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Moral Enhancement: What Is It and Do We Want It?

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Building on the achievements of disease-oriented research, the coming decades will witness an explosion of biomedical enhancements to make people faster, stronger, smarter, less easily distracted and forgetful, happier, prettier, and live even longer. Recently, there has been a new arrival on the enhancement scene – moral and social enhancement. In one of the most significant works on moral enhancement to date, Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu suggest that 'the core moral dispositions … have biological basis and, thus, in principle should be within the reach of biomedical and genetic treatment' although they question to what extent these interventions can be done in practice.

I explore what we mean by moral enhancement and draw some distinctions that will help us avoid confusion when talking about the matter. Next, I suggest that the pessimistic view of the plausibility of moral enhancement stems from having much higher expectations about the effectiveness of morally modifying interventions. However, if we make our expectations comparable to those we have of cognitive enhancement or pharmacological treatment, then current research in the field of neuroscience of morality suggests that relatively efficient interventions are already here or will be possible in the near future. Next, I draw our attention to the plethora of potential targets of enhancement and discuss oxytocin as a potential moral enhancer. Finally, I highlight and explore possible problems with morally enhancing interventions, such as the threat to freedom and problems of application stemming from the lack of consensus about what is morally permissible and obligatory. I suggest that even if we accept that there are cases of fundamental moral disagreement, the problem may be much less serious then it first appears.


Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: December 1, 2011

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