How Moral Is (Moral) Enhancement?

Moral Enhancement Requires Multiple Virtues Toward a Posthuman Model of Character Development JAMES J. HUGHES Abstract: Some of the debates around the concept of moral enhancement have focused on whether the improvement of a single trait, such as empathy or intelligence, would be a good in general, or in all circumstances. All virtue theories, however, both secular and religious, have articulated multiple virtues that temper and inform one another in the development of a mature moral character. The project of moral enhancement requires a reengagement with virtue ethics and contemporary moral psychology to develop an empirically grounded model of the virtues and a fuller model of character development. Each of these virtues may be manipulable with electronic, psychopharmaceutical, and genetic interventions. A set of interdependent virtues is proposed, along with some of the research pointing to ways such virtues could be enhanced. Keywords: moral enhancement; character; virtue

Beyond Single-Virtue Enhancement Recent debates about moral enhancement have focused on the relative benefits of enhancing moral sentiments like empathy versus enhancing cognition and moral reasoning. On one side, Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu1,2 have focused on the pressing need to enhance altruistic sentiments like empathy, especially in light of the danger that cognitive enhancement could superempower malevolent individuals. On the other side, John Harris3,4 and Fabrice Jotterand5 have argued that enhancing moral sentiments would constrain human freedom and produce a faux morality, and that we should instead focus on the enhancement of cognition and moral reasoning. The debate is odd in light of the history of moral philosophy, because it seems unaware of the integrative emphasis in the virtue ethics traditions. In contrast to the reductive ethics of, for instance, Kant, virtue traditions have argued that a fully mature moral character requires the cultivation of multiple interdependent virtues that complement and balance one another. In the Buddhist tradition, the simultaneous cultivation of wisdom and compassion is seen as the core of character development, with subsidiary virtues broken down into dozens of emotional, behavioral, and cognitive abilities that, when developed, all contribute to awakening. Aristotle’s dozens of virtues all have extreme versions that become vices. Excessive courage can lead to foolhardiness, and excessive modesty, shyness. Excessive altruism can result in self-destructiveness. Too much prudence and self-control can result in sins of inaction. For Aristotle, all the virtues need, therefore, to be directed by phronesis, or practical wisdom. Adam Grant and Barry Schwartz6 recently reviewed the substantial empirical evidence for nonmonotonic effects from all kinds of psychological traits and moral virtues and concluded that psychological research should take more heed of the Aristotelian (and Buddhist, and pervasive) idea of a golden mean achieved by the balance of multiple virtues.


Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics (2015), 24, 86–95. © Cambridge University Press 2014. doi:10.1017/S0963180114000334

Moral Enhancement Requires Multiple Virtues Some in the moral enhancement debates also point to the need for a more complete picture of the virtues, but they presume that enhancement technologies will never be able to improve all these faculties. For instance, Fabrice Jotterand argues, “The way human beings make moral decisions requires the interaction of a complex network of emotional, cognitive, and motivational processes that cannot be reduced just to moral emotions or technological control (moral capacity) but also to practical reasoning (i.e., the source of moral content).”7 But he sees moral enhancement as being useful only in improving the moral emotions and not in improving practical reasoning. Conversely Barbro Fröding8 argues that cognitive enhancement can be integrated into a fuller model of Aristotelian character development, but she focuses only on the possibilities for improving cognition and the learning of good habits. John Shook,9 on the other hand, points to five moral capacities—three of which are cognitive enhancements (sensitivity to the moral features of situations, thoughtfulness about doing the moral thing, and a capacity for making accurate moral judgments), in addition to the enhancement of moral intentions and of self-control—that should and can be targets of moral enhancement. In this article I sketch out a core model of the virtues to be enhanced and then outline how an approach to enhanced character development could use the enhancement of more than one virtue to achieve better results than one-dimensional moral enhancement. Enumerating the Virtues to Be Enhanced One can imagine the goal of moral enhancement as the creation of a control panel for moral sentiment and cognition, with sliders or dials representing the requisite neurological traits needing to be tuned. In order to create this control panel, we need to identify which dials we will need. These categories will need to correspond to both the concepts of virtues in the philosophical and religious literature and the emerging psychometric and neuroscientific understandings of cognition and behavior. For this project to be successful, William Casebear10 is hopefully correct when he says that there is a rough “consilience” between neuroscience and the moral psychology of virtue ethics. One attempt to reduce the huge variety of virtue schemas in the world’s philosophies and religions to testable, empirical traits was launched in the 2000s by the psychologist Martin Seligman and others in the field of “positive psychology.” Their work resulted in a model of six “character strengths,” each with their own subsidiary list of virtues.11 1) Wisdom and knowledge: creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, and perspective 2) Courage: bravery, perseverance, honesty, and zest 3) Humanity: love, kindness, and social intelligence 4) Justice: teamwork, fairness, and leadership 5) Temperance: forgiveness, humility, prudence, and self-regulation 6) Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality Seligman and his colleagues developed questions designed to allow respondents to self-assess the degree to which they possessed each of these 24 virtues and made


James J. Hughes the questions available through the VIA Institute. Half a million people have taken these tests online, creating an enormous database for evaluating whether the a priori structure of these traits corresponds to the empirical structure in individual self-assessments. McGrath12 analyzed the VIA survey data and found five underlying sets of virtues: 1) Interpersonal strengths: fairness, forgiveness, kindness, receptivity, teamwork, modesty, and love 2) Emotional strengths: humor, social skills, creativity, bravery, and prudence 3) Intellectual pursuits: love of learning, beauty, and curiosity 4) Restraint: judgment, perseverance, perspective, and honesty 5) Future orientation: positivity, future-mindedness, self-regulation, and spirituality In other words, in general, people who saw themselves as strong in forgiveness were also more likely to see themselves as strong in fairness, even though these had been conceptualized as belonging to two separate categories of virtues in the VIA scheme. The statistical disaggregation of traits in all such studies is open to some interpretation, however, as all the strengths are correlated to some degree. Using VIA data from 332 twins, Jessica Shryack, Michael Steger, Robert Krueger, and Christopher Kallie13 found only three core clusters of strengths: (1) interpersonal strengths, such as kindness and fairness; (2) temperance strengths, such as perseverance and self-regulation; and (3) intellectual strengths, such as creativity and judgment. This empirical method is the same that has been used to generate the most popular of the many models of personality in psychology: the five-factor or OCEAN model.14 The OCEAN model was derived by looking for statistical structures in the hundreds of personality inventory questions and found a stable clustering around five attributes: open-mindedness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. These five traits have in turn been correlated with hundreds of attitudes and behaviors,15 including subjective well-being, volunteering, occupational choice and success, and peer and family relationships. The OCEAN personality traits are relatively stable over time, and twin studies show that they are about half genetically determined. This provides strong evidence for interpreting these personality traits as having neurobiological bases, albeit complex ones with multiple genes and neurochemicals in play. Xingguang Luo et al.16 have, for instance, found a number of genes correlated to the OCEAN traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness. When we compare the empirical structure of personality traits to the empirical structure of virtues, we see that there is some correlation. Craig MacDonald, Miles Bore, and Don Munro17 recently explored the correlations between the OCEAN and the VIA models and found four underlying virtue-psychology sets: positivity, intellect, conscientiousness, and niceness. Positivity (including emotional strengths such as a sense of humor and hopefulness) was negatively correlated to the OCEAN trait of neuroticism and is strongly correlated with happiness. Intellect (including the intellectual virtues of love of learning and curiosity) was correlated to the OCEAN trait of open-mindedness. Open-mindedness has, in turn, been found to be correlated with IQ.18 Conscientiousness (including the virtues of restraint and honesty) was of course related to conscientiousness. Niceness, which encompasses the interpersonal virtues of empathy, kindness, and receptivity, was correlated with the personality trait of agreeableness.


Moral Enhancement Requires Multiple Virtues In the following section, therefore, I discuss a minimal model of moral enhancement focused on the manipulation of four basic capacities based loosely on the accumulating evidence of an empirical psychometric structure to the virtues with some correspondence to underlying neurogenetics and neurochemistry: 1) Self-control: sophrosyne, restraint, conscientiousness, and temperance 2) Niceness: agreeableness, extraversion, empathy, and fairness 3) Intelligence: phronesis, open-mindedness, curiosity, love of learning, and prudence 4) Positivity: (lack of) neuroticism, emotional self-regulation, positivity, bravery, and humor These categories roughly correspond to the four cardinal virtues of Plato and Aquinas—temperance, justice, prudence, and courage—although each encompasses more than the classical categories. These categories encompass both the emotive and the cognitive dimensions of moral enhancement that have been discussed in the literature so far but also include virtues that have not been discussed, that is, self-control and positivity. Four Virtues to Be Enhanced Self-Control The ability to exercise self-control, in particular in relation to vices such as anger, intoxication, and sensual pleasure, has been a virtue in almost every system of moral thought, from Greek philosophy and the Abrahamic faiths to Hinduism and Buddhism, and Confucianism and Taoism. Neuroscience has been illuminating the mechanisms involved in sustaining and exercising self-control, and the role of distractions and desires that overwhelm it. Our capacity for self-control as children, which is correlated with variations in dopamine genes19 and the personality trait of conscientiousness, predicts our capacity for self-control as adults. A lower capacity for self-control is correlated with more drug and alcohol use, sexual risk taking, and violence.20 Attention deficit disorder (ADD), characterized by low mindfulness and self-control, is strongly heritable and is linked to variations in the dopamine- and serotonin-regulating genes.21 Fortunately we have a variety of behavioral interventions, drugs, and information technologies that are already helping us exercise more mindfulness and selfcontrol. Attentiveness to fatigue and blood sugar helps guard against the “ego depletion” that weakens willpower.22 Stimulant medications improve impulse control by heightening dopaminergic responses to tasks at hand and by dampening distractions. The alertness drug modafinil also increases deliberation.23,24 On the side of suppressing bad habits, we also have a growing armamentarium. Bariatric surgery is the most effective form of weight control, and drugs and devices that suppress appetite, like stomach pacemakers, will soon be available. Alcoholics can take naltrexone to suppress alcohol cravings, and vaccines to block the effects of cocaine and nicotine are under development. A number of cognitive enhancement drugs, including modafinil and methylphenidate, have shown some promise in the treatment of drug dependency.25 In some places, convicted sexual offenders are offered testosterone suppression therapies that reduce sexual


James J. Hughes compulsion. Julian Savulescu and Anders Sandberg26 have suggested that the administration of oxytocin, vasopressin, and testosterone might be useful as an adjunct to marital therapy, reducing infidelity. On the other hand, too much self-control can inhibit desirable risk taking, spontaneity, and life enjoyment. Although conscientiousness is generally a predictor of successful task performance, those highest in conscientiousness perform tasks less well because they are prone to perfectionism.27 Conscientious people also suffer much more if they become unemployed.28 For enhanced self-control to lead to a full and flourishing life, it needs the modulating influence of other virtues, such as empathy, prudence, and joie de vivre. Niceness As with self-control, there is strong evidence that our capacity for compassion and empathy is modulated by neurological structures like mirror neurons, which cause us to feel the experiences of others, and by neurochemicals like oxytocin, which heighten empathy and trust. The personality trait of agreeableness, which is about half genetically determined and is presumably connected with underlying neurochemistry and morphology, is correlated with empathy29 and volunteering.30 Variations in oxytocin receptor genes are likewise correlated with the ability to empathize with others’ feelings.31 Oxytocin supplementation improves the ability to read social cues,32,33 put trust in others,34 and express generosity in social games.35 MDMA (Ecstasy) stimulates the release of oxytocin,36 and its users report feeling more love and compassion. Similarly, there is strong evidence that our desire for fairness, or, more precisely, our desire to punish cheaters, is biologically innate. The fairness impulse is modulated by variations in serotonin receptors and is sensitive to the level of serotonin in the brain.37 Brain scans have also found this impulse to uphold fairness, or to punish cheaters, to be rooted in activity in both the emotion and the cognition parts of the brain.38 On the other hand, those who are too high on the niceness scale can also suffer. For instance, although moderate amounts of volunteering are associated with subjective well-being, those who volunteer the most are less happy.39 Oxytocin supplementation also can have perverse effects, in increasing in-group solidarity at the expense of out-group altruism.40 Polymorphisms in serotonin genes are correlated with the willingness to make utilitarian decisions that cause harm to others,41 and boosting serotonin with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) has been found to increase our aversion to harming others. But this aversion can also lead to unwillingness to punish cheaters and wrongdoers.42 In itself, the impulse to punish wrongdoers may be ethical (when focused on bankers and CEOs, for instance) or unethical (when focused on immigrants and minorities); prudent reflection shapes the moral target of the fairness impulse. As Harris and others have opined, moral sentiments like empathy and fairness are inadequate without entrainment with moral reasoning, knowledge, and discriminating wisdom. Although the contrary effects of empathy and fairness enhancement drugs have been pointed to as a sign that the project of moral enhancement is impossible, within a framework of multivirtue character development, we can argue that these effects should be modulated and entrained in positive directions by the exercise of other virtues.


Moral Enhancement Requires Multiple Virtues Intelligence Shook43 argues for the importance of three cognitive capacities or intellectual virtues that should and can be targets of moral enhancement: sensitivity to the moral features of situations, thoughtfulness about doing the moral thing, and a capacity for making accurate moral judgments. Progress in the chemical and electrical enhancement of cognition, learning, memory, and decisionmaking will contribute to the enhancement of these moral capabilities. Again, there is substantial evidence for genes and corresponding neurochemicals that influence our cognitive abilities.44 The personality trait of openness to experience is about half genetically determined45 and is correlated with creativity,46 intelligence,47 curiosity,48 and a love of learning.49 Openness to experience is also associated with activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex,50 supporting its connection to intelligence. Although the IQ-related genes are myriad, and all have minor effects, it is possible that these discoveries will lead to drug cocktails and gene therapies with significant impacts. For instance, switching off the Nogo Receptor 1 gene, which regulates neural plasticity, returns older mice brains to adolescent levels of plasticity.51 Drug therapies are also being explored for cognitive enhancement. Nicotine, for instance, has been shown to enhance attention, response time, and memory.52 Modafinil increases reaction time, logical reasoning, and problem solving, whereas methylphenidate improves the performance of novel tasks and speeds up planning for complex tasks.53 Research is also proceeding in the enhancement of cognition and learning with direct electrical stimulation of the brain through the skull, and with the implantation of brain-machine interfaces. However, too much intelligence can have its drawbacks. Too much deliberation can be debilitating, as is demonstrated by Antonio Damasio’s54 research on people who have brain damage that prevents their access to emotions, and who are thereby unable to make decisions. Deliberation uninformed by moral sentiments can lead to perversely machine-like moral decisionmaking.55 Likewise, the use of excessive amounts of cognitive-enhancing stimulants can overstimulate dopamine and norepinephrine and impair learning, memory, and neural plasticity.56 The intellectual virtues need to find their own golden mean and need to be tempered with and entrained by self-control, empathy, and mindfulness. Positivity David Pearce’s 1995 essay “The Hedonistic Imperative,”57 based on utilitarian logic, proposes that the central goal of bioenhancement should be the design of drugs, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering to eliminate pain and to create the maximum possible amount of happiness and pleasure that we are capable of. The proposal is, of course, contrary to most virtue ethics schemes, which generally posit that happiness is not a goal in itself, and that the highest form of happiness, eudaemonia, comes from living an engaged and moral life. Pearce attempts to meet the objections that maximizing pleasure and happiness would lead to passivity and ennui by suggesting that we will recalibrate the brain’s happiness set point, keeping ourselves motivated and engaged with gradients of bliss rather than with the current, duller emotional treadmill. If this is possible, we could achieve a form of hypereudaemonia, a fulfilling, engaged, and moral life that is also full of pleasure.


James J. Hughes There is some evidence to support the idea that at least the most happy humans today are also the most engaged. Self-reported happiness is broadly correlated with having friends and getting and staying married, volunteering, performing well at work,58 being tolerant of social difference,59 wearing seatbelts,60 and condemning unethical behavior (e.g., bribery and tax evasion).61 On the other hand, the very happiest 10 percent appear to sacrifice less to get education, earn less, participate politically less frequently, have poorer health, and be subject to more errors of overoptimistic assessments of risk.62 In other words, being too content can lead to inattention to temperance, and to the civic and intellectual virtues. So, as Mark Walker63 argues in Happy-People-Pills for All, even if happiness is not the sole virtue, and if being too happy can have adverse consequences, possessing an above-average but not extreme amount of happiness is a virtue in itself and generally does support many other-regarding virtues. Within a virtues model of character development that recognizes that flourishing requires more than pleasure, a program of moral enhancement should include permanent mood enhancement. Although the efficacy of antidepressants and mood modification is highly contested, we are nonetheless making slow progress in understanding the neurochemistry of happiness and are beginning to understand the practices, drugs, and devices that can boost the happiness set point. The personality trait of neuroticism, which again is highly heritable and stable across the life course, is the principal correlate of the happiness set point. A study of 2,500 twins narrowed in on variations in a serotonin transporter gene (5-HTTLPR) as being the principal genetic correlate of life satisfaction,64 whereas another study suggests that about 12–18 percent of happiness is predicted by genetic polymorphisms.65 Many compounds beyond SSRIs are being explored for mood-enhancement effects, including cannabis, nicotine, oxytocin, ketamine, MDMA, and psychedelics such as psilocybin. Episodic use of psilocybin, for instance, is associated with lower risks of mental health problems66 and the alleviation of fear, anxiety, and other negative emotions.67 A Posthuman Approach to Character Development Given the interdependence of the virtues, a program of posthuman virtue enhancement will require not just the boosting of specific sentiments and capabilities but their conscious channeling within a program of neurotechnologically facilitated moral evaluation, education, and entrainment. Psychiatry has begun to map the methods for diagnosing character flaws, and to determine the appropriate behavioral and chemical interventions to bring individuals lacking in self-control, empathy, intelligence, or positivity closer to the norm. But the average person has far fewer of these capabilities than he or she would like, or than are called for in a virtues ethics framework. A posthuman model of moral enhancement goes beyond simply therapeutic redress of isolated flaws to the achievement of a rich and rare level of flourishing. In Buddhist psychology, for instance, there are numerous diagnostic categories for personality flaws such as sexual desires or pride, and compensatory meditation exercises are prescribed to address them. Once the most glaring weaknesses are addressed, there is still a long road prescribed to cultivate the myriad virtues required for reaching the more rare and difficult perfections of character.


Moral Enhancement Requires Multiple Virtues Unfortunately we are all burdened to a greater or lesser extent by the weaknesses of body and mind that make practicing these virtues difficult, burdens that can be overcome with moral enhancement. As Fröding argues, “if these cognitive shortcomings could be compensated for, or balanced, through the use of safe and voluntary enhancement techniques, then it would be morally desirable to do so. Indeed, it could well be the case that a combination of cognitive enhancement and virtue could make virtue ethics more convincing.”68 By embracing a fuller, empirically grounded model of the multiple virtues required for moral enhancement, we can also make the moral enhancement project more convincing. Notes 1. Persson I, Savulescu J. Moral transhumanism. The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 2010; 35(6):656–69. 2. Persson I, Savulescu J. The perils of cognitive enhancement and the urgent imperative to enhance the moral character of humanity. Journal of Applied Philosophy 2008;25(3):162–77. 3. Harris J. “Ethics is for bad guys!” Putting the “moral” into moral enhancement. Bioethics 2013; 27(3):169–73. 4. Harris J. Moral enhancement and freedom. Bioethics 2011;25(2):102–11. 5. Jotterand F. “Virtue engineering” and moral agency: Will post-humans still need the virtues? AJOB Neuroscience 2011;2(4):3–9. 6. Grant AM, Schwartz B. Too much of a good thing: The challenge and opportunity of the inverted U. Perspectives on Psychological Science 2011;6(1):61–76. 7. See note 5, Jotterand 2011. 8. Fröding BEE. Cognitive enhancement, virtue ethics and the good life. Neuroethics 2011;4(3):223–34. 9. Shook J. Neuroethics and the possible types of moral enhancement. AJOB Neuroscience 2012; 3(4):3–14. 10. Casebear W. Moral cognition and its neural constituents. Perspectives Nature Neuroscience 2003; 4:841–6. 11. Peterson CP, Seligman M. Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Washington, DC: APA Press; 2004. 12. McGrath R. Scale- and item-level factor analyses of the VIA inventory of strengths. Assessment 2012 Feb;21(1):4–14. 13. Shryack J, Steger MF, Krueger RF, Kallie CS. The structure of virtue: An empirical investigation of the dimensionality of the virtues in action inventory of strengths. Personality and Individual Differences 2010;48:714–19. 14. Digman JM. Personality structure: Emergence of the five-factor model. Annual Review of Psychology 1990;41:417–40. 15. Ozer DJ, Benet-Martinez V. Personality and the prediction of consequential outcomes. Annual Review of Psychology 2006;57:401–21. 16. Luo X, Kranzler HR, Zuo L, Zhang H, Wang S, Gelernter J. CHRM2 variation predisposes to personality traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness. Human Molecular Genetics 2007;16(13): 1557–68. 17. Macdonald C, Bore M, Munro D. Values in action scale and the big 5: An empirical indication of structure. Journal of Research in Personality 2008;42(4):787–99. 18. Bartels M, van Weegen F, van Beijsterveldt CM, Carlier M, Polderman TJC, Hoekstra RA, Boomsma DI. The five factor model of personality and intelligence: A twin study on the relationship between the two constructs. Personality and Individual Differences 2012;53(4):368–73. 19. Blasi G, Lo Bianco L, Taurisano P, Gelao B, Romano R, Fazio L, et al. Functional variation of the dopamine D2 receptor gene is associated with emotional control as well as brain activity and connectivity during emotion processing in humans. Journal of Neuroscience 2008;29(47):14812–19. 20. See note 15, Ozer, Benet-Martinez 2006. 21. Faraone SV, Mick E. Molecular genetics of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Psychiatric Genetics 2010;33(1):159–80. 22. Baumeister RF, Vohs KD, Tice DM. The strength model of self-control. Current Directions in Psychological Science 2007;16(6):351–5.


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Moral enhancement requires multiple virtues.

Some of the debates around the concept of moral enhancement have focused on whether the improvement of a single trait, such as empathy or intelligence...
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