Moral enhancement won't work, claim bioethicists

Michael Cook
May 19, 2017
Reproduced with Permission

A recent study in the journal Bioethics finds that "moral enhancement technologies" are neither feasible nor wise, based on an assessment of existing research into these technologies.

The idea behind moral enhancement is to use biomedical techniques to make people more moral. Drugs, surgical techniques or neurological interventions are often mentioned as examples.

"There are existing ways that people have explored to manipulate morality, but the question we address in this paper is whether manipulating morality actually improves it," says Veljko Dubljevic, of North Caroline State University.

Dubljevic and co-author Eric Racine, of Montreal Clinical Research Institute, reviewed research on moral enhancement technologies to assess their effects and how they may apply in real-world circumstances. They examined four types of pharmaceutical interventions and three neurostimulation techniques:

"In short, moral enhancement is not feasible -- and even if it were, history shows us that using science to in an attempt to manipulate morality is not wise," Dubljevic says.

The researchers found different problems for each of the pharmaceutical approaches.

"Oxytocin does promote trust, but only in the in-group," Dubljevic notes. "And it can decrease cooperation with out-group members of society, such as racial minorities, and selectively promote ethnocentrism, favouritism, and parochialism."

The researchers also found that amphetamines boost motivation for all types of behaviour, not just moral behaviour. Moreover, there are significant risks of addiction associated with amphetamines. Beta blockers were found not only to decrease racism, but to blunt all emotional response which puts their usefulness into doubt. SSRIs reduce aggression, but have serious side-effects, including an increased risk of suicide.

In addition to physical side effects, the researchers also found a common problem with using either TMS or TCDS technologies.

"Even if we could find a way to make these technologies work consistently, there are significant questions about whether being more utilitarian in one's decision-making actually makes one more moral," Dubljevic says.

Lastly, the researchers found no evidence that deep brain stimulation had any effect whatsoever on moral behavior.

"Our goal here is to share a cautionary note with those who are discussing different techniques for moral enhancement," Dubljevic says. "I am in favour of research that is done responsibly, but against dangerous social experiments."