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Questioning the Moral Enhancement Project a
Fabrice Jotterand a
Regis University Published online: 14 Apr 2014.
To cite this article: Fabrice Jotterand (2014) Questioning the Moral Enhancement Project, The American Journal of Bioethics, 14:4, 1-3, DOI: 10.1080/15265161.2014.905031 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15265161.2014.905031
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Questioning the Moral Enhancement Project
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Fabrice Jotterand, Regis University Among the types of human enhancement available in the near future, moral bioenhancement is perhaps one of the most controversial. Recent advances in neuroscience have allowed the alteration and manipulation of human behavior by means of neurotechnologies and psychopharmacology (Ferrucci & Priori 2014; Fregni et al. 2006; Nitsche et al. 2009). The ability to intervene in the brain, however, raises concerns as these various procedures affect core features of human identity including sense of self and individual morality. The history of psychiatry is filled with examples of procedures (such as lobotomies and electroconvulsive therapy [ECT]) once thought to benefit patients suffering from mental disorders. Ultimately, these procedures were deemed harmful. (Shutts 1982). Hence, the specter of a broad social acceptance of brain interventions to alter or control human behavior could trigger memories of the darker historical episodes of psychiatry. In the light of these considerations, the temptation would be to condemn or resist further neuroscience research in areas related to human (moral) behavior, whether in terms of treatment or enhancement, fearing the potential abuse and misuse of these technologies. In addition, some dread the potential scenario of a post-human future (i.e., transhumanism), which ultimately implies the merging of human beings with machines. These concerns ought not to be dismissed or relativized in that these emerging technologies have the potential to drastically alter how we understand ourselves as homo sapiens, and to transform the human species into homo technicus. That being said, it is essential to discriminate what is pure hubris from what could improve the quality of life and health of many individuals. For instance, some mental disorders contain an inherent moral element. Psychopathy, a personality disorder characterized by emotional dysfunction and anti-social behavior, often precipitates morally objectionable behaviors and criminal acts in some circumstances; and there is currently no efficacious treatment for this disorder. Considering the latest shootings in Newtown, Connecticut or the Boston Marathon bombing, there is an increasing interest in developing techniques to possibly detect and control individuals who pose a threat to society in an effort
to prevent such tragedies (Jotterand 2014). Various studies have demonstrated the possibility of manipulating human emotions and behavior through drugs, neuromodulatory agents, and neurotechnological devices (Jotterand and Giordano in press). One example of current research focusing on psychopathy is the use of real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging-brain-computer interfacing (rtfMRI-BCI) to potentially neuro-engineer “morally better people and/or reforming morally deficient people”—e.g., psychopaths or inmates (Jotterand and Giordano in press; Sitaram et al. 2007). These techniques do not aim specifically at the enhancement of human capabilities; rather they emphasize the treatment of individuals with behavioral dysfunction. Therefore we ought to be cautious not to miss the potential benefits society could gain from advances in neurosciences. Of course the danger is to adopt a reductionist approach that trusts blindly in the capacities of neurotechnologies to address multifaceted issues associated with human behavior. However, the question remains: can we, and should we, enhance individual morality? In his article entitled “Egalitarianism and Moral Bioenhancement,” Robert Sparrow (2014) conveys his skepticism about the possibility of enhancing human morality by biomedical means. The current techniques available, he argues, might simply influence behavior and dispositions but they do not warrant that people will actual do the right thing in any given situation. I have shared the same skepticism in a 2011 article published in AJOB Neuroscience. I argued that the way proponents of moral bioenhancement conceptualize morality is problematic because it does not give careful attention to the nature of human moral psychology and to how we make moral judgments (the combination of moral emotions and moral reasoning). They reduce morality to the manipulation of human behavior (the capacity to respond morally) and fail to address the question of the content of morality including beliefs, ideas, values, conceptions of the good and the just, and human flourishing (Jotterand 2011). As stated previously, there is strong evidence of the possibility to alter, manipulate, and regulate moral emotions using neurotechnologies or psychopharmacology. For
Address correspondence to Fabrice Jotterand, PhD, MA, Associate Professor, Department of Health Care Ethics, Rueckert-Hartman College of Health Professions, 3333 Regis Boulevard, G-5, Regis University, Denver, CO 80221, USA. E-mail: [email protected]
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The American Journal of Bioethics
example, increased levels of oxytocin makes people more trusting and, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) reduce aggression and enable cooperation (Harmer et al. 2003; Kosfeld et al. 2005). Similarly, the use of neurostimulation techniques show evidence of changes in mood, affect, and moral behavior. However, these techniques do not focus on morality. Instead they alter how people react to situations that implicate a particular moral stance. My critique is grounded in the fact that the control of human behavior is insufficient to enhance individual morality. People as moral agents develop through the examination of the meaning of human flourishing and the development of a vision of the good life (Jotterand 2011). However, the similitude between my own critical examination of moral bioenhancement and that of Sparrow stops here in that Sparrow makes a second claim from which I depart. He asserts that cognitive enhancement, including moral bioenhancements, “threaten key assumptions underpinning egalitarian ideals. . .[because] human—and primarily, cognitive—enhancement might establish a class of ‘post-persons’ who would have superior moral status to ordinary persons” (Sparrow 2014, 22). Two critical points are worth considering here. First, it is true that emerging enhancement technologies could potentially increase the gap between the have and the have-nots. However, this concern is unfounded because as a society we already accept inequalities in many areas of our lives (and this is not say that social injustice based on gender, ethnicity, social status, etc. or inequalities ought not to be addressed). In themselves the inequalities that moral bioenhancement could generate do not constitute an argument against moral bioenhancement but rather an empirical claim that needs substantiation. Another argument centers on the notion of moral status. Those concerned by the creation of a class of “postpersons” must demonstrate in what sense these individuals would have a superior moral status. Here again the distinction between capacity to respond morally and the content of morality is crucial. If these “post-persons” would have a superior moral status, it would mean that intrinsically they “own” something more valuable, or are more worthy of respect due to some special abilities. It follows that moral status is conferred either in terms of intrinsic worth or observable outcomes. However, since morality is plural, it appears difficult to ground the superior moral status of “post-persons” based on outcomes given various competing moral frameworks. After all who decides what values and norms should be promoted and enhanced? On the other hand, if moral status is based on intrinsic worth, simply possessing a superior capacity to respond morally will be insufficient to demonstrate why some individuals have a superior moral status for the reason I mentioned in relation to observable outcomes. What values and norms should be considered praiseworthy? In other words, the argument is circular as the enhancement of some capacities will require a basis for the justification of a particular course of action. As Sinnott-Armstrong (2008) rightly remarks, “[t]o determine whether moral be-
liefs are really justified, we need to move beyond psychological description to the normative epistemic issue of how we ought to form moral beliefs” (48). The idea that “postpersons” would have a superior moral status is grounded on specific assumptions about human flourishing and does not offer convincing arguments as to why society should be concerned about the inequalities generated by moral bioenhancement—unless society is built on strict egalitarian structures (i.e., social solidarity) and on homogenous values. In short, moral status is not the equivalent to superior moral behavior. Here Sparrow makes a categorical mistake in mixing difference in kind (moral status) vs. difference in degree (moral behavior – spectrum of attitudes and behaviors). I would argue that moral bioenhancement threatens the diversity of human cultural expressions and moral identities. The motivation to develop biotechnologies to enhance human capacities does not occur in a vacuum, and a particular moral stance about human nature and notions of embodiment, enhancement, and morality are at play in shaping the discourse. For instance, in the ideology of transhumanists, the strongest proponents of human enhancement, one can see the continuum with Enlightenment thought which recasts what Enlightenment philosophers rejected with regards to 1) theology—scientific or materialist theology replacing traditional theology (scientific conquest of death); 2) state power—use of technocratic authoritarianism as a new form of state power; 3) teleology—selfdirected evolution by means of emerging technologies; 4) moral authority—establishment of an overarching structure for moral authority (i.e., the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights); and 5) the search for physical immortality through advances in neuroscience to understand the structure and function of the brain (Hughes 2010; Jotterand 2010). Technological and scientific progress will continue its course and extend the boundaries of human exploration and development. Between the utopian social engineering agenda of some transhumanists to achieve moral perfectionism and the resistance of some bio-conservatives to consider the potential benefits of some enhancement technologies, there must a middle ground position that allows neuroscience innovations to improve the human condition. However, as Buchanan has convincingly argued, the current polarization of the discourse on human enhancement has become somewhat sterile over the last decade (Buchanan 2011). Without a proper interaction between key stakeholders in the human enhancement debate, beyond ideological stances, we run the risk of impoverishing the critical analysis necessary to harvest the benefits of a prudent implementation of novel neurotechnologies, albeit raising fundamental questions about the identity and future of the human species. REFERENCES Buchanan A. 2011. Beyond humanity. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
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Ferrucci, R., and A. Priori. 2014. Transcranial cerebellar direct current stimulation (tcDCS): Motor control, cognition, learning and emotions. Neuroimage 85(3): 918–923. Fregni, F., P. S. Boggio, M. A. Nitsche, M. A. Marcolin, S. P. Rigonatti, and A. Pascual-Leone. 2006. Treatment of major depression with transcranial direct current stimulation. Bipolar Disorders 8(2): 203–204. Harmer, C. J., Z. Bhagwagar, D. I. Perrett, B. A. Voellm, P. J. Cowen, and G. M. Goodwin. 2003. Acute SSRI administration affects the processing of social cues in healthy volunteers. Neuropsychopharmacology 28: 148–152.
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