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Moral Enhancement—“Hard” and “Soft” Forms Harris Wiseman



University of Cambridge Published online: 14 Apr 2014.

To cite this article: Harris Wiseman (2014) Moral Enhancement—“Hard” and “Soft” Forms, The American Journal of Bioethics, 14:4, 48-49, DOI: 10.1080/15265161.2014.889247 To link to this article:

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The American Journal of Bioethics

Moral Enhancement—“Hard” and “Soft” Forms

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Harris Wiseman, University of Cambridge Sparrow’s (2014) position is that a project of societywide moral bioenhancement (MB) is neither feasible nor desirable—focusing on the latter, Sparrow argues that those favoring egalitarian ethics ought to be highly suspicious of society-wide MB projects since they inevitably bring in a range of worrying perfectionist, and anti-egalitarian implications. When it comes to the kind of MB project Sparrow has in mind, I would agree that he has successfully argued his proposition that such a uniform, mandatory, state-sponsored program of MB is intrinsically abhorrent to free, liberal democratic, pluralistic, and, above all, egalitarian society. That being so—and Sparrow has made his case with respect to that kind of project admirably—I do wonder whether there are not also other kinds of society-wide MB projects that do not carry such perfectionistic and antiegalitarian implications. I would like to make a case for the possible desirability of such a project. My suggestion then is that Sparrow is considering only a certain kind of societywide MB, what I would call “hard” MB—namely, the sort of bioenhancement one would characterize as both (a) compulsory, but more importantly, (b) brute, that is, indiscriminate and completely lacking in the dynamic, or responsive capacity to adapt to the contextual moral needs of a given person or situation. Sparrow gives the example of dispersing MB agents through the tap water. It is this brute form of MB that, I agree completely, is completely unworkable and undesirable—nor is it, let it also be said, an even vaguely proportionate response to Persson and Savulescu’s (2008) fear of the lone, crazed individual with world-destroying power. First of all, it is important to make clear that “moral bioenhancement,” as an umbrella term, conceals what it is actually quite a diverse plurality. This plurality of possibilities means that it is not always appropriate to talk of MB in general terms. To illustrate how it might be possible to draw up a picture of a more feasible and desirable project of society-wide MB it is helpful to draw two important distinctions, that between (a) “strong” and “minimal” understandings of moral functioning, and (b) that between “remedial” and “positive” enhancement. The first distinction relates to whether moral functioning should be understood in the more enduring terms of “character,” “moral identity,” “virtue,” and so on, (“strong”), or simply in terms of more isolated, specific moral actions or outcomes (“minimal”). The second distinction (applying a pragmatic form of the “treatment/enhancement” distinction) relates to whether

MB is intended as a means for helping persons with debilitating morally related issues, such as addictions, or extreme antisocial behaviour (“remedial”), or whether one simply intends to make people “better than moral” (“positive”). They are fuzzy distinctions, there is no doubt about that, but helpful nonetheless as temporary lenses for exploring the subject matter. It seems to me that there might well be a range of MB applications that are much more limited, focused, and, in fact, desirable at the societal level—a “soft” form of MB, one not too far in fact from present therapeutic practice and readily assimilable within that context. To describe how this might look, let us focus on the “minimal” and “remedial” aspects of the distinctions drawn earlier. For, if one can identify a limited set of contexts that qualify as clear morally related remedial situations (there are fairly uncontroversial remedial contexts that might be appropriate targets for biomedical intervention: substance addictions, for example), then a case might be made for a society-wide program of such enhancement—society-wide, not in the sense that every man, woman, and child is forced to engage in it, but rather in the sense that all people, should they become destructively addicted, have the relevant treatment programs available to them (and, in the worst of circumstances, e.g., heroin or meth addiction, even possibly forced upon them). If an MB drug, for instance a “vaccination” against alcohol or certain other substances, could be devised that would be reliably safe and efficacious (consider the Asenjo et al. [2010] work with alcohol, and the Crystal et al. [2013] work with cocaine), there is little reason why such an agent might not be used as part of a larger, person-centered program of treatment. MB here (minimal and remedial) would then be justifiable as a merely localized adjunct to current acceptable practices of drug treatment and rehabilitation—one that treats of the whole person, the person’s context, and the entire plethora of factors that are involved in moral performance (i.e., without being genetically/neurologically reductive). What we have then is really a form of “soft” MB, which is readily assimilable with what we currently apply in mental health domains anyway. Because of the very specific and limited nature of such “soft” use of MB, I think perfectionist and egalitarian concerns can be largely set aside here. Sparrow’s worry that there is no guarantee that MB would succeed universally is less troublesome, since the universality of such programs is passive (i.e., mandated for all, but only activated when a

c Crown Copyright  Address correspondence to Harris Wiseman, University of Cambridge, Faculty of Divinity, West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9BS, United Kingdom. E-mail: [email protected] 48 ajob

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Egalitarianism and Moral Bioenhancement

person is in a distinct state of need); so too the concern regarding “elitism” with respect to the choice of what values exactly count as genuine moral improvement is less worrisome because we are dealing with a very limited remit, morally related issues that fall decisively within the domain of the problematic. Offering specifically directed MB drugs to those who are in a state of needing urgent remedial care, and in a nonreductive, person-centered fashion, on the societal level by way of legislation (e.g., legislating for mandatory treatment rather than incarceration), could only very loosely be construed as having any perfectionist implications. That said, I am perfectly prepared to admit that such a program might yet contain serious problems of its own. I do agree with Sparrow that the danger would still be present of such a process being co-opted by “bogus science” (as well as the equally bogus philosophies and modes of interpretation that always subtend such abuses of science). Such a Soviet approach has been seen before (I apologize for the term). Recall the move of labeling political dissidents as being mentally ill, as requiring detention and “treatment”; it is not too great a leap from there to the labeling of an ever-narrowing schema of deviance as moving from “mental illness” to “moral illness,” particularly if the means for “treatment” of such moral “disorders” are available. Indeed, there is (as Szasz [2010] suggests) a constant danger of reducing what are essentially behavioral and moral issues to medical and falsely neurologically reductive terms by inappropriately applying medical metaphors to issues of personal responsibility (indeed, it is precisely to allay such legitimate concerns that I recommend that “soft” MB projects be embedded within person-centered, mental health interventions, rather than used as brute, indiscriminate weapons). Yet bogus science always represents a danger. Such problems are always nascent, even in free states, and the answer to the abusive application of bogus science is independent of the issue of MB, not something to stand in the way of more limited projects that might be justified as conducive to the common good (indeed, such abuses can only be met by a combination of political scaffolding and the constant vigilance of individuals, groups

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and institutions, aimed at preventing such abuses from occurring). As such, I do agree that Sparrow’s concern over abusive application of bogus science is certainly justified, and such abuses are definitely something to keep a sharp and critical eye out for—yet this cannot be enough to halt the presentation of more legitimate and desirable applications of MB, should they be discovered. Moreover, again, I agree that Sparrow has made a compelling case with respect to the brute and “hard” kind of society-wide MB he considers. I agree that such a project would be likely futile, and dangerous for a whole array of reasons, though especially, as Sparrow argues, on egalitarian grounds. However, I would also suggest that other kinds of society-wide MB projects might be envisaged and legislated that do not share the same antiegalitarian, elitist, or perfectionist problems. I would argue that a “soft” form of society-wide MB might be envisaged, and (depending on how such a “soft” MB project were defined and operationalized) a more limited, focused, moderate, nonreductive approach to MB is likely possible, and potentially even positively desirable at the society-wide, legislative level—the dangers of bogus science notwithstanding.  REFERENCES Asenjo, J. A., V. Martinez, Z. P. Gerdtzen, and B. A. Andrews. 2010. Viral vectors for the treatment of alcoholism: Use of metabolic flux analysis for cell cultivation and vector production. Metabolic Engineering 12: 129–137. Crystal, R. G., A. Moaz, M. J. Hicks, et al. 2013. Adenovirus capsidbased anti-cocaine vaccine prevents cocaine from binding to the nonhuman primate CNS dopamine transporter. Neuropsychopharmacology. doi:10.1038/npp.2013.114 Persson, I. and J. Savulescu. 2008. The perils of cognitive enhancement and the urgent imperative to enhance the moral character of humanity. Journal of Applied Philosophy 25(3): 162–177. Sparrow, R. 2014. Egalitarianism and moral bioenhancement. American Journal of Bioethics 14(4): 20–28. Szasz, T. 2010. The myth of mental illness. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

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Moral enhancement--"hard" and "soft" forms.

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