By Greg Conan
If you could take a pill to make yourself a better person, would you do it? Could you justifiably make someone else do it, even if they do not want to?
When presented so simplistically, the idea might seem unrealistic or even impossible. The concepts of “taking a pill” and “becoming a better person” seem to belong to different categories. But many of the traits commonly considered to make one a “good person”—such as treating others fairly and kindly without violence—are psychological traits strongly influenced by neurobiology, and neurobiology can be changed using medicine. So when and how, if ever, should medicine be used to improve moral character?
Moral bioenhancement (MBE), the concept of improving moral character using biomedical technology, has fascinated me for years—especially once I learned that it has been hotly debated in the bioethics literature since 2008. I have greatly enjoyed diving into the literature to learn about how the concept has been analyzed and presented. Much of the debate has focused on its most abstract topics, like defining its terms and relating MBE to freedom. Although my fondness for analytic philosophy means that I cannot condemn anyone for working to examine ideas with maximum clarity and specificity, any MBE proponent who actually wants MBE to be implemented must focus on realistic methods.
In the meantime, the MBE debate has floated in isolation from public discourse. None of the friends, family, students, and professors with whom I discussed MBE had heard of it before, even though most found it interesting. There was not even a Wikipedia page about MBE until I wrote one. One might wonder why the public should care about the idea of improving moral character with biomedical technology, which may seem like nothing more than a thought experiment to toy with in science fiction. The MBE discourse has sometimes seemed to encourage this reputation, at least judging by this discussion of creating a “God Machine” to read and alter everyone’s minds. While I find ideas like that genuinely fascinating, their connection with most modern important sociopolitical issues may be unclear. Even when MBE is brought up as a potential response to climate change, details of implementation sometimes remain scarce. It might seem that MBE would forever remain science fiction.
The clearest connection I have seen between the moral bioenhancement debate and modern sociopolitical issues is in the area of criminal rehabilitation. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, five times higher than most countries. Nearly 2.2 million Americans lived in prison in 2016. About half of those who manage to leave are swept right back into jail, according to a 2016 report, half of them within 2 years. If some biomedical treatments could reduce recidivism, perhaps the treatments could be used to rehabilitate some criminals and help them start a new life outside of prison.
To be clear, not all – perhaps not even most – of these people are in prison for a personal failing of moral character. Even those who are probably were influenced strongly by their situations. But many criminals have committed immoral acts of violence due partly to a lack of compassion or self-control, or would not have committed those acts if they had more of such traits. Biomedical technology has produced safe and modestly effective means to reliably alter those traits and will only progress further as time continues.
For example, the more that I researched effective moral bioenhancement methods, the more lithium kept cropping up. Even the New York Times asked, “Should We All Take a Bit of Lithium?” due to its mental health benefits. Dr. Adrian Raine and others have found that fish oil supplements can reliably reduce violence. Yet neither of these treatments has been emphasized in the MBE discourse compared to, say, oxytocin—a hormone which even proponents have admitted can counterproductively increase ingroup favoritism. For more detail, see the discussion in my paper.
Although I have been critical so far, I really should emphasize how grateful I am for this opportunity to join the MBE discussion at this serious of a level. Until mid-2017, I did not even know the name for the idea of MBE. And until 2018, I thought that I would only be able to discuss it among my college friends. I primarily want to thank the Richter Scholars Program at George Fox University for supporting my research on MBE, and the Journal of Medical Ethics for accepting my paper.
Author: Gregory Mark Conan
Affiliations: George Fox University, Oregon, USA
Competing Interests: None
Social media account of author: @GregoryConan