We have already taken the first steps towards virtue engineering. We already take stimulants to get on top of our day in the morning, and to stay alert when we need to be. We give sex offenders testosterone suppression, alcoholics drugs that make them nauseous if they drink, lap bands for those who can’t control their weight, and anti-psychotics for mentally ill criminals. We just aren’t very precise about our moral engineering yet. The next steps will come from advances in brain science to understand the levers of our moral sentiments and behaviors, and how to push them with targeted nanomaterial-enabled pharmaceuticals and nano-neural interfaces.
In this series:
What I imagine is a virtues control panel with sliders that determine the balance of moral impulses, cognition and behavior in different situations, governed by a morality operating system. When we are working on tasks that require focus and care we would turn up concentration, conscientiousness and prefrontal control. When we are brainstorming or writing poetry or at a party we would turn those down, and turn up creativity, spontaneity and openness to novelty. While caring for loved ones we would turn up empathy, and turn it back down when we have to work at a grueling human service profession (think emergency room triage).
In order to create this control panel we would need to identify which dials we will need. These categories will need to correspond to the virtues from philosophy and religion on the one hand, and to the emerging psychometric and neuroscientific understandings of cognition and behavior on the other. So the first problem is that there are dozens of virtues enumerated in philosophy and religion, and they do not correspond one-to-one. Also, it would be best if the control panel we are building had as few buttons as possible, reducing the complexity to the core, cardinal virtues.
One attempt to reduce the huge variety of virtue schemas in the world’s philosophies and religions to testable, empirical traits was launched in the 2000s by the psychologist Martin Seligman and the “positive psychologists.” Their work resulted in a model of six “character strengths,” each with their own subsidiary list of virtues.
- Wisdom and Knowledge: creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, perspective
- Courage: bravery, perseverance, honesty, zest
- Humanity: love, kindness, social intelligence
- Justice: teamwork, fairness, leadership
- Temperance: forgiveness, humility, prudence, self-regulation
- Transcendence: appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality
Seligman and his colleagues developed questions for respondents to assess the degree to which they possessed each of these 24 virtues. Half a million people have taken these tests online, creating an enormous database for evaluating whether the a priori structure of these traits corresponds to the empirical structure in individual self-assessments. McGrath analyzed this survey data and found five underlying sets of virtues:
- Interpersonal Strengths: Fairness, Forgiveness, Kindness, Receptivity, Teamwork, Modesty, Love
- Emotional Strengths: Humor, Social, Creativity, Bravery, Prudence
- Intellectual Pursuits: Love of Learning, Beauty, Curiosity
- Restraint: Judgment, Perseverance, Perspective, Honesty
- Future Orientation: Positivity, Future-Mindedness, Self-Regulation, Spirituality
In other words, in general, people who saw themselves as strong in forgiveness were also more likely to see themselves as strong in fairness, even though these had been conceptualized as belonging to two separate categories of virtues in the original scheme. The statistical disaggregation of traits in all such studies is open to some interpretation however, as all the strengths are correlated to some degree. Using data from 332 twins Shryack et al. found only three core clusters of strengths, (1) interpersonal strengths, such as kindness and fairness, (2) temperance strengths, such as perseverance and self-regulation, and (3) intellectual strengths, such as creativity and judgment.
This empirical, statstical method is the same that has been used to generate the most popular of the models of personality in psychology, the five-factor or OCEAN model. The OCEAN model was derived by looking for statistical structures in the hundreds of personality inventory questions, and its proponents find a stable clustering around five traits: Open-Mindedness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism.
These five traits have in turn been correlated with hundreds of attitudes and behaviors, including subjective well-being, volunteering, occupational choice and success, and peer and family relationships. The OCEAN personality traits are relatively stable over time, and twin studies show that they are about half genetically determined. This provides strong evidence for interpreting these personality traits as having neurobiological bases, albeit complex ones with multiple genes and neurochemicals in play. Luo et al. have, for instance, found a number of genes correlated to the OCEAN traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness.
When we compare the empirical structure of personality traits to the empirical structure of virtues we see that there is some correlation. MacDonald, Bore and Munro recently explored the correlations between the OCEAN personality traits and the positive psychology model and found four underlying virtue-psychology sets: Positivity, Intellect, Conscientiousness and Niceness. Positivity (including emotional strengths such as a sense of humor and hopefulness) was negatively correlated to the OCEAN trait of neuroticism, and is strongly correlated with happiness. Intellect (including the intellectual virtues of love of learning and curiosity) was correlated to the OCEAN trait of open-mindedness. Open-mindedness has in turn been found to be correlated with IQ. Conscientiousness (including the virtues of restraint and honesty) was of course related to conscientiousness. Niceness, which encompasses the interpersonal virtues of empathy, kindness and receptivity, was correlated with the personality trait of agreeableness.
As a result of my reflection on this accumulating literature I have adopted a minimal model of the virtues for my long overdue book, Cyborg Buddha, focused on the manipulation of four basic capacities:
- Self-control: sophrosyne, restraint, conscientiousness, temperance, sila
- Caring: humanitas, agreeableness, compassion, fairness, empathy, metta, karuna, mudita
- Intelligence: phronesis, sophia, open-mindedness, curiosity, love of learning, prudence, prajna
- Positivity: eudaemonia, (lack of ) neuroticism, emotional self-regulation, positivity, bravery, humor, sukha
As it happens these categories also roughly correspond to the four cardinal virtues of Plato and Aquinas - temperance, justice, prudence and courage - although each encompasses more than the classical categories, and I suppose caring is actually closer to the "theological virtue" of love.
But I have also been reflecting on the ways that these traits and capacities interact, or more precisely how intellect interacts with the other three, to enable four additional virtues:
- Mindfulness, the effective exercise of attention in executive functions and decision-making
- Social Intelligence, the application of intelligence to other minds and relationships
- Fairness, the application of intelligence to most effective means for helping others
- Transcendence, the discovery of happiness and fulfillment beyond ordinary pleasures
The model therefore looks like this:
One of the advantages of this kind of multi-virtue schema in the discussion of moral enhancement is that it helps avoid the sterile debates that many have had about the pitfalls of just enhancing one trait, such as empathy or intelligence. Yes, just enhancing intellect with drugs and devices won’t necessary make people nicer, and may in fact empower psychopaths. But caring without intellect is ineffectual at best. Yes, just giving people oxytocin makes them care more about people like them and dislike outsiders; learning to extend empathy and trust beyond your own tribe requires an education of intellect and self-awareness. As with all virtue ethics systems, this model suggests that the virtues balance and inform one another. Full human flourishing requires the cultivation of each in an integrated process of character building.
Over the course of the next couple of months I will post on ways that we can now, or will be able in the future, to enhance these capacities. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
 McGrath R. Scale- and Item-Level Factor Analyses of the VIA Inventory of Strengths. Assessment 2012; Feb;21(1):4-14.
 Shryack J, Steger MF, Krueger RF, Kallie CS. The Structure of virtue: An empirical investigation of the dimensionality of the virtues in action inventory of strengths. Personality and Individual Differences 2010; 48, 714-719.
 Ozer DJ, Benet-Martinez V. Personality and the Prediction of Consequential Outcomes. Annual Review of Psychology 2006; 57: 401-21.
 Luo X, Kranzler HR, Zuo L, Zhang H, Wang, Gelernter J. CHRM2 variation predisposes to personality traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness. Human Molecular Genetics 2007; 16(13):1557-1568.
 Macdonald C, Bore M, Munro D. Values in action scale and the big 5: An empirical indication of structure. Journal of Research in Personality 2008; 42 (4), 787–799.
 Bartels M, et al. The five factor model of personality and intelligence: A twin study on the relationship between the two constructs. Personality and Individual Differences 2012; 53(4) 368-373.