IEET > Vision > Directors > Mark Walker > CyborgBuddha
Genetic Virtue
Mark Walker   Nov 19, 2003   Permanent End  

Trinity College, University of Toronto

Department of Philosophy, McMaster University

Comments welcome:

1. Introductory: The Purpose of Ethics and Genetic Virtue

The idea that the unifying—and justifying—function of all our ethical categories is ultimately to make our lives go better, or to make the world a better place, is one that I find utterly compelling. If that is not the point of the whole business of moral thinking, then I find it difficult to imagine what the point might be. What else could morality be for? And if not for anything—if it has no point—what claim can it have on our allegiance? (Sumner, 1992)

Suppose we agree with Sumner: the point of ethics is to make our lives and the world better. Exactly how does ethics contribute to this project? Surprisingly, this issue is not discussed by ethicists as often as one might think. When it is ruminated, a common suggestion is that we should think of this task as a two-step process. In the first instance, ethical theorizing might provide us with a better understanding of our moral lives; what it would be for our lives and world to be better. In turn, this understanding might be used for implementation purposes: it might be used as a guide to transforming our world and ourselves. Most ethical discourse concentrates on the former task: attempting to grasp the nature of the “good life” and the “good world”, rather than the practical task of implementation. However, if we accept this two-part strategy then at some point we must ask: How is the ethical knowledge gleaned from our theorizing to be implemented? Historically, several answers have been offered here, among them is the idea that ethicists would encourage the dissemination of ethical understanding through education. In this connection we cannot forget that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, although a seminal text in the quest to understand our moral lives, was also intended for use by Aristotle’s students as an “education manual” for implementing the good life. Alternatively, it is suggested that ethical understanding might be implemented through the adoption of social norms, e.g., social pressures to recycle have increased in the last forty years or so. Another possible mechanism for implementation is through public policy. Here ideas about implementation run the gamut from Plato’s ‘philosopher kings’ to the present Presidential Bioethics Council in the U.S.A.

What these efforts share in common is that they are attempts to influence our nurture. The Genetic Virtue Program (GVP) is a proposal for influencing our biological natures. That is, it is an alternate yet complimentary means by which ethics and ethicists might contribute to the task of making our lives and our world better. The basic idea is simple enough: genes influence our behavior, so altering the genes of individuals may alter the influence genes exert on behavior. Engineering genetic virtue, then, would mean promoting genes that influence the acquisition of the virtues. In terms of actual laboratory practice, this might be realized in several ways including selecting human embryos with desirable genes or genetically engineering human zygotes. Whether the GVP can be brought to fruition depends on the resolution of a number of empirical and conceptual issues. The purpose of this essay is to discuss some of these—if only in broad strokes.

One topic that will not be addressed here is the general question of whether we ought to use technology to our biological natures. The question of whether to use biotechnology to enhance persons may prove to be the most profound of our century, if not the most profound that humanity has ever had to confront. I will not argue the point here, but it seems to me that a proper assessment of the question of whether we ought to proceed with this project will depend in part on an assessment of its potential benefits and harms. Since I will argue that the GVP is one possible benefit, the present effort might be seen as a small contribution to a discussion of a much larger question. In any event, for present purposes we shall assume that it has been decided that it is morally permissible to use biotechnology to enhance other (non-moral) aspects of our natures, e.g., to use genetic engineering to boost our immune systems, to make us physically more robust, and to enhance our intelligence. Our question is whether it is possible and desirable to add our moral natures to this list of items to be enhanced.

Given, as I have said, that the GVP may be seen as a complimentary means to working towards the goal of ethics, the rationale for the GVP might be difficult to see. After all, if we are not happy with current progress at making our lives and our world better, then why not simply redouble our current efforts on the socialization side? While such intensified efforts may be a good thing, no amount of exertion in this direction promises to make progress against a long-standing source of pessimism in ethics. The pessimism I am referring to is known as ‘human nature’. Let me illustrate this pessimism with a story I heard on the news this morning.[1] A group of about 90 teenagers participated in a vicious altercation involving the use of bats and knives. This violent incident left one youngster dead and three hospitalized in critical condition. Now if I told you that this altercation happened in some impoverished and war-torn part of the world we might lay the blame for this at the feet of “our nurture”, that is, a failure to provide the right sort of social milieu in which virtue might flourish. As it happens, this was not the case. This tragic event occurred in an affluent part of Canada, and Canada is one of the most affluent countries in the world. So, the incident cannot be explained in terms of something like systemic poverty. Indeed, Canada is consistently rated among the best places on earth to live. If socialization or “nurturing” has failed in Canada, is there any hope that this sort of evil will ever be eradicated from the world? I should say that I understand ‘evil’ here in the generic sense that covers such acts as the raping and killing of children, battering of women, torturing of animals for pleasure, war, and so on.

This news item is sad in a number of ways. It is sad to think of the teenager who lost his life, and sad for his friends and family. It is sad to think of the teenagers who were hospitalized, and sad for their friends and family. Indeed, it is sad to think of any of the teenagers involved in this incident for they may remember for the remainder of their lives being part of a murderous mob. Sad too is how this incident is so unremarkable: it is but a small variant on a tale told throughout our world, and throughout our history. Why does this sort of tragic incident happen with such depressing frequency? One answer to this question is that we have defective natures, morally speaking. This reply has a long history, e.g., it is a view that can be found in the Bible, with the Ancient Greeks and contemporary anthropological scholarship (Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois, 2004). Suppose we accept this, what would it mean for the prospects for humanity? Here we might be reminded of Hegel’s famous description of human history as a “slaughter bench” (Hegel, 1956:35). At least in terms of the number of deaths we have inflicted upon one another, the slaughter bench metaphor is perhaps apt.[2] On the other hand, it underestimates the extra initiative that so many humans are capable of: the senseless killing and the gratuitous cruelty. A real slaughter bench, after all, has at least ostensibly the good purpose of producing food. If we accept the conjecture that we are innately evil, then we have some reason to suppose that we are not likely to completely escape this slaughter bench. For sure, we may be able to minimize evil through better socialization, but we may never be able to eliminate it, so long as our natures remain unaltered. The implication for ethics is clear: if one of the aims of ethics is to eradicate evil, then there may be a limit to the degree to which this aim can be realized through processes of socialization and education alone.

Is there any reason to accept the conjecture that at least some evil in the world is due to our biological nature? Certainly a negative response has some proponents (particularly in the social sciences and the humanities). In this connection the idea is that, at least morally speaking, we are sufficiently “plastic”, so moral failures are failures in our socialization. As intimated, some evidence against this conjecture is that evil exists in every known human society—a point made well by Kant (1998: 56-57),.[3] This cannot be emphasized enough. The point is not that evil exists in certain societies, but that it exists in every single society.  To say this is not to deny that nurture has no effect, or only a small effect, for it seems pretty clear that people can be socialized to be more evil (e.g., the Hitler youth movement), and societies can attempt to nurture or socialize their members better. But in either case, there are ethical failures. It seems to me that the only sort of response for someone who thought that nurture or education might yet overcome this history would be to suggest that we just haven’t cracked the “ethical code” yet: perhaps we are missing key ethical concepts that will help our theorizing, or we might somehow get better at implementing the results from ethics. One reason that this seems like wishful thinking is that we have ample evidence that our genes influence the sorts of behavioral traits we might acquire (see below). I grant, however, that this is ultimately an empirical conjecture that may prove false. As we shall see, the GVP, if it is initiated, may shed some light on the extent (if any) that genes influence our moral behavior.

In a way this conjecture about our biological natures is quite humdrum, for it says merely that some evil is due to our nature. This leaves plenty of scope for disagreement in terms of the nature versus nurture debate. Thus, even if we agree that at least part of the problem lies in our nature, we could argue about percentages: someone heavy on the nurture side of the dispute might conjecture that perhaps our moral depravity is only 10% due to our natures and 90% our socialization, while someone heavy on the nature side might argue that 90% is due to our natures and 10% to our socialization. As we shall see, both are probably too extreme; the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. In any event, accepting this conjecture rules out only the extreme nurture possibility, namely, that all evil could be eradicated if only we could socialize ourselves better. Once more, it seems to me that this issue is an empirical one, which the GVP may shed some light on.

2. The GVP Division of Labour

Thus far I have discussed (at a very abstract level) the idea that there may be significant limits to what ethics can achieve with our extant biological nature. Given the enormity and scope of the issues involved, I can only outline how the GVP might attempt to overcome this problem. Let us look first at how the GVP might proceed as an interdisciplinary effort, and then in later sections discuss a number of empirical and ethical points raised by this proposal.

To take seriously the idea of using biotechnology to alter our ethical natures requires some sort of “bridge” or “common language” between ethics and the biological sciences. Ultimately, we need some way to relate the ethical ideal of what it is for us to be better persons on the one hand, with the four molecules of DNA: adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine. Cast in this light the task may seem impossible: How could a string of molecules relate to our ethical ideals?

Despite the seeming impossibility here, I want to argue that we might construct a bridge via the idea of ‘enduring behaviors’. As a first approximation, we can see a connection in the idea that theories of virtue typically focus ‘on long-term characteristic patterns of action’. (Louden, 1984). Thus, Aristotle says that virtuous acts “must spring from a firm and unchangeable character” (1105a). Augustine writes of virtue that it “is a good habit consonant with our nature”, and Aquinas offers a similar definition, “an operative habit essentially good”. Approached from the side of science, the study of what psychologists term ‘personality traits’ encompasses the idea of ‘enduring behaviors’: “personality traits are conceived as enduring behaviors that are stable across time and situations” (Pervin and John, 1999).  The connection to genetics is based on research that suggests, “nearly all personality traits show moderate heritability” (Plomin et al. 2001: 235).  Since genes influence enduring behaviors, it might be possible to use biotechnology in a manner that would promote the virtue; and thus a means to improve ourselves morally speaking.

Let us now think in a bit more detail about how this interdisciplinary bridge building might proceed. In thinking about the contribution of ethics, we will need to make a couple of assumptions to get started. One is that we seek to cultivate the virtues of truthfulness, justice and caring for others. We will postpone until a later section the question of justifying inclusion of these among our list of virtues. The other assumption is that exhibiting ‘virtuous-like behavior’ is sufficient for virtue, e.g., it is sufficient for the virtue of truthfulness that one exhibits truthful behavior. This is of course a controversial assumption, one that has been denied by ethical theorists from Aristotle onwards. Aristotle says that exhibiting ‘virtuous like behavior’ is necessary but not sufficient for virtue.[4]  We will refer to this as the ‘behaviorist condition’. It too will be discussed in more detail below.

One of the primary contributions of ethics would be to describe the concepts of virtue, and the sorts of behavioral manifestations of the virtues. So, one of the tasks of ethics is to describe the sort of behavior that we would expect to see in persons who exhibit the virtues of truthfulness, justice and caring. This is (obviously) not a new task for ethics.  Aristotle, for example, discusses (all too briefly) the virtue of truthfulness in the Nicomachean Ethics. He depicts the person who exhibits the virtue of truthfulness as occupying the “mean” between boastfulness on the one hand, and self-deprecation on the other: “He is truthful in life and his speech; he admits to the qualities he possess and neither exaggerates nor understates them” (1127a). Such a person is “truthful in speech and his life simply because it is part of his character” (1127b). Aristotle characterizes the truthful person mostly by reference to the extremes noted: a truthful person does not overstate her accomplishments like the boastful person, nor does she understate her accomplishments like the self-deprecating sort. Both types of persons, says Aristotle, are deceitful, although he finds the boaster to be more worthy of blame. It is exegeses like Aristotle’s that may help us understand the nature of the virtue of truthfulness, however, Aristotle’s short description of this virtue is notoriously incomplete. For example, Aristotle says that “For a man that loves truth and who is truthful when nothing is at stake will be even more truthful when something is at stake” (1127b). There is, however, serious disagreement concerning what a virtuous person ought to do when something is at stake. For example, if your Aunt asks whether you like her new pink and purple polka dot dress, do you lie and spare her feelings, or do you tell the truth and hurt her feelings? Similarly, when the Nazis come to your door and ask whether there are any fugitives in your house, do you tell the truth and condemn the fugitives to death; or do you lie? There are a number of ways of dealing with these problems (which we won’t discuss), but the point here is that ethical theorizing about virtue should help us understand the nature of a virtue like truthfulness, and assist in articulating the behaviors that we should expect of individuals who possess them.

Similar remarks apply to the virtue of ‘justice’. Often justice is thought of as an attribute that applies on the social level: a just society or an unjust state, etc. However, the idea that it is a virtue that might be attributed to individuals is not something that has been completely lost (Slote, 2002). If you are supposed to split a pie evenly with your roommate, and he ends up eating three pieces leaving you only one, you certainly might claim that what he has done is unjust. Aristotle distinguishes a number of senses of ‘justice’ including being “fair”, with the corresponding vice of injustice being that of “unfairness” (1129a). Of course there is much disagreement as to exactly what “fairness” amounts to and exactly what a just person would do in certain circumstances, and so it is the continuing mission of ethics to understand the virtue of justice and to articulate the expected behaviors of a just person.

The virtue of caring refers to behavior that seeks to promote the good of others. A paradigmatic case is the care that parents exhibit for their children (Noddings, 1984). As Slote (2000) argues, a philosophically satisfactory account of caring must consider our obligations not only to those who we are intimately acquainted, but with distant or unknown others: “We must…distinguish caring about intimates from humanitarian caring about people generally, and the real question that faces an ethic of caring is how to combine (in a theory that prescribes for individuals and also in the individuals themselves) these two kinds of morally worthy concern” (337). Slote argues that we must seek to balance the caring of intimates with humanitarian caring, i.e., that we must acknowledge the ethical obligation of each. If we accept this, there is still the question of how to decide how this balance ought to be struck. Perhaps an appeal to another virtue like justice might help here, or perhaps some other ethical principle. In any event, it would be part of the task of ethics to attempt to articulate a theory that addresses such concerns, and then articulate the sorts of actions or behaviors we should look for in those that exhibit the virtue of caring.

One of the tasks of psychology is to utilize the description of the virtues provided by ethics in order to identify the degree to which individuals exhibit the relevant virtues. With the three virtues under discussion, it would be a matter of finding the extent to which persons exhibit the virtues of truthfulness, justice and caring. Certainly this is no easy task. For example, many personality assessments conducted by psychologists use self-report questionnaires. There may be problems with using such questionnaires with respect to self-reporting of virtuous and vicious behavior that are not present with more morally neutral personality characteristics such as shyness/extrovertedness. Fortunately, psychologists often exhibit great guile in making subjects reveal aspects of their personality that they might prefer to remain hidden.

Another task of psychology is to provide an “analytic of virtue”.  This type of task is already practiced by psychologists when they investigate “complex” behaviors, e.g., psychologists investigate the personality trait of “extroversion”, yet extroversion includes subtraits like sociability, activity, impulsiveness, dominance, sensation seeking, and liveliness (Plomin, et. al, 2001: 237). The parallel in the case of virtues involves examining the question of whether virtues are ‘complex behaviors’, and then perhaps looking for the component parts of these behaviors. For example, suppose that the virtue of caring is a global trait. Subtraits might include personality characteristics such as nurturing, protection, empathy, and the emotional and physical comforting of others.

The relation between global personality traits and subtraits is a complex and contested issue; different models describe these relations differently. That is, competing theories of personalities will “slice the pie” in different ways, e.g., two different theories of personality may agree that extroversion is a complex trait, but disagree about which subtraits it includes. Furthermore, there is even an issue as to the number of levels of analysis. We noted the view that sensation seeking is a subtrait of extroversion, yet sensation seeking itself is sometimes further analyzed into ‘disinhibition’ (sensation seeking in social situations such as parties), and thrill seeking (seeking physically risky activities), experience seeking (seeking novel experiences of the senses or the mind), and boredom susceptibility. The large overlap in subject’s scores on the subtraits of sensation seeking suggests that genetic factors are largely responsible (Eysenck, 1983). So, an analytic of virtue might tell us that what from the point of view of ethics seems like two virtues, e.g., the virtue of caring and the virtue of kindness, there is a single underlying psychological character trait. Conversely, an “analytic of virtue” might tell us that what looks like a single virtue from the point of view of ethics, is actually best viewed as two or more virtues. For instance, perhaps a psychology of the virtue of caring will reveal that a virtue of caring is best understood as two quite distinct types of behaviors, if (say) the psychological underpinnings of humanitarian caring turn out to be quite distinct from that of caring for intimates.[5]

Psychology would also be involved in assessing whether virtues (or subtraits of virtues) have a heritable component. Measuring heritability is done in a number of ways including looking at evidence from studies conducted on twins, familial lines, and adoption. Here the task of psychologists is to try to assess how and to what degree a personality trait is attributable to an inherited (genetic) component, and how much is due to environmental influence. Of course there is no reason to suppose that the heritability component of all virtues and their subtraits will be the same. It is possible, for instance, that the virtue of caring might have a heritable component with respect for our caring of intimates, but not for our humanitarian caring.

One of contributions of geneticists to the GVP is to identify the gene or genes associated with the relevant virtues or subtraits of virtues. Having identified the relevant genes, the practical execution of the GVP could theoretically proceed in at least two different ways. We could use pre-implantation diagnosis to select those embryos that show the greatest promise for learning virtuous behavior, or we could use genetic engineering techniques to alter extant embryos to exhibit more of the desirable genes (and fewer of the undesirable genes). We already have (and use) technology to do pre-implantation sorting of embryos, so there is no technological reason why this technology could not be used as soon as we identify promising gene sequences. Genetically engineering humans to insert promising genes is not an established procedure today, but promising developments indicate the possibility that this technology should be available in the first part of this century.[6]

It perhaps goes without saying that this schema of the division of labor is only a rough approximation. For instance, ethicists may well participate with psychologists in the process of articulating an analytic of the various virtues, so the divisions here are not absolute. Furthermore, there will likely be feedback loops between the various disciplines, e.g., our understanding of how genes contribute to behaviors may change our taxonomy of virtues, etc.

3. Empirical Questions

We have seen, at least in outline, how the GVP might proceed. In this section we will look at the question of the empirical plausibility of the GVP and then in the next section turn to ethical questions.

In terms of empirical plausibility, the GVP might be examined in light of its commitment to three key hypotheses,

H1: There are character traits, and virtues (or vices) are among these.

H2: At least some virtues and vice have a heritable component.

H3: We can detect and control the genes responsible for this heritable component.

H1 is so embedded in our folk psychology that it may even be difficult to see that it is indeed an empirical hypothesis. However, the idea that a person’s personality determines their behavior has been challenged in social psychology by “situationist theorists” who argue that a person’s behavior is determined by their situation. Personality theorists side with folk psychology in claiming behavior is determined by the personality of an individual. A consequence of the personality view, for example, is that we ought to expect people to act in characteristic ways across different situations because their personality remains (relatively) invariant. Milgram’s famous experiment (Milgram, 1963) is often used to illustrate the difference between the competing theories. In one version of the experiment, subjects were led to believe that they were participating in an experiment in learning which involved them as “the teacher” administering an electrical shock for every wrong answer on a test to a second subject (“the learner”). However, “the learner” was actually a conspirator and no electric shocks were administered.  The ominous device for administrating shocks had a dial with settings at 15 volt increments ranging from 15 to 450 volts. What many found shocking (as it were) was the degree to which subjects were willing to comply with the experimental protocol. In one round of the experiment, all the subjects continued up to the 300 volt level, and 26 out of 40 subjects continued with the experiment right up to 450 volts. This despite the fact that the device for administrating the electrical shocks had labels such as “very strong shock” at 150 volts, “extremely intense shock” at the 300 level, and “danger severe shock” at the 400 volt setting. The “learner” acted out the part of being shocked by pounding on the wall at the 300 and 315 level and then after that making no sound.

How should we interpret these well-known experimental results? The situationist says that behavior here is best explained by the situation that subjects found themselves in, the personality theorist will attempt to invoke some aspect of the subjects’ personality to explain this result. The relevance of this controversy in social psychology for virtue ethics is that, as we noted above, most understandings of the virtues invoke the idea of enduring personality traits[7], so if there are no personality traits then there are no virtues (as traditionally conceived). The debate over personality traits (obviously) involves enormously complex questions, and not surprisingly, there is a vast amount of empirical literature on this matter[8] as well as a growing philosophical literature.[9] Let me then just make a few brief points.

First, between the “pure personality” view and the “pure situationist” view of the explanation human behavior there is (obviously) the possibility of a “mixed view”: personality explains some aspects of our behavior, situations others.[10] The “mixed view” seems to be supported even by Walter Mischel’s work (who is often considered to be the progenitor of the situationist theory (Mischel, 1968)[11] and by many practicing social psychologists (Funder and Ozer, 2004). So long as at least some behavior is explicable in terms of agents’ personality, there remains the possibility that personality traits (including virtues and vices) are causally efficacious and something we may hope to improve upon.

      Second, it seems somewhat surprising that the Milgram experiment is so often cited by situationists, since it seems open to interpretation such that it provides excellent evidence of the personality theorists’ view. The personality theorist might say that people exhibit the character trait (or virtue) of fidelity. In this case perhaps the subjects see themselves as having made a promise to complete the experiment, and so they are acting in accordance with this character trait even in this unpleasant situation. This shows how robust the character trait of fidelity is. Alternatively, it might be thought that people have the character trait of obeying authority. This might be a good thing in many cases, since it is good that people pay their taxes or pull over for ambulances. However, this character trait is so robust that even in cases where apparent harm is caused to others, people exhibit this character trait. This is not to suggest that the controversy might be settled so easily in favor of the personality theorist. To the contrary, it is to point out the difficulty of testing specific character traits (Funder, 2004; Kamtekar, 2004).

Third, the commitment to the personality view is not a commitment to the view that we have good characters. Consider, for example, the following comment by Harman:

But can we really attribute a 2 to 1 majority response to a character defect? And what about the fact that all subjects were willing to go at least to the 300 volt level? Does everyone have this character defect? Is that really the right way to explain Milgram’s results? (1999, p. 171).

Suppose we assume that the only way to interpret the results of the experiment from a personality theorist’s point of view is that everyone has this character defect. This in no way bears on the empirical question of whether the personality or situationist theorist is correct. One can quite consistently endorse the personality view, while maintaining that everyone has this character defect. In other words, unless it is assumed a priori that research cannot discover that people in general have bad characters, the experiment is open to this interpretation (Annas, 2003; Kamtekar, 2004).[12]

Fourth, while personality theorists attempt to explain differences in behavior in terms of differences in personality, it does not follow (as it is sometimes thought) that personality theorists have no explanation for similarity in behavior. One obvious way to explain this is by the appeal to the idea that many of us share at least some of the same personality characteristics. Milgram’s experiment again may be used to illustrate this point. His research was prompted by reflection on the question of why so many Germans during World War II went along with the orders of the Nazi regime. He predicted that Americans would not be so compliant when confronted with authority figures. As it turns out, he was wrong. Subsequent research has revealed that non Western societies tend to exhibit an even stronger degree of compliance to authority (Smith and Bond, 1999). The fact that there is a certain amount of cross-cultural uniformity here is at least consistent with the hypothesis that obedience to authority is a personality trait, and one that might have a heritable component.[13]

Evidently this is not the place to attempt to decide this almost forty-year old controversy between personality and situation theorists, and the relatively new controversy about how this relates to the issue of virtues. My intention here is to indicate that there is at least some empirical support for H1. This issue is certainly one that the GVP would have to address in more detail.

Consider now H2: What evidence do we have that virtues and vices are heritable, i.e., at least partly influenced by genetic factors? Let me say up front that the empirical evidence is somewhat circumstantial. However, the evidence that we have points to an affirmative answer. We noted that systematic studies of the entire field of behavioral genetics reveal that personality traits typically exhibit a significant heritable component, often in the range of 30 to 50%. That is, a difference in our genes can explain 30 to 50% of the difference we see in personality characteristics of individuals.

Let us look at more specific cases: does the virtue of truth-telling and the vice of lying have a heritable component? Some suggestive evidence comes from the animal kingdom. Deception is a common tactic among animals and there is extensive literature on deception that covers the whole range of biological species (Gintis, 2000).  Some apes, for example, have been observed making cries signaling that they have discovered an abundance of food. When others of their troop move towards the source of the cry, the “liar” doubles back to the real source of food.

Admittedly, evidence such as this is suggestive, but hardly decisive. For a start, there is the question of the relation between “deception” and lying. It might be thought, for example, that lying involves certain intentional states while deception does not. Furthermore, even supposing that we believe that the ape in this case is lying, it does not follow that this is a heritable trait in apes. Such lying may be a matter of ape nurture rather than nature. Finally, even if we believe that lying in apes is heritable, obviously it does not follow that such heritability has been conserved in humans. What is nature in apes could possibly be a matter of nurture in humans. So, what follows is that we should bear such difficulties in mind when we examine animal models for possible evidence of the heritability of virtues or subtraits of virtues. What does not follow is that animal models cannot be suggestive of a heritable component in the virtues of humans.

There is evidence of a heritable component in certain cases where individuals exhibit the vice of untruthfulness or lying. This vice is part of a subtrait of what the DSM-IV categorizes as ‘anti-social personality disorder’ (ASP). Lying is among the criteria for diagnosing ASP as are other behaviors such as irresponsibility, aggressiveness, irritability and recklessness. A number of studies have shown that ASP has a heritable component (Niggs and Goldsmith, 1994; Grove et al., 1990; and Loehlin, Willerman and Horn, 1987).

On the assumption that we could reduce the incidence of ASP through the modification of gene frequency in a population, we may have contributed to the promotion of the virtue of truthfulness. The reasoning is that by reducing the incidence of the vice of untruthfulness in a population then the virtue of truth-telling is likely to rise. Naturally, it does not follow from the fact that lying is associated with a personality disorder like ASP, that truth-telling shows heritability within the general population. One question that the GVP should investigate is the extent to which truth-telling is a heritable trait in the general population.

Some evidence for the conjecture that the virtue of justice has a heritable component again is derived from analogies from the animal world. For example, Frans B. M. de Waal (1996) has put forward the interesting and controversial thesis that other primates possess a moral life. De Waal argues that social hierarchy in Java-monkey society is often determined by the alliances that the individual is able to form as opposed to merely their individual physical prowess. According to de Waal, such alliances are akin to a moral contract much like mutual aid pacts in human society. De Waal has observed that not honoring an alliance can result in a temporary suspension of troop hierarchy while “justice” is served. Thus, de Waal relates the case of an alpha male who enlisted the help of one of his allies, a high-ranking female, to drive-off a rival male. The rival male had a habit of punishing allies of his rivals, so eventually he confronted the female. When confronted with this aggression, the female extended her hand in search of support from the alpha male. When no support from the alpha male came she became quite agitated. She barked and chased the alpha male across the enclosure and pummeled him. The troop hierarchy in this case was temporarily suspended while the female “served justice”.  This “moralistic” aggression, according to de Waal, is not uncommon among primates (p.97).

Further evidence for a heritable component to justice stems from the work of Kohlberg and others. Kohlberg (1984) argues that justice figures centrally in our moral reasoning and that there is an ontogeny to human moral reasoning. Kohlberg describes the (normal) pattern of human moral reasoning as proceeding through six stages of development.[14] An examination of Kohlberg’s theory would take us too far afield here. What is important for our purposes is not whether Kohlberg is correct that there are six stages of our moral development, but the more general claim that humans exhibit some sort of invariant developmental sequence in our reasoning about justice.[15] It is the idea that there are cross-cultural invariants to this progression in our moral reasoning that provides some support to the idea that there is a heritable component to the virtues of justice and injustice. For if individuals develop their reasoning and behavior about justice in a similar manner irrespective of the culture they live in, then one potential hypothesis is that this invariant developmental trajectory is under genetic influence. Thus, one avenue of research for the GVP is to gather evidence on the question of whether humans invariably proceed through a particular developmental trajectory.

One aspect of the virtue of justice may involve considerations of how we judge and react to those who cheat or renege on social contracts that specify various forms of exchange. Cosmides and Tooby in a series of papers (Cosmides 1989, Tooby and Cosmides 1990, Cosmides and Tooby 1992) have suggested a bold hypothesis that humans may have developed specialized neurological structures (a mental module) for detecting those who cheat on social contracts. The reasoning, in a nutshell is this: if cheats go undetected they can quickly undermine the cohesion and viability of a social group, so there may have been tremendous evolutionary pressures to develop specialized structures to deal specifically with the problem of social cheats. This is not the place to discuss in detail their evidence for this conjecture, so a single example will have to suffice. One experiment they ran involved having subjects reason using a rule that can be expressed as the logical rule “If P then Q”. When the rule had as its content non-social contract themes, subjects were able to get the right answer only about 25% of the time. When the content was switched to social contract subject matter, subjects were able to get the right answer about 75% of the time. The suggestion then is that the “cheat detecting” module operates in cases involving social contract subject matter. If they are correct about the specialized neurological structures then this suggests (although by no means necessitates) the idea that cheat-detecting might be heritable. If these specialized structures have a heritable component, and such judgments about cheats are part of the virtue of justice, then we would have some reason to believe that at least some subtraits of the virtue of justice are heritable.

When we turn to the virtue of caring we see analogues in the animal kingdom. Paradigmatic examples are the care animal parents provide for their offspring, but examples are not limited to such cases. Animals extend care in the form of nurturance and protection to others that are unrelated. Consider for instance the following moving example described by de Waal and Lanting (1997). A sick pygmy chimp (bonobo) was introduced into a new enclosure with other bonobos. As it was new, it did not understand the daily cleaning and feeding routine and it became quite upset when it was unable to understand the angry commands issued by its human caretakers in its new home. Other (unrelated) bonobos took the ill chimp by the hand and led him in the right direction. Here we might think that the chimps exhibited the virtue of caring while the human caretaker exhibited the vice of uncaring. Nature is replete with such acts of caring between related and unrelated individuals. In the past it was thought that such care (or altruism) defies the logic of Darwinian natural selection, but thanks to the work of Hamilton (1964) and Trivers (1971) it seems that we have a viable framework to explain such acts of altruism.

Some evidence for the heritability of the virtue of caring in humans may be seen in the personality trait of ‘agreeableness’. ‘Agreeableness’ is part of the “Big Five” or Five-Factor Model of personality (Goldberg, 1990). The “Big Five” include the traits of Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. These are considered complex traits. ‘Agreeableness’ includes the subtraits of being good-natured, trusting, helpful, and compassionate. Those that score low on the agreeableness scale are irritable, uncooperative and unsympathetic. Now as we have said, one of the tasks of the GVP would be to make ethics and behavioral genetics “speak the same language”, but I think it is pretty clear that at least some of what we might mean by the ‘virtue of caring’ is covered by the notion of ‘agreeableness’ as it is investigated by psychologists. Those that are described by such character traits as ‘helpful and compassionate’ by psychologists may be much more likely to exhibit the virtue of caring, while those that are ‘irritable and unsympathetic’ are more likely to exhibit the vice of uncaring. Recent studies indicate that ‘agreeableness’ has a moderate heritable component (Jang et al., 1996; and Jang et al., 1998). The implications of this for the GVP are clear: if we could locate the genes associated with agreeableness, and increase their frequency, then we may increase the virtue of caring in a population and reduce the vice of uncaring.

H3 says that we can discover and control the genes that contribute to virtue and vice. What evidence is there for this? To see what is being asked here, suppose for the moment that we have good solid evidence that certain virtues, or at least components of virtues, have a heritable component, just as in some of the better-studied personality traits. Since our evidence for this is likely to be twin studies or family studies that show concordance of scores on personality measures, such indications of heritability in themselves say only that there is a genetic component to these behaviors. These studies tell us nothing about how individual genes contribute to the heritability of the traits. We knew long before the discovery of genes or DNA that there is a heritable component to gay sexual preference. Of course this told us nothing about where on the human genome the relevant genes lie. Similarly, if we discover that virtues have a heritable component there is still the question of whether geneticists will be able to discover the associated genes. The problem here is that complex behaviors like virtues, if they are heritable at all, will likely be the result of a number of different genes interacting simultaneously. The task for the geneticist is doubly complicated, for not only is no gene in such a system sufficient for expression of the trait; often genes can work interchangeably, which means that many genes might not be necessary for the expression of a given trait. Geneticists refer to genes that operate in multiple-gene systems quantitative trait loci (QTL).

This is not the place to review the problems posed by QTL, or the powerful techniques that are currently being used and developed to tackle the QTL problem[16]. However, some considerable progress has already been made. For instance, recently investigators discovered candidate genes that might be responsible for some small portion of the observed heritability (Hammer, et al. 1994; Hammer, 2002) of gay sexual preference. Additional progress has been made by researchers who have discovered some of the genetic correlates of one of the subtraits of the aforementioned “Big 5” personality traits, namely, the personality trait of sensation-seeking (Benjamin, et al., 1996 and Ebstein et al., 1995). While the problems posed by QTL are not to be taken lightly, recent successes at such an early stage in our investigation of the human genome indicate that the problems may not be insurmountable.

I have described the empirical aspect of this project under three headings: the analysis of human action in terms of personality traits, looking for evidence that virtues (or their subtraits) are heritable, and discovering and controlling the mechanisms of this heritability. Whether this project will succeed, it is too early to say, although evidence we have examined is suggestive of a positive answer. Of course success here is not an all or nothing proposition. It may be that we can find a heritable component to some virtues and not others. For example, MacIntyre (1981) suggests that one virtue is having an appreciation of the historical nature of virtues. Perhaps this virtue has no heritable component, while other virtues have a much higher degree of heritability. There is no a priori reason to suppose that all virtues (or their subtraits) have the same degree of heritability.

What if the empirical evidence does not support the empirical hypotheses of the GVP? Even a negative result might prove useful. For instance, if we found that virtues do not have a heritable component, this might be useful in understanding how to make our lives and our world better. Let me say that this would be an extraordinary finding given the seemingly incontrovertible evidence that many aspects of our personality or character are heritable. Nevertheless, if we were to make such an extraordinary discovery it would at least provide some indication of how our future efforts should proceed, namely: continuing or expanding our efforts to disseminate the results of ethics through education and socialization. A more unfortunate outcome would be if we discovered that virtues have a heritable component, but that we are unable to discover or control this heritable component. This would tell us that there might be limits to how far we might make our lives and our world better. For it indicates that there may be limits to what we can do on the nurture or socialization side, since there is a heritable component to virtues and vices. I mention these possibilities only in the interest of completeness; neither seems likely.

Unlike the empirical aspects of this project, the potential ethical obstacles are perhaps easier to see at this stage. To these we now turn. 

4. Ethical Questions

It may seem as if the question of whether to alter our biology in an effort to improve ourselves, morally speaking, raises fundamentally new questions.  However, I will argue that given (as we assumed above) (1) that it is morally permissible to use biotechnology for non-moral human enhancements, and (2) that we should attempt to ethically improve ourselves by using non-genetic means (e.g., through education and socialization), there is no reason why we should not do the same on the biological side. Specifically, to clarify the position let us distinguish between ‘non-indigenous’ and ‘indigenous’ objections to the GVP. By the former I mean objections that any attempt to implement our ethical understanding seems to face, i.e., whether implementation is achieved through socializing and educating ourselves and our descendents, or whether biotechnology is used in service of this end. ‘Indigenous objections’ refers to problems that arise exclusively in relation to the use of biotechnology for implementation. My thesis is that there are no good indigenous objections. This leads to a “companions in innocence” argument: any objection raised against the GVP has an analogue in socializing efforts. Since we do not take such objections to be decisive against nurturing attempts, they should not be considered decisive against the GVP.

Let us begin with an obvious point of criticism: the focus on virtues. Why should we accept the idea of influencing virtue rather than (say) using biotechnology to directly (without recourse to virtue) influence how agents pursue the right or the good? A Kantian, perhaps, might enjoin us to use biotechnology to make our wills holy (to remove any contrary inclination to our acting out of a rational understanding of what is required of us by duty (Kant, 1998a)). A utilitarian might hope to implant in agents an overwhelming drive to maximize utility. So what is the basis for rejecting these alternatives?

In terms of what the argument here presupposes, there are two replies that may be made. First, the thesis here is that the GVP may prove to be a sufficient condition for improving ourselves morally speaking, not that it is a necessary or even the best means to achieve this end.[17] If such alternatives could be developed into serious proposals then we would examine the relative merits of each. Relatedly, it should be noted that one thing the focus on virtues does not commit us to is endorsing what is sometimes known as ‘virtue ethics’. Recently, virtue ethics has joined (or perhaps rejoined) consequentialism and deontology as one of the major theoretical options in normative ethics.[18] The debate, and even the appropriate way to cast the debate, is a much contested issue. One formulation says the primary issue is whether ethical theorizing should take ‘virtue’, ‘the good’ or ‘the right’ as the fundamental concept.[19] Typically, however, the question is not whether one of these three ethical notions may be dispensed with altogether. What this means is that consequentialism and deontological theories may (and, indeed, often do) have a role for virtue, but virtue may play some derivative role in the explanatory scheme. Kant, for example, is often understood as a paragon of the deontological position but he sees an important role for virtue in our lives (Louden 1986 and O’Neil, 1996). A number of consequentialists too, including Bentham and Mill think there is an important role for virtues in our lives and moral theorizing.[20] Very roughly, consequentialists might see virtue as a disposition to promote the good, while deontologists might see it as a disposition to do what is right (Hurka, 2001, 3). So, while our argument relies on the assumption that virtue has some role to play in a satisfactory ethical theory, for otherwise it would not follow that making ourselves more virtuous would be a means to morally improve ourselves, this does not imply a commitment to ‘virtue ethics’ per se. So, the GVP stands not just with virtue ethics, but with any moral theory that sees an important role for virtue. This is not to say that this disagreement in normative ethics is irrelevant to the GVP: it may turn out, for example, whether when we examine a virtue like truthfulness it matters whether we conceive this virtue along the lines proposed by consequentialist, deontological or virtue ethics. The point here is that the general question of whether we ought to explore the GVP may be stated in a manner that is abstract enough not to presuppose a resolution to the disagreement amongst consequentialists, deontologists and virtue ethicists.

Obviously the ‘companions in innocence’ point applies here: much of our (pre-theoretic) ethical practice assumes that virtues are important: we spend an enormous amount of energy attempting to socialize ourselves to be virtuous, e.g., in teaching our children not to be liars, to be just persons, and to be caring persons. If the GVP is wrong in attempting to promote virtue as a means to make ourselves morally better, then much of our current implementation practice is mistaken as well.

Similar points apply to the question: Why these virtues? The three we considered, truthfulness, justice and caring, are ones that we attempt, by and large, to inculcate in ourselves and in our children. So, any criticism directed to the inclusion of one or more of these on our list of virtues would be also a point against our current socialization efforts. Ethical theorists disagree about the contents of a satisfactory list of virtues, and our list certainly has a contemporary ring to it, but there is at least a certain amount of agreement that at least one of these virtues is important. The virtue of caring, for example, has taken more prominence recently due in large measure to feminist theorizing. (Noddings, 1984 and Slote, 2000). However, caring seems to have analogues in other more traditional means of describing the virtues, e.g., Foot includes ‘generosity and kindness’ which may be very similar to what is meant by the virtue of caring (1978). Once we see this, it seems clear that the three virtues we have focused on have a very traditional cast to them. Aristotle, for example, holds that truthfulness and justice are virtues, and perhaps had some sense of the idea of caring for others in his idea of the virtue of generosity. Even Nietzsche seems to qualify for having some interest in this list of virtues, for example, Nietzsche placed enormous emphasis on truth (1973, sec. 227).[21] Furthermore, the general approach might be of interest to those (radicals) whose list of virtues does not include any of these.[22]

Next let us look at several versions of the objection that (at best) the GVP offers only a simulacra of virtue, not virtue itself. One way to make this point would be to focus on the behaviorist conception of virtue.[23] Recall that we assumed above that the behaviorist condition is sufficient for virtue, and noted there is a long tradition tracing back at least as far as Aristotle that understands the behaviorist condition as offering only a necessary condition for virtue.[24] The thought, then, is that we should reject the GVP because it utilizes an impoverished conception of virtue.

There are two responses that can be made to this line of objection. The first is that this behaviorist conception of virtue is not indigenous to the GVP but has also been invoked by other theorists, e.g.,  it finds a natural home in some forms of consequentialism: virtues are simply those character traits that tend to promote the good. That is, at least some consequentialists might think it unnecessary or undesirable to build anything more into the notion of virtue, for example, the idea that the agent has certain attitudes towards their behavior. Thus, Bentham writes of virtues: “It is with disposition as with everything else: it will be good or bad according to its effects: according to the effects it has in augmenting or diminishing the happiness of a community” (1948, 246). So, Bentham does not require that the disposition be accompanied by the “right” sorts of intentions; indeed, he argues that even wishing ill on others is good so long as it is accompanied by pleasure (218). Julia Driver has recently argued for the following understanding of virtue: “A moral virtue is a character trait (a disposition or cluster of dispositions) which, generally speaking, produces good consequences for others” (1996, 122). Like Bentham, Driver argues that to insist that certain attitudes accompany the exercise of such dispositions is to misunderstand what is “definitive” of virtue (122). And so, the GVP would not need to stand alone in saying that the behaviorist condition is a sufficient condition.

A second and much more important response is to note that the GVP is not necessarily wed to the idea that the behaviorist condition is sufficient for virtue. To see this, let us recall Aristotle’s definition of virtue. Aristotle argues that a properly virtuous person takes pleasure in his or her virtuous acts, in addition to three other conditions: “…first of all, he must know what he is doing; secondly, he must choose to act the way he does, and he must choose it for its own sake; and in the third place, the act must spring from a firm and unchangeable character” (1105a). So, Aristotle’s conception of virtue is more restrictive than the behaviorist conception, for it includes the behaviorist requirement ‘a firm and unchangeable character’, but imposes further requirements. What this means is that it is possible that those individuals who exhibit Aristotelian virtue form a proper subset of those individuals that meet the behavioral requirement. However, so long as we have some way of ascertaining whether individuals possess Aristotle’s additional conditions, the GVP could work with the Aristotelian notion. To see how this might be so, let us suppose that there are100 subjects who are participating in an experiment to differentiate those that possess the virtue of truthfulness from those that lack this virtue. Imagine further that the first round of the experiment is designed to distinguish those who meet the behavioral requirement, and 60 of the 100 subjects are found to exhibit truthful behavior. For those that hold that the behavioral condition is sufficient, the experiment might just as well end here. For an Aristotelian, further rounds are necessary to ensure that we have discovered the virtuous. We might suppose that a second experiment discovers that 5 of the remaining 60 do not take pleasure in their truth telling behavior, and so are eliminated from further study. Further investigation reveals that 5 more do not meet Aristotle’s knowledge condition, and 5 more do not meet his “choice” condition (perhaps we find that they are compulsive truth tellers). After this Aristotelian sorting, there would be 45 individuals left, but at this point then the GVP would proceed as before. The task would be to see if there is any basis for saying that there is a heritable component to the Aristotelian understanding of the virtue of truth telling.

Of course the point generalizes to any conception of virtues: so long as we have some way to sort people into those that have virtue X, and those that do not have virtue X, we can look to see if there is a heritable component by examining the two populations. The idea that we can sort people into those that are acting virtuously and those that are not seems to be presupposed in much of our moral practice and education. In fact, it would be hard to see the point of talk of educating ourselves to be virtuous if we could never tell when we are virtuous and when we are not. We tend to make judgments all the time such as ‘John is not particularly honest but Cheryl is’, or ‘Sara is a very caring person but her husband Steve is not’ all the time. So long as we can make such discriminations there is a chance that the GVP might work. Conversely, if this assumption is false then it would be a disaster for the GVP, but it would also be a disaster for most (if not all) conceptions of virtue that say that we might improve ourselves morally by improving our virtuousness. After all, if we can discriminate when virtues and vices are present or absent then how could we aim to improve? [25]

Perhaps it may be thought that this reply does not really speak to what is really troublesome about the GVP: if we genetically modify individuals to have what we consider to be desirable genes, then we are in effect programming our descendents through such manipulation. If this is the case, then they cannot be said to freely choose to act virtuously, and so they cannot be said to be truly virtuous. In other words, the objection is that the GVP violates a necessary condition for Aristotelian virtue: that virtuous actions are actions that are freely chosen. This is one reason, for example, why we might be disinclined to attribute the virtue of caring to a mother mouse providing nurturance and protection to her pups: her behavior is genetically programmed; it is not a choice on her part. Similarly, if we genetically manipulate individuals such that they are genetically programmed to offer nurturance and protection to others, this will not count as the exercise of the virtue of caring.

This objection does not introduce any new elements into our discussion, for the reply to this objection is implicit in what we have said above. What needs to be underscored is that the proposal is to use the genomes of persons we know to be virtuous as prototypes for making other virtuous people. Since, by hypothesis, the selected subjects are our exemplars of virtuous persons it is difficult to see why those that are selected or modified to be relevantly similar to the models in terms of genome would be precluded from being counted among the virtuous (simply because of their genome). Imagine that we have determined that Abdul is virtuous in exactly the way that Aristotle describes. We then make a genetic clone of Abdul. If Abdul’s genes did not prevent him from achieving virtue then how can we say that Abdul’s clone cannot be virtuous because of his genes? The answer, it seems, is that we cannot; at least not in virtue of his genes. A similar point applies to the case of using non-cloning techniques to promote certain gene sequences in our descendents. If we allow that we have discovered the more virtuous amongst us, and this virtuous group has a certain set of genes, then it is difficult to see how we could deny virtuousness to individuals created with similar gene sequences. Thus, so long as we have identified the virtuous group correctly in the first place, there is no reason to suppose that selecting or promoting gene sequences will suddenly lead to a loss of virtue. To think otherwise, I would suggest, is simply bio-chauvinism.

A different sort of reply to the “loss of freedom” objection turns on empirical considerations: the more we learn about the operation of genes in humans, the more it seems clear that genes influence but do not determine personality. So, even if we can find and promote genes that influence the incidence of the virtue of caring, this will not determine (that is, ineluctably make it the case) that individuals with such genes will be caring. In other words, individuals might not exhibit the virtue of caring even when they have the relevant genes. Genes that are associated with the virtue of caring might make it easier for individuals to learn the virtue of caring, but genes will not necessitate that the individuals exhibit virtue. This is perhaps an appropriate place to mention again that at best the GVP is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for realizing the goal of making our lives and our world as best as possible. Socialization and education, as always, will be necessary. A child that is selected for genes associated with the virtue of caring is not likely to exhibit this virtue if she is raised by wolves or otherwise cutoff from human contact. Similarly, if the child is raised in an environment where the vice of uncaring is rampant (say at a Nazi youth camp) then the child is not likely to exhibit the virtue of caring. As an analogy, consider altering the genome of a child to make them more intelligent. This in itself will not guarantee that the child will be intelligent or knowledgeable, a lot will have to transpire on the socialization side as well. Nevertheless, if the right environment for learning is provided we might expect an individual genetically modified for intelligence to learn more and learn it faster than an unmodified individual. Similarly, it is possible that individuals modified for genes associated with virtues may, given the correct environment, learn to be virtuous more rapidly and to a greater extent in comparison to an average unmodified individual. Thus, the hope of the GVP then is not to make persons virtuous, but to make them better equipped to learn how to be virtuous. In this sense, it is in agreement with Aristotle’s view that ‘the virtues arise in us neither by nature nor contrary to nature; we are naturally receptive of them, but we are completed through habit’ (NE 1103a23-6).” To this we might add that some are more naturally receptive (able to learn) than others.

It is perhaps worth noting that even per impossible it was the case that genes did determine the behavior of humans, this would not end the matter. For it may be that while genes determine certain behaviors, the genes themselves might be under the control of the virtuous individual. Genes might be manufactured such that they can be turned on or off by chemical signals, e.g., an injection of tetracycline might be used to turn off a gene (Stock, 2002). Supposing then that the genes associated with the virtue of caring could be turned off in this way, then individuals could be said to have a choice in whether they act in a caring way, even though their genes determine that they act in this way. For the choice not to take an injection to turn off the genes associated with caring is a means by which the individuals may express the choice to exhibit the relevant virtue. The parallel with virtues considered as habits of character is quite close. Aristotle, for example, sees the virtuous person as one for whom the virtues have become “second nature” or part of one’s character. The virtuous person acts almost reflexively in a virtuous manner: the virtuous person is almost reflexively (say) truthful or brave. This is not to say that Aristotle believes that the exercise of virtues is not a matter of choice for the virtuous person, it indicates only that it might require some effort and time to undo this “second nature” or aspect of one’s character. In a similar manner, even in the unlikely event that the possession of certain genes are sufficient for the production of certain behaviors, such as caring, this could still be considered a virtue where the agent can turn off the genes and eliminate the virtue.

Suppose it is conceded that in a future where the GVP has been implemented individuals may still be considered virtuous. Nevertheless, it might be objected that our descendents cannot be considered as virtuous as unmodified (or unselected) humans. The reason is that our biologically modified descendents will have a much easier time of acquiring the virtues than unmodified humans, and so, to the extent they are less praiseworthy than we are. The conclusion of this line of thought is that a world without the GVP is a morally better state of affairs, and hence, the GVP ought not to be implemented.

Our ‘companions in innocence’ strategy reveals the absurdity here. Let us suppose that Jill and Lil are identical twins adopted at birth by two different families that live in radically different societies.  Jill’s family lives in a society that has little regard for the virtues.  Accordingly, little is done in her society in general, and Jill’s family in particular, to help Jill learn how to be virtuous. By and large her moral role models are vicious individuals. Lil, in contrast, is raised in a family and society that goes to extraordinary lengths to socialize and educate its members about the virtues. Other things being equal, if Jill and Lil are equally virtuous then Jill seems more morally praiseworthy, given that she had more obstacles to overcome to become virtuous. After all, that Jill is virtuous at all seems a minor miracle given her social milieu, on the other hand we might expect that Lil would turn out to be virtuous given her environment. Nevertheless, clearly it would be absurd to think that we should conclude from this that we ought not to socialize or educate concerning the virtues. By educating the young about the virtues we hope to encourage as many people as possible to be virtuous and to be as virtuous as possible. Similarly, with the GVP we hope to make as many people as possible as virtuous as possible.

We have found no principled reason why we should not attempt to supplement our socialization efforts to make ourselves virtuous with biological efforts as well. It should be conceded, however, that there may be contingent factors that work against this strategy. For example, if implementing the GVP is very costly in terms of resources then perhaps we would be better to deploy these resources on the socialization side. Here we would be weighing the expected benefit of the program to its cost. Whether this is in fact a real concern will require the resolution of a number of empirical issues like how much increase in the ability to acquire the virtuous the GVP might deliver. This objection is contingent in the sense that we can imagine a future where the cost of the GVP declines, or we have greater resources. Another contingent impediment might be where bio-chauvinism is rampant. Imagine a future where individuals modified or selected according to the GVP are discriminated against by the larger society to such an extent that they are not permitted to engage in the sorts of social interactions many believe are necessary for the development of virtues. We might then forgo using the GVP because of the harm it would cause to these individuals.


The aim has been to show that the GVP is a proposal worth exploring.  As we noted above, the argument is predicated on two assumptions: that attempting to become more virtuous is a good thing, and that using biotechnology to enhance human biology is morally permissible. For many of us, reasons for believing the former are tied to the belief that there is an intimate connection between the degree of virtuousness of individuals and the degree to which our lives go well.[26] We tend to think of the virtues being implemented on the knees of parents, but this focus, as many have argued, ignores many other possible influences on the possibility of individuals learning to be virtuous. Theorists from Plato and Aristotle to Marx and MacIntyre have emphasized the socio-political realm as having a great influence on the possibility of individuals learning to be virtuous. This view seems to me to be correct, for it is a specific case of the more general point that we should examine all aspects of the development of persons if we hope to make ourselves as virtuous as possible. Of course I have been urging the view that our genes may influence how readily we are able to learn the virtues but there may well be other factors that are important which we don’t normally think of in terms of implementing the virtues, e.g., perhaps children who suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome are less able to acquire the virtues, as well, perhaps pollutants in the environment or the food we eat may negatively impact our potential to acquire the virtues. So, to suggest that the implementation of the GVP may be necessary to make ourselves into the sorts of moral beings that we might want to be is not to exclude attention to these other aspects of our development, nor to suggest that genes are the predominate influence.

The other assumption here is that it is morally permissible to use biotechnology to alter human biology. If there is good reason to show that any attempt to alter our genes is morally impermissible then, obviously, there may be good reason to reject the GVP. As we said above, the question of the GVP is embedded as part of this larger question. I would like to mention in passing, however, one way in which the GVP may be divorced from this assumption. Suppose one thinks that even though it is morally impermissible to alter human biology it is likely that at least some humans will attempt to do so. For example, the search is on for genes associated with human intelligence. If we think it is likely that humans will try to enhance intelligence then perhaps this might be good reason to proceed with the GVP. Here the thought process might be choosing between (1) Not using biotechnology to alter human biology. (2) Using biotechnology to enhance intelligence (or some other non-moral aspect of human biology. (3) Using biotechnology to enhance human intelligence (or some non-moral aspect of human biology), and attempting to implement the GVP. So, even if it is thought that (1) is the morally best option, if (1) is not likely to be enforceable, then there is still the possibility of thinking that (3) is a more morally desirable outcome than (2).

And what of the incident I mentioned concerning the youth who was killed during a massive brawl? Will this sort of incidence be a thing of the past if we were to implement the GVP? If such evil is rooted in our biological natures, then the GVP at least gives us some reason to hope.  In any event, the GVP, as far as I know, offers the only hope on the horizon that humans might remove themselves from the slaughter bench of history.


For comments and discussion I would like to thank: Anders Sandberg, Alison Miculan, Elizabeth Gedge, Brian Garrett, Ron Bailey, and Ric Arthur.


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[1] November, 2003.

[2] Keeley (1996) estimates, using samples from eight prehistoric societies, that about 15% of all men and women born in prehistoric times died as a result of warfare.

[3] Kant’s insight receives some confirmation in contemporary anthropological studies on war and violence ((Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois, 2004; Keeley, 1996).

[4] Aristotle, 1962, 1104a.  All further references to Aristotle will be given in the text according to the standard pagination.

[5] Perhaps the former is related to what ethnologists term ‘kin altruism’ while the latter is related to ‘reciprocal altruism’ (McFarland, 1995).

[6] One problem has been to get the desired genes into the appropriate place on the genome. Introducing genes with viruses or through microinjection has shown sporadic success. A more promising recent strategy is to add a whole additional (artificial) chromosome that contains the desired genes (Lewis, 2001).

[7] Indeed, as Annas (2003) suggests, without the idea of personality trait it is difficult to see what remains of the idea of virtue.

[8] Helpful entry points to this vast literature include: Ross and Nisbett (1991), Funder (2004) and Funder and Ozer (2004).

[9] See, for example, Annas, 2004; Athanassoulis, 2000; Doris, 1998 and 2002; Harman, 1999, 2001 and 2003; Rachana, 2004; Owen, 1991.

[10] Indeed, does anyone hold the pure personality view? Even our folk psychology allows for the possibility of people acting out of character because of their situation, e.g., revealing a secret to torturers.

[11] Mischel’s review (1968) of personality research suggested an average of correlation between behavior and character of 0.3.

[12] As Rorty (1997) points out, the Greeks did not share the widespread contemporary assumption about the egalitarian nature of virtues.

[13] Miligram (1974) speculates about some of the evolutionary reasons why this trait might have arisen amongst humans.

[14] Kohlberg’s original formulation had six stages, later he added a seventh stage.

[15] One of the most important critics of Kohlberg is Carol Gilligan (1982). Even Gilligan, however, does not question the idea that there are some cultural invariants to moral reasoning, although she does suggest there are gender differences.

[16] A good overview of the field can be found in Sorensen, D. and Gianola, D. (2002).

[17] Polemically, I would add that the direct Kantian strategy proposed (one that avoids talk of virtue) seems to run afoul on the problem that there is a singular lack of persons with holy wills in which to use as exemplars for guiding our research. Kant does allow that we can make sense of moral improvement, and that some persons are morally better than others, but these ideas are intertwined with his discussion of virtue. Once virtue is introduced then at least some aspects of the GVP may be relevant, see below. As for a direct strategy for utilitarianism, one might look for individuals who have a reliable disposition to maximize utility. Here we might wonder whether we have a real alternative to a virtue approach, since a reliable disposition to maximize utility looks very similar to saying that we ought to focus on a single virtue, the virtue of beneficience.

[18] Of course there has been enormous recent interest in virtue ethics with the work of Anscombe (1958) often thought to be instrumental in this revival. A brief overview of the remarkable “comeback” of virtue ethics can be found in Statman (1997, pp. 2-3). Schneewind (1990) argues that the idea that modern moral philosophy has neglected virtues may be somewhat exaggerated.

[19] The contrast is sometimes made by saying that virtue theory is concerned foremost with character while deontological and consequentialist theories are concerned with acts. Alternatively virtue theory is primarily concerned with the question “What sort of person should I be?” as opposed to the question “What ought I to do?”. For the “being versus doing” contrast see, Frankena (1973, 65-6). For discussion about how to distinguish deontological, consequentialists and virtue ethics see, Trianosky (1992) and Watson (1990).

[20] Hurka (2001) surveys some of the history of consequentialists thinking about the virtues.

[21] Later in this same work Nietzsche lists the “four virtues”: “courage, insight, sympathy, solitude” (Section 284). Solomon and Higgins (2000) argue that Nietzsche’s list of virtues includes: “courage, courtesy, egoism, ‘the feminine,’ friendship, generosity, hardness, health, honesty, integrity, justice, ‘presence,’ pride, responsibility, strength, temperance”  (183). So from their list we have at list two of the three virtues discussed (truthfulness and justice), as well as perhaps some overlap between the virtue of caring and Nietzsche’s virtues of friendship and generosity.

[22] The point is being made here in the abstract: I don’t know of any major ethical theoretician who has proposed a list that does not include at least one of these virtues.

[23] Assuming that we can even give a remotely plausible account of virtuous action in terms of behavior. Plato describes the difficulty of describing the virtue of bravery in purely behavioral terms (Laches 190e 4-6) as does Aristotle (NE 1115b 24-32).

[24] I will not consider here the possibility that the behaviorist condition is not necessary (cf. Hurka, 2001, and Louden, 1984).  Presumably if behavior is not necessary then some attitudinal states are necessary. So long as we are not skeptical about the possibility of discovering the attitudes of others, then there is still the possibility that the GVP might succeed. What is important here is that we have some way of sorting the virtuous from the vicious. (See below for more on ‘sorting’).

[25] Louden (1997) argues that one problem with virtue ethics is that “we do not seem to know with any degree of certainty who really is virtuous and who vicious” (187).  I cannot address this skepticism here.

[26] This formulation is (purposively) ambiguous enough to allow the thought that virtues are instrumentally or intrinsically related to the good life, and between a social and an individual interpretation of what it is for “our lives to go better”.

Mark Walker Ph.D. serves on the IEET Board of Directors, and is Associate Professor of Philosophy at New Mexico State University, where he occupies the Richard L. Hedden Endowed Chair.

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