May 18, 2024

Make the world a better place. Take nice drugs.

Is moral bioenhancement the answer to the dark clouds gathering over the future of humanity?

“What a wonderful world,” sang Louis Armstrong. But how can we make sure that as many people as possible follow in the footsteps of Florence Nightingale and Mahatma Gandhi, spreading empathy and fairness wherever they go?

One way that is getting more and more attention in the Journal of Medical Ethics (especially) is moral bioenhancement, the subject of an essay by David DeGrazia, of George Washington University. This is chemical, genetic or neurological intervention to promote morally admirable qualities. Some potentially effective techniques include drugs to induce cooperation, selecting embryos which have genes for cooperation rather than for discord, or “an artificial chromosome that includes multiple genes coding for stronger predispositions to a variety of moral virtues”.

DeGrazia argues, like some other philosophers and bioethicists, that conventional ways of inducing moral behaviour, such as moral instruction, mentoring or reading wholesome literature are only “modestly effective”. “Growth in [destructive] technology is extremely fast while positive change in our psychology is slow.”  

An obvious objection is: whose morality? Ayn Rand, for instance, did not regard altruism as a morally desirable virtue. So he sticks to “points of overlapping consensus among competing, reasonable moral perspectives”. Thus, morally enhancers would ensure that children are not sadistic, xenophobic, weak willed, susceptible to temptation, unable to resist violent impulses, and so on. All reasonable people presumably agree that these are defects.

Another, more serious objection, is that moral bioenhancement would lessen our freedom. British bioethicist John Harris, even though he has fairly radical views on other topics, rejects it for that reason. “I, like so many others, would not wish to sacrifice freedom for survival,” he writes. De Grazia does not believe that moral bioenhancement diminishes our freedom. However, he is prepared to take the chance.

“Imagine that … in comparison with the average degree of freedom with which we act, MB reduced our freedom by 25%. Imagine further that, as a result of MB, there were no more wars or starvation and everyone in the world had access to the basic necessities of life. I, for one, would accept this reduction in freedom across the board if it were necessary for such great improvement in people’s moral behaviour and such welcome consequences.”

It seems that De Grazia values moral behaviour more than moral freedom and that a safe, orderly, non-violent world would be worth the sacrifice. “We should not exaggerate the value of freedom. After all, moral behaviour itself, the end product, is also extremely important—independently of how free it is.”

De Grazia’s proposal has sparked a number of responses in the JME. 

Michael Cook
Creative commons
free will
moral enhancement