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The Incoherence of Moral Bioenhancement

Terri Murray responds to an article in Issue 91 that argued that our moral dispositions should be improved by the use of drugs.

“Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

In July and August we watched in awe as Olympians from around the world exhibited extraordinary athleticism, the outcome of years of training, persistent mental and physical discipline, and sheer will power. We marvel at these individuals precisely because their outstanding physical and mental prowess is a personal achievement. When we learn that an athlete used drugs or other artificial shortcuts to excel beyond those who competed without these external aids, we feel that somehow they have tainted the very meaning of the Olympics. This is because we measure an individual’s success by how far he or she is able to achieve it by means of their own efforts. This is especially true in a moral context. We know that we can only be blamed or praised for what we do or fail to do. We cannot take, or be given, responsibility for what is not within our power to control. Imagine a world in which governments acted as moral police and coerced individuals to do charitable acts. Suppose you could be arrested for not giving money to a beggar. In such a world, charity and virtue would cease to exist, since good deeds would no longer be voluntary. The individual would do them from fear of punishment and not from good will. In fact, their behaviour could not properly be called ‘moral’ at all.

In Issue 91 of Philosophy Now, Professor Julian Savulescu of Oxford University and Professor Ingmar Persson of Gothenburg University argued in a distinctively illiberal vein that we have a moral obligation to benefit others, and not merely to abstain from harming them. This, they claimed, is because technological advances have made it so much easier for us to harm than to benefit one another. Their solution: more (bio)technology! They claimed that negative liberty and its attendant rights are no longer sufficient to protect us from looming disaster and this furnishes the justification for using all available means, including bioenhancement, to limit the damage.

On the one hand, the reason for the grave dangers we face is our technological advancement (presumably this is something beyond our control and inevitable). On the other hand, our inability to cope with the situation unaided by biotech is due to a lack of political will. So, while the reason for our demise is beyond our control, the blame nevertheless lies with us for why it cannot be rectified. Presumably this is why Savulescu and Persson find it useful to appeal to our sense of moral responsibility to persuade us that we can’t possibly be expected to voluntarily take such responsibility, given our flawed human nature.

By contrast, an existentialist or a liberal like myself would argue that what makes it ‘so much easier’ to harm others than to benefit them is not technology but the global scale on which we now have to contemplate regulation of big business, the weakness of our current laws to punish harmful corporate greed in this relatively new global economy, and the reluctance of powerful individuals to choose human decency over profit. These are moral failings precisely because they are within our human power to control. Savulescu and Persson claim that we ‘naturally’ focus on the immediate future, and ‘can only’ empathise with our immediate circle of friends, and “our natural moral psychology does not provide us with the means to prevent” these moral failings. Existentialists call these kinds of naturalistic explanations or excuses ‘bad faith’. If they were true, and we really were incapable of doing otherwise, then these self-centered behaviors would cease to be moral issues. Essentially it would mean that there is no moral dimension to our lives and we were deluded to suppose there is.

But there is nothing natural or inevitable about our tendencies to myopic tribalism. With education, human beings can and do have empathy for others, and do take responsibility for the long-term effects of their actions. The ecological movement has formed a subculture where over-consumption and pollution are taboo, and it is attempting to re-educate the wider culture. Many people who have not been biochemically morally enhanced already make small but significant sacrifices every day in order to help others or to avoid harming them or the environment. As Savulescu and Persson themselves illustrate through their story of ‘the tragedy of the commons’, the only reason these morally responsible people do not make a more significant impact is that their selfless behaviour is not adopted by a sufficient number of others. Instead, as in their story, the majority continue to over-exploit the common resources. But this is a moral failing, and should be treated as blameworthy rather than as inevitable or ‘only natural’. Where the majority in a culture choose to treat the over-exploitation of resources as taboo (as opposed to ‘natural’ or even praiseworthy, as in our culture) it soon reaps the material benefits. Savulescu and Persson use the tragedy of the commons to say that it is irrational to behave responsibly unless we can trust a sufficient number of people to do the same; and since we can’t trust the majority of people to behave responsibly, they conclude that we can only make the majority behave morally by using ‘chemical moral enhancement’ as a supplement to education.

Major Problems With Bioenhancement

There are two major problems here. First is the assumption that better education and tougher laws cannot ensure that a sufficient number of people will behave responsibly. This idea reminds me of the teaching in certain Islamic countries that men can’t control their sexual urges, so women should be forced to wear the burka and stay indoors. The falsehood of this assertion is exposed by the fact that men who live in Western countries, including Muslim men, do control their sexual urges. This can be explained by the deterrent effect of laws against raping women, or perhaps simply in terms of social pressure. The truth is that there is a political will to treat women as equals in the West that is apparently absent from countries governed by Islamic law. What Savulescu and Persson do is to similarly treat the will not to be moral on a larger scale as though it were an inevitable and natural part of human biology rather than a political and cultural choice.

Secondly, the idea that biological enhancement can make us morally good completely undermines our understanding of moral goodness. For a start, the idea that someone could be made morally good by altering her biology presupposes that it is her biology that makes her morally bad. However, it is relatively uncontroversial that moral character is the product of an agent’s free choices, not of their biological endowments.

Savulescu and Persson refer to their dubious concept of ‘the biology of moral dispositions’, which leads them to ponder how (not whether) we should enhance human nature. But it is questionable whether ‘dispositions’ that are determined biologically are correctly described as ‘moral’. Most philosophers acknowledge that ‘morality’ applies only to an agent’s decision to act upon their dispositions, not to the having of the dispositions. Much of Savulescu and Persson’s argument trades on the reification of behavior patterns: that is, a tendency to act in a particular way is re-defined as a condition or an entity within a person’s brain chemistry. If the seemingly value-neutral medical term ‘psychopathology’ stretches to voluntary behavior patterns, then I agree that there is a lot of ‘sick’ behavior in this world. But does that mean that there are many sick individuals who were born that way and didn’t choose to behave badly towards others? Is every white-collar criminal who is ‘getting away with it’, often in a corporate culture that encourages the idea that winning by any means is laudable, incapable of behaving differently? Or is it because they are encouraged by a culture that allows them to feel impunity when acting selfishly and rewards them with huge profits for doing so?

According to this paradigm, sinful or criminal tendencies reside within the natures (or ‘dispositions’) of persons, undermining their potential to lead morally good lives. This way of thinking provides the justification for paternalistic ‘experts’ (medical professionals) to intervene in order to re-direct the individual’s behavior to conform to their or society’s ‘best interests’. Paternalistic interventions of this sort presuppose the absence of the necessary conditions for moral responsibility in the individual, and then actively remove moral responsibility from the individual on that basis, relocating it in external authority figures or social institutions. This policy presupposes that the moral guardians are infallible, or at least know better than the individual which kinds of behavioral dispositions will be ‘best’. Indeed, Savulescu and Persson say of the vast destructive power we already posses that “it should be entrusted only to those who are both morally enlightened and adequately informed.” Who are these moral elites? How will we identify them?

Savulescu and Persson offer no answer to this conundrum, and admit that the very people who will develop and select the cures are equally in need of them, and that moral bioenhancement technologies are open to abuse and misuse. Their only reply to this criticism is to remind us that our present situation is so desperate that it must override the risks associated with moral bioenhancement. Thus they dismiss critics of yet more technological advancement as obstructing the proposed remedy to a dire situation that has been caused by too much technological advancement.

Brave New World

We should guard negative liberty (freedom from interference, including harm) jealously because the ability to pursue our values, or to perfect our character in our own way, is essential to our sense of what it means to be a person. We should reject the notion that the individual’s happiness could be adequately provided by others. Consequently, the absence of harm/interference is not tantamount to the provision of well-being, but is the necessary condition for its achievement. As such, the absence of interference and paternalistic control is more valuable to an individual’s eudaimonia (happiness) than a well-being bestowed by others could ever be. It is true that political freedom doesn’t guarantee good moral sense; nor was it ever intended to. However, political freedom is valuable precisely because it is the only context in which the concept of morality makes sense. It is the only context in which people can make major choices for their lives and lifestyles.

Abandoning the autonomous model of human nature and moral responsibility has serious implications. Modern concepts of jurisprudence, justice, forensics, and even political democracy presuppose that moral agency and its attendant responsibilities are grounded in the autonomy of the individual. If we instead adopt a Nietzschean perspective on morality that bases the individual’s moral activities on their subconscious drives and takes us forever beyond good and evil, this will be a sea change. It will place massive power in the hands of the moral engineering experts, and so should not be done without open public debate and cognizance of the ways in which it will shake the very foundations of liberal democracy and human rights.

Very soon, social conservatives will have at their disposal a new and powerful means of promoting their vision of public morality. Although it will be done by means of the free market, re-designing human nature presupposes an ideal that will inform in which direction human nature should be improved. In every culture there are always prevailing ideas about what constitutes ‘beauty’ or ‘success’ or the ‘ideal’ human type, even ‘ideal’ moral behaviour. These ideas are human constructs. Regardless of how popular they may be, these beliefs are fallible. Often, they are the narcissistic projections of the popular majority’s (or a powerful minority’s) self-image. They do not tell us what human nature is: they tell us what some people wish it were.

John Stuart Mill and John Locke both cautioned against the political promotion of any fallible vision of the good life as the benchmark for human fulfillment or ‘integrity’. Mill claimed that the individual needs protection from the tendency of a powerful majority “to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.” (On Liberty, p.8) Re-making human nature according to our wishes instead of passively accepting its various manifestations is not, of itself, problematic. Indeed, each of us strives to make ourselves better, according to our potentials. Mill felt that this was an integral part of our humanity. He believed that happiness involves the knowledge that we’re living as much as possible in accordance with our own conception of a good life, where ‘good’ means morally admirable as well as enjoyable and fulfilling. However, we could never achieve this sort of moral autonomy and self-respect from fearfully obeying the will of others, nor by being biologically programmed with their fallible conception of the good life.

© Dr T.M. Murray 2012

Terri Murray has taught Philosophy and Film Studies at Hampstead College of Fine Arts and Humanities since 2002.

Savulescu and Persson’s Argument

In their article in Issue 91 of Philosophy Now, Professor Julian Savulescu of Oxford University and Professor Ingmar Persson of Gothenburg University argued that humanity is in great danger due to the combination of two factors. Firstly, they say that it is a fact of the human condition that it is always easier to cause harm than to do good, but that our ability to cause harm has been massively enhanced by our technological progress, so that it would now be very easy for humanity to suffer catastrophe due to global warming or weapons of mass destruction. Secondly, they say that our evolutionary history has equipped us with the moral responses appropriate to life in villages or small tribal groups of 100-150 people, so that we tend to have a very weak sense of responsibility towards people outside our immediate circle; we tend to distrust strangers; we focus on the immmediate future, discounting the more distant future; and we feel bad if we have indvidually caused harm, but tend to feel less bad if we have caused the same harm as part of a large group of people so that our own share of the blame is hard to single out. These psychological factors make it make it much harder to gather the political consensus needed to counter the imminent technological risks, making global disaster a strong likelihood.

In the face of this situation Savulescu and Persson proposed the artificial moral enhancement of human beings – perhaps through drugs designed to boost our sense of empathy – so that we will make the necessary choices to avert catastrophe.

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