Moral enhancement won’t work, claim bioethicists


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:

  • Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that plays a critical role in social cognition, bonding and affiliative behaviors, sometimes called "the moral molecule";
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often prescribed for depression, but have also been found to make people less aggressive;
  • Amphetamines, which some have argued can be used to enhance motivation to take action;
  • Beta blockers are often prescribed to treat high blood pressure, but have also been found to decrease implicit racist responses;
  • Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a type of neurostimulation that has been used to treat depression, but has also been reported as changing the way people respond to moral dilemmas;
  • Transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) is an experimental form of neurostimulation that has also been reported as making people more utilitarian;
  • Deep brain stimulation is a neurosurgical intervention that some have hypothesized as having the potential to enhance motivation.

"What we found is that, yes, many of these techniques do have some effects," Dubljevic says. "But these techniques are all blunt instruments, rather than finely tuned technologies that could be helpful. So, moral enhancement is really a bad idea.

"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."




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