Science: Moral enhancement technologies are neither feasible nor wise

Though science has given us much for which we should be grateful: antibiotics, air conditioning, electricity, etc., we should be most grateful for a study that was recently published in the journal Bioethics. The article, titled Moral Enhancement Meets Normative and Empirical Reality: Assessing the Practical Feasibility of Moral Enhancement Neurotechnologies, in which the authors claim they’re assessing “the practical feasibility of moral enhancement neurotechnologies,” which is a fancy way of saying that they’re investigating whether or not pharmaceutical and/or neurostimulatory techniques could be used to improve human moral behavior.

Though I am a scientist, and work in academia, I was unaware of the “fierce debate” that exists in science surrounding ethical aspects of moral enhancement. Perhaps it because I’m a molecular biologist… it must be cognitive neuroscientists that are causing all the trouble.

The entire article is currently available, but in all honesty, will be tough read for the average reader. It’s largely written in academese and unless you’re familiar with some of the underlying theories about which the authors write, you’ll likely glaze over.

I’m relatively interested in this from a bioethics standpoint and it was tough for me.

Once you get through the theories behind all this, we get to the meat of the paper, what it is that the researchers were interested in testing. They’re interested in determining whether or not certain drugs are capable of improving moral behavior. Specifically, four types of pharmaceuticals and three types of neurostimulatory techniques were used:

  • Pharmaceuticals
    • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), which are typically categorized as “anti-depressants” and include drugs such as Paxil, Zoloft, and Prozac
    • Beta-Blockers, a class of drugs that function by inhibiting activation β-adrenergic receptors, most commonly used to control heart arrhythmia, but also has been effective in reducing anxiety.
    • Testosterone, the primary male sex hormone
    • Levodopa, also known as L-DOPA, made famous in the Robin Williams movie Awakenings, and which serves as precursor to the synthesis of the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine.
    • Ecstasy, which functions by binding to, serotonin and blocking, the transporter involved in its reuptake.
    • Amphetamines, also known as “speed” on the street, or Ritalin, commercially
    • Oxytocin, sometimes called the “love molecule,” is a peptide hormone and neuropeptide that plays a role in social bonding and sexual reproduction in both sexes
  • Neurostimulatory Techniques
    • Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a type of neurostimulation used in the treatment of depression
    • Transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS), an experimental form of neurostimulation reported to render people “more utilitarian.”
    • Deep brain stimulation, a neurosurgical intervention that has been hypothesized as having potential to enhance motivation.

According the researchers, these pharmaceuticals/neurostimulatory techniques have been demonstrated to have “interesting effects on moral judgement,” as demonstrated by the trolley dilemma, as well as measures of “aggression, generosity, and cooperation.”

Fortunately, the researchers report a number of problems in utilization of these pharmaceuticals and neurostimulatory methods to enhance moral behavior.

For example, while Oxytocin, apparently does promote trust, it only occurs with members of the in-group, and apparently can decrease cooperation with out-group members. Amphetamines were found to boost motivation, but motivation for all types of behavior, not just moral behavior. While beta blockers were found to “decrease racism,” but at the cost of blunting all emotional responses Finally, while SSRIs are believed to reduce aggression, they can have serious side-effects, such as 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.

The researchers also report that the neurostimulatory techniques were not successful in enhancing moral behavior.

“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.

The authors conclude that (emphasis added by TRR):

that the predictions of rationalist, emotivist, and dual process models are at odds with evidence, while different intuitionist models of moral judgment are more likely to be aligned with it. Furthermore, the project of moral enhancement is not feasible in the near future as it rests on the use of neurointerventions, which have no moral enhancement effects or, worse, negative effects.

It seems we dodged a bullet on that one. Moral Enhancement technologies are not feasible now, or in the near future. Though one is forced to wonder what definition of “near future” is under these circumstances. Consider for a moment that a 30 or 40 years ago, manipulating the human genome to edit out potentially harmful genes was a pipe dream of science fiction, now we’re debating the ethics of actually using this technique in human cells.

A lot can change in generation.

What’s most disturbing to me about this article, is not idea that we can tinker with people’s behavior via pharmaceuticals or other methods, that’s established science. We know that people’s behavior can be dramatically effected by such things; this is not news. What’s most disturbing to me is the lack of any discussion of where moral behavior comes from. Ignoring for the sake of discussion the source of morality, and whether or not moral are objective and universal, the source of peoples behavior–moral or immoral–is their particular value system. The values that people hold will shape their behavior.

While people’s behavior can be influenced by their biochemistry. Values are malleable and subject to change. They’re not a product of biochemistry. This is perfectly evidence by attitudes towards race in America. According to a Gallup Poll, in 1958 4% of Americans approved of interracial marriage; as of 2013, 87% of Americans approve of interracial marriage.

A similar but more dramatic trend can be observed with respect to approval for same-sex marriage in the United States. A different Gallup Poll shows that in 1996 27% of Americans though same-sex marriages should be valid, and 68% of those polled believed it should not be valid. Fast forward 20 years, and the numbers are almost reversed: 61% approve, and 38% opposed.

Surely nothing about the biochemistry of Americans has changed over either of these time periods. What has changed over that period to time is our culture and the values that comprise that culture.

No, the suggestion that we can change behavior with drugs or by manipulating the brain in some way is not the scariest part of this article; again, this has been known for as long as people have been consuming mind altering substances, which is basically the entirety of human history. The scariest part of this article is that the scientific approach to “moral enhancement” doesn’t even let values enter the equation. According to science, values and moral behavior aren’t related in anyway.

I’d like to see the study repeated, and in addition to the drugs and neurostimulatory techniques, investigate the effect of someone beginning to take religion or God seriously. What effect does actually developing a value system have on someone’s moral behavior? Is religion capable of “moral enhancement.”

I won’t hold my breath waiting for that one.

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