Putting a Price on Empathy

Guest Post by Sarah Carter

My paper is another to add to the ever-increasing number of articles about moral (bio)enhancement – but why is this issue so important?  To take a cynical view: if we had a pill or injection that could make people more moral, less prone to harming others, and so on, it would likely be very attractive to governments (perhaps because of real concerns that we’re headed for disaster unless such steps are taken, or simply because it would save on policing and military bills).  So it’s very important to try to get our heads around this subject while it’s still something that’s merely an idea, rather than waiting until it’s something in our medicine cabinets.  This means thinking about and discussing everything from what moral enhancement would actually involve, right through to questioning how it should be distributed, regulated, and even – as my paper addresses – promoted to the public.

Writers such as Persson and Savulescu argue that there is a need to undertake moral bioenhancement as a means to avoid mankind wandering down the path of ultimate harm, but they concede that many people (especially those we might say to be most in need of moral bioenhancement) would be unlikely to undergo it willingly.  In 2014, Vojin Rakic suggested that incentives such as tax breaks, retirement benefits, schooling allowances, and affirmative action policies, should be used as a way to encourage people to undergo moral bioenhancement.  I think that Rakic’s idea, while prima facie sensible and reasonable, simply will not work. This is not due to issues of coercion or social justice that we would normally associate with the use of incentives, but rather because likely public perceptions of moral bioenhancement mean that the use of incentives for this purpose may present a taboo trade-off.

A taboo trade-off, to put it in its simplest terms, involves trying to put a price on something we would consider priceless.  It’s the reason your grandmother gets offended when you offer to pay her for babysitting.  So why would incentivising moral bioenhancement present a taboo trade-off?  The answer to that comes by way of a study by Riis et al into what people would (and would not) be willing to enhance.  They found that people were far more reluctant to enhance a trait if it was considered fundamental to their self-identities.  They found that empathy and kindness (those traits that would most likely be affected by moral bioenhancement) were, by a large margin, the traits that people were most reluctant to enhance – and that this was because they were considered by subjects to be fundamental to their identities.

Therefore, given Riis and colleagues’ findings, the use of incentives would be a taboo trade-off.  For if people consider those traits most likely to be altered by moral bioenhancement to be a fundamental part of who they are, then an attempt to put a price on them (by way of incentivising their enhancement) could be seen to be trying to put a price on something priceless – a taboo trade-off.

So given that incentivising moral bioenhancement wouldn’t work, how else could we encourage participation in moral bioenhancement programmes?  Further research by Riis et al suggests that reframing enhancements as “enablements” generally makes people feel less as though their identities are being threatened and so tend to make them feel more positively disposed towards the idea.  The use of incentives would still pose a problem here, for if we’re framing x as something that’s good for someone to have for their sake (as an enablement) then it seems odd that we would want to pay them on top; it could make people more than a little suspicious. So the best option might then just be to drop incentives altogether and focus instead on this new marketing strategy of reframing enhancement as enablement.

Read the full paper here.