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.

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One Response to Moral Enhancement and Violence

  • Michael says:

    Medicine is not about ensuring that health is distributed more equally, it is about making individuals healthier. If health is intrinsically good, then it might be worth ensuring that health is distributed more equally — but that’s something to be decided by political theory, not medicine.

    Are the goods provided by enhancements intrinsic, and if yes, is it worth ensuring that they are equally distributed? It is hard to come up with a clear-cut instance of an intrinsically good enhancement, but it is not hard to come up with a clear-cut instance of something close it — an enhancement that would provide users with intrinsically good abilities, like infallibly doing what’s right in a given situation from a certain moral standpoint, say, classical utilitarianism. But would this ability really be compatible with the kind of agency we assume grounds the possibility of having personal values, or of making particular evaluations? If not, then either this ability is not really an ability after all, but rather a mechanism, or the ability undermines what it is supposed to be an ability of — namely, an agent that is in part the source of his values and evaluations. This suggests that there is no such thing as an intrinsically good ability of a moral agent that an enhancement could provide, and therefore no intrinsically good enhancement, don’t you think?

    If that is is true, then enhancements have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis like any other artefact, such as washing machine and lightbulbs, according to the goods they might help individuals get and to the harmful effects they might on society. But then, like any other artefacts, it might be that the latter outweigh the latter.

    Here are things as I see them: at one end of the spectrum you have the self-undermining claim that (technological) consumerism is the best cure for the harmful effects of (technological) consumerism. At the other end, you have the claim that a society with a reasonably planned and regulated production, along with a reasonable and fair use of enhancements, could help human being live better lives (and have more equal qualities of live for that matter). But if such a scenario is to be considered seriously, shouldn’t such a society ensure that the conception of justice that the friends of enhancements cite as reasons in favour of enhancements apply through and through to people that agree to get enhancements AND to people that disagree, i.e ensure that the non-enhanced enjoy the same economic and social opportunities as the enhanced ones?