Could a pill make you more moral? Should you take it if it could?
- Moral enhancement is the idea that technology can be used to make us more moral people.
- Proponents argue that we need to be better people in order to solve global problems.
- Ideas on how to use this ethically abound, but no solid consensus exists yet.
People have been artificially enhancing themselves for a long time. Caffeine and other stimulants improve our cognitive performance and might have made the enlightenment possible. More controversially, some athletes use steroids to enhance their athletic performance beyond what would naturally be possible for them.
These aren't the only ways that we can use science and technology to improve our performance, of course. In the last few years, some philosophers have argued that we can, and perhaps should, use these tools to enhance our moral abilities to become a more cooperative, empathetic, or properly motivated species.
Moral enhancement explained
The term "moral enhancement" was first used in a 2008 essay by Tom Douglas. It generally refers to biomedical enhancements but can refer to any technological attempt to make humans more moral. While one could debate what "more moral" means, the literature on the subject focuses on ideas of making people more cooperative, altruistic, and the like.
I reached out to Dr. Joao Fabiano, a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University's Safra Center for Ethics, for more information. He expanded on the idea of moral enhancement and provided the motivation for it.
We all sometimes behave worse than we think we should but have a hard time improving. Moral enhancement would be a technological intervention that helps us behave as we should. There is often a certain pattern to our moral failures shared by most of us. As the neuroscience of morality progresses, we might be able to fix these failures with technology. In fact, we urgently need moral enhancement given the grave social problems these moral failures create and their ingrained biological nature...
...Many of these recurrent moral failures are connected to grave problems in society, such as our inability to tackle global threats (global warming, nuclear proliferation, and pandemics) and grave injustices. Often, these failures can be explained by evolutionary science; they are deep-seated adaptations hardwired in our brains which we can, sometimes, costly and partially control with improved social norms. For instance, many forms of group favoritism and discrimination, such as racism, are to some degree evolved adaptations to an ancestral environment where groups were small and at constant war, and long-distance trade was limited. As neuroscience continues to uncover the biological modulators of our moral behaviour, we might soon be able to reliably influence that behavior with technological interventions.
Ways to make people more moral
Several studies have demonstrated that the moral actions people take can be influenced with biomedical interventions. One found that people will be more aggressive and more likely to violate social norms when their serotonin levels are artificially lowered. Another found that increasing serotonin levels made people harm-averse and more likely to stick to ideas of fairness. Lowering the amount of tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin and melatonin, that people have in their system makes them less cooperative.
Outside of the laboratory, some commonly used drugs, such as painkillers and antidepressants, are also known to slightly modify moral decision-making. Remember that next time you try to make a decision after taking some acetaminophen. The painkiller Tylenol also kills empathy.
Dr. Fabiano points out that the widespread use of these drugs means that "technology is already interfering with our morality, sometimes in undesirable and unpredictable ways." He adds, "We should, at the very least, try to take control of that to produce desirable changes."
He also mentioned, however, that no drug that can reliably enhance moral behavior currently exists. So you shouldn't get the idea that you'll be able to enhance yourself tomorrow.
While philosophers have only been discussing this idea for the last decade or so, plenty of them have argued both for and against moral enhancement.
The basic argument for moral enhancement has been mentioned, namely, that we humans are inclined to certain moral failures, these failures can be corrected, and we have the ability to do so with technological interventions. Some thinkers, such as Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson, suggest that we have a moral imperative to do so, as the possibility for even a single person to cause widespread destruction is greater now than it has ever been.
On the other hand, some thinkers, like Allen Buchanan, suggest that while the problems that many proponents of moral enhancement want to solve are real, moral enhancement isn't likely to be a feasible solution to these problems.
Instead, these thinkers propose that non-medical interventions, such as adopting more progressive and accepting attitudes toward out-groups, have proven that our moral natures are not fixed and can be improved without technological intervention — even if the process is a little slow. They additionally have a few doubts about the feasibility or desirability of relying on technology to improve our morals and conclude that focusing on traditional methods is the better bet.
Of course, these are not mutually exclusive options, and it is possible that moral enhancement can be used in tandem with more traditional methods of making people more moral.
The many problems with moral enhancement
The problem of how to actually implement any technological solution remains unsolved. While some philosophers, including Dr. Fabiano, have developed frameworks to guide our use of this technology, there is no real consensus on it. This is a bit of a problem, as simplistic variations of moral enhancement, such as the use of chemical castration as a tool to try to reform sexual offenders, are already in use today in ways that are controversial.
Moral enhancement raises many other ethical questions. Which traits should be enhanced (or suppressed)? What are the side effects of taking a drug that alters your moral behavior? Should such treatments be required for some people, like violent criminals?
Ironically, there is even the chance that improving in-group cooperation, a possible excellent application of moral enhancement, could cause other problems. As Dr. Fabiano explains, "[T]here is a lot of empirical evidence indicating that a drug increasing cooperation between individuals would likely decrease cooperation between groups. Highly cooperative groups tend to be highly discriminatory. Such a drug would create more problems than it would solve."
On the other hand, the possible benefits of moral enhancement are obvious. People could become more cooperative, empathetic, or altusic without the years of work that our current moral improvement systems require. Problems we currently face could vanish in the face of an enhanced population. As Dr. Savulescu argues, this is enough of a benefit to make moral enhancement a worthwhile consideration.
If offered to you, would you take the pill?
Social interactions are important for building the strongest relationships.
- When someone says thank you, who is it for? According to Dr. Sara Algoe, expressions of gratitude have a positive effect on the person receiving the message, the person delivering it, and even those who witness the exchange. These types of social interactions are crucial for building lasting relationships with romantic partners, friends, and coworkers.
- "When we say 'thank you,' we're sending a message to the person who just did something nice for us, that they are valued, that they're seen, that the thing that they did for us was worth doing in the first place," Algoe says.
- Expressing gratitude is easy, and the research shows that the benefits far outweigh the effort.
Research has shown how important empathy is to relationships, but there are limits to its power.
- Empathy is a useful tool that allows humans (and other species) to connect and form mutually beneficial bonds, but knowing how and when to be empathic is just as important as having empathy.
- Filmmaker Danfung Dennis, Bill Nye, and actor Alan Alda discuss the science of empathy and the ways that the ability can be cultivated and practiced to affect meaningful change, both on a personal and community level.
- But empathy is not a cure all. Paul Bloom explains the psychological differences between empathy and compassion, and how the former can "get in the way" of some of life's crucial relationships.
Learn how to practice "self-indifference."
Perhaps you've seen it; it goes something like this: 'Brain: “I see you are trying to sleep. May I offer you a selection of your most embarrassing memories from the past 10 years?"'
At first, it seems odd to think that this meme is so popular among those of us whom you would call 'millennials', who grew up steeped in the self-esteem movement of the 1990s. We were raised, after all, to love ourselves, not to quietly torture ourselves with decade-old memories. We were taught in classroom exercises how special we were, the prevailing pop-psych theory of the day being that high self-esteem would carry us to success.
And yet this turns out to be poor preparation for dealing with the everyday embarrassments of being human. Instead of single-mindedly trying to love yourself, may I suggest a self-directed attitude that has been famously called the opposite of love: indifference.
In the 2000s, as the self-esteem movement was ageing, psychology researchers began publishing a series of papers on something called self-compassion, which Kristin Neff at the University of Texas at Austin in 2003 defined this way:
[B]eing open to and moved by one's own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one's inadequacies and failures, and recognising that one's own experience is part of the common human experience.
Back then, much of this work sought to contrast self-compassion with self-esteem. Consider one study that relates to the aforementioned meme, in which researchers asked college students to recall an embarrassing high-school memory. Some of the students were then given writing prompts meant to bring out their self-compassionate side; they were told to 'list ways in which other people also experience similar events', and to express 'understanding, kindness, and concern to themselves in the same way that they might express concern to a friend'. In contrast, other students were given writing prompts intended to stoke their self-esteem: they were told to 'write down [their] positive characteristics' and to describe why an incident wasn't really their fault – and that, anyhow, the event 'does not really indicate anything about the kind of person [they] are'.
The point, the researchers go on to argue in that paper, subtitled 'The Implications of Treating Oneself Kindly', is that the tenets of self-esteem will tell you to try to convince yourself that the stupid thing you did wasn't really all that stupid – or if it was, that it was someone else's fault. Self-esteem tells you to focus on all your wonderful, positive qualities. In contrast, self-compassion says it's best to acknowledge your own role in an unflattering moment; when the memories come back at night, a self-compassionate person will say to herself: 'Huh, yeah – that really was pretty embarrassing.'
But she'll also say: 'So what?' Plenty of other people have embarrassed themselves in similar ways. In the end, this study showed that those who'd been prodded toward the direction of self-esteem felt worse about themselves after remembering the high-school embarrassment than those who'd been led toward self-compassion.
Self-esteem has fallen out of favour, and it is starting to seem these days as if self-compassion is taking its place. The headlines that keep popping up are: 'Why Self-love Is Important And How To Cultivate It' (Medical News Today, 23 March 2018); '8 Powerful Steps To Self-Love' (Psychology Today, 29 June 2017); 'The Not-So-Secret Secret To Happiness: Be Kinder To Yourself, Okay?' (The Cut, 22 April 2016). (Fine: I wrote the last one.) The focus in these pop-psych stories tends to stay squarely on the first part of Neff's 15-year-old definition: 'experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one's inadequacies and failures'. From reading many of these pieces, self-compassion seems like self-kindness, and nothing more.
But it's the second part of that definition that has proven the most helpful for me: 'recognising that one's own experience is part of the common human experience'. It's the idea of taking a zoomed-out look at yourself, and realising that you are more similar to others than you are different, even (maybe especially) considering how ridiculous you often are. As Neff herself said in an interview with The Atlantic in 2016: '[W]hen we fail, it's not "poor me," it's "well, everyone fails." Everyone struggles. This is what it means to be human.'
In fact, it's this part of the definition of self-compassion that makes me question whether it should be called self-compassion at all. Neff's concept isn't really about adoring yourself, or not entirely, anyway; this piece of it isn't actually about you. Rather, it's about the importance of recalling that you are but one small part of an interconnected whole.
For me, the term 'self-indifference' communicates this part of Neff's message better than her own term does: when it comes to embarrassing moments, it means considering your own highlight reel of flaws, acknowledging that, yes, maybe the moment really was that bad – but then responding with a shrug. It is, to come back to my earlier point, something you could call self-indifference, by which I mean the comfort of realising that you are not all that unique.
Really, though, self-indifference and self-compassion are just new-fangled terms for an ancient concept: humility. We tend to think of humility as if it means putting yourself down, a mischaracterisation that a recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology seems to buy into in its examination of 'humble leaders'. Humility in a manager, according to these researchers, is defined as 'being open to admitting one's limitations, shortcomings and mistakes'. To be humble, in these researchers' view, is to focus on your flaws.
But modern scholars who study humility see it differently. Humble people don't focus on their flaws – not exactly, anyway. It's more that humble people don't focus on themselves very much at all. 'This is not to say that a humble person fails to care about her own welfare or pursue her own interests – it is simply that she sees these as being deeply intertwined with the welfare and interests of others,' write the authors of a 2017 paper in The Journal of Positive Psychology. You are important, and you are worthy of love, just like we millennials were taught in school – but that's true only because everyone is important, and everyone is worthy of love. You matter because everyone else matters. It reminds me again of the way in which Neff defines what she would call self-compassion, and I would call self-indifference: 'recognising that one's own experience is part of the common human experience'. Maybe the most compassionate attitude you can take toward yourself is to stop obsessing over yourself.
This is the great relief of self-indifference, especially for those of us raised in the self-esteem movement. The truth is that you aren't that big of a deal. And isn't that great?
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
There is a lot we don't know about psychedelics, but what we do know makes them extremely important.
- Having been repressed in the 1960s for their ties to the counterculture, psychedelics are currently experiencing a scientific resurgence. In this video, Michael Pollan, Sam Harris, Jason Silva and Ben Goertzel discuss the history of psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin, acknowledge key figures including Timothy Leary and Albert Hoffman, share what the experience of therapeutic tripping can entail, and explain why these substances are important to the future of mental health.
- There is a stigma surrounding psychedelic drugs that some scientists and researchers argue is undeserved. Several experiments over the past decades have shown that, when used correctly, drugs like psilocybin and LSD can have positive effects on the lives of those take them. How they work is not completely understood, but the empirical evidence shows promise in the fields of curbing depression, anxiety, obsession, and even addiction to other substances.
- "There's a tremendous amount of insight that can be plumbed using these various substances. There's also a lot of risks there, as with most valuable things," says artificial intelligence researcher Ben Goertzel. He and others believe that by making psychedelics illegal, modern governments are getting in the way of meaningful research and the development of "cultural institutions to guide people in really productive use of these substances."