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Moral enhancement explained: Can science make us better people?

Could a pill make you more moral? Should you take it if it could?

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Would you take the “moral enhancement” pill?

Key Takeaways
  • 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.

The ethics of making people more ethical

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?


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