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.
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)