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Moral Bioenhancement: Thinking Synergistically - interview with Harris Wiseman
Hank Pellissier   Apr 6, 2016   Ethical Technology  

Harris Wiseman gained his PhD from the University of Cambridge, and is author of the book The Myth of the Moral Brain – The Limits of Moral Enhancement, published by MIT Press.

I emailed him the interview questions below:

  • Your  book title suggests that our brains are not “moral” – can you explain why morality evolved?
  • Why is morality evolutionarily successful? Or, is it not?
  • What types of morality are “natural” to our brains, and what types of “morality” are not?
  • How is the brain equipped to behave?
  • What are the evolutionary purposes of psychopathy? And narcissism?
  • You believe the brain can be morally bioenhanced – do you mean, with meditation? Therapy? Counseling?
  • How does meditation morally bioenhance the brain?
  • What are the major pharmaceuticals that bioenhance the  brain?
  • What other techniques – aside from meditation and drugs – can morally bioenhance the brain?
  • Does exercise have any role in moral bioenhancement? Does diet?
  • He answered my questions in the essay below:

    “’Under normal conditions the research scientist is not an innovator but a solver of puzzles, and the puzzles upon which he concentrates are just those which he believes can be both stated and solved within the existing scientific tradition.’ Kuhn wrote. Then there are revolutions. A new science arises out of one that has reached a dead end.” - James Gleick, Chaos.

    Harris WisemanThank you very much, Hank, for posing the questions to me.

    If you do not mind, I would like to give a brief background explaining my position in The Myth of the Moral Brain, and then you will see that the questions you posed to me can be answered quite easily and almost as one. Indeed, I very much want to thank you for posing these questions because they help underscore so many of the problems that underlie the way we tend to go about thinking about moral bioenhancement. Pertinent as these questions are, they are precisely the sorts of questions that, in my view, should not even arise in the first place as far as moral enhancement goes. But they do keep arising, and that is significant in itself

    Ludwig Wittgenstein suggested that the resolution of so many of our philosophical puzzles lay, not in giving them answers, but in the disappearance of the problem itself. Which is to say, when we realize that the way we have been constructing a problem is incoherent or nonsensical we simply stop posing the question. Well, that’s the theory anyway. Wittgenstein had a sense that too many of our philosophical problems were actually pseudo-problems, based on poor use of language which causes a bewitchment of philosophers by grammatical illusions of their own making. Because we use language poorly, we start thinking all sorts of things exist when they do not. The “moral brain” is precisely such an illusion, generated by poor language-use and reification of things that only seem to exist because of various turns of phrase we habitually use. What Wittgenstein did not count on was that, once one question disappears, more of the same are conjured from nowhere, and the same old questions keep reappearing in different forms regardless. This is precisely the case with the way we tend to talk about moral bioenhancement. 

    When I say that the “moral brain” is an illusion, it is tempting to read this as saying something like “humans are naturally immoral or amoral in their brains.” The language-use is fundamental here. I do indeed think that our brains are not moral, but what I really mean is that this wonderful lump of grey matter between our respective ears, is not itself moral, that the brain is not a moral agent. Which is to say: persons are moral, not brains. So it is a perspective shift that I am calling for. Of course, there are those that think that there is nothing more to persons than their brains, that “we are our brains,” and so on. But the growing literature and science surrounding the nature of human embodiment is pretty decisive in countering such neuro-reductive babble. 

    Really, there is a category problem here wherein many scientists and philosophers (sometimes unknowingly and sometimes on purpose), talk about the human person as if this bit of grey matter were the center of the entire universe, and they forget that the human person is a whole organism that cannot be talked about or thought of as “an extended brain.” I recall that Simone de Beauvior once complained in the 1940s that women were overly biologized, thought of as being merely “wombs with arms and legs.” Nowadays too many of us think that we are just brains with a few organs attached, walking and talking brains, but this is precisely the sort of illusion that comes about when we use language in strange and inappropriate ways (against which James Giordano quipped: “I have been on many a date, but I have never found myself sat across the table from a brain”). 

    Neuroscience is doing many important and interesting things, so it is understandable, in a way, that we have gone crazy for the brain, but things have gone much too far with it. Our talk of the person has got too brain-centric, top-heavy if you’ll excuse the term, and so we forget to look at all the numerous other factors (dynamically interactive factors) that are crucial to our human world, our moral functioning, our lives and societies at large. 

    That is what my book is really about: taking moral discourse away from those that think in overly brain-centric ways, and restoring a more holistic and integrative picture of the human person as an embodied and socially embedded creature, and of moral functioning as being a part of this much more complex mélange of factors that do include biological factors, but which also include social and psychological factors too, and many other factors besides. 

    The picture I present is integrative and, above all, synergistic. When we talk about moral enhancement it will never be a case of just putting persons on pills, nor primarily of putting some machinery or contraption in their heads, it will be a case of understanding our human difficulties and moral problems as multiscale, person-centered, multicausal issues whose various elements are part of a whole dynamic and synergistic system of factors mixing together, of which biological factors are only one set of influences. 

    Even then, though biology is of course a crucial part of the overall picture (humans are biological beings after all), because the larger system in which humans live and have their beings together is synergistic, any given biological factor in influencing moral functioning cannot be looked at on its own anyway – this is because “biological causes” (if it even makes sense to talk of such things in isolation, I think not), are only causative in a relational and intermixed fashion, as part of the overall synergy. 

    In any case, it turns out that there is no direct line between biology and moral traits or moral outcomes, and this should indicate to us that moral living is part of a greater and much more complicated system than gets considered across the moral enhancement literature. If this larger picture were made primary then enthusiasts for moral bioenhancement would realize that their hopes are up against some pretty tight constraints.

    More important than anything, morality is lived in the first person, as it were, it is an active, experiential phenomenon, and one has to ask whether it is even appropriate to remove moral functioning altogether from the lived experience of it, individually and collectively, and put it entirely in the third person terms of pharmacology and neurobiology. I think it is not appropriate, and it has served to distort and mislead thinkers, because it has, in effect, removed all existential and experiential questions from the equation, when they are at least as much a part of the overall mélange as the biological factors that represent one another at different scales of our being. Put another way, brains affect persons and societies, but societies and persons affect brains too. 

    We cannot look only, or even primarily, to the brain or biology in order to understand our questions, which is precisely what has happened in moral enhancement discussion. And even commentators that think they are appealing to environmental factors do not realize the extent to which they either put the brain (or biological factors generally), first and foremost, treating the other innumerable influences as second class citizens and all-round unimportant footnotes to the supposedly dominant biological “causes,” or, they forget the synergy of the system and represent the “elements” of moral functioning in a strangely dissociated manner as if moral functioning is a bag of discrete causal marbles that can be isolated, taken apart from each other and simply added together. 

    It is this last point that is most subtle, and in a way, this problem is more insidious than simplistic neuro-reduction, because too many commentators often think they are making reference to the context of moral functioning by saying things like “morality = biology + education,” when in reality they are still just clinging to reified illusions of discrete biological and environmental causes, when all such causality is synergistic, and only makes sense in such systemic terms. 

    It is fortunate for my argument that current trends in biology and neuroscience are actually moving towards a more systemic approach which, despite having its own problems, is much closer to the thought-world that I advocate than the framework moral enhancement thinkers are usually confined within. Too many philosophers in moral enhancement discourse simply have not caught up with the current science, and still trumpet the simplistic old reductive claims, even though they are long out of date. Because of these new trends I can respond to those saying that I am being “unscientific” or “antiscientific” by pointing to the increasing dominance of systems biology which so devastatingly undermines the core of their so-called scientific, reductive thinking about moral functioning. 

    Now, forgive me for the long and tangential way of arriving at your questions, but elaboration of this very particular and unorthodox (actually, anti-orthodox) framework, is required so that we can see very clearly why the questions you have asked, though they are very pertinent and entirely reasonable questions given the conceptual atmosphere that surrounds us, are actually precisely the sorts of questions that we should not be asking, that should not be arising at all.

    To answer your first few questions, the evolutionary element of morality is a misdirection. In a very important way, it simply does not matter whether and why morality evolved, nor whether it was successful or not. We have to look to our current situations, our current problems, and deal with them as they are. Steven Rose, veteran neuroscientist and evolutionary biological thinker, has done great work in bursting many of our various “evolutionary psychology” myths, what Raymond Tallis has called “Darwinitis,” the idea that present human society is to be understood in terms of how things were for cavemen thousands and thousands of years ago. Rather, the human body and brain has an incredible plasticity and has a remarkable way of repurposing its various powers and faculties to deal with and adapt to its present situation. It does this very quickly. So all this talk we are so familiar with about current traits, like the human interest in gossip and celebrity magazines being a product of survival issues for Paleolithic man, or talk of “the lizard brain,” is all quite ludicrous and nonsensical. Persons’ brains reuse and reappropriate what they have in every new context and age that they find themselves. 

    Throughout, we have to look at the present times, and look to our present contexts and the nature of present problems. And I would strongly recommend to moral enhancement thinkers that they avoid the whole evolutionary tack when it comes to moral enhancement thinking. It really does not matter what types of morality are natural to our brains, if indeed any are natural, or whether psychopathy and narcissism have evolutionary purposes. Though I am glad you asked – once more, the really intriguing thing here is in discovering why those sorts of questions, so prevalent in the scientific and philosophical scene (they do just keep cropping up again and again), actually make no sense, how they distort the whole matter, and mislead commentators away from the real substance of the matter, which is looking at human problems as part of the larger systemic whole that they are. That is where moral bioenhancement, if we are to find it at all, must be discovered and put in to practice anyway. Any enhancement that does not respect the larger life, and lives, and societies it will be embedded within, will inevitably come apart.

    Finally, then, in response to your last set of questions, relating to diet, meditation, therapy, exercise, and their role in moral enhancement, some other important observations need to be made. We do not really know what kinds of interventions will improve moral functioning, beyond traditional means anyway (modeling, exemplars, narrative, setting social expectations, caring influences, and so forth). The problem is that not many persons in the enhancement discourse are looking beyond drugs and technology. Because we are so brain-centric, and continually trying to biologize all our problems (presumably because this gives us the illusion that we might be able to control all these problems with some magical technology or drug of some sort), the very idea that we might appeal to other things rarely occurs. 

    In contrast, I am reminded of Ed Bowden, inventor of optogenetics, being interviewed about emerging cognitive-stimulatory neurotechnologies, and getting asked what his favorite idea of cognitive enhancement was. He replied by saying as follows: “l like to take a nap.” That struck me as being a wise response, and it is one that very rarely occurs to those too enthusiastic about what technology or pharmacology can offer us. Certainly it is not the sort of response one would expect to find Michio Kaku frothing over, but sometimes these simpler answers set the context for a wiser overall approach.

    What your questions seem to point towards, correctly, is that various factors of enhancement need to be considered together. So, it is not so much that diet, exercise and meditation have any moral enhancement powers in themselves (nothing does, on its own, and that is the point), but when appropriated together as part of a larger project, they might have some role to play in the larger synergy depending on how they are applied. For example, in the book I speak at length about alcoholism as precisely the sort of issue that is beneficially dealt with by combining a biopsychosocial approach, that is, combining biological interventions alongside social therapeutic means, and in combination with other interventions such as meditation and prayer – incidentally, this is all exactly what current medical practice in the USA already recommends, which evidences my suggestion that in many ways moral bioenhancement already exists in its best form, precisely as multiscale and mélange. 

    Because of the systemic, nonlinear feedback relationship between the various implicated factors in complex problems, when treatments are properly biopsychosocial, the “whole” of the treatment becomes larger than the sum of its parts. Such treatments encourage greater agency and responsibility on the part of the patient rather than turning that person into someone passive and largely dependent on drugs and so forth, which is less healthy in the end. The whole thing needs to work together as part of some larger embracing framework, and then you get out more than what you put in. This is the sort of assumptive framework that moral bioenhancement enthusiasts need to embrace when talking about explicit, conscious attempts at moral bioenhancement. 

    In conclusion, when one starts thinking about moral bioenhancement in such synergistic terms, we should come to realize that too many enhancement enthusiasts have been mostly talking gibberish by focusing too heavily on the brain and on biology – an approach which leads us to ask the wrong questions, in the wrong ways. Then we can start making real progress here, in the present, by tackling our complex life-difficulties (such as moral difficulties are), in a deeper, wiser, and more sensitive way, rather attempting to biologize them all away, which never works anyway. If biological means can be brought to bear in any of this complex synergy, in a way that respects agency and larger social issues, then we may have something worth talking about as truly moral bioenhancement. But all interventions here must be looked at on a case-by-case basis, where the various applications are to be understood concretely and assessed on their own merits.

    Though I am against much of the standard terms in which the discourse is currently set, I do think that moral bioenhancement is possible (in some senses it already exists), and in some cases moral bioenhancement might well be very desirable indeed, but we do have ensure that we think very carefully when we propose any particular vision of moral enhancement about whether we are deceiving ourselves into pursuing the illusion of easy biological answers to problems that are not primarily biological to begin with, and to make sure that any interventions we do propose do not involve thinking of the human person as a passive machine whose moral functioning can be thought of in terms of cogs and levers to be manipulated at will. If we can constrain our thinking in these ways, moral bioenhancement discourse may very well be able to expand and breathe and grow more fruitfully.

    Hank Pellissier serves as IEET Managing Director and is an IEET Affiliate Scholar.

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