Moral Enhancement

Getting People To Get Things Done – A New Psychological Trick

Subtly designing people’s choice environment in a way that they decide for a desired cause of action – so called “nudging” – receives growing interest as a potential tool for practical ethics. New psychological research suggests a surprisingly simple, but potentially powerful strategy to nudge people.

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Being a Good Person by Deceit?

By Nadira Faulmüller & Lucius Caviola

Recently, Peter Singer, Paul Bloom and Dan Ariely were discussing topics surrounding the psychology of morality. Peter was emphasizing the importance of helping people in need by donating money to poverty fighting charities. That’s easier said than done. Humans don’t seem to have a strong innate desire of helping distant strangers. So the question arises of how we can motivate people to donate considerable amounts to charity. Peter suggested that respective social norms could be established: in order to make people more moral their behaviour needs to be observable by others, as Dan pointed out, only then they will be motivated to help strangers on the other side of the world. Is this true? – do people only behave prosocially because they feel socially pressured into doing so?

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Can you be too ethical?

In a recent column in The Guardian, Andrew Brown argues that there are several ways in which one might, in a sense, be ‘too ethical’: Continue reading

Emergence’s devil haunts the moral enhancer’s kingdom come

It is 2025. Society has increasingly realised the importance of breaking evolution’s chains and enhancing the human condition. Large grants are awarded for building sci-fi-like laboratories to search for and create the ultimate moral enhancer. After just a few years, humanity believes it has made one of its most major breakthroughs: a pill which will rid our morality of all its faults. Without any side-effects, it vastly increases our ability to cooperate and to think rationally on moral issues, while also enhancing our empathy and our compassion for the whole of humanity. By shifting individuals’ socio-value orientation towards cooperation, this pill will allow us to build safe, efficient and peaceful societies. It will cast a pro-social paradise on earth, the moral enhancer kingdom come.

I believe we better think twice before endeavouring ourselves into this pro-social paradise on the cheap. Not because we will lose “the X factor”, not because it will violate autonomy, and not because such a drug would cause us to exit our own species. Even if all those objections are refuted, even if the drug has no side-effects, even if each and every human being, by miracle, willingly takes the drug without any coercion whatsoever, even then, I contend we could still have trouble.

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Electroceuticals and Mind Control

“Electroceuticals”, or therapies utilising electricity, are nothing new and range from the widely accepted defibrillator/ pace makers to the more controversial electric shock therapies like ECT sometimes employed to treat severe depression.

But a recent article in Nature argues that these are just a small, crude sample of what electroceuticals may be able to offer in the future. Universities and pharmaceutical companies are researching a wide range of therapies based around electrical stimulation, promising benefits (in the long term) as diverse as mind-controlled prosthetic limbs to a treatment for anorexia. Transcranial Electric Stimulation (TES) is delivering some promising results in depression and treatment of learning disabilities.

Not only is the research potential there, but it appears that the funding is too. Nature report that GlaxoSmithKline are funding 40 researchers to pursue research in this area, amongst other initiatives to kick start electroceutical development. And earlier this year, the US invested $110 million from 2014’s budget for the “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative”. At the same time, over in Europe, work has commenced on a 10 year, billion pound ‘Human Brain Project, bringing together 135 institutions to try to map parts of the human brain via computer simulations.

We may be starting out on the track for the “holy grail” of neuroscience: strategic control of single neuronal activity. This is, apparently, one of GSK’s goals.

With that level of control, we could finally reach the realms of science fiction: where the mind and therefore the person is under external control. Freedom might be annihilated.

We would face confronting questions over authenticity and identity. There would be alienation between the pre-existing person and their subsequent brain activity.

Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is a graphic illustration of a common objection to enhancement, the erosion of freedom. TES at present does not appear to represent a major threat to freedom, but it is one of a family of technologies that could one day be used for effective mind control.

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Stress Influences Our Moral Behaviour

All of us are stressed, every now and then. Acute stress can have a profound impact on the human body and mind: both physical and psychological stressors affect the autonomic nervous system and the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, leading to changes in cardiovascular and neuroendocrine measures. Stress also is shown to affect cognitive functions like memory and attention. Just recently, however, research discovered that acute stress also can influence our moral behaviour.

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Skin switching, implicit racial bias and moral enhancement

A recent study has shown that a person’s implicit racial bias can be reduced if she spends some time experiencing her body as dark-skinned. Psychologists in Spain used an immersive virtual reality technique to allow participants to ‘see’ themselves with a different skin colour. They measured the participants’ implicit racial bias before and after the intervention, finding that the embodiment of light-skinned individuals in a dark-skinned virtual body at least temporarily reduced their implicit bias against people who are coded as ‘out-group’ on the basis of skin colour.

Implicit racial bias is an evolved, unconscious tendency to feel more positively towards members of one’s own race (one’s ‘in-group’) than towards members of a different race (members of an ‘out-group’). The bias can be (and was in this study) measured using a version of the implicit association test, which requires participants to quickly catagorise faces (black or white) and words (positive or negative) into groups. Implicit bias is calculated from the differences in speed and accuracy between categorising (white faces, positive words) and (black faces, negative words) compared to (black faces, positive words) and (white faces, negative words). Crucially, implicit racial bias has been shown to be uncorrelated with explicit racial bias – self-reports of negative racial stereotypes. This means that even those who are not consciously averse to people from other racial groups often demonstrate a deep-seated bias against them as an evolutionary hangover. Hearteningly, the authors of the study started from the idea that encoding people by race may be a reversible by-product of human evolution used to detect coalitional alliances. What their study confirmed is that immersive virtual reality provides a powerful tool for placing people into a different race ‘coalition’ by changing their body representation and consequently reducing their implicit aversion to the racial characteristics there represented. Continue reading

Paracetamol Can Soften Our Moral Reactions

Our moral reactions are easily influenced by a variety of factors. One of them is anxiety. When people are confronted with disturbing experiences like mortality salience (i.e., being made aware of their own eventual death), they tend to affirm their moral beliefs. As a result, they feel inclined to punish moral transgression more harshly than they would without feeling fundamentally threatened. For example, in a now classical study people who objected to prostitution were asked to suggest a penalty for a woman arrested for prostitution. Participants who were led to reflect on their own mortality beforehand proposed a far higher bail than participants who thought about a less anxiety inducing topic. Such belief affirmation effects can also be evoked by psychologically disturbing experiences less severe than mortality salience. Hence, anxiety aroused by different situations can make our moral reactions more pronounced.

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Treating ADHD may reduce criminality

Pharmaceutical treatment of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is associated with reduced criminality according to a study published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study of over 25,000 Swedish adults with the disorder found that men undergoing pharmaceutical treatments had a 51% chance of committing at least one crime in a 4-year period compared to 63% for those not in treatment. The risk of criminality for women with ADHD was 25% for those taking medication, and 31% for those not in treatment. It’s possible, of course, that the reduction in criminality associated with treatment was due not to the treatment itself, but to other factors, such as desire to improve behaviour, which could have both motivated treatment and reduced criminality. However, even when the investigators adjusted for likely confounders, they found that treatment was associated with significantly reduced criminal offending. Thus, their findings are at least suggestive of a causal relationship between medication and reduced crime.

It will be interesting to see how such a relationship, if it can be further supported, will be viewed by the general public and medical profession. Will it be seen as strengthening or weakening the case for ADHD treatment?

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On being yourself

‘I was always the life and soul of the party, flirting with everyone’, wrote Lucille Howe, in ‘Fabulous Magazine’, (22 July 2012), ‘but I wanted John to fall in love with the real, quieter me’. In the same article, Charlotte Ruhle notes how her psychotherapy helped her to recover from a broken relationship. ‘[My] friends started saying I….seemed more like my old self.‘
The media, and indeed our ordinary conversations, are awash with this sort of language. Not only are we conscious – having a sense that there is an ‘I’ that is in some sort of continuity with the ‘I’ that existed yesterday, will hopefully exist tomorrow, and to whom things happen – but we have firm convictions about the nature of the ‘I’. When it is not allowed to express itself – to ‘be itself’, we complain. Depending on our education, we say that we’re ‘out of sorts’, ‘not myself’, or ‘ontologically vertiginous’. Continue reading