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Enhancing Virtues: Building the Virtues Control Panel
J. Hughes   Jul 28, 2014   Ethical Technology  

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:

Enhancing Virtues: Building the Virtues Control Panel

Enhancing Virtues: Positivity

Enhancing Virtues: Self-Control and Mindfulness

Enhancing Virtues: Caring (Part One)  (Part Two)   (Part Three)

Enhancing Virtues: Intelligence (Part One)   (Part Two)   (Part Three)   (Part Four)

Enhancing Virtues: Fairness (Part One)   (Part Two)   (Part Three)

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[1] 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.[2] 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[3],  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.[4] 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[5] 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[6]. 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.


[1] McGrath R. Scale- and Item-Level Factor Analyses of the VIA Inventory of Strengths. Assessment 2012; Feb;21(1):4-14.

[2] 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.

[3] Ozer DJ, Benet-Martinez V. Personality and the Prediction of Consequential Outcomes. Annual Review of Psychology 2006; 57: 401-21.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

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)


I think if this psycho-moral kind of technology is achieved to any degree, in the first instance, an argument could be made that it needs to be applied to certain individuals before others (the practicalities of this are another question, of course). It’s been estimated that 1% of the population worldwide are psychopaths and I believe this is a primary reason things are and have always been, a mess. The main targets should be the dictators and certain elites of this world. Naturally, as I said, this presents certain problems ... and of course said dictators and elites could use this technology for their own nefarious purposes. The dream of a scrupulous, compliant population is surely the wet dream of such people.

Interesting essay—lots of food for thought. I look forward to reading your new book, but I look forward more to getting my “virtues control panel” someday. Even for a generally logical, level-headed person like myself, it is frustrating to routinely experience biological drives and moods that are often out of sync with my current goals and circumstances.

But I find your choice of the word “virtue” both interesting and, at times, misleading. Virtue seems to imply a positive direction for the levers. So why not crank them all up to the max? After all, who wouldn’t want to be more curious, more caring, more creative, more open-minded, more brave, more self controlled, etc…? That doesn’t seem like a Virtues Control Panel but a self improvement program set to autopilot. In fact, there may be very good reasons, depending on one’s goals and circumstances, to dial the knobs in the other direction. Bravery, which might be more neutrally referred to as risk taking, is not a virtue in every situation. In the face of overwhelming odds, the best course of action may be retreat and restraint. Positivity and hopefulness can lead to gullibility and overconfidence; the appropriate response to miracle cures and fad diets is usually a healthy dose of skepticism. Being nice and open-minded to a used car salesman is likely to prolong the exchange far beyond what is expedient. Self doubt and discontent, as opposed to happiness, can be powerful motivators for change and self-reevaluation, although we seldom find the experience enjoyable at the time. In each case, an “anti-virtue,” when placed in the right context, may show its angelic side.

Another follow on of framing impulses and behaviors in terms of virtuosity is how it affects the very notion of what is considered a virtue in the first place. Virtue, in a simplistic sense, is the ability to resist temptation, acting in accordance with one’s belief systems or morals code even when it is at odds with one’s drives and desires. Turning down a piece of cake is most virtuous when we crave it most. Heterosexual males will instinctively get turned on at the site of a swimsuit model or even an attractive coworker; virtue lies in the ability to reign in one’s sex drive and avoid the romantic entanglement or, consequently, the affair. But is it virtuous to deny oneself cake and porn if you feel no hunger and no lust? If you can turn off your desires with the flip of a switch, does virtue now lie in your conscious decision of what desires you allow yourself to experience and when? What does it mean to be a faithful spouse or a loving caretaker when you all you have to do is press the “Easy” button? While a virtue control panel may not destroy virtue entirely, it seems to at least relocate the boundary.

Indeed.. why not turn all virtues settings to max, but then again you answered your own question - our lame intelligence and Self-motivations most likely could not handle it?
Seems we already habitually turn our empathy settings up/down to suit and not to disrupt our lives and well-being beyond rational self interest, having mind to be concerned, yet not to be too much inconvenienced?

Q: Why then not agree on Universal applied settings - dangerous waters?
Q: Will my future virtue settings be manageable and un-hackable?

And yet I find myself asking whether the argument for all this is moot, as virtue seems as purposefully shunned and ignored by such corrupt trickle down world governance..

If you have stomach to watch, this will re-calibrate your notions of virtue, (Plato would turn in his grave)

Zeitgeist: The Movie - by Peter Joseph ( Full Film ) 120 mins

Must admit however I cannot see any flaws in this..

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 is not a possessive quality, and enlightenment is perhaps a more virtuous target?

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