Neuroethics Symposium On Focquaert & Schermer’s, “Moral Enhancement: Do Means Matter Morally?”

Posted on August 28, 2015 by

There is a great symposium taking place over at the Brains Blog on Focquaert & Shermer’s paper in Neuroethics titled “Moral Enhancement: Do MeansMatter Morally” (See here).

Disclaimer: I am one of the commentators on the piece. My commentary can be found here.

The symposium is a bit different than most in that there is a nice intro to the debate (by Prof. Katrina Sifferd) followed by a video introduction by the authors. This is followed by commentary (onrand then responses to the commentary by the authors. It makes for a very thorough discussion!

Here is an excerpt from Katrina’s introduction:

“Recent research by Nina Strohminger and Shaun Nicols found that the single strongest predictor of identity change was disruption of moral capacities. When one suffers from severe degradation of their moral faculty, others don’t continue to see them as the same person. Although Stohminger and Nicols studied the effects of apparent moral degradation, it seems possible that any large change in a person’s moral self may lead to a perceived disruption of their identity.

This is reason enough to worry about interventions aimed at make a person a better moral agent (so-called “moral enhancements”). Added to this concern, however, is the fact that it is often not in pursuit of the interests of the person “enhanced” that we aim to influence their moral agency. Instead, interventions aimed at influencing moral decisions and action are often in the name of public safety or societal interest. This means interventions meant to act as moral enhancements are especially vulnerable to abuse, as well as uniquely dangerous with regard to their impact on personal narratives.

But we are constantly evolving as moral agents, so it can’t be just any interventions that are ethically suspect. Interestingly, we often do not think of moral interventions we apply to ourselves as interventions at all: I may go to yoga twice a week knowing that it calms me and makes me a much better mother, but I’m unlikely to describe this practice as a moral intervention or enhancement. Similarly, a good night’s sleep and a good diet are likely to impact my moral decision-making, but I consider these healthy lifestyle choices (that, like so many of my choices, happen to impact others).

It may be that I don’t think of these practices as interventions because of the sort of the interventions they are: yoga and what I eat are choices I make that indirectly affect my moral faculties. Along this vein, many have argued that direct interventions, such as drug interventions like SSRIs, or techniques such as deep brain stimulation and neurosurgery, are more ethically suspect thanindirect interventions like yoga. It may be that direct interventions are thought of as interventions because they are aimed more directly at my moral capacities and work directly upon the brain.

In our target article, however, Focquaert and Schermer argue that this direct/indirect distinction is only useful insofar as it tracks what really matters in moral enhancement: the extent to which the recipient is actively involved in the intervention. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy is an active intervention, because the recipient is requires to exert effort over time for the intervention to have an effect. Deep brain stimulation (DBS), on the other hand, ispassive because it requires very little effort or involvement on the part of the recipient. Such passive interventions, say Focquaert and Schermer, are more ethically worrying because they are likely to create radical or concealed identity changes – aspects of one’s personality that are out of sync with ones’ overall identity.

Many of our commentators disagree. Christoph Bublitz notes that our brains are never really passive if this means something like “inactive”, and argues that one may rationally reflect upon the impacts of a drug just as much as upon cognitive behavioral therapy. Elizabeth Shaw indicates that it isn’t so much whether the recipient is active, but whether they have a chance to rationally reflect upon the intervention. Justin Caouette argues that there may be some cases – say, where the recipient is a criminal offender – where a sudden change to personal identity isn’t really ethically concerning. And Simon Gaus  notes that in many cases of active interventions, such as yoga or moral education, the person intervened upon isn’t aware enough of the intervention to rationally reflect upon it, so the passive/active distinction doesn’t do the work Farah and Maartje want it to.”

You are all welcome to join in on the discussion over at the Brains Blog. Farah has already posed a nice question in the comment thread followed by a nice response by Katrina.

Check it out!