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What Moral Virtues Should We Enhance?

Yesterday evening in front of a record audience in the OxfordMartinSchoolbuilding, Dr. Molly Crockett delivered the Wellcome Lecture in Neuroethics: “Moral enhancement? Evidence and challenges” (a podcast of the lecture will soon appear in the events archives here)

In her engaging talk, Dr Crockett spoke of the emerging body of neuroscience research she and others have been conducting on neurobiological modifiers of moral behavior and how manipulations in neurotransmitter systems can affect that moral behavior.

For example, in a study where subjects were presented with two classic trolley problems, whether they had previously received an antidepressant that increased the availability of the neurotransmitter, serotonin, in the neuronal synapse (in this case, a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor – SSRI) significantly shifted peoples decisions into a deontological, as opposed to consequentialist framework. Namely, the group that had received the SSRI was less likely to say it was ok to push a very large man off of a bridge in front of a trolley in order to save five workers who would certainly otherwise die.

From a deontological point of view, this increased aversion to harming others after taking the SSRI might be thought of as a moral enhancement, but might be thought of as impairment to a consequentialist.

As Professor Savulescu mentioned in his closing comments on the day, this kind of research is important because finding solutions to the grand challenges of our day – among them poverty, global warming, violence –depend in a significant way on how we treat each other as moral agents.

And it was with this background that Dr Crockett posed the very interesting question: can we agree on a list of moral virtues we should enhance? This way we could more effectively guide the research and experiments.

In the Q & A,  Dr Regina Rini pointed out that philosophers have been debating a very similar question for nearly 3000 years, and questioned if we could use some of these results from neuroscience to create a chemically neutral framework from which philosophers could reason unencumbered by some of the moral biases that are beginning to emerge.

If we have been no closer to agreeing on a set of virtues for all people to cultivate since the time Aristotle introduced his Nichomachean Ethics on the topic, might it be easier, practically, to agree instead on which virtues to enhance in a role-specific manor? For example, the set of virtues necessary to be a good parole judge, health policy maker, or investment banker might very well differ from (and indeed conflict with) those of a fighter pilot, aid worker, psychiatrist or father. Discussion on which moral virtues to cultivate in these roles might itself be beneficial in that it might lead us to re-examine why we have those roles in the first place.

It is with you, the readers of the Practical Ethics Blog, that I hope we might begin a discussion on “what moral virtues should we enhance in which roles?”

As we begin this discussion I would just like to include two wrinkles:

1) Many people change roles throughout their lives and indeed throughout the day (psychiatrist by day, father by night). How do we deal with this multiple role requirement? Could perhaps these neuropharmacological methods of shifting moral behavior (which themselves are short-acting and reversible) be helpful in helping us make these shifts in moral roles?

2) Aristotle introduced a potentially constructive caveat when he described his virtues as “means,” which might be thought of as an optimum balance of two different character traits (for example, bravery as a mean of fearlessness and prudence, as one with too much fearlessness is rash and one with too much prudence is cowardly; excess or lack of either fearlessness or prudence might prevent one from being truly brave). So just getting ‘more of x or y trait’ may not be sufficient for moral enhancement.

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34 Comment on this post

  1. Hi Matt –

    Your suggestion of role-specific enhancements is an interesting one, but I'd like to hear more details (from you or other readers) about which traits we can agree on should be present in specific roles, even if we don't agree on their desirabilityin general. I think at least some worries about which traits are important will crop up at that level, as well. For instance, it is not at all clear to me whether judges should use more consequentialist or deontological reasoning, or what the proper balance is between those. Similar ambiguities and uncertainties arise when considering how much they should focus on retribution vs. deterrence. And even if one did have a considered view about the proper role of judges in these domains, I suspect it would be as controversial as various claims about how people should be and act in general.

    There is, though, at least one trait (mentioned by Regina Rini) that seems relatively uncontroversial as an undesirable vice in some specific roles: bias. Judges and jurors, for instance, clearly should not be influenced by factors such as defendents' race, gender, relation to the judge/juror, etc., or whether the judge/juror just had a meal/are hungry. One way to increase ingroup biases, suggested by Molly Crockett's talk, is through the administration of oxytocin; perhaps there are other interventions that could reduce it. While some bias is permissible and even desirable in some domains (e.g., caring for one's family or community), it seems inappropriate in the legal system. Administration of such ingroup-bias-suppressors may help, for instance, in reducing racial discrepancies in sentencing. Of course, we need to be mindful of the intervention's effect in other domains such as empathy (one of the interesting aspects of the findings Crockett presented was how many aspects of moral thinking were affected by oxytocin and other interventions – I wonder if it is even possible to perform truly domain-specific moral manipulation); but perhaps, if we are uncertain about the importance/desirability of those other traits but certain that bias (in this case, at least) is undesirable, then the intervention would make sense.

    1. Dear Owen, Thank you for the thought provoking and constructive comment.

      I think your idea about bias in judges and jurors might be a good place to start; perhaps we can extend this to roles that are especially concerned with resource allocation (USAID, for example)? These type of roles, being essentially deliberative, might benefit as well from enhanced impulse control – the ability to take a step back from gut intuition – and in some ways this might be related to the biases you mention, as they are sorts of gut intuitions too. In other roles, like emergency care doctors, the costs of delaying action in the here and now might be too large to allow deliberation; in these roles, imperfect intuition (a simple creed of saving lives for example) might be better. Research on possible neuropharmacological influences on impulse control is in their infancy, I believe, but this could be a realistic possibility.

      What I like most about thinking in terms of roles, is that it provides a concrete, practical starting point for this kind of discussion and it also provides a platform that helps us re-examine roles. It may be true that we come to realize that there are different parts of different roles where different virtues are important; like you have pointed out, for example, both empathy and freedom from in-group bias might be important in legal proceedings and we might want to have separate roles or separate phases of trial to better accommodate both (in some ways, the separation of the role of judge from jury might be thought of a first attempt at this).

      As for your related point: I agree with your skepticism about finding a truly domain-specific moral manipulation. But this might not be as big of a problem if we adopt roles in which some, but not other virtues are important at any given time. We could enhance freedom from bias at the expense of empathy in a context where empathy is less important and then empathy at the expense of freedom from bias in a context where empathy is more important and avoid the problem of domain-specificity altogether.

      1. While I see the discussion evolving into role based virtues I cannot help but think about the recent developments in technology.
        We are still a long away from a true AI, however we already saw several years ago a computer called deep-blue defeating the world champion in chess, earlier this year another computer named watson defeated 2 champions at jeopardy.

        I believe that these kinds of technologies would be much better at being role-oriented and replacing humans.

  2. In several researches it was found that around 70% of toddlers are inherently cooperative and the other 30% are … Not and sometimes called psychopaths.
    In checking top-managers in corporates the results are reversed as the people with psychopathic traits tends to succeed more (by individualization, trumping others, etc).

    Are we meant to support this kind of trait?
    If we'll suppress this trait, wouldn't we get people less motivated to lead & succeed?

    The other option (my preference) is that we will end with society and economy that runs by different rules than the ones we came to know so far.

    1. Yissar, thank you for highlighting a difficult issue: what happens when we have a trait that seems to be undesireable (aggression and uncompromisingness) but seems to lead to things we greatly value (success in business); While this issue certainly desearves more thought, I will rais that caveat, here, that some types of success in business we actually do not value (like the success that Barry Madoff had or much of the other "success" on wall-street) because it is ultimately bad for society.

  3. “Might it be easier, practically, to agree instead on which virtues to enhance in a role-specific manner?”

    It might be interesting to discuss whether one can be a good person and equally a good baker, banker, plumber, driver, spy, terrorist or footballer….
    But I don’t see how analysing what makes a good baker, banker etc etc helps define what it is to be a good person.

    1. Anthony, I think you are completely right. what it is to be a good person is definitely the tougher question and the question I posed might not help us with that one at all. And there might be a good number of roles that we might think are unethical while discussing what virtues would make one good at that role.

      What I like about framing the issue this way, in terms of roles, is that it emphasizes that we are all connected in society and can help eachother – not everyone needs to be good at everything. Also, in terms of neuropharmacological enhancement, it seems like most of the avenues we have available might enhance one thing we think of as good while inhibiting another thing we think of as good (see This is a big problem when we talk about the good person, but less of a problem if we talk in terms of role-functions restricted in time and space where we think some virtues are much more important than others – that is, at that time, and in that specific context.

      1. I think I see what you mean, but the trouble is that as soon as we talk about virtues for a particular role, we transform an ethical debate into a debate on the appropriate characteristics for that role. This is less obvious when we talk about the role of a judge or a pyschaitrist, because we generally assume that these roles have necessarily a major ethical component. Which is why I introduced roles which are less ethically loaded: footballer, driver…. Whilst I would agree that certain traits are appropriate for certain roles, I still question the link with ethics.

        1. I don't think it's true at all that some roles are beyond the reaches of ethics. Every person, no matter what their role is in society, is faced with ethical decisions. The scope of ethical decisions might seem greater for a judge, but that doesn't mean other social roles don't require making ethical decisions on a daily basis. For instance, should the football player take physical enhancement drugs? Should he perform a move that might physically injure the other teams' star quarter back, even if it's technically against the rules? Should the bus driver drive past the person in the wheel chair because they are already way behind schedule and stopping would mean they would be another 5 minutes late? Should the driver let persons who claim they have no change ride for free? When all those small decisions add up, I think they can have just as great of an impact on society as a judge or psychiatrist.

          1. Hello Julia
            Sorry if I expressed myself badly, but I didn't mean at all to imply that some roles are beyond the reaches of ethics : merely that I don't believe that we can arrive at a definition of virtues by listing what makes good role-actors.
            I would say that the much under-rated virtue of kindness underlies the examples you cite, and that we conclude that the actions of the footballer F or busdriver B are ethically dubious because they are unkind. And that our judgement works that way round. Ie, we don't say : here are the dubious actions of F and B : what generalisable ethical principles underly this judgement ? But inversely we conclude that the actions of F & B are dubious because they are unkind.

  4. Before posing the question of 'which moral virtues we should enhance,' we should first ask ourselves: who will control the 'moral virtue enhancement' industry? Will the weak be able to 'enhance' the moral virtues of the powerful?

    1. Khalid, if moral enhancement were somehow used as a tool for coercion, that would indeed be a problem. Can you think of any ways that we could protect against this possibility?

      1. Matt, in view of the human desire for power and domination, an appropriate solution that comes to my mind is to create a body, whose members comprise of citizens that, by their profession, are never exposed to the ring of power, such as school teachers, nurses, physiotherapists, social workers, medics, care-givers and so forth. These are the class of people who are somewhat directly responsible for human welfare. If moral enhancement is ever used, these will be the people with ultimate authority to decide if this form of enhancement is in the best interest of our 'common humanity.' This body will be independent of any government, corporation or institutions that function entirely on the self-interest basis. No politician, no doctor, no lawyer, no celebrity, no philosopher, no soldier and other similar classes will ever become part of the decision making process. This is because this class of people are heavily influenced by diverse forces that quite often function on the basis of greed, self-interest or a particular ideology. If we look at the present global chaos that is responsible for daily killings and destruction, can we say that the chaos is brought by certain teachers or nurses? No! In reality, it is brought by those who wield absolute power. Therefore, in this light, it would be in the best interest of our 'common humanity' that the final decision pertaining to the physical dimension of any form of moral enhancement resides in the hands of the former category of people. Although the issue is a bit complex, however, I am willing to discuss it further.

        1. Khalid, I would suggest that it's fair to say that anyone who became involved in such far reaching decisions as the use of moral enhancements would find themselves very much exposed to the 'ring of power'. They would be lobbied, criticised, praised and vilified depending on which power groups they were perceived to have helped or offended. While I share your regard for those who choose such vocations as teaching, nursing and social care, I do not have the confidence that choosing such vocations makes an individual impervious to ideology, or some level of self-interest. I would also question whether it is fair to assume that these people would feel that their training has given them the tools they would need to have such responsibility thrust upon them. Having married in to a family of nurses and teachers I have great regard for both callings, however I am not at all sure that any of the dedicated nurses and teachers I know would wish to make a decision on the rights and wrongs of moral enhancements. My guess, for what it's worth, would be that they would either a) offhand declare the whole idea unethical, or just plain 'creepy', or b) after more thought say that they would need much more information and education in the issues that they should consider while making their decision. Who would we trust to provide such education? Whoever you choose to make these decisions, from whatever background, to them you would be handing great power.

          1. Phil, thanks for your insightful comments. Let's say that my reasoning is faulty, and that I got it all wrong. Now, how would you answer this question: "if moral enhancement were somehow used as a tool for coercion, that would indeed be a problem. Can you think of any ways that we could protect against this possibility?"

          2. (A reply to Kalid Jan on Nov 23rd as I don't seem to be able to reply directly)
            <cite>"if moral enhancement were somehow used as a tool for coercion, that would indeed be a problem. Can you think of any ways that we could protect against this possibility?"</cite>

            I would have to say 'no' I think. I can't think of a single example of a technology that has coercive potential which hasn't been subverted to that end. That of course is not to say that those technologies haven't also been used for good ends; leaving aside the usual question of who's opinion of what makes a 'good end' we are using. There are those who seem able to resist the temptations of 'power and wealth at any price' and those who can't. For example, such people often either end up controlling their government or persuading their government that anything is permissible in the interests of National Security. If the technology exists, such people will use it for manipulation.

            Elsewhere on the thread Yissar has said <cite>This is still no reason not to invent & develop new technologies </cite>. That may well be the case but it is depressing that we only seem able to consider the down sides of technologies post facto. Of course more realistically there isn't really much chance of stopping the technology being developed even if, or infact especially if it has coercive potential.

            Even if somehow the prevention of abuse of the technology was somehow possible (which I really don't think it is) I still have grave misgivings about the question of where this leaves responsibility and freedom to challenge enhanced decisions. Decision makers whose supposedly morally superior decisions cannot be challenged and who cannot be held accountable are not a recipe for coercion, but rather for fascism.

          3. Phil, once again, thanks for your perceptive reply. If I understood it correctly, your comments suggest that since those who possess power, control the technology, the good men and women of conscience should simply give up their moral right to decide what is good for them and our 'common humanity?' It's not only the good men and women who inhabit the planet, but their children, grand children, brothers, sisters, relatives and so forth: their silence will cause harm not only to the inner circle, but all the subsequent outer circles. The technology will come, regardless of what we think of it. But, wouldn't it be a prudent approach to let those, who possess some degree of decency to at least say something? History bears testimony to the fact that there were people, who, in a state of fearlessness, took a position and defended it, even if it was a single individual. Take for example Nelson Mandela: he forgave those who imprisoned him for over 27 years. Why did he refrain from abusing the ring of power? When the time comes, will we look for some alien form of life to decide if 'moral enhancement' is in the best interest of our 'common humanity?'

          4. Hello Khalid,

            I would like to interject here with some points which I think are relevant.
            First, regarding technology.
            As I mentioned in an earlier post, technology by itself is not good a bad, it is what people use it for.
            After saying that, there are some things that have inherently a bias. Guns and WMD are more likely to be used for harm then fluffy toys (I’m sure there are the odd exceptions).

            But a more general statement towards enhancements is that I believe that the answer for a better future for all of us and our descendants cannot lie only in enhancements.
            We must create a more fundamental change, in the way we think and operate, in our social system as well as our economical one. In the emotional construct as well the system of belief.
            All this, supported by moral (and other) enhancements *may* lead us to a better society.

          5. Hello Yissar. Thank you for your comments. Without any reservations, I agree 100% with your thoughts. But, the point I am trying to stress upon is that what if, sometime in future, the 'elite' that controls our affairs, decides giving every newborn baby an injection of 'moral enhancement?' Will the good men and women remain silent just because they have not gone to some university to earn a Ph. D in moral philosophy? If you have any background in Film and Philosophy and popular culture, I would highly recommend that you watch the movie HANNA – a film about the genetic enhancement. We must also understand that we are living in times where our lives, and the lives of our children are no longer shaped by the collective wisdom or by practicing a particular belief system, but by the popular culture, films, social media, television, news media and so forth: I therefore have no doubt that the 'elite' will use these mediums to persuade the masses that 'moral enhancement' is in the best interest of our existence and survival. Before that time comes, my suggestion is to create a body of common citizens from each and every community for the purpose of either rejecting or accepting the use of 'moral enhancement' technology.

          6. Khalid, I agree with your point that the first discussion to be had is the one about accepting or rejecting the contention that moral enhancements are indeed enhancments and not just changes. I think one thing that makes this a more interesting technology philosophically is that unlike, say guns, it only has any power in many cases if the majority agree that the resulting decisions are in fact superior and should be treated as such. As soon as the 'enhanced' decisions are no longer accepted as any more valid than an unenhanced decision the power of the technology disappears. So the task for those who might advocate the technology would be to somehow demonstrate that decisions taken 'while under the influence' are in some way objectively superior. Now this seems to take us straight back in to traditional moral philosophy territory. So in areas where consensus is required, e.g. the support for the rule of the law and the judiciary in a working democracy, it would appear that the technology might have an uphill struggle. In the case of morally 'enhancing' political dissidents while they are under arrest or military personnel so that they will be happy to make certain types of decisions in combat situations, I don't find difficult to imagine happening in the future. You make a good point about popular culture and the media being the place where this discussion/persuasion will be played out.

          7. khalid,
            I watched the film Hanna and what is described is the *anti* moral enhancements.
            As far as I know it is already in different degrees of R&D via Darpa (pills that will allow soldiers to endure greater physical effort, operate for 2-3 days without sleep, feel less pain – physical & emotional, detachment, etc).

            A very similar argument to what you point towards the ‘elite’ might be pointed towards parents that given the technology will have the ability to design their babies with many different traits as well as omitting others.

            Lastly, I find relevant here to attach an extract from “Los Indignados” (the Spanish equivalence for Occupy Wall Street :
            “We’re feeling, observing, thinking, listening, talking, proposing, discussing, cooperating, learning, networking, communicating, attempting to understand one another, working, building…
            We’re fighting… to change an unfair system, we’re questioning its laws, its methods for participation and economic systems and we´re proposing specific and feasible alternatives. Our aim is to improve life on this planet for all its inhabitants.
            We’re creating… human and digital networks that give rise to new forms of collective knowledge, honing our increasingly effective analytical skills and furthering our joint decision-making mechanisms. We’re the world’s collective intelligence, in the process of organization.
            We’re developing… new ways to organize, interact and live. We’re combating the stasis induced by the system and pursuing ongoing development and improvement, active participation, reflection and analysis, decision and action.”

          8. Usually when people are talking about moral enhancements they mean "greater good".
            For example more cooperative or more empathy.
            I don't think that Hanna will be the poster-girl for what is usually meant by moral enhancements.

          9. Thanks Yassar. In addition to the genetic enhancement component in HANNA, I detected two other significant themes: 1) Hanna never harms an innocent person 2) the assassination techniques she demonstrates were taught by her 'father' Erik. The message that is conveyed to the audience is that genetic enhancement empowers her to protect herself from danger, and, at the same time, it is shown that her nurturing is responsible for how she behaves and acts. After watching the movie a few times, I concluded that the intent of the movie is not to blame GE, but her 'father,' her society and her environment. That is what the 'elite' has already embarked upon: to show us that GE will improve our capacity to defend ourselves, repel 'evil' and that any negative moral attributes we exhibit, are the direct result of our defective nurturing, meaning: the government must nurture good citizens instead of the parents or guardians.

  5. Could seeking greater understanding be called a trait? We can't say whether the deontologist or consequentialist is right. But I think it can be agreed upon that it is better to have thoroughly thought about your decision, to have analyzed multiple angles, and to be able to back up your choice in a well-thought out manner. It is better to act for your own reasons then to act without understanding.

    The trait I am thinking of can be seen when you compare religious persons. There are those that read the Bible literally, without much study. Then there are those who interpret, meditate, and study the Bible. It seems the former are more prone to hate entire groups of people "because the Bible says so", while the latter seems more concerned with understanding and acceptance.

    I'm not sure if there's a pill for that, but there are some plants I can think of…

    1. Dear Julia, thank you for the insightful comment. I agree that deep thinking about moral questions is important. Indeed, when we have the time to think through things thoroghly, it usually leads to a better approach. Some people have suggested along these lines that enhancing impulse control might lead to moral enhancement for similar reasons; new neuroscience research on the biological basis of impulse control might provide a way for us to understand an manipulate that too. But is it always true that taking that extra moment to step back and evaluate is best? one could argue that there are some roles, in which individuals have to make split-second decisions all the time (like a police officer or fighter pilot) where it is best to have quick decisions, good intuitions, and to follow those impulses without a second to lose; in otherwords, there may be a time for thought and a time for action. during the time for thought, your strategy would indeed be an enhancement; during the time for action, however, it might be the opposite.

    1. Dear Matt,

      thank you for your interest. I believe the reference is: Crockett MJ, Clark L, Hauser MD, Robbins TW (2010), “Serotonin selectively influences moral judgment and behavior through effects on harm aversion.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 107(40):17433-8. the pubmed entry with link to free text can be found here:

      A commentary on the paper can be found here and a reply by Harris and Chan can be found here

      Hope that helps and let us know if you find anything interesting upon closer examination!

  6. Thank you for raising some interesting questions. Specifically my concerns centre around:

    i) Given human history in the uses technologies are put to, on what basis would we be justified in believing that this technology would not be abused to control (i.e. influence in a direction that suits a particular group's agenda), for example, the judiciary, politicians and 'subversives'?

    ii) How would the concept of responsibility survive the use of such interventions? If I make a professional decision under the influence of such an intervention, in what sense am I responsible for that decision? On what basis would you be able to challenge that decision, unless you too were 'enhanced' in the same way?

    iii) Are the decisions of those on enhancements always to be be considered superior by definition no matter what the consequences? Should anyone ever be punished or suffer any other sanctions for decisions they took, while enhanced, in the line of their duties?

    iv) Can those who are making decisions about what role-relevant enhancements should be used, make such decisions without themselves being first enhanced? Do we first need to have our biases removed to understand what an unbiased decision would look like? I may, in an unenhanced state, think that more compassion in military personnel would be advantageous for the world. Having taken the 'MoD' enhancement I may realise that it is less compassion and more aggression that is needed.

    1. <cite>i) Given human history in the uses technologies are put to, on what basis would we be justified in believing that this technology would not be abused to control (i.e. influence in a direction that suits a particular group’s agenda), for example, the judiciary, politicians and ‘subversives’?</cite>

      First of all I agree that humanity abuses technology (whether it’s a bow and arrow to kill the bison that was turned on the neighboring tribe or e-mail leading to spam-mail being the majority of mail messages sent today).

      This is still no reason not to invent & develop new technologies

      <cite>ii) How would the concept of responsibility survive the use of such interventions? If I make a professional decision under the influence of such an intervention, in what sense am I responsible for that decision? On what basis would you be able to challenge that decision, unless you too were ‘enhanced’ in the same way?</cite>

      This is a good question and one that will be a huge field in the coming years.
      Already there are planes that fly themselves and soon self-driving cars.
      Who will be responsible if such a car is involved in an accident? The car manufacturer, the software company, the programmer?

      <cite>iii) Are the decisions of those on enhancements always to be be considered superior by definition no matter what the consequences? Should anyone ever be punished or suffer any other sanctions for decisions they took, while enhanced, in the line of their duties?</cite>

      Either you believe /trust that enhancements lead to a superior position or not.

  7. <blockquote><em>…. less likely to say it was ok to push a very large man off of a bridge in front of a trolley in order to save five workers who would certainly otherwise die.</em></blockquote> How did the researcher convince the subjects that one of their choices would lead to death with absolute certainty?

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