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  • Writer's pictureSociety of Bioethics and Medicine

The Goodness We Seek and the Goodness We Demand

Updated: Feb 18

Written by Martyna Kulecv

Edited by Adnan Prantoi

Moral bioenhancement is a recent source of controversy in the field of neuroethics, postulating that biomedical technology can be used to morally improve individuals by altering the characteristics of already healthy people. The debate largely centers on whether the healthcare system in partnership with the legal system has the right to stage moral interventions using biomedical applications to achieve betterment of the human race. Research has found that the moral actions people take can be influenced by hormonal manipulation. One research study found that when serotonin levels were artificially lowered, people became more aggressive and more likely to violate social norms, suggesting that the opposite is true and elevated serotonin levels may potentially inhibit the potential for “immoral behaviors”. Another research study found that increased serotonin levels “made people more harm-averse and more likely to stick to ideas of fairness”, establishing a hormonal precedence for righteous behavior. Furthermore, researchers have found that when tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin and melatonin, is artificially lowered, people “become less cooperative” and more prone to agitation. Hormonal manipulation is not the only dimension of moral bioenhancement that is being considered; however, scientists are pursuing a diverse array of interventions including using glucose as a means of increasing resistance to temptation and administering propranolol as a means of decreasing unconscious racial bias. The most controversial suggestions postulated by researchers are deep-brain stimulation as a means of targeting and reducing aggression, and embryo selection wherein genes are coded for a greater disposition to altruism and genes associated with antisocial personality disorders are neutralized.


The opposing ethical ramifications have their merit- constituting a philosophical conflict between those who believe moral bioenhancement would lead to the greater good and those who believe it undermines our freedom to fall. Some maintain that the current moral “status quo” is intolerable given how greatly the societal balance is skewed towards immoral behavior and corruption. As technology and our accessibility to technological exploits develops, the risk of truly catastrophic harm increases. With each new day, it is “increasingly possible for a small number of individuals to acquire the technical capability of inflicting terrible harm”. The greatest concern is that while growth in technology is extremely fast and is continuing to gain traction, positive change in our psychology is slow. Though we may be advancing in terms of intellectual development, we remain emotionally stunted, reduced to a capacity for evil that is no less devastating than our forefathers. Today society is divided into complacent observers and cruel perpetrators. In the 1990s, the world looked on as genocides occurred in Rwanda and Bosnia. Around the world forced prostitution and participation in pornography, often involving children, is a reality. Young girls as well as religious and ethnic minorities are subjected to violence, persecution, and oppression in many parts of the world. Populations in third-world countries suffer extreme pervasive poverty with millions lacking access to safe water, sanitation, shelter, and electricity. These terrors offer insight into the true moral reality of the human race- we have not become better than our ancestors, we have not become admirable models of societal development and progress, rather we have allowed ourselves to become monsters of an entirely new caliber. While our world is drastically different from the world even three decades prior, we have not changed in our proclivity for violence and indifference. It would stand to reason then, that moral bioenhancement would curb the gaping chasm between our intellectual development and our emotional maturation. Given the very plausible threat of weapons of mass destruction and the potential for the use of nuclear arsenals, it is that much more relevant and significant to pursue a biological method of undermining the human desire for evil. Some scholars, such as Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson, suggest that it is our moral imperative to right the immoral wrongs of the human race through artificial intervention so as to prevent the widespread destruction that can now be facilitated by individuals rather than the organized groups of the past. The implications of moral bioenhancement cannot be overstated- a population with an increased awareness of cooperation, empathy, and altruism can potentially address the escalating rates of violence and criminal behavior. If administered these artificial interventions could prevent the terrors we live with on a day-by-day basis such as school shootings or sexual assault. By targeting defective empathy, significant prejudice, susceptibility to temptation, impulsivity in relation to violence, and specific forms of evil such as sadism, we can truly make the world a safer place, leaving it a better world than the one we inherited.


However, our humanity is tightly ingrained with our free will, our ability to choose between right and wrong, and exercise our intellectual and emotional intelligence as we see fit. To manipulate our free will and our innate consciousness, is seen as an invasive and inhumane act, no matter the justification and sound reasoning behind such an intervention. Critics of moral bioenhancement argue that we would be stripping human beings of their humanity by taking away their choice and subduing their freedom to fall- to choose evil, to exercise the capacity for violence and immorality. Our moral agency would be in the hands of legal and healthcare authorities who would see fit to turn the human mind into a malleable construct and tool for the “greater good”. The greater good, however, is subjective and has the potential to be misconstrued to affirm the agendas of powerful authoritative figures who would see this technology as a valuable weapon, one that could potentially be misused and cause further moral deterioration. Critics further argue that our neurological and emotional systems are much too complex to simply justify psychological transformation, with no regard for how we are meant to truly target different aspects of moral behavior nor for potential consequences. “Given the complexity of our moral psychology and biology, can we hope to influence it without also altering other crucial processes?” Scientists warn against the potential ramifications of manipulating even one type of neurotransmitter and the consequences of altering neurological functions on the basis of adjusting moral behavior. For example, Karim Jebari found that enhancing empathy may render individuals less fair and more partial, which allows room for authoritative intervention and an adaptation towards blind obedience. Moral bioenhancement also raises questions such as which traits should be enhanced or suppressed, should treatments be required for all people or just at-risk populations and how can we determine at-risk populations without consciously breaking privacy rights. Lastly, scientists and social commentators argue whether we are underestimating the ability of the human race to adopt traditional means of moral enhancement including explicit moral instruction, socialization, public policies, and consciousness-raising groups that inspire moral reflection. Are we giving up on the human race if we believe our only option is to suppress free will and artificially insert a desire for moral and righteous behavior? Is undermining free will no less immoral than the crimes moral bioenhancement is attempting to prevent? Are we playing at being God if we decide who needs to be more moral and who will define the subjective terms of morality? The debate will certainly be met with more questions than answers but one thing is for certain, the future of the human race may lie in combining the two instruments of moral enhancement- biological and traditional.


Works Cited

- Jebari K: What to enhance: behaviour, emotion or disposition?. Neuroethics. 2014, doi: 10.1007%2Fs12152-014-9204-5

- Specker, Jona, et al. “The Ethical Desirability of Moral Bioenhancement: A Review of Reasons - BMC Medical Ethics.” BioMed Central, BioMed Central, 16 Sept. 2014, https://bmcmedethics.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1472-6939-15-67.

- DeGrazia, David. “Moral Enhancement, Freedom, and What We (Should) Value in Moral Behaviour.” Journal of Medical Ethics, Institute of Medical Ethics, 1 June 2014, https://jme.bmj.com/content/40/6/361.

- Hendricks, Scotty. “Moral Enhancement Explained: Can Science Make Us Better People?” Big Think, 30 Sept. 2021, https://bigthink.com/thinking/moral-enhancement/. - Douglas, Thomas. “Moral Enhancement.” Journal of Applied Philosophy, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Aug. 2008, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2614680/.

- Forsberg, Lisa. Moral Enhancement - Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2021, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/moral-enhancement/v-1. Darby, R. - Ryan, and Alvaro Pascual-Leone. “Moral Enhancement Using Non-Invasive Brain Stimulation.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 8 Feb. 2017, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00077/full.

- Lavazza, Andrea, and Massimo Reichlin. “Introduction: Moral Enhancement - Topoi.” SpringerLink, Springer Netherlands, 8 Feb. 2019, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11245-019-09638-5.

- Diéguez, Antonio, and Carissa Véliz. “Would Moral Enhancement Limit Freedom? - Topoi.” SpringerLink, Springer Netherlands, 4 Apr. 2017, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11245-017-9466-8.

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