nowadays the case with ADHD, for instance. Although such a prospect appears to be a rather frightening science fiction scenario at the moment, it remains to be empirically validated whether it will turn out to be realistic (and who will pay for this if it turns out to be the case). There seems to be one reasonably conceivable application for moral enhancement. It concerns the rehabilitation of convicted criminal offenders.76 However, provided that such enhancement is technically feasible, in these cases, there must be appropriate ethical standards regarding safety and a reasonable amount of autonomy with respect to the concerned person’s decision for or against the intervention, just as in all other cases.77 Moreover, such an instance may be regarded as treatment rather than moral enhancement,78 which turns our attention back to conceptual questions. Having assessed several conceptual and practical problems concerning moral enhancement, I am under the impression that the discussion has gone astray at several points. My primary aim has been to accentuate the need for a shared conceptual framework in order to specify the very meaning of moral enhancement and to address the same questions. As long as disagreement on notions of ‘enhancement’, ‘morality’, ‘freedom’, and the like goes unnoticed or is underestimated, the parties involved are prone to talk past each other, which is usually not very helpful for coming to grips with ethical problems (concerning moral enhancement or any other bioethical issue). Therefore, I conclude from the overview of the debate presented that it is, first of all, essential to attach more importance to reflection on the respective conceptual presuppositions and commitments. As for the problem of implementation, I take it that at least the global benefits of moral enhancement which
Persson & Savulescu, op. cit. note 23, p. 121 concede that ‘it hurts our pride to acknowledge our moral deficiencies.’ 69 Apart from that, it should be kept in mind that, for Persson and Savulescu, the most worrying moral problems relate to the overexploitation of natural resources and the anthropogenic climate change. 70 Shook, op. cit. note 11, p. 9. 71 Ibid. 72 Ibid: 8. At least ‘Prokrasia’ should be a means for moral enhancement John Harris could approve of. Cf. Harris, op. cit. note 7, p. 172: ‘Where there is weakness of the will (akrasia), the problem is not one that requires moral enhancement but something akin to ‘stiffening the sinews’ and ‘summoning the blood.’
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Shook, op. cit. note 11, p. 9. Ibid. 75 Ibid: 12. 76 Cf. B.L. Curtis. Moral Enhancement as Rehabilitation? AJOB Neurosci 2012; 3(4): 23–24. In this context, Shook, op. cit. note 11, p. 10 refers to ‘restorative moral enhancers’. 77 See R. Merkel et al. Intervening in the Brain. Changing Psyche and Society. Berlin et al.: Springer; 2007; E. Shaw. Direct Brain Interventions and Responsibility Enhancement, Crim Law and Philos 2012. DOI: 10.1007/s11572-012-9152-2. 78 Cf. D. Horstkötter, R. Berghmans & G. de Wert. Moral Enhancement for Antisocial Behavior? An Uneasy Relationship. AJOB Neurosci 2012; 3(4): 26–28. 74
Persson and Savulescu envision are unattainable. Admittedly, there are grave anthropogenic environmental problems, and there is unbearable global injustice, but, to my understanding, restricting the personal rights of citizens for the sake of the prevention of terrorism, thereby possibly evoking the danger of violent uprising, cannot be a good solution to these problems. It also does not appear conceivable for global problems to be solved by the comprehensive and, at least at the initial stage, experimental administration of pharmacological substances or other biomedical techniques. There do indeed have to be great efforts to ameliorate the situation, but it is unclear which measures are called for, the more so as Persson and Savulescu frankly admit that ‘moral bioenhancement worthy of the name is practically impossible at present and might remain so for so long that we will not master it, nor succeed in applying it on a sufficient scale, in time to help us with [. . .] catastrophic problems’.79 79
Persson & Savulescu, op. cit. note 23, p. 123.
However, let me conclude with a more optimistic prevision. Numerous natural disasters, for example the latest catastrophic tidal flood in Germany, have revealed so much solicitousness and helpfulness even among complete strangers that – contra the dystopic expectations of Persson and Savulescu – there might be warrantable hope for reliance on human magnanimity and moral conduct, even without the need or prospect of biomedical boosting.
Acknowledgements I am indebted to John Harris and all the participants of the ManchesterMünster Workshop in Bioethics at the Center for Advanced Study in Bioethics for fruitful discussion. Special thanks go to Annette Dufner. I would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers for inspiring comments. Birgit Beck is a Research Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in Bioethics at the University of Münster, Germany and was trained as a philosopher. Her current research interests include neuroethics, theories of well-being, and authenticity.
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