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(Enhancing) The Moral Brain: Day Three (J.‘s Notes)
J. Hughes   Apr 1, 2012   Ethical Technology  

After two days of serious neuroscience (Day One, Day Two morning, Day Two afternoon) I confess that my note-taking and summary abilities flagged a bit on the third day.

I was also more distracted by a sense of responsibility, since Wendell and I were in charge of the final day of the program which had originally been conceived of as a separate conference on moral enhancement until Matthew Liao graciously helped us combine with his two day conference reviewing moral psychology organized for the same weekend. So these notes are lamentably sketchy, and just a taste of the topics addressed to whet the appetite until we get the videos of the talks online. BTW I gave the first talk of the third day, so Hank made some notes on that, and my slides are hereHank also put up notes on the talks below. Thanks again to conference co-organizer Matthew Liao, his able assistant Zahra Ali, my collaborator Wendell Wallach, Hank Pellissier for coming out from San Francisco, and to all the wonderful speakers and audience participants who made this conference such a rich event.





“Perhaps It Would Help to Distinguish Between “Engineering” and “Cultivating” Virtue” Erik Parens, The Hasting Center

The bioethics debate about enhancement has moved beyond the first phase in the 2000s, when enthusiasts squared off against critics, to a new more nuanced debate. In the new debate enthusiasts have accepted that there are concerns about unintended consequences, coercion, and authenticity, while many critics have conceded that true enhancement, if it were possible, is desirable.  Reflecting on a classical or Socratic approach to the cultivation of virtue through dialogue and self-understanding, a Phase 2 approach to moral enhancement should focus on finding how drugs might support or complement moral cultivation, rather than mechanistically engineering cognitions or behaviors.

“Seeing a Person as a Body” Joshua Knobe, Cognitive Science & Philosophy, Yale University

Knobe turned to educational moral enhancement, by focusing on the difference in moral cognition when we think of people as embodied versus just as a mind. Thinking of people as bodies - such as identifying people with their physical attributes rather than their personality attributes - is often seen as less moral. But when people create a model of people they may focus on the phenomenology (the body and its feelings) or on their intentionality (the mind). People attribute intentionality but not phenomenology to corporations and robots.  Brain studies in the US and Hong Kong have found that the same parts of the brain activate when thinking about the intentional states of persons and corporations. It makes sense to people to say that a robot or corporation plans or does something, but it doesn’t make sense to say that they rejoice or suffer. 

When people are shown headshots versus photos that include torsos, and are then asked to speculate on the person’s intentionality and phenomenology, the the subject who sees the torso thinks less about the person’s intentional states and more about their feelings. The more pornographic an image the less people are seen as rational actors, but the more they are seen as feeling persons, more capable of feeling pleasure and pain.  This research suggests there are two distinct processes involved in the “theory of mind,” processes that trade-off between whether we focus on the intentions of others or on their feelings.  (This made me feel guilty that I have been cropping our contributors’ photos down to very tight headshots all these years.)

“What Is Moral Enhancement? The Shades of ‘Moral’” 
Anna Pacholczyk, University of Manchester

Ms. Pacholczyk raised a number of problems with the idea of “morality” in the moral enhancement debate, such as the conflation of prosocial emotions with morality. There is ambiguity in the concept of pro-sociality itself; do we want people to be “nice,” or empathetic, or cooperative?  What is the role of righteous anger if nice people don’t get angry?

“Is Ethical Theory Relevant to Neuroethical Evaluations of Enhancing Moral Brains?”  John R. Shook, Center for Neurotechnology Studies at Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Virginia

There will be moral enhancement eventually, and lots of different modalities. Shook isn’t skeptical on technical grounds, but on the grounds of the constant change and contention over what morality is. Ethical systems have models about how people reason and how they become more moral which could be empirically disconfirmed.  For instance Kantian theory bears little relationship to actual moral psychology, while the cognitive demands of utilitarian calculation may be impossible. One response would be to make ethical theory more closely reflect actual moral cognition, although this is not very attractive since actual folk moral cognition isn’t very pretty or consistent or defensible.  There could be an adaptation of moral theory to fit with the neuroscientific evidence by judging existing consistent and defensible ethical systems as more or less consistent with neuroscience. it seems unlikely that neuroscience will really validate one moral theory over another - they all have neurological evidence to support them, leading to neuro-ethical pluralism. A third option is the creation of truly novel ethical theory that reflects the best behavioral and brain science.

“Enhancing for Virtue? Towards Holistic Moral Enhancement”  William Kabasenche, Philosophy, Washington State University

To what extent are virtues constitutive of human flourishing, and if they are, can we use biomedical means to engineer virtues into people?  In an Aristotleian account simply acting morally isn’t enough, we have to actually feel morally, so that our action is an untroubled reflection of our character. Actions without the appropriate emotional state aren’t as moral. Others emphasize that there is also a rational component to Aristotleian virtue, that we also need to be acting from the right reasons. None of the proposed modalities of chemical moral enhancement enhance this fully construed model of virtue - they generally just enhance moral feelings, and not in situationally sensitive ways.

Increasing trust with oxytocin doesn’t provide the discriminating intelligence to not trust when we shouldn’t. But the relationship of level of blood sugar to self-control illustrates that biological enhancement could be complementary to a more holistic program of moral formation. Authenticity doesn’t help us here since none of us become virtuous “authentically,” that is through completely autonomous self-determination; we all develop morality in the context of social and parental nurturance and pressures.  Specific deficits could be addressed by moral therapies, and everybody might benefit morally from some enhancements. We would still need to engage in traditional moral formation however.

“Moral Enhancement? Evidence and Challenges”  Molly Crockett, Economics, University of Zurich

Crockett is skeptical of the prospect of a “morality pill” because of the complexity of the brain and neurochemistry. Oxytocin for instance increases empathy and generosity, but also increases feelings of ethnocentrism, envy, gloating and shadenfraude. Oxytocin is also involved in brain plasticity, memory, stress, arousal etc.  Similarly, serotonin does bias moral decision-making to be less willing to harm individuals, but its not clear whether the bias is more or less moral; utilitarians think we need to be willing to harm some individuals when it leads to harm for fewer individuals. Serotonin is also involved in many other moods, behaviors and brain systems.  Therapies wouldn’t be really moral enhancement if they make people more trusting or empathic regardless of context. And we would need interventions that are far more targeted to specific cognitions and emotions than the ones we’ve been studying.  On the other hand if pharmacological enhancement is combined with non-pharmacological enhancement, such as with meditation or more effective ways of educating people to change their beliefs, they might be more plausible.

“The Illusion of a Technological Moral Fix”  Wendell Wallach, IEET & Bioethics, Yale University

Advocates of enhancement have looked for the killer apps which would convince most people of the desirability of enhancements. More intelligence and longer life are relatively popular proposals, but moral enhancement may not be as attractive a killer app. Enhancement tends to pathologize human nature, and approach human nature in a reductionist and overly deterministic way. Morality is more than reasoning, it involves moral sentiments, self-awareness, theory of mind, empathy and so forth. Moral enhancement also needs to take account of a fuller vision of human fulfillment, a notion of human transcendence as a goal not just the enhancement of specific mechanisms.

“Moral Disease: An Initial Framework for Definition, Classification, Treatment, and Improvement” Patrick Hopkins, IEET Affiliate Scholar and Philosophy, Millsaps College

Morality has a biological basis, and there are species-typical ranges of moral emotions and capacities. One of the ways we vary morally is in emotional response to moral situations, not responding to other’s pain, or perceiving injustice where there isn’t any. People may be diagnosable as hypermoral (too much) and hypomoral (too little).  People may have abnormal moral emotions.  This approach is consistent with Aristotle who focused on all virtues having ideal amounts; too much courage, caring, patience, etc. is a vice.  There is actually very little consensus on what diseases are, but insofar as there is a disease model moral abnormality fits the model.

“The Pediatric Physician’s Role in Modifying Childhood Behavior. Vendor or Gatekeeper? Facilitator or Judge?”  Geoffrey Miller, Yale Pediatric Neuromuscular Clinic

Pediatrics inherited folk categories for, and created diagnostic categories for, pathological behavior in children.  Early psychiatry and pediatrics made little distinction between immorality and pathology. Phrenology was an early attempt to detect moral and immoral traits from bumps on the skull. Psychiatric disorders that effect moral behavior are undeniable, and they need help and we need protection from them. But it is also understandable that we have a controversy about the prevalence of these disorders, such as around the DSM-V: over-diagnosis will medicalize and pathologize eccentricity, while under-diagnosis will leave people unhelped and society vulnerable. Big Pharma and the medical-industrial complex have a motivation to over-diagnose and over-treat. Physicans have an obligation to resist these commercial pressures, and the inappropriate demands of parents, to prescribe psychoactive drugs for children.

“Parental Love Pills: Some Ethical Considerations” Matthew Liao, Philosophy, New York University.

Parental love pills are a possible specific moral enhancement. Alienation from children is a common experience, because of the stress of parenting, a child’s behavior, or because of complicated relationships with step-children and adopted children.  Studies show that children who are deprived of parental love and nurturance have lasting physical and neurological damage. Oxytocin plays a role in parental bonding from birth on. It stimulates infant-maternal bonding right after birth, and is released by breast-feeding. Blocking oxytocin in mammals suppresses maternal caring behavior. In general oxytocin induces trust and affiliative behavior.

Setting aside efficacy, safety, informed consent and so on, oxytocin supplementation might encourage parental love. Since we already encourage parental love by manipulating situations - getting enough sleep, breast-feeding, family meals, bedtime rituals and vacations - the concern can’t be the spontaneity or authenticity of the drug-induced parental love. If a parental love pill did not make you love the child as well as natural mechanisms, or made you love all children, that would be a technical problem not an objection to parental love enhancement in general. Even if parental love pills made you feel like you were modifying your authentic self, it should be the person’s choice to take it if they value the outcome more than the authenticity.

Another concern might be “self-instrumentalization,” making oneself an agent of another’s interests, i.e. your child’s. But parenting is already a self-instrumentalization contract, at elast when done right.  Finally, the existence of parental love pills might make all parents feel obligated to take them if they have any doubt that they are inadequately bonded.  That is the inescapable result that rising social standards for moral behavior and rising capacities for fulfilling moral obligations both increase our obligations to use available methods to fulfill our obligations. In the past parents weren’t obliged to read food labels, monitor Internet use, teach their kids to drive, or save for college - now that parents can do these things, and many parents do do these things, parents’ feel the obligation to do them.

“The Neurobiology of Virtue: Leveraging Neuroscience to Improve Character Development Institutions” William Casebeer, Program Manager, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

Understanding the neuroscience of the narrative construction of life stories/identity can help explain whether disaffected youth become radicalized, whether a soldier develops PTSD, and whether a child is resilient to abuse. Moral dilemmas are narratives which activate different moral theories and parts of the brain. Moral situations have three perspectives: An agent (virtue theory) doing something (deontology) that has certain effects (utilitarianism). In conflicts “identity entrepeneurs” take advantage of governance failures, resource scarcities, demographic pressures, crime and corruption, and identity cleavage to shape identity narratives. Understanding and learning to manipulate the neuroscience of narratives with neurotechnology is an extension of what we are already doing in everyday life. It has risks, in that it could increase pain and conflicts, but Casebeer is optimistic that the ultimate result will be positive.

“Enhancing Criminal Brains?” Fabrice Jotterand, Psychiatry, Southwestern Medical Center, University of Texas

Could attempts at the moral enhancement of criminals have the inadvertent effect of enhancing their ability to commit crime? We have moved from the diagnosis of “moral insanity” to “psychopathy,” but we still don’t have any effective pharmaceutical or behavioral treatments for psychopathy. Since psychopaths commit 50% more crime than non-psychopaths there is a self-evident case for diagnosis and development of effective treatment. Psychopathy is not associated with cognitive deficits, only with emotional-processing deficits. SSRIs appear to mask psychopathic traits by making them more charming without removing psychopathic cognitions and motivations, suggesting that this kind of “treatment” would actually make them more dangerous. (That doesn’t apply to the conditioned response/learned aversion of violence proposed in Clockwork Orange BTW - that therapy would change psychopath’s willingness to commit violence.)

“Moral Enhancement and the Law” Maxwell Mehlman, Bioethics & Law, Case Western Reserve University

If we develop morality therapies we need to be able to test them in clinical trials. There are no grounds for treating human enhancement therapies differently from therapies to treat disease in research and clinical testing. The same issues of benefit/harm and informed consent should be raised with enhancement as with treatment, or quasi-treatments like vaccination: should parents be required to treat children?; can employers require employees to treat themselves?; will people be held to a higher personal account for their behavior when they could have treated themselves?  Would moral enhancement improve or impair the performance of doctors, lawyers and soldiers, and if so should they be obliged to enhance?

“Neuromorality: Implications for Human Ecology, Global Relations, and National Security Policy” James Giordano, Center for Neurotechnology Studies, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies

Brains are embodied and socially embedded. Neuro-ecology recognizes that decision-making and cognition takes place in that embedded context. The prospect of moral enhancement includes both positive, even utopian, potentials and dystopian ones like neuroweapons. National security apparatuses are very interested in exploring the utility of neuroscience, which should give us pause. The effects of these drugs will not only have effects on individuals, but also on global security and international relations.

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)



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