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Enhancing Virtues: Fairness (Pt 3)
J. Hughes   Mar 1, 2015   Ethical Technology  

Are there ways to directly strengthen fairness and moral cognition in the prefrontal cortex, and weaken the cognitive biases bubbling up from the amygdala? Research on the genetic correlates of moral cognition, and the effects of psychoactive drugs, and of electrical and magnetic manipulation of the brain, suggest there are ways to enhance fairness and impartiality.

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)

Zapping Yourself to Fairness

One line of research that is both illuminating the neurology of morality, and suggests future avenues for fairness engineering of the brain, is investigation of the effects of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) on moral cognition. Teams in the Netherlands and at Harvard have used TMS to alternately suppress the different parts of the brain involved in the interplay between beliefs, empathy and emotions in making moral decisions. When the part of prefrontal cortex (right DLPFC) that helps rational, utilitarian decisions win out over emotional decisions is suppressed,  subjects made moral decisions guided more by empathy. But when the empathy-related part of the brain (TPJ) was suppressed, they made more impersonal, rational, utilitarian decisions.[1]


Fairness Drugs

As we’ve discussed earlier, drugs and neurotransmitters have a complicated effect on moral cognition. For instance, drugs like Prozac which increase serotonin in the brain increase sensitivity to other peoples’ pain, reducing both rational and emotive impulses to hurt or punish others. Depending on the situation that may or may not increase the fairness of a decision.  A real fairness drug would ideally change the balance of influence between the instinctive amygdala and the executive function in the prefrontal cortex. Stimulants would presumably have this effect, but there is as yet little research on the effect of stimulants on implicit biases.  One suggestive exception is a study that found that subjects dosed with caffeine were more likely to consider alternatives to deeply held beliefs.[2]

Conversely, tamping down the urgency of the signaling from the amygdala would also help in thinking more fairly. For instance the blood pressure medication propranolol reduces the flickers of anxiety generated when white subjects see black faces, and a team at Oxford find it also improves their performance on the implicit bias test.[3]  On the other hand the same group also found that propranolol reduced the likelihood that subjects would push the fat man on the track, so the effect of drug is clearly not a simple dampening of the amygdala.[4]

Another possible candidate is the psychedelic drug psilocybin which decreases the reactivity of the amygdala,[5] helps silence conditioned fear,[6] and generates a persistent improvement in the openness personality trait, [7] all of which would suggest it would reduce cognitive biases and improve fairness. But as yet there is no research on the effects of psychedelics on moral sentiments and cognition such as implicit racial biases.


Fairness Gene Therapy 

As I reviewed earlier  there is substantial evidence that there are genetic determinants of the relative strengths of our prefrontal cortex and our amygdalas, and thereby of our political and moral predispositions. One can certainly imagine these variants becoming future gene therapies for moral and political enhancement, although the prospect of such therapies being encouraged or mandated by governments immediately raises cognitive liberty concerns that I will address later. 

We can, however, imagine a situation in which someone plagued by intense and disabling xenophobia voluntarily submits to a therapeutic regime of bias reduction exercises complemented by drug or gene therapies to modulate hyperreactive amygdalas, and strengthen executive function.

Effects of Enhancing Fairness

Conservatives have intellectual defenses of conservative virtues, and of their own interpretations of caring and fairness. It is possible to imagine a conservative moral enhancement that pursued the same strengthening of prefrontal executive function and reduction of amygdalic reactivity proposed here, and yet resulted in rational and utilitarian defenses of ingroup loyalty, respect for authority, and the sanctity of group symbols. That is in fact the social functionalist position that Jonathan Haidt has developed, that conservative virtues play an essential role in society. 

On the other hand, perhaps the path of social progress is for liberals to fight for Enlightenment values, and then for conservatives to embed those values in prerational emotions and conservative virtues.  After all, most American conservatives are defending the sanctity of the American constitution and deference to the authority of elected government, not for slavery or the divine right of kings.

If, however, the spread of Enlightenment values, critical reason, and liberalizing cognitive faculties are eroding the neurological basis for conservative virtue then the outstanding question is whether conservative virtues can possibly do the same work when rooted in the prefrontal cortex rather than the amygdala. In other words, we may recognize that we need to believe in some common collective prerational values, but can coming to that conclusion through reason ever be as binding as belief was? Can we simply decide to believe in unicorns once we know they don’t exist?

Yuval Levin framed the problem concisely in his “The Paradox of Conservative Bioethics.”[8] Conservatives  are obliged to argue for their taboos through democratic debate, but taboos wither under rational, democratic scrutiny.

Conservatism traditionally leans on and seeks to protect the implicit wisdom contained in age-old institutions and social arrangements. It goes beyond this of course, and makes arguments and is at home in liberal democratic politics. But much of its appeal, and many of its arguments, are rooted in a sense that certain of the old assumptions have some value and some truth. A conservative bioethics, however, is forced to proceed by pulling up its own roots, and to begin by violating some of the very principles it seeks to defend.

The neurological and psychological evidence of how we think about fairness overwhelmingly suggests that modernity is already enhancing the brain and our virtues in a liberal direction, and that practices, devices and therapies to dampen biases and enhance fairness are able to move that process further. The result of enhanced fairness will hopefully be more self-awareness, less racism and xenophobia, more capacity for peaceful, rational civil discourse, and more support for egalitarianism. If however the enhancement of liberal virtue results in moral relativism and a lack of social cohesion, as Haidt warns, this would be another example of the need for the excesses of one virtue to be complemented and tempered by others.




Political genes

Moral relativism



[1] Jeurissen D, Sack AT, Roebroeck A, Russ BE, Pascual-Leone A. TMS affects moral judgment, showing the role of DLPFC and TPJ in cognitive and emotional processing. Frontiers in Neuroscience. 2014; 8(18): 1-9.

[2] Martin PY, Hamilton VE, McKimmie BM, Terry DJ, Martin R. Effects of caffeine on persuasion and attitude change: The role of secondary tasks in manipulating systematic message processing. European Journal of Social Psychology. 2007; 37: 320-338.

[3] Terbeck S, et al. Propranolol reduces implicit negative racial bias. Psychopharmacology. 2012; 222:419–424

[4] Terbeck S, Kahane G, McTavish S, Savulescu J, Levy N, Hewstone M, Cowen PJ. Beta adrenergic blockade reduces utilitarian judgement. Biological Psychiatry. 2013;92(2):323-8.

[5] Kraehenmann R, et al. Psilocybin-Induced Decrease in Amygdala Reactivity Correlates with Enhanced Positive Mood in Healthy Volunteers. Biological Psychiatry. 2014; doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.04.010

[6] Catlow BJ, et al. Effects of psilocybin on hippocampal neurogenesis and extinction of trace fear conditioning. Exp Brain Res. 2013; DOI 10.1007/s00221-013-3579-0

[7] MacLean KA, et al. Mystical experiences occasioned by the hallucinogen psilocybin lead to increases in the personality domain of openness. J Psychopharmacol. 201; 25(11): 1453-1461.

[8] Levin Y. The Paradox of Conservative Bioethics. The New Atlantis. 2003; 1: 53-65.

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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