Moral enhancement

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Moral enhancement [1] (abbreviated ME[2]), also called moral bioenhancement (abbreviated MBE[3]), is the use of biomedical technology to morally improve people. MBE is a recent topic in neuroethics, involving the ethics of neuroscience as well as the neuroscience of ethics. After Thomas Douglas introduced the concept in 2008, its merits have been widely debated in academic bioethics literature.[4][5] Since then,[6] Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu have been the most vocal MBE supporters.[2][7][8][9][10] Much of the debate over MBE has focused on their 2012 book supporting it, Unfit for the Future? The Need for Moral Enhancement.[7]

Defining moral enhancement

"Moral enhancement" is a broader term which includes any means of moral improvement while MBE only involves biomedical interventions.[11] For example, Persson and Savulescu have cited moral education as an example of socially accepted non-biomedical moral enhancement.[8]

Some also distinguish invasive from non-invasive, intended from resultant, treatment-focused from enhancement-focused, capability-improving from behavior-improving, and passive from active ME interventions.[11] Vojin Rakić has distinguished voluntary from compulsory MBE, claiming that the former is justifiable even if the latter is not.[12][13]

Arguments in favor

Douglas originally suggested MBE as a counter-example to what he called the "bioconservative thesis," which claims that human enhancement is immoral even if it is feasible. He argued that enhancements to reduce "counter-moral" racist and aggressive emotional reactions would at least be morally permissible.[1]

Mark Alan Walker proposed a "Genetic Virtue Project" to genetically enhance moral traits. Given that personality traits are heritable, and some traits are moral while others are immoral, he suggested increasing moral traits while reducing immoral ones through genetic engineering.[14]

Based on the fact that human technological progress has advanced faster than human moral psychology can adapt through evolution, Persson & Savulescu point out that humans' capability to cause large-scale destruction has increased exponentially. However, given that humans tend to care only about their immediate acquaintances and circumstances instead of thinking on a larger scale, they are vulnerable to tragedies of the commons like climate change and to technologies like nuclear weapons which pose an existential threat to humanity. Given that moral education and liberal democracy are insufficient, MBE is needed at least as a supplementary method to solve these problems.[7][8]


Central issues debated in the MBE literature include whether there is an urgent need for MBE, a sufficient consensus on the definition of morality, some technically feasible and ethically permissible interventions to carry out MBE, no violation of consent in those interventions, and no harmful social side-effects that they produce.[4]

Sufficiency of non-biomedical methods

Terri Murray disputed the claim by Persson & Savulescu that political will and moral education are insufficient to address the major problems facing humanity, claiming that Persson & Savulescu unjustly reify moral dispositions in biology.[15]

Ethical basis of moral enhancement

Since the nature of morality has historically caused wide disagreements, several authors have questioned whether it is possible to come up with a sufficiently widely accepted ethical basis for MBE, especially with respect to what qualities should be enhanced.[5][16]


MBE proponents have been accused of being too speculative, overstating the capabilities of future interventions and describing unrealistic scenarios like enhancing "all of humanity."[4] One literature review assessed the evidence on seven interventions cited by MBE proponents, finding all of them ineffective.[17]

Role of individual choice

Other authors have suggested that unless MBE is based on an individual's choice, it cannot truly be called "moral" enhancement because personal choice is the basis of ethics.[12][15][18]

Social equality

If MBE is more effective for enhancing people that are already moral, then it could increase the gap between moral and immoral people, increasing social inequality.[19] Also, if MBE makes some people morally better, it could unfairly raise the moral standards for everyone else.[20]

External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 Douglas, T. (2008). Moral enhancement. Journal of applied philosophy, 25(3): 228–245. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5930.2008.00412.x
  2. 2.0 2.1 Persson, I., & Savulescu, J. (2016). Enharrisment: A reply to John Harris about moral enhancement. Neuroethics, 9(3), 275-277. doi:10.1007/s12152-016-9274-7
  3. Rakić, V., & Wiseman, H. (2018). Different games of moral bioenhancement. Bioethics, 32(2), 103-110. doi:10.1111/bioe.12415
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Specker, J., Focquaert, F., Raus, K., Sterckx, S., & Schermer, M. (2014). The ethical desirability of moral bioenhancement: a review of reasons. BMC medical ethics, 15(67). doi:10.1186/1472-6939-15-67
  5. 5.0 5.1 Paulo, N. & Bublitz, J.C. (2017). How (not) to argue for moral enhancement: reflections on a decade of debate. Topoi, 1-15. doi:10.1007/s11245-017-9492-6
  6. Persson, I., & Savulescu, J. (2008). The perils of cognitive enhancement and the urgent imperative to enhance the moral character of humanity. Journal of applied philosophy, 25(3), 162-177. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5930.2008.00410.x
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Persson, I., & Savulescu, J. (2012a). Unfit for the future: The need for moral enhancement. New York: Oxford University Press.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Savulescu, J., & Persson, I. (2012b). Moral enhancement. Philosophy now, 91, 6-8.
  9. Savulescu, J., & Persson, I. (2012c). Moral enhancement, freedom and the God machine. The monist, 95(3), 399. doi:10.5840/monist201295321
  10. Persson, I., & Savulescu, J. (2014). Reply to commentators on Unfit for the Future. Journal of medical ethics, 41(4), 348-352. doi:10.1136/medethics-2013-101796
  11. 11.0 11.1 Raus, K., Focquaert, F., Schermer, M., Specker, J., & Sterckx, S. (2014). On defining moral enhancement: a clarificatory taxonomy. Neuroethics, 7(3), 263-273. doi:10.1007/s12152-014-9205-4
  12. 12.0 12.1 Rakić, V. (2014a). Voluntary moral enhancement and the survival-at-any-cost bias. Journal of medical ethics, 40(4), 246-250. doi:10.1136/medethics-2012-100700
  13. Rakić, V. (2014b). Voluntary moral bioenhancement is a solution to Sparrow's concerns. The American journal of bioethics, 14(4), 37-38. doi:10.1080/15265161.2014.889249
  14. Walker, M. (2009, September). Enhancing genetic virtue: A project for twenty-first century humanity?. Politics and the life sciences, 28(2), 27-47. doi:10.2990/28_2_27
  15. 15.0 15.1 Murray, T. (2012). The incoherence of moral bioenhancement. Philosophy now, 93, 19-21.
  16. Beck, B. (2015). Conceptual and practical problems of moral enhancement. Bioethics, 29(4), 233-240. doi:10.1111/bioe.12090
  17. Dubljević, V., & Racine, E. (2017, May 15). Moral enhancement meets normative and empirical reality: Assessing the practical feasibility of moral enhancement neurotechnologies. Bioethics, 31(5), 338-348. doi:10.1111/bioe.12355
  18. Melo‐Martin, I., & Salles, A. (2015). Moral bioenhancement: much ado about nothing?. Bioethics, 29(4), 223-232. doi:10.1111/bioe.12100
  19. Ram-Tiktin, E. (2014). The possible effects of moral bioenhancement on political privileges and fair equality of opportunity. The American journal of bioethics, 14(4), 43-44. doi:10.1080/15265161.2014.889246
  20. Archer, A. (2016). Moral enhancement and those left behind. Bioethics, 30(7), 500-510. doi:10.1111/bioe.12251