Thinking about Moral Enhancement

by Thomas Rodham Wells

Enhancement is a hot topic in biomedical ethics, though the academic conversation is coloured by a surprisingly strong – even reactionary – conservatism. On the one hand it probably is a good thing to have some critical scrutiny of the techno utopians' claims. On the other hand, should we – can we? – distinguish between good 'treatment' and bad 'enhancement', as Michael Sandel has argued? Is there really a difference between glasses and laser eye surgery apart from semantics? Does the capability to 'hear' non-acoustically constitute some kind of infringement of the human telos? And if so, so what? I sometimes wonder whether these concerns amount to anything more than the insinuation of a conservative vision of the human condition that would be challenged in any other conversation in moral philosophy.

Nonetheless, thinking about enhancement can be fun, and even enlightening. As with good science fiction, imagining changes to the human condition pushes us to look more clearly at what we already have, and how we might use it better. Take moral enhancement. Is it possible to make humans morally better than we are now? What might that look like and are there any dystopian risks to look out for?

‘Morality' seems to comprise three distinct dimensions towards which an enhancement project could be directed: theoretical reason, practical reason, and self-command. It's important to note at the beginning that such a project doesn't depend on science fiction technologies – special IQ pills, brain implants, and so forth might be part of this in the future, but moral enhancement is an ancient project with a long and mixed track record of developing enhancement technologies, including formal education, role-modelling, parenting, physical exercise, religious rituals, nutritional supplements, philosophical 'leisure', judicial punishment, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and so on.

I. Theoretical reason

The first problem of morality is of knowing what makes things right or wrong. That would seem to require an adequate understanding of the foundations of morality, which takes you to meta-ethics (what does it mean to speak of the good and the right) and thence to normative ethics (which moral theory is correct e.g. Kant's analysis of moral duties, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, care ethics, etc). This, it so happens, is the core mission of moral philosophy as an academic enterprise.

Now it may be that there is one correct answer to the ultimate questions of morality, as for physics, which humanity would converge on if we were all as clever as Kant. But it is not necessary to assume that – nor is it reasonable given the diversity of moral theories produced by very smart philosophers over the centuries. Even if theoretical reason, however turbocharged, only gave us each a better intellectual justification for the particular moral beliefs we hold that would still be worth having.

First, our beliefs would be more coherent and hence deserving of more confidence. For example, we wouldn't believe at the same time that there is no such thing as free will and that people should be punished for their bad actions. Theoretical reason is good at hunting out inconsistencies and chasing down loose ends. It's also good at identifying and following through the problematic implications of one's ideas, and for considering whether they require reworking or giving up.

Second, we would also be able to make use of intellectual collaboration with others – submitting our ideas to independent intellectual test and learning from their own ideas – like a massively expanded academic community of moral philosophers. Even if we continued to disagree about the best moral theories, we should nevertheless be able to agree about identifying and discarding a large number of very bad accounts, including many of the moral beliefs that are prevalent today. Networks are multipliers of the capacities of individuals, and theory is an eminently collaborative 'civilisational' enterprise.

Presently, relatively few people have the combination of the leisure, inclination, and cognitive ability for abstract reasoning required to do this moral theorising task properly (hence the attraction of shortcuts like religious doctrines). A moral enhancement project should be directed to removing all these impediments, and should not be limited to trying to raise individual IQs, say by technological brain interventions like drugs and computer implants. For example, a social intervention like Universal Basic Income has the capacity to significantly enhance moral reasoning by individuals and society as a whole by giving us more of the leisure we need to think for ourselves. It would relieve us of the practical necessity of expending the bulk of the limited amount of high quality attention we have available in our life-times doing things we don't want to do merely in order to earn a living, merely in order to continue as we are. Technological interventions that reduce our need for sleep or help us to sleep more efficiently would also give us more time for thinking. Better networking resources, such as free universal access to academic quality publications, would also boost our individual and collective cognitive abilities to make theoretical progress. (It would also help if academic moral philosophers wrote in a more accessible way.)

Inclination is particularly important, since cognitive ability and leisure are generic factors that are as easily employed for careers in investment banking or astrophysics or hobbies like competitive scrabble or crosswords as for contemplating moral philosophy. But enhancing people's inclination for moral theorising does not seem a particularly technological/neurological project but a socio-cultural one – of persuading people to become interested in deep and abstract questions of value and right rather than, say, the bottom line.

II. Practical reason

Knowing what the right thing to do is in any particular situation requires two further skills. First, the ability to apply one's abstract knowledge of morality to the real world, to turn principles into rules of understanding and action (training in scientific reasoning is useful here). And second, the ability to interpret real world situations in terms of the abstract moral theoretical resources one has developed with one's theoretical reason – a kind of pattern recognition system (for which immersion in the arts is excellent training). The former is concerned with bringing a case under a particular concept or rule, the latter with reflection on which concepts might be helpful to its understanding.

Together, these skills constitute the faculty of judgement: what Kant called “the free play of the imagination and the understanding”. This capability is essential wherever we have to work out, as part of the exercise of making sense of something, what the criteria for such an understanding should be. If you only apply the theory you hold to be true, you will be nothing but a dogmatist; if you only search for the right theoretical understanding of a situation, you will never act.

It requires judgement to work out what moral response a situation in the real world properly requires: e.g. “Would this be lying?” or “Would it be OK in this case even if it is a lie?” Judgement is a complex faculty that has rather more to do with wisdom rather than the straightforward cleverness of theoretical thought; developing it requires practical experience as well as IQ. (Indeed mere cleverness can undermine judgement inasmuch as its free-floating character lends itself to the rationalisation of choices that are convenient for oneself, what one might call the lawyer's approach to moral reasoning.)

As Aristotle noted in the Nicomachean Ethics (VI, 8),

What has been said is confirmed by the fact that while young men become geometricians and mathematicians and wise in matters like these, it is thought that a young man of practical wisdom cannot be found. The cause is that such wisdom is concerned not only with universals but with particulars, which become familiar from experience, but a young man has no experience, for it is length of time that gives experience; indeed one might ask this question too, why a boy may become a mathematician, but not a philosopher or a physicist. It is because the objects of mathematics exist by abstraction, while the first principles of these other subjects come from experience, and because young men have no conviction about the latter but merely use the proper language, while the essence of mathematical objects is plain enough to them.

III. Self-command

It is one thing to figure out the right thing to do, and quite another to actually carry it through. Consider Thomas Jefferson's commitment to abolition in principle versus his attachment to slavery – and Sally Hemings – in practice. Or the terribly few people who managed to muster up the courage to protect Jews in Europe during the holocaust. Or the many non-vegetarians who nevertheless agree intellectually with the arguments of animal rights campaigners like Peter Singer that killing animals to eat them is wrong. Or the people who sincerely promise to be faithful to their spouses but succumb to temptations. This faculty seems quite distinct from those of theoretical and practical moral reasoning – it seems that professors of moral philosophy perform no better than anyone else.

Despite its popularity in the history of western philosophy and folk-psychology I'm far from convinced that 'will-power' or even the will itself are empirically accurate or helpful concepts. Do people really resist temptation thanks to their well-trained 'will' muscle? Or do we, as many contemporary psychologists and moral anthropologists like Adam smith claim, succeed instead by finding ways to manage the temptations to which we are exposed? For example by distracting ourselves, using commitment devices, or planning ahead to avoid situations where we might be tempted.

The challenge for moral enhancement here thus concerns either developing a faculty something like our folk psychological understanding of the will, or supporting our various existing capabilities for self-managing our desires so that our first order preferences are brought into line with the higher-order preferences that we consciously endorse, for example by ‘deleting' desires that are incompatible with the conclusions of our moral reasoning. In this manner, feminists might choose to remove, rather than struggle to overcome, their taste for pornography as a result of their judgement that seeing strangers as sexual objects is incompatible with respecting equality of dignity.

A Dystopian Edge?

These three faculties would seem to pretty much cover what moral life and action involves and are thus the appropriate targets for a moral enhancement project. But all good futurology should hedge its bets and toggle its emotional pitch between utopian optimism and dystopian tragedy. Although each moral faculty presents different practical challenges to their enhancement, a balanced development of all three is essential. Enhancing only one dimension might degrade rather than improve human morality. And this is a standard if under-recognised danger of utopianism: the problem of translating ideal theory into ideal practise. Coming closer to meeting the ideal theoretical standard on any single dimension will not necessarily bring the social order any closer to functioning as a utopia should, any more than building only one of the walls required by a set of blueprints will give you a useable building let alone the one the architect intended.

Take self-command. The enhancement of this faculty in individuals without comcomitant advances in the other moral faculties would be problematic – even dangerous – for reasons that relate to Isaiah Berlin's famous distinction between negative and positive freedom. Berlin noted that positive freedom, understood as self-mastery, was easily annexed to the programmes of totalitarian regimes. The problem is that not all temptations are equal. Some temptations might actually be reasons, rather than merely seductive rationalisations, which ought to make us rethink our judgement that what we are doing is right. One cannot know in advance which temptations are a threat to our ability to follow through on our best judgement, and which require consideration to ensure the quality of that judgement.

Imagine a society where parents have the power to extract commitments to their religious beliefs from their children. Or soldiers who could completely commit themselves to following whatever orders they receive, utterly immune to the 'temptation' to follow the Geneva Conventions. Or a theocracy where gay people could really be 'cured' by committing to heterosexuality. Or where spouses' promises of life-long fidelity really were final, no matter how dreadful the relationship might become. The dystopian risk here is that enhancement technologies that provide immunity to temptation put the power to decide what is right and wrong into the hands of those who control the technologies, regardless of their morality. They would therefore fail to enhance human morality after all, though they would certainly change the human condition.