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Moral-Epistemic Enhancement

  • Norbert Paulo (a1)

The idea of using biomedical means to make people more likely to behave morally may have a certain appeal. However, it is very hard to find two persons – let alone two moral philosophers – who agree on what it means to be moral or to act morally. After discussing some of the proposals for moral enhancements that all ethicists could agree on, I engage more closely with the recent idea of “procedural moral enhancement” that aims at improving deliberative processes instead of particular moral views, motivations, or dispositions. I argue that it is better understood as a contribution to moral epistemology and should thus be labeled “moral-epistemic enhancement”. I then defend perspective-taking as a moral epistemic capacity which can be enhanced by both traditional and non-traditional biomedical means; a capacity which almost always contributes to the epistemic value of moral decision-making. Perspective-taking seems to be an uncontroversial non-trivial capacity for moral decision-making reasonably widely shared by proponents of ethical beliefs within the academic community. The enhancement of this capacity is thus a good candidate for an uncontroversial non-trivial moral enhancement.

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1 For puzzles concerning the precise definition of moral enhancement, see Raus, Kasper, et al. , ‘On Defining Moral Enhancement: A Clarificatory Taxonomy’, Neuroethics 7:3 (2014), 263273; Earp, Brian D., Douglas, Thomas, and Savulescu, Julian, ‘Moral Neuroenhancement’, in Syd, L., Johnson, M., and Rommelfanger, Karen S. (eds), Routledge Handbook of Neuroethics (New York: Routledge, 2017) 166184.

2 Cf. Prinz, Jesse, ‘Against Empathy’, The Southern Journal of Philosophy 49:1 (2011), 214–33; Bloom, Paul, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (New York: Ecco, 2016).

3 See Feltham, Brian and Cottingham, John (eds), Partiality and Impartiality: Morality, Special Relationships, and the Wider World (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

4 For instance, Dubljević, Veljko and Racine, Eric, ‘Moral Enhancement Meets Normative and Empirical Reality: Assessing the Practical Feasibility of Moral Enhancement Neurotechnologies’, Bioethics 31:5 (2017), 338–48; Wiseman, Harris, The Myth of the Moral Brain: The Limits of Moral Enhancement (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016), chap. 4 and 5.

5 I hasten to add that the demand to find a disposition about which literally all ethicists agree that it enhances morality is arguably too high; there are always outliers defending views almost no peers find persuasive. I use “all ethicists” here and in what follows as a short way to express a more qualified demand – something like “all proponents of ethical beliefs reasonably widely shared within the current academic community”. I indicate this use with an asterisk.

6 In Austria, teaching empathy is one explicit aim of ethics classes in school, although as we have seen, it is said to not always be conducive to moral behaviour. So proponents of moral bioenhancement might want to argue we should not be asking more of moral bioenhancement than of traditional forms of moral education. After all, when we accept empathy as a proper aim of moral education in schools, we should also be willing to call biomedical enhancements of empathy moral enhancement. However, the fact that higher levels of empathy are regarded as being sufficiently morally valuable to be included in the school curriculum does not answer the philosophical question of whether enhanced empathy would be moral enhancement. After all, school policy can err; the mere fact that in some school districts creationism is taught should not in itself count as evidence for the belief that creationism is scientifically credible. Similarly, biomedical enhancements of empathy might count as moral enhancements for Austrian ethics teachers, but certainly not for all ethicists*.

7 This line of argument can be found in Persson, Ingmar and Savulescu, Julian, ‘The Art of Misunderstanding Moral Bioenhancement: Two Cases’, Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 24:1 (2015), 4857. For the somewhat similar idea of an ‘overlapping consensus’ see DeGrazia, David, ‘Moral Enhancement, Freedom, and What We (Should) Value in Moral Behaviour’, Journal of Medical Ethics 40:6 (2014): 361368; and the critique in Norbert Paulo and Jan Christoph Bublitz, ‘How (Not) to Argue For Moral Enhancement: Reflections on a Decade of Debate’, Topoi (2017), doi:10.1007/s11245-017-9492-6.

8 Donagan, Alan, Theory of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977).

9 Beauchamp, Tom L. and Childress, James F., Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 7th edn (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 3. The tradition of common morality or common sense morality of course also includes philosophers of earlier periods, such as Thomas Reid, Richard Price, or W. D. Ross.

10 For a fuller discussion, see de Lazari-Radek, Katarzyna and Singer, Peter, The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 82 ff.; Paulo, Norbert, The Confluence of Philosophy and Law in Applied Ethics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 116 ff.

11 Turner, Leigh, ‘Zones of Consensus and Zones of Conflict: Questioning the “Common Morality” Presumption in Bioethics’, Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 13:3 (2003), 193218; Herissone-Kelly, Peter, ‘Determining the Common Morality's Norms in the Sixth Edition of Principles of Biomedical Ethics’, Journal of Medical Ethics 37:10 (2011), 584–87.

12 Childress, James F., ‘Methods in Bioethics’, in Steinbock, Bonnie (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Bioethics (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 22.

13 Aleinikoff, T. Alexander, ‘Constitutional Law in the Age of Balancing’, The Yale Law Journal 96:5 (1987), 9431005; Möller, Kai, ‘Balancing and the Structure of Constitutional Rights’, International Journal of Constitutional Law 5:3 (2007), 453–68; Tsakyrakis, Stavros, ‘Proportionality: An Assault on Human Rights?’, International Journal of Constitutional Law 7:3 (2009), 468–93.

14 Persson and Savulescu, ‘The Art of Misunderstanding Moral Bioenhancement’, 52. The authors’ reference to three of the four principles of biomedical ethics proposed by Beauchamp and Childress (autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, and justice) underlines the similarity, mentioned earlier, to theories of common morality coupled with prima facie norms.

15 Dancy, Jonathan, Ethics Without Principles (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 7; see also Kagan, Shelly, ‘The Additive Fallacy’, Ethics 99:1 (1988), 531.

16 On generalism vs particularism in ethics, see McKeever, Sean and Ridge, Michael, Principled Ethics: Generalism as a Regulative Ideal (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); and Gertken, Jan, Prinzipien in der Ethik (Paderborn: Mentis, 2014).

17 Rawls, John, ‘Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics’, Philosophical Review 60:2 (1951), 177197; Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2005).

18 Owen Schaefer and Julian Savulescu, ‘Procedural Moral Enhancement’, Neuroethics (2016), doi:10.1007/s12152-016-9258-7.

19 In Schaefer, Owen and Savulescu, Julian, ‘Better Minds, Better Morals: A Procedural Guide to Better Judgment’, Journal of Posthuman Studies 1:1, 2643, the authors further develop these ideas; some of which are already to be found in Jefferson, Will, al., et, ‘Enhancement and Civic Virtue’, Social Theory and Practice 40:3 (2014), 499527.

20 Schaefer and Savulescu, ‘Better Minds, Better Morals: A Procedural Guide to Better Judgment’. In what follows, I am drawing on this paper.

21 On how to do this, see Campbell, Richmond and Kumar, Victor, ‘Moral Reasoning on the Ground’, Ethics 122:2 (2012), 273312.

22 Rawls, ‘Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics’, 187.

23 Rawls, ‘Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics’, 187.

24 Rawls, ‘Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics’, 181 f.

25 Kelly, Thomas and McGrath, Sarah, ‘Is Reflective Equilibrium Enough?’, Philosophical Perspectives 24:1 (2010), 325359.

26 Rawls, ‘Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics’, 178 f.

27 Kahane, Guy, ‘The Armchair and the Trolley: An Argument for Experimental Ethics’, Philosophical Studies 162:2 (2013), 421445, 430.

28 Rawls, ‘Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics’, 183.

29 Note that this does not imply persons thus enhanced always reach moral decisions that are better than decisions by the not enhanced. After all, a group of not enhanced persons might employ Rawls' decision procedure, merely imagining the moral deliberation among competent judges, and thus reaching a better moral decision. They might also simply follow their gut feelings, which by chance point them to the better moral decision.

30 Danziger, Shai, Levav, Jonathan, and Avnaim-Pesso, Liora, ‘Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108:17 (2011), 6889–92.

31 Crockett, Molly J., et al. , ‘Serotonin Modulates Behavioral Reactions to Unfairness’, Science 320:5884 (2008), 1739.

32 I am not claiming that these effects referred to in the examples can be reduced to biochemical influences, only that biochemistry plays a (more or less significant) role in them.

33 But see Levy, Neil, Neuroethics: Challenges for the 21 st Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 147 ff.

34 Some of these ideas have been mentioned in Paulo and Bublitz, ‘How (Not) to Argue For Moral Enhancement’. Note that I do not want to commit myself to a substantial view about how precisely to understand perspective-taking, and how to distinguish it from empathising. For instance, one question would be whether perspective-taking is imagining how another person feels or rather imagining how you would feel in her situation: see Batson, C. Daniel, Early, Shannon, and Salvarani, Giovanni, ‘Perspective Taking: Imagining How Another Feels Versus Imaging How You Would Feel’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 23:7 (1997), 751–58; Coplan, Amy, ‘Will the Real Empathy Please Stand Up? A Case for a Narrow Conceptualization’, Southern Journal of Philosophy 49:1 (2011), 4065. I think that, for the purposes of the present essay, both count as epistemically valuable forms of perspective-taking. I am leaving aside the question whether ego-dissolving effects that generate feelings of somehow being one with and intimately connected with the natural world, which certain psychedelic substances are said to possess, should count as valuable forms of perspective-taking; I am limiting my discussion here to the perspectives of other humans.

35 See Terbeck, Sylvia, The Social Neuroscience of Intergroup Relations: Prejudice, Can We Cure It? (Heidelberg and New York: Springer, 2016).

36 On the use of novels in ethics, see Johnson, Peter, Moral Philosophers and the Novel: A Study of Winch, Nussbaum and Rorty (Cham: Springer, 2004). See also Pardales, Michael J., ‘“So, How Did You Arrive at That Decision?” Connecting Moral Imagination and Moral Judgement’, Journal of Moral Education 31:4 (2002), 423437.

37 In other work Christoph Bublitz and I have discussed some of the social and political problems society-wide moral enhancements would cause: see our ‘Pow(d)er to the People? Voter Manipulation, Legitimacy, and the Relevance of Moral Psychology for Democratic Theory’, Neuroethics (2016), doi:10.1007/s12152-016-9266-7; and Paulo, Norbert, ‘Liberal Perspectives on Moral Enhancement’, Ethics & Politics XVIII:3 (2016), 397421.

38 See, for example, Fesmire, Steven, John Dewey and Moral Imagination: Pragmatism in Ethics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003); Pardales, ‘So, How Did You Arrive at That Decision?’.

39 For rich descriptions of such persons (and of many others), see Hochschild, Arlie Russell, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York; London: New Press, 2016).

40 Bennett, Jonathan, ‘The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn’, Philosophy 49:188 (1974), 123–34.

41 Schaefer and Savulescu, ‘Procedural Moral Enhancement’.

42 But note that moral-epistemic enhancement is likely to lead to morally better decisions in most, if not almost all cases, inter alia because the potentially harmful capacities are likely to be countered by other moral-epistemic capacities, see Schaefer and Savulescu, ‘Procedural Moral Enhancement’.

43 This is, for instance, the idea behind Hochschild's illuminating book, Strangers in Their Own Land.

44 This is precisely what many great books about the Third Reich do: see, for example, Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York: Penguin Classics, 2006); Frankl, Viktor E., Man's Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006); Pauer-Studer, Herlinde and Velleman, J. David, Konrad Morgen: The Conscience of a Nazi Judge (Basingstoke; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

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