Moral Enhancement Technologies are Reportedly Ineffective, Impractical, and Unwise

Researchers assess proposals to improve morality within individuals through Neurotechnology

Zenobia Morrill

What does it mean to improve one’s morality, and are the currently proposed methods suited to meet such an aim? These questions are proposed and explored in a new paper published in Bioethics, wherein researchers closely examine and assess proposals to “enhance morality” through neuropharmacological and neurotechnological interventions.  

“It may be tempting to reject the prospect of moral enhancement outright based on the lack of currently available technology. Indeed, even though sometimes mentioned in the moral enhancement debate, some means, such as genetic engineering of humans, are more reflective of science fiction than any scientifically validated intervention. However, more modest aims have been proposed, specifically based on available neurotechnological interventions.”

Such proposals are the focus of Veljko Dubljević and Eric Racine’s work which assesses the feasibility and practicality of implementing moral enhancement interventions. Moral enhancement refers to the concept of improving morality within individuals and societies. In this context, improvement is operationalized as betterment, determined from a moral standpoint. The position that moral enhancement is possible rests upon two assumptions, the authors contend, (1) that human moral psychology is built upon intentions and motivations to act, and (2) that some form of technology exists to facilitate its improvement.

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Before assessing the mechanisms by which moral enhancement might occur, its definition generates a greater discussion around our theoretical understanding of morality in philosophy and psychology. This topic is marked by long-standing debate in philosophy. Utilitarians, deontologists, and virtue ethicists engage in ongoing debate as to whether moral judgment should revolve around the consequences, ethics, or virtues of an action. This debate stirs further contention between those who believe that cognitions are at the heart of human behavior versus those who do not and further meta-ethical debates on how reality is understood.

Dubljević and Racine feature this statement from researcher John Shook:

“The absence of a consensus upon the mechanisms of morality could prevent any agreement that a proposed moral enhancer could really be enhancing morality, whatever else it may be doing.”

Models of Moral Reasoning

While the field of psychology has largely adopted Kohlberg’s model of rational, deliberate moral reasoning, plenty of counter-evidences exists to demonstrate that moral decisions “are often a product of associative, holistic, automatic and quick processes that are cognitively undemanding,” write the authors. Dubljević and Racine review some prominent moral psychology models within their paper that are briefly outlined here.

The “basic emotivist model” argues that moral judgments stem from basic emotional processes that might later be intellectually rationalized. Championed by researcher John Haidt as well as influential moral philosophers, the basic emotivist model has been contradicted by studies demonstrating that emotions can be dissociated from moral judgment. Such studies found that participants only responded emotionally to a moral dilemma involving torture if the victim occupied membership in their in-group.

“This does not put the existence of moral emotions per se in question, but it undermines a crude equation between moral judgment and emotion,” state the authors.

Alternatively, the “dual-process model” purports that rational and emotional influences “compete for dominance” in the process of moral judgment. The trolley dilemma and the footbridge dilemma, are used to exemplify this contrast between utilitarian and deontological thinking, respectively. These dilemmas illustrate the dual-process model by indicating that different contexts result in either emotional or rational processes dictating a person’s moral judgment.

One approach to moral enhancement seems to operate from the dual-process model, and contends that cognitive enhancement could bolster moral enhancement by inhibiting emotional process through pharmacological or brain stimulation interventions (to be covered later in this report), while simultaneously enhancing rational processes. Yet, the support for utilitarian, or outcome-based, decision-making is controversial. If utilitarian processes were truly supported by abstract thinking (in contrast to intuitive, emotional responses), then why is this complex process observable in children, at ages before abstract reasoning is said to develop? Furthermore, evidence suggests a link between those who favor utilitarian approaches and those who demonstrate patterns of Machiavelianism, psychopathy, damage to areas of the brain associated with inhibition of impulses (vmPFC), fronto-temporal dementia, and interestingly, higher blood alcohol concentrations.

“All in all, the empirical evidence seems to suggest a stronger role for impaired social cognition than intact deliberative reasoning in predicting utilitarian responses in the trolley dilemma, which in turn leads to a conclusion that the dual process model is on thin ice.”

Finally, “recent intuitionist models” argue that moral judgment might be intuitive, but do not necessarily implicate emotional processes. Increasing evidence supports this model over dual-process notions by corroborating that intuition, rather than abstract reasoning, shapes pro-social behavior.

It is clear that within both fields divergence on this topic persists, creating a contentious backdrop from which to base moral enhancement strategies.

Proposed “Moral Enhancement” Strategies

As mentioned above, some have theorized that cognitive enhancement and moral enhancement are linked. Therefore, a number of drugs have been identified as potential ways to improve individual moral reasoning; SSRIs, Beta-Blockers, testosterone, Levodopa (used to treat Parkinson’s disease), and Ecstasy. However, the authors warn that results of these studies are “far too unclear to offer a basis for a sustained intervention that would improve morality, regardless of the model of moral judgment one subscribes to.”

Other research has specifically highlighted the potential use of oxytocin, also referred to as the “moral molecule,” and stimulants as morality enhancers. At first glance, oxytocin appears promising. Administration is made simple by the drug’s ability to permeate the blood-brain barrier, enabling oxytocin to inhibit one’s fear response. However, the ability for oxytocin to increase one’s trust and cooperation is limited—it only increased one’s prosocial behavior toward members of their in-group, studies found.

“In fact, oxytocin’s effects could only be seen as moral enhancement in non-democratic traditional societies – in pluralistic liberal democracies, it could be seen as more of an ‘nepotism enhancer,’ since it decreases cooperation with out-group members of society (for instance, racial minorities) and selectively promotes ethnocentrism, favoritism, parochial-ism, and even pre-emptive aggression towards the out-group.”

Additionally, the focus on oxytocin as a potential moral enhancement intervention is built upon the assumption of emotional, not rational or moral motivations. Stimulants (e.g. Aderall and other amphetamines), on the other hand, have historically been recognized as a means for cognitive enhancement, and therefore, are implicated as a potential moral enhancer.

Dubljević and Racine write that during World War II, Japan mandated stimulant use for workers in war effort industries. This strategy, the authors write, arose from temporal and contextual factors as modern drugs were used to supplement and intensify the cultural value of diligence. While it may have served this purpose in the short-run, it ultimately manifested in a nation-wide “addiction epidemic,” resulting in very restrictive regulations of amphetamines in Japan still in place today.

“All in all, even though stimulants could potentially be seen as effective moral enhancers (in constrained social settings), they are far from being safe. The historical example of amphetamine use in Japan points to the conclusion that well-meaning moral enhancement proposals may end up causing disastrous consequences if hastily implemented. Moreover, the example illustrates how values of a certain place and time may overturn more comprehensive ethical analyses.”

Finally, the authors cite brain stimulation techniques as having much more potential to noninvasively enhance morality in adults. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), and deep-brain stimulation (DBS) are all neurostimulation technologies that are hypothesized to work by altering neural activity. The exact mechanism by which they might enhance morality is unknown, and several hypotheses have been put forth to conceptualize this process.

While TMS has been found to produce temporary enhancement effects, this has only been observed under professional supervision and is accompanied by potential side effects including transient pain, hearing changes, and psychological changes, to acute effects such as loss of consciousness, hypomania, and seizures.

Furthermore, Dubljević and Racine respond to support of TMS and state:

“The effects on moral judgment have been reported but they do not seem to square well with moral enhancement. Namely, reported TMS effects have largely been disruptive and seem to diminish, not enhance moral concerns.”

Similar brain stimulation techniques reviewed in this article were also left unsubstantiated. They were seen to either enhance utilitarian reasoning in ways, as mentioned above, promote selfish behavior, and/or were accompanied by additional concerning side effects including hemorrhages and irreversible reshaping of synaptic connectivity in the brain.

Ultimately, these claims to enhance morality not only fall short in the endeavor to do so successfully, but exist unsupported by any convergent or comprehensive theory or model of morality.

Once again, researchers are confronted with philosophical questions around whether or not a moral reasoning algorithm might really be consistently applicable. It appears that to be effective, a method would have to succeed in the betterment of individuals, and society overall, by necessarily honoring nuanced and delicate contextual and temporal factors across each decision point.

“The project of moral enhancement is not feasible in the near future as it rests on the use of neurointerventions, which have no moral enhancement effects or, worse, negative effects,” Dubljević and Racine conclude.



Dubljević, V. and Racine, E. (2017), Moral Enhancement Meets Normative and Empirical Reality: Assessing the Practical Feasibility of Moral Enhancement Neurotechnologies. Bioethics, 31: 338–348. doi:10.1111/bioe.12355 (Abstract)

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  1. The pattern is of stealing (or denying) our Soul of Felt Relation – so as to sell a substitution back to us. Though Goethe’s Faustian pact did not hide it as something ‘They do to us’. But of losing an honesty of being to false promise.
    Moral integrity is a wholeness of being and health is not physical but the whole or integrated being.
    To a state of dis-integrity – which I mean to be taken structurally rather than in terms of blame – an attempt at validating oneself – or escaping invalidation ‘succeeds’ in establishing a segregated sense of self that substitutes a fake reality at expense of true.

    When I read the above it kept reminding me of two recent cases where spoof studies were submitted, published and reviewed and the exploit ‘outed’.

    In narrative terms, the fragmenting of life into a mechanism to operate upon and control is like All the kings horses and men seeking to put Humpty together again. Fragmented or dissociated consciousness is the symptom of shock, conflict or trauma. The loss of awareness of wholeness of being is not a ‘sin’ to suppress or eradicate, nor an inadequate biology or damning diagnosis requiring lifetime sickness management.

    But in the explorations of the scientific focus – discoveries will be made that cannot be fitted to the current model and these will either replace the model or be distorted to expand the model. Or of course suppressed and denied so as to maintain the model and force the narrative control of mind-capture.

    Lots of things we don’t understand operate tangible functional results. Life is not something we can do as a result of knowing how it works – but a regulatory monopoly or even patent control over ways of manipulating or enhancing results means that what can be weaponized or marketized is co-opted or subverted to a system of control – where that which empowers and embodies a truly creative way of living is suppressed, smeared and associated with a lack of integrity and threat to ‘necessary protections’ of a fake morality that is quick to outrage if challenged.
    If we give power to things outside ourself we dis-empower ourselves – but within a the context of a genuine relationship – everything and anything may serve a healing purpose. Honesty of being is not conformity to anyone’s moral codes – including my own. Thought-control is so normalized now that few know what true thought is. It is the thought through which I truly feel a shared existence that in its nature is outside time and space – yet transforming my perception and therefore my responses.
    It is good, very good! – to abide in the embrace of our being – but it is not here to ‘answer all our problems’ and thus become problem defined – and made dead or hollow. But to live from as a good step taken in connected purpose of a felt integrity of being – that needs no justification or apology to be itself.
    Every step opens a new perspective.. We may feel damned by uncovering dis-integrity – but only while we use it for the mind of guilt. If it really is not who I want and who I accept myself to be – then I don’t have to act as if it is! And if I persist in doing what I say I don’t want – it is because I do still want it – but in terms that my own definitions and beliefs keep hidden – and so I be curious as to what I am believing about myself that I choose a conflicted outcome.

  2. I see a little bit of the Skinnerian dystopia (Walden II) in the above. I don’t think tinkering is very moral in itself, and here you’ve got these superior-minded scientists (sic) and/or technicians out to improve the morality of everybody else. Trekkies might point out that it violates the non-interference clause of the federation. In my opinion, some of the most immoral people in the world today are ethicists. The corollary would be the folly of trying to force wisdom on the populace. No wonder it ends on a sour note about so-called neurointerventions. Victor Frankenstein clones, with their new fangled and improved morality, are taking over. Funny thing, it seems there is a lot more wrong with the new morality than with the old. Imagine pointing to the Japanese, during World War II, drugging workers with speed in order to get more productivity from them. That has something to do with moral enhancement? Were I religious, which I’m not, I’d be praying for the Lord to deliver me from these moral enhancers.

    • Please don’t insult Viktor Frankenstein! 😀

      He made a hideous monster from scratch and brought him to life. Not good for anyone–especially the monster.

      What these guys propose to do is take ordinary human beings and turn them into hideous monsters. Horrible stuff.

      Many of today’s scientists and pseudo-scientists are in dire need of moral enhancement.

  3. They’re kind of overlooking the most basic (incorrect) assumption: that one group of people (namely these researchers) are in any kind of position to decide for everyone what is “moral” and therefore to be “enhanced!” I think the people in most need of “moral enhancement” are the ones running the experiment!

  4. This is not a new idea.

    Star Trek: Voyager
    Season: 7 Ep. 13
    Air Date: 01/31/2001

    Iko complains to the Doctor that he is suffering nausea and that he can’t stop thinking about the man he killed. Seven believes his discomfort is a manifestation of guilt. Iko’s never felt guilt before, and blames the Doctor for making him feel so horrible. Looking at scans of Iko’s brain, the Doctor finds that the nanoprobes have established new neural pathways in his brain.

  5. Another question. The Psychiatric establishment claims their miracle “medicines” can already take cold-blooded killers about to go on shooting sprees and turn them into kind, peaceful individuals real folks can feel safe around. Are these bioethicists saying Psychiatry falls short of it’s wondrous claims?

  6. Who gets to decide what is moral? The Calvinists? The Catholics? The atheists? The philosophers? The scientists? The government? A multi-government panel of experts on morality? This smacks of the recent post on reality – so who decides? Perhaps it should be majority rule? So morality changes with the times? Sigh.