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Moral Enhancement, Neuroessentialism, and Moral Content



The emergence of novel technologies to intervene in the brain to alter or control human behavior has opened the potential to new perspectives to address sociopolitical and human problems. Some commentators argue that, in the light of past and recent acts of violence, the traditional means of family or parental supervision, education, socialization, and the role of social institutions for moral development have failed. They contend that there is a need to improve human character by biotechnological means and that, therefore, we ought—indeed, may even have a moral obligation—to consider moral bioenhancement as a complement or an alternative to traditional means of moral development.1-3 Although currently there is no evidence that supports the “science of moral bioenhancement” and therefore one might argue that the issue is a moot point, it is nevertheless important to address this hypothetical question to distinguish among hype, hope, and reality.4 In addition, an outright rejection of techniques to enhance or alter human behavior is misguided because some psychiatric disorders (e.g., psychopathy) have moral pathologies that resist current treatment options.

Elsewhere, I outlined the reasons for my skepticism concerning the possibility of enhancing people morally through biotechnological means.5-6 My critique focused on a misconceptualization of moral judgments, one that does not take into account an important distinction in moral psychology between moral capacity (the ability or the disposition to respond morally) and moral content (the role of particular beliefs, moral actions, and ideas). I pointed out that psychopharmacology and neurotechnologies alter the capacities to act morally (the same way that alcohol affects—negatively in this case—one’s ability to make good judgments) but are unable to provide any moral content, which provides the basis for the justification of moral beliefs.7

Although not explicitly stated but philosophically implied, the conceptualization of morality by some proponents (notably Savulescu, Douglas, Persson, Reiner, etc.; for a more nuanced view, see Specker, Foquaert, Rause, Sterckx, and Schermer8) of moral bioenhancement require particular epistemological commitments and neuroessentialist assumptions (i.e., “we are the brain”). In what follows, I examine these assumptions, show why such premises are problematic for the development of a sophisticated framework of morality at the intersection of neuroscience and moral philosophy, and explain why these premises cannot support the possibility of moral enhancement (moral in the strong sense of the word, which encompasses moral capacity or the disposition to respond morally, and moral content or particular beliefs and ideas about notions of the good, the right, and the just). First, I provide conceptual clarity on key concepts in the moral enhancement debate, including the distinction between psychopharmacology and neurotechnologies as means to cognitive enhancement, the meaning of moral enhancement, and the crucial distinction between moral capacity and moral content. Second, I critique neuroessential- ism, pointing out that there is a danger in reducing human behavior to neurobiology and the potential to misconceptualize human moral psychology. Third, I expand my critique of neuroessentialism, particularly with regard to the concept of moral agency, and offer a viable alternative based on social practices.

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