Time to get virtuously enhanced?

In the media coverage of the global finance crisis over the last weeks there has been a massive call for a revival of the virtues. Everyone from the Archbishop of Canterbury to tabloid journalists has condemned the behaviour of finance industry professionals and words like avarice, immoderation and selfishness have repeatedly featured in the news. It would appear that Gordon Gecko’s once trendy motto “Greed is good” has lost some if its appeal.

Interestingly, when faced with a large-scale crisis it seems that a lot of people invoke the traditional virtues. Roughly, the argument goes that if we only were more virtuous then surely the world would be a better place in pretty much every respect and we would all be happier.  To this end the virtues, occasionally fluffed up and slightly modernised to become more palatable, are dusted off and paraded out. Under that glossy surface they are of course for all intents and purposes much the same as when Aristotle was around.

In one swift blow the cult of the individual is rejected and it is no longer morally legitimate to engage in things like lengthy explorations seeking to ‘realise one’s own potential’.  Instead, we are told that we ought to see ourselves as part of a collective and thus as having moral obligations to those around us. This rough, and presumably somewhat painful, moral awakening leave many looking for a good example, an embodiment of this novel (yet ancient) ideal. But where in our secularised society do we find people to model ourselves on? Where to look for truly admirable people whom we rightfully can take after now that quite a few of the old heroes are out of the game? Presumably there are very virtuous people out there but in this day and age one might be forgiven a slightly gloomy outlook.

But if we have problems bringing out the virtuous role-models that we require to get back on track and reconnect with what really matters in life, how about bringing them about? As time is of the essence the type of lengthy training process that Aristotle spoke of is clearly out of the question – what is required is instant virtue! Let us then imagine that we through enhancement could make people more virtuous. That we, with the help of e.g. a drug or advanced nanotechnology that would stimulate the brain, could become more sensitive to the salient moral features in various situations and adjust our behaviour accordingly.

But even if we could satisfy the call for virtue in this way would boosting virtue levels really make the world a better place and entail a happier existence for the individual? This is not an unproblematic assumption. On an individual level it could for example result in the exploitation of the virtuously enhanced by their (not yet) enhanced peers. Another concern attaches to the deployment of the virtues. Part of what it means to be virtuous involves the internalization of the virtues and this creation of a deep understanding of the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the good life is a time consuming and demanding process. Arguably, important aspects could be lost if this was done through instant enhancement. As for the societal level, it appears difficult to think of virtues as quick fixes – at least without providing a convincing account of the connection between individual virtue and the quality of society at large.

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