Written by Marium Ghobriel
Edited by Elizabeth Katanov
If science was capable of making everyone a morally sound person, what would come of it? Would crime rates decline? Would recidivism be less common? Would different communities be more likely to get along? Moral bioenhancement (MBE) utilizes biomedical tools in order to improve one’s sense of morality. At first glance, this may seem like a great novel use of medical technology to improve society for the greater good. Hateful acts, robbery, and violence would all see lower occurrences, as would discrimination based on race, gender, or religion. However, taking a closer look into the legal and ethical implications of MBE casts a shadow over the benefits.
From a neuroscientist’s perspective, the root of human actions is in the brain. Moral bioenhancement alters the way the brain works and the decision making process. Thus, is immoral behavior caused by a part of the brain that can be diverted to induce moral behavior? In other words, are people who act unjustly not to blame due to a poorly functioning section of their brains? Is there no feeling or emotion behind one’s actions? In a legal setting, this poses a major problem with deciding sentences for crimes. For example, if a defendant committed premeditated murder and the judge sentenced him to rehabilitation that consists of moral bioenhancement, does this bring justice to the victim? To the victim’s family and likely many others, MBE does not classify as a punishment or consequence severe enough compared to the crime. The logic behind MBE implies that bad behavior is caused by the brain; if the brain can be changed to cease this behavior, then are humans really to blame for the crimes they commit? Motives such as racism, sexism, revenge, jealousy, etc., are all no longer the reason for the crime - instead, biological flaws are the culprits. Nevertheless, these flaws cannot be separated from the person.
Despite these complications, there is a developed foundation behind why MBE could be promising. Research in neuroscience has determined that cognitive shortcomings are often a result of a damaged frontal lobe. These deficits are difficult to reveal, because all other aspects of the person are functional - speech, movement, intelligence, and perception are all on-par with those without damage to their frontal lobe. However, a frontal lobe patient may not be able to foresee the consequences of their actions or align their behavior with the context of their environment. In other words, the behavior they exhibit is often inappropriate in a given situation. Studies have found that frontal lobe dysfunction is associated with violent behavior and impulsivity. There has been a link found between serial killers and head injuries, primarily where the frontal lobe is. MBE could have the ability to remedy the faulty behavior of the patient, and may prevent them from getting into trouble later on.
In addition to all this, the issue of autonomy must also be debated. Should incarcerated criminals have the right to refuse this type of rehabilitation? Do people inherently have the right to do the wrong thing, and does taking away their ability to do so infringe on their liberty? The line between moral and immoral behavior is blurry and subjective. Who decides what is right and wrong? All of these questions must have thorough answers before moral bioenhancement can be incorporated into medicine.
Hardcastle, VG. 2018. Why “Moral Enhancement” Isn’t Always Moral Enhancement: The Case of Traumatic Brain Injury in American Vets, The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy: A Forum for Bioethics and Philosophy of M edicine, Volume 43, Issue 5, October 2018, Pages 527–546, https://doi.org/10.1093/jmp/jhy022
Shook JR. and Giordano JJ. 2017. Moral Bioenhancement for Social Welfare: Are Civic Institutions Ready? Front. Sociol. 2:21. doi: 10.3389/fsoc.2017.00021
Baird, A. 2009. The developmental neuroscience of criminal behavior. In The Impact of Behavioral Sciences on Criminal Law, ed. Farahany N., 81–121. New York: Oxford University Press.