Amoral Enhancement

Guest Post by Saskia Verkiel

Re: Amoral Enhancement

A reply to Douglas’ reply to Harris’ reply to Douglas regarding the issue of freedom in cases of biomedical moral enhancement

Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could just swallow a pill and become better people?

With many aspects of life, growing numbers of people are embracing biomedical interventions to improve physical or cognitive performance and endurance, whether indicated for those purposes or not. Think doping in sports. Think Ritalin in college. Think beta blockers in stage performers. Think modafinil in pilots and surgeons who have to be alert for long stretches of time.

The funny thing is that when it comes to moral enhancement, we tend to think more in terms of its application to others, who are ‘obviously’ not such good people. Swindlers. Rapists. Basically all kinds of performers of crime.

Thomas Douglas was the first to write an analysis specifying when certain kinds of biomedical moral enhancement would be permissible, in 2008, and he realised that it’s important to make this distinction of whom we want the enhancement for. He focused on voluntarily enhancing the self. It’s a jolly nice read.

This paper triggered a cascade of replies.

To be fair, seeing the replies fly back and forth in this debate is not unlike watching a ballgame, albeit more enlightening (or so I think). Compare with Monty Python’s Philosophers’ Football. There’s team “Let’s put it in the drinking water!” (roughly: Oxford) and there’s team “Hold it, hold it…” (captained by John Harris and including yours truly).

So Douglas performed the kick off with his 2008 paper. Aided by his team mates Savulescu and Persson (also 2008) who strengthen the position in favour with a gloomy picture of evil cognitive enhanced people. A very strong opening indeed! But here comes Harris (2011), firmly moving towards the other side by tackling Savulescu and Persson and moving straight past Douglas with multi-tier counterarguments including notes on ineffectiveness, moral decline, and restriction of freedom. While Persson and Savulescu (2013) distract Harris, Douglas hits back strongly (2013). What teamwork, the crowd goes wild! Harris, however, isn’t easily defeated and defends (2013) against Savulescu and Persson and at the same time tackles Douglas on the nature of morality (2013) and freedom (2014). On it goes! Including some shirt pulling and yellow cards…

But seriously, there are a lot of good arguments back and forth. And considering the state of the world, the subject of moral enhancement is very topical. Particularly the issue of biomedical moral enhancement, considering the advances made in neuroscience: We know a lot more, we can manipulate a lot more. We should really consider with care whether we’re heading in a direction we want to be going.

So let’s focus on the ball: the morality of moral enhancement. In terms of the game, beautiful, skilful and creative moves have been made, but when I was reading it all, I got the sense that some of the arguments drifted away from the starting point. Morality is like the snitch in quidditch: it’s elusive, very hard to pinpoint or catch. You think you have it, and then you don’t. I think that happened in the debate between Douglas and Harris regarding Harris’ argument about the loss of freedom. I explain this in my paper, which is, if nothing else, a nice primer on the gist of the debate, but I think the observations in there might help us to focus on morality again.

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