Moral Enhancement and Violence
In recent years, I’ve written a lot on moral enhancement, including moral bioenhancement (e.g., here, here and here), and argued that we should not reject its potential benefits out of hand. One common objection has been to say something along the lines of “sure, this would be good in theory, but the science behind it is so far off that you may as well be talking about the number of angels on a pinhead”.
But recent research suggests our moral behavior is already improving in some respects. In the UK, admissions to hospital due to violent crime fell by 12% . And in the US, a recent survey revealed a decline in violence experienced by children over the past decade, particularly assault and sexual violence. This is also a major theme of Stephen Pinker’s “Better Angels of Our Nature.” Pinker documents the widespread reduction in violence over centuries.
It’s hard to say of course why something didn’t happen, or even to conclusively say that a drop has definitely occurred: such studies are notoriously difficult.
Nevertheless, on the evidence we have there does seem to be an improvement and a number of theories have been put forward. For the UK, a drop in alcohol consumption, particularly binge drinking, has been put forward as the most likely reason. In the US, various theories have been put forward, including an increased use of psychiatric medications, and an increased use of social media reducing face to face interactions. Pinker’s own idea is that it is the “better angels of our nature”, acting through laws, norms and social institutions.
We have written with co-authors in philosophy, psychiatry and psychology in a forthcoming paper, ‘Are You Morally Modified? The Moral Effects of Widely Used Pharmaceuticals’, about the possible effects of a number of pharmacological agents on our moral behavior, currently as side effects. Non– biological factors, such as social media are also likely to have some effect, just as education and other traditional methods of moral enhancement do.
Not many people would have a problem with a policy encouraging a lowered use of alcohol amongst the general population, even amongst “normal” drinkers, if it would create an overall reduction in violent crime and violence against children. But would we consider a policy promoting an increase the uptake of psychiatric medications if that had the same effect?
One Swedish study showed a reduction in re-offending in violent crime of almost 30-40% in criminals with ADHD who were taking Ritalin. Perhaps the reduction in violent crime that appears across the US and the UK is partly related to the greater use of Ritalin, or to better psychiatric medication.
One important feature of the human animal is normal human variation. This has ethical implications . We all have different talents, abilities, disabilities and limitations. Alcohol, education and social pressure all affect us in different ways. Some, under these influences, may become violent, or depressed, or happy. The traditional approach to moral enhancement has been identify these social or environmental influences, and manipulate them to achieve a desired outcome, for example reducing alcohol consumption to reduce violence.
But science is opening the door to modifying the way in which we respond to these social or environmental influences, for example whether we become angry at provocation. Given these dispositions vary, and are not all morally or prudentially beneficial, why not use such science to address normal human variation, or natural inequality?
Perhaps in the future the use of Ritalin for violent prisoners with ADHD will be seen as “treatment of a disease”, even though the motivation is to reduce violence.