Neuroenhancement Philosophical Issues - Moral Enhancement

Many of the controversial issues approached in enhancement debates are (or are closely related to) philosophical questions. Some are moral problems, regarding what we should and shouldn't do, and some are metaphysical ones, concerning our most fundamental nature and that of the world around us – disentangling them isn't always easy. Some have been discussed since the days of Ancient Greece till today and some are completely new, arising with enhancement technologies. In this and the following texts, I shall focus on some of those problems, briefly exploring its nuances and showing the way they relate to the human/neuro-enhancement debates.

Would you take a pill to be a more altruistic person? Would you undergo a brain intervention to behave in a more moral manner? Although NERRI’s focus on neuro-enhancement has lead us to tackle mostly the cognitive enhancement problems, one shouldn’t forget all the issues raised by the ever-more likely possibilities of moral enhancement.


Moral enhancement, like other forms of enhancement, can be said to be a constant in mankind’s history. Moral education, punishment, positive reinforcement, therapy, and so on, are all means we know of. However, exactly like other forms of enhancement, the fast pace of technological development is bringing about ways to intervene directly in our biology and particularly in our brains (through drugs, electronic devices, surgery, etc.) to change our moral behavior. We now know that we can lower impulsivity and aggression with SSSRIs and antipsychotics, target substance use disorders with neurofeedback or use Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to decrease addiction.

It is almost impossible to argue against the growing body of evidence that moral reasoning depends on brain states but consider this: are we evil because we’re unwise? Would we be better persons if we were more intelligent? Although we’d like to think that more knowledge or more cognitive ability equals more good deeds (and many in philosophy, since Plato, have argued so), there are many counter-examples of extremely bright people with few (or none) moral concerns. Even in our everyday life, we’ve all experienced situations were our non-moral behavior was not caused by any deficit in our knowledge or cognitive abilities but for other reasons. Most of the times, we know what is the right thing to do, evend if we end up not doing it. If the goal of moral enhancement is to make us better persons, then it seems we need to focus on and tamper with motivational and affective capacities (and not just cognitive ones). But should we? If we are already uncomfortable with changing mere cognitive abilities, because we feel our sense of identity may be at risk, wouldn’t we be even more apprehensive about changing our emotional and motivational characteristics?

An interesting feature of moral enhancement, by comparison with mere cognitive enhancement or sensory enhancement, for instance, is that the benefits of the enhancement will probably not fall upon the individual going through the intervention but upon those that surround him and society in general. Do we have an obligation to make us better persons just to benefit others? These questions become even more pressing in the case of criminals: no one argues against rehabilitating an offender using therapy but should we use oxytocin to bring about a more prosocial behavior? Even if that change in behavior will only benefit the rest of society and may cause him more harm than good? Are we OK with a society who promotes moral behavior and personality changes through pharmacological means?

Perhaps we can try to defend such course of action by classifying those persons (and everyone behaving non-morally) as ill. If you behave in non-moral ways, perhaps that means you’re “morally impaired”, or so the argument would go. Are you in need of therapy because you lack empathy and exhibit no signs of compassion by others? Or is that just a feature of your personality? Supporting the therapy/distinction is even harder in the case of moral enhancement, one is tempted to argue.

And, of course, the age-old question about the source of moral behavior and the risks of conventionality: being moral in 2015 Europe is not the same as being moral in 1400 Europe. Even in 2015, different cultures label the same behavior differently. Are we ready to use these powerful technologies to change our personality and behavior in ways to better fit a moral standard whose foundations and legitimacy we can’t be entirely sure of? Is that a risk we’re willing to take? 


Rui Vieira da Cunha

Image credits: Anabela Nunes