I am pleased to kick off our new symposium series on articles published in the journal Neuroethics with a discussion of Farah Focquaert and Maartje Schermer’s paper “Moral Enhancement: Do Means Matter Morally?” Below you will find a video introduction of the paper by the authors, together with a written introduction that I have prepared. These are followed by commentaries by Christoph Bublitz (University of Hamburg), Elizabeth Shaw (University of Aberdeen School of Law), Justin Caouette (University of Calgary), and Simon Gaus (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin). Farah and Maartje have also provided responses to the commentaries.
Recent research by Nina Strohminger and Shaun Nicols found that the single strongest predictor of identity change was disruption of moral capacities. When one suffers from severe degradation of their moral faculty, others don’t continue to see them as the same person. Although Stohminger and Nicols studied the effects of apparent moral degradation, it seems possible that any large change in a person’s moral self may lead to a perceived disruption of their identity.
This is reason enough to worry about interventions aimed at make a person a better moral agent (so-called “moral enhancements”). Added to this concern, however, is the fact that it is often not in pursuit of the interests of the person “enhanced” that we aim to influence their moral agency. Instead, interventions aimed at influencing moral decisions and action are often in the name of public safety or societal interest. This means interventions meant to act as moral enhancements are especially vulnerable to abuse, as well as uniquely dangerous with regard to their impact on personal narratives.
But we are constantly evolving as moral agents, so it can’t be just any interventions that are ethically suspect. Interestingly, we often do not think of moral interventions we apply to ourselves as interventions at all: I may go to yoga twice a week knowing that it calms me and makes me a much better mother, but I’m unlikely to describe this practice as a moral intervention or enhancement. Similarly, a good night’s sleep and a good diet are likely to impact my moral decision-making, but I consider these healthy lifestyle choices (that, like so many of my choices, happen to impact others).
It may be that I don’t think of these practices as interventions because of the sort of the interventions they are: yoga and what I eat are choices I make that indirectly affect my moral faculties. Along this vein, many have argued that direct interventions, such as drug interventions like SSRIs, or techniques such as deep brain stimulation and neurosurgery, are more ethically suspect than indirect interventions like yoga. It may be that direct interventions are thought of as interventions because they are aimed more directly at my moral capacities and work directly upon the brain.
In our target article, however, Focquaert and Schermer argue that this direct/indirect distinction is only useful insofar as it tracks what really matters in moral enhancement: the extent to which the recipient is actively involved in the intervention. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy is an active intervention, because the recipient is requires to exert effort over time for the intervention to have an effect. Deep brain stimulation (DBS), on the other hand, is passive because it requires very little effort or involvement on the part of the recipient. Such passive interventions, say Focquaert and Schermer, are more ethically worrying because they are likely to create radical or concealed identity changes – aspects of one’s personality that are out of sync with ones’ overall identity.
Many of our commentators disagree. Christoph Bublitz notes that our brains are never really passive if this means something like “inactive”, and argues that one may rationally reflect upon the impacts of a drug just as much as upon cognitive behavioral therapy. Elizabeth Shaw indicates that it isn’t so much whether the recipient is active, but whether they have a chance to rationally reflect upon the intervention. Justin Caouette argues that there may be some cases – say, where the recipient is a criminal offender – where a sudden change to personal identity isn’t really ethically concerning. And Simon Gaus notes that in many cases of active interventions, such as yoga or moral education, the person intervened upon isn’t aware enough of the intervention to rationally reflect upon it, so the passive/active distinction doesn’t do the work Farah and Maartje want it to.
Thank you to Neil Levy, editor of Neuroethics, and Springer for assisting us in this symposium. And a huge thank you to Farah and Maartje for all their hard work.
Please feel free to join in the fun and post a comment for the authors of our target article and the commentaries below.
- Farah Focquaert and Maartje Schermer, “Moral Enhancement: Do Means Matter Morally?”, Neuroethics 8 (2), 139-151
Commentaries and replies: