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The Sins of Moral Enhancement Discourse

  • Harris Wiseman (a1)

The chapter will argue that the way current enthusiasm for moral enhancement is articulated in the extant literature is itself morally problematic. The moral evaluation (and ultimately disapproval) of the discourse will proceed through three stages. First, we shall look at the chequered history of various societies’ attempts to cast evil, character, and generally undesirable behaviour, as biological problems. As will be argued, this is the larger context in which moral enhancement discourse should be understood, and abuses in the recent past and present should therefore be highlighted. Second, it will be argued that, given moral functioning's profoundly contextual and responsive qualities, any notion of a fine-grained, powerfully efficacious moral enhancement is both unrealistic and, actually, incoherent. Since enthusiasts’ hopes are unrealistic and incoherent, such enhancement would not even be capable of providing the transformative ends that supposedly justify the sometimes extreme prescriptions set forward. Finally, the chapter concludes with the claim that moral enhancement enthusiasm actually serves to trivialise the evils of this world, and not only to trivialise the hard-won efforts required to diminish and overcome such evils, but to misdirect attention away from the real hard work that needs to be done in facing such evils.

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1 Fried, Izhak, quoted in Spinney, Laura, ‘Is Evil a Disease? ISIS and the Nueroscience of Morality’, New Scientist 3047, 14th November 2015:

2 Spinney, ‘Is Evil a Disease?'.

3 Eysenck, Hans, Crime and Personality (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964), quoted in Taylor, A. J. W., ‘Eysenck – “Aloof, Dismissive”, The Psychologist 29:7 (2016), 490499.

4 Alexander, D. R. and Numbers, R. L. (eds), Biology and Ideology: From Descartes to Dawkins (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), 1, 10.

5 What is in a name? The same mutation called “the psychopath gene” has also been called “the warrior gene”, and though neither are really appropriate descriptors, notice how the latter term is less pejorative than the former. Had the mutation only been labelled “the warrior gene” I wonder if it would have stirred the imaginations of moral enhancement enthusiasts quite so readily. Poor labels, in short, have led commentators far astray.

6 Sparrow, R., ‘A Not-So-New Eugenics: Harris and Savulescu on Human Enhancement’, Hastings Center Report 41:1 (2011), 3242, 40. And, one might add that it is primarily Anglo-American scientistic philosophers coming from John Harris’ own tradition that have been most vocal in extolling the virtues of the worst forms of moral eugenics, and the pseudo-science it was based upon – of whom the Nazis were but their most prolific students. A look at the history of eugenics in the UK and USA based on such philosophy and “science” very much disabuses us of the notion that the Nazis were the only culprits of inhuman abuses of science.

7 G. Rutecki, Forced Sterilization of Native Americans: Late Twentieth Century Physician Cooperation with National Eugenic Policies, 2010:

8 J. Savulescu, Unfit for Life: Genetically Enhance Humanity or Face Extinction, 2009:

9 Valentine, E., Philosophy & History of Psychology: Selected Works of Elizabeth Valentine (New York: Psychology Press, 2014), 61.

10 Savulescu, Unfit for Life; Rakić, V., ‘Voluntary Moral Enhancement and the Survival-at-Any-Cost Bias’, Journal of Medical Ethics 40:4 (2014), 246250.

11 BBC News, ‘Harrogate Obesity and Smoking “Surgery Ban” Move’, 7th October 2016:

12 Rakić, ‘Voluntary Moral Enhancement and the Survival-at-Any-Cost Bias', 246–250.

13 K. Blessing, ‘N.H. Prison System to Start Using Vivitrol — ‘Wonder Drug’ for Addicts Already Given in Mass.’, Eagle Tribune, 8th May 2016:

14 C. K. Johnson, ‘Prisons Fight Opioids With $1000 Injection: Does it Work?’, Associated Press, 14th November 2016:

15 Johnson, ‘Prisons Fight Opioids With $1000 Injection’.

16 A deconstruction of the notion that individual choice and social control are so sharply distinct. Even voluntary moral enhancement would have its social context and imply social obligations to “voluntarily” take up such enhancement. See Wiseman, H., ‘SSRIs and Moral Enhancement: Looking Deeper’, American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience 5:4 (2014), 17.

17 Bostrom, N., ‘Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?’, Philosophical Quarterly 53:211 (2003), 243–55.

18 C. Goldberg, Beyond Good and Evil: New Science Casts Light on Morality in the Brain, 2014:

19 Crockett, M., Clark, L., Hauser, M., and Robbins, T., ‘Serotonin Selectively Influences Moral Judgement and Behavior Through Effects on Harm Aversion’, Psychology and Cognitive Sciences 107:40 (2010), 1743317438.

20 Gadjev, I., ‘Nature and Nurture: Lamarck's Legacy’, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 112:1 (2015), 242–47.

21 See Wiseman, H., ‘SSRIs as Moral Enhancement Interventions: A Practical Dead End’, American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience 5:3 (2014), 110. But why this privileging of the biological mode at all? Humans are biological beings, of course, but we are also social beings, and we are also psychological beings, and responsible beings, and we have innumerable dimensions besides. So what would even make one think that biology should hold the keys to moral improvement anyway?

22 And “embodied” is meant to indicate that moral activity is not something done solely “in the brain”, but rather relies on the faculties of a whole person embedded in a situation, comprehending that situation as “ready-to-hand”, as phenomenologically situated within that situation, as opposed to thinking of moral activity as nothing but a set of neural processes applied abstractly. For an account of how comprehension and reflection involve embodied, that is, not purely neurological activity, see Murphy, N. and Brown, W. S., Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 240.

23 Wiseman, H., The Myth of the Moral Brain: The Limits of Moral Enhancement (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2016).

24 In J. Hughes, Virtue Engineering, 2016:

25 De Dreu, C., Greer, L., Handgraaf, M., Shalvi, S., Van Kleef, G., Baas, M., Velden, F. Ten, Van Dijk, E., and Feith, S., ‘The Neuropeptide Oxytocin Regulates Parochial Altruism in Intergroup Conflict Among Humans’, Science 328:5984 (2010), 14081411.

26 Wiseman, ‘SSRIs as Moral Enhancement Interventions', 9.

28 K. Hookem-Smith, ‘Experts Recommend a “Love Pill” to Save Marriages’, Yahoo News, 3rd May 2012:

29 Schaefer, G. O. and Savulescu, J., ‘Procedural Moral Enhancement’, Neuroethics (2016), 112.

30 Zak, P., The Moral Molecule: The New Science of What Makes Us Good or Evil (London: Bantam Press, 2012).

31 J. Hughes, The Benefits and Risks of Virtue Engineering, 2012:

32 It is possible to have selective society-wide moral enhancement. This would be directed at members of given categories, say, those perpetrating crimes on the basis of their addictions to drugs or alcohol. It is current practice in the UK to place drug addicts in rehab as part of their sentence. See Wiseman, H., ‘Moral Enhancement: “Hard” and “Soft” Forms’, American Journal of Bioethics 14:4 (2014), 4849.

33 A cynical eye might also observe that Western affluence is continually premised on exploitation of the developing world, and that our citizens benefit from not looking too deeply at any potential moral obligations implied to resolve such exploitation.

34 It is interesting to note that the caste system is illegal in India, yet it prevails, particularly in rural areas. Changing laws is one helpful step, but changing attitudes towards systems that have been in operation for so many generations is a big challenge. It is hard to imagine how some technology or drug would contribute in any way towards changing such attitudes towards social stratification, and the terrible discrimination against such ‘untouchables’. See Ravi Agrawal, ‘India's Caste System: Outlawed Yet Omnipresent', CNN, 24th February 2016:

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Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements
  • ISSN: 1358-2461
  • EISSN: 1755-3555
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