Enhancing Understanding of… Moral Enhancement

This post is first in a series of posts about the concept of moral enhancement.

Last week was Enhancing Understanding of Enhancement, a conference jointly organized by CSB and Hastings Center. The two-day conference was packed with interesting papers. My paper, “How Are Enhancements Moral?”, set two criteria for a meaningful definition of moral enhancement, then arguing that moral reasoning enhancements as well as moral conformity enhancements have difficulty meeting both. Below, I’m expanding on the first part of my paper: how moral enhancement, “in the true sense of the word”, should be defined.

Problems in Defining Moral Enhancement
Moral enhancement is an ambiguous term that, broadly defined, refers to using enhancement technologies in order to improve the subsequent conduct or moral psychology of the enhanced. Moral enhancement is in need of conceptual clarification for a number of reasons:

  1. The concept is ambiguous: as Raus et al. (2014) point out, there is a range of definitions within the pool of notions of moral enhancement.
  2.  The broad definition of moral enhancement as interventions that improve the moral reasoning and/or the moral behaviour of an agent is too ambiguous to be useful: there is widespread disagreement about its exact meaning.
  3. Any specific existing definition faces criticism from those who advocate moral enhancements falling outside that definition – not least because the definitions, far from being neutral, often echo specific moral theories (Raus et al., 2014).
  4. With some of the broader, more abstract definitions, it can be hard to see how a proposed modification would actually relate to moral enhancement as defined: for example, does an increase in the accuracy of moral judgments actually constitute an improvement in moral reasoning?
  5. The nebulosity of the concept leads to difficulties in distinguishing whether we are talking about moral enhancements as a thought experiment or about specific proposed interventions; and in whether the latter actually bear significant resemblance to the former.
  6. Like other enhancements, moral enhancements face the challenge of how they ought to be distinguished from the treatment of pathology (Specker et al., 2014).

Criteria for a Successful Definition of Moral Enhancement
To be meaningful and useful, I argue the concept of moral enhancement should do two things:

  1. It needs to be able to differentiate between moral enhancements and other enhancements. (If there is no clear line, we could just as well simply talk about enhancements, period.)
  2. It needs to reflect what it means for an individual to become “more moral”.

So, for example, simply modifying behaviour into a prosocial direction may have morally desirable consequences, such as, it might increase well-being – but it does not reflect what it means to be “more moral”. What is at stake in number 2 is grounds for saying “person A is more moral than person B”. Prosocial behaviour is not that grounding per se, although the moral disposition of an agent may manifest in a prosocial way. We’re looking for a criterion that reflects on an agent morally.

Criterion number 1 may appear simple enough: one might assert that moral enhancements are the ones that enhance morality instead of strenght, intelligence, or another capacity. In other words, the same grounding feature of moral enhancement will accomplish both criteria. The trick is, the very prospect of moral enhancement demands that morality is associated with or grounded on some embodied traits or abilities. Criterion number 1 may significantly decrease the pool of trait or ability modulations that are available to ground moral enhancement on.

But there is no reason to assume that both criteria must be justified by the same feature of moral enhancement. Our account of moral enhancement can be complex, as long as it’s coherent, able to distinguish moral enhancements from other modulations, and reflects what we mean by the word “moral”.

One might reason there should also be a third criterion for the definition:

  • It needs to differentiate between the treatment of pathological moral shortcomings and moral enhancement.

However, this distinction is not made by all theorists regarding enhancements as a whole, either. And I grant it’s not necessary to do so: a distinction is only needed for a theory of enhancements if the theory wishes to account for differences between enhancement and treatment. Some philosophers, such as Julian Savulescu, have argued against having a treatment-enhancement distinction in the first place (for a short overview of the issue, see here). I argue that the third criterion is optional, although one must be mindful of that having or not having an account that is able to distinguish between treatment and enhancement will yield different results in normative evaluations using that account.

What accounts, if any, do you find to best respond to these criteria?

Texts cited:
Raus, Kasper et al. “On Defining Moral Enhancement: A Clarificatory Taxonomy.Neuroethics 7(3) (2014).
Specker, Jona et al. “The Ethical Desirability of Moral Bioenhancement: A Review of Reasons.” BMC Medical Ethics (2014), Online first.


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Doing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Turku. My interests lie at the intersections of ability, agency, and ethics: what kinds of agents ought we to be? Is there anything normative to be said about abilities? More specifically, I'm currently interested in autonomy and self-control, disability, and human enhancement.

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