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Five Minutes with Harris Wiseman

Can “moral bioenhancement”—using technological or pharmaceutical means to boost the morally desirable and remove the morally problematic—bring about a morally improved humanity? In The Myth of the Moral Brain, Harris Wiseman draws on insights from philosophy, biology, theology, and clinical psychology to make the case that moral functioning is immeasurably complex, mediated by biology but not determined by it. Harris Wiseman discusses his book, which considers an integrated approach to moral enhancement.

Does humanity need moral enhancement?

Regardless of how optimistic one’s view of human nature is, it is pretty clear that humans still do terrible things to one another. On first sight, looking at the subject matter on the most superficial level, the idea that one should create some magical technology able to prevent the horrors that humans perpetrate sounds great. Why would one not apply such a technology? The problem with this view is that no one has posed any kind of even vaguely plausible idea of how such a fantastical technology could be devised, even in principle. And there is one very good reason why no realistic prospects have been proposed. Given what we know about the vagueness of the relationship between human biology and the way in which sophisticated moral functioning is enacted, the prospect of some such globally-affective technology is pure fantasy. There are simply no “biological levers” that are clear or reliable enough to improve humanity’s moral powers in some grand and salvatory sense. In contrast, the sorts of moral enhancement that are entirely possible are cruder interventions for individual persons with some morally-related difficulties (e.g. addictions, pathological violence, some affective disorders, disturbing sexual aberrations), though in a largely medical context, and not without important side-effects for the person being treated. Within this scope moral enhancement might have some viable uses.

But there is a world of difference between this sort of limited application, and thinking that there is going to be some magical technology that can help us deal with the terrible global evils that exist, since these evils are too intricately entrenched and institutionalized. Indeed, such thinking is a dangerous distraction, because it allows commentators to divert their hopes into a pure fantasy. Instead we should be directing our efforts towards further investment in the very real persons that are making very real sacrifices in the real world, in order to increase global attention to hidden evils, and to encourage states to tackle those problems head on. A good example is the current struggle in India, as has been much reported in the media of late, to bring attention to the blasé attitudes towards rape that exists across society. There is a profoundly institutionalized culture of victim-blaming that exists (the woman is usually condemned and exiled for “allowing herself to be raped”) in too many countries around the world. Not only is it absurd to think that some enhancement technology could solve such an entrenched, multidimensional problem at this scale, but techno-progressive fantasia trivialize the real efforts and dangers faced by activists and journalists in their attempts to garner national and international support for much needed change.

You suggest that the concept of morality or moral functioning is complex. Describe the interplay between social and environmental factors and biological factors in shaping our moral functioning.

One of the biggest themes of the book is the ambiguity of the relationship between human biology and moral functioning. This has proven a very difficult thing for commentators to understand. After all, humans are biological beings, must it not be true that moral functioning has biological correlates? And, of course it is true. The difficulty lies in the fact that, although moral functioning is biologically mediated, there are no clear and direct lines between biology and sophisticated moral functioning. One cannot point to a particular biological substrate and say: “this is the part that deals with kindness.” Things are not like this. There is no gene which codes for integrity. There is no structure of neurons that controls generosity. And, contrary to tabloid exuberance, there is no chemical in the brain which controls trust. Indeed, if any of the science shows anything at all, it is that there are no consistent links between a biological marker and a moral outcome in the real world. This should not be surprising when the moral value of a given action is determined at least as much by context as by any other factor. The interplay between social, personal, and biological factors tells a very interesting story. For example, it is clear that aggression has strong biological bases. But are persons with such biology evil? There is no way of making any meaningful prediction here without a sense of the larger context that person inhabits. A highly aggressive person might become a criminal, or an Olympian athlete. Such persons might become terrorists, or they might become soldiers. They might become activists or they might become alcoholics. They might become monsters or they might become heroes, or they might become none of the above. Even looking at the whole context cannot tell us for sure, so the very idea that one can isolate biology here and claim to have some understanding of moral functioning is quite nonsensical. Instead, a person’s “biopsychosocial” context is a closely interwoven web of the utmost complexity. This is the way of thinking I am attempting to persuade readers to embrace. The entire prospect that human moral functioning can be substantially enhanced is based on the sort of erroneous view that one can talk about moral functioning in primarily biological terms. Instead, I wish to convey the idea that moral functioning has to be understood as a mélange of factors, as a synergy of social, personal and biological factors, none of which make sense apart from each other.

Some have accused the text of favoring “nurture” over “nature” and saying social factors are all that matters. But this misses the point entirely, which is that when it comes to moral functioning the entire nature/nurture dichotomy breaks down. The biological, personal and social elements of moral functioning all have to be considered together if one is to provide even the semblance of a realistic picture of how moral living works. The interdisciplinary approach taken here is an extension of this point. It simply will not do to attempt to understand moral functioning on one single level isolated from other relevant modes of enquiry, and important insights are provided by philosophy, pastoral theology, and the social sciences, all of which need to be broached.

You argue that moral enhancement “must be enacted as but a single prong in a larger project of institutional and social change.” What do you mean by this?

This is a warning against unrealistic hopes for easy answers. Too many enhancement enthusiasts have an idea of the limitless possibilities of what technology can achieve, and it would be wonderfully convenient if moral evil could be solved by some magical contraption. Indeed, too much of the enhancement discourse implicitly (sometimes explicitly) presents the human person as if he were some sort of wind-up toy, some strange device built out of cogs and levers, and entirely subject to the operations thereof. This creates the idea of moral evil as being a matter of “faulty machinery,” it gives the idea that moral problems are like those faced by car mechanics or plumbers, and that humans are passive mechanisms needing to be fixed by external technicians. This way of viewing the person can be useful in some contexts (for example, treating the brain and nervous system like the wiring of a computer has certainly been helpful in developing the miracles of advanced prostheses). But such a mechanistic approach is not going to be valuable across the board, and given the biopsychosocial dimensions of moral functioning, such mechanistic assumptions are going to do more harm than good when approaching the nuanced subtleties of moral (and immoral) living. A more holistic and synergistic approach proffers a helpful alternative. And, when viewed in this way one sees that there is a bigger picture that needs to be addressed. With a synergistic outlook, one understands from the outset that any given intervention here must be applied simultaneously at the human and social levels, as well as at the biological.

An extended example I give in the book is that of treating alcoholism with anti-opioids. Current practice in the USA is to prescribe such anti-opioids, which void the effects of the alcohol, but only on the basis that the patient being treated also engage in personal therapy, as well as social therapies, like AA groups, whilst also recommending spiritual insights (if the patient is receptive to such discourse). This is precisely the sort of biopsychosocial approach I am talking about here. Biology is treated as significant, but only as one single player in the whole package of personal, social and potentially spiritual modes of intervention. As a synergy, the whole treatment program has proven much more effective than simply attempting to drug the problem away. And, given how over-medicated certain places in our world are, it should be pretty clear that this strategy is not really working, nor is it going to work. So, a change in approach towards a more synergistic paradigm is very much required.

Could new technology and pharmaceutical use create boundaries and class divides between those who have this enhancement and those without access? Does this complicate the project of improving society?

These are important questions. A lot of commentators seem to think that moral enhancement is essentially of the same category as other forms of physical or cognitive enhancement, and that it poses the same sort of dystopian problems of creating a two-tier human race of “haves” and “have-nots.” I would argue that this is not the case. Moral enhancement is fundamentally different to these other kinds of enhancement. One crucial difference is that of desirability. Moral enhancement is not particularly desirable, certainly not in the ways that cognitive or physical enhancements are. If one created a safe substance that made persons much smarter, or much more physically potent, one would have no trouble selling it. Apart from the competitive advantages such enhancements would proffer, these are the sorts of things many persons want anyway, to be smarter, healthier, younger, more vigorous. In contrast, a substance to make persons more meek and mild is a bit of a harder sell. Perhaps if we lived in a society where the idea that “nice guy finishes last” were not so entrenched (and to some degree true, as far as the competitive domains of this world go at least), then moral enhancement would be more attractive. As such, moral enhancement has little to do with richness or poorness, and is more to do with whom is willing to engage in a project of moral cultivation, since that is the only framework in which moral enhancement could have any real effects anyway. Nor would moral enhancement complicate the project of improving society, since, in my view, the biggest complication to improving society is just the sort of lazy thinking which places its hopes and dreams in neuro-reductive and mechanistic claims, and with it the idea that humanity could be made to be “nice” just by putting them on drugs.      

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The MIT PressLog is the official blog of MIT Press. Founded in 2005, the Log chronicles news about MIT Press authors and books. The MIT PressLog also serves as forum for our authors to discuss issues related to their books and scholarship. Views expressed by guest contributors to the blog do not necessarily represent those of MIT Press.