How can psychology change the ‘algorithm’ for morality in bioethics?

by Michael Klenk

Moral psychology has shaken up moral philosophy in recent years (see, e.g., here and here). The upheaval is welcome. Understanding better how ethical judgements work should eventually lead to positive behaviour change. For example, we might hope for more altruism to solve collective action problems like climate change, and less in-group vs out-group thinking, to curb racism.

So far, however, moral psychology’s impact on ethical conduct has mostly been within the narrow confines of academic journals. The philosophers who took up moral psychological findings mainly focus on rather abstract questions about the theory of knowledge and methodology in ethics. For example, a significant debate concerns the question of whether moral judgments remain warranted given evidence of their psychological origin (see, for example, some of my previous blogs here and here).

Notwithstanding the fascinating nature of such meta-ethical questions, it is a long way from progress in these theoretical debates to effecting positive behavioural change in people. Indeed, moral psychology’s practical impact has not been a focus of much academic work yet.

Our hope may rest on what we can call ‘trickle-down ethics,’ where the revelations of ethicists trickle down to all of society eventually. Moral psychology may impact moral philosophy, and so the impact of moral psychology on moral philosophy may finally be felt in practice, too. However, there is no clear evidence for the success of trickle-down ethics, and blindly trusting it can be frustrating. After all, engaging in moral philosophy is a way to understand what ought to be done, and why, and then to do it – not merely hoping that something eventually gets done. Even if moral philosophy as a discipline has illuminated the ‘understanding’ part, we leave the ‘practice part’ almost entirely to an ill-founded hope in trickle-down ethics. So, blind trust in trickle-down ethics is probably up for a displeasing reality check, especially if the frail prospect of trickle-down economics is any indicator.

In what follows, I want to illustrate how practical orientation in moral philosophy hangs together and may run counter to the also very practically oriented wish to take into account the findings of empirical moral psychology. To do so, consider another academic discipline that deals with ethical questions, however, one which also has discernibly more practical impact: Bioethics.


Bioethicists hail from a wide range of subjects, like philosophy, biology, and medicine. Like moral philosophers, they are concerned with ethical questions. Unlike most moral philosophers, however, bioethicists seem much more attuned to issues whose solutions make a discernible practical difference: Questions regarding the boundaries of life, the allocation of health-care resources, and the correct way to deal with biotechnologies like gene editing, to name but a few. Every day, such questions arise in the hospital ward, the laboratory, and the policy maker’s office and bioethicists strive to provide reasonable and ethically sound answers.

One reason why bioethicists are successful in impacting behaviour, through their influence on policymaking, and as active parts of research consortia and smaller research teams, has to do with focus. They rely on a set of plausible fundamental moral principles that are, mostly, not scrutinised further but taken for granted based on some widely shared agreement amongst bioethicists that they are, indeed, rational tenets. By bracketing more theoretical questions about these normative principles (e.g. their objectivity and justification), bioethicists free up resources to look to the practicalities of the given case to make recommendations that help doctors, biologists, and so forth to move along in an ethically sound way.

So, according to this rough sketch, while bioethics is fundamentally concerned with ethical conduct and, thus, like moral philosophy, could benefit from the empirical insights of moral psychology, it still manages to make a practical impact by holding some fundamental normative principles fixed, unlike moral philosophy, which is in over its head in theoretical debates. Therefore, bioethics could be a viable vehicle for moral psychology to affect human behaviour positively.

There are two ways for this to go. First, bioethicists could keep the bioethical principles fixed, and moral psychology could help them apply these principles more adequately. Second, they could go one step further and use moral psychology to change the fundamental bioethical tenets, too.

As it turns out, however, only the former, more limited option seems viable in bioethical practice. To illustrate, consider an analogy with an internet search engine, like Google Search. Using moral psychology to apply fixed bioethical principles better is comparable to adding more information to the database of the search engine. Using moral psychology to change the fundamental bioethical principles is like re-engineering the search algorithm. Both methods might improve the results of a search engine, but the latter is much more complicated and possibly impractical for bioethics.

Let’s look at the benefits of the first method in analogy to Google Search. The results of your search query depend on two factors: Google’s database (i.e. all website content indexed by Google), and the algorithm for identifying, ranking, and presenting matches within the database and your query. Most of the time, Google search works pretty well. That is until you are looking for something that is not in the database. For example, suppose Ken Kunz the trapper lives off the grid in Alaska and thus far managed to leave no virtual trace online or offline. Try looking him up on Google – you will find nothing on that Ken Kunz, and no fixing of Google’s search algorithm can change that. Instead, new information must be added to the database.

Likewise, bioethicists need a host of factual information to apply their fundamental bioethical principles correctly. For example, knowing that the capacity of patients to make autonomous decisions must not be infringed upon (a fundamental bioethical principle) is one thing, knowing which patients (still) have the capacity for independent decision making is another. Moral psychological research could add insight into the decision making capacities of agents, or produce new ideas about the extension of concepts like autonomy (in what is known as concept explication). It could, as it were, ‘add information to the database’ to improve the accuracy and soundness of bioethical recommendations. With a better ‘database’, or descriptive picture of the world, better normative decisions should, in most cases, follow.

However, the benefits of using moral psychology to enrich the factual decision base for bioethics are limited by the quality of the fundamental bioethical principles in use. If the underlying principles are all wrong, we can successfully apply them, but the outcome would not be improved ethical behaviour.

Again, the analogy with a search algorithm illustrates this problem. Even with a wonderfully detailed database, the results of a search engine will be only as good as the search algorithm. For example, though Google Search has a tremendously rich database, problems in the search algorithm can limit its usefulness. For example, a while ago, Google image searches for “CEO” only turned up pictures of white men, and general search results presented prestigious job ads to men, but not to women. If the algorithm isn’t fixed, enriching the database won’t resolve the problem. Likewise, the added understanding provided by moral psychology is only fully useful for bioethicists insofar they have sound normative principles, to begin with. In fact, the current tenets need not even be way off – the possibility that we could do better is enough to warrant a look at the second option for moral psychology to impact bioethics.

Suppose then that we could have even better normative principles. The second way for moral psychology to impact bioethics would be for moral psychology (also) to affect the fundamental principles of bioethics. For example, several philosophers and psychologists have argued that moral psychology provides us with good reason to distrust moral judgements that are based primarily on emotional processes. If some of the fundamental bioethical principles are based on emotional processes (e.g. the policy about respecting autonomy), then moral psychology might give us an impetus to change our moral principles, our ‘search algorithm’ as it were, in bioethics.

But at this point, the potentially positive impact of moral psychology on bioethics begins to conflict with the practical aspirations of bioethics. In essence, moral psychology may cause doubt on whether our fundamental bioethical principles are still warranted in the light of moral psychological findings, but that just raises the abstract questions about the theory of moral knowledge and methodology that bioethicists wanted to avoid to focus on solving practical issues.

To illustrate, consider that Google can simply instruct its software engineers to change their search algorithms. They have the skills and an idea about where they want to go with the improved algorithm, which first of all requires that they will know what a better algorithm looks like (for them).

One would expect that we have a good idea about ethical engineering, too. That is, one would expect that there are people with the skills to revamp our moral principles, who also have an idea about where we want to go with them. But while moral philosophers have good initial ideas about these issues, there are still some pernicious puzzles and the debate is far from settled (as explained, for example, in this earlier post). Ultimately, ethical engineering (of moral concepts, that is) is much more controversial than software engineering because both methods and aims for doing so are up for debate. That makes the second project for moral psychology to influence bioethics profoundly and continuously philosophical. Bioethics wanted to get away from such abstract debates, and thus the full potential of moral psychology in bioethics may not be reached.

This is a dilemma. Bioethics, with its prowess for practical impact, could be an ideal vehicle for using moral psychology to change behaviour for the better, but when bioethics goes all in by using moral psychology to improve its fundamental principles, it is confronted with theoretical questions that may better be avoided, if the practical focus is to be maintained.

I know no easy way out of this dilemma. Proposing a division of labour, where epistemologists and moral philosophers sort out the ‘ethical engineering’ part, and then hand on the instructions to bioethicists, perhaps as new ‘fundamental bioethical principles for changing the fundamental bioethical principles,’ seems too close for comfort to the idea of trickle-down ethics. Merely deciding about which principles to change, and why, may avoid the question in practice, but that won’t resolve it either.

Thus, for now, we have no choice but to keep asking. As if we are kids, only concerned with good conduct to solve collective action problems, rather than the reason for the banana’s curvature. Many things make us wonder as kids, causing endless and, from a parent’s perspective, often frustrating ‘why’ questions that seem to lead nowhere. At some point, we forget the problem or settle for answers. In many cases, that makes perfectly good sense – a good explanation of the banana’s curvature should decide the point. But for other questions, like those about when and why to change our moral concepts, asking them might be the whole point.