Printed: 2020-07-09

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Using Neurotechnologies to Develop Virtues - A Buddhist Approach to Cognitive Enhancement (Part 1)

J. Hughes

Ethical Technology

October 16, 2012

Will new tech in genetics and neurology be successfully used to suppress vices and enhance happiness and virtue? Will this accelerate spiritual progress and liberation in the Buddhist traditions? Is it dangerous to manipulate moods?


Recently Fenton (2009) has argued that Buddhist ethics can accommodate the use of attention-enhancing drugs and Walker (2006, 2009) has argued that future neurotechnologies may be used to enhance happiness and virtue. This paper uses a Western Buddhist perspective, drawing on many Buddhist traditions, to explore how emerging neurotechnologies may be used to suppress vices and enhance happiness and virtue. A Buddhist approach to the authenticity of technologically-mediated spiritual progress is discussed. The potential utility and dangers of mood manipulation for a Buddhist understanding of liberation are outlined. Then the ten paramitas of Theravadan Buddhism are explored to frame an exploration of the potential genes, neurochemicals and brain structures that could be targeted as part of a program of neurotechnological moral enhancement.

Part Two

Part Three

Introduction: Buddhism, Virtue and Moral Enhancement

In “Buddhism and Neuroethics” Andrew Fenton (2009) argues that the use of methylphenidate (Ritalin) as an aid to daily mindfulness could be consistent with Buddhist ethics. Fenton notes that Mahayana Buddhism is especially open to the utilitarian rationale that something like a drug might be a “skillful means” to greater concentration and attentiveness to one’s life. In this essay I will expand Fenton’s argument to argue that Buddhists may use a variety of future neurotechnologies to enhance not just mindfulness but also happiness and virtue.  The essay attempts to offer a specifically Buddhist perspective on arguments for moral enhancement or “virtue engineering” recently offered by a number of philosophers (principally Walker, 2009; as well as to Spence, 2008; Faust, 2008; Douglas, 2008; Persson and Savulescu, 2008; Savulescu and Persson, 2012).

The arguments made here are also specifically a modern, Western interpretation of Buddhism which borrows freely from the Theravadan, Mahayana, Tantric and Zen traditions, as do many Western Buddhist teachers and communities. The key ideas presented are consistent with most Buddhist traditions, with minor adjustments of terminology, but I will also attempt to acknowledge where there are relevant significant differences between Buddhist traditions.

The cultivation of virtuous thoughts, sentiments and action is central to all Buddhist traditions. But there is a lively ongoing debate about whether the Buddhist emphasis on the importance of cultivating virtue means that Buddhist ethics are a form of virtue ethics. Damien Keown (1992) and James Whitehill (1994) have argued that, among the moral theories of the West, Buddhist ethics most closely resembles Aristotleian virtue ethics.  Siderits (2003) and Goodman (2008,2009) have argued, on the other hand, that Buddhist ethics is a form of consequentialism (Siderits, 2003; Goodman, 2008, 2009), since the enlightened being is supposed to have transcended individual identity and be motivated solely by the needs of all sentient beings.

In my view the Buddhist tradition embodies both of these forms of ethics in a developmental trajectory of spiritual development. The ethics enjoined for most lay Buddhists in Asian societies, householders who do not have the opportunity to pursue enlightenment, is focused on the cultivation of virtue in order to ensure a good rebirth. The core of lay virtue is the observance of the pancasila or five ethical observances: not to kill, lie, steal, take intoxicants or practice sexual misconduct. If these virtuous practices are observed laypeople may be reborn in heavenly realms instead of as ghosts or in hells. This has been called karmic ethics to distinguish it from the nibbanic ethics practiced by monks, nuns and the extraordinary laity who are trying to achieve Enlightenment (King, 1964; Spiro, 1972).  Although inconsistent with canonical Buddhist teachings, many Buddhist laity also believe that the good karma or merit accrued by monastics in their cultivation of virtue can be dedicated or transferred to lay people when they support monastics, or give dana.

The second stage of virtuous practice applies to the aspirants after Enlightenment.  So long as an individual suffers under the illusion of self, with its attendant greed, hatred and ignorance, then all Buddhist traditions advise that the cultivation of virtue is necessary for spiritual progress.  The canonical formula is found in the Four Noble Truths articulated in what Theravadans say was the Buddhas first sermon, the “Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma” Sutra. (1) Life is full of unease and dissatisfaction because (2) we are constantly grasping and craving. (3) In order to stop grasping and craving we need to (4) develop a skillful, virtuous life based on the Eightfold Path: right views, right intentions, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. 

The Pali canon’s Buddhavamsa, part of the Khuddaka Nikaya Sutta (Dhammapala, 1978) offers a different list of virtues, the “perfections” or paramitas of the Buddhas which I will use to structure this essay :

Dana - generosity
Sila - proper conduct
Nekkhamma - renunciation
Prajna - transcendental wisdom, insight
Virya - energy, diligence, vigor, effort
Kshanti - patience, tolerance, forbearance, acceptance, endurance
Sacca - truthfulness, honesty
Adhitthana - determination, resolution
Metta - loving-kindness
Upekkha -  equanimity, serenity

This formulation of the virtues was presented in the Theravada texts as the perfections of the bodhisattva who would later become the Buddha. The paramitas provide a bridge between the Theravadan tradition, in which the soteriological goal is to become an arhat, and stop reincarnating, and most Mahayana traditions in which the soteriological goal is become a bodhisattva and stay in world after Enlightenment to help all sentient beings. While the paramitas were part of the hagiography of the Buddha in the Theravadan text, they became (in varying forms) the central list of virtues to practice for Mahayanists.

Once Enlightenment is achieved, in both the Theravadan and Mahayana accounts, the cultivation of virtue becomes irrelevant. The enlightened person has no vices to avoid, no cravings or bad habits to suppress. They act out of selfless compassion for all beings as pure consequentialists. Until that point, for the vast majority of Buddhists however, the cultivation of mental and behavioral virtue is central.

Moral Enhancement

The Buddhist tradition recognizes that we are not all born with equal propensities to wisdom or moral behavior, and that Enlightenment is only possible for the very few.  In “Cognitive Enhancement, Virtue Ethics and the Good Life,” Barbro Fröding (2011) concludes that a fully virtuous life is biologically impossible for most people.  But, given the rapid advance of neurotechnologies, “if these cognitive shortcomings could be compensated for, or balanced, through the use of safe and voluntary enhancement techniques, then it would be morally desirable to do so. Indeed, it could well be the case that a combination of cognitive enhancement and virtue could make virtue ethics more convincing.”  If specific, consistent moral behavioral orientations – truthfulness, compassion and so on – can be identified, and our likelihood of manifesting them is strongly influenced by inherited genetic predispositions or persistent neurochemistry, then it might be possible to use future neurotechnologies to systematically make ourselves more truthful or compassionate. The use of neurotechnologies to consistently avoid vices and practice virtues would be useful in cleansing the mind of klesas or mental impurities.

The widely held belief that people have moral character - consistently good or bad moral predilections across diverse situations - has recently been called into question by the “situationist” school of social psychologists (Doris, 2002; Harman, 1999). While personality psychologists can point to some consistency of moral behavior across time and between situations, the situationists can point to people being compassionate in some circumstances but greedy, selfish and cruel in others. 

Fortunately the project of technologically enhancing virtue does not really require a strong theory of “moral character” or even the existence of virtuous moral traits. Even if individuals are strongly primed to be compassionate by specific environmental cues, and less so in other situations their compassion is still neurochemically mediated and could still be neurochemically enhanced. In other words, even if someone was only compassionate while taking a compassion drug, like a diabetic’s dependence on insulin, it would still be possible to systematically enhance their compassion.

A second question that is sometimes raised about the use of neurotechnology to achieve “spiritual” ends is whether the result would be “authentic.” Sometimes a distinction is made between praise-worthy “natural” methods of self-transformation, and “unnatural” methods. But which is more natural, gossiping around the fire or sitting silently for hours, having visions in a sweat lodge, and taking peyote? In other words taking a drug to control one’s cravings or sharpen one’s mind is no more or less natural for homo sapiens than many spiritual practices.

A concern with authenticity is also inconsistent with the central Buddhist insight of annatta, that there is no “authentic self,” no enduring, consistent soul or self-essence. Since there is no self the medicated person is no more or less authentic. The only question is whether they are better able to deal with the demands of their life and make spiritual progress.

The concern with authenticity also reflects a concern with how similar the results would be from spiritual exercises as opposed to neurotechnologies. If chemically enhancing compassion, persistence or discernment only lasts for the drug’s half life, while participation in religious community and meditation effect lasting behavioral and cognitive changes, then the former would be at best be an adjunct to the latter. In that case moral enhancement drugs might speed the development of virtues as an adjunct to a program of self-reform, and act as a stopgap to prevent backsliding in especially trying circumstances. 

So long as the neurotechnologies are drugs they may be restricted to being a temporary adjunct rather than the principal method of self-improvement. But eventually we will have the capacity to change genes that affect the brain permanently, and install neurodevices that constantly monitor and direct our thoughts and behavior. At that point the distinction between traditional methods of self-change and neurotechnology may become moot. In fact, eventually it is quite likely that the changes of thought and behavior that neurotechnology will enable will be much quicker, far surer, longer-lasting and more targeted than traditional religious practices.

Part 2 of this essay is HERE

Part 3 of this essay is HERE

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)


Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
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