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Crime and the Less-Polluted City Solution

10 Jan, 13 | by Iain Brassington

People who listen to Today may have heard an article in the prime 8:10 slot on the 9th about the correlation between a drop in the use of leaded petrol, and a drop in violent crime rates.  (Mother Jones actually beat the BBC, having published a piece on the same research last week: I meant to post something then, but was buried by other stuff.)

The nub of the story is this: that violent crime has been falling in the past few years, and though this pattern seems to lag about 20 years behind a fall in the use of lead in petrol, the fit is pretty good: a decline in leaded petrol predicts a decline in violent crime by about two decades – which is just about the time that we might expect would elapse between the formation of the brain and the highest likelihood of violent behaviour in humans.  Neat.  The Mother Jones piece provides lots of links to the relevant research – links to this (from 1999), and this (from 2007), and this (from 2012).

If the lead hypothesis is sound, it seems to be ethically interesting in a couple of ways. For one thing, it opens the way to at least some antisocial behaviour to be seen as being symptomatic of a deeper public health problem.  That’s interesting enough as it is, but – admittedly – it might be little more than interesting, on the grounds that leaded petrol is pretty much a thing of the past anyway (Wikipedia says that, as of 2011, leaded petrol was widely available only in 7 countries).

But the other way in which it’s interesting has to do with arguments about so-called “moral enhancement”.

To argue for moral enhancement is to argue for the claim that, thanks to an increased understanding of the contribution made by neurobiology to behaviour, we can and ought to use those insights to make behaviour better.  There’s a range of ways in which this might pan out in practice: we might want to fiddle around with oxytocin, for example – oxytocin is associated with pro-social behaviour, and it might be that the persistently anti-social have some kind of reversible oxytocin deficit.  More radically, we might consider kinds of genetic selection.  For example, there is some evidence that the absence of a functional MAOA enzyme due to a genetic mutation correlates with antisocial behaviour; and so, were it to be possible to screen for that mutation, it ought to be possible to reduce the chance of a predisposition to antisociality.  This was something that Julian Savulescu et al were mulling as far back as 2006 (though they were wary of calling their idea moral enhancement).

More recently, there’s been considerable back-and-forth in the pages of Bioethics between those sympathetic to the idea of moral enhancement, such as Tom Douglas, and those sceptical of it, such as John Harris; and Savulescu and Persson published a whole book arguing that moral enhancement is a moral requirement.

I’ve been sort-of following the debate for a while, and I’m on the side of the sceptics.  But the lead hypothesis makes me wonder whether enthusiasm for moral enhancement is really desirable – let alone the enhancement itself.  The worry is that, by concentrating on technical fixes to social problems (or medical ones, for that matter), we allow the thing that allowed those problems to arise in the first place to go unchecked.

For example, it’s possible that a good chunk of antisocial behaviour has its roots in environmental factors.  The lead hypothesis would fit with that claim, as would claims that things like poor postwar urban planning contributed to disaffection and alienation, hence criminality.  (I can’t find links for research on that hypothesis at the moment, but will add them here if and when I do – I’m sure I’ve seen some.)  It might be possible to improve behaviour by means of “enhancement” – but it might be more efficient to sort out the environmental factors first.  Doing that would obviate the need to fix the problem later – but it would also almost certainly improve things for everyone, not just those whose social development might otherwise have been affected.

It might be that there’s a reservoir of people who’re neurologically atypical and therefore disposed to antisocial behaviour for reasons that aren’t basically about environment – and moral enhancement might be a good idea in respect of them.  A good idea, that is, for the sake of those who have to live alongside them, but also for the sake of the would-be perpetrators of violent crime themselves, on the basis that criminality leads to punishment, and alienation, and it’s best not to be punished or alienated.  But still – the point would stand that biomedical interventions would be warranted, if at all, only when we could be sure that there was an atypicality that couldn’t be otherwise explained.  Either way, enthusiasm for such enhancement would have to be muted, rather as enthusiasm to perform surgery probably ought to be.

I suppose that there might be a worry about the medicalisation of behaviour that’s properly dealt with in the moral domain, and a corresponding worry that reducing violence to a problem of pollution or brain-chemistry takes away the element of choice.  Maybe.  But if the evidence leads us to believe that (at least some) antisocial behaviour is caused or influenced by environmental factors, then banging on about the proper domain of morality seems to be, at best, de trop.  There’s a line of Nietzsche’s somewhere about how free will was invented in order to allow us to punish.  Not every morally relevant behaviour needs to be moralisable, though.

Gratuitous music link?  Oh, all right then.  You didn’t think that that headline was formulated by chance, did you?

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  • I do not mean to be flippant, but public health ethicists and/or population-level bioethicists have been suggesting similar ideas for quite some time. That is, by focusing on technological magic-bullet type approaches (themselves highly methodologically individualist), participants in the debate tend to take little note of the overwhelming evidence that ameliorating the social and economic conditions in which people live and work is the best means of both improving health and/or “enhancing” people.

    These latter two objectives are obviously not equivalent, but they do coincide in at least some cases, as your post suggests. We have extremely good epidemiologic evidence that early childhood is a sentinel period, and that the exposures and experiences during the first 1000 days of life (and antenatal as well) can robustly determine disease and health patterns many decades later. Moreover, we also know that adverse experiences in early childhood can quite literally be neurotoxic, and can cause all manner of neurological, developmental, and psychosocial problems.

    So if we want to enhance people and improve neurological functioning across a population, we’d IMO do much better to move the locus of our intervention from individual bodies to populations, and attend to the SDOH. (Admittedly, I find the latter exceedingly more interesting from a professional bioethics perspective, so grain of salt, etc.)


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