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Moral Bio-enhancement: Can We Make People ‘Better’ Morally Using Biochemical Agents?

Monday, 7 October 2013  | Denise Cooper-Clarke

The idea that advances in the neurosciences in the area of understanding moral dispositions and decision-making might lead to the possibility of changing people’s moral makeup and behaviour, and doing so ethically, was the premise for a recent lecture by Professor Julian Savulescu in the Law School at Melbourne University. Savulescu was introduced as a “recognised world leader in practical ethics”. He is a medical graduate who completed a PhD at Monash University under the supervision of Professor Peter Singer, and now divides his time between Melbourne and Oxford, where he holds the Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics. He is Head of the Melbourne–Oxford Stem Cell Collaboration, which focuses on the ethical implications of embryonic stem cell research, and edits the prestigious and influential (though often controversial) Journal of Medical Ethics.

Savulescu has written extensively about human enhancement in general but has gained media attention with startling claims: for example, he suggests that parents should be free to use any methods of ‘enhancing’ their offspring, including pre-implantation genetic screening, as these methods are morally equivalent or at least continuous with other methods of enhancement such as education (in the case of intellectual capacities), training and practice/exercise (in the case of musical or sporting ability). He was also reported as saying that the fuss about Essendon players taking banned substances was unnecessary, since all methods of performance enhancement are morally justifiable, as long as they do not cause more harm than good. Savulescu is enthusiastic about the use of technology to achieve a ‘transhuman’ future.

Savulescu has also written about moral enhancement in general. In Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement, he and co-author Ingmarr Person argue that the evolution of human moral development has not kept up with the evolution of our cognitive capacities and the development of technologies which now threaten the human race. Specifically, they have in mind nuclear disasters, climate change, and weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists. They argue that traditional cultural methods of moral development/enhancement by means of transmission of moral knowledge and training from one generation to another are too slow and ineffective to cope with the current crisis. “Moral knowledge has turned out to be harder to come by than scientific knowledge”. They acknowledge that Socrates was right: we do not necessarily do the right thing even when we know what the right thing to do is. (The apostle Paul said the same thing (Romans 7:15-20)). Therefore, they argue, there is a moral imperative to explore biomedical and genetic means to moral enhancement which may be quicker and more effective. This is completely consistent with Savulescu’s assumed (but rarely explicitly stated) commitment to utilitarianism. The ‘good outcome’ is the only morally relevant consideration (in this case a safer world), and the nature of the means chosen to achieve it is irrelevant. The means which is most likely to succeed should be chosen.

The topic for this lecture was more narrowly defined: “How can knowledge from the biological and neurosciences be used ethically to enhance the law?”. Savulescu had in mind the moral enhancement of criminals and potential criminals, but also of judges and jury members. He began with an acknowledgement which I found startling for a utilitarian committed to rational moral decision-making: that most people’s moral decision-making is not a matter of reasoning but of intuitions and gut reactions. It almost seems that having given up on convincing people to act morally on the basis of utilitarian reasoning, he turns, as is consistent with utilitarianism, to other means—biochemical manipulation—to achieve the same result. Savulescu acknowledges that this is highly problematic for many philosophers. John Harris, for example, argues that “when a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man”. In the Christian tradition, too, moral freedom to choose right or wrong, is fundamental to our understanding of what it means to be human. Can moral blame or praise be attached to a decision which is determined by drugs or other technologies such that the person had no choice?

Savluescu cited a number of examples where moral decision-making may be impaired by biological factors. This should not surprise us as Christians if we recognise the essential unity of body and mind/soul. Apparently hunger influences the moral decision-making of judges; they are less likely to offer parole just before lunch! Castration, either surgical or chemical which lowers testosterone levels, is already used to lower re-offending rates in sexual offenders. We may make poorer moral choices when we are affected by alcohol or other drugs: specifically, they increase aggression and violence including sexual violence. Surprisingly, Savulescu did not speak at all about the possibility of moral enhancement of the population or decreasing criminal behaviour by limiting access to drugs and alcohol. But he cited a number of drugs which have been demonstrated to alter moral judgment. Serotonin is thought to increase people’s aversion to harming others and is thought of as the neural substrate of ethical decision-making, linked to emotions such as empathy, guilt and pity. Oxytocin increases trust, but also in-group favouritism and cooperation, together with inter-group conflict and violence. Ritalin reduces crime rates among people with ADHD.

The concept of moral enhancement, however, is fraught with difficult questions, theoretical and practical. First, who decides what is it is to be moral? To become more utilitarian? For example, Savulescu is an ardent supporter of euthanasia and abortion-on-demand and a critic of those who oppose them, particularly on religious grounds. Would he advocate that all such doctors receive treatment to correct their allegedly faulty moral judgment? Second, it seems a giant leap from correcting factors which impair moral decision-making (such as drugs including alcohol and some genetic abnormalities) to improving through chemical alterations the moral thinking and behaviour of unimpaired individuals. In the one case, it can be seen as removing an impediment to autonomous moral decision-making; in the other, autonomy is diminished. This is a price Savulescu is prepared to pay in pursuit of a safer world, acknowledging that autonomy is “just one value among others”. Finally, Savulescu often presents as libertarian, but his grand scheme requires the compulsory moral enhancement of every human on the planet, since a very small group of people can endanger us all. Such a scheme seems to me not only highly speculative and supremely impractical, but also deeply immoral.

Denise Cooper-Clarke is Researcher and Coordinator of Bioethics at Ethos.

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