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Moral Capacity Enhancement Does Not Entail Moral Worth Enhancement Philip Robichaud



TU Delft Published online: 14 Apr 2014.

To cite this article: Philip Robichaud (2014) Moral Capacity Enhancement Does Not Entail Moral Worth Enhancement, The American Journal of Bioethics, 14:4, 33-34, DOI: 10.1080/15265161.2014.889251 To link to this article:

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Egalitarianism and Moral Bioenhancement

Moral Capacity Enhancement Does Not Entail Moral Worth Enhancement

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Philip Robichaud, TU Delft In this commentary I diffuse several of Sparrow’s arguments against moral bioenhancement. In the main, his concerns rest on the claim that moral bioenhancement (hereafter MBE) might make certain persons “as a matter of biological constitution, morally better than another class of persons” (22). My main targets in this commentary are two distinct arguments Sparrow offers. The first is that widespread MBE would “exacerbate existing inequalities in possession of the capacities for moral behavior” (23), which would then lead to an inegalitarian distribution of important rights and political privileges. Specifically, Sparrow is concerned that MBE would allow morally enhanced individuals to claim that they have a special interest in exclusive participation in certain social and political institutions. In addition, he argues that according to several important strands of democratic theory, MBEnhanced individuals would have a special claim to positions of power and influence. A crucial element in this set of worries is the claim that MBE brings with it the ability reliably to identify those who are “more moral than others” (20) and that this ability will allow us to distinguish between those who have special rights and privileges because of their enhanced moral capacities and those who do not. A second, distinct issue that Sparrow raises is that the pursuit and public discussion of MBE both endorses and propagates the idea that “whether an individual is a (morally) good person is a function of that person’s neurochemistry and/or that person’s genetics” (27). He goes on to align this way of thinking with strands of sociobiology that endorse the controversial notion that “the population is divided up into the naturally virtuous and naturally vicious” (27) and incorrigibly so. Sparrow thinks that this way of thinking is problematic for several reasons, the most important of which is that it would promote a sense of elitism among the successfully MBEnhanced. In what follows I want to dispute all of these claims. First, I argue that Sparrow makes a mistake in thinking that MBE constitutes the real threat to egalitarianism. Even if we grant everything he says about how society will respond to the presence of an identifiable moral “upper class,” the threat to egalitarianism arises not out of MBE itself but instead out of the ability reliably to pick out agents who are more sensitive and reactive to moral reasons. Sparrow mistakenly links the possession of this ability to MBE. I then argue that Sparrow’s attempt to associate MBE with sociobiology and elitism is based on a problematic understanding of the relationship between an agent’s biologically realized

moral capacities and her moral worth or virtue. According to a more plausible account of this relationship, MBE proponents can avoid associations with both elitism and simplistic sociobiology. MORAL BIOENHANCEMENT: AN INNOCENT BYSTANDER Without calling into question Sparrow’s reasoning about the manner by which those with enhanced moral capacities would come to have special rights, I want to suggest that he has wrongly implicated MBE. As he notes, MBE would “exacerbate existing inequalities” (23) in moral capacity. It plainly does not introduce inequalities where they did not exist before. This exacerbation may be worrisome, but notice that Sparrow’s claim that individuals with relatively diminished moral capacities would be excluded from certain beneficial social institutions or positions of power would also hold in an MBE-free society within which varying strengths of moral capacities could nonetheless be reliably assessed. In such a society, individuals with identifiably stronger moral capacities would presumably have an interest in engaging in mutually beneficial collaborative schemes that excluded those with identifiably weaker moral capacities. In addition, those with nonenhanced but nonetheless detectably stronger moral capacities may have more extensive rights to positions of political power, and it may be in the public’s interest to let them rule. The logic of the argument Sparrow mounts against MBE would also apply straightforwardly in this imagined case. Thus, MBE seems to be adding nothing special. Moreover, Sparrow has given us no reason to think that technological developments that would allow us to reliably identify differences in moral capacity would necessarily be tied to the development of MBE technology. Indeed, the field of neurolaw, which has explored the potential impact of moral-capacitymeasuring technologies in various legal contexts, is well developed and predates any discussion of moral enhancement (Vincent 2013). Since the arguments that Sparrow levies at MBE would apply to some of these technologies as well, one wonders if he would be as worried about them or, indeed, any other research discipline that explored the relationship between genetics, neuroscience, and behavior. In any event, it seems clear that Sparrow has misidentified his target in this article. What clearly does the work in his argument about egalitarianism is the ability reliably to

Address correspondence to Philip Robichaud, PhD, TU Delft, Philosophy, Postbus 5015, Delft, 260GA, The Netherlands. E-mail: [email protected]

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detect differences in moral capacity, however those differences come to be.

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THE COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MORAL CAPACITY AND MORAL WORTH Sparrow’s final objection to MBE is that it promotes the view that the possession of moral virtue (or vice) and someone’s being a morally good (or bad) person rest on certain biological properties of the agent. By relying so heavily on a biological or neurological characterization of the foundations of an agent’s moral qualities, proponents of MBE are said to invite elitism and comparisons to outdated and simplistic sociobiology. In addition, Sparrow claims that this emphasis on the biological determinants of moral behavior “encourages the idea that those who are immoral are incorrigibly so” (27) and “encourages the impression that biological manipulations are likely to be more effective or more powerful than traditional moral education” (27). I submit that this constellation of objections, which I take to be distinct from worries about inequality already discussed, is also problematic. Notwithstanding the fact that the latter two objections are plainly empirical claims for which Sparrow provides no evidence, the relationship between an agent’s biologically realized moral capacities and the quality of her moral character is more complicated than Sparrow makes out. One way of understanding this relationship has it that an agent’s moral worth (i.e., her virtuousness or moral goodness or the lack thereof) can simply be read off of her capacities. But of course it would be severely misguided to suggest that simply because someone has a relatively diminished biologically-based capacity to act in accordance with morality, she is ipso facto more vicious or more morally bad than someone whose capacities were normal (or enhanced). Indeed, many who have diminished moral capacities manage quite well through careful planning and by placing themselves in circumstances that are not conducive to their acting wrongly. One rationale for offering educational programs in prisons is precisely that it offers the incarcerated, many of whom seem to have diminished moral capacities relative to the normal population, an opportunity to manage and carefully structure their choices. Presumably, virtue abounds among many who take part in such programs as participants. To write such agents off as morally bad or vicious simply because of their biological features is to commit a blatant naturalistic fallacy.

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Fortunately for proponents of MBE, there is an alternative and I think much more plausible interpretation of the connection between biologically based moral capacities and virtue, one that is suggested by the prison-education example. An agent’s moral capacities, though not dispositive, are one factor among many that determine whether an agent is virtuous or morally good. Although the capacities in question definitely affect patterns of behavior, any moral assessment of a given agent’s virtue or moral worth will be based on other factors as well, including her moral efforts, personal history, or social roles. For example, it is natural to think that an agent with relatively diminished moral capacities who recognizes her moral shortcomings and takes steps to address them exhibits an important virtue. Similarly, an agent who has been morally stunted by her upbringing might be excused in the sense that we would take her actions to be a reflection of her tragic personal history rather than a reflection of her character (Watson 1987). By expanding the scope of what determines whether one is virtuous or morally good, the supposition that neurologically based capacities impact our moral behavior, which is central in discussions of MBE, seems much less threatening. Although MBEnhanced agents will be more responsive to moral reasons, we can still maintain that nonenhanced agents who are sufficiently responsive to moral reasons and who do their moral best are virtuous, morally decent people. Thus, the fact that this distance exists between an agent’s neurochemical and genetic endowment and the moral qualities that we are justified in attributing to her suffices to show that there is no necessary conceptual link between the claim that moral capacities are biologically based and the highly dubious and elitist claim that the quality of an agent’s character rests solely on her (enhanced or not) biological constitution. REFERENCES Sparrow, R. 2014. Egalitarianism and moral bioenhancement. American Journal of Bioethics 14(4): 20–28. Vincent, N. 2013. Enhancing responsibility. In Neuroscience and legal responsibilty, 7–10. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Watson, G. 1987. Responsibility and the limits of evil: Variations on a Strawsonian theme. In Responsibility, character and the emotions: New essays in moral psychology, ed. F. Schoeman, 256–286. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

April, Volume 14, Number 4, 2014

Moral capacity enhancement does not entail moral worth enhancement.

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