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Moral Brain Conference Summary with Twitter Round-up
George Dvorsky   Apr 6, 2012   Sentient Developments  

The Moral Brain conference was one of the most fascinating and provocative events I have ever attended.

I recently returned from New York where I attended the NYU 2012 Bioethics Conference: The Moral Brain organized by the NYU Center for Bioethics in collaboration with the Duke Kenan Institute for Ethics and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. The conference took a multi-disciplinal approach to the issue of morality as it pertains to cognitive function and the question of whether or not our moral sense could ever be enhanced at the biological level. The event brought together an impressive number of key thinkers and academic leaders, including neuroscientists, bioethicists, and philosophers. In fact, this conference featured one of the strongest itinerary of speakers I have seen in quite some time (download program here (pdf)) .

The first half of the conference was dedicated to the neuroscientific aspect, while the back-half focused on bioethics and the question of modification and enhancement. I have to admit, I felt a bit out of my league during the first portion as most of the talks delved into hardcore neuroscience. As a bioethicist, I had to quickly adjust to keep up with all the talk of OFC’s (orbitofrontal cortex) and vmPFC’s (ventromedial prefrontal cortex) — but surprisingly, I started to get a hang of it after a while. And I have to admit, it was fascinating to take part in this conversation and see how moral sentiment is so indelibly tied into brain function.

Demonstration without explanation

One thing I noticed, however, is that neuroscientists tend to get a little too excited about fMRI’s (functional magnetic resonance imaging). A typical presentation would showcase the work of a neuroscientist in which they came up with a challenge in moral decision making, put a person in an fMRI, make them think about that challenge, and see what parts of the brain light-up. Then, when the results are in, they put up their fancy screen-grabs and use their laser pointers to show us where the action is happening in the brain.

Look, I completely understand the importance of showing a cognitive basis for specific brain function. I get it. At the same time, however, there seemed to be a deficit of understanding from a cognitive or computational perspective. Absent from the conversation were potential insights from cognitive scientists.

Indeed, the emphasis was on data collection and articulating function, and less so on explanation. This was not necessarily a bad thing, as the former has to exist to fuel the latter. And encouragingly, philosophy is getting in on the action, namely through the burgeoning field of experimental philosophy. Old-school armchair philosophizing has largely been trumped by doing actual science. Now days, philosophers don’t do their work until the data is in.

Is there a moral brain to be modified?

Interestingly, while arm-chair philosophy is on the way out, talk of Aristotelian virtue, Kantian deontology, and Millsian utilitarianism is still very much in vogue. The subsequent challenge for experimental philosophy and neuroscience is to (1) correlate those traditional frameworks with actual cognitive function (which may be impossible) and (2) decide which of these various ethical models provides the best roadmap for enhancement.

A general consensus that emerged from the conference was the idea that “morality” as a specific brain function could not be defined. As Walter Sinnott-Armstrong noted, we need to study the various components of morality separately as it’s not a united, cohesive thing. No brain mechanism is both common to all moral judgments of wrongs and also distinctive of moral judgments of wrongs. Instead, morality, as broken down into different components, is more properly understood as a dyadic relationship. Interestingly, Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument strengthened the case for consequentialism.

Moroever, there is also the exosomatic aspect of morality that needs to be considered. As Jonathan Haidt noted in his talk, “Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, practices, identities, institutions, technologies and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.” In other words, it’s not all in the brain—and not by a long shot.

Other presenters made similar cases, including Wendell Wallach and John Shook. Wallach noted that we risk “pathologizing human nature” and that “there is no moral compass in the brain to be modified.” And Shook, who took a normative perspective, noted that, “neuroethics will always be on its way to some newer ethics.” For every moral person, he argued, there is a specific moral brain in action.

Which also made me realize that, aside from socio-cultural differences, gender differences must also account for differences in moralizing. It’s no secret that testosterone impacts on male aggression and risk taking — which, if applied as an intervention, could be seen as moral (or virtue) unenhancement. I would have certainly liked to have seen more consideration given to gender differences in moral decision making and the various ways we could offset these traits among the two genders (an excellent application of postgenderism, to be sure).

Moreover, it was obvious to me (even before the conference) that moral enhancement cannot really be parsed out from cognitive enhancement. Because we’re essentially talking about altering “normal” human brain functioning, and because our considerations are based on normative perceptions of moral or virtuous behavior, we’re still essentially just talking about cognitive modifications. At best, we can isolate certain behaviours or tendencies, and seek to strengthen them through interventions.

For example, back in the days of the ancient Greeks, courage was considered to be a very important virtue. These days we don’t consider it as such. I can only assume that, in future, we will similarly develop a different sense of virtuous behaviours compared to today’s. Another example of blurred lines is the issue of strong executive control in decision making. It was generally agreed that, in order for an effective moral enhancement regime to work, strong will had to be an integral part of it. But is executive control a cognitive enhancement or moral enhancement? Both?

On a somewhat similar note, James Hughes’s notion of “virtue enhancement” carried a lot of currency at Moral Brain, both in terms of its efficacy and its potential for controversy. By suppressing vice, argued Hughes, we can enhance virtue. It’s moral enhancement that will make us more responsible. He contended that, while we should suppress immoral sentiments, we need to reinforce reasonable sentiments, including the retention of our capacity for “discriminating wisdom.” That said, Hughes admitted that moral enhancement could cause risks to cognitive liberty through lack of privacy, overt control, ownership, norms, addiction, and inequality.

Hughes’s notion of discriminating wisdom was very well taken. As Anna Pacholczyk noted, anger and outrage can be very useful things. Thus, determining pro-social traits can be tricky.

Unintended intentions

Indeed, the issue of unintended consequences and unintuitive side-effects came up quite regularly. Take oxytocin, for example — the poster molecule for moral enhancement. While it’s well known that oxytocin can improve social bonding and interaction, it also has the paradoxical effect of increasing tribalistic tendencies on account of tighter lock-in of in-group thinking. In addition, heightening a virtuous trait doesn’t necessarily imply a better person overall, and it could in fact cause other problems. As Paul Bloom showed, serial rapists have the highest self-esteem of any group. And Patrick Hopkins noted that hypermorality could cause crippling, debilitating effects on agency.

Erik Parens expressed similar concerns. He claimed that no one wants a “soma pill,” that it would diminish options and negatively impact on our freedom. At the same time, however, he noted the complexity of creating the kind of “love pill” advocated by Matthew Liao. On the one hand, Parens argued that we should reject a pill that creates love as it would separate us from how the world really works. At the same time, however, he admitted that we should approve a pill that creates love as it would facilitate meaningful activities. These are most certainly challenging distinctions.

Making moral modifications

Aside from oxytocin, serotonin, propranolol and the implication of various areas of the brain required for moral action, there was very little said about how to go about moral enhancement. Virtually all interventions proposed were pharmacological in nature (hence the over-reliance of the ridiculous term “morality pill”), with no consideration given for genetic function, epigenetic factors, or ways we could actual physically alter the brain’s mechanical function (e.g. deep brain stimulation or transcranial magnetic stimulation (See this study for example)). Part of the problem was the lack of imagination amongst the neuroscientists when it came to enhancement (most of whom, it’s fair to say, had never even considered it prior to the conference—this is a new area of inquiry, after all). This is definitely one area that could stand some improvement in our thinking.

It’s worth noting that the impermanence of neuropharmaceuticals is not necessarily a bad thing. Reversing undesirable brain-state may prove to be beneficial—a strategy that would work well within my designer psychologies model. The problem with neuropharma, however, is that is can often be too untargeted and blunt. As Molly Crocket noted, oxytocin and serotonin do a ton more than just instigate feelings of social bonding; we can’t use them for this kind of specificity without incurring some side-effects.

And in terms of developing moral enhancement interventions, very little consideration was given to the role of supply and demand, and the role of Big Pharma in all this. One can make a strong case that demand does in fact exist, and as a result, pharmaceutical companies will eventually start to develop effective interventions. Take MDMA for example, which illicits heightened feelings of connectedness and empathy. That’s a bona fide moral enhancement if I ever heard one — and considering the widespread use of MDMA, it’s fair to say there’s considerable demand. It could even be said that Aderall is a kind of virtue enhancement, in that it enables a person to focus on a specific task and get things done (i.e. what I was just referring to earlier: strong executive control in moral decision making).

Big picture?

Lastly, I would have liked to have seen moral enhancement discussed more in terms of its ends. Yes, there was some talk about it in the sense that it fulfilled the demands of certain ethical frameworks (virtue, deontological, and utilitarian/consequential), but not so much about the actual desired results for both individuals and society as a whole (Matthew Liao’s talk notwithstanding). I was hoping to hear more about moral enhancement in the context of ensuring human flourishing, happiness, and well-being. But perhaps I’m being too picky; utilitarianism is broad enough a framework to make these sorts of assumptions. And in that sense this was all implied.

The Moral Brain conference was one of the most fascinating and provocative events I have ever attended. I certainly hope to see this discussion rekindled again in the near future.

My twitter round-up for the Moral Brain conference

Here’s the complete list of my tweets from the recently concluded Moral Brain conference Moral Brain conference at New York University:

Currently listening to James Blair’s talk on care-based morality problems and its relation to psychopathic traits

Three lectures in and it’s clear that the burgeoning field of moral neuroscience is being driven by fMRI data.

Blair: Psychopaths have a busted amygdala causing them to respond in a less averse way to fear, sadness, and pain

Hell of a turnout at the #moralbrain conference, btw. An organizer told me that over 100 people had to be turned away.

Blair: There is nothing related to psychopathy and IQ

Someone needs to do a study into why philosophers and neuroscientists are universally clueless when it comes to the use of the microphone.

Up next: Walter Sinott-Armstrong: “Is There One Moral Brain?”

Sinnott-Armstrong: We need to study the various components of morality separately; not a united thing

Sinnott-Armstrong: Morality, as broken down into different components, is more properly understood as a diadic relationship

Sinnett-Armstrong: No brain mechanism is both common to all moral judgments of wrongs and also distinctive of moral judgments of wrongs.

Sinnett-Armstrong’s argument strengthens the case for consequentialist ethics

Day One of #moralbrain is complete. Tomorrow’s talks will also focus on the parts of the brain involved in moral sentiment and cognition.

Jonathan Haidt currently talking about intuition and reasoning

Haidt: Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second

Haidt: “Can” is more persuasive on reasoning than “must”

Haidt: It’s not that we like equality, it’s that we hate alpha males and bullying

Haidt: Our evolved trick: ability to forge a team and circle around things we value

Haidt: Moral foundations: Loyalty, authority, and sanctity

Haidt: Moral capital = social capital plus institutions and norms that preserve it

Haidt: Law works to the extent that it is a quasi-religious practice

Haidt: Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, practices, identities, institutions, technologies…

...and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.

Happening now: Panel discussion on applying the neuroscience of morality

Bloom: Serial rapists have the highest sense of self-esteem of any group

Sinnott-Armstrong: Behavioral therapy for psychopaths actually makes their condition *worse*

The hardest working people at the #moralbrain conference: the 2 people conveying the entire thing in sign language.

Greene: Oxytocin could be used to improve social bonding and interaction

Sinnott-Armstrong: “I’m not so sure that lots of empathy is a good thing.” Says it can lead to poor decisions and conclusions

Bloom: Paradoxically, heightened levels of oxytocin can *increase* tribalistic tendencies due to tighter lock-in of the in-group

Bloom: Hugs and back rubs can increase oxytocin production

Here’s what the panel looks like #moralbrain

Washington Square Park last night

On the #moralbrain panel: Wendell Wallach (mod), Paul Bloom, Joshua Knobe, Molly Crockett, Joshua Green, and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong.

Bloom: “People think steroids are bad…because they’re bad.”

Book: Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu: Unfit for the Future: The need for moral enhancement.

And now presenting: Ingmar Persson

Persson: It is easier for us to harm each other than to benefit each other

Persson: Tech increases our powers of action and ability to cause ultimate harm, making life forever impossible on Earth

Persson: Terrorists are more likely to use nuclear weapons than states, no fear of reprisal

Persson: Our moral psychology has evolved to make us fit for life in small, close-nit societies with limited tech

Persson: We have a bias for the near future; and exhibit parochial altruism.

Persson: We have an incapacity to feel proportionate sympathy with large number of sufferers

Persson: The act-omission doctrine: harming is harder to justify than failing to benefit #moralbrain #trolly

Man, the Trolly Problem has come up time and time again at #moralbrain #neuroethics

Persson: We need moral enhancement to counteract all these problems and prevent us from causing ultimate harm

Day 3 of #moralbrain conference; James Hughes now presenting on benefits and risks of virtue enhancement.

Hughes: Supressing vice is enhancing virtue. Moral enhancement makes us more responsible.

Hughes: Supressing immoral sentiments, reinforcing reasonable sentiments

Hughes: We need to retain capacity for “discriminating wisdom.”

Hughes: Moral enhancement could cause risks to cognitive liberty: lack of privacy, overt control, ownership, norms, addiction, inequality.

Erik Parens now presenting: the 2nd wave: talking ABOUT moral enhancement

Parens: 1st wave of enhancement debate: Enthusiasts & Critics.

Parens: 2nd wave debate: what enhancements are worthy of the name?

Parens: No one wants Soma, it would diminish options, negatively impact on our freedom

Parens: We should reject a pill that creates love as it would separate us from how the world really works

Parens: We should approve a pill that creates love as it would facilitate meaningful activities

Now presenting: Joshua Knobe: Seeing a person as a body.

Knobe is a pioneer in experimental philosophy

Knobe: A body contains a mind which is capable of both intentional and phenomenal states

Knobe: Do corporations exhibit both intentional and phenomenal states? At best, just the former

Knobe: The more we think of an entity as having a body (higher salience) the more we think of them as having phenomenal states

Knobe: The higher bodily salience, decrease in attribution of intentional states

Knobe: This is a kind of animalization of people based on degree of bodily salience

Anna Pacholczyk presenting: What is moral enhancement? Shades of ‘moral’

Pacholczyk: Anger and outrage can be very useful things

Anna Pacholczyk: Determing pro-social traits can be tricky

John Shook: Is ethical theory relevant to neuroethical evaluations of moral enhancement?

Shook: Neuroethics will always be on its way to some newer ethics

Shook: For every moral person there is a specific moral brain in action

Now presenting: Bill Kabasenche

Kabasenche: Virtue is a state that decides; Aristotelian

Kabasenche: emotions are not just causes of actions they also determine the identity of actions - Bob Roberts

Kabasenche: taking a pill for moral enhancement is no less authentic than the other things we do to achieve same ends

Kabasenche: Moral enhancements as aids for moral formation

Molly Crockett: Moral enhancement? Evidence and challenges

Crockett: Oxytocin: a moral molecule?

Crockett: Oxytocin can be administered through nasal spray, increases sense of trust

Crockett: BUT, oxytocin has a way of illiciting feelings of envy and schadenfreude in certain contexts

Crockett: Oxytocin also increases sense of ethnocentrism, in-group preference

Crockett: Bartz et al “social effects of oxytocin on humans”

Crockett: Now on to serotonin: illicits sense of wanting to avoid harming of others

Crockett: Humans are conditionally cooperative (you scratch my back…)

Crockett: Unconditional cooperation = “sucker!”

Crockett: Oxytocin and serotonin do a lot more than just these things, so we can’t use them for this kind of specificity

Crockett: oxytocin and serotonin are too blunt and untargeted as a means for moral enhancement

Crockett: Good thing about them, though, is their impermanent nature

Crockett: Non-pharma interventions for moral enhancement: changing beliefs, brain (incl meditation)

Now presenting: Wendell Wallach

Wallach: We risk pathologizing human nature

Wallach: Moral enhancement is in many ways just cognitive enhancement

Wallach: Propranolol: can reduce racial bias, sense of guilt, helps encode memory

Wallach: The is no moral compass in the brain to be modified

Wallach: The entire human organism is a moral instructional mechanism

Self-control is increasingly being seen as a moral enhancement

Conversation now about religion as moral enhancement

I’m so loving the #moralbrain conference. A total headsplosion of ideas.

Now presenting: Patrick Hopkins

Hopkins: Hypermorality could cause crippling, debilitating effects on agency

Hopkins: Moral disease: cluster characteristics, personal health, public health, paradigmatic, prospect for moral disease

Hopkins: Concern: by pathologizing immorality we strip the individual of responsibility.

Now speaking: Geoffrey Miller: Modifying childhood behaviors

Now up Matthew Liao: Parental love pills

Liao: Can we induce parental love? Oxytocin?

Liao: Oxytocin can be found in mother’s milk

Liao: Oxytocin impacts on empathy, closeness, and trust

Liao: One of the mechanisms of oxytocin’s effects is its ability to reduce anxiety

Liao: why a parental love pill? estrangement, resentment, step-children, adopted children

Liao: Issue of authenticity: spontaneity, experiential, ownership, induced parental love as self-alienation

Liao: Pugmire: “emotion becomes narcissistic when the focus shifts from its object to its subjective experience”

Liao: We treat ourselves as mere means when we bypass our beliefs; self-instrumentalization

Liao: The scope of our duties to children may be even more extensive than common sense morality supposes

Up next: William Casebeer of DARPA: Neuroethics and national security

Casebeer: Wants to immunize soldiers from acquiring PTSD

Up next: Fabrice Jotterand: Enhancing criminal brains?

Jotterand: Psychopathy affects 1-2% of general population (3-5% of businessmen)

Jotterand: Not all psychopaths are criminals

Jotterand: Difficult to detect psychopaths, many of them are charming

Jotterand: Psychpathy defined as severe emotional dysfunction esp. Lack of empathy

Jotterand: Psychopathhs completely unable to recognize anger and fear in individuals

Jotterand: Psychopathy also defined by anti-social behaviors

Jotterand: Neuroscience is helping to identify parts of the brain that are deficient leading to psychopathy

Jotterand: Sertraline considered as anti-psychotic, including other SSRI’s

Jotterand: This is not moral enhancement, it’s about altering behavior

Maxwell Mehlman now presenting on #moralenhancement and the law

Mehlman: If a “morality pill” could be developed, would people (esp. criminals) be compelled to take it?

Mehlman: if it’s deemed a public health and safety issue, could be pushed by gov’t

Mehlman: Could a morality pill be seen as a kind of vaccination and given to kids?

Mehlman: Would we discriminate against people who do not take morality pills?

Mehlman: If you’re on the morality pill, are you held to a higher standard of care? More accountable?

Mehlman: If you’re not taking morality pill, could you be deemed criminally negligent if something bad happens?

James Giordano now up on neuromorality: implications for human ecology, global relations, and national security policy

Giordano: Neuro-ecology: studies and interventions of cognitions, emotions, and behaviors engaged in decisions and actions

Giordano: The brain is an opportunistic target for multiple level assessment and manipulative actions #moralbrain

The #moralbrain conference is now over, one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended, very strong cast of speakers

George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.


Great summary—wish I could of been there!  Do you know if there is any video?

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