August 13, 2022

Will brainwashing make a comeback?

Imagine this scenario: the American military captures a fanatical soldier of the Islamic State who has been responsible for the deaths of several Americans. What comes next? Execute him immediately? Illegal. Imprison him until he is no longer dangerous? He could be there for the rest of his life. Disarm him and release him? Too dangerous – he will kill again.

A bioethicist from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Blake Hereth, suggests another option in the journal Neuroethics: forced moral neuroenhancement (MANE). Hereth argues that this is entirely legitimate for “for prisoners of war (POWs) fighting unjustly”.

Whether it is even possible to force people to act virtuously by tinkering with their brains with implants or chemicals is highly speculative. But let’s assume that it is. Hereth contends that it could be morally obligatory because it would both keep the terrorist from being killed and would keep him from killing others.

Of course, this appears to violate a key point in the Geneva Conventions:

… no prisoner of war may be subjected to physical mutilation or to medical or scientific experiments of any kind which are not justified by the medical, dental, or hospital treatment of the prisoner concerned and carried out in his interest.

But Hereth responds that MANE is in his interest: he will become a better human being. He will become a “just combatant” or a “harmless civilian”. “The unfortunate fact is that states will pursue wars irrespective of their inability to know whether those wars are just. When they do that, morally improving enemy combatants is less bad than killing them.”

What if the other side, the bad guys, attempt to use MANE to “turn” soldiers on our side, the good guys. Hereth has a solution to that – an “Advance Directive Implant” which would kill the good guy when his superiors discovered that he has been captured.

For Hereth, the use of moral neuroenhancement in war is a test case. If it works, the techniques and the theory could be used in other situations.

This proposal raises a host of ethical questions. An obvious one is – who determines whether a cause is just or unjust? The Nazis and ISIS believed that their cause was so obviously just that it permitted them to violate human rights. And then, is it ethical to force people to adopt a different moral code? During the Cold War era, they had another name for it. Is moral neuroenhancement just a rebranded form of brainwashing?